Nestled among mountains in Western Honshu, Kyoto (京都) has a reputation worldwide as Japan's most beautiful city, boasting more World Heritage Sites per square inch than any other city. However, visitors will be surprised how much work they will have to do to see its beautiful side. Most visitors' first impressions will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station.
Nonetheless, the persistent tourist will soon discover Kyoto's hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city center, and find that the city has even more than meets the eye.
Kyoto offers an incredible number of attractions for tourists, and visitors will probably need to plan an itinerary in advance in order to visit as many as possible.
Visiting the vast temple complexes of north-western Kyoto can take the better part of a day. A suggested itinerary is to take the subway (Karasuma line) to Kitaoji station, and walk west along Kitaoji-dori. Daitokuji, Kinkakuji, Ryoanji and Ninnaji Temples are all on Kitaoji-dori, and about 15-30 minutes' walk apart. En route, you will see the giant "dai" (大) symbol burned on the hill overlooking the city. Hirano Shrine is a short walk south along Nishioji-dori from Kinkakuji. If you still have time left at the end of the day, take the pleasant electric railway (Keifuku Kitano line) from Omuro to Katabiranotsuji, then take the JR Sagano line from nearby Uzumasa station back to central Kyoto.
- Daitokuji Temple is a small and understated temple complex, boasting several small, secluded subtemples. Daitokuji is the quietest of the temples in north-western Kyoto, and if you visit it at the start of the day, you could virtually have it to yourself. Eight of the twenty-four subtemples open to the public (most days 9am-5pm), and each charges an admission fee (around ¥400). The highlight of the subtemples is Daisen-in, located on the northern side of the temple complex, which has a beautiful Zen garden without the crowds of Ryoanji Temple. Koto-in is particularly noted for its maple trees, which are beautiful in autumn. Nearest bus stop: Daitokuji-mae.
- Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Pavilion) is the most popular tourist attraction in Kyoto, and the crowds that constantly surround it reflect this. The pavilion was originally built as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the late 12th century, and converted into a temple by his son. However, the pavilion was burnt down in 1950, by a young monk who had become obsessed with it. The pavilion was rebuilt in the Fifties to look even more tacky than before - extending the gold leaf covering it to the lower floor. Visitors follow a path through the moss garden surrounding the pavilion, before emerging into a square crowded with gift shops. Open daily 9am-5pm, admission ¥400. Nearest bus stop: Kinkakuji-michi.
- Hirano Shrine is a small shrine, which goes into overdrive during the cherry blossom viewing season, setting up amusement and food stalls. A small park of cherry trees next to the shrine is hung with lanterns and drawings by local schoolchildren. Sufficiently far off the tourist trail to be worth a look. Admission is free. Nearest bus stop: Waratenjin-mae.
- Ryoanji Temple is notable for its large Zen garden, which is considered to be one of the most notable examples of the "dry-landscape" style. The raked gravel is permanently surrounded by vast numbers of tourists contemplating their existence. The rest of the grounds are worth a look too - particularly the large pond. Open daily 8am-5pm (Mar-Nov), 8.30am-4.30pm (Dec-Feb). Admission ¥500. Nearest bus stop: Ryoanji-mae.
- Ninnaji Temple is another large temple complex which is often overlooked by tourists. Admission to the grounds is free, allowing visitors to view the 17th century five-storey pagoda, and the plantation of dwarf cherry trees (which are always the last to bloom in Kyoto, in early-mid April). However, visitors shouldn't miss the temple itself, which demands an admission fee of ¥500, and features some beautifully painted screen walls, and a beautiful walled garden. Open daily 9am-4.30pm. Nearest bus stop: Omuro Ninnaji.
A walk through the bamboo forest, Arashiyama, Western Kyoto
The Arashiyama area to the west of the city is dismissed in most Western guidebooks in a brief paragraph suggesting "other attractions". However, the area is rightfully very popular with Japanese tourists, and is well worth a visit. To get here, take the JR Sagano line from Kyoto station to Saga Arashiyama.
- The walk through a forest of bamboo to Nonomiya Shrine and Okochi Sanso (a traditional house, previously occupied by a Japanese silent screen legend), is a real highlight of a visit to Kyoto. No admission fee for the shrine, ¥1000 for Okochi Sanso (price includes a cup of matcha (traditional Japanese tea, in the tea garden).
- Feeding the macaque monkeys atop the mountain in Iwatayama Monkey Park, to the south of the river, is worth the entrance fee (and the demanding climb!). ¥500 admission fee to enter the park.
- Just outside Saga Arashiyama station is the 19th Century Hall - a museum covering the unlikely combination of steam locomotives and pianos. Probably best to look at it from the outside, and listen to the amusing tinny music it blasts out.
- Nijo Castle
- Imperial Palace and Imperial Park
- The Museum of Kyoto - particularly worthwhile if you have a burning interest in ancient pottery, otherwise not really worth a visit.
- Nishi Hoganji Temple
- Toji Temple, an oasis of calm near central Kyoto, its pagoda is the tallest wooden structure in Japan.
- Kyoto Tower
Some of the most picturesque parts of Kyoto, and the older areas of the city, are located in the eastern region of the city, across the Kamo River. Visiting the main tourist attractions of eastern Kyoto will fill a full day - a suggested itinerary is to work north from Kiyomizu Temple to Ginkakuji Temple, passing through Gion, and visiting Yasaka Shrine and Nanzenji Temple before following the Philosopher's Walk to Ginkakuji.
- Kiyomizu Temple. This temple complex, built overlooking the city is a deservedly popular attraction in the city, approached by either of two tourist-filled souvenir-shop-lined streets, Kiyomizu-zaka or Chawan-zaka. Admission ¥300. Open daily, 6am-6pm. Nearest bus stop: Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka. Highlights of the temple complex include;
- The main hall's wooden veranda, supported by hundreds of pillars and offering incredible views over the city,
- Jishu-jinja, the love-themed shrine selling countless charms to help you snag the one you love, and featuring two "love stones" positioned around 18m apart which the lovelorn must walk between with eyes closed to confirm their loved one's affection, and
- Otawa-no-taki the temple's waterfall, which gives it its name (Kiyomizu literally means 'pure water'). Visitors stand beneath the waterfall, and collect water to drink by holding out little tin cups.
- Gion district. The flagstone-paved streets and traditional buildings of the Gion district, located to the north-west of Kiyomizu Temple, are where you're most likely to see geisha in Kyoto, scurrying between buildings. The area just to the north of Shijo-dori, to the west of Yasaka Shrine, is particularly photogenic - particularly around Shinbashi-dori and Hanami-koji. Sannen-zaka ("three-year-slope") and Ninen-zaka ("two-year-slope"), two stepped streets leading off from Kiyomizu-zaka, are also very picturesque - but watch your step, slipping over on these streets brings three or two years' bad luck respectively. At the northern end of Ninen-zaka is Ryozen Kannon, a memorial to the unknown Japanese soldiers who died in World War II, with a 24-meter-tall statue of Kannon. Admission is ¥200, including a lit incense stick to place in front of the shrine.
- Yasaka Shrine at the eastern end of Shijo-dori, at the edge of Gion, is the shrine responsible for Kyoto's main festival - the Gion Matsuri, which takes place in July. The shrine is small, in comparison with many in Kyoto, but it boasts an impressive display of lanterns. Admission is free. Nearest bus stop: Gion.
- Maruyama Park is the main center for cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto, and can get extremely crowded at that time of year. The park's star attraction is a weeping cherry tree (shidarezakura). Main entrance to the park is through Yasaka Shrine. Admission is free.
- Nanzenji Temple, with its distinctive two-storey entrance gate (sanmon) and aqueduct, is another popular temple in Kyoto, but its larger size means that it doesn't seem as crowded as many of the others. Nearest bus stop: Nanzenji, Eikando-michi. Nearest subway station: Keage. Open daily, 8.30am-5pm. Walking around the temple complex and along the aqueduct is free, but there are three regions of Nanzenji that you can pay to enter;
- Sanmon - the two-storey main gate to Nanzenji Temple charges ¥500 for admission, and offers pleasant views over the surrounding area of the city.
- Nanzen-in Zen Temple - a small, but relaxing temple and moss garden behind the aqueduct, dating back to the 13th century, charges ¥300 for admission, and is probably only worth it if you have a particular interest in Zen buddhism.
- Hojo - the abbot's quarters, is a more interesting building, with a small raked gravel garden and some impressive paintings on the sliding doors of the buildings. Admission is ¥500.
- The Philosopher's Walk is the name given to a 2km-long path through north-eastern Kyoto, along which a philosophy professor, Kitaro Nishida, used to frequently walk. It is a surprisingly pleasant and relaxing walk even today, though you will undoubtedly share it with more tourists than Kitaro did. The walk runs south from Ginkakuji Temple beside a river to Nyakuoji Shrine, many guidebooks suggest that the walk continues further south from there to Nanzenji Temple, but this southerly section of the walk is less insistently signposted. The route passes several temples en route, notably Honen-in, a beautiful secluded temple with a thatched gate.
- Ginkakuji Temple (the Silver Pavilion), at the northern end of the Philosopher's Walk, is approached along a street lined with shops selling tacky souvenirs. Much like its golden counterpart, the Silver Pavilion is often choked with tourists, shuffling past a scrupulously-maintained dry landscape Zen garden and the surrounding moss garden, before viewing the Pavilion across a pond. Be sure not to miss the display of Very Important Mosses! Admission ¥500. Nearest bus stop: Ginkakuji-michi.
About twenty-minutes to the south of Kyoto is Fushimi Inari Shrine, another of Kyoto's often-overlooked jewels. Dedicated to the fox spirit, Inari, this Shinto temple has miles of red torii (gates) stretching up onto the hill behind it. A visitor could easily spend several hours walking up the hillside, taking in the beautiful views of the city of Kyoto and walking through the thousands of gates. Admission is free. Be warned, the shrine is located close to Fushimi Inari and Inari stations, but is nowhere near Fushimi station! The easiest way to get here is to take the JR Nara line from Kyoto station to Inari station, which exits immediately opposite the entrance to the shrine.
Currently, Kyoto is enjoying even more popularity than usual with Japanese tourists due to the success of Japanese TV broadcaster NHK's series 'Shinsengumi!' (新選組!), a historic drama following a group of samurai who kept peace in the city in the 1860s. Consequently, among the most popular souvenirs from the city at the moment are the distinctive blue and white happi (shirts) worn by this group.
There is a nice selection of reassuringly non-tacky traditional souvenir shops around Arashiyama station in Western Kyoto, selling fans and traditional sweets. More tacky stores can be found in Gion and the approach to Kiyomizu Temple, selling keyrings, cuddly toys, and garish ornaments. Other traditional souvenirs from Kyoto include parasols and carved wooden dolls.
A more unconventional but colorful (and relatively cheap) souvenir are the wooden votive tablets produced by temples, which bear an image relevant to the temple on the reverse. Visitors to the temples write their prayers on the tablets, and hang them up within the temple.
Manga and anime enthusiasts should visit Teramachi Street, a covered shopping street off the main Shijo-dori, which boasts a large manga store on two floors, as well as a two-storey branch of Gamers (a chain of anime stores), and a small two-storey anime and collectables store.
- Himeji - about an hour by Shinkansen west of Kyoto, Himeji boasts a spectacular traditional castle.
- Nara - less than an hour's journey by train on the JR Nara line from Kyoto station, this former capital has several temples and tame deer.
- Osaka - about half an hour by Shinkansen west of Kyoto, this bustling city offers more retail opportunities and a central castle.