Even if you don’t know much about Kyoto, you’ve probably seen a picture of this amazing Zen Buddhist Temple. The gold leaf exterior sparkles across the reflective pond attracting visitors from all over the world. Kinkaku-ji (The Gold Pavilion) was originally built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397. Can you believe the weight of all that gold is only 1 kilogram? Try to get to this amazing World Heritage Site early as tourists and tour groups quickly crowd up the grounds! Explore the gardens surrounding the Pavilion, see the hundred-year-old trees, and enjoy some matcha at the teahouse before you leave Kinaku-ji!
Our tours that feature Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion):
The Golden Route Japan Tour
The Golden Triangle of Japan
The architectural twin to Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion) was built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson (Yoshimasa) in 1482. Yoshimasa intended to cover the Pavilion in silver, but this never came to fruition. It likely never will as this Buddhist temple has become a grand experience of the Japanese concept wabi-sabi (the beauty of imperfection). Amazingly, Ginkaku-ji has survived years of earthquakes, fires, and other calamities, and stands today much as it did when it was first built! The path through Ginkaku-ji includes several gardens of different varieties and climbs up a hill where you can get a great view. Like Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji attracts a number of crowds that are best avoided in the morning.
Tenryu-ji is the most important Buddhist temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama District, so you cannot miss out on this UNESCO World Heritage Site if you travel to the west side of town! Shogun Ashikaga Takauji built Tenryu-ji in 1339 in an attempt to appease the spirit of Emperor Go-Daigo. Takauji and Go-Daigo struggled against each other for control over Japan with Takauji emerging as the victor. Inside of Tenryu-ji’s buildings you can see the dedication to Go-Daigo. Along the temple grounds you’ll find a Zen Garden, the central pond garden, and roads leading through a wooded area featuring several different plants. Tenryu-ji is especially beautiful during the Autumn season when the maple trees change to varying shades of crimson and gold.
Following Tenryu-ji’s forested paths you’ll come across the Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Grove. The total area of the forest covers 16 square kilometers (3,950 acres) of land. The bamboo stalks grow close together shading the roads into a dense, ethereal green. The roads through here will lead you on to several destinations around Arashiyama, so use this footpath for both a sightseeing stop and a way of transportation. One word of warning though: from April 2018 Sagano Arashiyama Bamboo Grove has suffered a slew of foreign tourists carving their names into the bamboo. Please DON’T follow this new trend of vandalism as it damages the bamboo and ruins the experience for visitors coming after you!
Also in Arashiyama, Togetsukyo Bridge stretches 155 meters (508 feet) across the Katsura River. The first incarnation of this bridge dates back to 836, but the current construction dates back to 1934 when it was rebuilt to accommodate cars. The shape of the bridge retains its original aesthetic which embodies the traditional Japanese style. Although the bridge looks wooden, the structure is actually mostly made from concrete. The Togetsukyo Bridge is considered to be a masterpiece of natural scenic beauty as from here offers some wonderful views of the western Kyoto hills. Near here is the busiest street of Arashiyama where you can find souvenir shops, restaurants, and rickshaw rides.
In eastern Kyoto the Gion District offers the finest in food, fun, and a chance to experience traditional Japanese cultural heritage! Within Gion District you’ll find plenty of teahouses to try some real Japanese Green Tea. You’ll also see a high concentration of Meiji Period wooden townhouses called machiya. Many of these machiya have been converted into fine dining establishments where you can try some of Kyoto’s haute cuisine. Gion’s Hanami-koji Street is home to many Geisha and Maiko (Geisha in training) and if you are lucky you might spot a few, but don’t get fooled! Not everyone in a kimono is a Geisha, and in fact they may be tourists having a bit of fun dressing up!
Kiyomizu Temple, the pure water temple, was founded in 780 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The wooden stage of the main hall of this Buddhist temple juts out 13 meters (42 feet) over the hillside below offering one of the best views of the cityscape of Kyoto! While there, check out the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the deity of love and happiness, and try your hand at crossing the 18-meter distance between the love stones with your eyes closed! If you can do it, they say you’ll have good luck in love! At the bottom of Kiyomizu Temple’s hill, you’ll see three streams each said to provide a drinker with either luck, longevity, or wisdom. Only choose one though, as drinking from all three is said to be selfish!
Built in 1603, Nijo-jo served as the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo period. After the power was restored to the Emperor in 1867 Nijo-jo became an imperial palace but was soon after opened for the public. The palace is perhaps the best surviving castle in Japan and arguably the best place to enjoy 17th-century style architecture, which is why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle grounds include Honmaru (the main circle of defense), Ninomaru (the second circle of defense), and their gardens. Walking into Ninomaru, the residence of the shogun, the so-called Nightingale Floor will squeak below your feet, an architectural design to warn against invaders. The inside of the castle also features gorgeous ornate ceilings fusuma (painted sliding doors).
The Villa and Garden in their present condition were completed in 1645 and served as the home to the Katsuras, who were members of the imperial family. To see this place you must make a reservation at the Kyoto Imperial Park which is open Monday through Friday from 8:45 to 12:00 and 13:00—17:00. Don’t forget to bring your passport as it’s required for foreign visitors making a reservation! Be careful when taking pictures as photos are only permitted in designated areas. The Katsura Imperial Garden is lauded as the most excellent example of Japanese architecture and garden design in the entire country, so the workers take extreme care to protect it! Tours are offered only in Japanese, but there are audio guides available which provide translations into several languages.
Ryoan-ji Temple’s rock garden attracts visitors from all over the world. Dating back to the Heian period, the rock garden’s original designer, construction date, and meaning are largely unknown. The plot of pebbles is surrounded by a low dirt wall and features 15 large rocks on patches of moss. Viewing the garden from the Hojo, the head priest’s residence, at least one rock is hidden from sight no matter which angle you turn. This UNESCO World Heritage Site also features a pond garden, walking trails, and fusuma (painted sliding doors). Ryoanji Temple is a 5-minute bus ride or a 20-minute walk from Kinkakuji (The Gold Pavilion).
Like Kinkakuji you’ve probably heard of, or at least seen a picture of, Fushimi Inari Shrine. The Vermillion Torii Gates sprawl around the forest below Mt. Inari leading you through several miles of small shrines and statues dedicated to the Shinto Fox Gods of rice. Carved into the gates you can see the names of donators followed by the dates of their donations. Several thousand gates stand here, although the exact number is unknown. Maybe you can try to count them yourself when you go through! Take the Nara Line from JR Kyoto Station to JR Inari Station to get here.
Sanjyusangendo Temple may look like a typical Buddhist temple from the outside, but the inside is a wonderous sight of 1001 gold statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The statues here are known as 1000-armed statues, and they’ll certainly seem like it with arms on arms on arms, but the statues truly have 42 arms each. In Buddhist tradition, you subtract the two normal arms and multiply by the 25 planes of existence to get the number 1000. The life size statues flank one large wooden 1000-armed Kannon statue with a shrine in front of it from which monks pray. The 1000-armed Kannon also have 11 heads to witness human suffering, and they battle suffering with their arms. The Sanjyusangendo Temple is across from the Kyoto National Museum near the Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop.
Completed in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics and the opening of the Shinkansen, Kyoto Tower offers one the best views in the city. Kyoto Tower is easy to find once you get off at Kyoto Station. Just head for the Kyoto City Bus stops outside of Kyoto Station and BAM! there it is! Kyoto Tower is a rare modern structure in traditional Kyoto, which is mostly known for it’s shrines, Buddhist temples, and world heritage sites. Standing at 100 meters, Kyoto Tower is Kyoto’s tallest structure, and offers a 360-degree view of the city. On a clear day, they say you can see all the way to Osaka!
Historians might remember that Japan’s capital moved over the centuries before settling in Kyoto for a long period of time, and then finally moving to modern Tokyo. The Kyoto Imperial Palace was erected in 1855, and the imperial family lived here until 1868 before moving to Tokyo. Visitors to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo are often disappointed that they can’t enter to grounds, but here you’re free to explore without any prior arrangements. Note, however, that while the grounds are open for travelers, the buildings can’t be entered. The grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace also include the Sento Imperial Palace, the Kaninnomiya Mansion, and the Kyoto Imperial Park. You can access the Kyoto Imperial Palace by taking the Karasuma subway line to Marutamachi or Imadegawa Station.
Otagi Nenbutsuji Buddhist Temple was originally created in the year 770 in Higashiyama, but it suffered many calamities over the years. It was moved and rebuilt several times before finally being completed along the foothills of Arashiyama in the early 1980s. Otagi Nenbutsuji features around 1200 Rakan statues (statues of Buddha’s disciples), but these statues don’t show the solemn faces of religious leaders. Each statue was created by a different artist, so the Rakans all have their own style and face. The Rakan smile, laugh, and drink sake with a friend eternally in joy. A popular game to play is to find the Rakan who looks most similar to you!
The charming old streets of this neighborhood in Arashiyama make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Somehow, this street survived the years and has retained its Meiji Period townhouse-styled buildings called machiya. The townhouses were once private homes, but now most have been converted into restaurants and small shops. Most tourists don’t come this far, and the lack of crowds will give you a chance to fully immerse yourself into this cultural heritage. You can reach the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street on foot, by bicycle, or ride a rickshaw and get a small, private tour. Just head North of the Zen Buddhist Tenryu-ji Temple and the Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Forest.
The Philosopher’s Path is a nice little road you can use to access several places in Eastern Kyoto. The Philosopher’s Path follows along a canal that comes from Lake Biwa for about 2 kilometers (1 mile). The way is lined with cherry blossoms making this path one of the most popular destinations in early April, but otherwise seems to be relatively crowd-free. Rumor has it that famed philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870—1945) used the canal’s footpath on his daily commute to Kyoto University and took this time to meditate, thus giving this road its name. From Ginkakuji’s exit, head back down through the souvenier shops and over the small canal bridge. Immediately take a left to step onto the Philosopher’s Path and follow it through the traditional Japanese neighborhoods to Nanzen-ji.
Situated against the Higashiyama Mountain range, Shoren-in’s main hall exudes a palpable calm. The soft tatami floors give travelers a place to rest and enjoy colorful paintings of dragonflies on the walls, or the Koi pond in the central garden. Remove your shoes before entering to enjoy the buildings of this Buddhist temple. Then, retrieve your shoes at the main entrance before stepping out onto the garden’s path. First, you get a closer look at the pond itself before winding along the base of the mountain slope, through a bamboo forest, and across the small grounds. Shoren-in is a ten-minute walk from Chion-in Temple.
While in Kyoto, don’t miss the chance to see one of Japan’s oldest, and most famous cultural heritages: Geisha dancing. You don’t have to spend the (sometimes) thousands of dollars it takes to meet a Geisha at a private meeting for this experience. The Geisha schools in Kyoto hold exhibitions several times a year to show off their Maikos, apprentice Geisha, at different theaters in Kyoto. One of the most famous events you can go to is the Kyoto Geisha and Maiko evening offered by Gion Hatanaka Ryokan. Here, you can have a meal with Maiko and Geisha, plus a group of other guests, and watch traditional Japanese dance, play drinking games, and speak directly with Maiko and Geisha. Keep an eye out for other annual events held at different venues around Kyoto.
Dating back to the mid-13th century, the sprawling grounds of the Nanzen-ji Temple complex are yours to explore as you like. Entering from the Philosopher’s Path, you’ll encounter the Sanmon Gate right away. It’s hard not to miss this gate which towers over the trees! It’s possible to climb the steps of Sanmon Gate for a small fee (500 JPY for adults) and look out over Kyoto from the balcony. Nanzenji Temple’s grounds include the sub-temples Nanzenin Temple, Konchi-in Temple, and Tenjuan Temple. Nanzenji Temple, a Buddhist temple, itself is free and open to the public, but the sub-temples have admission fees of varying prices.
Why Should I Go to Kyoto?
The lights of Tokyo might be attractive, but there aren’t too many places where you can experience historical Japan. In Kyoto, you can feel like you’ve stepped into the real Japan of your textbooks!
When’s the Best Time to Go to Kyoto?
Most tourists go in autumn to see the maples change colors, and they are gorgeous, or in the spring to see cherry blossoms. While these are the prettiest times of years, they’re the most crowded. Summer and winter might be the lowest seasons for tourists, but you’ll have to deal with blistering heat or the dreary cold. To avoid crowds and harsh weather, I recommend Kyoto in the late spring right after cherry blossom season ends.
How Long Should I Stay in Kyoto?
Kyoto has so much to see and do, it could take a lifetime to explore it all! For a short trip, three days is enough to hit the major highlights of Kyoto, but a week will really afford a true immersive experience!
How Do I Get Around Kyoto?
The easiest way to get around Kyoto is by the city bus system. Buses come quite frequently, some within five minutes of each other, and many of the bus stops are named for the famous destinations nearby. You can pay for each individual ride for 230 JPY (2.30 USD), or buy an all-day bus pass for just 600 JPY (6.00 USD). If you listen carefully, bus stops near famous historical sites often have recorded announcements with tidbits about their founding dates, legends, and other information. Announcements are spoken in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean.
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