There are many beautiful and outstanding places around Japan. But, as the time is limited you may want to know which is the best city to start exploring this country. Well, visit Kyoto and you won’t be dissapointed, it has it all.
Kyoto is the first city of Japan with temples and the place which best preserves the cultural traditions. With more than 1800 temples it is hard to chose which ones to see. The good part is some of them already gained their name among the others and now are on the must see list for a first visit in Kyoto. Apart from temples, there is a lot more to see. There is a castle, many gardens, historical buildings and streets, the famous geisha neighbourhoods, bamboo forests and much more.
Consequently, with so many things to visit in Kyoto, there is never enough time to spend here. So you will need to plan your visits accordingly and by areas, to not run from opposite directions and lose time.
Nishi Hongan-ji Temple
Built by the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1591 it is one of the most important places in Japan for the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect – the true essense of the pure land Buddhist teaching. This new sect was founded by the priest Shinran. It is denying the vegetarianism, ascetism and celibate to achieve the enlightenment. He is claiming that the intonation of the sutra embracing the power of the Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow is enough.
You can enter through several gates into the temple courtyard, Goeido Gate, Amidado Gate, O-Genkan gate. Bare in mind you cannot enter from the other ones. Then have a walk and admire the Amidado, the Hall of Amida Buddha and the Goeido, the Fonder’s Hall. You can walk from one to another via a coridor with kansho bell. You’ll need to leave your shoes at the entrance or carry them with you in a plastic bag.
As a fact, the Goeido is one of the largest wooden structures in Japan. More than this, the entire precinct of Hongwanji is under Unesco World Heritage since 1994.
Higashi Hongan-ji Temple
Near Nishi Homgan-ji you will find another temple, almost identical with it, called Higashi Hongan-ji. A Buddhist priest left the Jodo Shinshu sect and built its own school and a temple to host it. Its main building is the biggest wooden structure in Japan.
If you visit Kyoto for a shorter period of time, you can chose one this two temples to visit because of their arhitectural similarities. This doesn’t mean for the other temples the rule with I have seen one, the other ones are the same, will apply.
In 794 the capital of Japan moved from Nara to Kyoto. Two years after, two temples were built but only one survived in time, the east one, which is today the To-ji Temple.
The emperor Saga gave this temple later to the monk Kukai to honor him. This is how this place became the central seminary of the Shingon Buddhism. This sect is commonly refered to the Esoteric or Tantric Buddhism.
The temple itself is composed by several buildings. It has a pagoda which is the tallest in Japan, with 55 metre high. The Kodo hall hosts 21 important statues of Buddha and other deities divided in Nyorai, Bodhisattvas, Myoo and Tenbu. The Kondo hall is the largest structure among the others and is the finest one, combining Japaneaze double roofed style with the Indian tenjiku style. Inside it hosts three statues of the Buddha placed on the physical representation of the cosmology.
This temple belongs to the Toji-in complex and combo tickets can be bought together. The Kanchi-in Hall is the academic centre of the Toji-in and contains the nation’s largest and most well preserved collection of esoteric Buddhist writtings.
The garden, Choja-no-niwa, is an expression of the infinite cosmos of Shingon esotericism and the spirit of nirvana enlightenment. Take your time to admire the beautiful garden made by rocks, white gravel, Japanese red pine, moss and rocks.
The house walls have some amazing paintings. A well known one is the Eagles by Miyamoto Musachi. Even so, my favourite one was the painting reflecting the four seasons. Last but not least, in one of the rooms you will notice five statues, the Five Great Kokuzo Bosatsu. They are in charge of safety and prosperity.
Same story as in Tokyo, if you want to visit the palace you need a permit. So you need to apply for one at the office inside the palace or online, in advance. I haven’t done it, so I skipped this visit. But, if you didn’t seen any palace in Japan you really need to visit one, as are completely different from the ones we know.
The night life
The heart of the city and the most important commercial neighbourhood is Kawaramachi. Here you can find everything you want to buy from modern to traditional clothes, souvenirs, restaurants, bars, a big food market and much more.
Gion & Pontocho
For many of us, to visit Kyoto means a chance to see a real geisha, a courtesan of the old times. Well, near Kawaramachi, you will find the two famous geisha neighbourhoods, Gion and Pontocho where they do exist. Their alleys are long, with small and short buildings made by wood and red lanterns. Here the nightlife is for the rich ones, who can afford extremely expensive meals in the company of a real geisha.
As a fact, before the second world war were approximately 100,000 geisha. Now, after the end of the war and the apparition of the bars the remaining ones are around 1,500. It is said in Kyoto are less than 300 today, so the chance to see one are really low.
If you are having a walk around Gion, extend it by visiting the near-by Yasaka-jinja Shrine and Maruyama park. This shrine is the main place for the festival Gion Masuri, the biggest Shinto festival in Kyoto. The park goes all around the shrine and even more, towards the Chion-in Temple.
Once you arrive nearby, you cannot miss the entrance to this shrine as it has a huge tori gate far away from the main entrance. This shrine was built to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the city fondation. The altar is very lively coloured as the entire complex, it is full of life, highlighting the Heian period. If you want to extend your stay there is a garden nearby.
I don’t say this shrine is not beautiful enough to be on your list of things to visit in Kyoto, but you can skip it if you’re in a rush.
Visit Kyoto and its famous temple – commonly known as – the Silver Pavillion! The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa aimed to build a luxoury house covered with silver leaves. Taking the example from his grandfather, he tried to create something similar as the Golden Pavillion. Unfortunatelly he run out of money and he never covered the house in silver. After his death, the house was converted into a temple according to his wish.
The temple garden is magnificient. From the entrance you can admire the mount Fuji through the waves, according to the zen garden, symbolized by the sand and white stones.
Walk around the garden as you will recharge your batteries for the entire day. It is quite and nice, the nature is at home. Follow the path which takes you up on the hill to have a splendid view with the city, then return along the lake.
Inside Nanzen-ji is a complex of 13 temples and gardens, so you need to decide which ones to visit. You can see my list below.
Before reaching the Nanzen-ji temple you will notice a huge gate. This is the Sanmon of Nanzen-ji and symbolize the three roads to Buddhist liberation. It is also known as one of the biggest three in Japan. Pay to go up to the 22 meter height, as you will have a panoramic view with the Nanzen-ji complex and the surroundings.
The emperor Kameyama built a place here which later converted it into a zen Buddhism temple. The garden is absolutely gorgeous. It is surounded by large ponds, colourful fishes and lanes for strolling. It has a waterfall too and old high trees all around.
Near the Nanzen-in temple you will notice a big aqueduct. It is built in roman style, with rounded arches and red brick. It’s really worth in a stop and a walk around it.
This is the head temple of the Rinzaishu-Nanzenji school, of the the zen sects. It belong to the emperor Kameyama which donated it later as a zen temple in 1291. The temple is considered today as one of the five great zen temples in Kyoto.
The garden was named “Young Tigers Crossing the Water”, because of the rocks and their shapes. Do not miss the famous sliding door painting by Tanyu Kano, “Tiger drinking water”. It is located in one of the halls.
This is a sub temple of the Kenninji Temple, one of the biggest and the most important ones ever since. It was built by Kita-no-Mandokoro in the memory of her late husband, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and financed by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The result it is a temple with a beautiful design and exquisite craftsmanship.
This place was built to commemorate the victims of the second world war. Because of that it is also known as the Unknown soldier. Inside you will the see a huge concrete statue of Bodhusattva Avalokitesvara, of 24 metre height, in the memory of the ones who sacrificed themselves. It is a model example of the Showa era art. Apart from this, another special thing you will find is the largest stone footprint of the Buddha in Japan.
This temple is a Kannon temple, honoring the eleven heads deity. The location is amazing, on the East side of Kyoto on a steep hill. Its contruction, made by 139 wooden poles is memorable. Considering this facts it is easy to understand why it one of the most loved temples in Kyoto and one of the most visited one.
There are three things you cannot miss while being here:
- The first one is to stop by the Otowa waterfall. It is well known for its purification powers. So if you want to have luck or live longer try this experience. You will need to queue and wait for your turn as everybody wants to take advantage of this. Once it’s your turn, you need to use the long arm recipient to collect water from the waterfall. When is enough, use the water to wash your hands by pouring the water. Do not touch the recipient with your hands.
- The second thing you need to do is to buy a love charm from the shrine inside. There are only a few places in Japan where you can do this, so don’t miss the chance. So, don’t visit Kyoto without “buying” a chance for love!
- The third one, if you are single, is to visit the love turtles. In the same area with the shrine there are two turtles. According to the tradition, if you start your walk from a turtle to the other with closed eyes and reach the second turtle, you will find love. If not, maybe you can try again or come another time. All the good things should come at the right timing, don’t rush them.
I fact, I do have one more thing to recommend you to do here at the temple. Before the entrance, there is a place called Tainai-meguri, Kiyomizu temple’s hidden room.
This room is inside the Zuigu hall, underground. You need to follow the stairs to go down and experience the absolute dark. Basically, you will enter a tunnel, with no source of light, in total darkness, having only a rope helping you guide yourself through the tunnel. At the middle of your journey you will see a stone engraved with a sacred symbol. This is basically what you are looking to discover among your journey. From here, the distance to the exit is short. After this experience, the Tainai Meguri is supposed to give you a feeling of being reborned, as you see the light again and your senses come back to life.
The name of the Sanjusangen-do is not the official name of the temple, but the Rengeo-in temple. The new name came from the fact the temple has 33 spaces between the columns.
This temple was my favourite one in Kyoto and probably in Japan. The entire temple is a national treasure and nobody can contest why. It has 1001 statues of the Kannon deity in a huge hall of 120 metre. The biggest one has 1000 arms.
Apart from this incredible statues, there are a few more. Twenty eight garden deities are placed in front of the 1001 Kannon statues, to protect them. You can also see two other statues symbolizing the thunder god and the wind god, at the extremities of the hall.
Honestly, this image is so beautiful that I had the impression as long as I stay I cannot have enough. I even done the tour twice, but it wasn’t enough. I wish I could contemplate for that imagine for hours, so beautiful it is the art. In conclusion, you really need to add it on your list for the visit in Kyoto.
This Buddhist temple is better known as the Golden Pavillion and is part of the Rokuon-ji temple, belonging to the Rinzai sect.
The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the 3rd shogun of the Muromachi period, bought this place from a statesman and transformed it into his own villa, called Kigayama-den. After he died, the villa has been converted into a temple according to his wish. The original one burned into a fire and this one is an identical copy, according to the officials.
The pavillion’s two levels are covered in gold foil with a shining Phoenix bird on top. The style is typical for the Muromachi period. Apart from the gold coverage, the most beautiful thing you can admire here is the pavillion reflection into the water’s pond. With so many islets around, trees and a quite atmosphere, you get completely absorbed into that world.
The bad part is if you go during the weekend or peak hours will be full of tourists, which may affect a bit its charm. Anyway, it still remains one of the most famous and visited temples in Japan.
This place also called the Temple of the dragon at Peace, is located at a walking distance from the Golden Pavillion. It belong to the Zen Rinzai sect and is the most famous in the world for its stone garden.
The garden is a rectangular, twenty five metres long and ten meters width. Its particularity consist by the fact there are no trees around. There are only fifteen rocks sitting on white gravel. The simbolistic stands for the islands in the ocean.
Apart from this unique image, the temple has a big lake and green paths to have a walk through. There is also a tea house inside and an unique wash basin of stone, tsukubai, belonging to the tea room. It has an inscription meaning “I learn only to be contended.”
Suburbs of Tokyo
Fushimi Inari Taisha
This is my favourite shrine from Japan, its beauty is hard to be explained in words. There are approximately 40,000 Shinto Shrines in Japan for the Inari deity, but this is the most important one.
The Shrine is spread among the Inari Mountain, covered in orange torii. This torii are all donated by people as well the foxes statues around. The fox is known as the Inari messenger, a deity which brings wealth and good harvest.
Even if it’s outside the city, you cannot visit Kyoto without coming here. You need to take a train but it’s totally worth in the effort. It may be one of the best memories you’ll have from Japan.
Unfortunately, the time and the weather didn’t allowed me to go and visit the beautiful Arashiyama with its bamboo forest. I read you need to allocate a full day to explore the temples around and the scenery. So, try not to rush but enjoy the time outside the city. You will also be able to see the most luxurious houses of Kyoto there.
After reading all this, I do hope you have no further doubts why you should visit Kyoto as a first priority while in Japan. It cannot disappoint as it has all you need to deep dive into the Japanese heritage and understand the essentials of this beautiful country.
Read more about other wonderful place in Japan here.