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Top Attractions in Kyoto

Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is a city on the island of Honshu, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Kansai region. It's famous for its many Buddhist temples, gardens, palaces, shrines, and traditional wooden houses.

With a centuries-old history as the country's former capital, as well as being one of the major religious and cultural hubs in Japan, Kyoto has a great number of sites worth visiting.

Highlights

  • Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan.
  • The image of Kinkakuji Temple, richly adorned in gold and beautifully reflected in the Kyokochi Pond, is one of the most widely recognized images of Kyoto.
  • If you want to explore the culinary delights that the city of Kyoto is known for, you have to pay Nishiki Market a visit.
  • Fushimi Inari Shrine has consistently been chosen by visitors as one of the best tourist destinations in Japan and ought to be on your list of must-see attractions in Kyoto.
  • Higashiyama District is a great place to experience traditional old Kyoto.

Kiyomizudera Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple is one of the most important and oldest historic monuments in Japan, built in 780, on the site of the Otowa Waterfall. The celebrated temple derives its name from the fall's pure waters.

Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from the main hall, 13 meters above the hillside below. Visitors are afforded a beautiful view of the countless cherry and maple trees in the foreground and the city of Kyoto in the background.

Kiyomizudera also has special evening illumination during the autumn leaf season, the second half of November, and during the annual Hanatoro event held in mid-March.

Ginkakuji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) and Philosopher's Path

Ginkakuji is a Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto. The official name of the temple is Jishoji Temple and it's also known as "Temple of the Silver Pavilion".

Built in 1490 during the Muromachi period by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as his retirement villa, Ginkakuji is now one of the top tourist sites in the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ginkakuji Temple consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden, and a unique dry sand garden. A visit to the temple is best enjoyed by walking along a circular route around the temple grounds, from which the gardens and buildings can be viewed.

Beginning at Ginkakuji Temple and ending in the neighborhood of Nanzenji is the famed Philosopher's Path. Approximately two kilometers in length, the path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking the route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.

Restaurants, cafes, bars, and boutiques can be found along the Philosopher's Path, as well as a number of smaller temples and shrines that are a short walk from the canal.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)

Kinkakuji a.k.a. "Temple of the Golden Pavilion" is a must-visit landmark in Kyoto. The Zen Buddhist temple was built in 1397, originally as the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.

Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu's former retirement complex. A 21-year-old fanatic monk burned it down in 1950, before the present structure was rebuilt in 1955.

The temple has been built to echo the extravagant Kitayama culture that developed in the wealthy aristocratic circles of Kyoto during Yoshimitsu's times. In each season, the temple displays astonishing scenery collaborating with the beautiful nature of Kyoto.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, the castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site.

The gorgeous style of Nijo Castle was intended as a demonstration of Shogun Ieyasu's prestige, and it remains an eloquent testimony of the shogunate's power.

The wide moat, massive stone walls, and heavy gates remain impressive and were the only fortifications the inhabitants felt necessary, so firm was their grip on power. The castle grounds are large and contain several lovely gardens as well as groves of plum and cherry trees.

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is a centuries-old market that is often packed with locals and tourists alike. It is a narrow, five-block-long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants.

Known as "Kyoto's Kitchen", this lively retail market specializes in all things food related, like fresh seafood, produce, knives and cookware, and is a great place to find Kyoto specialties like sweets, pickles, and sushi.

If you want to explore the culinary delights that the city of Kyoto is known for, you have to pay Nishiki Market a visit. Shops freely give out samples or sell sample dishes, and a few small restaurants and food stands even sell ready-made food.

Gion District and Higashiyama

While Higashiyama specifically refers to the hills that run along Kyoto's eastern edge, this is a large area that spans a number of UNESCO World Heritage temples and the most pristine of Kyoto's old townscapes. The area is also home to several of the city's kagai, or geisha districts.

The streets of Higashiyama are lined with small shops, cafes, and restaurants that have been catering to tourists for hundreds of years, and products on sale include everything from pottery to sweets and pickles.

It is a great place to experience traditional old Kyoto, especially between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine, where the narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and traditional merchant shops invoke a feeling of the old capital city.

Further south, towards Shijo Street, you begin to enter the geisha territory of Gion. Here, you can find ochaya (wooden teahouses) that serve as residences and reception venues for geisha, though some have been converted into high-end restaurants and bars that are open to the public.

Pontocho District

Pontocho is one of Kyoto's most atmospheric dining areas. It is a narrow alley running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, one block west of Kamogawa River. The alley is beautifully decorated with lanterns and is packed with restaurants, offering a wide range of dining options, from inexpensive Kyoto fare to incredibly pricey foreign cuisine.

Within the geisha (or geiko) hierarchy, Pontocho is the number two area, following Gion, which is the top-ranked area. To spot one of the painted ladies, one may have to show up around 5 or 6 in the evening and wait. At that time of the evening, maiko and geiko are often on their way to an appointment at one of the houses.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari is the head shrine of Inari, located in Kyoto prefecture. The shrine is at the base of a mountain, 233 meters above sea level, and includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines that span 4 kilometers and takes approximately 2 hours to walk up.

The shrine is famous for "Senbon Torii" which is formed with over 5,000 red torii gates and looks like a tunnel. The torii gates made an appearance in the famous film, Memoirs of a Geisha, in 2005, and became hugely known worldwide.

Fushimi Inari is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan and a famous photo spot, attracting photographers from all over the world.

Arashiyama District

Arashiyama is a touristy district in the western outskirts of Kyoto. The area has been a popular destination since the Heian Period (794 - 1185), when nobles would enjoy its natural setting. Arashiyama is particularly popular during the cherry blossom and fall color seasons.

The Togetsukyo Bridge is Arashiyama's well-known, central landmark. Many small shops, restaurants and other attractions are found nearby, including Tenryuji Temple and Arashiyama's famous bamboo groves.

Uji City

Uji is a small city to the south of Kyoto that is known for its shrines and temples. Due to Uji's close proximity to Kyoto and Nara, the city developed as a cultural center in its own right.

Uji is also famous for its green tea. While Kozanji Temple in Kyoto is believed to be the original site of tea cultivation in Japan, Uji's tea became better known for its superior quality in the 1100s.

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