Sixty nine years ago, Kyoto was identified by the United States as one of four A-bomb targets, along with Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura (part of present-day Kitakyushu). The then US Secretary of War Henry Stimson lobbied for the removal of Kyoto from the list, citing the city’s immense cultural significance. He also had a personal connection to the city, having reportedly been to Kyoto on honeymoon two decades prior. Kyoto was removed from the potential targets and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to the present day, the former imperial capital is home to roughly 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Kyoto and neighboring Otsu and Uji cities host a high concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, collectively inscribed on the heritage list as the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”. On a trip to Kyoto, it’s almost a given that an average visitor will check out at least one of these World Heritage Sites. After four visits to Kyoto, I only managed to see 7 out of 17 of these sites so far.
In the early days of the Heian period (794 – 1192 AD), Buddhism had already been introduced from China. The year 794 then saw the transfer of the imperial court from Heijo-ko (present-day Nara) to Kyoto. Kiyomizu-dera, or the “Pure Water Temple”, was built in the early Heian period and was named for the pure waters of Otowa waterfall, around which the temple was built.
Kiyomizu-dera is packed with pilgrims and tourists alike, more especially in spring, when the temple’s main stage overlooks a sea of pink cherry blossoms and in autumn, when the temple grounds turn into spectacular hues of red and yellow.
Likewise dating from the early Heian period, Ninna-ji is a spacious Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto categorized as the head temple of the Omuro School of Buddhism’s Shingon sect. Ninna-ji was traditionally headed by an imperial prince as head priest, earning it the nickname Omuro Imperial Palace.
One of the three properties in the UNESCO listing not located in Kyoto proper, Byōdō-in can be found in Uji, 20 minutes south of Kyoto by train. Byōdō-in is an example of a Buddhist pure land garden, with Amida-do located on an island in the middle of a pond. Amida-do dates to the year 1053, and is the only remaining original building in the temple complex after most of the structures burned down in wars through the centuries. Amida-do is more known as Phoenix Hall because of the building’s likeness to a phoenix with wings on each side and in part also to the two phoenixes on the hall’s roof. If Phoenix Hall looks familiar, that’s because the hall is depicted on the obverse side of the Japanese 10 yen coin.
Rokuon-ji (a.k.a. Kinkaku-ji)
Rokuon-ji, more popularly known as Kinkaku-ji or the “Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, is probably the most popular and iconic symbol of Kyoto. Kinkaku-ji was the retirement villa of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. The villa was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple after the Shogun’s demise in 1408. The gold leaf-wrapped pavilion and its reflection onto the surrounding Kyōko-chi (Mirror Pond) is one of the most photographed sights in Japan. The current structure is a 1955 reconstruction after a deranged Buddhist monk set it on fire in 1950.
Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple in northwest Kyoto famous for its intriguing rock garden. The rock garden’s history and who commissioned its creation is unknown. The 15 rocks of the garden, laid out in 5 groups in a 25m by 10m rectangular area, are said to represent “completeness” or “enlightenment”. The rocks are arranged in such a way that at least one rock is hidden from view from any point on the veranda, which some take it to mean that completeness or enlightenment is difficult to achieve.
Tenryū-ji, in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, is the head temple of the Rinzai Zen Buddhism’s Tenryū branch. The temple was founded in 1339, although the present structures are reconstructions dating from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Many visitors pass through Tenryū-ji en route to Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves located next door.
The only site on the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” listing which is neither a Buddhist temple nor a Shinto shrine, Nijo Castle is a 17th century fortification built on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Having transferred the center of his government – the Tokugawa Shogunate – to Edo (present-day Tokyo), Tokugawa Ieyasu designated the castle instead as the official residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns in Kyoto.
Ninomaru-goten, the building complex in the heart of Nijo Castle, housed the residence and offices of the Shoguns. The palace itself is made up of five buildings, connected by corridors with uguisubari, “nightingale floors”, that chirp like its namesake bird when stepped upon, to ensure that no one passes undetected.
It’s difficult not to become attached to a place one has visited. The personal connection lingers long after the trip – Kyoto did this to Henry Stimson and he is credited for the sparing of Kyoto from the atomic bomb in World War II.
To the same end, a great number of Kyoto’s cultural and religious heritage have been spared from the A-bomb but could have been lost through the centuries if not for the Japanese passion for restoration and conservation. Seventeen of these structures, each representing a specific period in Kyoto’s history, have been rightfully inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List, a citation that ensures the preservation of the cultural masterpieces for future generations.