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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Change of season

By John S. Lander
Special to The Advertiser

Kinkakuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site also called the Golden Pavilion, is renowned for its reflection on the adjacent pond.

JOHN S. LANDER | Special to The Advertiser

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IF YOU GO ...

MARKETS: Kyoto's colorful markets are held on certain days of the week: Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, held on the 25th day of each month. Other large markets include: The first Sunday of each month, an antique market is held at To-ji Temple; the 12th of each month at Myoren-ji Temple; and the 15th of each month at Chion-ji Temple.

GEISHA MAKOVER: Yumekou bou, 45 Kitanouchi-chi, Minato-ku, Kyoto; telephone 075-661-0858; www.yumekoubou.info /english.

INFORMATION: Visit the Japan National Tourism Organization site at www.jnto.go.jp and select Kyoto for further information. The Kyoto branch office, called the Tourism Information Center, has a booth on the second floor of Kyoto Station. You will find copies of the Kyoto Guide magazine at most hotels, ryokan or at Kyoto Station. See their English, Japanese, Korean or Chinese Web pages at www.kyotoguide.com.

GETTING AROUND: For city bus and subway information, go to www.city.kyoto.jp and click on the English tab.

Kyoto is spread out, and getting around can be an expensive headache, so the Kyoto Sightseeing Two Day Pass Card is a great deal at 2,000 yen, about $17 (a one-day pass costs 1,200 yen, about $10), valid for all city buses and subways as well as the "Raku" sightseeing buses that go to all the major gardens and temples: www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en select the Transportation tab, or just buy the card at any subway station or at Kyoto Station upon arrival.

Walking Tours of Kyoto are led by Hajime Hirooka, or "Johnnie Hillwalker," as he calls himself, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, leaving from Kyoto Station at 10 a.m. and taking 5 hours. Two thousand yen or about $17 per person; telephone 090-1890-0096; http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/h-s-love.

Or see Kyoto in style with Naoki Doi and his private taxi tours at 4,400 yen per hour, about $37; telephone 090-9596-5546; www3.ocn.ne.jp/~doitaxi.

WHERE TO STAY: A helpful Japanese ryokan online guide, www.ryokan.or.jp/english, offers many direct links to inns all over Japan including Kyoto, some with English-speaking staff. The range is from Watazen Ryokan with rates starting at 7,000 yen (about $59) per person (without meals), www.watazen.com; to the historic and deluxe Hiiragiya Ryokan with rates at 35,000 yen (about $294) including two meals; www.hiiragiya.co.jp.

The Welcome Inn Group helps visitors select ryokan according to price, area and amenities. For help with selecting an inn, you can browse photos, descriptions and rates before booking. Note that autumn in Kyoto is a very busy season, so book early if you go at that time of year. www.japaneseguesthouses.com.

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A tatami-floored room at Shisendo Temple. The beauty of Shisendo is in the details such as the sculpted bushes and the tranquility of the garden.

JOHN S. LANDER | Special to The Advertiser

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Torii, or red gates, at Fushimi Inari Shrine. These structures mark the entrance to the sacred precinct of the Shinto place of worship, where the god of that shrine is believed to live.

JOHN S. LANDER | Special to The Advertiser

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The celebrated rock garden at Ryoanji Temple, with carefully raked gravel symbolizing the rippled surface of water, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

JOHN S. LANDER | Special to The Advertiser

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A maiko, or apprentice geisha, performs at Gion Corner. In Kyoto, the traditional female entertainers are known as geiko.

JOHN S. LANDER | Special to The Advertiser

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Inspiration to poets and artists for centuries, autumn's vermilion leaves have a certain resonance for us all.

There is no better place to experience the changing of the seasons than in Kyoto. Over the centuries, certain temples and gardens have become known for their array of trees, maple for autumn reds and sakura (cherry) for pink in springtime. As former capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto has always been considered the cultural center of the country.

As a modern city, Kyoto preserves its identity with its own styles of cuisine, pottery, geisha and painters. Certain districts of the city are devoted to pottery, while others are known for textiles or traditional performing arts. Geisha the word itself means artist are masters of dance and music. You can still glimpse geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto, in the Gion district early evening on their way to appointments at teahouses.

Tucked into cozy neighborhoods are more than 1,600 temples and 250 shrines, not counting the most awe-inspiring gardens in Japan. Not surprisingly, most visitors get swept away in a blur of visiting all of Kyoto's sights. Following the foliage can help you plan your visit.

THE 'MUSTS'

The temples rank as "musts" in Kyoto: Ryoanji, the Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizu.

Ryoanji teases the senses. The ocean is symbolized by a layer of sand with furrows suggesting the rippling of waves with tiny moss-covered "islands" off center. A waterfall is represented by an artful arrangement of cascading rocks. Originally an aristocrat's country villa, Ryoanji is one of the best examples of dry landscape gardening in Japan. The grounds of Ryoanji are vermilion with maple leaves in autumn and pink with sakura in spring.

Repeatedly destroyed by fire over the centuries, Kiyomizu has been rebuilt on each occasion and is renowned for the imposing veranda supported by tall wooden columns and braces. The waterfall is counted among the 10 most pure water sites in Japan drinking from this sacred fall is said to bring good health and fortune. The sights and sounds of the area below the temple haven't changed in centuries, with many of the family-owned shops here dealing in traditional Kyoto arts and crafts since the Edo era.

Kinkakuji, familiarly known as the Golden Pavilion, originally was the private villa of Yoshimitsu, a 14th-century shogun. The building is composed of three types of architecture: the first floor is imperial, the second floor is in the fashion of a samurai house and the third floor is in Zen temple style. The building is covered in gold leaf, reflecting beautifully on a pond nearby.

Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji and Ryoanji are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

STAYING AT A RYOKAN

Kimono-clad staff slip past in silence. Ryokan, or traditional inn rooms, elegant spaces of tatami and sliding screens, are luxurious in an austere way. Rooms usually are named for flowers instead of having numbers. Traditional ryokan keep the flagstones at the entrance wet, honoring an ancient tradition of hospitality and welcome. By exchanging western clothes for simple cotton kimono, eating traditional food, sleeping on futon on tatami mats, you enter both another world and a different century.

Dinner traditionally is served in guests' rooms on low tables. A dazzling array of dishes are artfully laid out for your meal a tiny saucer of pickles, a delicate basket of tempura, a lacquer bowl of soup, shellfish arranged on rectangular plates. You seat yourself on the silk cushion as the maid quietly taps on the door, bearing another tray with sake. The ceramics, and the foods they contain, are so beautifully presented that it feels almost sacrilegious to begin eating. But you will.

Japanese inns are not for guests who require business centers, or if you think you might crave a cheeseburger from room service at 2 a.m. Unlike Western-style hotels, ryokan follow their own schedules, and guests are expected to dine and bathe at appointed times. However, a stay in a ryokan is a glimpse into Japanese culture.

OTHER FUN

Kyoto isn't only about exquisite temples, refined gardens and colorful shrines. Markets are one of the best places to experience the local scene, to people-watch and to interact with the vendors. Vibrant markets are held on certain days of the month all around the city, such as the Nishiki Food Market along Nishiki-koji Street. Kiyomizu-zaka, the narrow street leading up to Kiyomizu Temple, has been a shopping street since ancient times, specializing in ceramics and other crafts.

If shopping is not your bag, why not get all dressed up as a geisha or a samurai?

You can enjoy a complete makeover, hold a fan or parasol and have a photo taken of your inner geisha in the heart of the Gion geisha district. With the popularity of the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha," you might like immersing yourself in backdrops where Sayuri, the main character, was filmed along the Kamo River or the hundreds of red gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. A riverside stroll or hike in the hills around Fushimi Inari Shrine, however, is always worthwhile no matter how you are dressed.

ROADS LESS TRAVELED

Winding along a stream through eastern Kyoto is the Path of Philosophy. Over the path is a canopy of trees that connect small temples, shrines and tiny arched bridges over the stream. Take the afternoon off and just wander down the Path of Philosophy and take in the scenery by the babbling stream, observe the passers-by in quiet contemplation or stop by one of the many cafes along the way. Though you might not hit upon the meaning of life while there, you will surely enjoy your rest from urban Kyoto.

Set in the city's northern hills, the perfection of Shisendo Temple is in the details: winding streams, sculpted bushes, raked sand surfaces with mountains in the background. The murmuring of a small waterfall is punctuated by the clacking of the sozu a bamboo rod that fills with water from the stream when it fills up it strikes a rock and clacks, empties, then repeats the process. Centuries ago, the sozu was meant to scare away wild deer and boar in the area, but has remained in the garden as a poetic feature that serves to highlight the silence of the grounds. Shisendo originally was the retreat of samurai and poet Ishikawa Jozan. It retains its peacefulness to this day, unlike many of the more famous gardens in Kyoto.

ARASHIYAMA

Arashiyama is a pleasant district of bamboo groves and thatched teahouses in the western outskirts of Kyoto. Its landmark is the arched Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the Hozu River, with forested Mount Arashiyama (literally "storm mountain") in the background. Countless maple trees turn bright orange and vermilion in autumn, making Arashiyama a mecca for leaf-viewing. Unlike the busy temple districts in urban Kyoto, Arashiyama's sights are surrounded by natural scenery as originally was intended. The area's rural feel is best explored on foot or rented bicycle. Boat rides down the Hozu are popular and pleasant as well. Basho, the wandering Japanese poet, stopped for a time here in the late 17th century. He stayed in a hut called Rakushisha the hut of the fallen persimmons, which has been rebuilt. Basho found the scenery around Kyoto and Arashiyama so impressive that he wrote:

"Tomorrow I leave the hut of the fallen persimmons and nostalgia hangs over my heart."

John S. Lander is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and photographer. See more of his work at http://johnlander.fotopic.net.