Kyoto may have been usurped as Japan’s capital many years ago, but this ancient city is still a vital part of cultural life in ‘the land of the rising sun’. It is home to no fewer than 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and many of its impressive shrines and temples date back to antiquity. Throw in the city’s impressive edifices of imperial power - such as Kyoto Imperial Palace and Nijō Castle - and the more ephemeral charms of the cherry blossom season and you have a destination which is sure to live long in the memory of all those who walk its streets. These are just some of the utterly stunning attractions that await those lucky enough to visit.
This stunning Buddhist temple, which dates back to the end of the 14th century, is one of Japan’s most popular buildings and rightly listed among the 17 World Heritage Sites of Kyoto. Its fascinating history includes its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of devastating fires on two separate occasions - one in the mid-15th century Ōnin war and the latter in an arson attack in the 1950s. But there’s no sign of those troubled times today, and the Temple of the Golden Pavilion and its beautiful gardens welcome countless visitors each year.
Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita, Kyoto
Another spectacular temple, Ginkakuji - or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion - was originally intended to be given a silver foil/lacquer coating, from which it derives its name. But the Ōnin War halted construction and those plans were not realised. Extensively restored just a decade ago, this Buddhist site and its gardens are another of Kyoto’s most popular attractions today. Its gardens are a particularly popular highlight.
Address: 2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto
3. Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji
These two temple complexes, which represent two different sub sects of Shin Buddhism, are popular landmarks within Kyoto and have been affectionately dubbed Onissan (Honourable Mr West) and Ohigashisan (Honourable Mr West) by the residents due to their proximity to one another. They date back to the very start of the 17th century, and each’s rich and sometimes troubled histories offer another fascinating glimpse into Buddhist life in the city.
Address: 60 Horikawa-dōri Hanaya-chō Kudaru Honganji Monzen-machi, Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto
Nijō Castle, which has been open to the public since 1940, covers 27-and-a-half hectares (68 acres) and features numerous historic buildings within its concentric ring fortifications. Dating back to the 1600s, it boasts a fascinating history full of incident, Imperial connections and natural disasters. The castle, with its impressive gates, palace and gardens, is one of the 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and a World Heritage Site.
Address: 541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Nijō Castle
5. Kamigamo Shrine and Shimogamo Shrine
Two of the oldest Shinto shrines in the whole of Japan, Shimogamo and Kamigamo are two more World Heritage Sites that any visitor to Kyoto simply has to visit. Shimogamo, which is the older of the two shrines, was originally founded as far back as the 6th century, while its counterpart was founded around a century later. As well as their striking buildings and torii gates, the shrines have numerous links to Japan’s ancient imperial rulers.
Address: 59 Shimogamo Izumigawacho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Shimogamo Shrine
Kyoto is renowned for its three great festivals - the Aoi Matsuri, Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. The Gion festival, which runs in the district of the same name each July, builds up to an impressive parade and features a host of night stalls and people in traditional wear. The Aoi Matsuri takes place on May 15 every year and is linked to the Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines. Events include a formal procession featuring hundreds of people in traditional dress and adorned with Hollyhock leaves. The Jidai Matsuri - or Festival of the Ages - takes place every October 22. It features a historical parade featuring an array of people in period dress and others representing characters from Japan’s feudal past.
7. Daimonji Festival
Speaking of festivals, another particular highlight in Kyoto’s calendar is the Gozan no Okuribi, commonly known as the Daimonji Festival, which takes place on August 16 every year and features the lighting of spectacular hillside bonfires that form the shapes of five key Japanese characters. The event marks the conclusion of the Obon season, when the souls of the dead are said to make their annual return from the other side.
8. Kyoto Imperial Palace and Katsura Imperial Palace
No visit to Kyoto is complete without a visit to the stunning sites of the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Katsura Imperial Villa. The former is still one of the Emperor’s active palaces but its impressive grounds are open to the public, who can enjoy tours of the buildings numerous times each day. The separate Katsura Imperial Villa is home to magnificent gardens and buildings which are regarded as some of the finest in the country, visited by appointment only.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Address: 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Kyoto Imperial Palace
9. Kitano Tenmangū Shrine
Another of Kyoto’s ancient Shinto shrines, the Kitano Tenmangū can trace its roots back to the year 947. Plum blossom trees grow throughout its grounds and when they are in bloom, the site is a particularly popular destination for nature lovers eager to catch the impressive spectacle. The Plum Blossom Festival, which takes place on February 25, coincides with this natural wonder and sees geiko and maiko serve wagshi and tea to 3000 guests.
Address: Bakurocho, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Kitano Tenmangū
10. Heian Shrine
This important Shinto shrine, which is regarded as one of Japan’s important cultural properties, is another site whose architecture and gardens will appeal to visitors. Its main palace was designed to a mimic the Kyoto Imperial Palace design of the Heian period - from which the shrine gets its name. The charming gardens stretch to fill nearly half of the entire site and are home to a number of rare species, such as the yellow pond turtle.
Address: Okazaki Nishitennocho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Heian Shrine
11. Nishiki Market
The popular market is a must-see for those travellers eager to experience a little traditional shopping. The market, which is located just to the north of Shijō Street in the heart of the city, is steeped in tradition and history and will make for a great place to seek out and sample some of Kyoto’s famed culinary delights.
Address: 〒604-8054 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto
Website: Nishiki Market
This Zen Buddhist temple, which can trace its roots back to the late 13th century, is not only a key site in the Nanzen-ji branch of Nanzen-ji, its precincts are also home to some sublime gardens - the Hōjō - that have been officially designated a Place of Scenic Beauty, and whose trees erupt in a riot of colour each autumn. The 22 metre tall (72ft) Sanmon gate is another noted highlight and enjoys excellent views.
Address: Nanzenji-Fukuchi-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-city
Website: Nanzen-ji temple
13. The 'Way of Philosophy'
This popular walk, which winds its way between the Ginkaku-ji and the Kumano Wakoso-ji shrine along the Lake Biwa canal, has won plenty of fans over the years. The mix of vegetation lining the route means there’s always something new to spot and enjoy - from the pink cherry blossoms of the spring to the verdant colours of the maples and other foliage come the autumn. This also makes it worthy of repeat visits, with each season bringing something new to the experience.
From the supposed wish-granting waters of the Otowa waterfall to the beautiful views across the city from the main hall’s large veranda, there is plenty to discover at this independent Buddhist shrine in the east of Kyoto. One of the city’s world heritage sites, the Kiyozumi-dera temple dates back to the 770s and derives its name - which translates as ‘clear’ or 'pure water’ - from the waterfall on site. The present buildings are nearly 400 years old.
Address: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto
15. Gion area
Welcome to Kyoto’s famous geisha district. Gion, which developed around the Yasaka shrine to cater to the needs of its visitors, is a popular destination among tourists. Some of the neighbourhood has been handed historical preservation status and is known for its traditional buildings and entertainment. The district, which boasts a mix of old and modern streets, is littered with traditional Japanese teahouses as well as a host of popular nightspots.
16. Yasaka Shrine
Speaking of the Yasaka Shrine, this popular site dates back to 656 and has a history of imperial patronage. Once known as Gion Shrine, it is at the centre of a number of the district’s cultural activities. When its ‘mikoshi’ paraded through the streets in 869 to ward off a plague, it sowed the seeds of what would become the famous Gion Matsuri festival. The shrine is also visited by people on their way to the popular cherry blossom viewing site of Maruyama Park every April.
Address: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto
Website: Yasaka Shrine
17. Kyoto Tower
An iconic landmark and the tallest building in the city, the Kyoto Tower is a superb spot to view the historic Japanese capital. Its observation deck towers 100 metres (330ft) above the streets and planning restrictions on building heights in Kyoto means you can enjoy unobstructed views in all directions. Hundreds of thousands of people visit every year, drawn by the view and other attractions on site - such as the hotel and shops.
Address: 7 2 1 - 1 Higashishiokojicho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Kyoto Tower
18. Kyoto Railway Museum
The golden age of steam butts up against the lightning fast era of the bullet train at this fascinating and popular museum, which features more than 50 pieces of rolling stock - covering everything from a 1880s steam engine right through to a 500 series Shinkansen bullet train. The museum is also home to a historic 1914 roundhouse, as well as historic preserved buildings from Nijō Station.
Kyoto Railway Museum
Address: Kankijicho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Kyoto Railway Museum
19. Saihō-ji's moss garden
The famous moss garden of the Saihō-ji temple is sure to appeal to fans of nature. The temple, which is another of Kyoto’s world heritage sites, dates back to the 700s. There are more than 120 different varieties of mosses which are a more recent addition and are thought to have developed naturally in the 19th century when the monastery did not have sufficient funds to maintain the gardens in their carefully manicured state.
Address: 56 Matsuojingatanicho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto
20. Fushimi-Inari Taisha
Fushimi-Inari Taisha, with its striking torii gates, is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions, and a true must-see experience. The massed rows of colourful gates, of which there are some thousands, will linger long in the memory. What’s more, the head shrine of the god Inari, is open 24 hours and its main hall is lit up at night - for a memorable sight.
Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Website: Fushimi-Inari Taisha
21. Fushimi's brewery district
Sake fans will want to make a beeline for the Fushimi district, which is chock full of breweries that produce the iconic Japanese drink. Some 22 different brewers of all sizes call the district home. And there are tours available for those interested in learning more about the brews, or keen to sample one or two.
Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum
Address: 〒612-8043 Kyoto Prefecture
Website: Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum
22. Suzumushi-dera Temple
The Myotokuzan-Kegonji Temple - more commonly known as Suzumushi-dera - is perfect for peaceful contemplation. Its bell cricket population produces a calming ambient noise that has made the site famous. The temple is also known for its views of the city and its Jizo of Happiness - the ‘Kofuku Jizo’ - which is said to grant one wish to those who pray to it. Its sandalled feet - unusual in statues of Jizo - are said to be so he can deliver your wish to you.
Address: 31 Matsumurojikecho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Suzumushi-dera Temple
23. Byōdō temple, Uji
The stunning Buddhist temple of Byōdō-in is another world heritage site worthy of a visit. Located in Uji in the wider Kyoto Prefecture, the temple is home to spectacular gardens which have been designated a national Historic Site as well as an official Place of Scenic Beauty. And that’s not all. The temple’s Phoenix Hall, which was finished in 1053, is an icon of Japan - appearing on the back of its 10 yen coin.
Address: Renge-116 Uji, Kyoto Prefecture 611-0021
Website: Byōdō temple
Step back in time with a visit to Ohara village, a peaceful rural idyll about an hour north of the city by public transport. This village is a slice of old Kyoto and is home to a host of picturesque gardens with russet colours of the autumn foliage, or the green teas of the local temples.
25. Kibune and Kurama
Want to get out and explore the mountainous countryside around Kyoto? Then the quaint villages of Kibune and Kurama will hit the spot. Other than walks and festivals, these forested mountains are also home to the mountain-top temple of Kurama-dera, which boasts some fine views of the surrounding landscape.
26. Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Japan’s feudal past collides with the magic of the movies - and even the Power Rangers - at this fascinating movie set and theme park. Every year, more than 200 films are shot on this site, which depicts a street from the Edo period. Visitors will get to enjoy watching some of the period dramas being filmed, as well as getting the chance to dress up as geishas or thrill to the sights of the regular ninja shows.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Address: 1 0 Uzumasa Higashihachiokachō, Ukyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 616-8161
Website: Toei Kyoto Studio Park
This beautiful district on the western fringes of Kyoto is an officially designated Place of Scenic Beauty as well as being a national Historic Site. And there’s certainly much to enjoy - from the Iwatayama Monkey Park to the stunning Arashiyama Bamboo Grove - the latter of which boasts a number of footpaths which wind their way through this natural icon of Japan.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Address: Japan, 〒616-0004 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto
Website: Iwatayama Monkey Park
28. Sagano Scenic Railway and the Hozugawa River Boat Ride
The Sagano Scenic Railway offers great sightseeing opportunities as it snakes its way along the Hozu river gorge between Torokko Saga station in Arashiyama and Kameoka. The route passes plenty of rugged beauty and natural marvels such as cherry blossoms and autumnal foliage. And if you’d prefer to explore the river in a more exciting way, then the Hozugawa Boat Ride offers another fascinating perspective on the beautiful surroundings.
Sagano Scenic Railway
Website: Sagano Scenic Railway
This stunning pine-covered sandbar in Miyazu Bay is a true icon of Japan. Indeed, it is one of the celebrated ‘Three Views of Japan’ - a historic list of the country’s three most scenic sights. The 3.3 km (two miles) sandbar, which can be walked on foot, is part of the picturesque Tango-Amanohashidate-Ōeyama Quasi-National Park. There is also a shrine and temple at either end.
Address: Miyazu, Kyoto Prefecture
Another stunning natural wonder to set hearts racing, the 500 metre (1600ft) high Rurikei ravine features a series of beautiful waterfalls and striking cliffs along its 4 km length (2.5 miles). Running from the waters of Lake Tsuten-ko, the ravine’s rugged mountain setting and the picture-postcard vegetation is officially designated a beauty spot by Japan’s ministry of education.
A glut of cultural riches
Kyoto is absolutely chockfull of stunning locations and historic charms. With so many sightseeing opportunities awaiting travellers to this corner of Japan, the only problem will be deciding where to start.
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