Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868. Thanks to the Tenno, the court and other rulers, the cultural heart of Japan has developed here over the centuries, which it still is today. As a center of power, not only countless temples and shrines have been established here, but also almost all traditional arts, such as the tea culture Chado, the flower art Ikebana and numerous forms of pottery.
Kyoto has always been popular with tourists, but since about 2012, the ancient capital of Japan has been experiencing a real boom. More than 50 million tourists now visit Kyoto each year, compared to about 1.5 million residents. With its countless sights, mostly temples and shrines, and the Kamogawa River, as well as shopping opportunities, the city offers extremely much for almost all interests.
Tip 1: Fushimi Inari-Taisha
The Fushimi Inari Taisha is where the rice goddess Inari is worshipped. Since she is one of the main kami (“deity”) of Japan, Fushimi Inari Shrine has by far the most visitors of any shrine in Japan. Inari is personified by hundreds of fox statues on the grounds – some of them wearing red bibs, many of them bearing offerings.
It’s best to take at least half a day to explore the main shrine, the four side shrines and the mountain grounds. There are numerous miniature shrines and small cemeteries along the total 4 km to the top of the mountain. The avenues with red gates Senbon Torii lead up to the sacred Inari Mountain behind the main building.
In early January, many visitors use the Fushimi Inari shrine to pray for good luck and health for the New Year – the crowds are really big. On April 8, the Sangyō-sai is held at the Fushimi Inari Taisha. During this festival, offerings and dances are held to pray for a prosperous economy.
Tip 2: Kinkaku Ji
The Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is located in northwest Kyoto on the North Mountains. There are many Japanese pavilions to admire on a Japan trip, but one of the most popular sightseeing spots remains the Kinkakuji. The temple is among one of the many Japanese UNESCO World Heritage sites that cluster in a small area in Kyoto. The top two floors of the Kinkakuji are completely covered in gold leaf, hence the name Golden Pavilion or Kyoto Golden Temple.
Originally, the Japanese temple was the retirement residence of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) and served as a reliquary hall. He also had the foundation stone laid for what was actually named Rokuon-ji (“Deer Garden Temple”). Today, the Kinkakuji is the only surviving building from Yoshimitsu’s residential complex, although the current structure dates from 1955, as the Kyoto Golden Temple burned down several times in its early years.
The Golden Pavilion is nestled in a spacious park with many trees and shrubs directly on the shore of Kyokochi Pond. The Japanese temple blends smoothly into the landscape of the wide park, and thus meets the aesthetic sensibilities of the Buddhist Ashikaga period, which sought a constant harmony between nature and man. The Kinkakuji shines particularly beautifully when it is directly hit by the sun’s rays, then the gold reflects in the pond, which has therefore earned its name kyōkochi (“the reflecting pond”).
Tip 3: Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizudera Temple (translated “Pure Water” Temple) is one of the most famous sights in Kyoto and consists of beautiful small and large buildings.
Kiyomizudera Temple was founded in 780 on the site of Otowa Waterfall, hence its name “Pure Water”. The present buildings were erected in 1633.
Kiyomizudera is known for its large wooden terrace built on a steep hillside. The terrace offers visitors a beautiful view of Kyoto complete with cherry and maple trees that display their beauty in keeping with the season.
Just behind the main hall is the Jishu shrine, dedicated to the deity of love. In front of the shrine are two stones, 18 meters apart. Couples who find each other with their eyes closed in the middle are promised good luck.
Otowa Waterfall is located at the foot of Kiyomizudera Temple and has a total of three waterfalls. Visitors are given ladles to drink from their water. They promise longevity, success or luck in love. Drinking from all three, however, is considered greedy.
At the very southeast of the Kiyomizudera Temple is the Koyasu Pagoda, dedicated to the goddess Koyasu Kannon. Pregnant women who pray there are promised an easy and safe birth.
Tip 4: Nishiki Market
Today’s Nishiki Market is very different from its beginnings as an open-air fish market some 400 years ago.
This narrow, 1500-meter-long passage is packed with an amazing variety of vendors. The market continues to thrive today, attracting Kyoto locals as well as visitors.
The Nishiki market sells fresh and preserved foods, including grilled meats on skewers, rice cakes, and every pickle imaginable. You’ll also find excellent cookware and elegant ceramics, as well as spices, paper goods and unique souvenir items.
Many vendors offer tastings. So be willing to experiment and try everything.
Delicacies from Kyoto offered here include mackerel sushi, dashimaki tamago (a sweet egg roll), pickles made from vegetables grown in Kyoto, and fine green tea from the city of Uji.
Many of the foods and snacks have a shelf life until you return home. So plan space in your suitcase for them.
Tip 5: Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle is possibly the most outspoken display of power that the Shogun had over the Emperor during the Edo period (1603-1868). It is one of the most famous castles in Japan due to its historical significance, its size and location, and its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built in 1603, Nijo Castle was the home of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. The castle was intentionally built to tower over the nearby Imperial Palace to illustrate the power the shogun held over the weakening emperor. The palace’s sumptuous furnishings, with intricate wood carvings and decorative panels, are luxurious in comparison to the sober design of the Imperial Palace: another sign of the shogun’s power and wealth.
Although double moats were constructed for protection and a high wall with watchtowers was built, there was never an attack on the castle and after the 17th century it was rarely used.
On the castle grounds is the Ninomaru Palace. The impressive Karamon Gate forms the entrance to the palace complex, which consists of five large buildings connected by covered walkways, each with numerous rooms. The chambers are decorated with impressive prints by famous artists Kano Tanyu and Naonobu. The famous Japanese architect Kobori Enshu designed the Ninomaru Palace Garden, a traditional Japanese landscape garden that is worth seeing on its own.