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Kyoto, Japan

  • Photo of Kyoto, Japan
  • Photo of Kyoto, Japan
  • Photo of Kyoto, Japan
  • Photo of Kyoto, Japan
Photo of Kyoto, Japan
Photo by flickr user matsuyuki

Kyoto retains the grace, refinement and cultural riches of its years as Japan’s capital, but today its coated in a work-a-day industrial layer.  Once a place of geisha silks, parks carefully laid out to reflect the seasons, narrow cobbled streets and wooden dwellings and classically beautiful art and writing, these things remain but are kept aside like museum pieces rather than part of the regular cycle of life.  The city’s simple layout presents around 1800 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, hundreds of immaculate gardens and several important historic buildings (Kyoto suffered little bomb damage in WWII) and museums which is where you can call on the Kyoto of old.  Spring and Autumn are still the best times of year to visit, when festivals and the changing hues of the city’s gardens bring back the colour and polish of the Kyoto’s rich traditions. 

Top Kyoto attractions

We know a total of 21 attractions in Kyoto. See all Kyoto attractions.

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Other expert and press reviews

“Kyoto Celebrates a 1,000-Year Love Affair”

By Michelle Green for The New York Times. First published 4th January 2009. ON a glaring, color-drenched day in Kyoto, I walk unsteadily out of the traditional restaurant where I have spent the morning being costumed, painted and bewigged. Two chic dre… Read more...

Written by press. See the full article in The New York Times, 4th January 2009.

Comments, reviews and questions by other travellers

Kyoto is on the to-do list of every person that visits Japan. And probably the most recommended places to visit. With 1000-plus shrines/temples, cultural Kyoto has a very religious aura. You can almost catch the scent of incense in the air. Kyoto hosts one of the highest populations of priests and students (because of the relatively high number of colleges/universities). The locals joking say that if you throw a stone in the air, it will either hit a priest or a student!

The history of Kyoto as the seat of power and the capital of Japan can be traced as far back as 6th century. That was until the 19th century when the emperor moved to Tokyo and made it the capital. Probably one of the reasons Kyoto is also called as ‘Miyako’ (meaning “the seat of Imperial palace”). A beautiful waterfall in the Kyoto station mall close to the Hachijo exit will keep scrolling the words: “Welcome to Miyako”. Pretty impressive!

The best thing to plan your trip is to lookup some tour brochures available online or at your hotel reception. Places that are most recommended will feature on almost all these brochures. Once you have your list, group them according to the location. Some of the major shrines, gardens and castles are spread over a wide area. Take for example the Sanjusangendo Temple & the Kiyomizudera Temple which are in the east and Kinkakuji Temple or the Golden Pavilion which is in the west part of the city. You can then decide whether to do all of them in one day or spread it over a weekend. We decided to do it in a day! So this was the plan: catch the very first ‘Shinkansen’ (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto at 6 a.m. in the morning; reach Kyoto by 8:15 a.m.; take a day tour at 8:45 a.m.; get back by around 7 p.m.; have dinner and roam around a little bit and take the last ‘Shinkansen’ from Kyoto at 9:34 p.m.; reach back to Tokyo by midnight. Phew! Seems like a doable plan, doesn’t it. One small piece of advice though, do not go partying to Roppongi the night before!

Anyways, there are several tour operators offering sightseeing tours but the most well-known among them is the Sunrise tours operated by JTB. This is the one we took as it was recommended by my hotel and more importantly agreed to by all my colleagues! The day tour takes you to six places; the Nijo Castle (called Nijo-jo in Japanese), Golden Pavilion (also called as Kinkaku-ji), the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine, Sanjusangendo and Kiyomizu Temple. We missed the Imperial Palace as it is closed on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. Weird?! Yes, but according to the tour guide that is because the staff that takes care of the palace do not work on weekends and public holidays. This tour took us to Nishi-Honganji Temple instead. There are several pick-up points and we joined the tour from New Miyako Hotel. This hotel is just outside the Hachijo exit of the JR Kyoto station. The cost; 11,600 yen pp including lunch. Our guide was hilarious. His name is ‘Mickey’ as in ‘Mickey Mouse’. And that’s exactly was he showed us, a picture of ‘Mickey Mouse’ with his name on the top! I’ve never taken a guided tour of any pace before, always done it on my own. I believe that guided tours do not give you enough time to fully absorb the atmosphere and experience the places have to offer. You just can’t ‘stop and smell the roses’ (or in this case ‘Cherry Blossoms’). And that is exactly what happened in this tour too. Although they did give enough time to explore the most important aspect of the place, I always needed more.

The first stop was the first Buddhist temple we visited. The Nishi-Honganji Temple, a UNESCO world heritage site, dedicated to ‘Amida Buddha’. This temple was built by the Tokugawa shogun Ieyasu in the 16th century with a view to split the Jodo-shin sect into two branches and weaken its growing influence. In order to enter the temple you’ll need to remove your shoes, put them in a plastic bag and carry them around with you. You climb up the stairs into a massive central hall. It is said that 1,000 devotees can sit and pray in this hall at one time! The temple complex is huge. The ground is leveled with gravel (seen at most shrines & temples) and is very well maintained.

Next stop on the tour was Nijo castle. This was a Palace of the last Tokugawa shogun(ruling samurai) warriors. This place has been preserved beautifully. All the rooms still have original wall paintings done by the famous ‘Kanō’ painters. They have already started to degrade and the tour guide indicated that they will be shifted to a museum shortly. Among the rooms we saw was the shogun’s personal living quarters where no man except himself was allowed to come. Of course there was no such restriction on the ladies. It is said that the Shogun had over 1000 maid servants. And he was free to choose any women as his concubine who would carry his child. Our Shogun here was surely a ‘Playa’! There is also a beautiful garden behind the Ninomaru palace. Strolling in the garden at your own pace listening to birds chirping, looking at the huge palace makes you wonder about the kind of lifestyle these samurai warriors had.

By the time we reached Kinkakuji Temple or most popularly known as the Golden Pavilion, a small drizzle had turned into a big downpour. Our tour guide looked surprised since the weather forecast hadn’t mentioned anything more than a slight drizzle and that too in the afternoon. Makes me wonder, are all weathermen all around the world are incompetent? Always expect the opposite of what’s predicted! The bus made a stop at the temple parking and the guide announced that they usually DO walk around in the rains (wtf?!). I saw a souvenir shop at a distance and ran towards it in hopes of finding an umbrella. Fortunately, they did sell cheap plastic umbrellas. But unfortunately the unexpected rain and people without raingear prompted the shop to up the sale price. Me and a colleague managed to follow the guide (one other decided otherwise) to the place by the pond surrounding the temple but couldn’t go further. Here the guide told us that the original temple was set on fire by a monk who was not happy with the temple management and what stands now is just a replica of the original. Still pretty impressive.

Next up was the Heian Shrine located in the eastern part of the town. It’s a memorial built by the people of Kyoto after the Emperor moved the capital to Tokyo in an attempt to bring him back. This site is dedicated to the first and the last emperors of Japan. In Shinto, as our tour guide explained us, anything can be the focus of your worship, here it’s the soul or the mind of these two emperors. It is said to be an exact replica of the old Imperial Palace at half the original size. If you visit this shrine, you have to take a walk in the impressive gardens behind the shrine. They are very beautiful and as usual very well maintained. The Sanjosangendo Temple with its 1001 life-sized statues of Buddha is the next stop. As per the guide these statues are not the Buddha but of the Kannon, the half-enlightened ones. Buddha, the fully enlightened one can be found sitting on a lotus in the middle of the hall. These statue are made of Japanese cypress woods with gold leaf coating. The temple was burned down in a fire in the 13th century. Less than 2% of the original statues remain. The others are reconstructions. In front of these statues are 28 life-sized statues of guardian deities. All these deities are from the Hindu religion but their functions and descriptions seem to be very different. The main hall is the longest wooden structure in Japan. Photography is strictly forbidden and so is speaking too loudly. The Kiyomizu-dera is the most visited temple in the whole of Japan and our last stop of the 1-day tour. It’s a world heritage site famous for its spring water which is supposed to infuse the religious spirit in you and the veranda of the temple which gives you the most breath-taking views of Kyoto and the mountains. The road that leads to the temple from the bus park was referred to by our guide as temptation street! There are all sorts of shops selling local handicrafts, local foodstuffs, souvenirs, different types of ice-creams. And the shopkeepers are very persuasive. The tour guide advised us to visit the temple first and then give in these temptations. The temple area is very expansive it simply cannot be experienced even in an hour.

So there ends our day trip to Kyoto. The bus took us back to the hotel at New Miyako. We still had a lot of time to kill till the last train for Tokyo arrives at Kyoto. We ask around for things to do and the suggestions mostly circle ‘hanging out at the train station’ where there is a mall and a lot of places to have good Japanese food. Being tired of walking all day, we decided to do just that. Lounged around for a while listening to two young Japanese boys singing songs near the subway. Then took that last Shinkansen to Tokyo. If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve done it slow!

4 Replies

Really useful review Akshay, thanks, as I am planning a trip there shortly.

I'm glad my review helps travelers like you James!

BTW this review is part of a series of posts on Japan featured on my blog:

This was most helpful since I am contemplating on visiting Kyoto next month. I was a bit hesitant about visiting because I've taken lots of photos of shrines and temples, and it gets a little old after awhile, but you changed my mind. I look forward to seeing some of the site recommendations and thank you Ashkay for your honest review.

You should definitely go! There's a longer article which I wrote from my own trip to Kyoto in 2008: We were there for four days.

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