Things to Do And See In Kyoto 京都
Kyoto Gosho | Nijo Castle | Shimogamo Shrine | Gion | Pontocho | Nishiki Market | Kyoto International Manga Museum | Honganji | Shosei-en Garden | Toji | Sanjusangendo | Kyoto National Museum | Shisendo | Kiyomizudera | Jishu Shrine | Yasaka Jinja | Chion-in | Nanzen-ji | Philosopher's Path | Honen-in | Ginkaku-ji | Heian Jingu | Shugakuin Rikyu | Sekizanzenin | Myomanji | Takaragaike | Ryozen Kannon | Ryozen Museum of History | Byodoin | Botanical Gardens | Daitokuji | Kinkakuji | Kitano Tenman-gu | Tojiin Temple | Ryoanji | Myoshinji | Daikakuji | Ninnaji Temple | Katsura Rikyu | Fushimi Inari | Gekkeikan Sake Brewery | Tofukuji Temple | Tenryuji Temple | Katsura Rikyu | Eiga Mura | Shinsengumi | Kibune | Kurama | Miho Museum | Eat & Drink | Kyoto Hotels | Kyoto Temples
Kyoto is the tourist jewel in Japan's crown and a must-see destination for most visitors to the country.
Japan's capital from 794 to 1868, Kyoto boasts literally thousands of historic Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines as well as some of Japan's most beautiful gardens and palaces.
Although now a modern city of 1.5 million inhabitants, Kyoto remains a center of traditional Japanese art and crafts, culture and cuisine.
Set in a picturesque basin surrounded by green, wooded hills, the city is designed on a distinctive grid pattern and is easily accessible from Tokyo or Osaka by shinkansen 'bullet' train.
Central Kyoto Area
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Kyoto Gosho is Kyoto's historic Imperial Palace. Situated in the north of the city, Kyoto Gosho is perhaps the most pleasant park in the city. The restored, predominately nineteenth century Palace itself is somewhat disappointing, but the lovely park is immense and filled with groves of cherry and plum trees. The Imperial Household Agency in the north west corner of the park is where you need to go to get permission to visit the interior of the Gosho and Katsura and Shugakuin Rikyu Palaces.
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as a luxurious fortified residence by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Surrounded by massive walls and a moat, Nijo Castle is famed for its lavish painted screens from the Kano school and the "Nightingale" floor that "chirps" when you walk on it (to warn of possible intruders). Also notable is the beautiful garden. The Inner Castle was destroyed in 1788, during one of the Tenmei Period (1781-1788) fires that ravaged the mostly wooden city of Miyako (Kyoto). Nijo-jo remained unused from then until 1862. In 1939 the Imperial Family donated the site to the city of Kyoto; it was opened to the public the next year. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. An early visit is recommended to beat the crowds. Recently, it has been used as the site for many film shoots.
Shimogamo Shrine dates from the 17th century. The site of the shrine occupies a narrow strip of wooded green north of Keihan Demachiyanagi Station in north central Kyoto. Kyoto's famous Aoi Matsuri festival originates at Shimogamo Shrine. Aoi Matsuri, a period costume procession, takes place each year on May 15, moving from Shimogamo Shrine to its sister shrine Kamigamo Shrine a few kilometers directly to the north. The Shimogamo shrine grounds consist of some fine, brightly colored, vermillion, wooden buildings and are a peaceful place to stroll throughout the day or night. The shrine hosts a popular New Year celebration and other Shinto ceremonies throughout the year.
Shinmonzen Dori ("In front of the new gate street"): Shinmonzen Dori is home to many antique shops. From tiny mom-and-pop shops filled with knickknacks or incense or laquerware to huge stores that have samurai gear, massive tansu (dressers), dolls hundreds of years old, byobu folding screens, kimono, and more. From the Keihan-Sanjo train station, leave exit 1. Once out of the exit, walk back a short bit and then turn right (the bus stop and a shopping plaza will be directly in front of you on the other side of the street). Walk about 20 meters and then turn right onto Yamato-oji (Nawate) Street. Walk down this street - which also has quite a few antique shops - until you get to Shinmonzen, which is the second corner. Turn left. The shops selling traditional Japanese crafts go on until Higashioji Dori.
Gion: Shirakawa Dori
This is perhaps the most beautiful street in Kyoto. The telephone polls - bane of much of Japan and, in particular, ancient Kyoto - have been buried. What is left is a lovely streetscape of wooden teahouses and restaurants with tiled roofs. Willow trees line the Shirakawa River. It is several blocks farther down from Shinmonzen Dori.
These are the decks that go up every year behind the restaurants along Pontocho. The decks extend out the back of the restaurants on top of stilts and face the Kamo River. They add extra seating and provide one of Japan's only outdoor dining experiences. They are put up every year at the beginning of May and are in use until September. Very, very popular. Unless you have a reservation, you will probably have to wait. However, it is worth it. After a long, hot day of sightseeing or work, a cold beer and dinner under the stars with the river running below and the hills floating in the distance - fabulous.
Nishiki Food Market is a colorful covered arcade running parallel to Shijo dori and is a must-see for lovers of Japanese food. In existence since the seventeenth century Nishiki, with over a hundred vendors, is one of Kyoto's main fish and vegetable markets and is a great place to pick up Kyoto's famed pickles (tsukemono), green tea, Japanese cooking knives or dried fish to take home as souvenirs.
The Jodo Shinshu sect temples of Higashi & Nishi Honganji are a short walk north of Kyoto Station. Higashi-Honganji is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto and one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. Not spectacular but worth the walk. Of more interest is the more ornate Nishi-Honganji opposite. The narrow streets between the two temples contain many stores selling incense and Buddhist artefacts.
Free Admission. Kyoto Station. Tel: 075 371 5181In the early 17th century, the first Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu, fearing the great wealth and power of the Jodo-Shinshu sect, engineered a rift in the Buddhist school and built Higashi-Honganji to rival its neighbor Nishi-Honganji. The present buildings (which are undergoing renovation), date from 1895 after the original structures were destroyed in repeated fires. The money for rebuilding in the 1890s was raised from contributions from followers throughout Japan and include 50 huge ropes made from human hair, examples of which can be seen inside the temple. Nishi-Honganji is the mother temple of Shinshu-Otani sect. The Founder's Hall, The Amida Hall and the Founder's Gate are the main buildings in the temple precincts and all contain priceless Buddhist images and statues. Late November sees 1000s of the sect's followers descend on Kyoto to remember the words and teachings of the sect's founder, Shinran (1173-1262).
Kyoto's Shosei-en Garden is a traditional Japanese formal garden affiliated with its much larger neighbor to the west, Higashi Honganji Temple; both are part of the Shinshu Otani-ha sect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. The garden is a ten-minute walk from Kyoto Station, and two blocks from the aforementioned Higashi Hoganji.Shosei-en Garden is thought to have been built in the ninth century on the Heian Period site of Prince Minamoto Notoru's mansion. Minamoto was the son of the Emperor Saga. In 1641, Tokugawa Ieyasu granted the land including the garden to nearby Higashi Honganji. Two years later, the leaders of Higashi Honganji commissioned Ishiyama Saijo to design and construct a garden. This is what became Shosei-en.Fires in 1858 and 1864 burnt the walls and interior structures to the ground. They were thereafter restored, and in 1938 designated a National Historic Site.
Within the grounds, there are several tea houses, a large pond, a small waterfall, many stone lanterns, and trees and plants that are in bloom throughout the year.500 yen. Kyoto Station. Tel: (075) 371-9181
The elegant pagoda of Toji Temple can be seen from the Shinkansen (bullet train) as you come into Kyoto. It is a short subway ride south of Kyoto Station. Toji Temple, dates from 794, is known for its high pagoda tower (the tallest in Japan) and for its lively flea markets on the 21st of every month. Get there very early for the best buys.
This is a site that you will not find in any official guide to Kyoto. The former bank, constructed in the late 19th century, was founded to serve Kyoto's outcaste community, or Burakumin (literally, "village people") whose ancestors performed "unclean" work and could not get loans at other banks at the time. Their work would have included anything to do with corpses, leather, animals, etc. Though ethnically Japanese with no visible or linguistic sign of being different, the Buraku are known primarily by the neighborhood in which they are born and raised. In spite of aggressive affirmative action--that includes hiring preferences, economic stipends, housing allowances, the construction of upscale public bathhouses, and more--initiated in the 1960s, those who live in Dowa Chiku (the latest euphemism, which translates roughly as Same Harmony Area) remain at the bottom of the Japanese economic ladder. The bank, now closed, was slated for demolition in the 1980s. It was saved and today houses a collection of shoe workers tools and historical documents on the first floor, and, on the second floor, historical documents related to nearby Sujin Elementary School. For an excellent portrait of contemporary Buraku life, Patrick Smith's Japan: A Reinterpretation contains a chapter that is as good a place as anywhere to begin.From Kyoto Station, go out the North central exit and walk east one block to Kawaramachi Street. Go north (away from the train tracks). The Museum is on the right. (If you continue walking north you will come to a block full of low-end shoe stores, which in Kyoto is a clearly understood sign.)Tel: 075-371-8220; open 10-4:30 except on Mondays, national holidays, and the second and fourth Saturday of the month.
The spectacular Sanjusangendo Temple, established in the twelfth century, houses 1001 carved wooden statutes of Kannon - the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy - set in ranks in the main hall. Sanjusangendo is a short bus ride east from Kyoto Station (buses #100, #206 & #208). On January 15 each year a competition of Japanese archery - kyudo - is held outside the hall.
Eastern Kyoto Area
Shisendo itself is a hermitage that was established by Jozen Ishikawa (1583-1672), a scholar, soldier and landscape architect. Following his withdrawal from samurai service, in 1615, he devoted the rest of his life to studying Chinese classics. In 1641, when he was 59, he built what is now known as Shisendo - a Zen Buddhist temple of the Soto sect..
The hugely popular Kiyomizu Temple is a must for most visitors to Kyoto. The main hall is built out onto pillars. The effect is that of a deck reaching out from the foot of the mountain. The original Kiyomizu Temple dates from the eighth century. After visiting the temple, wander around Sannenzaka, a small shopping street lined with traditional shops and wooden houses. You can follow this road as it winds its way down to Gion - the traditional pleasure and Geisha quarters of the city. On the way is Yasaka Gojonoto, a five-story pagoda.
Jishu Shrine is a small shrine tucked away behind Kiyomizudera Temple that even though very small in area, receives an unusually large number of visitors. The reason is that Okuninushi-no Mikoto is enshrined here and he is the god of love and marriage. The deity's messenger is the rabbit. The shrine does a brisk trade in Omamuri (amulets) that promise to help "for love knot", "for good marriage", "for love chance". If you don't want to spend any money, you can try out the Love Stones (koiuranai no ishi), a pair of rocks set in the ground about 6 metres apart. If you can successfully walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed you will be lucky in love. Of course, if you don't succeed you can always buy an Omamuri.
Close to Gion, the brightly painted Yasaka-jinja Shrine is one of the city's best known landmarks. Inside is a pleasant garden - a popular spot for cherry-viewing parties - hanami - in the Spring along with near-by Maruyamakoen. The center of town (Shijo-Kawaramachi) is a short walk away. Yasaka-jinja is the host shrine of Kyoto's biggest festival - Gion Matsuri in July and at New Year attracts literally millions of worshippers for hatsu-mode - the first shrine visit of the new year. Also reputedly popular among Geisha themselves. The buildings date from 1654 and were built on the order of the shogun of the day.
Headquarters of the Jodo sect of Buddhism and built in 1294 on the site where the founder Honen fasted to death, the massive Chion-in is also home to the largest bell in Japan, weighing some 74 tons and cast in 1633. The impressive interior is both immense and ornately beautiful. Spacious grounds covering 14.5 ha. spread into the surrounding hills. The temple contains many art treasures including an illustrated biography of Honen, designated as a 'National Treasure'.
Rightly famed for its autumn colors on the hills of Higashiyama, the Nanzen-ji Temple complex can be extremely busy with visitors in the Fall. The approach to this Zen temple is lined with cedars and vegetarian tofu restaurants. One of Nanzen-ji's many sub-temples, Konchi-in, contains a beautiful dry stone garden by Kobori Enshu. It is possible to eat shojin-ryori Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, complete with beer, in some of the temples.
Philosopher's Path or Philosopher's Walk (tetsugaku-no-michi is a small cherry-tree lined canal flowing from Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji past Honen-in and Eikan-do and numerous cafes and craft shops. The name of the path refers to the philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945), the founder of the so-called "Kyoto School of Philosophy", who would often walk along this pleasant route. The path is magnificent in spring for the cherry-blossom season and is a popular stroll at night at this time of year.
Walking north from Nanzen-ji on the cherry-tree lined 'Philosopher's Walk' you will pass Eikan-do, a small temple famed for its statue of Amida and then the small, peaceful Honen-in Temple at the foot of Mount Nyoigadake, with its tranquil carp pond and freshly raked sand garden. Established in 1680 to honor Honen, the founder of the Jodo sect, the temple is especially worth visiting in april for its cherry blossoms and again in the Fall for its magnificent maples.
Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion)
Restraint, elegance, wabi sabi. Ginkakuji is perhaps the pinnacle of Japanese artistic expression. Best known for its stone gardens (built to reflect the moon) and simple buildings, the fifteenth century temple was originally a villa for the artistic Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a poor ruler in a time of conflict and instability but a great patron of the arts. Located at the end/beginning of the Philosopher's Walk, Ginkakuji is discussed in detail in Donald Keene's book, Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul in Japan.Admission Fee. Keihan Demachiyanagi is the nearest station though a bus or taxi from there will save you a long walk or alternatively bus #5 from Kyoto station.
In the area close to the National Museum of Modern Art, which was designed by Pritzker Award winner Fumihiko Maki, the National Museum of Fine Arts and a huge vermilion torii, is the Heian Shrine. Heian Shrine is a scaled-down reproduction of the original Imperial palace built in 794. The shrine was first built in the late nineteenth century and the present wooden structure dates from 1979.
Free Admission to the shrine precincts, charge for the gardens at the rear. Higashiyama Subway Station (Tozai Line).
In northeast Kyoto, in the foothills of Mount Hiei, the gardens of the seventeenth century Shugakuin Rikyu Imperial Villa are a superb example of shakkei or "borrowed scenery". Advanced permission is required from the Imperial Household Agency to join a group tour.
Free Admission by appointment. Shugakuin station (Eiden Line) or bus #5 from Kyoto station.
On the road leading to Shugakuin Rikyu Imperial Villa take the left hand turning about 200m from the entrance and follow the signs to one of Kyoto's hidden gems - Sekisanzenin. The entrance to this 9th century temple is marked by a concrete torii on the right. The temple has a marked walking trail in its hill-top garden which takes in a relaxing carp pond. The temple is well known for its stunning autumn leaves and occasional flea-markets.
The Nichiren Buddhist Myomanji far to the north of the city has wonderful views of Mount Hiei. There is a concrete copy of the famed stupa at Bodh Gaya, India, where the historical Buddha gained Enlightenment and a graceful statue of the Buddha within. Myomanji has pleasant grounds of raked gravel to take in the fine views from the steps of the main hall.
Takaragaike is a pleasant man-made irrigation lake in north Kyoto, dating from the 18th century, when it was built to supply a steady supply of water for the area's ricefields. Now there is pleasure-boating, a jogging track, cherry-blossom viewing in season and fine views of Mount Hiei. Nearby is the Kyoto International Conference Center (Tel: 075 705 1234), built in 1996, where the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change was negotiated in 1997 and the luxury Kyoto Takaragaike Prince Hotel.
Ryozen Kannon, located within the grounds of Kodaiji Temple, is a 24-meter concrete image of the Goddess of Mercy built in 1955 to honour the dead of World War II, both Japanese and Allied soldiers. Visitors can enter the body of the statue to see the enshrined Eleven-headed image of Kannon. Within the precincts is an altar containing soil from every Allied cemetery from the Pacific theater of World War II.
Featured on the Japanese ten yen coin, this exquisite temple is actually in the city of Uji next east from Kyoto city. Built in 1052 by the Regent Fujiwara Yorimichi (a 'regent' being one who governed in the name of the Emperor), it has one of Japan's few remaining Pure Land Buddhist gardens, characterized by a 'natural' layout. It is dominated by the Phoenix Hall built to house the Amitabha Tathagata image of the Buddha. Byodoin Temple houses numerous national treasures, including the Phoenixes after which the Hall is named, and the sole remaining Buddhist statues from the 11th century: the 52 Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds, to name but two. As well as being able to enjoy its beautiful grounds, the visitor can visit the temple museum and see the establishment's treasures in a computer-graphically reproduced interior of the Phoenix Hall.
Western Kyoto Area
Opened in 1924 to commemorate the enthronement of the Emperor Taisho, Kyoto's Botanical Gardens are the oldest in the country with over 12,000 plants from over a 1000 species. It features both European and Japanese-style gardens, and with its many cherry trees is the place to visit in spring. The conservatory has recently been rebuilt and expanded requires a separate admission fee of 200 yen, although a combined admission of 250 yen is available. The riverside location is a pleasant place to relax and picnic.
Daitokuji is a functioning Zen temple complex in north west Kyoto. The compound is a city within walls made up of 24 sub-temples. Of particlar note are the small sub-temples Daisen-in and Koto-in for their lovely gardens.
Kinkakuji is perhaps the most well-known temple in Japan. The main pavilion is covered in gold leaf and shimmers in front of a pond. The current building only dates to 1955. The ancient original was burned to the ground in 1950 by a disgruntled priest. The incident was immortalized in the Yukio Mishima novel - The Golden Pavilion. The wooded grounds are extensive.
Kitano Tenmangu, established in the tenth century, is the patron saint of students, who flock here from all over the country to pray for success in examinations. The shrine is a must-see if you are in Kyoto on the 25th of the month when a huge flea market (known as Tenjin-san to the locals) takes over the grounds of the shrine. Kitano Tenmangu is also famous for its plum blossoms which can be seen in their full glory usually in February or early March. The shrine was built in honor of poet and scholar Sugawara no Michizane, who fell out of favor wuth the ruling Fujiwara clan and was exiled to Kyushu.
Located at the foot of Mount Kinugasa in the northwest of Kyoto, Tojiin Temple was the ancestral temple of the Ashikaga shoguns. It was founded in 1338 by Lord Takauji Ashikaga, who had the renowned landscape designer Soseki Muso create the gardens and ponds on the grounds. The garden at Tojiin is divided into an eastern part ("Shinji-chi") and western ("Fuyo-cho, or Lotus Pond). At the northern end is a tea house with a thatched roof, which was built by the shogun Yoshimasa. The garden contains many camellias, Japanese maples, and other species to mark the seasons.
Ryoanji Temple houses the most famous Zen rock garden in Japan arranged in the kare-sansui (dry landscape) style. Founded in 1450 the temple grounds also include an interesting wooded garden and pond. A bit further along the road is Ninnaji Temple, with extensive grounds and an imposing five-storey pagoda.
Headquarters of the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect, Myoshinji is a vast, imposing Zen temple complex south of Ryoanji consisting of over forty sub-temples including the beautiful gardens of Taizo-in and Kano school paintings at Reiun-in. The temple also has Japan's oldest bell, which was cast in 698.
Daikakuji Temple on the western outskirts of Kyoto, to the north of Arashiyama, was originally an Imperial villa of the Emperor Saga, later becoming a temple in the ninth century. The temple contains paintings from the Kano school of artists from the 15th to 18th centuries. The surrounding Osawa Lake (Osawa no ike) was once used for boating by the Emperor and a reproduction of a royal boat can be seen. The tranquil lake and parkland adjoining it are perfect for a stroll or lazy picnic and the nearby farmland is dotted with ancient tumuli.
Ninnaji Temple was founded in 886 by the Emperor Uda. For decades prior to that, it had served as a summer home for the Imperial Family, which would use it to escape the summer heat of the more centrally located Kyoto Gosho Palace. Uda served as head priest for thirty years; he was then succeeded by his son. This practice of having an Emperor's son act as head priest at Ninnaji lasted until the Imperial Family left for Tokyo in 1869. The present buildings date back to the 17th century. The 33 m, 5-storey pagoda was built in 1637. The temple grounds contain ancient late-flowering cherry trees for which Ninnaji is particularly well-known. Ninnanji is the Omuro school head temple of the Shingon sect.
The Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa was completed in 1624 and for the last 100 years has been a shrine for foreign architects. The Villa is stunning in its simplicity. Permission from the Imperial Household Agency is required for entry.
The main attraction in the village of Kibune is Kibune Shrine, an ancient shrine that was established long before the city of Kyoto. The long stone stairs flanked by vermillion lanterns are impossible to miss. The other attraction in Kibune is a unique dining experience, kawadoko, where you eat seated on platforms suspended just above the fast flowing waters of the Kibune river in any one of the village's picturesque ryokan. One establishment serves nagashi somen, a type of thin noodle served cold. The interesting part is that the noodles are delivered to you via a bamboo chute... you grab at the noodles with your chopsticks as they zip by.
Both Kibune and Kurama make for a cooler, mountain escape from Kyoto city in the hot summer months. From Kibune you can take the trail up the sacred mountain of Kurama (around 90 minutes as an easy stroll or much less for the more active), to the village of Kurama and Yuki Shrine, the home shrine of the famous Kurama Fire Festival (hi-matsuri) held on 22 October. Young men parade through the streets with huge torches as the whole district is turned in to a sea of fire. Also Kurama dera is a pleasant mountain temple not far from the station and the hike to the main building takes you through a forest of giant crytomeria sugi trees or take the cable car to the top. Kurama is also associated with the tengu legend of long-nosed forest goblins, according to the myth the warrior Yoshitsune Minamoto was trained in swordmanship by the Kurama tengu. Kurama also has a pretty onsen, with excellent mountain views, on your right as you walk up the road from the station.
South Eastern Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its thousands of closely-spaced orange torii gates that wind over the hills of Inariyama beyond the entrance to the shrine. Inari shrines honor the patron deities of agriculture and business, ensuring a constant stream of worshippers and the individual torii are donated by merchants hoping to get ahead in business. You will notice dozens of small statues around the shrine of the fox (kitsune) - the messenger of Inari.
Tofukuji Temple is a massive complex that was founded in 1236 and built in the ensuing decades. It has been plagued by fire on many occasions: it was destroyed in 1319, 1334, and 1336, and burned again in the 15th century.
Kyoto is justifiably famous for its food (kyo-ryori), especially its haute cuisine known as kaiseki, which developed to accompany the tea ceremony. Restaurants in Kyoto have a good reputation and the city has become something of a food center, attracting not just new Japanese restaurants but also a wide range of international cuisine ranging from Italian to Indonesian. After a hard day visiting temples and shrines there are many good bars, cafes and clubs in Kyoto to relax and unwind.
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