Surrounded by the hills of central Honshu, Kyoto is one of Japan’s largest cities and the educational hub of western Japan with several universities and higher educational establishments. Although one of Japan’s great tourist destinations, it has managed to preserve much of the atmosphere of the past.Kyoto today boasts numerous fine examples of sculptures, paintings, and other art forms in its many museums and galleries. The city is also home to centuries-old architecture, much of it influenced by Buddhism and found in well-preserved temples. Kyoto continues to play an important role in Japanese religion.
Best Time to Visit
If you are planning a Travel to Japan then best times to visit Kyoto are October/November (fall) and March/April/May (spring). You can visit Kyoto at any time of year because the weather is temperate.
Top Places to Visit in Kyoto
1. Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion
Originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and now a Zen Buddhist temple, the magnificent Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) is one of Kyoto’s most picturesque attractions. Taking its name from the gold leaf adorning the top two of its three floors – a design element believed to alleviate any negativity associated with death – the structure has been rebuilt in its original form a number of times, this most recent incarnation dating from the late 1950s. Built over a large pond, the site is also famous for its beautiful grounds, as well as its old stone pagoda and the Sekkatei Tea House with its traditionally served beverages.
2. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle, complete with walls, towers, and a moat, was built in 1603 and later served as the seat of government. The complex has several buildings containing many significant works of art and is famous as the location chosen by the emperor to issue the rescript abolishing the country’s once powerful Shogunate. Highlights include the castle’s East Gate (Higashi Otemon, its main entrance); the Inner Gate, or Karamon, notable for its fine carvings and decorated metalwork; and beyond this, the elaborate Mikuruma-yose. The site’s most important building is Ninomaru Palace consisting of five separate buildings linked by corridors, and with exquisite interiors decorated with paintings by Kano Tanyu and his pupils. Also of interest is the adjacent building with its large Audience Hall surrounded by a gallery and with sliding doors with large paintings of larches on a gold background. The fourth building, the Kuro-Shoin, has animal paintings by Kano Naonobu, while in the Shogun’s private apartments are paintings of mountain landscapes.
3. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
In the east part of Kyoto, the Kiyomizu Temple, an important UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies in a picturesque location on Otowa Mountain overlooking the city. Visitors can enjoy a delightful stroll to the temple along quaint Tea-pot Lane with its small shops and craft stores. Founded in AD 790 and dedicated to the 11-headed Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy whose statue can be seen here, the existing buildings were erected after 1633. Highlights include the large terrace of the Main Hall, built on 30-meter-tall pillars with five rows of cross-beams and used as a stage for temple dances and ceremonies. The terrace affords spectacular views over the city and the surrounding wooded hills, especially when the leaves change color in fall.
4. Sanjusangen-do Temple
Sanjusangen-do (Rengyoin Temple), or the Temple of the 33 Niches, takes its name from its rather unusual structure, with its façade divided into 33 (sanjusan) niches (gen) to reflect the belief that Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, could take on 33 different personifications. Originally built in 1164, the present elongated building was constructed in 1266 after a fire destroyed its predecessor, with evidence of its former importance as a place of training in archery still seen in the many holes in its ancient pillars and timbers made by arrowheads. The most important of its many works of art is the Kannon with a Thousand Hands, a nearly three-and-a-half-meter-tall statue, which dates from the 13th century and is notable for the 500 standing figures of Kannon lined up on either side of it.
5. Nishi Honganji Temple
The chief temple of the original Jodo-shinshu sect, Nishi Honganji Temple is an outstanding example of Buddhist architecture. Highlights include the Hondo, or Main Hall, rebuilt in 1760 with a number of fine rooms decorated with paintings on gold backgrounds and numerous important statues, some dating from the 6th century.
6. Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine
One of Japan’s most famous shrines, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine is a must-visit when in Kyoto. Founded in AD 711 and dedicated to the goddess of rice-growing, Ukanomitama-no-mikoto, the shrine is still frequented by merchants and tradesmen who pray for prosperity. The main building dates from 1499 and features a spectacular four-kilometer-long avenue of bright orange “torii,” or arches, each dedicated by a business (it takes some two-hours to travel past the 32,000 arches lining the route).
7. Gion’s Geishas and Temples
Famous as an entertainment and geisha district, Gion is an area of Kyoto that is well suited to exploring on foot. On the eastern bank of the Kamogawa River, Gion is an eclectic mix of modern architecture and historical beauty that provides a unique taste of numerous Japanese traditions, from the elaborately dressed geishas to well-preserved 17th-century restaurants and teahouses offering a taste of old Japan.
8. Daitoku-ji Temple
The Daitoku-ji Temple – the Zen Temple of Great Virtue – is one of the principal temples of the Rinzai sect and was founded in 1324, with the present structures dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Of the 22 buildings on-site, seven are open to the public, including the Kara-mon, a Chinese-style gate with magnificent carvings, and the two-story main gate, Sammon, built in 1589 and notable for its many fine ceiling paintings and statues.
9. The Byodo-in Temple
The Byodo-in Temple, established in AD 988, boasts many unique buildings, shrines, and artworks worthy of a visit. Highlights include the Phoenix Hall (Hoo-do), with its bronze phoenixes on its two gables and rich interior décor; 11th-century paintings, including an imposing gilded figure of Amida; and an altar and ceiling inlaid with bronze and mother-of-pearl. Also worth a visit is the Zen Tenryu-ji Temple, from which you can access the wonderful Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, an area full of tall bamboo that is simply breathtaking.
10. The Kyoto National Museum and Municipal Museum of Art
In addition to its many fine old temples with their important artworks, Kyoto also boasts a number of impressive collections in its many world-class museums and galleries. Perhaps the best known is the National Museum, an art gallery established in 1897 that is widely considered the most important such museum in Japan. Focusing predominantly on pre-modern Asian art, particularly examples from Japan. Also worth seeing is Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, opened in 1928 and featuring important works by Takeuchi Seiho, one of Japans’ leading artists of the 20th century.