Best Sites to Visit in Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto - The Ancient Capital
Kyoto is known as "The Ancient Capital." There are shrines in Kyoto dating back to the 6th century A.D., and this is where you will see much of the beautiful history of Japan.
Kyoto was the center of government and culture for hundreds of years, mainly during the Heian period (794 - 1185). Kyoto is a designed city and sits on a grid; therefore, it is easy to find your way around town.
While in Kyoto, you will want to enjoy the beautiful and historical shrines and temples, as well as the beautiful nature.
Kiyomizudera (Kiyomizu Temple)
Kiyomizudera's Website in English
Click here for Kiyomizudera's website in English. It is very detailed and easy to navigate.
Kiyomizudera, which translated into English literally means "pure water temple," is one of the most famous temples in Japan. It also happens to be my favorite.
As with most big shrines and temples, there is a path leading to the temple, and along the path many stores selling omiyage. (Omiyage is the Japanese word for gifts or souvenirs.) You can take a cab to the entry of this path (just asking the driver to take you to Kiyomizudera will suffice), or you can take a bus to the bottom of the hill, as it is an easy walk up the gently sloping hill.
Stop by in the shops along the path. Most of the shops selling sweets will have tastings available to all. Items that look "Japanese-y" will be most authentic and least expensive in this location, at least out of any tourist locations. The store keepers may not speak much English, but they will be very used to foreign customers, and you will be able to communicate if you put a little positive effort into it.
You will also find many shops selling "Yatsuhashi." This is a traditional Kyoto omiyage. The real traditional type has sweet bean paste in it, but there are many other modern editions of this sweet, so taste them all to find your favorite!
At the top of the hill will be the entrance to Kiyomizudera.
Kiyomizudera is an old temple, established in 778. The buildings burnt down several times, but most of the buildings standing today were most recently rebuilt in 1633. The awe inspiring stage of the main building (as seen in the photo above) was built without using a single nail.
Make sure to spend plenty of time at Kiyomizudera. It is very easy to bypass these two areas, which I highly recommend:
- Jishu Jinja - This is actually a shrine that is not a part of Kiyomizudera (which is a temple). However, it is right next to the temple grounds, and feels like it is on the same property. Jishu Jinja is a shrine for "good love connections."
- Zuigudo - A hall where you walk through the dark following a rope. This area symbolizes the womb of Buddha's mother. It's quite an experience!!
Walk from Kiyomizudera to Yasaka Jinja
If you take your time in and around Kiyomizudera, you could spend most of a day. If you are finished and feel like taking in another site, take a walk to Yasaka Jinja.
The walk from Kiyomizudera to Yasaka Jinja is truly delightful. Look on a map and get a general sense of the location of Yasaka Jinja and start walking in that direction. You will find a lovely look into some traditional Kyoto side streets. The walk should take about 15 minutes. If you feel you are lost, head west (this should be left if you have been heading in the right direction) and you will get to a big street. Then, head up the street (north) and Yasaka Jinja will be on your right. However, I highly recommend just walking through the side streets, and as long as you don't go uphill too much, you will end up at a side entrance to Yasaka Jinja.
Yasaka Jinja and Gion
Yasaka Jinja's Website in English
Click here for Yasaka Jinja's website in English.
Yasaka Jinja is a Shinto shrine said to have been founded in the year 656. It is a fun shrine to walk around with many buildings and a beautiful property. They are famous for the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival), which is one of Japan's biggest festivals which has been held every year in July for over 1,000 years.
If you find you have time after you visit Yasaka Jinja, take a walk around Gion. Heading west out of Yasaka Jinja's main gate is a large street. On the northern and southern side streets off this main street are Gion. It is a famous geisha district, but beware of the "fake" geisha. There are many Japanese tourists in Kyoto, of course, and a very popular activity is to be dressed up and made up like a geisha and walk around town. It's cute, but they probably won't like having their picture taken. If you're interested, there are plenty of places where you can get dressed up as well!
I find the best parts of Gion are the traditional houses and streets. You can really enjoy feeling like you're in a beautiful old Japanese city here.
Kinkakuji - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Kinkakuji is a relatively well-known temple because of its bright golden pavilion.
Although the temple was originally built around 1400, it has burned down many times and the current building was built in 1955. The grounds are also very beautiful, and this is a fantastic place to visit especially in the spring, with the cherry blossoms blooming, or in the fall, with the beautiful folliage.
The Philopsopher's Walk
Tetsugaku no Michi, known as the "Philosopher's Walk" in English, is one of my favorite places in Japan. It is a beautiful path that leads from Ginkakuji to Nanzenji (both are wonderful temples) along a canal. The path is beautiful any time of the year, but is especially magnificent during cherry blossom season or fall folliage season.
Lunch by Fushimi Inari
I highly recommend getting a bowl of soba noodles, and perhaps some inari zushi (inari sushi), while you are visiting Fushimi Inari.
Fushimi Inari is my favorite shrine in Japan. My family used to go to Fushimi Inari every year on January 2 or 3 to do our Hatsumoude (first shrine visit of the year). One of the beauties of Japan is that religion is less a belief in a deity or deities, but more a series of cultural customs and rituals. Most shrines are Shinto shrines, yet the custom of visiting the shrine at the start of the year is shared by believers in Shinto, Buddhists, Athiests, etc. A Japanese friend of mine once said, "Japanese people go to (Shinto) shrines for New Years, (Christian) churches for weddings, and (Buddhist) temples for funerals." It was an overgeneralization, but I think it describes the position of religion in Japan fairly well.
Fushimi Inari is slightly out of the downtown Kyoto area, but is just a quick train ride out of downtown. You can take the train from Kyoto station to Fushimi station, or if you are near one of the Keihan Line stations (Gojo, Shijo, Sanjo, etc.) take the train to Fushimi Inari station.
Fushimi Inari (officially called Fushimi Inari Taisha) is the head of all Inari shrines. It is known as a shrine of commerce, but one can wish for other things, such as health and happiness, as well. In the grounds there is a small shrine dedicated to education, and you will see many students coming here around the time of entrance exams. If you are there in January through March, many of the ema in this area have students wishing acceptance into their school of choice. I also came here before applying to both university and graduate school, and after I was accepted, came back to say my thank yous.
The Path of the Thousand Torii
A torii is a sort of gate that is at the entrance to Shinto shrines. Toriis are also found in and around the shrines. Fushimi Inari is known for their "Thousand Torii" (as pictured above), which are rows and rows of torii leading to other areas of the shrine's property. Fushimi Inari is situated on a small hill. Walking through the torii and the gardens on this hill can be a very pleasant activity on a nice day.
Toji - The Eastern Temple
If you still have time during your stay in Kyoto, head over to Toji. Built around the year 800, Toji literally means "Eastern Temple." When the capital city of Heiankyo (Kyoto) was designed and built, Toji, along with Saiji ("Western Temple"), were built on either side of the main entrance gates into the city. Saiji, unfortunately, no longer exists.
If you're in Kyoto on the 21st of any month, you must visit Toji on the 21st. Every month on the 21st, Toji has an antiques market which is very popular. The market is not so full of antiques as it used to be, but you can still find lovely antique dishes, dolls, dresses, and decorations. This is a great place also to buy less expensive yet authentic Japanese dishes.
Lovely 5 Minute Video of Kyoto
Locations of Sites Listed in this Hub
This hub is by no means an exhaustive list of places to visit in Kyoto. I plan to write many more hubs, but what is it you wish to read? Please take a moment to comment on what you would like to read more about, something I haven't written yet that you would be interested in, or if anything in this hub did not quite make sense.