Kyoto: Central, Eastern & Southern Kyoto

Kinki Region: Kyoto | Osaka & Kobe | Nara | Northern Kinki | Kii Peninsula

Kyoto: Northern & Western Kyoto | Central, Eastern & Southern Kyoto

Rakuchu (Central Kyoto)

Less than a 1km walk to the south west of Kyoto station is the distinctive 55m, 5-story pagoda of Toji temple, Japan's tallest and one of the symbols of Kyoto. The pagoda was built in 1644 as part of the restoration of the temple, which dates from 796. Toji (East Temple) was built along with the short-lived Saiji (West Temple) when the capital moved to Kyoto in 794. It houses a huge collection of ancient works of art. Just to the north of the station are Nishi-Honaganji and Higashi-Honganji temples.

The magnificent Nishi-Honaganji was founded in 1272 and is the head temple of the Jodo-Shinshu sect. Many of the buildings date from the 17th century, including the impressive Imperial Messenger's Gate, the 3-story Hiunkaku (Flying Cloud Pavillion) and Japan's oldest outdoor Noh stage. Higashi-Honganji was founded in 1603 with the support of Tokugawa Ieyasu and as a result of a succession dispute between two sons of Honganji's 11th abbot which split the sect in two. These days, Nishi-Honganji has some 7 million members and Higashi-Honganji about 5.5 million.

Kyoto Imperial Palace gardens

Kyoto Imperial Palace gardens (photo courtesy of

Ieyasu also built Nijo Castle in 1603 as his Kyoto residence. The castle, near Nijo station, is very popular with tourists and often crowded. It is famous for its creaking floorboards, whose sound is said to be like the chirping of nightingales and warns of intruders. Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho) is located between Marutamachi and Imadegawa stations on the Karasuma Line. It was the residence of the emperor between 1331 and 1868 - the former Edo Castle in Tokyo took over the role the following year. The two main buildings are Seiryoden (Palace Building) and Shishinden (Ceremonial Hall). Its last official state ceremony was the enthronement of Emperor Showa in 1926. It is open to the public in spring and autumn and permission is needed to visit. The Sento palace gardens are located within the southeast corner of the palace and contains a world in miniature, made up of ponds, walkways and bridges. An appointment is required to visit.

The nearby Nishijin area is famous for its silk-weaving industry, which produces Japan's finest silk and wool fabrics for kimono and obi (sashes).

Rakuto/Higashiyama (Eastern part of Kyoto)

About 1km east of Kyoto station is Sajusangendo. The name of the building comes from the 33 (sanjusan) bays (ken) between its pillars. Founded in 1164 and rebuilt in 1266, this structure houses the sentai butsu, or 1001 statues of Buddha. Having so many images was believed to multiply the Buddha's power. Across the street is the Kyoto National Museum, which houses thousands of items, hundreds of which are designated as National Treasures. One of the three biggest museums in Japan, its collection is divided into fine arts, handicrafts and archaeological objects.

On the hill behind, the large veranda of Kiyomizudera (Temple of Clear Water) is built over a cliff and has an incredible panoramic view of the city, particularly in autumn when it is enveloped in dramatic, colorful foliage. The Japanese saying 'to jump off Kiyomizu veranda' means to take a leap in the dark. The temple was first built in 798 and the present buildings date from 1633. There are 7 halls as well as a 3-story pagoda and other minor buildings.

Kiyomizudera temple

The 15m-high wooden veranda of Kiyomizudera temple is supported by 139 pillars

Back down the hill and a little north along the Kamo River is the Gion area, the most famous of the traditional geisha quarters and also home of the Minami-za kabuki theater. The area is centered around Yasaka Shrine and is designated as a preservation district. The many old wooden buildings house geisha establishments and ryotei restaurants, where guests eat, drink and are entertained by geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha). In April, the Miyako Odori festival of traditional dance is held here, with women dressed in centuries-old costumes. The famous month-long Gion Festival is sponsored by Yasaka Shrine and comes to a climax on July 17th. Just across the river lie the Pontocho and Kiyamachi districts, with many excellent bars and restaurants.

Maiko in the Gion district

Maiko in the Gion district

1km north of Gion, just past the famous Miyako Hotel, are the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and Heian Shrine. The shrine was built in 1895 to commemorate the city's 1,100th anniversary as the capital and dedicated to the first and last emperors to reign there. The shrine sponsors the spectacular Jidai (Jedi?!) Festival (Festival of the Ages) on October 22nd., in which there is a parade of people dressed in costumes from the various ages of Japanese history. Part way up Mt. Daimonji to the east is Nanzenji temple, the area around which is famous for yudofu (boiled tofu) dishes. One feature of the annual late-summer O-bon festival is the lighting of huge bonfires on Mt. Daimonji and other mountains around the city, known as Daimonji Okuribi. The five bonfires are in the shape of dai (great) and other Chinese characters and are a send-off to the departing souls of the dead.

The neighboring Nyakuoji temple marks one end of Tetsugaku-no-michi (Philosopher's Walk). The 40-minute walk along a canal is enjoyable year round but is particularly beautiful in spring and autumn. At the end of the walk you reach Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavillion), originally built as a country villa for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482. He died before the walls of the villa could be covered in silver so the building doesn't quite live up to its name. Its beautiful gardens are laid out on two levels, an upper rock garden and a lower strolling garden built around a pond.

Rakunan (Southern part of Kyoto)

One stop south of Kyoto station is Tofukuji, named after the nearby temple. Founded in 1236 by the famous priest Enni, it is one of the Gozan, the five most important temples in Kyoto. The large complex includes several excellent Zen gardens in the style of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The 2-story sammon (main gate) is the oldest of its kind in Japan. A couple of stops further down the line, or a 15-minute walk, is Fushimi Inari Shrine. Originally built on Mt. Inari in 711 and later moved down the mountain, it is one of Japan's most popular shrines and has some 30,000 subsidiary Inari shrine's around the country. The shrine is guarded by Inari, a fox deity, and people visit the shrine to pray for success in business and a good harvest. A unique feature of the shrine are the 10,000 red torii gates that form tunnels along the two paths to the shrine.

Tunnel of torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Tunnel of torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine (photo courtesy of Flickr user Frank Monnerjahn via creative commons)

Daigoji temple is 45 minutes by bus from Kyoto station. It's actually a monastery made up of many temples and halls which was started in 874 by the monk Shobo. The emperor Daigo visited in 907, beginning a long relationship between the temple and the Imperial family. The oldest surviving structure is a five-storey pagoda built in 952. Most of the rest of the buildings were rebuilt by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century. Mampukuji temple, near Obaku station on the Nara Line, was founded in 1661 by the Chinese monk Ingen and was built in the Ming-dynasty Chinese architectural style. Since the late 18th century, all abbots have been Japanese. 10 minutes walk from Uji station, the next after Obaku, is Byodoin temple. The main attraction is the Amidado or Ho-odo (Phoenix Hall) built in 1053. It was designed to represent the mythical bird descending to earth, with a central hall, two 'wings' and a rear corridor for the 'tail'.

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