The ancient Imperial Capital of Japan is one of the few places that is a must on almost any itinerary. With a wealth of temples, shrines and Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō, built by the former Tokugawa shogunate), Kyōto has enough to keep a temple- and history-freak occupied for a week or more. Nearby is Nara, capital of Japan before Kyōto, where you can see the Daibutsu (奈良大仏, Great Buddha) and many more temples. Ōsaka is just an hour’s train ride away to the south if you are looking for your next destination or want some of the bright lights of Japan’s second city.
Kyōto is for Japanese the city that most clearly symbolises traditional Japan. If a place has that feeling of being from a past age, it is often referred to as a “little Kyōto”. With the present population trends, that character should survive in this city. The population seems to have peaked at just less than 1.5 million people, although the number of households in the town is still increasing, as the average family size continues to drop. As for most cities in Japan, the number of old people has increased dramatically at the expense of the younger population.
How these changes will affect the character of Kyōto remains to be seen. However, with seventeen world heritage sites within the city, changes will be few, and its essential nature will be preserved. Kyōto is already a mix of ancient and modern, as the beauty of the ancient temples and castles mixes with a modern, busy city – the architecture of which is not always to the same standards. Cafe culture has existed for some time, and there are plenty of small coffee shops and tearooms for a break.
Kyōto is located just west of the centre of Japan and just north of Ōsaka (one hour by train), west of Nagoya (again, one hour by Shinkansen), and about three to five hours from Tōkyō (depending on the train). Kyōto is a primary station on the Tokaidō Line that runs from Tōkyō to Ōsaka, and you can catch JR, Meitetsu and Kintetsu trains to the city.
Kyōto has an airport, but if you are flying internationally, you should get a flight to Kansai (Ōsaka) or Nagoya airports, from either of which you can quickly reach Kyōto. If you fly into Narita (Tōkyō), then it is a little further. If you intend to make Kyōto your main stop, then it is better to try and find a flight to one of the closer airports as the train fare from Tōkyō will cost you at least 10,000 JPY.
Coming from within Japan, Kyōto is easily reachable by JR and other lines. From anywhere in the north of Japan, you will probably have to go via Nagoya. From the west, if you are on the Japan Sea coast, it may be necessary to come through Tottori-Okayama-Ōsaka; from the southern coast, you should probably come through Ōsaka.
Things to see
Kyōto was the Imperial capital of Japan from 794 until 1867. In 794, the original Heian-kyō (平安京) was built, consisting of extensive grounds, gardens, and buildings, but the main Daigokuden (大極殿) burnt down in 1177 and was never rebuilt. The city built the Heian Shrine (平安神宮 Heian-jingū) to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of Kyōto in 1894, a two-thirds scale reconstruction of the original Daigokuden. The new shrine also burnt down in 1976, and the present building is a 1979 reconstruction.
The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Kammu (桓武天皇 Kanmu-tennō, 737-806) who first made Kyōto the Imperial Capital, and to the father of the Meiji Emperor, Emperor Komei who was the last to have permanent residence in Kyōto. The temple is approached through colossal torii, which were constructed in 1929 and stood 24 metres high. The central part of the complex is the Otenmon (応天門, Divine Gate), a two-story structure; the East Hall and West Hall; the Byakko-ro and Soryu-ro (White Tiger and Blue Dragon) towers, and then the honden (本殿, main sanctuary, where the spirits of the emperors are supposed to reside) behind the Daigokuden.
The gardens of the Heian Shrine cover over 30,000 square meters and include plants imported from Europe, although the overall effect is designed to represent the spirit of the Heian period.
Perhaps the most famous Zen temple in the world, Nanzen-ji (南禅寺) is the home of Rinzai Zen, a dominant Zen Buddhist sect. The temple consists of a palace donated to the sect by the retired Emperor Kameyama (亀山天皇 Kameyama-tennō, 1249-1305) in 1290 in reward for an exorcism conducted by the Zen monk Fumon. The emperor also became a student of Fumon, and eventually gave his whole palace to the sect. The buildings of Nanzen-ji were burnt down several times, sometimes by accident and sometimes by jealous rivals, and also suffered in the civil strife of the Ōnin Wars.
Nanzen-ji has been blessed with many patrons, and among those who donated grounds, buildings and the like are Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and several emperors. This support vanished with the rise to prominence of Shintō after the Meiji Restoration, and Nanzen-ji was reduced to a fraction of its size when at its peak. There is still much to see, however. The main entrance is the San-mon (三門 or 山門, Mountain Gate) or Tenkanoryu-mon (Dragon Gate), one of the largest in Japan. The upper floor has a spectacular painted ceiling.
After the gate, see the Hojo (方丈, Abbot’s quarters) which consists of two separate buildings (the daihojo and shohojo). The latter is smaller but has many exquisite painted screens. Most of the sub-temples are closed to the public, but Nanzen-in, one of the oldest, is open. The temple was rebuilt in 1703 and houses the remains of Emperor Kameyama and his statue. The Chōshō-in sub-temple provides vegetarian meals at lunch. Still, older is the Tenju-an sub-temple, rebuilt in 1602 and still standing today. The Hondo (main hall) contains a statue and self-portrait of Fumon.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
The date Kamigamo Shrine (上賀茂神社 Kamigamo-jinja) was established is unknown, but since it and Kamomioya-jinja were sponsored by the Heian imperial court, it must at least predate the eighth century. The two main buildings are National Treasures. While both were rebuilt in 1863, the arrangement of the structures was set out in the eleventh century.
Open: all year round, 09:30-16:30. Admission: 500 JPY donation; Google Maps (Kamigamo Shrine)
Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社 Shimogamo-Jinja), also known as Kamomioya Shrine (賀茂御祖神社 Kamo-mioya-jinja): formerly a part of the Kamigamo Shrine complex, Shimogamo Shrine became independent during the eighth century. The original shrine on the site is said to have been constructed over two thousand years ago. The east and west buildings were reconstructed in 1863. Every year, the Aoi Festival held at this shrine brings thousands of visitors and is ranked as one of Kyōto’s most popular events.
Open: all year round, 06:30-17:00. Admission: free; Google Maps (Shimohamo Shrine)
Kyō-ō-gokoku-ji (教王護国寺) or Tō-ji (東寺) is a Buddhist temple established in 796 as one of the two imperial temples built on the east and west sides of the gate of Heian-kyō. It is an important landmark which helps orient oneself with the layout and scale of Heian-kyō. The kondo (main hall), gojunoto (five-storied pagoda), daishido (formerly the residence of the priest Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism), and renge-mon (lotus gate) are National Treasures.
Admission: detailed information in Japanese; Google Maps (Toji Temple)
Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, “Clear-water Temple”) was founded in 780, Kiyomizu-dera is the home of the Hosso Buddhist sect. The main building is on the side of a mountain and has a large veranda supported by pillars from below called “the stage of Kiyomizu” (清水の舞台 kiyomizu no butai). The first main building was initially the imperial throne hall. When the imperial capital was moved to Kyōto, the old hall was donated to a general who then gave it to the founder of Kiyomizu-dera, the priest Enchin. Destroyed by fire in 1629, the third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu rebuilt the present buildings in 1633.
The main building is only one of many other buildings to see in the complex. Sanju-no-to (三重塔, three storey pagoda), the shoro (bell tower), and a wealth of temples are spread out in the grounds. A Shintō shrine is also located in the grounds, one of the few that survived the enforced separation of Buddhism and Shinto in the Meiji Restoration.
From Kyōto Station: bus 202, 206, or 207 (Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka). Walk uphill to the temple. Open: all year round, 06:00-18:00. Admission: 300 yen; Google Maps (Kiyomizudera)
Enryaku-ji (延暦寺) was founded in 788, Enryaku-ji is the head temple of the Tendai sect. The oldest surviving buildings date from the fourteenth century. The temple covers a vast area, and consists of three main pagodas: Tō-tō (東塔, “East Pagoda”), Sai-tō (西塔, “West Pagoda”) and Yokokawa (横川). The temple is famous for its Buddhist chants.
Open: all year round, 08:30-16.30 (16:00 in winter); admission: detailed information; Google Maps (Enryaku-ji)
Daigo-ji (醍醐寺) is located in two sites, Kami-Daigo on top of the mountain and Shimo-Daigo at the foot of the mountain, and belongs to the Shingon sect. The upper section was begun in 874 and the lower in 904. Almost eighty buildings survive in the complex, including a five-storey pagoda completed in 952 that is the oldest building remaining in Kyōto. Many Buddhist monks are trained in the temple and are often seen on the paths between the upper and lower sites.
Open: all year round, 09:00-17:00 (16:00 in winter); admission: detailed information; Google Maps (Daigo-ji)
Ninna-ji (仁和寺) is a Buddhist temple of the Omuro school of the Shingon sect established in 886 by Emperor Koko and completed by his successor Emperor Uda in 888. Uda later became a monk at the temple, the first monk-emperor. Fires in the twelfth century destroyed many of the buildings, and the temple declined in importance. In the seventeenth century, the emperor prince Kakushin had the temple rebuilt using structures from the imperial palace, and it was reopened in 1646. Another fire in 1887 destroyed the main hall, which was rebuilt in 1913.
Open: all year round, 09:00-17:00 (16:00 in winter); admission: detailed information; Google Maps (Ninna-ji)
Byōdō-in (平等院) was formerly a villa belonging to the powerful Fujiwara clan, Byōdō is one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan and is seen on the reverse of the Japanese ten-yen coin. During this period, the arts flourished as powerful nobles spent the state’s funds on lavish building projects. The gardens and buildings are designed to represent and bring to mind the pure land, the Buddhist paradise. There are many important cultural properties housed in the buildings and the museum. In particular see the statue of the Amitabha Tathagata in the Phoenix Hall (鳳凰堂 Hōō-dō) which is surrounded by the Ajiike pond and the Pure Land Garden.
Open: all year round, 08:30-17:30; admission: detailed information; Google Maps Byodo-in)
Ujigami Shrine (宇治上神社 Ujigami-jinja) was originally the guardian shrine of Byōdō-in temple, although it is uncertain when it was established. It was probably built in the later Heian period, while the hall of worship was built in the early Kamakura Period.
Open: all year round, 08:30-17:00; admission: free; Google Maps (Ujigami Shrine)
Kōzan-ji (高山寺), also known as Toganōsan Kōsan-ji (栂尾山高山寺), dates from 774; the temple was rebuilt in 1206 by the priest Myōe (明恵, 1173–1232) and named Kozan-ji. Wars in the sixteenth century claimed most of the buildings, so most of those present today are reconstructions. The only original building from the thirteenth century is Sekisui-in, where Myoe lived. It is used by the Omuro sect of Shingon Buddhism.
Open: all year round, 08:30-17:00; admission: detailed information; Google Maps (Kozan-ji)
Saihō-ji (西芳寺), also known as Koke-dera (苔寺, “moss temple”), the first temple on this site dates from 731 but was rebuilt in its present form in 1339 along with Tenryu-ji. The Golden Pond (黄金池 ōgonchi) in the gardens is shaped like the Chinese character for “heart” or “mind” (心 kokoro). There are over a hundred different kinds of moss coating the rocks and ground of the garden. It is currently used by the Rinzai sect of Buddhism.
Open: all year round; admission: free; Google Maps (Saiho-ji)
Tenryū-ji (天龍寺), formally known as Tenryū Shiseizen-ji (天龍資聖禅寺), the present buildings were restored during the Meiji Period as the temple burnt down several times in its history. Initially, a palace belonging to the Ashikaga shogunate, like Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji it was converted into a Zen temple in 1339 by Ashikaga Takauji. It is the head temple of the Tenryū branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.
Open: all year round, 08:30-17:30; admission: 500 JPY, elementary and junior high school students 300 JPY; Google Maps (Tenryu-ji)
Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺): also known as Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺 Temple of the Golden Pavilion), dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Kannon, Rokuon-ji is the sole remaining building of a complex built by the Shogun Yoshimitsu around the end of the fourteenth century, although the gardens remain unchanged. In his will, Yoshimitsu bequeathed the building to the Rinzai sect, and it was converted into a temple in 1422. The entire building is clad in gold leaf, and its reflection in the lake surrounding it is one of the most evocative sights in Japan. In autumn, the red and gold leaves of Japanese maple seem to add to the glow of the building, while in winter it stands out in clear contrast to the white blanket of snow draped over the gardens. The original building survived until 1950 when it was burnt to the ground by a young monk. Rebuilding was completed in 1955.
From Kyoto Station: city bus 12, 59, 204, 205 (Kinkaku-ji-machi stop), 50 (Kinkaku-ji-mae stop). Open: all year round, 09:00-17:00, admission: free; Google Maps (Kinkaku-ji)
Jishō-ji (慈照寺): a Zen temple, also known as Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺, “Temple of the Silver Pavilion”), it was built in 1482 by the grandson of the Ashikaga Shogun who constructed Kinkaku-ji. I was originally planned to be coated in silver leaf. Although this was never accomplished, the name remains. Similar to his grandfather, Yoshimasa gave the building to the Rinzai Zen sect on his death. The buildings and gardens were substantially remade in the seventeenth century. The grounds contain the Dojin-sai, created by Murata Shuko and the model for all subsequent Japanese tea rooms. The gardens also contain the famous “dry garden” Ginshaden (“Sea of Silver Sand”). This large area of sand is re-raked every day and is said to be especially beautiful by moonlight. The other part of the gardens holds Kinkyo-chi (“Brocade mirror pond”), which when looked at from different locations evokes different images from Japanese and Chinese literature.
Open: daily 08:30-17:00 (December-February 09:00-16:30); admission: fee; Google Maps (Ginkaku-ji)
Ryōan-ji (竜安寺 or 龍安寺, “The Temple of the Dragon at Peace”) was founded in 1450 and is a Rinzai Zen temple near Kinkaku-ji to the northwest of Kyōto. In the grounds is Kyoyochi Pond containing two small islands, one holding a shrine to the goddess Benten, one of the seven Shintō gods of good luck. However, the temple is most famous for its rock garden, built at the end of the fifteenth century. It consists of gravel in which are placed fifteen rocks, the positioning of which is such that whatever angle you look from, you can only see fourteen at any time. Supposedly, just the enlightened can see all fifteen rocks.
Open: daily 08:00-17:00 (December-February 08:30-16:30); admission: 500 JPY, children under 15 years 300 JPY; Google Maps (Ryoan-ji)
Hongan-ji (本願寺, “Temple of the Primal Vow”): head temple of the Jōdo Shinshū (“True Pure Land”) Buddhism, the temple was originally founded in Ōsaka and moved to its present location in 1591. The buildings include the oldest existing Noh theatre, and most were originally brought from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s residences.
Open: all year round, 05:00-17:00, admission: free; Google Maps (Hongan-ji)
Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō): one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s first acts on defeating his enemies at the battle of Sekigahara was to require the lords of western Japan to build Nijō Castle for him. This virtually impregnable fortress was further enlarged for an imperial visit in 1626, and although used as the official residence of the Tokugawa shogunate while in Kyōto, the primary purpose of the castle was as a symbol of power. Ninomaru Palace (二の丸御殿 Ninomaru Gōten), famous for its “nightingale floors” (鴬張り uguisubari) and its gardens are one of the main attractions of Kyōto and were donated to the city by the royal family in 1939. The gardens were initially designed without trees to be unchanging throughout the year, trees and flowers were later added so that the palace gardens are brilliant with colour all year round. The artwork of the main palace is the original work that dates from the sixteenth century and uses bright colours and gilt to depict animals, flowers and trees.
Open: all year round, 08:45-17:00 (gates close at 16:30), admission: 600 JPY, junior and senior high-school students 350 JPY, elementary school students: 200 JPY; Google Maps (Nijocho)
- Heian Shrine (official website in Japanese and English)
- Nanzen-ji Zen Temple (in Japanese and English)
- Kamigamo Shrine (in Japanese and English)
- Shimogamo Shrine (in Japanese and English)
- Tō-ji Temple (in Japanese)
- Kiyomizu-dera (in Japanese and English)
- Hieizan Enryaku-ji (in Japanese and English)
- Daigo-ji Temple (in Japanese and English)
- Ninna-ji Temple (in Japanese and English)
- Byodoin Temple (in Japanese and English)
- Kozan-ji Temple (in Japanese)
- Shokoku-ji Website (Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji, in Japanese and English)
- Ryoan-ji Temple (in Japanese and English)
- Nishi-Hongwanji Temple (in Japanese and English)