Reiko and I got back from Kyoto a couple days ago and man what a beautiful place. The city itself doesn't look like much at first because there are laws against building tall buildings but you soon find that this adds to Kyoto's charm. Kyoto is surrounded by mountains which are visible from within the city. Coming from Tokyo where you're lucky to see more than a few blocks away because of the buildings and even if you did there wouldn't be much to see, this adds a lot to your view in daily life.
The city also has a long history with some buildings dating back to the 1400s. When seeing imagery of Japanese culture on TV and in movies, you don't really get a sense of where it came from.
The first day we arrived we went to the Kyoto Imperial Park which is located in the center of the city. The Park used to contain the Imperial Palace but also contains some small shrines. After that we went by bus to Ginkakuji. The shrine was supposed to be covered in silver but it was never actually done.
Day two Reiko and I traveled to Osaka and visited Osaka Castle. The castle is huge with a large park around it. The castle is largely not the original structure as the original structure has burned down or been destroyed several times. The original was finished in 1598 but lightning destroyed the original castle in 1665. It was rebuilt but much of it was destroyed during conflits of the Meiji Restoration. Rebuilt again, the castle was damaged during bombing raids in WWII. It wasn't until 1995 that the city was able to fund a project to restore the castle, and finished the restoration in 1997.
After Nanba, we rounded out the day with a dance festival event at Matsuo Shrine. It was pretty interesting since I think they have some connection with a local college as there were lots of college age kids around. It's pretty neat to see the creativity and energy that college-age kids have before having to enter the "real world".
On day three we met our friend Kyoko who we know from meetup in the 'States. Kyoko guided us to Fushimi Inari Shrine which has a path into the mountains that is lined with red tori gates. The gates are engraved with the names of companies that have donated to the shrine as it's known to bring good fortune. The size of the gate reflects the size of the donation. We didn't find any big recognizable companies though.
After that we went to Kiyomizudera. Kiyomizudera is known for it's views and greenery so we got some really nice pictures. The air is so fresh there also that the atmosphere is quite different from normal life in Tokyo.
After Kiyomizudera we walked around the Ginza area and had a late lunch before Kyoko headed home.
On the last day Reiko and I went to Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and Nijyou Castle. Kinkakuji is a shrine with a pavilion that encased in gold leaf. It's amazing in that it's really clean. It looks immaculate even up close. The also say that the sunset is especially beautiful at Kinkakuji. I suppose that the sunset reflects well off of the cold structure and the surrounding water.
Ryoanji is the quintessential Zen garden complete with stones and sand. It's really beautiful for it's simplicity. The idea is that the rocks are islands and the sand is raked to look like water. It creates a calm relaxing atmosphere. From wikipedia, "The garden consists of raked gravel and fifteen moss-covered boulders, which are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder." I didn't notice that there was any specific layout but it's interesting to note.
After Ryoanji, we left for Nijyou castle. I believe the palace was used for the shogun to meet with regional leaders from various areas of Japan. Unfortunately it's prohibited to take photos on the inside of the castle, but it's really beautiful. The artwork is very Japanese in style and has a real feeling of royalty yet calm and relaxing. You can also notice that the floors in the hallways are made to chirp like a bird when you step on them. A security measure to avoid sneak attacks or assassinations.
All in all a very refreshing and exciting trip. Concerning practical matters, many of the shrines and temples in Kyoto close early (Nijyou Castle closed at 4 o'clock!!) so be prepared to call it a day early, or find something that you can do after hours. Also, I found the subway to be rather inadequate in Kyoto (I originally planned to use only subway. In Tokyo it's super good) so in order to get to the shrines easily you will need to use a combination of bus and train. This can be a pain since you will need to use two maps, bus and rail. And it can be difficult to see where the closest train station is relative to a bus station. But in order to get to Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, or Ginkakuji efficiently, you'll need to use the bus. So do your homework!!