Ah, the internet, where you can find everything, and all is just as it seems. What better fuel for wanderlust and daydreams than a vast wonderland of dreamy landscapes and fantastic photos? Except, of course, things are not always ever so accurate, as the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln pointed out in his pointed internet meme.
When faced with the slightest of possibilities for a trip to Japan, I did what any travel fan would: I went straight to the Internet to start planning where to go, what to see, what to do! (Never mind that there were only two chances – slim and none – for this trip to happen.) Right away, I spied one of the most breathtaking photos of fall foliage I had ever seen, purported to be a shrine in the “Garden of Saiho-ji” in Kyoto. Just like that, I was hooked.
It didn’t take long to find more about Kōinzan Saihō-ji, the famed moss temple of Kyoto. Also known as Koke-dera (literally, “moss temple”), the garden is one of the oldest gardens in the city and is actually a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple. Seriously? A Zen temple? Must.Go.Now!
Only, the more I looked at pictures of the Moss Temple, the more I suspected the photo I fell in love with was not taken there. Not that Saihō-ji wasn’t beautiful and unique (120 species of moss grow there!), it just wasn’t the what I was searching for. I wanted to figure out where I could find the scene in that first picture in real life. The search continued.
Eventually, I stumbled across another photo of the building in that first photograph. The caption indicated it was at the Daigo-ji Temple. A quick internet search confirmed it and, as luck would have it, it’s another Buddhist temple in Kyoto. In fact, the two World Heritage sites are practically neighbors! And the beautiful building is Bentendo Hall near the original temple grounds atop Daigo-san Mountain.
Among the temple buildings is the five-storey pagoda Goju-no-to. The beautiful structure is one of 18 National Treasures of Japan at the temple. It was built in 951, and is the oldest surviving building in Kyoto.
While nearby Saiho-ji is the Moss Temple, Daigo-ji is known as the Temple of Flowers thanks to the many weeping Cherry trees and the flowery grounds that flow up the mountainside. A trail starting near Bentendo Hall takes you to the summit – the original temple site – and rewards you with views all the way to Osaka, on a clear day. At the base of the mountain is the Reihokan Museum where the temple’s collection of historic documents, statues, and paintings is on display.
Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan until the 19th century, and is rich in history and culture. As the capital city for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto was the epicenter for the evolution of religious and secular architecture in Japan, and of garden design as well. That rich history of garden design and tradition has continued to influence the rest of the world.
Thankfully, Japan enacted the Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law in 1897, and what we see today, though largely not original, has been faithfully restored and reconstructed. While wandering through the temples and gardens today, you are likely to see almost exactly what the monks practicing there 1000 or more years saw.
In all, there are 16 shrines and temples (including the famous Golden Pagoda) plus the Nijo-jo Castle, along with their gardens, in the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, recognized collectively as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1994. While Daigo-ji Temple first attracted us, the entire World Heritage collection is now firmly on our Travel To Do List!
Whether or not you’ve been to Kyoto, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this and other “bucket list” destinations in our comments. Feel free to start or join a conversation!