I absolutely adore Kyoto, it’s like a second home to me. Not only is it where my mother was born and raised, but I also studied there during my exchange year abroad, which was hands down the best year of my life so far. I’ve been there so many times and yet I can never get enough of it!
Kyoto is known as the historical and cultural center of Japan and it was the imperial capital of the country for over a thousand years. The city is home to over 2,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and it is one of the best preserved cities in Japan. So without further ado, here are some of Kyoto’s most famous sights:
The Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji is a famous temple in Kyoto and it is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. The temple is covered in gold leaf and the surrounding gardens are based on Muromachi Period garden design. You can’t actually enter the golden temple – you can only walk around it and through the gardens (I know, I was disappointed by that too).
Warning: The Golden Pavilion is extremely popular with tourists and Japanese school trips and it can get very crowded, so avoid going at peak hours!
Kamigamo Shrine in northern Kyoto is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan and it is classed as an UNESCO World Heritage site. Kyoto’s Kamo River runs north-east through the city (this direction was believed to be inauspicious) so Kamigamo Shrine and Shimogamo Shrine further south, were both built to protect Kyoto from misfortune.
Kiyomizu-dera is another famous temple of Kyoto and it is also classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main building is supported by wooden pillars that are 13 metres high and not a single nail was used to build the whole structure. Every autumn, there is a light up event held there where visitors can go at night and see the temple and surrounding trees’ red leaves illuminated by lights.
Heian Shrine or Heian-jingu is a Shinto shrine in Kyoto with a huge torii gate at its entrance – one of the biggest in Japan.
The Kyoto Tower was built in 1964 and it is the tallest structure in Kyoto, standing at 100 metres high. The shape and colour of the tower is supposed to represent a candle and the observation deck allows visitors to see a 360 degree view of the city.
Maiko and Geiko are famous icons of Kyoto and are masters of traditional Japanese dance, song, calligraphy and musical instruments. The Maiko are young apprentices who are typically aged 15 to 20 years old. They train and master their skills until they are old enough to be a fully fledged Geiko.
The Gion district and Pontocho are famous Maiko and Geiko spotting areas, but be careful that they aren’t just tourists dressed up in their costumes! (I also got to dress up as a Maiko in Gion and I was mistaken as the real thing by people passing by!)
The Silver Pavilion or Ginkaku-ji is a famous Zen temple in Kyoto which was supposed to be layered in silver foil, but was never finished. The gardens around the temple are beautiful and I secretly liked them better than the Golden Pavilion’s garden. You could even get a nice view of the city from the Ginkaku-ji’s gardens.
The Aoi Matsuri or Hollyhock Festival is one of three big festivals held in Kyoto every year. It is a festival of the two Kamo shrines I mentioned earlier – the Kamigamo Shrine and Shimogamo Shrine. Over six hundred people dressed in traditional Heian costume participate in the festival procession, which starts at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and makes its way to Shimogamo Shrine and then Kamigamo Shrine.
Kyoto’s annual Gion Matsuri is the biggest festival of all and one of the three great festivals of Japan. The Gion matsuri is a month long and the parade at the end of July involves huge wooden floats draped in historic tapestries to be pulled through the main streets of Kyoto.
In the nights leading up to the parade, main roads in the city are only accessible by pedestrians and are full of food stalls and viewings of traditional Kyoto houses and family heirlooms. It was the most amazing festival I have ever been to!
Fushimi Inari Shrine which I covered in an earlier post, is my favourite shrine in Kyoto. Thousands of red torii gates standing one after another wind their way up the Inari mountain and the result is just magical.
The Kamo River that runs through Kyoto is a popular place for locals to walk, bike or sit beside – especially in spring when the banks are lined with blooming cherry blossom flowers. In summer near Sanjo, restaurants open up their famous decks that overlook the river and the banks are full of couples sitting by the river enjoying each other’s company.
So, did you enjoy Kyoto? Would you like to go there?
You can’t go to Japan without visiting Kyoto!