KYOTO UNLOCKED: Finding the Sights and Symbols of Japan’s Imperial Capital

Landmarks & Icons

KYOTO UNLOCKED: Finding the Sights and Symbols of Japan’s Imperial Capital

Japan is full of beautiful cities, each with their own parks, gardens, shrines, temples, and history. However, there is something quite special about Kyoto. This old, imperial capital feels like the Japan of our imaginations, condensed into one fascinating, mid-sized city.

Kiyomizu Temple
Kiyomizu Temple

With the exception of Tokyo, Kyoto is the most famous of Japan’s cities, the most popular with visitors, and perhaps the most instantly recognizable. With over 1,600 temples spread throughout the city, you’re guaranteed to see some beautiful sacred spaces, even just wandering at your own pace. However, if you’re looking for those postcard highlights, or hoping to spy a Geisha, a little planning can prove invaluable!

Despite having excellent public transit, Kyoto is more spread out than you’d think, so breaking your sightseeing down into the key districts can save you a lot of time. Those who like to walk (yes, we’re talking hills) will probably find the transit system perfectly adequate. Those who don’t might prefer to take a taxi between different districts.

Kiyomizudera Temple
Kiyomizudera Temple

Spiritual Kyoto
Higashiyama contains many of the most famous temples and shrines, and is divided into Southern and Northern sections. Many visitors like to start in Southern Higashiyama since it is easily reached, contains some unmissable temples, and is a beautiful neighbourhood in its own right, even between its big ticket attractions. Two must-sees here are Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Chion-in Temple. Best get to Kiyomizu-dera early, since it affords amazing views over the city – and all the tour groups know it! Meanwhile, Chion-in Temple is the centre of all things Buddhist in Kyoto. Dating back to the 13th century, Chion-in features truly sacred sites, so some time here will put some perspective on the rest of your stay.

Ginkaku-ji, the famous Silver Pavilion is the star in Northern Higashiyama. The name is somewhat misleading, since plans to cover the pavilion in silver never eventuated, but it does feature one of the city’s most picturesque Zen gardens, and marks the beginning/end of Philosopher’s Walk. Philosopher’s Walk is a 2km stone pathway, lined by hundreds of cherry trees, and is a beautiful way to see the highlights of Northern Higashiyama in an afternoon.  The walk ends at Nanzenji Temple, which is home to an impressive aqueduct. You can take a walk in either direction through Philosopher’s Walk, but you’ll probably want to take a bus or cab to reach or leave Ginkaku-ji.

Fox statue in Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine
Fox statue in Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine

Just to the south of Higashiyama, Fushimi Inari-Taisha is one of the most magical places in all of Japan. This is not a Buddhist temple, but a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. It is commonly nicknamed the ‘Fox Temple’, owing to the large number of fox sculptures on site, each of which holds a key in its mouth to the rice granary. You’ll approach the shrine by passing under thousands of Torii, bright orange gates that cover the path. Not many attractions surround the Shrine, but the site itself can easily occupy an afternoon, making the trip well worth it.

Natural Kyoto
While many of Kyoto’s sights are religious in nature, a number of its more secular attractions are equally enchanting, perhaps none more so than the Arashiyama’s famous bamboo forest. Located in the western part of the city, the easiest way to reach this haunting path is via the northern gate of Tenryo-ji. Yes, it’s another Buddhist temple, but one that deserves your time, forming part of the UNESCO listed Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Of course, the temple looks its best against the autumn foliage, or during blossom season.

Bamboo grove at Arashiyama
Bamboo grove at Arashiyama

Every year, from late March to the end of April, thousands of tourists descend on Japan to enjoy hanami, or cherry blossom season. While this is a beautiful time to visit, don’t be too disheartened if you miss the blooms. Arrive too early for hanami, and you’ll enjoy the equally beautiful plum blossom season. In Kyoto, you can catch these and many more types of blossom at the Botanical Garden, Zuishinin Temple, or Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. October/November shows off Japan at its most radiant, as parks and gardens across the country blaze with autumn reds and yellows. Even the blanket of snow that arrives each winter can lend an otherworldly serenity to the shrines, temples, and gardens of Kyoto. In short, the city’s ‘green’ spaces are pretty impressive at any time of year!

Snow monkeys
Snow monkeys

Before you leave this part of Kyoto, say hello to some of its most playful residents at Arashiyama Monkey Park. Almost 200 Japanese Macaques roam wild here, and these colourful creatures are far from shy, particularly around feeding time! Check with park staff for the best place to see the monkeys on the day you visit.

Beautiful Kyoto
Looking for Geisha? Remembering that these icons of Japan are entertainers, the best place to spot them in Kyoto is often the Gion district, just to the west of Southern Higashiyama. Gion has always catered to the needs of travellers, with a tradition of hospitality going back to the Middle Ages. You may see a Geisha duck into a traditional tea house – or ochaya – where they give private performances involving traditional music, song or dance. The best time for seeing them is in the early evening, from about 5:30pm.

Geiko
Geiko

Adding to Kyoto’s distinctiveness, Geisha here do not actually refer to themselves as such. They use the more specific term ‘Geiko’, meaning a child or woman of the arts (Geisha, by contrast, roughly translates to artist). There are different ranks of Geisha, denoting experience, age and skill. The most colourful performers are most likely Maiko, or apprentice Geisha, while the more mature Geisha employ a more subdued look, unless they themselves are performing.

Once an elusive ambition for many foreign visitors, there are now numerous ways you can see a Geiko perform. Some venues offer affordable showcase evenings that include a wide variety of Geiko arts, while some high-end hotels can arrange access to a performance at a local ochaya. Unsurprisingly, private performances are very expensive, but no longer out of a visitor’s reach.

Oh, and if you want to go one step further and try the Geisha look for yourself, feel free. Even Japanese visitors (many of whom have never seen a Geisha) do this, and it’s not considered insensitive or exploitative. Just know that you won’t fool the locals! Real Geisha undergo years of training to hone their skills. That is, after all, a major part of their mystique.

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