The serene temple laden cultural Yin to Tokyo’s fast-paced technological Yang, Kyoto is a city that very much embodies the spirit of old-world Japan. From its imperial palaces, Zen gardens and Shinto shrines to the traditional wooden buildings and screen facades of downtown Gion, where the mysterious and graceful geisha can still be glimpsed (if you’re very lucky!). Travelers to Kyoto today not only get the chance to visit otherworldly bamboo forests and ornate shrines but also to learn all about the art of tea, Zen Buddhism and many other pillars of Japanese culture, all within the borders of this mysterious yet welcoming city. Here are our top things to see, places to go, food to eat and experiences to have to make the most of your once in a lifetime trip to Kyoto.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple)
Kyoto reined as Japan’s capital city for over 1,000 years and its 2000 (or so) temples and shrines, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, are testament to its past glory. With such an embarrassment of sacred riches, it can be difficult to know where to start, but one temple that you absolutely cannot miss is Kinkaku-ji, otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion. If you close your eyes and think of a Japanese temple, the elegant three-tiered golden pagoda of Kinkaku-ji, with its reflection shimmering in the water, is undoubtedly the image your mind summons. One of Kyoto’s most iconic sites, Kinkaku-ji temple is artfully set amidst a calm lake surrounded by trees, with the Zen temple itself wrapped entirely in gold leaf. It was originally built as a retirement home for a legendary shogun, who decreed the building become a temple after his death.
For a more interactive Temple experience, we recommend the beautiful hilltop Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Otherwise known as the “Pure Water Temple”, Kiyomizu-dera was founded on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the verdant hills east of Kyoto. The experience begins with the pilgrimage-like journey up through the steep and bustling lanes of the Higashiyama District, arriving up to an iconic red arch and spectacular views across the leafy hillside of cherry and maple trees, vividly effervescent in red and orange during autumn, with a glimpse of Kyoto in the distance. The temple complex stretches across the hilltop and boasts an array of magical features. Visitors can drink the stream water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers, or attempt to successfully walk from one ‘love stone’ to another – with eyes closed (*gulp*) – at the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to God of love Ōkuninushi, to see if ‘True Love’ is in their stars… well you never know right?
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Now for something completely different, and uniquely Japanese, visit the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine. The Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine sits at the base of a mountain and can be reached through a flamed coloured walkway comprised of thousands of traditional red torii gates, with secret Shinto shrines and various offshoot pathways around the mountain, with incredible views of Kyoto at the Yotsutsuji Intersection. The shrine honours the Shinto god (or Kami) Inari, the god of foxes, rice, tea and sake (all pretty important in Japanese culture!) who merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshiped as the patron of business. Each of the torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha has been donated by a Japanese business. Be spirited away as you pass under gate after gate after gate, guided by red vested fox statues, who represent the sacred messengers of Inari. You can easily spend a day here wandering through the trails and exploring the network of ornate shrines.
Ryoan-ji Temple – Zen Rock Garden
In Japanese culture, the garden is just as important as the temple, arguably even more so! Kyoto is the best place in all of Japan to experience the true state of Zen that can only be achieved in a minimalist Japanese garden. The best place to begin your journey into the Zen is in the world-famous dry rock garden of the Ryoan-ji Temple, the original garden of true contemplation. Not far from the Golden Pavilion in northwest Kyoto, this karesansui dry landscape garden is truly unlike any other garden you have seen, with 15 mysterious rocks floating in a sea of pure white sand. Nobody knows who created this extreme minimalist garden or what it all is supposed to mean. Some academics claim the garden depicts an ocean accented with small islands or a sky dotted with clouds. With its simple calming design, and innate mystery, there is certainly plenty to contemplate at Ryoan-ji.
If you prefer your Zen gardens a little less mentally challenging and more picturesque, then the abundant garden of the Tenryu-ji Temple may be more to your taste. Located in the western outskirts of the city, Tenryu-ji Temple is one of Kyoto’s great Zen temples, the garden features a circular promenade around a Sogen Pond and is framed by the scenic mountains of Arashiyama, which blend in perfectly as part of the garden and create a landscape reminiscent of a painting. Such is its beauty, this stunningly idyllic garden has been designated a ‘Special Place of Scenic Beauty’ in Japan.