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Kyoto, Japan's famous old capital, is filled with cultural and historical things to do and see, from Kinkakuji Temple to gardens at Tenryuji in Arashiyama. Learn twelve must-see Kyoto destinations to put on your trip itinerary to get the complete ancient capital experience.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, between 794 and 1868. The city has preserved the traditional culture and is famous now for its numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, World Heritage Sites such as the beautiful Kiyomizudera Temple, Kinkakuji Temple, and Toji Temple.
Continue reading to learn twelve great places in Kyoto that should be on your must-visit list.
The Shinkansen stops at Kyoto Station, so you can reach Kyoto in two and a half hours from Tokyo. The ride is about 50 minutes if you start from Nagoya. From Hakata station in Kyushu, it will take approximately 3 hours. From Osaka, you can reach Kyoto in about 30 minutes on the JR Special Rapid train.
The city of Kyoto is laid out in a grid pattern, so it's easy to find your way around. Within Kyoto, we recommend traveling via a combination of bus and subway. There are discount transport passes that will save you yen and time available for purchase at train stations and sightseeing information centers.
Kyoto is a city name you will find in all travel guides to Japan. Continue reading to discover some of the best sightseeing spots in Kyoto that are ideal for anyone trying to visit famous and culturally.
Kinkakuji Temple, or Rokuonji, is a Zen Buddhist temple located in the Kita ward of Kyoto, in the Kinugasa area. It was built as a resort house for the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, in 1397. The Sansorokaku pavilion, which is the reliquary hall worshiping Buddha, is covered in gold leaf. Visitors will be fascinated by the sight of the golden structure shining across the lake. It is a must-visit for anyone going to Kyoto.
Kiyomizudera is a historic temple established in 778. It is best known for its wooden stage known as Jigokudome, where visitors can overlook the city of Kyoto. Otowa Waterfall, or Otowa no Taki, can be found on the grounds. Its water is said to bring blessings in education, relationships, and longevity.
Ginkakuji Temple, officially known as Jishoji Temple, was originally a mountain retreat built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. It has a simple and understated appearance compared to the luxurious Kinkakuji. It represents the spirit of the Higashiyama culture, a culture that flourished in the eastern side of Kyoto around the beginning of the fifteenth century, and which stands at the basis of later developments such as the aesthetic of tea ceremony.
Toji Temple is the head temple of the Buddhist sect called Shingon Mikkyo, which was established by monk Kobo-Daishi Kukai in 796. The temple is also known as Kyoo Gokokuji Temple. The hall, with its Dainichi Nyorai Buddha statue and three-dimensional mandala, is a very impressive sight.
Arashiyama is a sightseeing spot representative of Kyoto. Its most popular attractions include the sakura cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves. There are many historic buildings in the Togetsukyo Bridge area, including Tenryuji Temple and Nonomiya Shrine, known for its blessings in human relationships, as well as the temples Seiryoji and Horinji, and the shrine Matsuo Taisha. The bamboo grove in this area also has its own unique atmosphere. Arashiyama is large and full of many things to do, so you may not be able to see it all in one day.
Tenryuji Temple in Arashiyama was established by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in 1339. It is a Rinzai Zen temple. Sogen Chiteien, the garden created by the Zen monk Muso Soseki, was designated one of Japan's most important historic spots and special place of scenic beauty. The dragon painted on the ceiling of the main hall has impressive, sharp eyes, and it seems as if the dragon were looking back at you wherever you look at it from.
Make time to admire the garden as well, which has a lovely pond with colorful koi swimming in it. Your heart will feel calmer as you stroll along the grounds.
Nijo Castle is a hirajiro (castle on the plains) built in 1603. It was the setting of the restoration of political authority to the Emperor, which became an event that marked Japanese history. The outer moats surrounding the castle draw the visitors' attention. By visiting this place you can experience how it is to walk inside a Japanese castle.
Photo by Pixta
Fushimi Inari Shrine, or Fushimi Inari Taisha, is the head shrine of the 30,000 Inari shrines throughout Japan. The god Inari, depicted in a fox form, has been worshipped since around the 711 as the protector of business prosperity and abundant crops.
The One Thousand Torii Gates is a sight especially popular among travelers. Please note the walk to the main shrine itself can be very steep in certain parts. Bring water and wear appropriate shoes and clothes to climb.
Kitano Tenmangu is the head temple of the approximately 12,000 tenmangu shrines in Japan, enshrining the god of education, Sugawara no Michizane. It was established in 947, and is located in the Kamigyo ward of Kyoto. Many students on school trips visit the site, hoping to improve their grades and scores.
The temple is also known for its ume (plum trees) garden. Visitors can enjoy a bowl of matcha tea during the season when the garden is open to the public. There are numerous cow statues around the grounds, as they are associated with Michizane. It is said that if you stroke their heads you can receive blessings. Festivals are held at this temple on the 25th of every month.
Picture courtesy of Eikando
Eikando, also called Zenrinji Temple, is located in the Eikandocho in the Sagyo ward of Kyoto. It was established in 863, and is a historic temple being mentioned even in the Kokin Wakashu - an imperial collection of poetry compiled in the Heian period. The autumn leaves are especially impressive, and the site is lit up at night. The deity being worshipped here is the "Mikaeri Amida Nyorai," a rare Buddha which seems to almost turn around to gently speak to visitors.
Picture courtesy of Tofukuji
Tofukuji Temple was completed in 1255 after 19 years of construction. It is the largest garan (a place where monks gather and live to train) in Kyoto. The view of the autumn leaves from the Tsutenbashi Bridge is a sight you will never forget. The temple is also known for its garden.
Tofukuji can be reached in about 10 minutes from Kyoto station by taxi. It is relatively close to Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Koryuji Temple is said to be the oldest temple in Kyoto, established in 603. Worshipped here is Shotoku Taishi (574 - 622), one of the most important rulers in the history of Japan, who created the country’s first constitution. The wooden statue of Miroku Boddhisatva is a National Treasure. This statue seems to be slightly smiling, creating a mysterious appeal.
Kyoto is located in a basin, surrounded in three directions by mountains. As a result, Kyoto is hot and humid in the summer, and very cold in the winter.
The average temperature in the summer is around 27 degrees Celsius (80°F), but it can reach up to 38 degrees Celsius (100°F) at times. You can count on the air conditioner inside most buildings, but if you're planning on sightseeing outside, it would be a good idea to bring a hat, towel, and if you can, a sensu (fan). The average temperature in the season of the autumn leaves is around 18.5 degrees Celsius (65.3°F), so you might be wearing a short-sleeve shirt and a light cardigan, or maybe a sweater or jacket in late fall.
The average temperature in winter is about 5 degrees Celsius (41°F). The coldest season is in January, when the lowest temperature can reach 2 degrees below zero (28.4°F). You'll want a down jacket or coat, and don't forget your mittens, scarf, and other cold-preventing wear. In the spring, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the average temperature is about 15 degrees Celsius. You'll be comfortable in a long-sleeve shirt and a vest or cardigan.
Did you know that you can actually find Kyoto without visiting?
On the back of the 10 yen coin is the Byodoin Temple in Uji, Kyoto. On the left half of the backside of the 10,000 yen bill you will also find the image of this temple. Kyoto can always be found in your very own pocket, but we recommend seeing the city in-person for a special experience.