Kyoto Temple Tour

We recommend starting off with two temples and a beautiful Zen garden relatively close to Kyoto Station, and to each other. All are quite welcoming of visitors, allow access inside some buildings and are representative of Kyoto Heian architecture. They have colorful histories, so take a look at your guidebooks beforehand. The temples are big name, known places your friends expect you to see while in Kyoto, while the garden is a bit off the beaten path, a perfect example of the unusual and beautiful you can discover in Kyoto. Depending on your feet, patience and interest, you can see all three sites in a couple of hours or, with lunch and slow kids, make a day of this.

Nishi Honganji Temple

We'll suggest you begin at Nishi Honganji Temple, about 10-15 minutes walk from the station and a big target on any map. As of 2004 it was undergoing some reconstruction, but the main gate and outer buildings are still open for viewing and the construction project has redirected some of the tour buses elsewhere. The temple staff are very accustomed to foreign visitors, and often have apprentice monks from overseas who speak English hanging around. The place has a small cafÃÆ'© and available public toilets. No admission charge, so this is a no-threat visit for kids.

Higashi Honganji Temple

Exit the main gate, pick a colorful side street, and walk East two blocks to the sister temple of Higashi Honganji. Check out some small shops along the way if you like, selling Buddhist religious items. These make worthwhile keepsakes, but the shops are not set up for little hands and do feature narrow aisles and lots of things to put in one's mouth. Same for your kids.

Once again, no admission charge. You can usually get English-language pamphlets at the temple office to your right as you enter the main gate. You will need to carry your shoes inside the temple, and no strollers are allowed inside the buildings themselves and on the tatami mats, so you'll need to carry the kids along or inside of your shoes. Be sure to look for the display of giant rope made of hair from followers of this temple. It is both interesting and totally gross at the same time, and thus perfect for teenagers. There are decent toilets on the temple grounds.

Shosei-en: A Zen Garden

Leaving Higashi Honganji Temple, you'll need to circumnavigate the grounds to the east side and then proceed another block or two further east to Shosei-en, a beautiful Zen garden complete with a traditional tea house, moon viewing platform, stone bridge, giant carp and ducks you or your kids can feed. There is no admission charge, but donations are sought. You for some reason need to fill out a short form to enter with your name and nationality, and will receive an English-language pamphlet in return, so its cool. Toilets are a bit tatty and dark, so fill up before leaving Higashi Honganji.

The garden is designed to help put you into a Zen-like state, using its color and texture to help move your mind into the zone. If all you know about Zen is based on renting the Matrix series and trying to understand the Architect character, read up a bit from your guidebook before entering Shosei-en and you will enjoy it all that much more.

Once inside, make your way to the pond and stand near the edge. Within moments armadas of giant carp will swim toward you, breaking the surface in quest for food. If you discretely toss in a few crackers or bread crumbs, they will erupt into a massive feeding frenzy, a great thing for small kids. Caution: this can also scare the heck out of some smaller kids. The thrashing about will soon attract the aggressive ducks, who will want their share of the crackers. Our kids had a great time running around the grassy area near the pond, chased by ducks. It was a nice way to let off a bit of energy after the temples.

If no one throws you out after this, take a few moments to explore the rest of the place. Cross the stone bridge and sit for a few minutes on the wooden moon viewing platform. If you squint a bit to blur out the power lines, and mess with your ears to tune out the traffic noise, you might get a taste of the image of peace and serenity the place was designed to evoke.

There is even a verb in Japanese for the feeling: satorimasu, meaning to reach a peaceful state. Enjoy.

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