Kyoto: a visit to the historical wonders of Old Japan

Karamon gate in Nijo Palace, Kyoto
The Karamon entrance gate of Nijo-jo in Kyoto

By far the majority of tourists in Japan visit Kyoto as part of their travel or as their main destination. We have visited the Kyoto sights countless times. Isa has lived in Kyoto, too. So we know what we are talking about: Kyoto is a fantastic place to visit.

One of the best views over Kyoto

Signs on the walkway below the blooming cherry trees say that tripods are forbidden by all means. The congestion caused by all the visitors taking snapshots with their smart phones and digital cameras easily explains why it wouldn’t be a good idea to let gear-conscious Japanese amateur photographers put up their tripods and massive lenses in this bottleneck of the walking route around Kiyomizu temple. This spot offers the best views (and photo opportunities) of one of Kyoto’s most famous temples.

Kiyomizu Temple with terrace overlooking Kyoto
Kiyomizu Temple with its spectacular terrace

The Kiyomizu temple was founded more than 1200 years ago. That was just after the founding of the city itself. It is famous for its enormous wooden veranda projecting high into the mountain side. Of course, the veranda offers good views of the city. Women in colourful yukatas take pictures of each other and giggle trying to climb the long stairs. Many of them are Asian tourists for the first time wearing the traditional Japanese garment which restricts leg movement. The lane leading up to the temple is lined with souvenir shops. In the afternoon you often have to queue just to pass up or down.

Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto
Kyoto’s top attraction: the Golden Pavillon

With millions of visitors Kyoto’s most visited site, however, is a Zen temple called Rokuon-ji. Most visitors know it as the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji). Originally the retirement villa of a fabled 14th-century Shogun (or military ruler), this gold-coated pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a mentally disturbed novice monk. This real-life story was adapted into a novel by Mishima Yukio and a movie by Ichikawa Kon.

The city soon rebuilt the Golden Pavillon using five times as much gold as before. The small golden building mirrored in the lake looks truly splendid and accordingly attracts droves of visitors.

The world’s most visited Zen garden

Ryoanji temple garden

Not far from the Golden Pavilion, another Zen temple is renowned for its far more subdued garden. The minimalistic rock garden of Ryoan-ji is supposedly the epitome of Zen gardening.

Touji Pagoda in Kyoto

It is quite small, about the size of a tennis court, just a few raked pebbles, 15 large stones and a little moss.

If you come early enough to sit on the veranda with less than ten busloads of other tourists and a whole middle school around you, you will glimpse a bit of Zen spirit. Something about contentment, being yourself, focusing on the present. Or perhaps it’s something quite different – the stones can only help you in finding your own explanations.

Well south of the old city, the Toji, or East Temple, used to protect the capital’s south gate. It was the first temple belonging to the Shingon School of Buddhism founded by Kobo Daishi, and features Japan’s highest pagoda.

On the outskirts of Kyoto

Even further south in the town of Uji, the Byodo-in was built, like Kinkaku-ji, as a noble villa but later became a Buddhist temple. The flat and widespread 10th-century building is meant to symbolise a phoenix and a paradisiacal landscape. As a typical example of that period’s architecture, Byodo-in is featured on the back of the 10-Yen coin.

All these temples are part of the UNESCO World Heritage collectively inscribed as Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. In Kyoto, Uji and Otsu, a total of 17 individual sites belong to the UNESCO list. Most are Buddhist temples, but the old Shinto shrines of Shimogamo and Kamigamo, associated with Aoi Matsuri, one of Kyoto’s famous traditional festivals, are also part of the list. As is the spacious and lavishly decorated residence of the 17–19th century Tokugawa Shoguns which they used when they visited Kyoto.

image of Daruma in Tenryuuji temple

Is it worth visiting Kyoto?

Kyoto is definitely worth a visit. Or two. Or a few more. Isa lived in Kyoto for one year and didn’t manage to see all the temples and shrines, but then there’s over a thousand of them. The UNESCO heritage sites are all worth seeing, although it may feel somewhat repetitive if you try to see them all in one short visit. For the top destinations, described in this post, a pleasant off-season day may be the better choice than, say, the central weekend of the cherry blossom season. Other places, such as Toji or Daigo-ji, however, are almost never crowded.

How to visit Kyoto on a Japan trip

visitors in Kyoto's Kinkakuji Temple

Kyoto is the main tourist centre of Japan and most tourists will spend at least a few days there. Although the subway network is not very extensive, a few very useful city buses combine some of the most visited sites (especially #100, #101, #102).

For outlying sites such as the Byodo-in in Uji you will need to take a local train.

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