Ah, Kyoto. The city was Japan’s capital for over a thousand years, and up to this day you can still see amazing remnants of this rich history. It’s one of the few places which literally has a collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites (yes, a collection) and is the place to be if you would like to see the real geisha’s. Since I’m going there this spring, I wanted to find out as much as I could about this place filled with authentic Japanese culture. An overview of the historic places to visit in Kyoto.
Photo credits: Fg2
A big of course on this one (see image above). If you’re in Kyoto for the first time and you skip the Golden Pavilion, people will ask you why you did that. Although Kyoto has many famous temples (did I mention it has a collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites?) the Kinkaku-ji is the most celebrated landmark. The gold-leaf walls, the beautiful pond and garden with cherry trees around it.. I’m sold. A great tip from travellers: arrive at 9am sharp when the site opens, so you don’t get choked by hundreds of tourists who all want to take the exact same photo on the exact same spot.
Photo credits Paul Vlaar
2. The Fushimi Inari-shrine
Another very famous temple that you have to write down on your to-go-to list. The Fushimi Inari Shine has a pathway with more than 5000 red torii covering the steps you need to take to start your journey from the temple. Each of these red gates is a donation from a business enterprise in Japan hoping for succes. The torii are dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and business, and mark out paths leading to smaller shrines up the mountain and breathtaking city views. Travellers tip: visit this shrine on a weekday in the morning or at least while the locals are working so you avoid rush hour. I mean, everyone wants to take a photo of those shrines without people walking in front of you right?
Photo credits author unknown
Okay, this will be the last temple on my list (maybe..), but boy you really can’t miss this one either. Kiyomizudera is a very large temple with a wooden terrace, which is entirely constructed without nails. Yup, respect for the architect here. The temple, dedicated to the goddess of mercy, is great to visit because of the detailed interior artwork, and the view on the terrace is spectacular to say the least. You can oversee Kyoto and if you’re there when the cherry trees are in bloom…. need to say more?
Photo credits Joe Baz
No visit to Kyoto is complete without seeing the famous geisha district. The geiko (what geisha’s are called in Kyoto dialect) and maiko do perform for tourists during a dinner for example, but you can also spot them walking from and to appointments. Note that there are different tourists offices where you can dress up as a maiko yourself. A lot of Japanese women do this themselves when they visit Kyoto, so ask a local how you can spot a real one. Usually there are differences in their make-up, hair accessoires and clothing. You can also book a ‘Memoires of a Geisha’ – tour which shows you all the places mentioned in the book.
This definitely belongs in your top ten if you’re interested in the Japanese culture in general. Gion Corner is a popular theatre in the Gion district where tourists can watch a collection of short performances. These performances show seven traditional entertainment- and art forms in one setting. Think about the Kyoto style dance, the famous Tea Ceremony and Flower Arrangement, but also the japanese harp, a comic play, puppet play and court music. Prices range from 2200 yen (about 25 dollars) for students to 3500 yen (about 35 dollars) for adults.
Photo credits: Daniel Julie
5. Nishiki Market
Are you visiting Kyoto on a budget? Then this market is the place to be for a cheap lunch or breakfast. Nicknamed ‘Kyoto’s kitchen’, this ancient market has all the local produce ready for you, including one of the world’s most expensive mushrooms. The matsutake as they are called, cost about 750 pound per pound. The rest of the products are all reasonably priced and fresh however, so if you skip these mushrooms you’re in for a great treat.
Photo credit Keith Pomakis
6. Nijo Castle
At the time when Kyoto was still the capital of Japan, the shogun resided at this castle. Nijo Castle has two rings of moats and fortifications around the two palaces, Ninomaru Palace and Honmaru Palace. Now you can be like one of those powerful warriors from the past and roam around the private rooms, cross the large gardens and climb the moats. Also pay attention to the great entrance Kara-mon and the cherry-tree grove.
Photo credits Raphael Azevedo Franca
7. Katsura imperial villa
Although Kyoto is home to many impressive temples, this villa is also worth a visit. Originally constructed around 1600 for the brother of the Emperor, the imperal villa is now home to one of the most famous gardens. Special about this garden is that it is designed in such a way that visitors will always see things from the front. Just wander around and indulge yourself in the many different garden paths, view the paintings of Japans leading artists in the Naka-shoin or sit down on the veranda of Furu-shoin, which was constructed specifically to allow you to gaze at the moon.
Photo credits 663highland
8. Byodo-in Temple
Okay, can I put one more historical temple on the list? If you love taking iconic pictures this temple is not one to miss. The temple dates back to 988 AD and contains many unique buildings, shrines and artworks. And although the name ‘fishing hall’ does not sound that impressive, I can guarantee you the building will. Make sure to spend enough time to visit the temple gardens with their beautiful ponds and take a look at their 52 wooden Buddha statues and carved phoenixes.
Photo credits Dariusz Jemielniak
9. Bamboo forest in Kyoto
No visit to Japan is complete without a visit to a bamboo forest. Visitors described the bamboo forest as magical and like a step into another dimension. The thick bamboo sticks seem to reach for the sky, and there is not much room for the light to penetrate through at some places. If you would like to visit: go to the forest in the morning, when there aren’t that many tourists yet. To be able to enjoy the peacefulness and silence from the forest is something special.
Photo credits Stephane D-Alu
10. Ryoan-ji temple
Although it says temple, I’ve put this historical site in the list mainly because of the garden. Ryoan-ji is one of the most famous Zen temples in Japan because of this garden, which is a Karasansui, or rock garden as it literally translates to. The rock garden is not that big, it consists of fifteen rocks and white gravel, but you can definitely feel the zen in here.
What are your favourite historical sites in Kyoto? Let me know!