Kyoto: the heart and soul of Japan
Kyoto is a veritable dream destination for a Japanese language course. As the former emperor’s seat and capital of Japan, Kyoto is a hotspot of traditional Japanese culture. The city’s rich heritage is, without a doubt, second to none. For over a thousand years during the most prosperous times of Japanese culture, Kyoto was the beating heart of Japan. Nobles, scholars, architects, poets, and painters gathered in this thriving city, each contributing to its glory and splendour – much of which can still be seen today.
With more than 2,000 historic temples, dozens of traditional festivals, and 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, history is alive and kicking in present-day Kyoto. It’s renowned for the sake brewed here, for its traditional kimono weavers, and for Gion, its authentic geisha district. Home to some of the finest examples of historical architecture in the country, you’ll feel transported back in time here. Gion is full of authentic craft stalls, women dressed in colourful kimonos, ancient gardens, and unique temples and shrines.
Even today, Kyoto is the heart and soul of Japanese culture and a place every Japanese person will try to visit at least once in their lifetime. Taking part in a Japanese language course here is a unique opportunity to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience in this cultural capital. Why? Read on to find out!
A year of incredible festivals
Many cities have one or two special festivals during the year. Kyoto, however, has so many unique celebrations that it would take hours to describe them all. Thanks to its long and eventful history and its incredibly rich cultural heritage, Kyoto has hundreds of exceptional annual festivals. Experiencing even one will invariably make you appreciate the inherent beauty and wealth of ancient Japanese culture. You may be tempted to stay here for an entire year just so you don’t miss out on any of these incredible events!
Gion Matsuri is among the biggest and most famous festivals in Kyoto, and maybe even in all of Japan. Its history reaches back to 869 AD, when the entire country was troubled by plague. During these times, portable shrines which were said to house gods and spirits were carried through the city for protection. When the threat of disease passed, the people knew that it was their devotion to the gods which had saved them. Consequently, this festival has been held annually ever since.
Even today, splendid floats are paraded through the city’s streets. They’re still built according to ancient traditions, using only timber and ropes and not a single nail. When you consider that these floats weigh around 12 tonnes and can reach heights of 25 metres, you can’t help but admire the skills of the craftspeople who built them!
Honouring the past
During Jidai Matsuri – the ‘Festival of the Ages’ – Japan’s history becomes alive again as hundreds of people in historical costumes walk the streets. Savage warriors from long-passed wars follow elegant imperial princesses dressed in splendid robes. Ordinary women in plain clothes give way to proud samurai, while writers, warlords, intellectuals, and politicians of old parade in front of excited spectators.
This huge historical re-enactment is incredibly realistic. Those taking part wear wonderfully detailed costumes that are sewn using authentic historical techniques after long hours of research. The festival originates in the late 19th century when Tokyo took over as Japan’s capital. In order to celebrate Kyoto’s long and proud history, the local government organised a costume procession. People from all periods of the city’s tenure as the national capital were represented, as they still are today. Jidai Matsuri is a tribute to over a millennium of glorious history that makes times long-passed come alive again in all their splendour.
A spiritual send-off
Unlike Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri, Gozan-no-Okuribi isn’t one of Kyoto’s famed Three Great Festivals, but it’s so special that I can’t keep it from you.
During the Obon Festival, it’s believed that the spirits of the deceased return to our world to visit their families. When the festival is over, however, they have to return to the spirit world. In order to send them off and to make their transition smooth, huge fires are lit on five mountains surrounding Kyoto. Three form the characters 大 (“great“) and 妙法 (“Buddha’s wondrous teachings“), while the other two form the image of a boat and a shrine gate. With the largest one measuring more than 160 metres, these fires are a unique sight to behold as they light up the black night with their red flames.
Nobody knows exactly how this festival came into existence, and nowadays many myths enshroud the sending-off fires. For example, prayers written on cedar strips are traditionally burned in the bonfires. As the smoke of the fires rises to the skies, the prayers are said to soar up to heaven with them. These fires are an enchanting sight, but they’re also a unique and beautiful way to honour one’s ancestors and say goodbye to departed loved ones.
The capital of temples
Given its long history and huge cultural significance, it’s no surprise that Kyoto is home to over 2,000 Japanese temples. That’s far too many to feature here, so I’ve picked a handful of the best for you:
Iconic Mount Inari
In the south of Kyoto lies the sacred Mount Inari, which is covered in dozens of Shinto shrines of all shapes and sizes. The most famous one is without a doubt the Fushimi Inari shrine. Its long paths, lined by several thousand bright red torii gates, are among the most scenic places in Kyoto. All these gates have been donated by people making a wish to Inari Okami or giving thanks for a blessing. When sunlight falls through the gaps between the gates, the tunnel seems to glow – it’s a truly magical sight.
Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, perfectly represents the heart of traditional Japanese culture. The subtle elegance of this Zen temple, set in a landscape garden of sublime beauty, makes it an unforgettable sight. You won’t find the overwhelming pomp and splendour of other styles of architecture here. The pavilion’s non-intrusive beauty unfolds slowly before you and enchants you more and more the longer you look at it. As you stroll through this magical place, you’ll feel its gentle charms capturing your senses and calming your mind. No matter whether you cross the Sea of Silver Sand, walk through the mysterious moss garden, or rest on the shores of the dark pool, you’ll always feel the soothing spirit of this special place.
Both in fame and grandiosity, however, the Silver Pavilion has to yield to its progenitor, Kinkakuji (the Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Unlike the Silver Pavilion, the Golden Pavilion is actually covered in gold. Gleaming and glistening in the sunlight, this building really is a jewel. As you admire the stunning landscape garden around it, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that it’s modelled on a description of paradise in Buddhist scripture. Kinkakuji is also a stunning sight in winter when its roof is painted white and the pine trees and rocks around it are hidden under the snow. During times like this, the vibrant gold of the pavilion is the only splash of colour in this slumbering garden.
Since temples are dotted around the city, you’re sure to come across a few hidden gems when exploring Kyoto. One such gem is the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple, known for its 1,200 stone statues guarding the paths of the temple. These moss-covered statues may look ancient, but they were actually carved just a few decades ago by visitors of the temple.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji looks back on a hard and changing history. It has faced relocation and destruction by flood, civil war, and typhoons. During the 1980s, however, the new head priest started a project to rebuild the temple, teaching interested amateurs how to carve rakan – statues of Buddha’s disciples. Over the next decade, he taught an incredible number of students, each of whom contributed an entirely unique statue to the temple. Among all the carvings, you won’t find two that are the same: solemn or cheeky, jolly or melancholic, each statue has its own unique expression. If you look closely, you’ll even spot two of them sharing a glass of sake, one poking his tongue out at you, and one that seems to be holding a Walkman!
Lost in moss
You’ve got to know some of Kyoto’s best temples now, but the last one I’d like to introduce is so special that I can’t keep it from you. Kokedera, the Moss Temple, is a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest temples in Kyoto. It is renowned for its stunning moss garden. Featuring more than a hundred different species of mosses, this park is a mysterious and ancient fairyland. If you look more closely at the mosses, you’ll often notice that they merge with the roots, rocks, and herbs around them to create charming miniature landscapes. Some of them resemble rolling hills covered in verdant green grass; others look like rocky mountains with dark forests growing on their slopes; and some are like lush jungle valleys consisting of thousands of little blades and twines.
Though this park is a highly influential example of Japanese gardening, it’s not the only attraction at Kokedera Temple. Before being allowed to enter the moss garden, you’ll stay in the main hall of the temple and copy the heart sutra using brush and ink at a traditional low writing desk. This won’t only give you an absolutely unique experience and an authentic insight into Buddhist culture – it’s also a great opportunity to practice your newly learned kanji and kana!
To prevent this special place from being overrun by visitors, you need to apply by postcard several weeks in advance. Once you receive a return postcard, you’ll know that you’ve secured one of the coveted visitor spots. Be sure to submit your application in time so as not to miss out on this amazing place when you’re in Kyoto!
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Stunning historical sites
With a centuries-long history as the royal residence, Kyoto is an excellent place for anyone interested in the imperial lifestyle. Here, you can visit the Imperial Palace, whence Japanese emperors ruled the nation until 1869. This giant structure, which covers almost one square kilometre(!), is home to the impressive throne room, the huge imperial living quarters, and countless halls used for both ritual and official purposes.
Another imperial building that is often overlooked by foreign visitors is the Imperial Villa on the outskirts of the city. Renowned as one of the finest examples of traditional Japanese architecture and gardening, this former imperial country retreat is more than worth a visit.
The perfect place to get lost while exploring Kyoto’s most picturesque corners is the stunning historical district of Gion. With willow trees leaning over quaint canals and traditional wooden-style houses lining the ancient alleys, Gion is the beautiful shadow of Old Kyoto. It’s also famous as one of the most important geisha districts in Japan. In historical tea houses, carefully selected guests are entertained with classical dances, elegant conversation, and traditional drinking games. These exclusive establishments, however, are virtually off-limits to foreign visitors. Instead, you can watch a cultural show at Gion Corner and enjoy performances of traditional arts such as flower arranging, puppet theatre, and a tea ceremony.
Beautiful nature on the city’s doorstep
When you’ve had enough of city life, the place to go for an amazing nature experience is definitely Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. If you arrive on a sunny day, you’ll see the sun’s rays filtering through the lush bamboo leaves, making the grove seem like an enchanted world of its own. When covered in mist and fog, the bamboo forest turns into a mysterious and magical fairyland where undiscovered secrets, mythical creatures, and unexplored lands seem to hide behind every bamboo cluster. On windy days, you can see the slender bamboo plants sway back and forth in the whistling breeze like a giant green sea. No matter the weather, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is always amazing.
On some cold December nights, mankind adds its own touch to this area’s natural beauty. Glowing bamboo lights and painted lanterns illuminate the paths in the grove and along the river, creating an entrancing atmosphere. This is an experience that will capture your heart and make you fall in love with the beauty and magic of Japan.
Our Japanese courses in Kyoto
Kyoto’s sights are myriad, and I’d have to write an entire novel to introduce them all to you! Instead, you should explore for yourself all this gorgeous city has to offer.
Our Japanese courses in Kyoto are a great way to do just that, as they perfectly match the spirit of this stunning city. At our great partner school, you’ll not only improve your Japanese skills quickly, but you can also dive into traditional culture through our Japanese + Culture course. You’ll get the chance to wear a beautiful kimono, make your own Japanese paper using ancient techniques, and meditate in a Zen temple under the guidance of an experienced monk. There could hardly be a better way of diving into this exciting society than by living in Japan’s cultural capital and experiencing ancient traditions as they are lived even today.
If you truly want to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, look no further – on all the country’s 6,852 islands, you won’t find a single city to match Kyoto’s ancient beauty!