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Exploring Kyoto's Lake Biwa Canal

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Autumn is a great season to visit Kyoto, to enjoy its many historical monuments, framed by the changing leaves. Let's take a walk on the eastern side of the city where tourists and residents alike enjoy the scenic serenity of a tree-lined canal that skirts the foot of Mt Daimonji. Here we'll see a slice of Kyoto's Meiji-era industrial history, a little art, some ancient temples, and those beautiful autumn leaves.

Lake Biwa Canal Museum of Kyoto

From Keage Station on the Tozai subway line, make your way downhill along Shirakawa-dori. On your left you'll see the Keage Power Station, where hydro-electric power was generated using water from the Lake Biwa Canal. Above the road on the right is the "incline" once used by boats from the canal. But we'll return to that after getting an overview of the canal at the Lake Biwa Canal Museum (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 4:30 p.m. December through February. Closed Mondays).

Situated just north of the bottom of the incline where the canal feeds the Oto Waterway, the museum contains a number of displays on the canal and its engineering and economic significance to Kyoto. On the entry level, you can watch a video of travelling the current canal from Lake Biwa, including through the tunnels under the mountain. On the lower level are displays on the history of the two canals (Number One, built from 1885 to 1890, and Number Two, built from 1908 to 1912). These include photographs and explanations of the survey and building techniques that made possible the canal and its ancillary power production and freight hauling. There is also a working scale model showing how boats laden with freight used to be lifted from the canal and transported by means of funicular rails down the incline to the Oto Waterway. And finally, take some time to look over the diarama of the entire Nanzenji area as it looked 100 years ago.

Exit from the doors on this lower level to get a closer look at how the water from the canal is fed into the Oto Waterway. Then make your way up the incline. The wide gauge of the rails here are astonishing, but understandably necessary to accommodate the freight barges. A loaded barge is on display halfway up the incline.

Keage Boat Dock

At the top of the incline, you come to the Keage Boat Dock, where the canal emerges from the tunnel through the mountains. Back in the days when the canal was used for shipping, the pond here would have been crowded with barges waiting their turn to be hoisted onto the rails and moved down the incline. Water was diverted from here to a water filtration plant and the hydro-electric plant.

Follow the main branch of the canal (go right as you face down the slope). In a small clearing is a statue of Tanabe Sakuro (1861-1944), the young engineer who designed and built the canal. Behind him are numerous waterworks and further diversions. Most of these are fenced off, but you can find a catwalk through them, keeping the canal (and the mountain) on your right. Follow the sound of gushing water to find yourself alongside the canal as it emerges from the filtration/diversion area at the rate of two tons per second to flow northward through a quiet wooded area, with a unpaved path alongside it. (Many Kyoto residents are quick to point out that the canal is the only body of water in Kyoto that flows northward; all the others flow southward toward the sea.)

The Aqueduct and Nanzenji

After strolling along beside the canal for about 10 minutes, you'll come to a place where the path is fenced off. There is a small footbridge here, so that you can cross the canal and follow the stairs down to find yourself looking at the aqueduct that carries the canal's waters on northward. There are a few things to see here. We'll re-unite with the canal later.

This aqueduct was built between 1881 and 1890, as part of the first canal. Ninety-three meters long and 14 meters high at its highest point, the aqueduct is a spectacular structure, reminiscent of the ancient Roman versions that can still be found in various locations across southern Europe.

By coming down those steps, you're sneaking in the "back door" of Nanzenji, a major Zen Buddhist temple complex dating to 1290. On the high side of the aqueduct is Nanzen-in, the mausoleum of Emperor Kameyama, who founded Nanzenji on the site of his "detached palace". There is a pretty little garden (admission: 300 yen). Passing under the aqueduct, you'll emerge into the central temple grounds. Although most of the current buildings date only to the 17th century and the temple precincts shrank when Buddhism fell out of favor during the Meiji Restoration, this is still an expansive site.

Take a little time to explore the major buildings of Nanzenji. Especially check out the massive Sanmon Gate. Most of the time it is possible to climb to the upper level of the gate (admission: 500 yen), from which you can get an expansive view of the city. The famous Robin Hood-esque outlaw, Ishikawa Goemon (1558-1594), who hid here as part of a failed plan to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), is said to have praised the view as he was being arrested and taken away.

Nomura Art Museum

Go right on the road below the Sanmon Gate and take the first right onto Shishigatani Dori. Shortly after the road bends to the left, you'll come to the Nomura Art Museum on the left (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Sunday. Admission 700 yen). The museum, which is only open in the spring and fall, houses the collection of Nomura Tokushichi (1878-1945), Meiji-period founder of the financial services firm now known as the Nomura Group. Besides his financial acumen, Nomura was an aficionado of Noh plays and traditional tea ceremony and collected les objets d'art associated with both. The current exhibit, through Dec 7, is titled "Feudal Lords' Treasures: Tea Utensils and Noh Costumes". If you've never experienced Noh or Sado, the exhibit may not be so appealing. The site was Nomura's Kyoto villa, built on land acquired from Nanzenji during its Meiji-era demise, but the grounds themselves are not open to visitors.

Eikando Zenrinji____ Continuing up Shishigatani Dori, you soon reach the entrance to Eikando Zenrinji on the right (admission: 600 yen). This is one of Kyoto's truly ancient temples, dating back to the mid 9th century. The temple complex houses many structures including a library and several worship halls surrounding a pond with a Benten shrine.

Take off your shoes and slip inside the Shaka-do to find yourself able to access nearly all the temple buildings, which are connected by a series of covered walkways. The Tahoto Pagoda sits at the highest point on the grounds, offering even more expansive views of the city than Nanzenji's Sanmon gate.

Zenrinji is also famous for its autumn foliage. Just for leaf-peepers, from Nov 8 through Dec 4 the temple grounds will be open during night-time hours (5:30 to 8:30 p.m.) in addition to its usual daytime hours of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

And finally, the Philosopher's Path

Go right out of Zenrinji's gate and take the first right. After about 150 meters, you'll reach the Philosopher's Path, at the spot where the Lake Biwa Canal again emerges from its underground course. From here, the cherry-tree lined canal travels north for about 1.5 kilometers. It's largely a residential area, with a few tea shops, eateries and boutiques along the way.

The Philosopher's Path acquired its name because world-renowned Meiji-period philosopher and Kyoto University Professor Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) is said to have walked this route as part of his own daily contemplation.

The Philosopher's Path ends where the canal turns and heads west. You can head east from here to reach Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion that is one of Kyoto's most famous temples. If you've been lucky, your walk has been relatively quiet and uncrowded. You can rejoin the tourist throngs at Ginkakuji.

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A nice walk, but I'd pass on Ginkakuji.

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