Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 AD to 1869 and is considered the “home” of traditional Japanese culture. It contains many of the country’s most famous temples and shrines and almost all are surrounded by beautiful gardens and/or situated along the scenic foothills that skirt the city. Visiting a temple in Kyoto is not just about seeing a religious building, it is just as much about the nature surrounding them.
We spent the whole month of November in Kyoto and saw lots of beauty. November is particularly beautiful in Kyoto because of the Autumn colours.
This post covers what we consider the most impressive sights in Kyoto. They include shrines, temples, gardens as well as an incredible example of modern architecture. Note: we didn’t visit every single temple as there are tons of temples in Kyoto. We also intentionally skipped a few well-known temples (we had a ‘Kyoto meltdown” which I wrote about in another post).
Here are our Top Highlights in Kyoto.
Higashi Honganji temple
Having just arrived from Tokyo, Higashi Honganji is the first of Kyoto’s temples that we visited. It was easily the most impressive structure we had seen to date in Japan. Everything is massive: the gates, the buildings. The main hall, the Goei-do, or Founder’s Hall, is the largest wooden building in Kyoto, and one of the largest in the world. This temple, which was built in 1602, is one of two head temples of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Pure Land Buddhism, the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan. A few more good things about this temple: 1) it is a 10 minute walk from Kyoto Station, 2) there is free admittance, 3) it doesn’t get as crowded with visitors as some of the other temples.
Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine
This shrine is made up of a seemingly unending path of 10,000 orange torii gates that wind through the hills behind the main shrine. Fushimi Inari-taisha was originally dedicated to the god of rice and sake by the Hata clan in the 8th century. That changed, today most of the gates have been donated by national and local businesses in the hopes of ensuring prosperity from the deities (gates can cost anywhere from 400,000 Yen to 1,300,000 Yen).
It is a really popular tourist site (one of Japan’s busiest sites) and when you join the crowds going through the gates you might regret your visit. Don’t worry, the majority of visitors don’t last more than 15 minutes and if you persevere through the beginning stages you’ll find it gets a lot less busy. About 2/3rds of the way to the top of the hill you’ll come to a viewpoint with nice views over Kyoto. Overall, the climb to the very top (where there is nothing to see) takes about 2 hours. A nice hike though and you’ll see many of those orange torii gates as well as a lot of shrines along the way. Note: 1) a visit to the shrine and the climb are free. 2) Fushimi Inari Shrine is located just outside JR Inari Station, the second station from Kyoto Station along the JR Nara Line (5 minutes from Kyoto Station).
Kinkaku-ji temple (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji (also known as the Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The temple was the retirement villa of a famous shogun (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu) and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408.
Today the temple is a very popular spot for tourists who want to see the temple and beautiful surrounding gardens. You might find it a bit too popular as we did – but it is beautiful. Admission charge: 400 Yen per person (which makes it one of the cheaper temples to visit in Kyoto). Getting there: bus 205 from Kyoto Station (takes almost an hour through Kyoto’s downtown) or, even better, take the subway to Kitaoji Station, and then change to the bus or a taxi.
We really liked the Toji Temple. It has the tallest pagoda in Japan, some pretty gardens (especially in Autumn) and two main temple buildings containing magnificent collections of Buddhas. They actually brought Lissette to tears, that’s how much she was moved by them. We only wish they allowed photography (I hate it when they tell you that you can’t take photos but then have their own photos for sale all over the place). Admission charge: 500 Yen. Getting there: a 20 minute walk from Kyoto Station.
The Kiyomizu-dera temple is one of the most popular temples in all of Japan. Built in 798, the main hall of is built out on a veranda on huge pillars. The whole structure was constructed without nails. The setting of the temple is phenomenal with great views overlooking both the temple and city (like most of the temples, it is situated on the foothills on the outskirts of town). Get ready for huge crowds. Admission charge: 300 Yen. Getting there: Bus 206 or 100 from Kyoto Station (or you walk the same route in 30 minutes as we did when returning a 2nd time).
For most of Kyoto’s history, the area comprising the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains) district lay outside the official boundaries of the capital. This is, in our opinion, the most interesting and picturesque walk in the city. I’ve listed it below the Kiyomizu-dera temple as a highlight because it makes sense to walk the district after seeing this temple. You’ll walk through small winding lanes with shops and houses, temples and gardens, and see the very pretty Yasaka Pagoda. Continuing, you can visit Maruyama Park, go through the grounds of the Yasaka Shrine and descend into the Gion district.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
This falls on our highlight list because there are very few places in the world where you can walk through a bamboo forest. The path is about 500m long and unless you come early there will most likely be a lot of tourists (it’s a popular place). The bamboo grove is often seen in conjunction with Tenryuji temple which is located right next to the grove (the temple has nice gardens). Walking through the Bamboo Grove is free. Best way to get there: take the train to Saga-Arashiyama station and walk from there (about 10 minutes).
This is a different kind of castle. It doesn’t have grand fortifications or weaponry, instead it was created to symbolize the power and riches of the Tokugawa shoguns in Kyoto, who had been ruling Japan for over 260 years from 1603 to 1868. It has a wide moat, massive stone walls, and beautiful interior gardens – but what it is best known for are the painted screens in the interior (considered masterpieces of Japanese art) and the ‘nightingale’ floors (they squeak when you walk on them). We enjoyed walking through the gardens and climbing the wall for views of the city. Entrance fees: 600 yen (no photos allowed inside). Getting there: the best way is to take the subway to Nijo-jo-mae Station on the Tozai Subway Line.
The Ryōan-ji temple is known for its famous Zen rock garden, the most famous in all of Japan. If you find that interesting you might love this temple. It didn’t do anything for us. BUT – the gardens around the temple are beautiful and feature a large pond with ducks. We found it a very pretty place to walk around (especially in autumn) which is why this temple made it on our highlights list. Entrance fee: 500 Yen. Getting there: Take buses #12 or #59 from Keihan Sanjo Station OR take the subway north to Kitaoji Station and then bus #12.
The highlight of the Chion-in temple is the huge san-mon gate which is the official entrance to the compound (it, along with the steep steps behind it, were featured in the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai”). Up the steps, the compound includes a large hall and some smaller temples. Entrance: 400 Yen to enter inner buildings (which we didn’t do). Getting there: Bus 206 from Kyoto Station or a 15min walk from Higashiyama Station on Tozai subway line.
Kyoto Station is an incredible modernistic building and serves as the train station and main transport hub in the city. It is also a highlight of its own. Go up the escalators on either end. At the top, on the 11th floor, is the “Skywalk” where you can walk a glass and steel tunnel looking out at the city (right across the street is the Kyoto Tower). On the north side of the station, there is a huge stairwell which is lit up with ever changing lights. Take the stairwell up, it will take you to an observation deck at the top of Kyoto Station. Have a look at the roof of the building as well as the views. Incredibly impressive.
One other suggestion if you are in Kyoto: take a walk or a bike ride along the Kamo river. We were there a month and whenever we needed exercise we would go to the river for a jog or a long walk. Very pretty (again, particularly in Autumn) and the walk will take you up to Gion and, if you wish, to many of the centrally located temples.
As in every Japanese city/town, there is a tourist office at the train station. They are incredibly helpful and will have maps and all the information (and more) that you need.
This website lists all the temples in Kyoto, along with their special characteristics and entrance fees. Very useful.
Where we stayed in Kyoto: CMM Ekimae apartments. Nice rooms, perfect location next to Kyoto Station. Great for a longer stay.
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