Though Tokyo’s chaotic madness is most people’s first association with Japan, the ancient capital of Kyoto deserves to be in the spotlight just as much, if not more. Considered by many to be the nations spiritual and cultural centre, for centuries Kyoto has played host to Japan’s elite. The city holds more treasures than any other, some of which are the most iconic attractions that Japan has to offer. For many travellers and locals alike, Kyoto provides the truest representation of Japan; it’s history, it’s cultural roots, it’s spiritual enlightenment and perfect harmony with the undeniable advancement of modern time. There’s little wonder why many see Kyoto as the greatest destination Japan has to offer, myself included. Want to find the very best Kyoto highlight? Look no further.
Table of Contents
1. Fushimi Inari
Not only is this the greatest and most recognisable Kyoto highlight, but also one of the most famous attractions in all of Japan. Fushimi-Inari is a Shinto shrine that became the inspiration to over 40,000 similarly designed Inari shrines scattered across the country. The image of a thousand crimson red torii gates winding up through the forest covered trails of sacred Mount Inari is an iconic image recognisable throughout the world. Originally built in 794 as a dedication to the Shinto god Inari (the god of rice and sake), each torii gate has been donated and inscribed with the individual’s/company’s name and date of donation.
The trail begins with Romon Gate, behind which is the shrine’s main hall; Honden. This is where visitors pay respect to the resident deity before making a small offering. The crimson tunnels lead towards the main shrine at the peak of the mountain, along with numerous smaller sub-shrines dispersed throughout the trails. Halfway up the mountain, the trail splits into a circular route around the peak, spreading the crowds thin. The crossroads also provide a clearing through the forest, allowing for a look back at the south side of Kyoto.
2. Bamboo Groves
Along with Fushimi-Inari, the top contender for the best Kyoto highlight and number one photo-op has to be the world famous photogenic scenery that the Bamboo Groves provide. Another iconic site which since its conception has been the focus of countless artists, photographers and poets alike.
Found in the quiet town of Arashiyama just outside of the city, its a pathway that carves through thick emerald groves of upward stretching bamboo. It’s easy to feel insignificant walking through the parting branches, much like a tiny insect walking amongst blades of grass. The forest is at its finest on a breezy day when the bamboo waves to the will of the wind as if they were beneath the ocean, releasing a gentle chorus of creaks.
Beginning as nothing more than a handful of tea-houses, for centuries the streets of Gion have been the home of pleasure and entertainment. The authentically preserved 17th century-style streets are home to one of the most recognisable pieces of Japanese culture; the mysterious and allusive geishas. The district is the birthplace of the art form and where the highest congregation of these highly trained entertainers remain to this today.
The streets are home to a congregation of lantern-lit restaurants and ochayas (teahouses) where the geishas and apprentice maikos gather to entertain paying guests. For many tourists, the pinnacle Kyoto highlight would be an opportunity to catch a glimpse of an authentic geisha scuttering their way to their next appointment. Though this is not an easy task! The window of opportunity is slim, only really possible between 5:30-6 pm. For those hoping to see a performances for themselves, be ready to pay a fortune.
Though a photo of or with a genuine geisha would be an enormous Kyoto highlight, visitors must be wary. Taking photographs along the streets is technically banned, and doing so can result in heavy fines. Of course, this doesn’t stop people from doing so regularly and doesn’t seem to be heavily enforced. The ban is quite understandable, as inconsiderate tourists obstruct and generally ensure that the geishas are late for their appointments, a big no no in Japanese culture.
Kyoto has seemingly hundreds of temples to choose from, so naturally a few must be considered a Kyoto highlight. Kiyomizu-dera is possibly the most significant temple of the lot. The UNESCO World Heritage site on the eastern edge of the city was founded under the Hosso sect (one of the oldest schools of Buddhism) in 780. The best known feature of the temple is a wooden stage that extends outwards from the main hall above the hillside. From here visitors can observe the changing colours of spring and fall, paying particular attention to Japan’s centrepiece flora; the famous cherry blossoms. Within the main hall is an eleven faced, thousand armed Kannon; the temple’s main object of worship.
The temple grounds also hold a number of other quirky little attractions. A popular one amongst couples is a dedication to the deity of love; the Jinshu Shrine. Here prospective lovers can bring luck to their relationship by attempting to walk from one stone to the other with their eyes shut. The waterfall situated beside the temple’s main hall is also an attraction in and of itself. The waters flows into 3 separate streams, each providing their own benefits of longevity, a successful love life and success in your career. Visitors are encouraged to drink from the streams, though taking from all three is considered greedy.
5. Ryozen Kannon
Though you might not find it on many must-do lists, it’s certainly a worthy Kyoto highlight. The temple complex in its entirety is a dedication to the fallen of both sides of the Pacific War. The notable centrepiece is a 24 meter high figure of the Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy) which overlooks the temple’s courtyard. Upon entering, visitors are handed a thick stick of incense which can be placed in a large cauldron before the temple’s main hall. Within the statue is a collection of eleven different images of Kannon each represented with separate shrines. Whilst roaming through its hollow centre the statue resonates with the blissful chanting of the faithful in the temple beneath.
However, one of the temple’s most unique features stands beside its main hall. It’s a small chapel-like structure with a central alter to the fallen of the war. Within are collections of filing cabinets containing documents detailing each victim (both Japanese and otherwise) that died on Japanese territory. Additionally, there’s a display that contain samples of soil collected from each allied cemetery that partook in the Pacific War.
Known as the “Golden Pavilion”, Kinkaku-ji is another nationally famous Zen temple which many believe to be the best Kyoto highlight. The temple’s centrepiece is a gold leaf covered main hall surrounded by a tranquil pond, providing a spectacularly serene view. Originally functioning as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, following his death it was converted into a temple by his son.
Built to represent the extravagant aristocratic cultures that surrounded Kyoto at the time, each floor represents a different architectural style. The present structure had to be reconstructed to its original standards following a fire caused by a fanatic monk with a strong obsession. Sadly, visitors are unable to walk within the pavilion itself. It’s only possible to catch glimpses of the seated Kannon and golden phoenix held within from a distance.
7. Higashiyama District
The streets that wind through the Higashiyama District are some of the best preserved historic streets in the city. Considered a true Kyoto highlight by both visiting tourists and locals alike, they succeed in retaining the culture and authenticity of the region. Situated between Kiyomizu-dera and Maruyama Park, it’s a collection of narrow lanes and traditional wooden buildings housing traditional machiyas, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. The added bonus of people sauntering amongst the alleyways wearing rented kimonos gives an authentically ancient feel to the area.
The region of Arashiyama is worthy of an entire guide itself. The name refers to a region on the western outskirts of Kyoto. Though still within the city limits, its a perfect escape from the sprawl of the streets and an opportunity to get back to nature. The same reason the area became so popular with the nobilities of old, becoming a haven of relaxation.
The central landmark of the region is Togetsukyo Bridge which marks the beginning of Sagano; the region containing the biggest treats. Kyoto’s love of temples demonstrates itself beautifully in Arashiyama with several dispersed in the area. They include the likes of Daikakuji Temple, Jojakkoji Temple and Nisonin Temple. The most worthy of note would be the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryuji Temple and the gardens that surround it. This is considered to be one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto. The vast variety of attractions on offer also extends to a Monkey Park and Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street.
Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple constructed in 1202 is located just south of Gion’s geisha district. The temple itself was founded by a Buddhist monk that introduced both Zen Buddhism and tea cultivation to Japan following his visit to China. It still serves as one of the main temples of the Rinzai Sect of Japanese Buddhism, and another one of Kyoto’s five great Zen temples.
Visitors are welcome to explore the interior main buildings as well as the immaculate Zen gardens that surround them. The interior sliding doors display terrific examples of decorative artwork which incorporate images of dragons and the gods of wind and thunder. Equally as striking is the spectacular mural of twin dragons which adorns the roof of Dharma Hall, a commemoration to the temple’s 800th anniversary.
10. Nijō Castle
Built in 1603, this castle functioned as the official residence of the shoganate rulers until 1867. From then on, the UNESCO World Heritage Site became an imperial palace before being donated to the city as a historic site. Through the walls of the Ninomaru (secondary defence circle) stands the Ninomaru Palace; considered the castle’s main attraction. The palace served as the residence and workplace of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto.
Within the palace you’re able to observe areas that only a select few individuals would have had the privilege. This includes the shogun’s main audience room from which he commanded his subordinates and his living chambers as well as those of his female “companions”. Visitors will also experience the “nightingale floors” which squeak while walking across them, a security measure to alert the inhabitants of approaching intruders. Through the Honmaru walls (main defence circle) is the secondary palace complex and the former site of a five-storied castle. Sadly, these structures were never rebuilt following their destruction in the 18th century. The gardens however remain open as well as the stone foundations of where the palace once stood.
Kodai-ji was constructed in 1606 in the memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his faithful wife Nene. The temple that would become their final resting place now belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Once enveloped in gold, these days the main hall has been replaced with a more modest construction following its burning in 1912. The grounds of the temple include beautifully interconnected structures, zen gardens representing oceans and even a miniature bamboo grove. Kodai-ji’s highlight is it’s gardens, the Tsukiyama stylegarden being it’s best. Consisting of a tranquil pond and a scattering of pines and maple trees, it comes into whole new light during the autumn months. Other structure include the memorial hall Kaizando where Nene would pray for her late husband and a mausoleum designed with rich powdered gold and silver.
12. Imperial Palace
Kyoto’s Imperial Palace was at one time the official residence of Japan’s Imperial Family up until the capital was moved to Tokyo. The palace’s main hall played host to the enthronements of a number of the country’s Emperors. Located in the centre of Kyoto Imperial Park, it’s amongst a scattering of smaller temples and even a tea-house on the edge of a koi filled pond. The surrounding park include a collection of cherry trees which blossom during spring. For many years the palace was only accessible through tour groups, though in recent years has become open to the public. That being said, you’ll be unable to enter any of the buildings on site.
13. Nishiki Market
For the foodies amongst you, this is the Kyoto highlight for you! Known locally as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, the marketplace is famous for its specialised foods and cookware. Nishiki Market consists of narrow shopping streets containing hundreds of tiny stores and restaurants. This is where hordes of shoppers and observers alike come to explore the culinary side of Kyoto. It’s the best place to find a number of Kyoto delicacies such as dried seafood, pickles and sweet treats.
The history of the market spans generations of store owners as far back as 1310 when it began as a humble fish market. Over time the variety of produce expanded as did the market itself. Today it remains an important attraction to both tourists and an important source for locals. Some stores might be kind enough to provide samples to entice passing potential customers. The restaurants have limited space, so don’t expect too many free seats.
Hints of déjà vu comes with Ginkaku-ji, as its inspiration came following Kinkaku-ji’s construction. It’s yet another retirement villa owned by the very same shogun, built with an equal lack of modesty. Where Kinkaku-ji was covered in gold, Ginkaku-ji was originally intended to be covered in silver. Despite the imagined decor never coming to fruition, it gave the villa it’s name; the“Silver Pavilion”. Just like Kinkaku-ji, the villa then became a Zen temple following his death.
The temple is at the centre of an elegant garden surrounded by a pond, a covering of pines and white sand raked to symbolise mountains and a lake. Ginkaku-ji became the centre of the Higashiyama culture, revolving around art, flower arrangement, garden designing and development of the tea ceremony. All of which had a wider influence on the entire country.
Within Sanjūsangen-dō’s main hall crowds shuffle from one side of an enormous dimly lit wooden hall to the other while observing the extraordinary number of identical statues in the midst of the earthy scents of burning incense. At the centre of the hall stands a 1000-arm Kannon with 500 smaller life-like structures on either side. The central statue has 11 faces to better observe the suffering of man, and such numbers of arms to help fight against it. Unfortunately, like many Japanese temples, you are not able to take photographs within the temple itself.
Sometimes refered to as Yasaka-no-to or Yasaka Pagoda, the 46-meter high pagoda built in 589 by an Imperial prince is mostly commonly known as Hokan-ji. Though pagodas aren’t in short supply in the country, it’s the location which makes it quite special. Slotted in the middle of the popular Higashiyama district, it provides some beautiful scenes in an already beautiful neighbourhood. Perhaps not a surprise to find out that its construction came from a dream’s inspiration.
17. Philosopher’s Path
The stone path leading away from the Higashiyama district get’s it’s name from one of the country’s most famous philosophers; Nishida Kitaro. The serene walkway runs parallel to a canal lined with cherry trees and a successions of restaurants, cafes along with a number of temples and shrines, the most important temple of which is Honen-in. Along this path is where Kitaro would practice his daily meditation on his way to Kyoto University. The canal itself was purpose-built to revitalise the local economy, and used to power the country’s first hydroelectric power plant. Naturally, the most scenic time of year is during spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
In a city with a number of museums, this one would have to be the one considered a Kyoto highlight. Kyoto National Museum is not only one of the oldest throughout the country, but is also one of Japan’s top 4 museums. Opened in 1897, the museum is home a number of permanent and rotating special exhibitions such as archaeological relics, statues and paintings.
19. Ryoanji Temple
Yet another temple that has to be a Kyoto highlight! Ryoanji Temple has the distinction of housing Japan’s most famous rock garden. The intrinsic placement of the 15 rocks on miniature island of moss brings with it a lot of discussion with what it supposedly represents. Some believe they represent islands in the ocean or a tiger carrying her cubs, where others believe it represents abstract ideas such as infinity. It’s yet another temple that was once an aristocrat’s villa.
Our final Kyoto highlight hidden away in the forest covered valleys of Kyoto’s northern mountains. Kifune shrine is a site of such significance that it resulted in the construction of the entire town of Kibune around it. Legend tells that it was built where the goddess of rain and water ended here journey from Osaka. Like many shrines and temples in Japan, visitors are able to receive fortunes on slips of paper, though these come with a unique twist. The messages upon the fortune paper only reveals itself when put in water.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.