Exploring Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites with GPA’s Gary Wooten

By Gary Wooten

Through Temple University’s study abroad program, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan to study sociology for my fall semester. I was primarily in Tokyo for classes, but during long holiday weekends, many students from Temple’s main campus and I would travel to various prefectures in Japan to explore. During my fall semester, I planned a two-day trip with a group of students to Kyoto to see traditional Japan. On our trip, we were able to visit three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kinkakuji, and Nijo-jo Castle.

Kyoto is on the west side of mainland Japan and it’s roughly three-hours away by bullet train from Tokyo. The main attractions of Kyoto are the dense number of shrines and temples throughout the prefecture. Kyoto was the national capital of Japan prior to the establishment of the current capital, Tokyo. The historical significance of Kyoto is affirmed with its World Heritage City designation. When I first arrived, I was surprised to see how different the area looked compared to Tokyo. Kyoto was significantly more relaxed than Tokyo, which is filled with towering skyscrapers, densely crowded streets, and gigantic LED billboards. 

On day one of the trip, the first place our group visited was Kyoto Station. We spent several hours exploring the massive underground concourse with various restaurants and shops. It was very interesting to visit a modern and innovative building in Kyoto, especially since we pictured the area to mainly feature a traditional, historical version of Japan. After leaving the station, we went to the Gion District to see some of the famous sites in Kyoto. We visited Yasaka Shrine, which has the most striking orange gateway located at the end of the main street of Gion. This shrine was filled with smaller shrines, each having its own stone torii gates in front of the altars. 

Our group left Yasaka Shrine and traveled to the historic shopping district located on the streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka. These two streets were amazing to walk through because of how well preserved the landscape and buildings were after hundreds of years. Afterwards, we walked up a winding road to one of the most visited locations in Kyoto – Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This temple is one of the many UNESCO sites in the prefecture. It is a 1250-year-old Buddhist temple that has a stunning overview of the entire city. 

The following day, we traveled to East Kyoto to visit the famous Inari Shrine, home to the thousand torii gates. Inari Shrine is a very significant shrine in ancient Japanese culture because Inari was the kami (deity) of rice, which was the primary agriculture staple for the Japanese people. The shrine is located at the top of a mountain, but the path to get there is almost more famous than the actual shrine itself. The entire path up the mountain is lined with bright orange torii gates densely packed together creating a neon tunnel to the summit. This was one of my favorite locations in Kyoto. 

After hiking down Inari Shrine, we headed over to North-West Kyoto to visit the temple Kinkakuji, another UNESCO Site. Kinkakuji is another major destination spot in Kyoto because the entire temple is wrapped in gold. The temple is absolutely stunning in the daylight, particularly when the sun is shining directly on the side of the temple and creating a golden reflection into the nearby pond filled with koi fish. 

Once we finished viewing the Kinkakuji, we set out for central Kyoto to see another heritage site, Nijo-jo Castle. This castle was the imperial villa for the Tokugawa Shogunate, or Japanese military government, in Kyoto when it was the capital of Japan. Seeing the architecture and the scale of the estate in-person was impressive. It was hard to imagine how much preparation would go into setting up large ceremonies that used to take place there. 

After we finished exploring some of the major historical buildings, landmarks, and streets, the trip ended with a train ride from Kyoto Station back to Tokyo Station. The idea of a World Heritage City is hard to grasp when you are a local resident, but as a visitor exploring one of these cities, the cultural significance is very apparent. Kyoto had so many cultural and historic sites to visit that it would take weeks to explore every single one of them. Like Philadelphia, another World Heritage City, there is so much history that contributes to a World Heritage City designation. While it may be difficult to fly to Japan to visit Kyoto, there is always an opportunity to explore local heritage sites here in the City of Philadelphia.