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A journey to Kansai – The second story Kyoto And Nara: The Doors to Japan’s Past

September 8, 663, or 1352 years ago on the lunar calendar. A decisive incident, which marked a new era in the ancient history of Korea and Japan, occurred on the Baek River (now, the Geum River) on the Korean peninsula. 1,000 ships and about 47,000 troops of the coalition army from Baekje and Japan, despite their effort to rescue the Baekje Dynasty which had fallen 3 years ago, were devastatingly defeated by the united army of Silla and Tang.
In a Korean history class, people may have learned about this incident, whose meaning is historically significant. Previously, much advanced knowledge including advanced technologies, studies, art and Buddhism as well as ceramics, weaving, construction and civil engineering were transmitted from the Korean peninsula to Japan. Yet, using this battle as a turning point, lots of wandering people who had migrated from Baekje to Japan laid 渡月橋a foundation, reforming Japan into a centralised law-enforcement country in earnest.

At this juncture, we can see why we should consider Kansai from a different perspective. Migrants from the Korean peninsula (渡來人, Doraein) and local Japanese endeavoured to develop Japan into a new nation. This took place in Nara and Kyoto, which played a pivotal role in the ancient history of Japan during the time often called the Asuka, Nara and Heian Periods. The migrants set up banks around the wetland of Kyoto so as to turn it into arable soil, whereas in Nara the Asuka culture, or Japan’s first-ever Buddhist culture, was in full bloom becoming an epicentre for ancient Japan. As a result, the Kansai area, including Kyoto and Nara, was established as a political and cultural centre in Japan for thousands of years.
Seemingly musty as they may be, a multitude of relics and cultural assets scattered around Kyoto and Nara are historic testimony to the difficult times which people suffered. They may serve as a new keypoint to a journey in Japan for discovering an old history of Korea and Japan that has been long forgotten.

With this point in mind, now let’s open wide a door to ancient Japan.


Dogetsukyo Bridge – Koryu-ji Shrine – Kiyomizu-dera Temple – Sanenzaka and Ninenzaka – Yasaka Shrine – Gio Street – Yojiya Cafe – Nijo Castle – Fushimi Inari Shrine – Byodoin

Horyuji Temple – Nara Park – Nara National Museum – East Grand Temple – Yamato Bunkakan

Kyoto is a living and breathing city of history.
Kyoto was the capital city of Japan for more than 1,000 years, from 794, when Emperor Ganmu moved the capital from Nara, till the Meiji Restoration. It was a time when Japan was entering into the Heian age after the Nara age, and when Japan-style Buddhism was more prosperous, based in Kyoto. Buddhism mixed with folk belief, which demonstrated itself in diverse shrines where people’s desires were cherished. People would continuously come to shrines where they would pray for the welfare of their family and/or abundant harvests of agriculture and to conduct a ritual service for their ancestors who were enshrined there. Such Japanese Buddhist cultures which became folk-friendly paved the way to creating cultures unique to Japan which were later differentiated from those in other countries.

도월교, 교토 가볼만한 곳

Dogetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋)

Dogetsukyo Bridge, which is laid across the Hoji River in the Arashiyama area, is a place to which you need to pay a visit first to identify the old aspects of Kyoto which was the 1,000 year-long capital of Japan. This 154m-long bridge is named to represent that the moon moves over this bridge. When the full moon is setting, from upstream, you can see the moon moving as if it were walking across the bridge. Dogetsukyo Bridge was designed by none other than a man named Hata, who migrated from Shilla. At that time, Kyoto was wet mire unfit for cultivation, but it was turned into arable fertile land after Hata built a bridge over the river and constructed banks along the river to control the waterway. After that, Kyoto could serve as the capital of Japan for 1,000 years. Initially, the bridge was made out of sturdy wood, but now it has been changed into a concrete bridge with only its original structural appearance intact. On a sunny day, you can enjoy boating on the Hoji River, which is picturesquely surrounded by the Arashi Mountains and local villages.

광릉사, 교토 가볼만한 곳

광륭사, 교토 가볼만한 곳

Koryu-ji Shrine (広隆寺)

Let’s go to Koryu-ji Shrine in order to trace the past communications between Korea and Japan. This shrine enshrines Japan’s National Treasure No.1, Wooden Maitreya Bodhisattva and boasts the longest history in Kyoto. It was established in 603 upon an imperial command given by Prince Shotoku. A Buddhist image is displayed in a new spiritual hall of the shrine and it makes worshippers admire the image, which bears a peaceful countenance with the mildest radiance, and a graceful figure that draws a circle. However, another Maitreya Bodhisattva will come into the mind of worshippers at the same time. That is none other than Korea National Treasure No.83, Gilt-bronze Maitreya Bodhisattva. The two Buddhist images resemble each other as if they were twins, especially in terms of the wrinkles of their clothes, and their pose and countenance. It must be certain that the two were constructed with the same technologies transmitted to Japan from Silla, and that the Wooden Maitreya Bodhisattva was made of not old pine, which was usually used to produce such artworks in Japan, but red pine, which was commonly produced on the Korean peninsula. Koryu-ji Shrine possesses 12 other national treasures and 48 important cultural assets, many of which were damaged during Meiji Restoration with the unchecked destruction of Buddhist temples and stone sculptures. Despite all that, they have been relatively well preserved as assets.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple (淸水寺)

If you head to the east while still mentally visualizing the smile of the Wooden Maitreya Bodhisattva, you will find Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which is another tourist attraction, and a trace of other migrants. It is said that 60% of visitors to Kyoto will pay a visit to this temple. The temple is a representative tourist spot in Kyoto and registered as a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. This temple was founded in 778 by Sakano-uoeno Damuramano who became the first highest military general. At that time, being a migrant from Baekje, he was working for the Yamato government. The temple is famous for its main hall, which commands a view of the whole city of Kyoto and has superb and wonderful scenery. The hall is built on a 12m-high cliff and supported by only a wooden bridge that was constructed without nails. The bridge will not be easily broken by an earthquake or an impact from outside because it is constructed without any iron nails. The name of the temple means that it has sanctified waters, that is, the Otowa waterfalls, which you can reach as you come down from the main hall. The waterfalls are divided into three branches, which stand for wisdom, love and health, respectively, and it is said that drinking from two of them will bring about a blessing. Yet it is also said that greedily drinking from all of them will bring about a curse. Within the temple, there is the Jashu Shrine, which is said to bring love when the visitors walk between two stones inside the shrine with their eyes closed.

산넨자카, 교토 가볼만한 곳

Sanenzaka and Ninenzaka (三年坂, 二年坂)

You should walk up for about 15 minutes from the parking station located at the bottom of the mountain, and on the mid-slope of the mountain stands Kiyomizu-dera Temple. You should do the same when you come down from the temple. However, you will be pleased to see and buy a variety of foods and souvenirs from diverse shops lined up along the ascending or descending roads. Sanenzaka and Ninenzaka are such sloping roads leading to the steps connecting Kiyomizu-dera Temple with Gion Street. The names of the roads mean a 3-year slope and a 2-year slope, respectively, and the meanings were derived from the story that visitors can live no longer than 2 or 3 years if they fall down while walking along the roads. So you need be careful not to fall down while walking. Souvenir shops lined up along the roads sell Ottugi gourds, which are said to be effective for an escape from a calamity. Recommended eatings include ice-cream made from the tasty teas for which Kyoto is famous, and Dango, which is a round Japanese rice cake.

Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社)

Now let’s go to Yasaka Shrine which embraces traces of the history of Goguryeo. Two bus-stops away from Kiyomizu-dera Temple, there is Yasaka Shrine, which is said to have been founded by Yasaka,who was a migrant from Goguryeo. This shrine manages Gion Matsuri, one of the major matsuris in Japan. The shrine enshrines and worships the-Headed Heavenly King and controls about 20 subordinate shrines. Gion Matsuri is a folk festival held for a month in each July in the Gion District of Kyoto, and it originated from sacrificial rites performed in 869 to dispel epidemics and devils prevalent throughout Japan. A highlight of the festival is the Yamaboko Patrol held on July 17 to soothe vindictive spirits, and spectators come from every corner of Japan to celebrate the event. Other events managed by Yasaka Shrine include the Okerama-iri event performed the day before New Year’s Day. According to handed-down customs, you will escape misfortune during the new year if you take some embers from the flame used for the Watch-Night event and make a palanquin aflame. Kyoto residents especially love this shrine, which stands on the mountain east of Gion Street. A lovely nickname for this shrine is Mr. Gion, and the stone steps in front of the gate tower of the shrine are a favorite place for Kyoto residents to meet.

Tip: Major three matsuris (衹園祭) in Japan

Gion Matsuri in Kotyo, Ganda Matsuri in Tokyo, and Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka
Ganda Matsuri in Tokyo :  a palanquin festival held at Chiyodagu Ganda in Tokyo. The festival is managed by Myojin Shrine of Ganda and held on the weekend nearest to May 15 each year.
Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka : managed by Denmangu Shrine between July 24 and 25 each year. A Matsuri to be enjoyed on the river.

기온거리, 교토 가볼만한 곳

Gion Street (祇園)

You will be possibly inclined to go back and practically look into the past of Kyoto after looking around Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Yasaka Shrine. Anyway, let’s go now to Gion Street, where you can still feel the living traditions of Kyoto. Gion is a place which embraces the old aspects of antique Kyoto. Common features of this street, where old wooden buildings are lined up, include women hurriedly walking in kimono, rickshaws carrying tourists, geishas and their trainees mikos. So, on Gion Street, you will meet Kyoto residents who keep old practices and can enjoy new ones.

Yojiya Cafe (よーじやカフェ)

Now that you have fully experienced the past moods of Kyoto, let’s come back to the present of Kyoto with a warm cup of coffee. Walking along Gion Street, you will find Yojiya Cafe, which is run by Yojiya, a cosmetic brand that started in Kyoto. A female character reflected in a mirror is a symbol of this brand, which is particularly famous for cosmetic oil paper and lip balm. Its fame was initially spread through word of mouth that geishas use the brand, and what is interesting is that the cosmetic oil paper originated from a gilt paper shop in Kyoto. Tourists favourably select this shop, which puts the said character on milk foam over drinks sold in the shop. Due to the character unique to the brand, simple meals and desserts, as well as drinks sold in the shop, are favorites as souvenirs from Kyoto.

Nijo Castle (二條城)

If you are wondering about the prime era of Kyoto, it is a good idea to visit Nijo Castle. After Dokugawa Ieyas defeated Toyotomi Hideyoshi and set up the Edo feudal government (江戶幕府), the castle was constructed in 1603 as a residence for him to stay in Kyoto when he visited the city. The castle was constructed in Kyoto, where the emperor still stayed, even though the real power had already moved to Tokyo. At that time, Dokugawa was the centre of power and grasped wealth and prosperity. As a result he accumulated more possessions as he rose up to the power. Possibly for that reason, the castle is not a citadel but a fortress. It comprises manifold moats, and even the floor was designed in such a manner as to emit a bird sound when the feet of enemies stepped on it. It is in stark contrast to the residence of the royal family in Kyoto, which was constructed without any moat. The magnificent decorations and grand scale of the castle were different from the tastes of the royal family, and then the power of Dokugawa was vividly demonstrated by the castle’s gold-plated ornaments and gates which were shaped after the helmets of Japanese warriors. Inside the castle, there is Ninomaru Garden, which serves as a resting place for tired visitors. You may be reminded of the old glory of Kyoto as you walk around the garden, which is well decorated in a Japanese style.

Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稻荷大社)

In Kyoto, there are various shrines, where prayers are presented by worshippers, including Inari Shrine, which is related to the monetary fortune and which people visit throughout the year. Fushimi Inari Shrine is the head shrine of about 42,000 Inari shrines scattered across the country. Fushimi Inari Shrine which enshrines Inari (稲荷), the god of commerce and agriculture, was founded in 711 by the descendants of Hata, a migrant from Baekje. One day, when Hata shot an arrow at a rice cake he made, the cake turned into a bird and flew up, landing on a place where grain ears sprang up. It is said that, seeing the incident, he regretted that he played with the food and constructed the shrine. In such a way, initially, the shrine was constructed for worshiping the god of agriculture, but it earned its fame when the shrine enshrined the god of commerce. It is also called the shrine of the fox, since the fox is a symbol of the shrine where a fox is believed to prey on mice which steal grains. In particular, Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for a red “tori” (meaning ‘gate’).  Really imposing is a tunnel which is composed of 1,000 toriis (千本鳥居). The 70m-long tunnel comprising multiple toriis runs in a line from the shrine to the middle of the mountain, and the names of enterprises or individuals who make contributions to the shrine are inscribed on the back of each torii. It is very interesting that the names of greater contributors are inscribed in thicker characters and some of the names are of Korean enterprises. It will take about 3 hours for you to go to and come back from the top of the mountain where the toriis are lined up.

Byodoin (平等院)

Before moving from Kyoto to Nara, let’s look around Byodoin, which embraces the essence of the beauty of Kyoto. Byodoin is registered as a UNESCO cultural heritage site and is inscribed on the back of the 10-yen coin. In I052, Yorimichi from the family of Hujiwara reconstructed a cottage for his father into a shrine where the Amitabha Buddha was enshrined with a view to pursuing the abode of perfect bliss. Even at that time, the shrine was considered one of those in which high-end Buddhist sculptures were enshrined, and the gracefulness of the sculptures, paintings, and structures appreciated in person is none other than the essence of the abode of perfect bliss described by Hujiwara. The best feature of Byodoin is the Phoenix Hall. The splendid hall in which the Amitabha Buddha is enshrined, and which comprises murals and structures inside the hall are all designated as national treasures. In the garden of Byodoin, there is a large weeping cherry tree in full bloom, which is regarded as one of many renowned cherry tree spots in the Kansai area, especially in Spring. The garden is the best photo zone where anyone will be pleased to take pictures.

Tip: Uji

You may be hungry after you are done looking around every spot of Byodoin. Then, you are recommended to go to Uji, a village of green tea.  Uji is a major place where green tea is produced in Kyoto and “Uji green tea” is one of the most famous products in Japan. A perfect meal has been served when you have been filled with a bowl of tea soba (茶そば) and then have taken, as a dessert, the true green tea ice-cream dusted with green tea powder produced at Uji.

Nara is a historic place of ancient Japan.

Now that a journey to Kyoto has made you more interested in the relationship between the ancient three kingdoms of Korea and the history of Japan, let’s dig somewhat deeper into the past. In the 7th century, Japan was growing into an ancient nation based on Nara. Laws were declared and Buddhism was established as a religion while the national system was being formed. This naturally led to the period of “Asuka culture”, which was the first-ever Buddhist culture in Japan. At this time, Japan changed its name from Wue into its current designation and the society and culture of Japan were fast developed. Buddhism transmitted to Japan during the reign of King Seong of the Baekje Dynasty was changed and flourished in concert with Japanese tastes, and migrants from Korea spread advanced technologies including civil engineering and paintings across Japan. At that time, Buddhism, which was an emerging religion, and the construction technology, which was an emerging skill, were joined together and flourished in Nara, building temples and pagodas. They produced Buddhist sculptures and left the ancient features of Japan in Nara in this manner. Although the capital moved to Kyoto after the 7th century, remains from that time were left in Nara and demonstrated the fact that ancient Japan began in Nara.

Horyuji Temple (法隆寺)

Horyuji Temple was first registered as a UNESCO cultural heritage site and resembles very much the mountain temples in Korea. The traces of migrants from Baekje are preserved by Horyuji Temple, which is the extant oldest wooden temple in Japan. Horyuji Temple comprises a 5-story wooden pagoda, which was constructed according to typical methods transmitted from Korea, and which resembles the 5-story stone pagoda standing on the site of Jeongneung Temple in Korea, and also the Gwaneum Statue which is mystic and beautiful by itself. Within Horyuji Temple, the Great Treasure Hall enshrines a number of relics from the Asuka through Nara Periods in Japan and also the murals inside the main building of the temple which is a pride of the temple and considered one of the three major artistic works along with the stone Buddhist images in China and the Stone Cave Temple in Gyeongju of Korea.

Nara Park (奈良公園)

You have easy access to Nara Park, which is located at the centre of the city and serves as a milestone for travellers, in which about 1,200 deer play around on the picturesque ground stretched from the entrance of the park, and is neighbours with such representative landmarks in Nara as the East Grand Temple and Nara National Museum. The park is renowned for its magnificent natural scenery which comprises a wide lot of land stretched from the east to Mt. Wakagusa, where visitors are fascinated by cherry blossoms in spring and by red leaves in autumn.

East Grand Temple (東大寺)

The temple next to Nara Park was constructed in 741 upon an imperial command from Emperor Shomu. The Birojana Buddha, which is the largest bronze Buddhist image in the world and enshrined at the main hall, is 16m high and its face is 5m long. The grandiose Buddha was formed with the aim of materializing the world of Avatamska and in compliance with wishes from the monarch and the general public led by Priest Hanggi. East Grand Temple was founded with the help of great contributions made by the four major saints including Priest Hanggi who played the role of Gwonjin. The term Gwonjin refers to collecting contributions required to produce the bronze Buddha and the temple. It was a role that could not be played by anyone other than those respected by the public. That is why the Japanese government committed the role to Priest Hanggi who had made efforts to spread Buddhism for more than 20 years. Regrettably, Priest Hanggi died before the great statue was completed, but he was ordained as the first ever Great Honoured Priest in Japan for recognition his past performances and is now praised even as a Hanggi Buddhist Saint.

There are four different-coloured stone roads leading to the hall where the Birojana Buddha is enshrined at East Grand Temple. It is said that all of the four stones were brought from other countries: black stones from India, pink from China, and white from Korea. The stone decorations demonstrate that Japan was internationally very active at that time.

나라 국립 박물관, 나라 가볼만한 곳

Nara National Museum (奈良國立博物館)

From Nara Park, you can reach Nara National Museum. Let’s investigate this place in order to know a little more about the history of Nara. The museum mainly exhibits artistic works produced at the time when Nara was the capital of Japan. In the age of Nara, Asuka culture, which was the first Buddhist culture in Japan, was prosperous, and Nara National Museum collects such relics that cannot be excluded when Buddhist culture in Japan is talked about. In particular, the Buddhist images room may be said to contain the whole history of sculpture in Japan. The exhibition halls are divided into the old hall and the new hall. The old hall was constructed long before, in 1894, and primarily hosts special exhibitions. The new hall was constructed in 1972 and hosts permanent exhibitions of Buddhist art from the Asuka through Nara Periods. In particular, what is most remarkable is special exhibitions held in Shosoin (正倉院) Hall each autumn by the museum. Shosoin Hall is a royal warehouse within East Grand Temple in Nara prefecture and has kept historical relics for about 1,300 years since the hall was constructed in 749. What is most startling as to the relics disclosed up to now is the so-called paduk set sent by King Uija of Baekje to Japan. The paduk board, called a wooden picture purple birch paduk board, has the longest history in the world, and the pictures inscribed on the paduk stones sent together with the board are really elaborate and beautiful. Shosoin Hall possesses diverse relics brought from multiple countries including Japan, Korea, China and India.

Yamato Bunkakan (大和文華館)

Our journey to investigate the past features of Japan ends at Yamato Bunkakan. Yamato Bunkakan is where the largest quantity of Korean cultural relics are stored, and where only ancient Oriental artworks from Korea, Japan and China are intensively compared and displayed. The representative Korean relics include Picture of Evening Bell at Yeon Temple created by Gyeon An, and Buddhist paintings from Goryeo. In particular, the Buddhist paintings from Goryeo are internationally recognised for their beauty, and much attention was paid to special exhibitions for the paintings held in 1980 since it is hard to see them displayed in Korea. It is really regrettable for Koreans that about 130 out of 160 Buddhist paintings from Goryeo era identified so far are possessed by Japan. Other Korean valuable relics possessed by Yamato Bunkakan include ceramic ware. It is known that Yamato Bunkakan keeps a total of 48 items, which include various kinds of white celadon, celadon porcelain and blue powdered celadon from the Three Kingdoms Period through the later Choseon Dynasty.

Now we’ve finished our two week journey to Kansai. This journey, with a focus on history, has disclosed another side of Kansai, different from the journey to Gobe in Osaka with a focus on baseball. We feel sorry for the migrants from Korea who had to start a new life in Japan, but it is very meaningful that we can take pride in those who created a splendid history on a strange soil. Also, we have confirmed the relationship between Korea and Japan, which can be traced back to ancient times. Japan is near to Korea, but far away in some ways. However, let’s keep in mind the results of our journey to Japan, reminding us of the fact that favourable communications between the two countries were frequent during the Three Kingdoms Period.

Photo sources
Flickr : othree, Takuma Kimura, Kentaro Ohno, choo chin nian Izu navi CLF,Norio NAKAYAMA, David McKelvey, m-louis .®, cotaro70s, na0905, OZinOH


1 Dogetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋)

2 Koryu-ji Shrine (広隆寺)
Location: Hachigaoka-cho | Uzumasa, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
Opening Times: 9am – 5pm
Telephone: +81-(0)75-861-1461

3 Kiyomizu-dera Temple (淸水寺)
Location: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862 Japan
Opening Times: 6am – 6pm,
3-time special entrances in spring, summer and autumn: 6pm – 9pm
Entrance fee: adult ¥600, elementary school student ¥200

4 Sanenzaka and Ninenzaka (三年坂, 二年坂)
Location: Yubinbango605-0001 KyotoHigashiyama-ku, Kyoto

5 Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社)
Location: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0073 Japan
Telephone: +81-(0)75-561-6155
6 Gion (祇園) Street
Location: Gionmachi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0001, Kyoto Prefecture

7 Yojiya Cafe (よーじやカフェ) Giyomiz Branch
Location: 211-1 Kiyomizu 2 chome, Ohashi- higashi 4 chome, Matsubara do-ri, Highshiyama-ku, Kyoto city
Opening times: 09:30 – 18:00

8 Nijo Castle (二條城)
Location: 541 Nijojocho
Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 604-8301
Opening Times: 8:45am – 4pm
Entrance fee: ¥600

9 Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稻荷大社)
Location: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 612-0882

10 Byodoin (平等院)
Location: 116 Uji Renge, Uji-shi, Kyoto 611-0021
Telephone: +81-(0)77-421-2861
Entrance fee: adult ¥600, middle or high school student ¥400, elementary school student ¥300


1 Horyuji Temple (法隆寺)
Location: 1-1 Horyuji Temple, Ikaruga, Ikoma District, Nara Prefecture 636-0115
Entrance fee: adult ¥1000
Opening Times: 8am – 5pm
Early November – mid-February: 8am – 4:30pm

2 Nara Park (奈良公園)
Location: 469 Zoshicho, Nara 630-8211, Nara Prefecture

3 Nara National Museum (奈良國立博物館)
Location: 50 Noboriōji-chō Nara city 630-8213, JAPAN
Entrance fee: adult ¥520, college student ¥260
Telephone: +81-(0)50-5542-8600
Opening Times: 9:30am – 5pm

4 East Grand Temple (東大寺)
Location: 406-1 Zoshicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8211
Opening Times: 8am – 5pm
Entrance fee: adult, student ¥500, child ¥300
Telephone number: +81-(0)742-26-2811

5 Yamato Bunkakan (大和文華館)
Location: The Museum Yamato Bunkakan, 1-11-6 Gakuenminami, Nara-shi 631-0034
Entrance fee: adult¥620, high school student or college student ¥410
Opening Times: 10am – 5pm
Closed: every Monday and New Year’s holiday However, also closed on the day after opening on a Monday which is a festival. Closed for 3-4 days during exhibition changes
Telephone number: +81-(0)742-45-0544