If museums, famous art and Japanese crafts are on your list to see in Kyoto, then you definitely don’t want to miss Okazaki park, located in the Northern Higashiyama district east of the Kamo-gawa river. It houses the Municipal Museum of Art and the National Museum of Modern Art, both boasting fine art collections modern and traditional, as well as the Fureaikan Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts where you can fully immerse yourself in the rich world of traditional Japanese crafts and handiwork. And after satisfying your aesthetic senses with world-class art from the three museums, the Heian-jingu shrine and its spacious garden is only a stone’s throw away. These sights don’t get very crowded and are mostly indoors, so this is a good choice for a slower sightseeing day or when there’s rainy weather. All of the sights can be enjoyed fully in about five hours, so I recommend starting early at 9 AM to have the afternoon available for other sights.
Inside the Miyako Messe is a rich world of traditional Japanese crafts
The best place to start is Higashiyama Nijo bus station. After arriving at the bus station, walk eastward down Nijo Dori road for a few minutes and past the canal.
After passing the canal, you will be welcomed by a red modernist metal sculpture, in front of which is the Miyako Messe, an international exhibition hall. The Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts is located in the basement floor of this building and admission is free, so take this opportunity to learn about traditional crafts and marvel at splendid workmanship created right here in Kyoto. Take the escalators down one floor, where you will find the entrance of the museum.
The museum itself is small but is replete with craftwork of all kinds. You will first encounter temple fittings such as stone and bamboo work, roof tiling and landscape gardening and then gradually enter into areas dedicated to a specific craft, such as textile dyeing, lacquerware, ceramics and dolls. The museum is truly comprehensive, with things such as instruments, cutlery and even weapons on display. Not only older crafts, but also modern handiwork combining time-tested techniques with new fashion can be seen in the form of men’s ties and women’s handbags.
For those who want to take a crafted gem back home, some pieces on display are indicated for sale, though of course at premium prices. Those with a lower budget can look forward to the museum gift shop at the end of the museum walk, where similar craftwork and other souvenirs are for sale at more affordable prices. Within the gift shop are also a workshop where you can glimpse craftsman at work and a small library carrying arts and crafts catalogs, all free to view.
If you happen to come in the spring or summer, you can also experience a Maiko dance—completely free. Every third Sunday of the month, a Maiko (a young geisha-in-training) comes and performs in the museum for 15 minutes, and afterwards you are allowed to take photos with her. With good timing, this is an excellent way to see elusive Maiko in a small intimate setting. From 9 AM to 4:30 PM there are also live craft demonstrations.
A picturesque pond hidden behind the Municipal Museum of Art
Continuing straight from the Miyako Messe for a few minutes, you will hit the Municipal Museum of Art, one of Japan’s oldest art museums. The special exhibit on the first floor changes every couple months (In June 2015 there was a temporary exhibit of masterpieces from the Louvre) but the permanent collection features a wide collection of Japanese and Western paintings, ceramics, sculptures and prints. The second floor sometimes has rotating regular exhibits. Admission for the permanent collection and regular exhibits is 500 yen (around 5 USD), but the special exhibit can be much higher, ranging from 1000 to 1600 yen (10-16 USD).
Inside the lobby of the building is a small gift shop kiosk selling mainly postcards, catalogs and prints. After walking through the museum, the tranquil pond behind the building is a great place to rest up before heading to the third and final museum. Also, be sure not to miss photographing the gigantic red torii gate, which are traditionally found in Shinto shrines and used designate their sacred grounds, that serves as the official entrance to the Heian shrine.
Enjoy coffee and cake next to the charming canal at the Museum of Modern Art
Across from the Municipal Museum of Art on Jingu-michi road, the Museum of Modern Art is a must-see for contemporary art pieces with Japanese influences. Japanese paintings and ceramics are the museum’s strengths (be on the lookout for pottery masterpieces by Kawai Kanjiro), and western-style paintings by Japanese artists round out the regular collection. As with the Municipal Museum, the special exhibit admission is a much pricier 1400 yen (14 USD) compared to the 430 yen (4 USD) for the regular collection. The gift shop here is much bigger compared to the one in the Municipal Museum and offers a wide array of trinkets, postcards, glassware and books. You can also enjoy a cup of coffee with a good view of the charming canal at the museum cafe or simply sit in the large canal viewing room right next to the cafe. After visiting the museum is a good time to continue walking south down Jingu-michi and past the canal to explore charming shops carrying souvenirs and other traditional wares.
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The vast grounds of Heian-jingu shrine is impressive
As cherry on top, a visit to the Heian shrine is a great way to end your visit to Okazaki Park. A 5/8 scale replica of the Imperial Palace during the Heian period, it is a top-ranked Shinto shrine with expansive grounds and a vast garden. Walking northward on Jingu-michi road past the gigantic red torii and the Municipal Museum will take you to the shrine entrance. It is popular during the high season, but big enough so as not to feel too crowded. Like most Shinto shrines, it has the essential fittings such as an altar and kiosk for buying lucky charms and fortunes, but what the Heian shrine possesses that other shrines sometimes lack are temporary exhibits, traditional Japanese plays put on for the public and a sizeable Japanese garden (adult admission 600 yen or 6 USD). The garden occupies an impressive 33,000 square meters and offers a serene, contemplative stroll through Chinese bridges, wisteria and cherry blossoms during the right season. Midway through the garden is a little hut where you can stop for green tea and matcha cake.
Cultural gems that you must visit!
Okazaki Park is best reached by city bus (Higashiyama Nijo 東山二条 station with bus 31, 201, 202 or 206) or alternatively with the city subway (Higashiyama 東山 station on the Tozai Line 東西線). Whether at the beginning or towards the end of your stay in Kyoto, visiting these cultural gems takes only a few hours and will leave you with a powerful impression of Kyoto’s distinctive culture, both ancient and modern.
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