Few places in the world mix charm and history like Kyoto, Japan. Spending just a few days here juxtaposes the past with the future for an unforgettable experience. Where else can you see a stunning trio of geishas walking through Gion while fixated on their smart phones?
I visited Kyoto last December and while the stark beauty of winter was apparent, I couldn’t help but imagine the beauty of this town in the bloom of spring or the shifting colors of fall. This alone would be good enough reason to visit Kyoto more than once. Many of the sites around town have a strong connection with nature and the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces illustrates the essence of Japanese design.
If you’re visiting Kyoto, don’t miss these remarkable treasures of history and beauty.
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion
Hope for clear weather if you visit Kinkaku-ji, for the glow of this charming pavilion rivals the sun itself. Originally a shogun villa, Kinkaku-ji became the prominent feature of this 32-acre site at the end of the 14th century. Classical Japanese gardens border the mirror pond which integrates the pavilion within the surrounding landscape of islands, rocks and trees. The pavilion displays three architectural styles in three stories, with the top two covered in gold leaf and lacquer. Through the past centuries, war and arson have threatened to destroy this beauty but the latest rebuild of 1955 shines on for all to enjoy.
Find your zen among the rock gardens of Daitokuji Monastery, founded in 1319. This vast complex requires patience and curiosity to seek out the gems hidden among its many sub-temples, but the rewards are great and the silence is palpable. Spend an afternoon meditating from the engawas or marveling at how all those beautifully raked stones show no trace of a footstep.
Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest and Walkabout
Green and lithe above you, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest dwarfs and awes you all at once. But go beyond this unique landmark and you’ll find even more to explore. Okochi Sanso, marked by a little booth that might deter you with its entrance fee (it’s worth it), offers a labyrinth of stone paths and gardens set around the former villa of a Japanese actor of the early 1900s. North from here, you’ll find artists’ studios and shops among the streets of Arashiyama. Venture farther still and you’ll arrive at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji cemetery and temple. From the late 700s to the late 1800s, people who were brought here received no tombstone or burial. Instead, they were memorialized with Buddha statues, of which there are around 8,000 — along with another bamboo forest that’s prettier and more peaceful than the first one down the road.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Inari, the Shinto god of rice and deity of business, inspired this shrine with its seemingly endless series of torii (traditional gates). Founded during the Nara period, it is the head shrine of Japan’s 30,000+ Inari shrines and every torii has been donated by a company or individual, as inscribed on the columns. If you enjoy photography, you will lose your mind here — repetition, color, scale and a path that leads all over the mountain make every angle an image to capture. Larger-than-life foxes — Inari’s messengers — sit at the entrance to the shrine and smaller statues appear frequently along the path. Plan to spend a few hours if you want to walk the gates from start to finish, or you can shorten the four kilometer loop at Yotsutsuji intersection.
Established on the hillside in 778, Kiyomizu-dera offers panoramic views across Kyoto from a complex of halls and pagodas. A natural spring flows into the site and visitors can sip the water at the Otowa Waterfall. Adjacent to this, the Kiyomizu Stage is a marvel of engineering with a framework of 12-meter pillars erected using traditional Japanese timber construction (no nails or fasteners). After touring this scenic temple, wander the quaint streets at its base where you’ll find more examples of traditional architecture and, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of the enduring legacy of Kyoto’s geishas.
With a bit of planning, the sites listed here can be reached by local train and/or bus from central Kyoto. Daily bus passes are available for ¥500 at most ryokans. You can hop on and off as many times as you like, making it more economical than paying per trip (¥230). Arashiyama is farthest from central Kyoto but rewards with a half-day of exploring at the very least.