Top 10 sights of Kyoto, Japan

by : Alastair Donnelly

When people first consider the idea of aholiday in Japan, theirthoughts usually turn to Tokyo.Now, there’s nothing wrong with Tokyo – itssoaring skyscrapers perfectly contrasting with its sombre temples – but thereis a lot more to Japanthan the bright lights of its world famous capital. At? our Japanese holiday company, we? tend to encourage? people to? look beyond just? the? infamouse capital.

Take Kyoto,for example. The city is the historical and cultural capital of Japan – a finemix of urban sprawl and cultural gems. Indeed, Kyotowas home to the Japanese Imperial family from 794 all the way up to 1868 whenthe Emperor decided to relocate to Tokyo.Kyoto is one of the few major Japanese cities toavoid the destruction of aerial raids during World War 2, and aside fromanything else that makes it a fascinating part of any holiday in Japan.

How much time you wish to spend in thisamazing city is mainly down to your tastes in sightseeing. Outside of theshopping and purely commercial aspects of the town the main sights are almostentirely made up of by cultural sights such as Buddhist temples and Zengardens. Because of the quantity of historical and cultural sights, it is veryeasy to overdo Kyotosightseeing if done too quickly. Thankfully, walking from sight to sightthrough the marvellous city tempers this nicely and allows visitors to enjoythe rich contrasts a Japanese holiday in this region can offer. Still, if youonly have the time or energy to visit 10 of Kyoto’s cultural and historical treasures,these are what I’d recommend (in no particular order)

Heian Jungu

This Shinto shrine is famous for having thelargest torii in the whole of Japan.The shrine was built in 1895 to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto (formerlyHeiankyo), and is dedicated to Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei. If you happento be on holiday in Japan on October 22nd, you will have the chanceto see the ‘Festival of Ages’ (Jidai Matsuri) which takes place here andcelebrates the day when Kyoto became Japan’s capital. The festival includes ahuge procession of around 2,000 people which stretches for several kilometres.


Gion is the district of Kyoto renowned forits geisha houses and is the best area of the city to see geisha and maikogoing about their everyday business. Gion was built in the middle ages, but duein part to some areas being declared a national historical preservationdistrict, some of the architecture and entertainment remains similar to how itwas when first established.

To clarify a popular misconception – geishasare not prostitutes, and Gion has never been a red light district.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion Temple)

The most striking feature of Kinkakuji (andwhere it gets its name) is from the gold leaf that entirely covers the top twotiers of the pavilion. It is a stunning site and one that Japanese holidaymakers cannot help but associate with Kyoto.The temple is placed next to a pond, allowing a shimmering mirror image of thestructure to be viewed by all who visit, creating a powerful image of aconnection between heaven and earth. Although the gold leaf covering makes thetemple extremely valuable, its value is not entirely monitory, but alsospiritual: within its walls it houses relics of the Buddha.

Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion Temple)

Listing this directly below the Golden Pavilion Temple is slightlymisleading, because while the aforementioned temple’s golden covering makes itsomething of an ostentatious monument, this temple is comparatively minimalist.This is because while the original plan was to make this temple a silveraccompaniment to its golden cousin, the plan was never carried out and itremains a delightful example of minimalism and restraint.

The temple itself is a simple two-storybuilding, but its beautiful appeal is found in the surrounding serenity of thetwo gardens.? The first is a pond gardencomposed of rocks and plants – the aim being to grant a different perspectivefrom every angle. The second garden includes two carefully sculpted sand mountswhich offer a sense of perfect serenity.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto’s Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho) was once the home of Japan’s Imperial family, but when the capitalshifted to Tokyoin 1868, the rulers followed. The structure has burned down on many occasionsand the present reconstruction was only built in 1855.

The complex itself is encased in a long walland is made up of several halls, gardens and gates. Although the enthronementceremonies of Emperor Taisho and Emperor Showa were held within this palace’smain hall, the current Emperor was inaugurated in the Tokyo Imperial Palace.


Kiyomizudera (or “PureWater Temple")is one of the most famous temples in Japan with both tourists andlocals. Founded in 780 by one of the oldest sects in Japanese Buddhism (theHosso), the temple is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Located in the wooded hills in eastern Kyoto, the temple offersa fabulous view over the city from its wooden terrace. The spring below saidterrace is said to have water with healing properties and is the reason thetemple has its name.

Fushimi Inari

Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxesare supposed to be his messengers. For that reason, the Fuhimi Inari shrine isdotted with many fox statues. The many tori gates make for an unforgettableexperience, but if you can manage it, visiting the shrine in the evening is amust – the dim lights and sounds of the wildlife make for a delightfullyatmospheric walk through the shrine’s tori gates.

Tenryuji Temple

Tenryuji Temple is considered the mostimportant Zen Templein Kyoto, andthe literal translation of its name is “heavenly dragon temple". The buildingstarted out its life as a private villa of Emperor Go Daigo, and was laterconverted after his death to a temple in his memory. Legend has it that aBuddhist priest had an uneasy dream where a dragon rose from a nearby river,making him believe that Go Daigo’s spirit was uneasy and that a temple shouldbe built to appease him.

The temple has been damaged by fires anunlikely eight times, though the last instance was over 150 years ago. As aresult, the current incarnation of the building is only 100 years old, but thegarden is one of the oldest in the country, dating from the 14thcentury.?

Ryoanji Temple

The Ryoanji temple has been designated as aWorld Heritage site by UNESCO. The name means ‘temple of the peaceful dragon’and it belongs to the Myoshinki school of the Rinzai branch of the Zen sect.The garden itself is regarded as one of the most pure examples of Japaneseculture. Perfect in its simplicity, the garden consists of clay wallsFind Article, rakedsand and 15 rocks.