Kyoto and Nara Day Trip from Kyoto

March 1, 2013 by

Asia, Day Trips, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Tokyo has been the imperial capital of Japan since only 1868. The capital from the late 700s until then was Kyoto, which still means “Capital”. For 70 years before that it was in Nara near Kyoto. Because of the importance of Nara and later Kyoto some of Japan’s most significant historic sites are in the Kyoto area. 17 different sites within the Kyoto/Nara area have been designated by the United Nations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I wanted to see some of them while I was in the area, so I opted for the Kyoto and Nara Day Trip from Kyoto including Nijo Castle. The tour I took could be done as two separate half day tours.

Kyoto Morning Tour

Kyoto Nijo Castle tour

Kyoto Nijo Castle tour

The Kyoto morning tour visited three significant sites in Kyoto. We started at the Nijo Castle which was built by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. 17th century Japan was a land of feuding rival feudal lords. While all might recognize the emperor it was far from a united country. After a series of military victories Tokugawa Ieyasu united Japan and was proclaimed Shogun in 1603. The house of Tokugawa retained the title of Shogun and control of the whole country… in the name of the emperor… until 1868. He quickly moved the capital away from the sway of the Emperor to what is now Tokyo but used this castle when he was visiting Kyoto.

No photography is allowed inside the castle which has a small number of large rooms with decorative paintings of tigers (not native to Japan) that reminded people of the power of the Shogun. Mannequins play the part of visiting lords and samurai coming to request favors of the Shogun. Visiting in winter I could appreciate how warm a kimono needed to be as the palace windows are paper and the palace contained no fireplaces. In the summer the shutters could be opened so that the Shogun could view his beautiful gardens.

Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion may be the most photographed of the historic sites of Kyoto. It is currently a Buddhist temple but was originally built as a palace for a retired Shogun. The building, like many historic buildings in Japan, was lost to fire and reconstructed in 1955. Our tour guide told us the bird of the top of the building is a phoenix, which seems appropriate given its rise from the ashes.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto tour

Imperial Palace, Kyoto tour

While the emperor moved the capital to Edo, changing the name to Tokyo, in 1868, he still retains a palace here in Kyoto and the residence of Kyoto are ready for him to move back at any time. Because this is still a palace the tour goes more around the palace than through it.

Nara Afternoon Tour

Nara is an hour away from Kyoto, more on the return trip with rush hour traffic. So after a filling, if unspectacular, lunch we drove to Nara. One of the most unusual things about Nara is that there are deer everywhere. The deer are considered sacred because they “brought the god down the mountain” according to Shinto beliefs. Warning signs tell tourists that the deer can get aggressive when you feed them. Our tour guide advised us not to run with food or they will chase you.

Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple)

Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple)

The Eastern Great Temple (Todai-ji) is the largest wooden building in the world and contains an equally colossal Buddha statue.  It was one of the first statues of Buddha that was cast in Japan instead of imported from China, India or Korea (all of which received Buddhism before Japan).

Kasuga Grand Shrine

Kasuga Grand Shrine

There are many Shinto shrines in Japan but the Kasuga Grand Shrine is one of the most significant. It was built in 768. As a photographer it was not the shrine itself but the many moss-covered stone lanterns lining the path to the shrine that captured my attention.

I am not a big fan of a week-long bus tour to a country, but selected day trips, particularly in Japan where about half of the sites we visited didn’t have brochures in English, can simplify seeing some of the larger sites. In addition to learning more about the history of Japan and the Shinto and Buddhist faiths that the Japanese integrate, we also learned about some of the more popular culture on the bus rides. We watched televised sumo wrestling while our guide explained sports, entertainment, education and even taxes. I could have visited all of these sites on my own but with more effort and less information.

Photos courtesy of Chris Christensen

Book a Kyoto and Nara Day Trip from Kyoto including Nijo Castle

- Chris Christensen

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One Response to “Kyoto and Nara Day Trip from Kyoto”

  1. GK Says:

    Kyoto is historical city, So if you are interested to know more about samurai culture you must visit Kyoto.

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