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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oases in Japan's Developed Land

KYOTO, Japan -- Japan, it is true, is a land with limited space left for building, where trains roar through cities seemingly an arm's length away from houses, where tiny rice farms are crowded in among suburban developments.

Its major cities, flattened by Allied bombing in World War II, are now towering with modern office blocks and 10-story neon signs.

But despite all that, it is possible to find oases of both ancient Japan and contemporary solitude in even the most crowded cities. And two of the best places to look are Kyoto and nearby Nara on the main Japanese island of Honshu, each of which served, for a time, as imperial capitals.

The most historically significant of the two is Kyoto, a city of 1.4 million residents. It was known as the Capital of Peace and Tranquility for more than 1,000 years, until 1869, when Emperor Meiji moved the imperial seat to Tokyo. Today, Kyoto is a bustling city with numerous vertical car parks - attendants use giant elevators to raise and lower the cars - and a modern train station whose endless escalators provided entertainment for us yahoos from Vladivostok when our bus dumped us in town at 6 a.m. and we couldn't find an open coffee shop. (The Kyoto station also boasts a foreign business center where e-mail addicts can use the computers for a fee.) But because the city was so long a political and religious center, it is filled with old castles, parks, temples and an imperial palace that, in English-friendly Japan, are accessible to the non-Japanese-speaking traveler.

The Kyoto train station is a good place to start for information on both lodging and sightseeing - the people who work in the tourist center can point you toward a decent hotel or a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn famous for its tranquil atmosphere and paper walls that allow you to poke a finger through and see why your next-door neighbors are making so much noise.

As for the sites, I prefer to venture out on my own, hit and miss. But here are a few favorites based on a three-day sampling of Kyoto:

- Sanjusangen-do is a temple complex including a 118-meter-long hall lined on one side with a bleacher full of statues representing the

Buddhist deity Juichimen-senju-sengen Kanzeon. There are 1,000 standing figures, with a seated Thousand-Armed Kannon in the center, all of them carved in the 12th and 13th centuries. Even more interesting are the 28 contorted, demonic-looking spirits attending Kannon, such as the flute-playing birdman Karurao, a Thunder God and a Wind God - symbols, according to temple literature, of people's fears of and gratitude for nature in ancient times. Besides, if you happen through in January, you can catch the archery fair, where, the temple notes, "20-year-old lady archers ... celebrate Coming-of-Age Day in beautiful dresses."

- Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. This gem of a temple sits on a lake in a sprawling, beautiful garden. Built in the 1220s as the retirement villa of someone named Kintsune Saioji, the gold-painted, pagoda-style temple is in a compound crawling with schoolchildren in Prussian-style uniforms, yet it somehow retains its air of repose.

- Ryoanji Temple. You may recognize the rock garden from tabletop art- of-the-world books. The grounds are home to a number of classical Japanese buildings and temples, and there's also a restaurant where we took refuge from the downpour and ate a decent noodle lunch for about $7 apiece - by Japanese standards, a bargain.


Only an hour away by train, Nara, a city of 327,700, feels pleasantly accessible after bustling Kyoto. Nara was Japan's capital for only 74 years, from 710 to 784. Yet, states the guidebook "Gateway to Japan," by June Kinoshita and Nicholas Palevsky, "during this brief interlude, moved by a fervent belief in Buddhism and the unity of the state, Japan embarked on a glorious age that produced some of the world's finest religious monuments and art."

Most of the sites, including the world's tallest pagoda, are centered around the sprawling park, and unlike Kyoto, Nara lends itself to a walking tour. Nara Park is filled with tame deer, an odd sight in itself for someone coming from Russia. (All that venison? Isn't anybody ever tempted to knock a buck over the head, quickly gut it and haul it off in his Toyota minivan?)

Todai-ji, the Temple of the Great Buddha, has gone through several reincarnations since it was first completed in 752, having burnt down repeatedly. The temple is the site of the world's largest Buddha.

A final note: In case you pick up the walking tour maps at the station, ignore the suggestion to hike the mountain for a view. The trudge up the hill isn't worth it.

- Russell Working