Rich with temples, shrines, museums, and traditional shops, there isn’t a whole lot that you can’t find in the Southern Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains) area. It’s a great piece of Kyoto to explore on foot. It is also home to the Gion entertainment district and some of the cities finest ryokan (Japanese inns). The northern area of the Higashiyama is also packed with first-rate attractions, yet, you are surrounded by more greenery, making it a little bit more of a relaxing sightseeing area. Many attractions that are often overlooked by tourists and crowds can be found here as well.
Kiyomizu-dera: Southern Higashiyama.
With a commanding position overlooking Kyoto, the superb Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera is the city’s spiritual heart and soul. Built around a holy spring (Kiyomizu means ‘pure water’), the temple has been drawing pilgrims since the 8th century AD. In addition to halls holding fine Buddhist images, the complex includes a small Shinto shrine that is associated with matters of the heart- buy a prayer plaque here to ensure success in romance. There’s even a secret underground passage that allows you to experience symbolic rebirth by passing through the womb of Bodhisattva.
First built in 798, Kiyomizu-dera belongs to the Hosso sect of Buddhism. The present buildings are reconstructions dating from 1633. The main hall (Hondo), which houses a Juichi-men (11-headed) Kannon figure, features a huge veranda that juts out over the hillside. This platform is supported by 139, 15m high, wooden pillars. Just below the veranda is Otowa-no-taki spring, where visitors drink the sacred waters believed to bestow health and long life.
Ninen-Zaka & Sannen-Zaka preserved districts
Just downhill from Kiyomizu-dera you will find one of the loveliest restored neighborhoods, the Ninen-zaka-Sannen-zaka area. The name refers to the two main streets, literally “Two-Year Hill” and “Three-year-hill” (the years referring to the ancient imperial years when they were first laid out). These two charming streets are lined with old wooden houses, traditional shops, tea houses, cafes and restaurants.
Chion-in: Southern Higashiyama.
Called by some ‘the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism,’ this vast temple is one of the most important sacred sites in Japan. The headquarters of one of Japan’s most popular Buddhist sects, Chion-in receives millions of pilgrims annually, and it’s one of the best places to see Japanese religious faith in action. Enter the enormous main hall and soak up the spiritual energy of the place: chanting monks, praying pilgrims, and incense slowly burning up towards the heavens. Then set off too explore the many sub-temples and halls. Definitely the single most impressive sight in Southern Higashiyama, Chion-in is a must-see for those with a taste for the grand.
It was built by the monk Genchi in 1234 on the site where his mentor, Honen, had once taught and fasted to death. It was here in Chion-in that Honen taught chanting the name of Amida to attain salvation, and it was here that he spent his final years. Pure Land Buddhism was founded in 1175 by the priest Honen. Honen taught that one could be reborn in the Pure Land (a heavenly paradise from which it is easy to attain nirvana), simply by calling on Amida Buddha in devotion and faith. Its simple teachings and applicability to common people helped Judo Buddhism become the most popular sect in Japan.
Today it is still the headquarters of the Jodo school, which was founded by Honen, and it is a hive of religious activity. The oldest of the present buildings date from the 17th century. The two-story San-mon gate at the main entrance is the largest in Japan, and prepares the visitor for the massive scale of the temple. Chion-in is also home to the largest bell in Japan cast in 1633. It’s 5.4m high and weighs 74 tons! Seventeen monks are needed to ring the bell at New Year!! It rings 108 times on this day, every year at midnight.
Unfortunately, in some places, you are not allowed to photograph or video chanting or prayer rituals taking place. There was also a good deal of construction happening when I visited this temple, making finding my way around a little tricky and tiring. Overall though, it’s a great temple to experience!
**In October 2002, Chion-in Temple was used in the filming of the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai. **
Path of Philosophy: Northern Higashiyama.
The Tetsugaku-no-Michi (Philosopher’s Walk) is one of the most pleasant walks in all of Kyoto. It’s lined with a great variety of flowering plants, bushes and trees for every season. A tiny stone corridor that runs along a narrow, peaceful flowing creek is just what one needs to escape the tourist crowds for a few minutes. The path takes its name from one of its most famous strollers: 20th-century philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who is said to have meandered lost in thought along the path.
Heian-jingu Shrine: Northern Higashiyama.
This shrine was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto and is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors who reigned from the city: Emperor Kammu (737-806) and Emperor Komei (1831-1867). Heian is the former name of Kyoto.
The shrine buildings are colorful replicas, reduced to a two-thirds scale, of the Imperial Court Palace of the Heian period (794-1185). About 500m in front of the shrine is a massive steel torii (shrine gate). Although it appears to be entirely separate, this is actually considered the main entrance to the shrine itself.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!