Over the years, I’ve been quite weary of visiting Japan’s former capital. Simply put, the place has been overrun with tourists for the past few years to the point where it had become akin to Disneyland. In fact, it was so bad that the very charm that makes Kyoto appealing in the first place had largely vanished. Alas, one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic for residents of Japan has been that Kyoto has briefly returned to the bygone days prior to the inbound tourism boom. With draconian locks on Japan’s borders for the time being, the legions of visitors that had become commonplace are noticeably lacking.
Seeing as I am located in Japan, and have been able to take advantage of the lull in tourism, I’ve been trying to cross off many of the spots in Kyoto that remained on my bucket list. With the promise of a vaccine and the potential return of tourism now on the horizon, I recently elected to put a pause on visiting new cities and instead return to Kyoto to explore two remaining spots. Though I am no stranger to Japan’s ancient capital, I somehow never made it down to Uji to see the impressive Byodo-in. Likewise, an opportunity to visit the stunningly expansive Daigo-ji in southeastern Kyoto had somehow always evaded me.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at this pair of amazing attractions. Though not necessarily located on the standard Kyoto itinerary, slotting both or either of these allures into your trip shouldn’t be all that difficult. What’s more, you’ll also hopefully be able to escape the worst of Kyoto’s overtourism problems (at least that is if international travel ever returns again).
How to Get There
First things first, you’ll need to start by getting yourself to Kyoto. Given that this is the very definition of “on the beaten path,” you shouldn’t have much difficulty schlepping your behind over to the former capital. Seeing as there’s an unbelievable amount of content already out there about Kyoto, I am going to direct you to Google if you’re unsure about making the trek from Tokyo or Osaka. Once you’re in Kyoto, your first order of business will be selecting whether you want to visit Uji or Daigo-ji. Note that those interested in doing both will want to do Uji first then Daigo-ji
Assuming that you’re interested in checking out Uji, you’ll want to begin your journey at Kyoto Station. From there, you can take the JR Nara Line to the JR Uji Station. Alternatively, should you be starting your journey elsewhere, you can also consider taking the Keihan Uji Line as well. As always, just refer to a service such as Jorudan to help calculate the train schedules. Which of the two options is more convenient will ultimately come down to the connections you’ll need to make along the way.
Those looking to go see Daigo-ji should first begin by making their way over to Yamashina Station in eastern Kyoto. From there, it’s just a short subway ride down to Daigo Station. After arriving, those heading to Daigo-ji will need to either figure out which bus they should take or alternatively, just opt to hoof it. All in all, the walk will take no more than ten minutes or so. Given that buses tend to be a bit of a pain point for overseas visitors to Japan, I therefore suggest that you just suck it up and stroll on over to the massive Daigo-ji temple complex.
Destination One: Uji
While not exactly what one could call a “hidden gem” due to being quite well known, Uji is still a location that many tourists unfortunately miss out on. Located to the southeast of central Kyoto, this area has long been both an important cultural center as well as a getaway for residents of Japan’s prior capital. Though internationally famous for its green tea production, Uji’s real draw is the magnificent Byodo-in temple compound pictured above. Initially built back in the year 998, this magnificent structure has been forever memorialized on the backside of Japan’s ten yen coin. There’s even a replica somewhere in Oʻahu to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants.
Anyway, though originally erected as a countryside villa for the powerful Fujiwara family, today Byodo-in is a striking example of Pure Land Buddhist architecture. Along with Hiraizumi’s Chuson-ji and Fuki-ji on the Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture, Byodo-in is considered to be one of the top three Amida Buddha halls in Japan. While many of the buildings that comprise the greater complex were lost to fires over the centuries, Byodo-in’s pride and joy, the so-called “Phoenix Hall,” never succumbed to the flames. Note that you can actually take a tour inside of the structure for an additional 300 yen.
While Byodo-in is the reason many travelers come to Uji in the first place, there are a number of other venues to check out while in town. The following are some of my top suggestions. As always, I’ll include linkage to Google Maps to help you get your logistical bearings.
- Ujigami Shrine
If what I am reading is true, this is the oldest extant shrine in all of Japan. While there are certainly Shinto sanctuaries out there that predate Ujigami Shrine, many of these have been rebuilt time and time again over the ages. Ujigami Shrine on the other hand claims to have been standing since the year 1060. According to Uji historians, this shrine was originally made to be something of a guardian for Byodo-in. While not grand in comparison, Ujigami Shrine is definitely worth visiting for its legacy as the oldest shrine that has survived the ravages of time.
- The Tale of Genji Museum
As those who have read Murasaki Shikibu’s epic The Tale of Genji can recall, much of the final chapters take place in Uji. Because of this, you’ll find references to the timeless classic strewn about the area (such as the statue of Murasaki Shikibu near Uji River that is pictured way back at the start of this article). Unfortunately, for all of the non-Japanese speakers out there, there’s only a little bit of English to be had at The Tale of Genji Museum but if you read Japanese, I highly encourage you check it out!
Though a relative newcomer by Uji standards, this temple is incredibly ancient. The compound originally started off its lifecycle in Kyoto in the 1200’s but was then moved to Uji in the year 1648. Should you happen to be visiting during autumn, I highly encourage you to make the additional effort to visit Kosho-ji as it is said to be stunningly spectacular.
In addition to the above allures, I also highly suggest that you consume something green tea flavored while in town. Fortunately, this isn’t exactly hard to do. In addition to staples like soft serve and of course green tea itself, you’ll also find the substance skillfully infused into all sorts of dishes as well.
Destination Two: Daigo-ji
Somehow, the enormous Daigo-ji complex had managed to elude my hidden gem radar until just recently (I know, I know — Someone please queue that walk of shame scene from Game of Thrones).Though I had actually seen the above shot of the temple’s Benten-do Hall on Instagram before, I never realized that it belonged to Daigo-ji. Then, one day I happened upon this magnificent temple while doing research for my trip to Uji. Seeing as it was logistically a great add on to an early morning visit to Byodo-in, I knew I had to go check Daigo-ji out on the way back to Kyoto.
Though actually designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the expansive Daigo-ji rarely, if ever, pops up on the radars of overseas visitors. Hell, even I managed to go this long without knowing about it. Located to the southeast of Kyoto, Daigo-ji’s grounds feel never ending and actually go as far as encompassing an entire mountainside. While the main temple buildings are all clustered at the foot of the peak, the innermost sanctums sit in an upper area called Kami-Daigo. Far removed from the hustle and bustle of the former capital, this part of Daigo-ji can only be reached via a series of hiking trails.
Daigo-ji is a temple that dates all the way back to Japan’s Heian period (794 to 1185). The compound is the final resting place of Emperor Daigo which is where it gets its name. While much of the current infrastructure dates from the late 1500’s, Daigo-ji is actually home to what has been deemed Kyoto’s oldest structure. This 38 meter tall, five storied pagoda is Kyoto’s oldest verified building. While much of the city fell victim to fire during Japan’s bloody civil war, Daigo-ji was quite removed from the central sections and therefore the pagoda survived.
Without a doubt, Daigo-ji’s most photographed and iconic spot is the Benten-do Hall pictured above. That said, I cannot understand why this is. Yes, especially during the autumn months, the Benten-do Hall is indeed quite picturesque. That said, I don’t think it can compare to how majestic Daigo-ji’s grounds appear when the cherry blossoms reach their zenith. Quite literally, the entire compound is littered with trees which transform Daigo-ji into some sort of otherworldly pink paradise. It’s truly quite the stunning spectacle to behold.
As far as temples go, Daigo-ji is actually pretty expensive. At least during my visit, entry costs a whopping 1,500 yen though at least this covered entry to all areas (including the treasure hall). Additionally, I had to fork over an additional 600 yen to access the hiking trails that lead to Kami-Daigo. While certainly worth every yen paid I was happy to contribute to Daigo-ji’s maintenance yet the fees still came as a bit of a surprise. Moreover, I also realize that some of you may be traveling on shoestring budgets so this is one demerit to consider.
Other Nearby Attractions
As mentioned in the opening passages of this article, I’ve been hitting up Kyoto a lot in an effort to finish off the city before the overtourism problem rears its ugly head again. Additionally, there were also a few pieces that I penned here and there over the years when life found me in the city. The following collection contains any and all works I’ve done on Kyoto over the years. If you’re looking for more information about the ancient capital from me specifically, you’ll find it below.
- Fushimi Inari Taisha at Night
The Best Time to Visit
- Enryaku-ji & Mt. Hiei
Oda Nobunaga’s Infamous Massacre
- Kurama & Kibune
A Pair of Dual Allures in Northern Kyoto
- Iwashimizu Hachimangu
One of Kyoto’s Best Hidden Gems
- Kyoto During the Pandemic
How the Old Capital Used to Be
Until next time travelers…