The first reaction of a visitor to Kyoto is often one of intense disappointment. Hearing that the city is Japan’s ancient capital and that it has 2,000 temples and gardens they expect something as resplendent as Bath or Venice. In fact, when you arrive at Kyoto station and step out into the street you see a drab urban landscape, as grim as you’ll find anywhere in Japan. Kyoto is a huge sprawling urban space, home to 1.2 million people. Very little of old Kyoto survives because nothing was built in stone or brick; everything was made of wood. Very few of the original houses remain and in fact nearly all of the temples are replicas of the originals. Wooden buildings aren’t designed to last, and they don’t. You get some idea of the vulnerability of the ancient temples from the fact that Tenryu-ji (the Temple of the Heavenly Dragon) has been destroyed by fire 8 times – always to be rebuilt exactly as it had been.
My mission was to see gardens, not temples, and the gardens have remained intact – some of them since the fourteenth century. The last time I visited Kyoto I was on my own, escaping for a couple of days whilst Margaret treated the girls to Disneyland in Tokyo. This time I was lucky enough to be accompanied by Takako, who has been my translator at the Gardening World Cup for the last fortnight. Takako’s help in getting around was invaluable and together we visited 7 gardens in one and a half days – a much better strike rate than I managed before. They included two of the very best – the Katsura Imperial Villa and Kinkaju-ji, pictured above.