Notes on arranging a study travel to Kyoto
This page contains a series of comments on which places to visit on a study tour to Kyoto and how to arrange it. The tour was made for a small group of fourth year students of architecture from Tokai University that participated in a study circle on Zen aesthetics and tea aesthetics, and the comments and priorities in the notes below should be seen in this perspective.
The culture tourism in Kyoto counts millions and millions of visitors, so several of the places of special interest for architects and students of architecture are not generally open to the public. Without preparations, especially an interest in experiencing tea room architecture and sukiya architecture will meet many closed doors. These spaces are generally of very fragile materials and could no way stand open tourism. And for the majority of the tea rooms, they are not only museum pieces. They are handed through history as integral part of a living culture, and in order to survive as such, they need a certain level of protection.
From the beginning, they were not made just to be seen - we visitors are scheduled as something in-between the main activities and the main purpose of the space. But in case you prepare well and ask in a decent way, it is possible to arrange permission for most of these places. This just takes some efforts, and the planning needs to be initiated well before the actual travel. Through the years, I have been involved in the planning of several study travels to Kyoto, and the notes below are meant as hints to make such preparations more easy and fruitful.
Each season has its beauty and its special places in Kyoto, and during national holidays and peak seasons like the sakura flowering (typically April 10-20, but some years it can be starting as early as April 1) and the momiji autumn colours (typically November 15-25), everything gets extremely crowded, and arrangement of special permission more complicated. So for a study tour, slightly off-season has many advantages. It will then be much easier to compose a programme with a good constellation of visits.
Japanese climate is at its most agreeable in May and early June, and from mid September throughout October. Our recent tour, in late August and early September (with day temperatures in the range of 30-40 degrees and high humidity) admittedly was quite sweaty. But as a direct bodily experience we learned something very basic about the climatic adaptation of the traditional Japanese house. And for several of our places of visit we had possibilities of entering spaces, operating sliding doors to experience changes in lighting and spatial quality, and to stay for prolonged time, which would never have been possible during high season, where groups tend to be large, and tours tend to be rushed through in order to make place for the next group.
A group of normally closed temples have special openings in May and/or October. This of course makes planning simpler, as you can just go there. But these special opening are typically widely announced, and thus tend to be extremely crowded, so generally it is a far more satisfying experience to visit these places outside the special openings. And most of these places are accessible by use of return postcards, as they are used to receiving small groups of visitors throughout the year. So for a study tour it is definitely worthwhile to take on the workload to arrange special permission. It is a totally different situation to sit half hour alone in front of the main garden of Daitoku-ji Hojo, as compared to experiencing same temple on a special opening day with hundreds of people crowding in the temple in the same time.
Location as a primary planning factor
When starting out planning a study tour in Kyoto, it important to take into consideration the location of the potential places of interest, and the needed time of transportation between the desired points of visit. Generally surface transportation is terribly slow in Kyoto, and too easily, major parts of the day are spent in traffic jam on the way from one part of the city to another. So for your planning, begin with mapping out the potential places of interest. In many ways Kyoto is best experienced on foot or on bicycle, many of the potential points of visit are positioned in neighbourhoods that have interest in itself. And actually it is possible to arrange a study tour in a way so you in principle take public transportation out in the morning, and then during the day walk from place to place. Especially along the east side, temples and places of interest virtually lie shoulder by shoulder, and the in-between neighbourhoods have important qualities of their own (Towards the end of this page is a list of the neighbourhoods we strolled this summer during our study tour).
Giving location high priority has another advantage. For shorter distances four persons sharing a taxi make taxi driving a convenient and cheap alternative to public busses. For instance at our programme for the afternoon of Friday 3rd covering some quite spread locations in the north-east corner of Kyoto, we were able to visit Renge-ji in the morning before visiting Shugaku-in, because we used taxis. We then took the time it takes and walked through the nice neighbourhoods from Shugaku-in to Manshu-in and further on to Shisen-do. From there we took taxi to Entsu-ji, had the taxis waiting (as you cannot expect taxis at hand there) and had the taxis bringing us to Kitayama-dori, able to see Tadao Ando's Garden of Fine Arts and four buildings by Shin Takamatsu, including Syntax and Week. Had we used public transportation, this programme could never have been carried out in one day. Now we had just sufficient time for each of the places, and when the transportation costs for the day was made up, we had used no more for taxi than had we taken public busses.
Planning based on location (and thus reduction of time wasted at transportation) was even more evident in our first outline of the programme. But as some 16 of our points of visit took special permission, you cannot expect your first "ideal" programme to survive unchanged. And still our final tour programme has a very high ratio of primary time with the actual points of visit and for strolling interesting neighbourhoods, compared to the use of time for transportation.
Initially a place like Jiko-in, the retirement place of the tea master Katagiri Sekishu, which has both a high class shakkei garden and a remarkable tea room that is easily experienced, was put high on our priority list. But later it was omitted, as it would take a whole day to go there. For same reason, otherwise important visits to places around Kyoto, like Kojo-in of Miidera, Sanzen-in and Hosen-in in Ohara, and Daiichi-ji, was omitted even if each one of them were highly important points of visit.
The other way round, some places of lower priority, places that eventually could have been omitted, like Toji-in, Renge-ji, Murin-an and Kinkaku-ji, was included in situations where they fitted into the programme due to location ad available time. Similarly, modern architecture in general had low priority and Kyoto is not the best place to go for modern architecture. But whenever it fitted conveniently into the overall programme, we tried to include also examples of modern architecture in our list of visits. And, to take again Friday 3rd as example, even though the little garden of Renge-ji itself not is indispensable, sitting in its old shoin totally open to the pond garden, experiencing how the heavy timber construction so to say divides inside and outside, made it the perfect counterpart to the experiencing of lighter sukiya structures later in the day in Shugaku-in and Shisen-do.
You can download our Travel programme as well as the full text of the Permission Notes in pdf format.
Continue to Permission Notes Part Two (2 of 11).