Kyoto is old Japan writ large: quiet temples, sublime gardens, colourful shrines and geisha scurrying to secret liaisons.
Few cities of this size offer such a range of excellent restaurants. Work your way through the entire spectrum of Japanese food, from impossibly refined cuisine known as kaiseki to hearty plebeian fare like rāmen. There’s also a wide range of French, Italian and Chinese restaurants, where the famed Japanese attention to detail is paired with local ingredients to yield fantastic results. Best of all, many of Kyoto’s restaurants are in traditional wooden buildings, where you can gaze over intimate private gardens while you eat.
Temples, Shrines & Gardens
There are said to be over 1000 Buddhist temples in Kyoto. You’ll find true masterpieces of religious architecture, such as the retina-burning splendour of Kinkaku-ji (the famed Golden Pavilion) and the cavernous expanse of Higashi Hongan-ji. Within the temple precincts are some of the world’s most sublime gardens, from the Zen masterpiece at Ryōan-ji to the riotous paradise of moss and blossoms at Saihō-ji. And then there are the Shintō shrines, monuments to Japan’s indigenous faith. The mother of all shrines, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, has mesmerising arcades of vermillion torii (shrine gates) spread across a mountainside.
The Japanese Way of Life
While the rest of Japan has adopted modernity with abandon, the old ways are hanging on in Kyoto. Take a morning stroll through the textile district of Nishijin and watch the old Kyoto ladies emerge from their machiya (traditional townhouses) to ladle water onto their stoops. Visit an old shōtengai (shopping street) and admire the ancient speciality shops: tofu sellers, fishmongers, pickle vendors and tea merchants. Then join the locals at a local sentō (public bath) to soak away the cares of the day.
The Changing Seasons
No educated Kyotoite would dare send a letter without making a reference to the season. The city’s geisha change their hair ornaments 12 times a year to celebrate the natural world. And Kyoto’s confectioners create seasonal sweets that reflect whatever is in bloom. Starting in February and lasting through the summer, a series of blossoms burst open like a string of firecrackers: plums, daphnes, cherries, camellias, azaleas and wisteria, among many others. And don’t forget the shinryoku (the new green of April) and the brilliant autumn foliage of November.
With seemingly endless arcades of vermilion torii (shrine gates) spread across a thickly wooded mountain, this vast shrine complex is a world unto its own. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive and memorable sights in all of Kyoto.
The entire complex, consisting of five shrines, sprawls across the wooded slopes of Inari-san. A pathway wanders 4km up the mountain and is lined with dozens of atmospheric sub-shrines.
Fushimi Inari was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century. As the role of agriculture diminished, deities were enrolled to ensure prosperity in business. Nowadays, the shrine is one of Japan’s most popular, and is the head shrine for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered the length and breadth of the country.
As you explore the shrine, you will come across hundreds of stone foxes. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals, and the stone foxes, too, are often referred to as Inari. The key often seen in the fox’s mouth is for the rice granary. On an incidental note, the Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of ‘possessing’ humans – the favoured point of entry is under the fingernails.
The walk around the upper precincts of the shrine is a pleasant day hike. It also makes for a very eerie stroll in the late afternoon and early evening, when the various graveyards and miniature shrines along the path take on a mysterious air. It’s best to go with a friend at this time.
On 8 April there’s a Sangyō-sai festival with offerings and dances to ensure prosperity for national industry. During the first few days in January, thousands of believers visit this shrine as their hatsu-mōde (first shrine visit of the New Year) to pray for good fortune.
Gion is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa. While Gion’s true origins were in teahouses catering to weary visitors to Yasaka-jinja (a neighbourhood shrine), by the mid-18th century the area was Kyoto’s largest pleasure district. Despite the looming modern architecture, congested traffic and contemporary nightlife establishments that have compromised its historical beauty, there are still some places left in Gion for an enjoyable walk.
Hanami-kōji runs north–south and bisects Shijō-dōri. The southern section is lined with 17th-century traditional restaurants and teahouses, many of which are exclusive establishments for geisha entertainment. At the south end you reach Gion Corner and Gion Kōbu Kaburen-jō Theatre (祇園甲部歌舞練場).
If you walk from Shijō-dōri along the northern section of Hanami-kōji and take your third left, you will find yourself on Shimbashi (sometimes called Shirakawa Minami-dōri), which is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets and, arguably, the most beautiful street in all of Asia, especially in the evening and during cherry-blossom season. A bit further north lie Shinmonzen-dōri and Furumonzen-dōri , running east–west. Wander in either direction along these streets, which are packed with old houses, art galleries and shops specialising in antiques – but don’t expect flea-market prices.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Walking into this extensive bamboo grove is like entering another world – the thick green bamboo stalks seem to continue endlessly in every direction and there’s a strange quality to the light. You’ll be unable to resist trying to take a few photos, but you might be disappointed with the results: photos just can’t capture the magic of this place. The grove runs from just outside the north gate of Tenryū-ji to just below Ōkōchi Sansō villa.
Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
The Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho) and Sentō Gosho are surrounded by the spacious Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, which is planted with a huge variety of flowering trees and open fields. It’s perfect for picnics, strolls and just about any sport you can think of. Take some time to visit the pond at the park’s southern end, which contains gorgeous carp. The park is most beautiful in the plum- and cherry-blossom seasons (late February and late March, respectively).
The plum arbour is located about midway along the park on the west side. There are several large shidareze-zakura (‘weeping’ cherry trees) at the north end of the park, making it a great cherry-blossom destination. The park is between Teramachi-dōri and Karasuma-dōri (to the east and west) and Imadegawa-dōri and Marutamachi-dōri (to the north and south).
Kyoto’s famed ‘Golden Pavilion’, Kinkaku-ji is one of Japan’s best-known sights. The main hall, covered in brilliant gold leaf, shining above its reflecting pond is truly spectacular. Needless to say, due to its beauty, the temple can be packed any day of the year. Thus, we recommend going early in the day or just before closing, ideally on a weekday.
The original building was built in 1397 as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. His son converted it into a temple. In 1950 a young monk consummated his obsession with the temple by burning it to the ground. The monk’s story was fictionalised in Mishima Yukio’s The Golden Pavilion . In 1955 a full reconstruction was completed that followed the original design, but the gold-foil covering was extended to the lower floors.
Home to a sumptuous garden and elegant structures, Ginkaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s premier sites. The temple started its life in 1482 as a retirement villa Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who desired a place to retreat from the turmoil of a civil war. While the name Ginkaku-ji literally translates as ‘Silver Pavilion’, the shogun’s ambition to cover the building with silver was never realised. After Yoshimasa’s death, the villa was converted into a temple.
Walkways lead through the gardens, which include meticulously raked cones of white sand (said to be symbolic of a mountain and a lake), tall pines and a pond in front of the temple. A path also leads up the mountainside through the trees.
Note that Ginkaku-ji is one of the city’s most popular sites, and it is almost always crowded, especially during spring and autumn. We strongly recommend visiting right after it opens or just before it closes.
A collection of soaring buildings and spacious courtyards, Chion-in serves as the headquarters of the Jōdo sect, the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan. It’s the most popular pilgrimage temple in Kyoto and it’s always a hive of activity. For visitors with a taste for the grand, this temple is sure to satisfy.
Chion-in was established in 1234 on the site where Hōnen, one of the most famous figures in Japanese Buddhism, taught his brand of Buddhism (Jōdo, or Pure Land, Buddhism) and eventually fasted to death.
The oldest of the present buildings date to the 17th century. The two-storey San-mon , a Buddhist temple gate at the main entrance, is the largest temple gate in Japan and prepares you for the massive scale of the temple. The immense main hall contains an image of Hōnen. It’s connected to another hall, the Dai Hōjō , by a ‘nightingale’ floor (that sings and squeaks at every move, making it difficult for intruders to move about quietly).
Up a flight of steps southeast of the main hall is the temple’s giant bell , which was cast in 1633 and weighs 70 tonnes. It is the largest bell in Japan. The bell is rung by the temple’s monks 108 times on New Year’s Eve each year.