Walk on Philosopher's Path, Kyoto

Walk on Philosopher's Path (Self Guided), Kyoto

Extending about 2 km along a canal carrying water from Lake Biwa to the foothills, the Philosopher's Path (so called because famed Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, used to walk it as a daily meditation before WWII) is perfect for a leisurely stroll with views that change through the seasons; cherries followed by new green leaves and, then again, the pastel hues of autumn.

It's an awesome meandering trail that allows you to see several traditional temples and shrines, huge koi fish, quaint local shops, and small cafes and galleries. If the weather is nice you'll usually find artists selling painted postcards and the like for reasonable prices. Start early rather than later because there are quite a few things to get lost in!

To enjoy the scenery from a different perspective, cross over the several small bridges from time to time.
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Walk on Philosopher's Path Map

Guide Name: Walk on Philosopher's Path
Guide Location: Japan » Kyoto (See other walking tours in Kyoto)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.0 Km or 1.9 Miles
Author: emma
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Nanzen-ji Temple
  • Eikan-do Zenrin-ji Temple
  • Philosopher's Path / South End
  • Otoyo Shrine
  • Philosopher's Path / Daitoyo Bridge
  • Philosopher's Path / Sakurabashi Bridge
  • Honen-in Temple
  • Philosopher's Path / North End
  • Ginkaku-ji Temple
Nanzen-ji Temple

1) Nanzen-ji Temple

Once a part of Japan's Imperial Palace, Nanzen-ji was destroyed by fire and re-created as a Zen temple in the Momoyama period (1570-1600). As the head Zen temple, it enjoys very high status and sits among many gorgeous older homes that give that feeling of "old Kyoto" without as many tourists as Gion. One may catch sight of walking monks (straw hats, blue robes) more often than not, so entering with a calm mind will allow appreciating the surroundings.

The temple's two-storied main gate – one of the biggest in Japan – is indeed impressive, and the view from its top is well worth traversing the stairs. Hojo Hall has a famous sliding door painting of a tiger drinking water along with other beautiful gold leaf paintings.

The renowned gardens are also worthwhile, as are the many sub-temples and the exquisite 130-year-old European-style aqueduct just off to one side: a series of brick arches with beautiful maples in the background, it once carried water from Lake Biwa to the city of Kyoto.

Perched on the edge of the mountains, this is a great location to spend a slow-paced morning, or whole day if you want to explore the whole complex and its surroundings. General access is free, with certain areas requiring separate entrance fees, depending on interests and time to spend.

Why You Should Visit:
A photographer's dream, with bridges, plants, and water features seemingly everywhere. The architecture of the buildings is, of course, very traditional and unique, and the brick aqueduct is very interesting to see.

While walking under the aqueduct, take the road to the far right (next to a small water stream) and climb up to a small, beautiful temple where very few tourists go.
You can get a rickshaw to tour this gorgeous area as well. Come in autumn and it's guaranteed that your photos will be stunning!
Eikan-do Zenrin-ji Temple

2) Eikan-do Zenrin-ji Temple (must see)

A perfect blend of tradition and modernization, this temple charges a fee, but is so well worth it. Don't let the understated exterior fool you – once inside, you will be blown away as you walk through passage after passage and climb higher and higher into the complex. Built into the hills, it definitely makes one feel a bit as though one is climbing up into a massive tree-house.

The scenery is fantastic, especially with fall foliage at peak! The Japanese maple and ginkgo have the full spectrum of yellow light to dark red-orange, and some almost purple (walk up to the two-story pagoda on top to get the full effect!). In the second half of November, these are highlighted to perfection by evening illumination, which transforms the landscape – thus greatly adding to the overall experience.

The temple's unique feature is the statue of the Amida Buddha – a designated Important Cultural Property of Japan that looks over its shoulder rather than – more conventionally – straight ahead. In 1082, while chanting the Nembutsu, Abbot Eikan had a vision – the statue came to life and beckoned him to "hurry up". The main icon enshrined in the upper temple commemorates this vision, and "Eikan-do" was added to "Zenrin-ji" in honor of the devout man.

Why You Should Visit:
Beautiful grounds no matter the time of year; however, if you are in Kyoto during the autumn foliage season, coming here either at night or day time is a must.

Don't miss the small rest area building near the entrance, where visitors can sit on a bench looking out from a wide window acting as a picture frame.
Also keep an eye out for the 'suikinkutsu', a unique musical instrument that resonates when water is poured slowly into it.
Philosopher's Path / South End

3) Philosopher's Path / South End (must see)

With the Nyakuoji Bridge as a starting point, the Philosopher Path's south-end offers much more than a walk along the beautiful canal.

About 20 m to the left from the bridge, the SAYUU gallery for arts & crafts (Thu-Mon: 11am–6pm) has a tasteful selection of glass and pottery at affordable prices, while about 50 m to the right you will find the small and welcoming KUMANO NYAKUOJI-JINJA shrine (9am–5pm) – a true non-touristic gem, originally established in 1160 by Emperor Go-Shirakawa. A haven of peace, calm and serenity reign in the park (i.e. conservation area), and the waterside allows feeling the nature during all seasons.

Those with a serious sweet tooth should head straight to the high-class confectionery shop / tea house KANOU (Thu-Tue: 10am–5pm) across the river, where they can enjoy their sweets and matcha without feeling rushed. Sitting down with freshly-baked delicacies while looking at the Philosopher's Path is always a good idea!

Most enjoyable during the cherry blossom and autumn foliage seasons.
Otoyo Shrine

4) Otoyo Shrine

Small, secluded, and easily visited in half an hour, the Otoyo Shrine is guarded by two mighty mice, unlike most other temples in Kyoto that are guarded by Korean dogs. The legend behind this is that the main deity at the temple – whose image can be seen within the shrine's small wooden hall – was once in danger of being burned down but the mice saved the day.

Notice how one guardian mouse hoists a big sake bottle said to bring luck, fertility and longevity (obviously) to worshippers, while the other holds a scroll symbolic of academic learning. These are also joined by a quirky mix of Chinese Zodiac figurines playfully scattered throughout the grounds, along with various symbolic trees, such as camellia and weeping plums.

Like most other sites on the Philosopher's Path, the gardens engender a feeling of peace and tranquility, and are open at no cost.
Philosopher's Path / Daitoyo Bridge

5) Philosopher's Path / Daitoyo Bridge

Kyoto has a lively coffee scene, unique to the city, that partly sustains its economic survival. Walking by the scenic Daitoyo Bridge, you might want to stop by the charming little "antique kimono shop" FUMIMARO – a perfect place for true vintage kimonos – only to find that it has a café component as well! Given that they're mostly made of silk and hand-embroidered with golden thread, the kimonos come at a very good price, and the coffee on site is a nice bonus.

Further up the Philosopher's Road, KOMICHI is more of a 'kissaten'-style coffee shop with a traditional old-fashioned atmosphere and music. Here, along with tea and the usual Japanese café drinks, you can get light meals of noodles and rice, as well as a variety of Japanese-style sweets. Exactly the type of establishment for which one wants to "wander off the path", with its front windows giving a pretty clear view of what's to be expected inside.
Philosopher's Path / Sakurabashi Bridge

6) Philosopher's Path / Sakurabashi Bridge

More than just a café, YOJIYA is a lovely little oasis with unique seating (tatami mats) for one to admire its authentic, beautifully landscaped Japanese garden and enjoy the cutest desserts anywhere. There is something nostalgic about the setting, but the presentation and atmosphere bump it up to the 'very good' category. Apparently, YOJIYA is actually a cosmetics company or at least started out that way, so right across from the café, you will also see a shop that sells the star product – blotting paper, along with other skincare essentials. This branch on the Philosopher's Walk is the biggest in Kyoto, and has been in place for over 150 years!

From the area, you can also get a glimpse of the mausoleum dedicated to Reizei – Japan's 63rd Emperor, whose short reign, due to poor health, spanned from 967 until 969. Lost and forgotten for several centuries, the tomb is little more than an overgrown plot of land that was given standard stone and wood accouterments toward the ending of the 19th century. There is a moss path around it, however, which makes for a pleasant walk (as long as intentions are clearly explained to the guard).
Honen-in Temple

7) Honen-in Temple

Built to honor Honen, the founder of the Jodo Shu sect of Zen Buddhism (1175), this contemplative place of worship is an interesting stop along the Philosopher's Path.

Visitors enter through a gate with a thatched roof (perfect for photographing), near which stand unique sand sculptures to match the seasons. Other notable features are the sliding screens in the head priest's quarters that were painted by artists from the Kano School. An abstract painting in one of the rooms, called "Soft Breeze Approaching", depicts the Pure Land with willows swaying in the wind. The graveyard near the temple is the final resting place of many well known Japanese authors, including Jun'ichirō Tanizaki – one of the major writers of modern Japanese literature.

The grounds are interesting, but more importantly, it is quiet and peaceful here, and you can walk through the entire area in under half an hour – including taking many photographs. You may, however, want to linger longer just to enjoy the atmosphere. A pond, a bridge, mossy gardens, and many trees fill the compound.

No entry fee! Check out the free art exhibitions (painting, photography, etc.) in the small kura, as well.
Philosopher's Path / North End

8) Philosopher's Path / North End

Lined with benches and scenery, the relaxing Philosopher's Path has several cafes facing out into the canal where you can get coffee and sweets, along with several shops with unique and handcrafted items.

Stop by STREAM ARK for a good selection of vintage and new kimonos/shirts (used kimonos are around ¥1000), or make your way to the sweet little CHIRIMEN SANSHO (Tue-Sun: 10am–5:30pm) serving the traditional Kyoto dish of the same name (a very best combination of dried young sardines and Japanese peppercorn), but also phenomenal chocolate and apple mochis.

Japanese food lovers might want to also try the handmade soba noodles at nearby DOSANJIN (Thu-Tue: 11:30AM–3:30PM / 5:30–9PM) – a very tranquil dining space with friendly service, or walk a bit further to the HONKE NISHIO YATSUHASHI (9AM–5PM) – a heaven for ice cream and matcha lovers.
Ginkaku-ji Temple

9) Ginkaku-ji Temple (must see)

Once the retirement home of Yoshimasa, the eighth Ashigaka Shogun, who evolved the famous tea ceremony tradition, this 15th-century Zen Buddhist temple – declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 – is considered the 'little brother' of Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), but arguably has more scenic and exquisite gardens.

The irony is that Ginkaku-ji was never actually covered in silver; rather, the moonlight reflecting on the dark exterior (originally covered in black lacquer) was what gave the building its silvery appearance. Moreover, the grounds comprise a famous 1.75-acre dry sand garden that, in turn, reflects the moonlight and would appear like a "sea of silver sand". Sculpted with perfect precision and featuring a cone-like representation of Mount Fuji, this marvel alone is worth the trip!

From the "sea of silver sand" (or "Moon-Viewing Platform”), the grounds open up to a moss garden featuring ponds with islands and short bridges, streams, and a variety of foliage. Eventually, the walkway snakes up to a lookout point of the entire temple grounds and the sprawling city beyond. It is beautifully solid underfoot, paved with a mixture of large and smaller stones which create the perfect stride length for a safe/undemanding climb (there are thick bamboo handrails should you need them).

Although rather busy, you can still feel contemplative here. The walk is one way, so there is no problem with getting in each other's way.

Why You Should Visit:
This temple has it all: beautiful gardens, bamboo section, little waterfalls, and a walkway up to view the whole complex.
Both of the gardens have a small traditional market leading up to them, with plenty of souvenirs/crafts/snacks to be found.
The craft gifts are very reasonably priced, especially the unique rabbit-themed and fan shops not found in the rest of Kyoto.

Best visited early in the day or at sunset for the views and quiet.
If you go early in the morning, you might see the meticulous sand raking by the temple monks.

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