By Cassandra Ling
Kyoto is filled with ancient temples and shrines, and Heian Jingu is one of the most peaceful and beautiful. Out of all the shrines, this is by far the best one for nature lovers, and those who want to have a relaxing walk through the mesmerizing gardens. The main gate opens up into an expansive court with the shrine low and flat against the backdrop of mountains. The stark red architecture mimics The Imperial Palace, but Heian Jingu is much more accessible with more to see. Heian is actually the old word for Kyoto and the main shrine was built as a point of pride for the people here, hundreds of years ago.
After entering through the main gate, take a peek to your right at the charms for sale, called Omamori in Japanese. Heian Jingu has a fantastic selection of charms, some for protection against evil, and others for luck in passing exams, or for traffic safety. These lightweight, thoughtful souvenirs are easy to transport back home, and make a wonderful gift for someone special in your life.
An old style Japanese garden winds around the back of the shrine. It is easy to miss the entrance which is located on the left side of the main shrine. The garden takes up more than half the grounds and is a paradise for nature lovers. Twisting through dense greenery, hundreds of species of plants and animals and two huge ponds, walking the paths feels like something out of an ancient fairy tale. Each plant, flower and tree is labeled in Japanese, and carefully placed to create a natural flow in the garden. In the spring, there are many weeping cherry trees, making it one of the best spots in Kyoto for cherry blossom viewing. If you are visiting in early to mid April, do not miss a chance to visit Heian Jingu.
Hidden in the midst of the garden path, you will be surprised to see a train car quietly sitting amongst the foliage. The train car is the first passenger transport car in Japan, and started running in 1895. Although a surprising site in the middle of the garden path, it shows a piece of history that Japan is proud of.
A walk through the gardens
Halfway through the garden route, at the second pond, there is a small hut that sells drinks and has benches for relaxing and taking in the sights. Try some Kyoto specialty green tea, orange juice, or coffee for just 150 yen and take your time sipping your beverage while staring out onto the water. When you take a moment to be still, there is a surprising amount of wildlife in the gardens.
Butterflies of every color, hundreds of species of birds, and honey bees roaming from flower to flower. If you want a more up close and personal experience with the wildlife, buy some bait and head out to the edge of the water to feed the “koi” fish and two species of turtle that live in the ponds. The fish are surprisingly smart and come right up to the edge of the water, opening their round mouths for food.
The amazing pond
A covered bridge near the end of the garden route gives you a view of a reception hall that holds weddings. If you are lucky, you can catch a Japanese bride in traditional dress, posing for photos near the water, or in the gardens.
As you leave Heian Jingu, take a look at the huge torii gate that covers the entire street. It is one of the largest in Japan you absolutely can not miss it when start or finish your visit. When you are finished with Heian Jingu, be sure to check out the Kyoto City Zoo, Okazaki Park, and the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art that are all a short walk just outside the main gate.