Kyoto is a city layered in stories. Each of the city's 2000 shrines and temples has its own tale some sweet, some sad, some bloody. So while you don't want to miss out on Kyoto's big-ticket attractions, digging deeper will reward you with unique insights and perspectives on Japan's most cultured city.
A samurai assassination plot
About 30 minutes south of Kyoto station you can find a small wooden ryokan (traditional inn) called Teradaya. In the 1860s it was the temporary residence of samurai, rebel and man's man Ryoma Sakamoto, who played a key role in Japan's move to a modern-style government.
On a day in 1866, Ryoma's wife was bathing when she noticed enemies surrounding the inn. She dashed naked up the stairs to warn Ryoma. The samurai, an early adopter of new technologies, shot at the intruders with his Smith and Wesson gun, but he was sliced across the hand. He escaped and hid out in a log cabin until allies were able to rescue him.
Teradaya is now a tourist attraction in its own right, mostly with Japanese. A bullet hole and a sword gash from the attack are still visible today. The inn is 10 minutes from Chushojima station on the Keihan line and it's not particularly easy to find so you may need to ask for help see here for a map of all the locations in this article. Alternatively, you can get a private guide through WaRaiDo ask for the knowledgeable and enchanting Mie, who took me to the inn herself.
The bureaucrat who judged the dead
Rokudo Chinkoji is a smallish temple that has a special connection to an old Kyoto legend. The temple venerates Onono Takamura, who was a calligrapher and retainer to Emperor Saga in first half of the ninth century. By night, the tale says, Takamura would jump down a well at Rokudo Chinkoji and descend into the underworld, where he helped the Buddhist deity Yama judge the souls of the dead. You can view the well in question inside the temple, although you'll be lucky to see anything clambering in or out of it. The temple is included in the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project's mystery tour, which is a lovely way to take in some of Kyoto's hidden attractions. You can find Rokudo Chinkoji just south of Gion (see map).
Cutting a bad relationship
Another location on the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project's mystery tour is the Yasui Konpira shrine. The shrine is very close to Gion, traditionally the pleasure quarters of Kyoto, which in addition to Geiko (Kyoto people prefer the term to Geisha) and tea houses was also home to prostitutes and entertainment workers. Over time Yasui Konpira acquired a reputation as a place to cut off bad relationships. Many women at this time did not have the power to rid themselves of abusive boyfriends, so they came to Yasui Konpira to pray for a break-up. There is a large rock with a hole through the middle within the shrine you pay 100 yen and write your wish upon a slip of paper, paste it on the rock, then crawl through the hole to the other side. The thousands of wishes pasted on the rock make it look like some kind of paper woolly mammoth.
The rice cake that became a bird
Fushimi Inari isn't as famous as Kiyomizu-dera but in my opinion it's almost as wonderful. The chief shrine of the Inari sect of Shinto is most famous for its passage of thousands of orange Torii gates. It also has a strong association with foxes there are statues of them everywhere, to aid good harvest and good business. The temple's foundation legend concerns the prince Hatanorigu, who was using mochi rice as a target practice for his archery. When he shot the arrow, the mochi turned into a white bird, which flew off and landed on a mountain. There, it transformed into rice plants and grew. The shrine is easy to find just get off at Inari Station on the Nara Line and cross the road.
The monk who burned beauty
Kinkakuji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is rightly one of Kyoto's most famous attractions. It was also the setting for one of the strangest and saddest stories in the city's history. In 1950, a novice monk afflicted with schizophrenia burned down the pavilion before attempting to commit suicide on a nearby hill. Mishima Yukio, one of Japan's most brilliant authors, wrote a fictionalised version of the monk's story in 1957. The present structure was built in 1955 and it's fully restored to shiny glory. To get there, jump on bus 101 or 205 and stay on until the stop is announced it takes about 40 minutes from Kyoto Station.
View a map of all locations mentioned in this article.
Address: 263 Minamihama-cho, Fushimi-Ku, Kyoto City
Hours: 10am-4pm Tuesday-Sunday
Cost: 400 yen
Kyoto Cycling Tour Project
Mystery Tour: 6000 yen for half-day, 10,000 yen for full day
Need somewhere to stay? Mitsui Garden Hotel Shijo offers modern, luxury accommodation for reasonable rates. Conveniently located close to Kyoto's commercial centre, it features large room sizes by Japanese standards and beautifully appointed public bathing areas. For more information see the Mitsui Garden Hotel Shijo website.
The author stayed as a guest of the Kyoto Tourism Council.