Kyoto & Nara UNESCO Listed Temples

World Heritage Japan The Cultural Sites III: Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara

Mark Brazil

Is any visit to Japan complete without a visit to Kyoto? Certainly no journey to experience the highlights of Japan's World Heritage Sites would be complete without visits to Kyoto and Nara.

The bizarre contrast of sweeping sedately into Japan's previous capital of Kyoto by sleek white Shinkansen (bullet train) after watching the scenery of central Japan flickering past the windows at high speed, then visiting monuments that date back a millennium or more is both surreal and should not be missed.

Simply put, any length of time spent in Kyoto is too short. There are monuments enough to visit one a day for a year and still have plenty left over for another visit, so a short visit means making fundamental decisions - gardens? temples? palaces? bamboo groves? forest walks?

And then a side-trip or a separate stay is essential to enjoy the Nara area. These two WHS are, of course, a major draw to Japanese tourists too at all times of the year, and the numbers of chattering school groups can be overwhelming, especially when combined with the voices of guides speaking various languages with their international tour groups.

By choosing monuments further from stations or bus stops, and closer to the hills, and by visiting on week days one can avoid some of the crowds, and then it's a matter of adjusting one's mind set to filter out the rest and let the enormity of the value of these monuments sink in.

Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto
Kinkakuji alone is beautiful, but its location on the shore of a lake, provides the ideal reflective setting.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (1994)

Kyoto, with its largely grid style layout of streets, is unusual in Japan, having been based on the style of ancient Chinese cities. The imperial capital of Japan from the city's inception in the year 794 until the 19th century, Kyoto, and Kyotoites still retain the aura of being the foremost city in the land. The cities examples of religious, wooden architecture, and its superlative gardens, whether of gravel or moss, courtyard or strolling, have been much emulated.

When Japanese people refer to traditional elements of their own culture, they are, perhaps unconsciously referencing the crucial role Kyoto played during its long period as the seat of the Imperial court, in creating, establishing then refining those traditions.

When international designers create Japanese influenced architecture or gardens, they too are referencing the role of Kyoto in the evolution of those designs. The World Cultural Heritage appropriately lists many structures dating from the Heian period (794-1192), a period of four centuries that has left a remarkable legacy in terms of shrines and temples in the city.

It was somewhat later, during the 13 th century, that a vital feature of the city was facilitated with the creation and development of Zen gardens - an important draw to the city to this day, with the rock and gravel garden at Ryoan-ji being as iconic of Japan as Mt Fuji and representing the refinement of garden design into pure art.

Gorgeously covered in gold-leaf, Kinkakuji brightens even the dullest day.

When the imperial capital and court were moved to Edo (Tokyo), following the restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868 Kyoto's power waned yet its fame was to continue.

The last minute prevention of its destruction during the Second World War was an astonishing reprieve for a city that more than any other represents Japan's history and culture. No visitor to the city should go there without considering how much was so nearly lost.

Much of the city had been destroyed earlier, during a war in the late 15th century, yet it had risen again. Each period of political and religious change, each period of destruction has culminated in revival, re-construction and the creation of structures that today are symbols of the combination of ancient and modern in Japan.

The transformation of Kyoto into a modern city during the 18th century saw the neglect and loss of considerable cultural heritage, but steps towards protection came first in 1871, then with the far more extensive preservation law of 1897, which paved the way for the level of conservation seen today and Kyoto's designation as a World Heritage Site and leading attraction for the country.

With thousands of shrines and temples and other monuments, each worthy of attention, selecting highlights is immensely difficult, but if Zen is of interest, then the five great temples here (Nanzen-ji, Shokoku-ji, Tenryu-ji, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) are not to be missed. Place Ryoan-ji, Kiyomizudera, Nijo Castle, the bamboo grove at Tenryu-ji, Sanjusangendo and the Imperial Residence high on your priority list too and start making a short list for your second visit!

Nijo Castle.
The entrance gate to Nijo Castle is an imposing structure, with its solid, sweeping shingle-covered roof.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998)

Pre-dating Kyoto as Japan's capital from 710 to 784, Nara can be seen as the source of the culture that Kyoto was to refine. Today, Nara perhaps suffers from being an easy day-trip from Osaka or Kyoto, but with so much to see in Kyoto taking a day out from there to visit a different city seems a waste. Better to make an entirely separate visit to Nara. Nara's array of historic monuments make it appear to be like a Kyoto in miniature and provide great insight into the flourishing early period of Japan during the 8th century.

Instead of the somewhat random, amorphous growth-like patterns of modern Japanese urban centres, early Nara was built to a grand plan to be a capital for Empress Gemmei. Breaking with the Shinto decree, based on rites of purification, that required the capital to be moved on the death of each emperor, Nara was founded with the aim that it would be a permanent capital.

Nara's grid like road system extending over some 2,500 ha, conspired with its extensive spacing of palaces, shrines and temples, to create a spacious city for a population of some 100,000 people during a critical phase in Japan's history when its political, national and cultural elements were crystallizing.

When the imperial capital moved on in 784, it could so easily have ended Nara's significance for ever; fortunately, despite the city's abandonment, many of Nara's temples and shrines continued and despite periodic devastating fires they continued to receive sufficient patronage to restore them during Nara's nadir until the 16th century, when modern Nara began to develop.

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto.
The great stilted structure of Kiyomizudera extends out from a forested hillside giving it a commanding view out across the landscape of Kyoto.
Ryoanji Temple stone garden, Kyoto.
The rocks of the Ryoanji garden are interpreted in many different ways. Whatever they represent artistically, they can also be considered to represent the dedication of generations of monks who meticulously rake the gravel around them.

Of overwhelming significance today is the survival of the great temple of Todai-ji, built by Emperor Shomu in 745. This reconstructed building, arguably the largest wooden building in the world at 48 m high, is also the site of the largest (15 m tall) gilded bronze statue of the Buddha in the world; this seated figure rivals that at Kamakura near Tokyo.

Not far from Nara, approximately 10 km to the southwest, lies the Buddhist Monuments in Horyu-ji - 45 ancient wooden buildings in the temple complex of Horyuji Temple.

Tenryuji Temple, Arashiyama, Kyoto.
The soaring stems of bamboos in the grove behind Tenryuji seem especially light and airy after visits to the more solid wooden structures of the temples and shrines of Kyoto.

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Text + images by Mark Brazil

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