Image: Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Christian Kober  /  Corbis file
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex takes its name from a waterfall which flows through the grounds.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 2/26/2007 6:39:28 PM ET 2007-02-26T23:39:28

What do cataclysmic climate change … and geishas have in common? The city of Kyoto, of course. It was here in December of 1997 that the historic, extraordinarily important Kyoto Protocols (setting mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse emissions) were negotiated. This ancient city’s name has been inextricably linked with the issue of Global Warming ever since.

Which is actually not as odd as it sounds. The only major city to be spared from the bombs of World War II, Kyoto has long stood for preservation, for traditional ways of life, for beauty and calm. Though it does have skyscrapers, its historic district hasn’t changed its look much in thousands of years and still boasts dozens of serene temples, shrines, wooden homes and even two Imperial Palaces (as the former capital of the country). It’s not uncommon to spot a Geisha strolling to a job in the Gion district or an artisan hand-weaving a kimono in his shop. Just as the Kyoto Protocol (if it were ever fully ratified) could protect our landscapes and our ways of life from rising sea levels, ever-deadlier storms, and dangerous temperature increases, so Kyoto has steadfastly preserved the classic Japanese arts, architecture and way of life from drastic cultural change. In one day, with the following itinerary, you’ll see what we mean.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast — miso soup, boiled tofu (yudofu), grilled fish, Japanese omelet and rice — at your ryokan (aka traditional Japanese inn). If you’re not staying in a Ryokan…well, you should be. They come in all price ranges and offer an insider’s view of Japanese life, with their tatami matted bedrooms and steamy evening bath service. A not-to-be-missed experience.

9 a.m. - noon: Get zen, with a stroll to (but not through) Japan’s most famous rock garden, set in the Ryoanji Temple . A small patch of sand, raked just so with a small smattering of rocks adrift upon it, it’s inspired countless haikus, deep meditations and more than one “huh?” from Western visitors unable to grasp the significance of the thing (go and try anyway). Head next to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion , a bling bling country house for the Shogun, originally built in the 1390’s. What you see today is a copy, as the original was burned down by a disgruntled monk in 1950 (the story is retold in the famous novel by Mishima Yukio). But the gold leaf on the façade is plenty real, and boy does it ever glitter against the morning sky.

Morning alternative
Tread the purposefully creaky floors of Nijo Castle . Called “nightingale floors” they were installed throughout the 33 rooms of the palace, so that no-one could sneak up on the notoriously paranoid Shogun. The gardens are as famous as the elegantly minimalist castle; in summer, the Shogun would have the outer sliding walls removed so he could see them from inside his home.

Noon to 2 p.m.: Double back to the Ryoanji for an all-tofu lunch at Ryoanji Seven Herb Tofu Restaurant. Set on the shore of the 1000-year-old pond there, it served visiting vegetarian monks for centuries. You’ll be amazed by how tasty the boiled tofu is here, ethereally light and surrounded by cunning side-dishes of vegetables and herbs.

2 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Make your way to eastern Kyoto to wander through the famous temples and museums there. Take your pick, there are dozens of superb choices including the small but educational Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (wall text describing manufacturing techniques and other info is in English as well as Japanese); The National Kyoto Museum , which holds many of the treasures ones belonging to the city’s temples and palaces;Kyoto’s most famous shrine, the Heian Shrine , with its garden of weeping cherry trees; Sanjusangendo Hall , with its 1001 13th century Kannon statues (each of which is life size with 40 arms—quite a sight); or Kiyomizu Temple , with its awe-inspiring Cliffside views.

6 p.m. - 8 p.m.: The formal tea ceremony is paired with the feast of small plates known as kaiseki at Minoko for a formal, fabulous, ultra-gourmet meal you’re not likely to forget. Each guest is given their own tatami room, and then acts as witness to their own culinary parade, as bowls of fine green tea are presented, followed by tiny plates of food each more elaborate and tasty than the next.

8 p.m. - on: Stroll the Gion, keeping an eye-peeled for the Geisha who work in this area. You’ll sometimes see them going from one engagement to the next (they entertain with conversation and are not prostitutes), in full kimono and lacquered-looking hair. At 8:40 many nights of the year, shows of traditional arts and crafts—flower arranging, Kyoto-style dance, puppetry, Noh theater and more--are held at Gion Corner and though they’re obviously geared to tourists, they’re intriguing nonetheless.  Afterwards, head to Pontocho for a beer and possibly some live music. This little alley is lined with nightspots: head to the one that looks most lively that night.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

To learn more about Ryokansor to book a stay in one, go to http://www.ryokan.or.jp/index_en.html.

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Ryoanji Temple, Goryoshita-cho, Northern Kyoto; phone 075/463-2216.  Open daily 8 a.m. -5 p.m. in March through November,  8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year.  Admission is ¥500 ($4.15) adults.

Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji-cho, Northern Kyoto, phone 075/461-0013. Open daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Admission ¥400 ($3.35).

Nijo Castle, on the corner of Horikawa Dori and Nijo Dori, Central Kyoto, phone 075/841-0096.  Open daily from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. but you must enter by 4 p.m. Admission is ¥600 ($5)  but an audio guide (recommended) is  ¥500 ($4.15) extra.

Ryoanji Seven Herb Tofu Restaurant

Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, 9-1 Seishoji-cho in the basement of the Miyako Messe (International Exhibition Hall), Okazaki, Eastern Kyoto, phone 075/762-2670; http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/org/fureaika. Open daily from  9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission is free.

The Kyoto National Museum, 527 Chaya-machi  across the street from Sanjusangendo Hall, phone 075/541-1151; www.kyohaku.go.jp.  Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Admission ¥420 ($3.50) adults, ¥130 ($1.10) Free admission  the second and fourth Saturday of the month.

Heian Shrine, Nishi Tennocho, Okazaki, phone 075/761-0221. Free admission to grounds; Shinen Garden however, is  ¥600 ($5) adults. Open daily 8:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. (to 5 p.m. Nov-Feb). 

Sanjusangendo Hall, Shichijo Dori,  phone 075/525-0033. Hours are 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily from April to mid-November, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. the rest of the year.Admission ¥600 ($5).

Kiyomizu Temple is located in Eastern Kyoto, phone 075/551-1234. It’s open daily from 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. Admission is ¥300 ($2.50)

Minoko, 480 Kiyoi-cho in Shimogawara-dori, Gion, phone 075/561-0328.  Reservations required.

Gion Corner, Yasaka Hall, Hanamikoji Dori, Shijo-sagaru in Gion, phone 075/561-1119. Tickets are ¥2,800 ($23) and can be purchased at most hotels, travel agencies, and at the Gion Corner box office.

Pauline Frommer

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