See also: Where to Stay in Kyoto
Culture winds thick and heady throughout Kyoto, the city an open air menagerie of temples and shrines. Once the flowering capital of Japan, Kyoto’s historical significance is evident; it is marked by the architectures of bygone eras and more the beautiful for it. While one can hardly explore all the heritage sites in one sitting, you definitely don’t want to miss out on these significant sites. Here's the 30 best things to do in Kyoto:
Explore the trails of Fushimi Inari Shrine
Guarding the entrance to sacred Mount Inari is the venerated Shinto shrine: Fushimi Inari. Dedicated to the god of rice, statues of messenger foxes dot the premise; this foxy motif has influenced on-site eateries to serve similarly themed dishes of Inari sushi and Kitsune udon. Pay your respects at the main hall before embarking on the iconic Senbon torii hiking trails. Leading through the blanketed slopes to a breathtaking peak are densely packed torii gates donated by various parties, some of the most photographed sites in the world. While the summit takes 2 to 3 hours to reach, you can stop at the Yotsutsuji intersection before turning back.
Be charmed by Sanneizaka Shopping Street
If paved slopes and traditional wooden buildings are what you find charming, Sanneizaka Shopping Street will have you hooked. Running from Yasaka to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, this old-timey path is lined with souvenir shops, ceramic stores and restaurants serving traditional cuisine. You can buy anything from cute charms to green tea snacks, to wooden swords and personalized chopsticks. You can also rent kimonos before hopping up to Kiyomizu-dera for some blessing in love. A quaint, shopping heaven? You got it in one.
Admire the city from Kyoto Tower
Every city comes with an observatory tower and Kyoto is no different. Easily accessible and a towering rarity – because Kyoto isn’t one for skyscrapers – Kyoto Tower stands at 131 meters tall. Completed in 1964, it is a relatively modern construct in a nostalgic city; you can expect the typical souvenir shops, restaurants and commercial goods at its base. Visitors comparing Kyoto and neighboring Osaka should definitely step up to the circular viewing platform, as clear days may afford views across even Kyoto’s borders.
The famed geisha district: Gion
Hemmed in between Yasaka Shrine and Kamo River is the famous Gion district, home to geiko and maiko who train in traditional performance arts. Characterized by old-styled wooden merchant houses now transformed into shops and restaurants, Gion’s main Hanami-koji Street is lined with establishments serving local kaiseki meals. Keeping traditions of eras long past, teahouses persist in this district to entertain exclusive guests. For a quieter experience, the riverfront Shirakawa Area is home to similar high-class delights. Do be respectful towards any geiko or maiko you may come across; don’t try and grab them for photographs as they are most likely busy with their schedules.
Sampling Kyoto delicacies at Nishiki Market
If you have never been under one of Japan’s sheltered food streets, Nishiki Market is a delicious introduction to narrow blocks of shops packed neatly together. Locally produced, these shops have been passed down through families for generations, developing out of a fish wholesale district to a varied retail space. Tending to specialize in one food stuff, procured goods include pickles, dried seafood, local sweets and sushi. You can taste test free samples or quick bites, freshly prepped skewers offered alongside sit-down restaurants and ready-made food. Knives and cookware are also sold, hereby coining Nishiki Market as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’.
Dining at Pontocho Geisha District
Visit Pontocho for the ambiance, a narrow dining alley running parallel to Kamogawa River. Temporary platforms are built over flowing water for a unique open air dining experience, coined kawayuka; we recommend booking ahead for this river-facing seating. Retaining the traditional façade of what used to be a prominent geisha district, Pontocho now houses a myriad of traditional and modern Kyoto cuisine, from inexpensive grilled foods to expensive and exclusive establishments. If you time your trip right, you can catch the biannual performances at Pontocho Kaburenjo theatre featuring geiko and maikos.
Purify with Kiyomizu-dera Temple’s blessed water
Named after its central Otowa Waterfall, Kiyomizu-dera translates into ‘Pure Water Temple’. With roots in the Hosso sect of Japanese Buddhism, Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan since its founding in 780. While visitors take delight in the winding shopping street towards its main entrance and vermillion pagodas, its main hall takes centerpiece. With an elevated wooden stage jutting out over cherry and maple thickets, it offers unparalleled views of seasonal shifts across the city of Kyoto. Other notable structures include Jishu Shrine, which blesses love and matchmaking, the pure waters of Otowa Waterfall and Okunoin Hall.
Stunning silver accents of Ginkaku-ji
There might not actually be a silver coated pavilion at Ginkaku-ji’s Zen gardens, but this shogun retirement home turned temple is modeled after the golden plated Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion). East of Kyoto, this complex of temple buildings amid unique moss and sand garden emulates the refined nature of tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, Noh theatre and poetry of its cultural period. The circular walking path takes you through a deliberate landscape of bonsai trees, ponds, and dark wooden buildings. The Silver pavilion itself is a simple two-story structure whose exterior lightly shimmers under moonlight – painting a beautiful, poetic retreat.
Quiet history at Murin-an Villa
Murin-an proves that it doesn’t have to be big to be significant. Originally a private villa home to Yamagata Aritomo in the Taisho Period, this public site is now an open museum slash teahouse. History marks the western-style building where notable politicians came together to discuss policies before the Russo-Japanese war in 1903. History also lingers in the traditional juxtaposition of Murin-an’s strolling garden, grass plains soothed by intermittent maples and trickling stream. To complete the picture, a serene teahouse and waterfall invites you stay for a bit of tradition and a bit of experience, running a quick tea ceremony before flowing water.
Indulge in a kimono pictorial
Flesh out your heritage site visits with a period ensemble to whip up impromptu photoshoots! Whether you opt for a lighter, summer yukata or the full-set, embroidered kimono, the traditional dress completes your cultural immersion by emulating the way people used to live. Kimono rentals can be found near major attractions such as Kiyomizu-dera Temple, or downtown areas. There’s a comfortable price range to satisfy your budget, and you have choice of accessories as well. And you don’t have to worry about standing out as Kyoto actively embraces older practices; many locals go about their daily business in traditional wear.
Step onto royal grounds at Kyoto Imperial Park
Having witness over six decades of imperial residence before Tokyo became the capital; Kyoto’s Imperial Park is an impressive complex of walled-in halls, gardens and historical sites, including two palaces. Kyoto Imperial Palace was inhabited until 1868; the grounds are now open to the public, although the buildings themselves cannot be accessed. Sento Imperial Palace, home to past emperors and empresses, is a smaller but no less revered heritage. You will also find former residences of court nobles such as Kaninnomiya Mansion, located at the corner of this kilometer-long recreational space. The park is especially beautiful in spring, cherry trees and fall birches softening the broad gravel paths.
Day trip out to Arashiyama
Strike out of central Kyoto for the mountain-mired Arashiyama, a place of rich culture enclosed within oscillating valleys thick with autumn palettes. Monkey Mountain rises in front of the station, but it is moon-walking Togetsukyo Bridge that lures you in with open grace. Besides a small traditional town with handicraft shops and local delicacies, you will soon wander across countless temples and shrines. If Tenryuji Temple’s golden dragon isn’t riveting enough, trail through the refreshing and sun-dappled Bamboo Grove to reach Okochi-Sanso Villa. There’s nothing like kicking back with a cup of green tea, glorious view before you. Definitely add this to your list of things to do in Kyoto.
A historic Hozugawa River Boat Ride
The traditional flat bottomed boats and bamboo poles of the Hozugawa River Cruises cut a sleek figure through the ravine. In the two hour drift from Kameoka town to Arashiyama, you can bask in the untouched natural scenery of rural Kyoto, particularly vibrant in autumn. There is history behind this cruise too; from transporting logs to grain and firewood, Hozugawa River boats were crucial to the development of Kyoto and Osaka’s heritage sites. While trains eventually negated the needs for boats, tourism has revived the practice as both a cultural experience and sightseeing attraction.
Nijo Castle: a reminder of Edo strongholds
Track down Kyoto’s past as an imperial stronghold by starting with Nijo Castle. Built in 1603 for the first shogun of Edo Period, this castle complex was temporarily used as an imperial palace before taking up as a heritage site late 1990s. Its layered defenses start with Honmaru, where visitors step in under the impressive eaves of Karamon Gate to reach the secondary circle, Ninomaru. The shogun presided in the well-preserved Ninomaru Palace, where separate triangular-roofed buildings are linked by narrow corridors. Honmaru Palace and its five story castle keep suffered from natural disasters, leaving behind an incomplete complex that rarely invites in visitors. Still, you can enjoy a calming stroll around the gardens, which include cherry blossoms and maples primed for seasonal shifts.
Wander around Heian Shrine
Heian Shrine might not be centuries old, but it is a dedication to the emperors who have ruled from Kyoto. Recognizable by the gigantic torii gate at the entrance, the grounds of Heian Shrine loosely imitate that of the Imperial Palace, opening up to a wide court upon entry. Besides the main cluster of buildings, the garden full of weeping cherry trees makes it a coveted spring destination. Autumn doesn’t thrift on celebration either; Heian Shrine hosts the Jidai Festival every October, featuring a costumed parade that transition through Japan’s historical timeline.
Testugaku no Michi (The Philosopher’s Path)
Spring revelers will inevitably wind up along The Philosopher’s Path, trailing after hundreds of cherry blossom foliage. Tracing a canal that runs between Ginkakuji and Nanzenji neighborhood, the pastel-shaded stone path isn’t just scenic; it is also reflective. Extending out from this pleasant walk are eateries, cafes, small shrines and temples that add to the contemplative atmosphere. Want to avoid busy roads? This is the perfect alternative.
Introducing downtown Kyoto: Shijo-Kawaramachi intersection
The heart of downtown Kyoto perches at the intersecting Shijo and Kawaramachi Streets. A commercial center marked by Takashimaya and Marui Department Store, it neatly bisects shopping interests. Shijo Street proudly presents high-class brands, luxury goods and pricey boutiques; the epitome of a modern city. In contrast, Kawaramachi Street embraces a more humble tone in form of generational shops, local sweets and local specialties.
Join in a festival
Is it any wonder that Kyoto hosts Japan’s most famous festival? The Gion Matsuri headed by Yasaka Shrine is a month long affair in July, peaking with a grand procession of floats and night time festivities. Rooted in religious ceremony to appease the gods, the procession boasts its modern day practices; a divine messenger child cannot set foot on ground the few days he is paraded around town. Other festivals that celebrate bygone eras are the colorful, costumed parades of Aoi Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. Meanwhile, Hanatoro festival is of more subtle flavor, a biannual illumination event where lanterns are strung up across popular areas.
Lay back and relax at Maruyama Park
Maruyama Park – one of Kyoto’s prime cherry blossom viewing destinations. Sitting next to Yasaka Shrine in spanning wide paths and squares peppered with trees, this public park is a popular weekend joint for families and relaxed wanderers. A special seating area is prepared early April, elevated platforms poised below fluttering flowers for the ultimate viewing experience.
Climbing the sacred Mount Hiei
Very few mountains are as culturally important as Mount Hiei, whose devoted caretakers include one of Japan’s most prominent Buddhist sects. Take the Sakamoto Cablecar to the summit for an eagle’s view of Otsu and Lake Biwa, and find your way to Enryakuji Temple. Once heading thousands of sub temples, its reduced power is still nothing to scoff at. Comprised of various areas, you can spend the entire day exploring this massive complex. Take the forested path from Todo to Saito area; atmospheric and tranquil, this trail encourages quiet contemplation.
Smell nature at Kyoto Botanical Gardens
If you wish for an all-year appreciation of flora and fauna, Kyoto Botanical Garden is exactly that. Home to over 10,000 plant species, it encompasses a Bamboo Garden, Bonsai Exhibit, Sakura trees, Lotus Pond, Ume Grove and other Japan-native families. Sunlight filters through comfortable avenues and benched rest areas guarantee exploration at your pace. The glass paneled conservatory is another enticing world of its own, insides wreathed with ferns, trellis plants, savannah plantation and more. Kyoto Botanical Garden is a place of nature worship.
Breaking barriers at Kyoto International Manga Museum
A modern museum that deserves to be celebrated alongside its historical predecessors, Kyoto International Manga Museum is proof of how integral manga is to present day Japanese culture. Its widespread appeal has long since crossed international borders, calling not only on readers but also artists. The museum’s main draw may be its massive spread of manga (in Japanese) and a smaller collection of translated works, but dedicated sections highlight how manga has developed overseas. Featuring works of international manga artists as well as hosting events with foreign artists, this tribute is no longer ‘in memory’ of classics; it is movement in developing this art form regardless of place.
Look back in time with Kyoto National Museum
What else can you expect from such a culturally rich city but a top-tier museum? Rivalling Tokyo National Museum and its Nara and Kyushu counterparts, Kyoto National Museum is one of the most dated and distinguished. Established in 1897, its permanent collections are rotating exhibitions of calligraphy, sculptures, archaeological artefacts, ceramics and other art mediums. These cultural properties extend far beyond the Meiji Period in which the buildings were constructed; but do spend some time admiring the red-bricked exterior as a historical architecture of its own merit. You may also enjoy temporary exhibitions that touch on more contemporary interests.
Before Daikaku-ji was a renowned Shingon Buddhist temple, it was Emperor Saga’s detached palace retreat. Built in early 800s, it witnessed the reign of retired emperors in following centuries, playing host to successful peace talks between the Northern and Southern Imperial Courts in the 12th century. There’s no palace that so deeply evokes the ambiance of ancient courts; elevated walkways and fusuma doors imbued with historical weight. Kept within the octagonal Heart Sutra Hall is the Heart Sutra of Daikaku-ji, believed to have worked miracles.
More of the temple’s treasured relics are displayed at nearby Reihokan Museum in spring and autumn. Other notable attractions on temple grounds include Osawa Pond, which was constructed for moon viewings, and beautiful Shingyo Pagoda.
Go on set at Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Actually travel back in time on this small town set. With replicas of Nihonbashi Bridge, a Meiji Period police box, renderings of Yoshiwara, Edo era houses and fleshed out street, Toei Kyoto Studio Park often hosts filming for historical dramas. Dress up as a citizen of Japan long past, and silently spectate movies in the making. The fun doesn’t end there – you can sneak your way through a ninja maze or catch a performance; maybe challenge the haunted house. You can also enjoy small exhibitions and specialized games, leaving with souvenirs to commemorate this immersive experience.
Explore Shugakuin Imperial Villa
On the outskirts of Kyoto is a vision of farmlands and gardens that make up Shugakuin Imperial Villa’s Upper, Middle and Lower Villa sectors. Designed with stone slab paths meandering through an aesthetic arrangement of trees and moss, the gardens reflect traditional landscaping in its dreamy composition. Like all Imperial properties, visitors aren’t allowed into buildings and the grounds are accessible through guided tours only. Nevertheless, it is worth the tour as it introduces the various buildings (sometimes left open for tourists to peek inside) and significant features. Neighboring temples include Manshuin Temple and Enkoji Temple, with Ginkakuji not too distant.
The mythical Byodoin
Even of Kyoto’s many temples, Byodoin is one of the most impressive. Surviving from Heian Period, the winged Phoenix Hall is so named for its pond-reflected appearance – like a bird in flight. The statue of Amida Buddha presides inside, face turned serenely forward in welcoming gesture. The burnished pillars, tipped roofs and elegant etchings earn silent expressions of awe and reverence.
Teramachi & Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcades
If you’ve never shopped at one of Japan’s undercover streets, Teramachi and Shinkyogoku are requisite introductions to this shopping-and-architectural highlight. Tacky souvenirs, bookshops, galleries, select shops and eateries make up only some of its tenants.
Dissect your ride at Kyoto Railway Museum
Train-spotters and regular train-takers alike will have a blast at this 30,000-square meter site; the Kyoto Railway Museum comprised of 53 trains on display. Curated by JR West, the exhibits feature steam locomotives to bullet trains, with some suspended and dissected for inner viewings. You can watch real time maintenance of steam locomotives at a 1914 roundhouse, or track one of Japan’s largest dioramas where multiple miniature trains run on an intricate landscape. Interactive exhibitions encourage visitors to try their hand at driving a train or acting as train conductor, putting you on the other side of the usual train experience. The old-style Nijo Station Building rounds off your museum tour with a nostalgic farewell to earlier locomotive days.
Higashiyama Jisho-ji or Ginkakuji is a historically significant Zen temple in Kyoto. Built by a 15th century Japanese Shogun, Yoshimune Ashikaga, during the Muromachi reign as a retirement residence to be later converted into a Buddhist Temple, it is one of the most cherished national treasures of Japan. Also known as the "Temple of the Silver Pavilion" and the "Temple of Shining Mercy", this temple stands as a symbol of the Higashiyama Culture and as a legacy of Japan’s Muromachi period. Its main structure is the two storeyed Silver Pavilion with its temple-like upper part and house-like lower part. You’ll be amazed by the reflections of the Silver Pavilion and the surrounding trees on the silvery water of the pond lying in front of it.
The temple’s circuit-styled garden has also got some interesting features. Located in the middle of the garden, Kogetsudai is a nice moon-viewing platform and the Ginshadan is a typical Higashiyama structure representing sand waves. Within the temple premises also lie a mound of sand symbolically representing Mount Fuji and the "Togudo Shrine” containing a splendid statue of Buddha.
Be rooted with amazement by Tenryu-ji temple
Kyoto has many beautiful temples but Tenryu-Ji is a special one. Tenryu-Ji is the head temple of Japanese Buddhism’s Rinzai Zen sect. Located in Kyoto’s Arashiyama it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the five most famous temples in the city. Built in 1339 by the then reigning shogun Ashikaga Takauji, most of the temple’s buildings fell into despair until they were reconstructed in the Meiji Period. Remarkable components of this temple are the Teaching Hall, Chokushi gate, Tahō-den and the tombs of emperors Go-Saga and Kameyama. The temple has a wonderful garden with a pond bordered by Arashiyama Mountains and pine trees on one side and the temple buildings on the other. And what’s surprising is while all the temple’s buildings were damaged due to wars and fire, the garden still remains in its original form.
Offer your prayers at Yasaka Shrine
Dating from 656 A.D. Yasaka Shrine is a gorgeous Shinto Shrine located in Kyoto’s Gion District. It is mostly visited during the Gion Matsuri annual festival and Japanese New Year celebration. The shrine venerates the mythological Japanese God of sea and storms, Susano’o no Mikoto, with his wife Kushiinadahime and eight children, Yahashira no Mikogami. A flight of stairs decorated on either side with two statues of lion dogs leads to the temple’s spectacular vermillion entrance gate. The big hall comprising the Honden; an inner sanctuary where only priests are allowed to enter, and Haiden; a prayer hall, is the temple’s main part. The prayer hall lit with lanterns at night often stages cultural performances, especially those performed by geisha and there is a popular local belief that prayers offered in the main temple are rewarded with protection from sickness, disasters and the evil. A few smaller shrines are also believed to ignite love in the life of those who pray and make them more beautiful.
See the colossal wooden pagoda of Toji temple
To-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site having a long history and five designated national treasures. Established in 794 A.D during the Heian Period when Kyoto became Japan’s capital on the orders of the Emperor Kammu, Toji Temple came under the supervision of Kobo Daishi who was the founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism in 823 A.D. Visit the temple on the 21st day of the month to explore Toji Temple Flea Market which is held once every month to honour Kobo Daishi who died on 21st March. Most people visit this temple to see the famous 57 meter high five-storied pagoda that can be spotted from the Kyoto Tower and some other vantage points as well.
Housing several Buddha statues, it is Japan’s tallest wooden pagoda. Destroyed by a fire in 1486 and reconstructed during the Edo Period, Kondo Hall, the largest structure and the main hall of the temple, is home to a big wooden statue of Yakushi or Medicine Buddha dating from 1603. Beside it lies the Kodo Hall which was incorporated within the temple grounds by Kobo Daishi himself. Once destroyed in a fire and reconstructed later, this lecture hall houses different statues of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Guardian Kings that Daishi brought from China. You’ll also find a majestic statue of Kobo Daishi inside the Miedo Hall.
Ryōan-ji: the home of a picturesque Japanese rock garden
Situated in Northwest Kyoto, Ryōan-ji temple is another UNESCO World Heritage site. Belonging to the Myōshin-ji school of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai sect, this magnificent temple, founded in 1450, homes one of the finest dry landscape gardens in Japan. After entering through the temple’s main gate you’ll see the Mirror Pond bordered by a variety of trees and mountains which was there even when the temple wasn’t formed and in its place an aristocratic villa existed. There’s a pilgrim’s path which leads to the second gate passing which you’ll reach the temple’s main building, Hojo, which has rooms and veranda that overlook the beautiful rock garden or karesansui. The garden consists of 15 rocks lying on small green patches atop white sand that are surrounded by small pebble stones and earthen walls. While visitors are free to interpret what the garden symbolises as it has no specific implications, that garden’s most enigmatic feature is that from all the vantage points only 14 of its 15 rocks can be seen.
Embark on a journey to the sacred Nanzen-ji Temple
When you are in Kyoto, you just can’t be tired of exploring its temples simply because each of them has something special about it. Located at the foot of the forested mountain Higashiyama, Nanzen-ji Temple is perhaps the most exotic among all of Kyoto’s temples. Emperor Kameyama laid its foundation in the 13th century by converting his aristocratic villa into a refined Zen temple. Thereafter the temple underwent multiple destructions due to civil wars and fire but most of its original buildings were restored and rebuilt.
The huge Sanmon gate with a balcony looking over the city serves as the entrance to the temple. Just behind it is a Lecture Hall, Hatto, and behind that lies Hojo with a rock garden. The former is not open to the public and the latter used to be the residence of the head priest. Its sliding doors called fusuma have intricate symbolic paintings on them. This main temple and its grounds are surrounded by several sub temples like Nanzenin Temple, Konchi-in Temple and Tenjuan Temple, just to name a few.
Take in the awe-inspiring sights of Eikan-do Zenrin-ji
Named after Eikan, a popular head priest, Eikan-do Zenrin-ji is the head temple of the Jōdo-shū Buddhist sect’s Seizan branch. It was initially known as Zenrinji when a disciple of Kobo Daishi converted the former court villa into a temple. It was renamed later when Eikan became the temple’s head priest. This site is worth a visit for its mesmerising scenic views. You’ll first see the Hall of historical Buddha known as Shakado and its pretty rock garden. Passing through the temple’s wooden corridors you’ll see the Miedo enshrining Honen who was the founder of the Jodo sect before reaching Amidado, the hall where a rare statue of Amida Buddha is kept which Eikan introduced as the temple’s principal object of worship.
A legend cites the reason for the statue’s head being turned sideways as when Eikan found the statue, it faced towards him to talk. And the temple’s highest two-storeyed buildings surrounded by colourful hillside trees, namely Tahota Pagoda, offer a sweeping view of the city and the mountains. Mini streams passing through the temple’s different sections fall into the Hojo pond which has a small island with a shrine in its centre.
Rooted in Zen Buddhism, Kōdaiji Temple is situated at the base of Higashiyama Ryozen Mountains. It was founded by Kita-no-Mandokoro as a remembrance of her deceased husband. At present, the temple has six designated national properties of Japan namely Kaisando, Otama-ya, Kasatei, Shiguretei, Omotetmon and Kangetsudai. Kaisando is the Founder’s Hall and Kasatei and Shiguretei are teahouses. The sanctuary, Otama-ya, contains the enshrines of Kita-no-Mandokoro and Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Omotetmon is the sanctuary’s entrance gate. Kangetsudai is a roofed bridge that serves as a moon viewing platform. The temple’s main building, Houjyo, has beautifully designed interiors. In front of it lies the stone garden which is brightly lit at night. This temple stands out because of its garden’s outstanding beauty which has been declared as a historical site having scenic splendour. For the same reason, it has become a popular spot for traditional Japanese Weddings.
The dreamlike Togetsu-kyō Bridge
The 155 metre long artistically designed Togetsu-kyō Bridge standing over the Katsura River in Kyoto’s Arashiyama District is a perfectly dreamy romantic place. The Arashiyama Mountain covered with pretty trees serves as an attractive background to the bridge. Cherry blossoms and maple leaves colour the place in red during spring and autumn. You’ll be enamoured by serenity if you take a walk across the bridge while observing small boats moving in the river. You can enjoy feeding fishes. It is also a popular filming location for period films.
Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama: the abode of Japanese Macaque
Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama, located on Mt Arashiyama, is home to more than 120 snow monkeys commonly known as “Japanese macaque.” This park gives you an opportunity to see these creatures living naturally unlike how they are kept in zoos’ enclosures. You’ll see these special kinds of monkeys swinging and jumping from the branches of trees and sometimes they come very close to the tourists. You need to be a little careful while touching them or observing them closely as even though they are fed and cared for by the staff of the park, they are quite wild. However, tourists are allowed to feed the monkeys. If you offer fruits or biscuits they’ll grab fruits from your hands and run away.
Stand in awe of the statues at Rengeoin Sanjusangendo
Rengeoin Sanjusangendo, popularly known only as Sanjusangendo and officially known as Rengeo-in, is a Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect, located in eastern Kyoto. Originally established in 1164 and rebuilt in the 13th century, this temple’s main attraction is its hondō or main hall which is a designated national treasure of Japan and that too for an apt reason as it contains 1001 huge statues of thousand-armed Kannon, a massive seated wooden statue of thousand-armed Senju Kannon and several other statues and sculptures, all belonging to the era from Heian to Kamakura periods. One unique feature of this temple is you’ll see here both Hindu and Buddhist deities. Along with the Buddhist statues the temple has about 28 idols of Hindu Guardian deities.
Tofukuji Temple is the head temple of the Tofukuji School of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai sect. First built in 1236 and having suffered multiple destructions, Tofukuji Temple was rebuilt several times. Having derived its name by combining the names of two temples, Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji, at present it preserves a meditation hall; Zendo, a bathing room; Yokushitsu and a lavatory; Tosu from the Muromachi period. Other structures include the main hall, the quarters of the head priests and three bridges lined by maple trees leading to Kaisando valley. The temple’s most striking feature is the Sanmon gate; the oldest of all Zen main gates in Japan and thereby a national treasure. Four distinct rock gardens that surround the temple’s Hojo are southern garden with four rocks representing Elysian islands, square shaped stones and moss are distributed in a small-sized chequered pattern northern garden having square stones amidst green moss, the eastern garden comprising seven cylindrical stones which symbolise the stars of the heaven’s Great Bear and the western garden embodying a simple chequered pattern division of moss and plain rocks.
Please your sense of aesthetics at Shimogamo-Jinja
One of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, Shimogamo Jinja, encompassed by Tadasu no Mori forest, manifests typical vermilion and white coloured Shinto architecture. Located in Kyoto's Shimogamo district it is one of the historic monuments of Kyoto and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple can be seen at its best when the Aoi Matsuri festival takes place. The main shrine where the God of Harvest is worshipped is surrounded by some sub-shrines among which Koto Sub-Shrine deserves a special mention for exhibiting Chinese Zodiac signs. The temple’s two storeyed tall vermillion rōmon gate decorated with lanterns will appease your aesthetic sense. Another interesting feature is the temple’s cool stream where people offer their prayers to the deity of purification. You can also explore a bit of the surrounding forest and its wonders.
Attend ceremonies Kitano-temmangū Shrine
Another famous Shinto shrine in Kyoto is the Kitano-temmangū Shrine. This is a favourite religious site of students as the temple is dedicated to the Shinto God of education, Kami. The shrine was built to appease the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane, an eminent scholar and bureaucrat who was unfairly exiled by his political rivals. Its gardens become very attractive during autumn and its scenic features are a plum grove with a walkway where Baisakhi tea ceremony is hosted on 25th February. To witness a livelier scene visit this shrine on the 25th day of the month when a flea market featuring stalls that antiques, crafts, plants and tools is held on the temple grounds and the adjoining streets. You’d also not want to miss out on the street food especially takoyaki, Yakisoba and karaage.
Observe the traditional Japanese architecture of Katsura Imperial Villa
Embodying Japanese traditional design, Katsura Imperial Villa is a perfect example of Japanese architecture and gardening. Created in 1645 as Japanese Imperial Kastura family’s residence, the villa has a large veranda, five tea houses, spacious rooms, a moon-wave tower which serves as a vantage point for seeing the pond facing “Pine-Lute Pavilion” and the consort’s rooms. The interiors of the place aren’t open to the public but its huge garden can be explored. Beautiful pathways lined with trees on either side lead to the garden and circular walking trails encircle the garden’s main pond.
Embrace the enchanting world of Kifune Shrine
Just half an hour away from the city centre, lies a hidden gem of Kyoto, namely the Kifune Shrine. Situated at the base of Mount Kurama at Kyoto’s Sakyō-ku ward, Kifune Shrine is worth a visit for its magnificent structures and enigmatic ambience. A legend says that the temple was built when a Goddess’ boat journey from Osaka to Kyoto ended at this place. Yui no Yashiro, and Okunomiya, being parts of the main shrine are also visited along with the latter even though they are located in different areas. The stone staircase with series of wooden lanterns on either side serves as the entrance to the Shrine’s main hall and the beautiful green shades of glorious maple trees surrounding it make it a picture perfect sight.
Dedicated to the God of Water, Takaokami no Kami, whose idol is enshrined in the main hall, this shrine has a pool which tells fortune if you let a fortune slip float on its water, a 400 year old sacred Katsura tree and a spot where water coming from the mountain used for drinking has been considered sacred since ancient times. If you go further up the valley you’ll find Yui no Yashiro, where the deity of match-making, Iwanaga-no-himemikoto is worshipped. If you go even further, you’ll find yourself at the original site of Kifune Shrine’s main hall, Okunomiya, the venue of which was replaced due an 11th century flooding. Built above a well amidst a canopy of verdant trees this shrine has a huge rock that contains the Goddess’ yellow boat.
Lay eyes on the wondrous Chion-in
Chion-in is the head temple of Japanese Buddhism’s Jodo. It was formerly a modest hut belonging to the priest Honen who introduced the Jodo sect of Buddhism. Now it’s quite a large and popular religious site. The temple’s 400 hundred year old Sanmon Gate measuring 24 and 50 meters in length and width respectively is the largest wooden gate of its kind in Japan. The temple’s halls are connected through stone paths. The huge Miedo Hall features the priest Honen’s statue as the temple’s primary object of worshipping, the Amidado Hall displays and the oldest one, Seishido Hall, venerates the ashes of Honen. There are many more buildings and gardens in the premises. The Hojo Garden is a traditional Japanese garden and Yuzen Garden is home to rock formations and a small pond.
Find Sanzen-in Temple in the heart of nature
Another impressive temple in Kyoto is Sanzen-in famously known for its autumn colours and serene natural setting. Founded in the 8th century by Saicho, the monk who pioneered Tendai Buddhism in Japan, Sanzen-in is a monzeki temple which used to have imperial family members as its head priest. The temple’s buildings are connected by wooden pathways surrounded by lush greenery. First appears the Kyakuden or the Guest Hall featuring Japanese calligraphy and paintings and showing the Shuheki-en Garden consisting of green spaces, a pond and an artificial hill. Connected to this hall is the Shinden or the Main Hall enshrining the statues of Amida Buddha’s central figure as well as of attendants Kannon and Fudo Myoo. Then comes the moss garden which harbours the temple’s oldest building Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall displaying a remarkable statue of Amida Buddha with the two attendants on either side. Yusei-en is the temple’s most exquisite garden having moss and maple trees, and a pond bordered by stones.
Behold the marvellous Kenninji
Being another head temple of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai sect, Kenninji is one of Kyoto’s five great Zen temples. Founded in 1202 by Eisai who, having returned from his scholarly trips to China, introduced Zen Buddhism in Japan. The temple has intricately designed halls, galleries exhibiting artistic masterpieces, ancient gates preserving marks of historical wars and quite alluring interior moss gardens. Built in 1765 Hattou or the Dharma Hall is the temple’s main hall which has a pent roof and single walls separating its sections and its front-facing altar venerates the enshrines of Shakyamuni Tathagata and his attendant Buddhist priests Mahakasyapa and Ananda. The Hondo Hall has the most precious treasure of the temple, the Twin Dragon Ceiling. Commemorating Kenninji’s founding anniversary, this intricately detailed huge painting is an admirable work of art. Another striking image is the wind and thunder gods. There are two exceptional gardens, Chouontei and ○△□ Garden. Chouontei is a simple garden featuring a set of three stones symbolising Buddha and two Zen monks and ○△□ Garden having a tree encircled by patches of moss and a square stone alluding to monk Sengai’s belief that a square, triangle or circle can represent the universe.
The 400 year old Higashi-Honganji Temple is a major contribution to Kyoto’s religious scene. None of the temple’s original buildings survived the fires and therefore the temple was rebuilt many times. Presently the temple is home to the largest wooden building in Kyoto which is the Founder’s Hall locally known as Goei-do. The statue of Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu Sect is enshrined on the main altar of this hall. The walls behind it displays a painting depicting lotuses by the Meiji era’s renowned realistic painter by Kōno Bairei and the roof above its framed characters are inscribed in gold. Gold leaf depicting musical instruments played by heavenly figures are present inside the sanctuary.
The Amida Hall contains the statues of Amida Buddha, Shōtoku Taishi who brought Buddhism to Japan and the monk Honen. The temple also has some interesting exhibits including a large wooden shed used to bring building materials from the forest for rebuilding the temple, a diorama showing an avalanche overwhelming people carrying timber and walking on a snowy mountain affected by an avalanche carrying timber for the temple’s reconstruction and a coiled rope which is actually human hair sacrificed by female devotees in the past. There is a reception hall and gallery as well as four majestic gates.
See glimpses of the marine world at Kyoto Aquarium
Just a kilometre away from Kyoto station, Kyoto aquarium in Umekoji Park is a great place to see a wide variety of captivating aquatic creatures. First you’ll see the section of fascinating creatures that live in Kyoto’s rivers including the giant salamanders which are as long as 5 feet and live underwater throughout their lives. Then comes the section that exhibits fur seals; ottosei and earless seals; azarashi, and seal pups. There are benches for visitors to sit and admiringly watch these creatures. You’ll also have fun feeding them and igniting playful interactions as the seals come close and make eye-contact. Another zone is occupied by South Africa’s cape penguins swimming in the water or toddling on the land. Kyoto’s climate is ideal for this kind of penguins. Some areas are dedicated to exhibiting species of Japanese sea fishes, ray and pilchard, ray, fishes and other unique sea animals like Giant Pacific octopus and sharp-toothed eels. An entire section displays colourful tropical fishes including clown fishes and slim garden eels that are found in reefs. Other distinguished sections are the jellyfish area, the crabs and shrimp section and a food and gift section as well. The Japanese spider crab having the longest leg span of about 3 metres among crustaceans deserve a special mention.
Kyoto Gyoen National Garden; a natural wonderland
Originally made to preserve Kyoto’s imperial palace, Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is a colossal fantastic natural park which runs 700m and 1300m from east to west and from north to south respectively. It has broad roads connected with narrower paths where people go for morning and evening walks. You’ll also find there people cycling, running and jogging. Though it is situated at the heart of the city, it seems a world away from the metropolis. It is an ideal place for breathing some fresh air and embracing the calm and beauty of nature. The park is replete with wildlife species especially butterflies and birds. During spring the west side of the park harbouring groves of plums and weeping cherry trees. The park has some historical remnants as well like the Hamaguri-Gomon gate in front of a historic civil war that broke out in the past.
Get lost in nature at Keage Incline
Keage Incline is one of Kyoto’s best cherry blossom spots. It was formerly a railway track that used to serve as a medium of transporting boating equipment but now it is preserved as an industrial heritage. This 582 metre long track lined with cherry trees is also the world’s longest incline railway track and a designated National Historic Site. The place becomes as perfect as a picture when the cherry blossoms bloom during spring. Just fancy a stroll across the area and you may end up not wanting to leave the place soon.
Praise great pieces of art at National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto
Popularly known as MoMAK, this museum is a storehouse of Kyoto’s contemporary art. It originally existed as an annexe of Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1980 the museum shifted to Kyoto and a new building was established in Kyoto in the present site. It was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. The museum conducts several workshops, educational programmes as well as touring and standalone exhibitions throughout the year. It also boasts of vast collections of art works by artists like the French avant-garde painter Francis Picabia and the German surrealist Max Ernst and high-rated aesthetic photographs by well-known Japanese photographers like Kyoichi Tsuzuk. Undoubtedly, it is one of the best art galleries in Kyoto.
Witness an authentic portrayal of the city’s culture at the Museum of Kyoto
The Museum of Kyoto, located in downtown Kyoto, reflects the culture and history of Kyoto through its displays. The museum’s main hall made up of imported bricks from Britain was originally designed by Tatsuno Kingo and Uheiji Nagano as the former Kyoto Branch of the Bank of Japan. Inaugurated and made open to public in 1988, the museum has three sections of permanent collection including a section dedicated to Kyoto’s ancient history, a hall showing films in which Kyoto features and an art gallery exhibiting western paintings and a decent collection of Japanese paintings and crafts like Kyoto dolls and other stuff an historical section and a hall for films about Kyoto. An interesting exhibit is Roji Tempo, a reconstructed street from Edo Period lined with shops and eateries. The museum also hosts some special and temporary exhibitions.
Spend a fun day at Kyoto City Zoo
First opened in 1903 with more than 200 animals from 61 species and having survived temporary setbacks, it is at present the second oldest Zoo in Kyoto with 100 different species to look at. Situated near the Nanzen-ji temple, the zoo has spacious enclosures in which big animals like elephants, rhinoceros, giraffes, chimpanzees, hippopotamus and Japanese snow monkeys, macaques and bears. It also has a special reptile house, a large section of exotic birds and an ape house. Kids can enjoy playful interactions with guinea pigs and rides of the amusement park within the zoo. There’s a Ferris Wheel which offers stellar views of the landscapes of Northern Higashiyama. You can have a meal at a restaurant above the zoo’s main entrance or snack on ice creams at the nearby snack bars.
Iwashimizu Hachimangu: an impressive Imperial establishment
Founded in 859 by a monk named Gyokyo on the orders of the Japanese emperor Seiwa, Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu is a very significant Shinto shrine located in Yawata, south of Kyoto on the Keihan railway line to Osaka. This shrine is dedicated to Hachiman, the God of war, linked with the mythical Japanese emperor Ojin. The entire shrine is built with a combination of bricks and concrete. The temple’s main structure has two separate bark gabled roofs which make it appear as two separate buildings. The shrine has a rain gutter made up of wood and covered with gold as well as carvings of plants and animals contributed by a famous sculptor of the Edo period, Hidari Jingoro. All the buildings of the shrine are designated Important Cultural Properties. The Shrine's main festival, held on 15th September, is celebrated by performing some rituals. Fishes are released into the pond of the shrine and the nearby Hojo River and kids perform a "butterfly dance" on the Angobashi Bridge. The shrine also has a monument dedicated to the inventor Thomas Edison who gathered the bamboo from the shrine’s bamboo grove to make filaments for the first electric bulbs in 1880 and to honour him, on the 4th of May, an annual Festival of Light when Thousands of bamboo lanterns are lit in the shrine.
Catch sight of Fushimi Castle
Fushimi Castle is a replica of the original castle; built in the 16th century for the warlord built for Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After his death in 1598, it was rebuilt by Torii Mototada. According to legends, he along with other defendants committed mass suicide when the castle was sieged in 1600 and its blood stained floors were shifted to other Japanese temples and castles. The modern replica was constructed as a "Castle Entertainment Park'' and it functions as a museum dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Although its interiors aren’t cannot be accessed by the public, you can see the castle’s exteriors and its huge lawns.
The iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The world famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove feels like a wonderland from the fairy-tale world. This iconic bamboo grove is also one of the most photogenic sites in Kyoto. Its unique and serene natural setting that casts a spell of magic on its visitors. You’ll be amazed by the beauty of the place lit with dim sunlight and facilitating long pathways lined with towering bamboo trees reaching the sky. You’ll be also surprised on hearing the rustling sound made by the bamboo trees when the wind comes in which has been listed as one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan” by the Japanese Ministry of Environment. This is one of the most appreciated Japanese experiences that you wouldn’t want to miss.
Walk through Kimono Forest
Located in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district and structurally resembling Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kimono Forest is an artificial setting of long walkway lined with 600 designed cylinders on both sides that leads to Randen tram station. Each of these cylinders is 2 metre tall and draped with acrylic fibre depicting Kimono patterns and designs. These Kimono cylinders have about 32 different Kyo-yuzen designs, which is a traditional type of fabric dyeing prevalent in Kyoto since the Edo Period. During the renovation of the tram station in 2013, Yasumichi Morita designed these cylindrical poles. At the end of the Kimono Lane lies the Dragon Pond, a circular structure made up of stones containing water in the centre of which is a spherical black stone with a dragon engraved in gold. As dragons are considered to be a good omen in Japan, visitors and passer-by throw coins into this pool. The best time to visit this place is dusk or evening when the cylindrical poles are brightly lit.
The historical Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street
Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street in north-east Kyoto is a historical street from Japan’s Meiji Period that has preserved its old town houses commonly referred to as Machiya. These traditional buildings now function as shops and restaurants. The street leads to a Buddhist Temple, Adashino Nenbutsu-ji. It was previously an open burial ground where the poor and homeless were buried but later on it was converted into a temple by Kukai, the founder of Buddhism’s Shingon sect, who buried the corpses under the temple. There are about 8000 statues which are lit with candles on 23rd and 24th August every year to pray for the deceased. The street also leads to a small bamboo grove and Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple built by Empress Shotoku in the Higashiyama and later moved to its present location. Yakuyoke Senju Kannon, thousand-armed Kannon Bosatsu is enshrined in its main hall and about 1200 rakan statues can be found within the temple complex which are statues carved by tourists under the guidance of a Buddhist priest, Kocho Nishimura.
Kyoto Arashiyama Hanatouro: a riot of lights
Kyoto Arashiyama Hanatouro is a special event that illuminates the Arashiyama district of Kyoto in December. During this time of the year, all the temples, shrines, streets, bridges, bamboo forest pathways and river banks are lit brightly with lanterns and decorated with colourful Japanese flower sets. This is when the city manifests its best night scene. During this time the famous sites are open to the public for longer hours. The cityscapes appear to be absolutely gorgeous; especially the illuminated Togetsukyo Bridge along with its waterfront and the surrounding mountains becomes as perfect as a picture. Kaleidoscopic projections on the buildings of the shrines decorated with unique Japanese flowers like andon and ikebana will leave you captivated. You’ll also get ample opportunities to see some festivities that take place in different parts of the city at this time. Overall, it’s a fun experience!
Enjoy Arashiyama rickshaw rides
There are a whole lot of places to visit in Arashiyama, Kyoto but the question is how are you going to visit so many sites? Don’t you worry, Arashiyama rickshaws are there to give you comfortable rides! These rickshaws are manually drawn by Shafus. Shafus are professionally trained rickshaw drivers who are given intensive training regarding safety and hospitality. These rickshaws also offer guided tours of the local cultural, historical and natural beauty sites. This is the best mode of transportation to closely observe the city’s local life and ambience. Also, if you want to skip standing in the queue for purchasing tickets for a tour bus ride or avoid hiring taxis to different venues, you should definitely try these rickshaw rides.
Catch a special show at GEAR Theatre
It is hardly surprising that Japan has created humanoid robots able to perform masterful, physical feats. GEAR Theatre offers non-verbal acts that stun; a combination of miming, acrobatics, illusions and special effects that create a unique form of storytelling. Its Art Deco-style exterior is a nod to steampunk genre, standing out among Kyoto’s traditional cityscape.
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