The Wards of Kyoto (Part 4 of 4)
The last three episodes of this series have been about nine of Kyoto’s Eleven wards. In this last installment of the Regions of Kyoto, we will be looking at Higashiyama and Sakyou-ku, easily two of Kyoto’s most famous wards, whether tourists going there are aware of it or not.
Although Higashiyama is one of Kyoto’s smallest and least populated wards, it contains an incredible amount of historically and culturally important temples and shrines within its boundaries. Kiyomizudera, a temple built without a single nail, is perhaps the favorite spot of tourists and locals alike, but Tofuku-ji, Kennin-ji, Kodai-ji, Sanjusanden-do, Sennyu-ji, Chion-ji, Sanmon Gate, and Choraku-ji are all in the ward as well. In addition, the ward is celebrated for the famous Gion district, where the dwindling culture of geisha and maiko are still practiced as they were in the old days. It is possible to find shops here that will allow foreigners to experience the kimono and makeup of a maiko for a fee. Nearby is Yasaka Shrine, an important shrine for the district, as well as Gion Corner, which gives shows daily in traditional Japanese arts, as well as workshops. The neighborhoods of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, which lead up the mountainside to Kiyomizudera, are under national protection and are near perfectly preserved. The Ryozen Kannon and the famous Minami-za Kabuki Theater are here as well. If you’re looking for a break from all of the temples, the Kyoto National Museum is also located in this ward.
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto’s second largest ward and the last one we will be discussing, is the home to a multitude of significant points of interest. Parts of the ward are urban controlled, which keeps contractors from building above a certain height, and many community farms are scattered all throughout the ward, with as many as two or three inside some residential neighborhoods.
There is a famous urban trail, known as Tetsugaku-no-Michi, or The Philospher’s Path, named after the philosopher Kitaro Nishida, who used to walk the path while thinking to himself. Along the path are a number of temples and shrines, including Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, the Golden Pavilion’s sister temple, Honen-ji with its thatched gate, Anraku-ji, Otoya-jinja, Nyakuo-ji, Eikan-do Zenrin-ji, and Nannen-ji, which is famous for its two story sanmon gate and brick aqueduct.
The ward is also where Kurama and Kifune, two small towns to the far north of Kyoto, are located. Kurama has a small hot spring, soba river restaurants and every year, on the same day as Jidai-Matsuri, holds a massive fire festival, one of the largest and best known fire festivals in Kansai. There is a mild hiking trail between Kifune and Kibune which visits Kurama-dera and Kifune Temple. The forest is well known for the trees’ exposed roots on one part of the trail. Below these two towns is Takaragaike, the largest community park and recreation area in Kyoto. There is a large playground and pond, where boats and canoes can be rented and enjoyed in nice weather. The International Conference Hall, where the world-famous Kyoto Protocol was adopted, is located within Takaragaike. The park has free admission.
Nearby are the Kyoto Concert Hall, which puts on regular orchestra shows, the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts and the Kyoto Botanical Garden, which is worth a visit at any time of the year. In addition to all of this, Sakyo-ku is also where the main campus of Kyoto University is located, as well the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Kyoto Seika University. Sakyo-ku also hosts the majority of the mountains that are lit up during Kyoto’s famous Obon festival, Gozan no Okuribi, including the most recognizable, Daimon-ji. Daimonji can be climbed all year long for spectacular views of Kyoto, and on clear days, even Osaka.
In addition to the temples included on the Philosopher’s Path, Sakyo-ku is the home of Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrine, shrines that are older than the capital itself. Heian-jingu, a smaller scale of the original Heian Palace, is located here as well, with the Kyoto International Community House and a small complex of temples, as well as the Kyoto City Zoo nearby as well. Butokuden, the Martial Arts Hall of Kyoto, is right beside Heian Jingu. On January 3rd of every year, Setsubun, the bean throwing festival, can be celebrated at Yoshida Shrine.
A lesser known area of Sakyo-ku is the Ichijoji area, where Shisen-do, Manshuin Temple, Hachidaijinja and Tanukidani are located. Musashi Miyamoto, a famous swordsman and author of the Book of Five Rings, had one of his most famous battles in this area, where he fended off over twelve swordsmen as he fled a scene by drawing both of his swords and using one in each hand, the birth of his Niten-ichi sword style. Tanukidani is the home to some of Kyoto’s Daoists, and behind the temple, there is a fairly long trail with Buddha trail markers.
We have now discussed all of Kyoto’s wards, from Kamigyou-ku to Sakyo-ku, though it is important to remember that these wards only encompass places within the city’s boundaries. There are a number of wonderful places outside of the city but within Kyoto Prefecture, including Uji and Amanohashidate, but they will not be discussed here. As well, this guide is by no means comprehensive. There are a great number of places hidden in every corner of Kyoto, and can be found with a bit of exploring. The city has over 16,000 temples and shrines when put together, many that will never be found in any guidebook. That is, however, one of the fun things about the city. It doesn’t matter what street you walk down. There will be something of interest.
If there are any other places within Kyoto that you’d be interested in hearing about, I invite you to leave a comment. Until next time, and thank you.