The former seat of the Japanese Imperial Court, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years. As the center of power in Japan, it was from here that many Japanese customs and traditions emerged. Though Kyoto has changed and adapted to modern times the old ways persist.
Places to visit in Kyoto
In the west of Kyoto, at the foot of the mountains lies the Arashiyama district. Here the Katsura river flows out from between the hills and underneath the Togetsukyo Bridge, a great spot for looking up at the steep hills. On the east bank stand some of Kyoto’s best temples and gardens, including the World Heritage site of Tenryuji.
Byoudouin, an incredible relic of the Jodo Sect of Japanese Buddhism. As with many structures from Japan’s past, the temple has suffered many fires and most of the original buildings have been rebuilt. Yet the temple’s most striking structure, the Phoenix Hall, is an original, erected in 1053. The hall is considered such a great symbol of Japan that it is featured on the reverse of the 10 yen coin. On the same grounds as the temple lies the Byoudoin Honkan, designed by Akira Kuryu, a museum filled with relics from the temple’s storied past on display.
Dedicated to the Shinto diety of agriculture and business, Fushimi Inari is famous for its “Senbontorii” the thousands of torii gates that line its mountain paths. Each gate is donated by a person, or sometimes a company. Indeed, many famous Japanese companies have their names written on a few of the gates. A hike through the gates takes about an hour and along the way there are many buildings of interest each with its own unique history.
Ginkakuji, otherwise known as the Silver Pavilion, was never actually covered in silver. Though the origin of the name is not known it is thought be a nickname in contrast to Kinkakuji, it’s gold-adorned cousin across town. This Zen temple is widely known for its beautiful garden and relaxing atmosphere as well as the sand sculpture of Mount Fuji featured prominently in the garden.
Gion, a former and current entertainment district in Kyoto is known for its machiya (traditional Japanese house) lined streets and the Geiko and Maiko who are sometimes spotted on their way to engagements.
One thing above all stands out about this shrine, and that is the massive torii gate that stands out in front of it. The size of the gate matches the size of the shrine itself, which is a reconstruction of the Heian period Imperial Palace (though at a smaller size). The shrine houses the spirits of the first and last emperors to reside in Kyoto (Emperor Kammu who began his rule in 737 CE and Emperor Komei who ended his rule in 1867 CE).
The current Imperial Palace of Kyoto is only the latest iteration of several palace structures that served as the primary residences for the ancient emperors. After the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, however, the main residence of the Emperor moved to Tokyo. Now the palace serves as a museum of sorts for the larger Imperial Palace Park that surrounds it.
One of the “Gamo” dyad, the Kamigamo shrine lies to the north, as its name implies—the direct translation is the Upper Gamo Shrine. From the center of the shrine, in a small, open area, are two sacred cones of sand. Since ancient times they have been created as part of a purification ritual.
Kamogawa River runs along the eastern side of Kyoto and separates the main city from Higashiyama, which holds Kyoto’s main temples. From the Shimogamo shrine southward to the temple of Sanjusangendo, the river is flanked by footpaths on either side and several parks that run along its course that are popular among residents. Among the other facets of the riverside are large river terraces that line the western bank around Shijo street.
The bold centerpiece of Kinkakuji is the so-called “Golden Pavilion”. The three storied structure flashes brightly in the sunlight, as the top two tiers are covered entirely by gold. Though it appears much older, the pavilion is actually quite new, having been built in the 20th century after a disturbed monk burned down the original. But beyond this opulent creation, the temple is also home to a beautiful garden and many interesting artefacts.
Visit the Shinto Shrine of Kitano–Tenmangu. This shrine, which has been in place for over a thousand years is dedicated to the historical person, Sugawara Michizane, who was the first human being deified in the Shinto religion. The story goes that Sugawara, a scholar at the time, was unfairly exiled from the Imperial court. After he died in Kyushu, a series of calamities befell the capital. To appease Sugawara’s spirit, the shrine was built. Since that time many great historical figures in Japanese history came to worship, and continue to do so.
Translated literally Kiyomizudera means, Temple of the Pure Water—so named for the Otawa spring, in its center. It is thought that water here can offer special benefits to those who imbibe, such as long life, success in love, or to do well in school. Among the temple’s unique features is a large wooden stage that projects out from the hillside.
Kyoto Botanical Garden
The great Kyoto Botanical Garden covers an area of about 240,000 square meters and covers a broad range of local flora, among them over 500 cherry trees. Plants and trees for every season are grown here, making the garden a pleasant place to visit any time of year.
In West Kyoto, just south of Arashiyama stands the great torii gate of Matsuo Taisha. An ancient shrine dating to 701 CE, Matsuo Taisha was reportedly created by a lord of the Hata clan who sighted an auspicious turtle near the Shrine’s present-day location. Thus the turtle became the shrine’s animal and many sculptures populate the compound.
Miho Museum (Gifu)
Miho Museum. The legacy of Mihoko Koyama, the museum houses her private collection of both Asian and Western antiquities. It was designed by Chinese Architect I.M. Pei, who chose to integrate the museum’s manmade structures with the natural surroundings in such a way as they seem perfectly interconnected. Among the constantly changing exhibits are pieces from Roman, Egyptian, and Asian antiquity, largely drawn Mihoko’s private collection.
The temple complex of Nanzenji began as a retreat for a retired emperor during the middle of the thirteenth century. Eventually he had the villa converted to a Buddhist temple, which it has remained as ever since. Nanzenji holds particular importance in Kyoto as it is the head temple of the Rinzai sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Nijojo castle, a former residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns, who ruled Japan for nearly three hundred years. After the fall of the Shogunate in the 19th century, the Imperial family briefly occupied it before eventually opening it to the public. Many of the buildings are originals and exemplify period architecture.
Ninenzaka and Sanenzaka. Shops selling various Japanese handicrafts, sweets, and other goods line these streets. Most of the businesses have been converted from old machiya, Japanese style homes from the Edo era. As such, a unique feel permeates the area and one can feel the essence of old Kyoto lingering still.
Nishi–Honganji temple. This massive structure is part of a larger complex of temples (there is another on the east side) and head of the Jodo-shin sect of Japanese Buddhism. Of special note in this temple is the ancient Ginko tree that stands out in front of the temple’s main hall, which is estimated to be over 400 years old.
The Nishiki Market is known colloquially as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” and has a history stretching back hundreds of years. Today the market is a fine place to purchase fresh food and unique Kyoto foods.
Okochi Sanso Villa
Unlike most of Kyoto’s treasured gardens, Okochi Sanso did not come into being through religious or imperial machinations. Perhaps as a sign of the changing times, the villa and garden was instead built by the legendary silent-film star Denjiro Okochi. The garden covers roughly 20,000 square meters and reflects the four-seasons of Japan with cherry blossoms, flowers, maple, and pine trees. On a clear day, the garden also offers a beautiful view of Kyoto, which stretches all the way to the opposite side of the valley.
Walk along the Tetsugakunomichi, otherwise known as the Philosopher’s Path. It earned its name from the philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who used to commute along the path on his way to Kyoto University. Lined with cherry trees and pleasant little cafes and shops, this lane makes for the ideal stroll.
Though often cited for its beautiful and contemplative rock garden, Ryoanji has many other beautiful facets. And while the rock garden should not be missed, the often overlooked moss garden just beyond it makes another peaceful spot for contemplation. Keep an eye out for the temple’s namesake as well, a dragon painted on to the temple’s fusuma (sliding doors). After visiting the main hall, its recommended to enjoy a stroll around the lower pond as well before leaving.
Known by its more common name of Kokedera (translating directly to “Moss Temple”), Saihoji, offers a unique experience among the Kyoto temples. Its name derives from the exquisite moss garden. Unlike its counterparts in Higashiyama, this temple cannot be visited without a reservation. Visitors to the temple are asked to join sutra chanting and copying during their visit, which takes about an hour or more.
Sanjusangendo holds one of Kyoto’s more spectacular displays. Though perhaps unassuming on the inside, within this temple’s main hall is a collection of 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of Mercy.
Sanzenin + Otonashinotaki
Though there are a few temples in Ohara, Sanzenin without a doubt is the most popular. Perhaps most notable about this temple is the moss garden. Peeking up from below the layer of green one can see a few stone faces looking back and smiling. Not far from the temple is a pleasant piece of nature at the Otonashinotaki waterfall (literally the soundless waterfall).
Predating Kyoto’s establishment, the shrine has long been part of the city’s history. It holds one of the three important festivals of Kyoto, the Aoi Matsuri or “Hollyhock Festival”. Around the shrine is an old growth forest with trees as old as 600 years.
Shorenin owes its founding to Emperor Toba, who built it as a residence for his son’s studies. The temple belongs to the Tendai sect of Buddhism, popular among the ruling class of Japan at the time. It is also one of the Monzeki temples (temples whose head priests were traditionally members of the Imperial family).
Though not a temple on its own, Shoseien belongs to the Honganji temples and services as a residence for the temples and is located just to the east. On the grounds is a large garden and tea house. In Spring and Fall they become quite popular for Kyoto citizens to enjoy the cherry blossoms or changing leaves.
Tenryuji is one of the preeminent Zen temples in Kyoto. Its roots can be traced back to the original temple that once stood here, Danrinji, another Zen temple, built sometime in the ninth century. After falling into disrepair and later become a detached palace for Emperor Go-Daigo, the temple was eventually rebuilt in 1339 by the shogun. Since then it has suffered several major fires. Most buildings, with the exception of the main hall, date back to after 1864. Exceptional, however, is that Tenryuji’s garden remains mostly intact, the way it was laid out almost seven hundred years ago.
Teramachi and Shinkyogoku
For those interested in shopping for souvenirs, clothes, or any number of other goods, one need not look much further than Teramachi. The shopping arcade, or “Shotengai” is completely covered and makes for a great break from the elements. Hidden among the little streets are several small temples that make a walk through the area all the more exciting.
When Kyoto became the capital of Japan, it centered around a large avenue. At the north end lay the original Imperial Palace and at the southern end, two temples flanked the street: Toji and Saiji. While Saiji is no more, Toji still stands and is home to Japan’s tallest pagoda (57 meters).
Tofukuji takes its name from two of Nara’s temples: Todaiji and Kofukuji. It is one of Kyoto’s largest temples and an excellent example of ancient Zen architecture. As with many Zen temples, Tofukuji’s gardens are simplistic in design but inspire much reflection and thought.
For 1,350 years, Yasaka Shrine has stood. Yet the shrine’s importance comes not from its age but for the festival that surrounds it. Once a year the city of Kyoto holds the Gion Matsuri, which originates from this shrine. The days long ceremony sees the otherwise calm city come alive during the hottest days of summer.