Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a millennium, as a result it gradually amassed a wast amount of temples, castles and shrines built for the nobility, the monks and the shoguns. It is sometimes called the city of 10.000 shrines and its inhabitants are rightly proud of role as guardians of Japanese history and culture.
Because of it´s historical significance it was the only major city in Japan spared from the devastating bombing of world war two. It has been chosen as the worlds best city by a US travel magazine, has 17 UNESCO designated world heritage sites and receives countless visitors every year both from within Japan and from foreign countries. Because of all this a visit to Japan should not be considered complete without a visit to Kyoto.
Kyoto isn’t particularly large compared to cities like Tokyo or Osaka, but it probably has more temples than both of them combined. It is divided into five districts (north, west, south, east and central respectively). It´s going to take you a few days to cover all the major sights, below are just the most important onces.
How to get there
Most people get to Kyoto by taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo, a one way trip costs roughly 10.000 Yen. If you are already in Osaka then simply taking the train from the Osaka main station to Kyoto station is a simple thing to do.
What to see and do there
As already mentioned covering all the major temples and locations in the city is next to impossible, if you are in a hurry here are a few must see locations.
Temples Shrines and palaces
Arguably Kyoto´s most famous site is the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion). The temple was originally built in the 15th century by the war weary Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a personal retreat, it was converted into a Zen temple after his death. Surviving largely unscratched into the 20th century it was burned to the ground by a mentally ill monk in 1950. Rebuilt after that it is now a major tourist attraction. The easiest way to get there is to take the Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205 from Kyoto station. The site is open from 9-17. tickets are about 400 Yen, we recommend coming just after opening or just before closing in order not to get drowned by other visitors.
After seeing the Golden pavillion you can head out to the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji), built by the grandson of Yoshimasa. Not wanting to be outdone by his grandfather he modeled the Silver Pavilion on the Golden one and also had it converted to a Buddhist temple after his death. The Silver Pavilion actually does not have any silver, reportedly because the Shogun ran out of funds (silver was more expensive than gold in Japan in those days). Still it is well worth a visit. To get there take bus number 5,17 or 100 from Kyoto main station. Price is 500 Yen.
Another no less popular site is the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Situated in the center of town, it used to be the residence of the Imperial family up until 1868 when it relocated to Tokyo. Still the enthronement of recent emperors were all held there with the exception of the current one which was held in Tokyo. The palace ground can be entered on guided tours although just like in Tokyo buildings cannot be entered. Reservations must be made in advance and can be done online (http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/guide/kyoto.html). The tours, conducted in Japanese and English are free of charge. The palace is located inside the Kyoto Imperial Park along with other attractions. To get to the palace take the Karasuma subway line from Kyoto station to Imadegawa station.
Then there is the Kiyomizudera (literally meaning the pure water temple) It was founded back in 780 and derives its name from the waterfalls within the complex. One of the greatest aspects of visiting this temple is to approach it through the Higashiyama district which has no shortage of shops and restaurants, many have been there for centuries. The district itself has a host of temples to see, so if you are in a hurry it is an excellent place to catch as much as possible in a short time span.
In the south the most notable sight is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, an important Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, a characteristic of this shrine are the Torii, or traditional Japanese gates closely lined up with each other. The shrine itself is located up on a mountain, and trecking the mountrain road is half of the fun. It is always open and free of charge. Go to the JR Inari Station, the second station from Kyoto station to get there.
Also located in the sourthern part of the city is the Toji temple (which incidentally means Eastern Temple). The temple was founded in the late 700s and is one of Kyoto´s many UNESCO heritage sites. This temple compound essentially consists of a park, a few temples and also includes Japan´s largest pagoda. It is also within walking distance from Koyto station.
Another no less interesting palace complex nearby is the Nijo Castle, built for Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of many Tokugawa rulers of the country. The castle is an excellent example of the architectural style of the feudal era. To get there take the Tozai Subway line to Nijojo Mae station. Tickets are 600 Yen.
Museums and other attractions
In case you have seen your share of temples in Kyoto Arashiyama might be of interest. A popular tourist resort for over a 1000 years it boasts a famous wooden bridge (originally built during the Heian period 794-1185) and a wonderful river where you can take pleasure boats to enjoy the scenery. It also has no shortages of temples and shrines so you can be sure to find whatever takes your fancy. To get there take the Hankyu Main Line to Katsura Station and transfer to the Hankyu Arashiyama Line for Arashiyama.
Then there is the Kyoto national museum, opened up in 1897 it is one of the country´s most notable museums of Japanese history. It exhibits more or less anything you can imagine from Japanese history. The museum can be reached by taking the Keijan line to Shichiko station. Tickets are 500 Yen.
If you want to try out something more modern then give the Kyoto International Manga museum (Japanese comic books) a chance, the museum hosts perhaps the largest collection of Japanese comic books anywhere, most of them are of course in Japanese but some English versions can also be found. Entrance fee is 800 yen and the location is Karasuma-Oike station.
Finally a visit to Kyoto cannot be completed without visiting the Gion district, Japan´s most famous Geisha town and one of the few places in the country were you can still see Geisha´s and Maiko´s. It is also filled with shops, restaurants and teahouses, the admosphere reminds one of traditional Japan, the only thing that is missing is the samurais. To get there take bus number 100 or 206 from Kyoto station to Gion bus stop.
In short you could spend weeks enjoying the beauty of Kyoto, if you are in a hurry however we recommend that you take at least 2-3 days to catch the major sights.