Exploring Japan: Walking the Philosopher’s Path

When people ask you where Hikone is, you usually start by explaining that it’s in the countryside, in central Japan, on the coast of Lake Biwa… And eventually they ask, “Is it close to Tokyo?” You say no, but it is only an hour away from Kyoto, the heart and soul of old Japan.

There’s too much to see and do in Kyoto to contain it in a single blog post, but one of the most memorable areas is called Tetsugaku no Michi, or the Philiosopher’s Path. It’s an old footpath stretching a little over a mile in northwest Kyoto. At one end is the famous Ginkakuji temple, and along its path are countless shrines, temples, and ancient noble homes. There are also lots of cafes and traditional handicraft shops to enjoy.

It’s also home to a huge number of friendly stray cats — although, since they call a little parked wagon home, are they really strays? They’ve been a consistent fixture on the path for decades, and you’ll often see people petting and feeding them.

“Please don’t put food on a wagon, our house become unclean!”

The path is a popular spot for momijigari or Autumn leaf viewing (leaf peeping if you’re American). Many of the buildings are surrounded by maple trees that take on incredible shades of red and yellow in the fall.

Bright leaves draw huge crowds

Nanzenji temple, the building on the opposite end of the path from Ginkakuji, is known for the brick and mortar aqueduct that runs through its grounds. You can follow its course along the entire path, where it sometimes drops below street level. It carries water from Lake Biwa into the city, so hypothetically, you could follow it all the way back to Hikone… But you probably shouldn’t.

The aqueduct towers over the grounds of Nanzenji.

As you walk along the path, accompanied by cats, you’ll occasionally come across stands of ojizo-sama, little round stone statues often in the shape of child-like gods. Some, wearing red aprons, are meant to pay respects to a child who died young, but there are others that are displayed as donations to a shrine. They are often too worn away to make out the statue’s features.

Ojizo-sama donated to a shrine.

Arguably the most famous site on Tetsugaku no Michi is Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. It’s named to match Kinkakuji, a pavilion covered in gold leaf, but it’s not actually silver colored. It’s mostly brown. However, it boasts and impressive garden and a great view of the rest of the city, as well as the site of daimonji, the giant character for “large” that is lit every year at the culmination of the Obon festival. You can see the area where it would be lit during the day throughout the year, as well.

Do you see Mt. Fuji?

Ginkakuji also has a very recognizable sand garden, featuring a pile of sand in the shape of Mt. Fuji. It is meant to represent enlightenment. The entire grounds are a physical representation of the principal of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic of impermanence and imperfection. The effects of aging can be seen in the old wooden structures and the moss-covered garden, and it’s the perfect place for a reflective walk.

There are usually a lot of foreigners in Kyoto, from Asia, Europe, and everywhere else; so the Philosopher’s Path is an easy place to visit even if you don’t know much Japanese. It’s a good way to see some of Japan’s most famous sites all in one place, and enjoy a relaxing stroll at the same time.

Who knows what your visit to Tetsugaku no Michi might do for you? Maybe you’ll leave with new inspiration, or a stowaway cat.

Ginkakuji inspired my family enough that they decided to construct it out of candy.

Getting to Tetsugaku no Michi from JCMU

Rice your bike to Hikone station and park either at ALPLAZA or at the station lot. Take the train in the Kyoto direction and get off at Yamashina Station, then get on the Tozai Subway line for
Uzuma Satenjigawa. Get off at Keaga Station and walk a few minutes north towards Nanzenji temple. For more detailed instructions, go to HyperDia and search for routes from Hikone to Keage. Happy travels!

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