Kyoto became capital in 794 and remained at the center of the Japanese empire for 800 years. The Festival of the Ages celebrates this with a big parade in late October. People dress up as courtiers, samurai, merchants, and farmers, showing off traditional costumes, gear, and tools. Here a warrior is getting ready to join his group, marching off through the city, whose main arteries are blocked for traffic to celebrate history.

Historical Highway

Shrine on the Mountainside RoadJapan consists of four main islands, the biggest and most important of which is Honshu. It stretches from southwest to northeast–Tokyo being in the latter, while Osaka is the economic center of the former. The two are also called Kansai and Kanto, literally west and east of the Pass–the major mountain range that divides the two sections.

From the Heian period (794-1185) onward, the main highway connecting the two parts led through the foothills of the central mountains. It was accordingly called Yamabe no michi or Mountainside Road. Today, it is a beautiful hiking trail that leads gently through hills, woods, farmland, and villages, passing numerous historical sites, from ancient tombs through remnants of Buddhist monasteries to verdant Shinto shrines. We are going to walk it on my tour, focusing on the section south of Nara.

Kyoto Temple


Chion’in, the Temple of Wisdom and Compassion, headquarters of the Pure Land school, in the foothills of the eastern mountains. The high mountain in the distance is Mt. Atago, the Shinto protector of the city, which holds its main festival every year in July. People climb it –3 hours of solid up and up!–at night (on illuminated paths, mostly stairs) to get the fire protection talisman it offers. In Chion’in, we encountered a once-a-year ritual of repentance and connection to the Buddha that goes back to the Tang dynasty. The one and only place in the world where Tang Chinese rituals are still actively performed. Kyoto is so full of wonders!