So, you’re getting down to your final days in Kyoto—by now, you’ve seen all the major sites, such as Kinkakuji (The Gold Pavilion), Kiyomizu Temple, and Fushimi Inari Shrine. You’ve tried on a kimono, experienced tea ceremony, and maybe even caught a Kabuki show. So what other exciting destinations does Kyoto offer? Follow this itinerary for more suggested locations in Kyoto! Here, we’ll explore an itinerary that follows one long path in Eastern Kyoto that makes a nice half—or even full-day trip—how much you want to explore is up to you!
I started my day at Kyoto station and bought a city bus day pass, and I was lucky to get a seat. As expected for a popular destination like Kyoto, travelers began to pour into the bus, filling the space down to the last possible square inch. Within fifteen minutes, however, the bus stopped at some of the most popular destinations, and most passengers disembarked around Kiyomizu Temple. Seats emptied and filled with a handful of passengers. Then, the bus was enveloped in a comfortable silence.
Once the bubbling chatter of excited tourists faded, I realized that Kyoto buses, like many buses in Japan, have recorded messages at every stop for travelers. These messages announced the stop name, sometimes in several languages, and included other noteworthy sites nearby and sometimes a bit about their histories. I leaned back gazed out the window and listened to the history of our first stop, Ginkakuji.
The bus stop at Ginkakuji is located down the hill from the temple. Head straight up the hill over a small canal bridge and through a souvenir shopping street to reach the front gate. Built in 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa modeled Ginkakuji—the Silver Pavilion—in the style of his grandfather’s Kinkakuji—the Gold Pavilion. Upon Yoshimasa’s death, Ginkakuji was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple, and despite the years, looks very much the same as when it was built, save for some upkeep and earthquake-proofing renovations.
From the entrance, you immediately see a Zen garden and its path curves around to the main hall of the Silver Pavilion. Unlike the gold leaf-covered Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion’s exterior lacks a silver coating. It was likely given this nickname in the 1600s because of the similar construction of the two structures. Continue along the circular path to the Sea of Sand—a sand garden—past the main hall, Hondo. Then onwards to Togudo, the adjacent hall, and lastly through a moss garden with small bridges, ponds, and several plants.
The path eventually diverges into the short route to see the Silver Pavilion or a longer scenic route up the hillside that overlooks the entire grounds of Ginkakuji. Head through the bamboo to exit and you can stop to drink green tea (matcha) or get a fortune (omikujii) before heading to the next stop.
Near Ginkakuji, you can find a canal with a small path that runs along it called the Philosopher’s Path. The canal tunnels through eastern Kyoto for 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) to Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, but the Philosopher’s Path itself only stretches for 2 kilometers (1 mile).
The way is lined with cherry blossoms, making this road one of the most popular destinations in early April. When I visited, the cherry blossoms were out of season and hanging low, so they shaded me against the harsh sun. Locals, immersed in books, sat on benches along the canal, giving me a feeling of total relaxation not easily found in the more popular parts of Kyoto.
Rumor has it that famed philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870—1945) commuted to Kyoto University via the canal’s footpath and took this time to meditate. As I strolled down the path in the shade in of cherry blossoms and felt the refreshingly cool breeze, I could see how easily one could do so. The quiet of the Philosopher’s Path lingered even after I reached the end of the route. The path runs into a local neighborhood, where you can see Meiji era homes, and takes you to our next location.
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 itself is free and open to the public, but the sub-temples have admission fees of varying prices.
Go to Nanzenin Temple to see the mausoleum for Emperor Kameyama, the original temple designer, and a garden centered around a pond. Konchi-in Temple features brilliantly painted fusuma (sliding doors), a rock garden, and a tea house. In autumn, Tenjuan Temple stands out when its two gardens (a pond garden and a rock garden) are illuminated to celebrate the changing colored leaves. Like Ginkakuji, you can choose to spend as much or as little time as you’d like here depending on your schedule. Then, head onward through Nanzen-ji’s Sanchumon Gate.
After exploring Nanzen-ji Temple, then walking for 20 minutes, THEN walking up a gradual hill to Shoren-in Temple and Garden, I must admit that I felt pretty frazzled. The heat was starting to get to me, my feet were feeling the morning’s walk, and the wind was picking up, making it impossible to shade myself with my parasol. When I walked onto the grounds of Shoren-in Temple, however, I finally found time to relax.
Upon entering, you must remove your shoes, which was a more than welcome experience for me. The few travelers there and I all had the same idea, and we sat along the edge of the temple’s floors overlooking the central garden. 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 and the koi pond in the central garden.
Once you feel ready to stand again, head back to the main entrance to retrieve your shoes and step out onto the garden’s path. First, 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. As you relax on the floors of Shoren-in Temple and pass through the garden, you’ll feel more like you’ve stepped into someone’s home rather than a temple. Shoren-in Temple’s peaceful atmosphere will make it difficult for you to want to leave, but we must pull ourselves away to reach the next place.
It takes about 5-minutes to reach the grounds of Chion-in Temple from Shoren-ji. Chion-in received particular favor from the Tokugawa shogun and was built up by the master artisans of the early Edo Period. Every structure in Chion-in Temple towers over you in majesty. You can’t miss the front entrance—its Sanmon Gate is the largest wooden structure in Japan! If you watched The Last Samurai, you’ll recognize the steps leading up to Chion-in from the film.
Mieido Hall, across from the main hall, is free and open for travelers to enter. Here you can see one of Chion-in’s seven wonders: the “Forgotten Umbrella.” According to one legend, the umbrella was left behind by a white fox spirit as a token of gratitude for the designers who protected his den during Mieido Hall’s construction. According to another legend, master carpenter Hidari Jingoro forgot to bring the umbrella home from work. After visiting Mieido Hall, don’t miss the bell tower featuring a 70-ton bell that is rung every New Year’s Eve. From Sanmon Gate take just a few steps over to….
Surrounded by the mountains and overflowing with sakura trees, Maruyama Park is a favorite destination for travelers during early spring for cherry blossom viewing and in fall for autumn leaves. In other seasons, it’s a calming place for a long or short stroll.
Much like the rest of Kyoto, Maruyama Park was once an area filled with temples until they burned down in the late 1800s. Rather than rebuilding the temples, the park was opened to the public in 1886. Maruyama Park’s layout draws from Chinese aesthetics and is decorated with multiple man-made ponds and ornate bridges. The center attraction to Maruyama park is the 70-year-old weeping cherry tree that still faithfully blossoms every year.
The park also features statues of prominent samurais Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro—famous political activists that made efforts to overthrow the Shogunate. Both were assassinated at young ages while staying at an inn in Kyoto, and their assassins were never caught. Modern history remembers these two forever-young samurai as heroic revolutionaries. If you haven’t stopped for lunch yet, Maruyama Park features several small shops for refreshments, or you can have an entire meal at the Michelin-starred Mizai restaurant. After exploring, it’s easy to get to our next stop....
When I entered the torii gate of Yasaka Shrine, I immediately noticed more and more people walking the grounds in kimono, posing for photos with friends, and stopping for prayer. Yasaka Shrine is connected to Heian Shrine and acts as the bridge between the eastern Higashiyama District and the central Gion District of Kyoto. Yasaka Shrine is best known for the Gion festival (Gion Matsuri), which is celebrated every July and perhaps the most famous festival in all of Japan.
On the opposite side from where you came, steps lead down through food stalls offering treats like kakigori, Japanese shaved ice. At the bottom of the steps, you’ll find yourself swept into the Gion District. If you’ve still got the energy, go shopping, eat at a restaurant, or try maiko spotting on the corner of Shijo Street and Hanamikoji Dori. Or, from Heian Temple’s entrance, catch a bus back to Kyoto Station.
For first time travelers, Kyoto is a marvelous city to explore and the perfect place to get a true sense of old Japan. Every section of Kyoto crawls with countless temples, castles, and shrines. If you’re exploring eastern Kyoto, follow this itinerary to get the most out of your day!