It was here that the national myths and legends began, Japan’s nationhood was forged, and from where, for most of the country’s history, the imperial family ruled.
In its long history, the city has been largely spared the destruction of the various wars that have plagued the land. Consequently, it is home to roughly 20 per cent of Japan’s National Treasures and 14 per cent of the country’s Important Cultural Properties. Seventeen of its historic locations comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The mysterious stone gardens of Ryoanji, the shimmering Golden Pavilion, and Kiyomizu-dera, perched regally on a mountainside, are just the most famous.
Exploring Kyoto you find that many of the old townhouses have been preserved and creatively re-purposed as fascinating restaurants, cafes, craft centres and shops. Here, geisha and maiko walk the streets in traditional dress keeping alive their ancient craft.
But it isn’t all about history because the Japanese love their nightlife, and after dark Kyoto buzzes with fun and entertainment.
If you haven’t visited Kyoto, you haven’t visited Japan.
If you are interested in visiting Kyoto as part of a tour in Japan take a look at our Japan Tours - there are various itineraries and different tours at different times of the year. Alternatively you could create your own trip with one of our tailor made tours in Japan.
‘Kiyomizu no butai kara tobi oriru!’ — ‘Jump off the stage of Kiyomizu temple!’ Despite the ‘stage’ of Kiyomuzu-dera temple actually being a veranda perched a dizzying 13m above the side of a mountain, this expression to go take a flying leap is not a way of being rude and you don’t have to get angry. In fact, these are words of encouragement.
In a land blessed with fabulous temples, Kiyomizu-dera, founded in 778 and part of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the country’s most striking temples and is an absolute must-see on any cultural tour of Japan.
It sits on long, elegant legs on the steep, forested side of Mt Otowasan overlooking the magnificent historical capital.
Despite its precarious location and intricate architecture the whole building is made without a single nail. This treasure is slotted together with such ingenuity that it has withstood countless earthquakes and typhoons over the centuries.
The name Kiyomizu means pure water, and comes from a waterfall on the mountain. Pure water, pure soul; the connection needs no explanation.
The surrounding forest is lush and is ever-changing with the seasons. On a spring tour, you will catch Kiyomizu in a vibrant ocean of fresh greenery; in autumn the mountain becomes dramatic in red and gold. No matter what time of year you take a Japan tour, the temple is glorious.
So why would anyone want to jump off the veranda? In times gone by, a popular belief took hold that hurling yourself from the temple would result in your wishes being granted — if you survived, that is. So ‘Kiyomizu no butai kara tobi oriru!’ is actually the equivalent of the English expression ‘take the plunge’.
History tells us that in the Edo period 234 people did just that and about 85 per cent actually survived, though often not in the best condition. Unfortunately, history is less clear about whether their wishes were fulfilled.
Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji translates as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the name is not figurative: it really is covered in gold leaf and in pretty well any weather at any time of year, shimmers with an inner glow.
Of all the sights in Japan that best represent the country, the first might be Fuji-san, the majestic volcano. After that: Kinkaku-ji.
It was built in the 14th century and, unusual among devotional buildings, it was originally built as a villa and converted to a temple later on the death of the founder. It stands above a pond in deeply wooded grounds the water reflecting the gold of the pavilion and the trees all year round. The grounds, in contrast to the minimalist style most associated with Zen, are lush — almost extravagant, you could say. You could say the same about the acres of gold leaf coating the pavilion. However, the gold isn’t bling: this is Japan where everything surrounding a sacred building has symbolic significance. Here the gold represents and encourages purification of thought and emotion, especially toward death.
The power Kinkaku-ji exerts on the imagination of Japan has made it a star of literature and film, most famously, Yukio Mishima’s intense 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion which is a fictionalisation of a real-life arson attack on the building in 1950.
Whatever time of year you visit, the gold of the pavilion, the water of the pond and the leafy surroundings work together to create a spectacle, a combination of colours that complements and inspires. In spring, you have the burgeoning pinks and peach colours of the blossom, in summer the lush vibrancy of trees in the heat, in autumn the majestic reds and yellows, and in winter, if you are lucky, you will catch the pavilion and park serene in a mantle of snow and a minimal palate of colours.
Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion)
Just as Kyoto has a Temple of the Golden Pavilion, so the city has a Temple of the Silver Pavilion. The more famous and older gold-covered temple, Kinkaku-ji was inspiration to the silver temple, Ginkaku-ji, but the two places could hardly be more different.
The original plans to coat Ginkaku-ji in silver foil were never completed, leaving the walls of the temple and its associated buildings in a natural and unadorned state, and the garden is more natural and simpler in design than the golden pavilion. In time, moss has encroached between the birch trees giving the grounds a very special, peaceful and mysterious atmosphere. This uncompleted state of the temple actually pays tribute to a particularly Japanese design ethic known as wabi-sabi, which celebrates untampered natural beauty. In addition to the pavilion and wooded garden is a very distinctive sand garden that is integral to the fame of Gingaku-ji.
The atmosphere of the silver temple is said to encourage meditation and contemplation and it’s easy to see why as the visitor falls under its silent and peaceful spell.
Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle)
‘The floorboards sing like nightingales’ — if an estate agent made this claim of a property you would be sceptical. In fact, you might go find yourself a different estate agent. But what if the claim were true?
The property in question here is Nijo Castle in Kyoto. And, yes, the floors to do sing.
Nijo is one of the famous 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site — essentially, the whole of Kyoto is a historical treasure, and on any cultural tour of Japan, Nijo is a must-see.
This impressive structure was originally built in the 17th century by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate by an order that involved all the feudal lords of western Japan, thereby enforcing some kind of unity among a fractious collection of warlords. Tokugawa Ieyasu himself didn’t live to see the completion of the construction — that privilege went to his heir, Iemitsu.
The castle was built near the Imperial Palace, though whether this was for convenience or as a show of strength during this period of in-fighting, power struggles and turbulence is a matter for debate.
Certainly, in time as the relations between the various powers became more stable, the Tokugawa clan moved out and gave Nijo over to the Imperial Court, when it became the seat of the Imperial Cabinet.
Sadly, despite being treasured by the Tokugawa, the Imperial Family and the nation as a whole, the castle has suffered various misfortunes — principally fiery ones. At different times, parts of the original structure were destroyed by lightning and a city fire.
What of the singing floors? The castle is so magnificent the whole thing would be entitled to swagger and whistle. However, it maintains a dignified silence. Only the floors speak out.
The clue is in the fractious history of the times in which it was built. Tokugawa was not only a powerful lord, he was a nation builder. Changing loyalties, power plays, civil war, and cloak and dagger skullduggery were the norm at this time. As was betrayal and the threat of assassins. The floors were designed to squeak meaning that even the most light-footed ninja was unable to creep up on the master of the castle. Yes, the floors, were essentially an alarm system.
The nightingale effect was not the only security feature of Nijo. The castle contained secret doors and cubby holes where bodyguards could lurk out of sight but just a shout away.
The security was not always so subtle. It was the custom of the time to conceal the doorways to the rooms of bodyguards, but in the main reception hall of Nijo, these doors were made deliberately conspicuous as a message to any visitor with ulterior motives: don’t mess around here.
Perhaps more than any other castle in Japan, Nijo represents the time and the culture in which it was built: it’s architectural glory and idiosyncrasies was a projection of power and status, and in order to project this power, the design had to be the best the culture could offer.
The singing of the floorboards of Nijo today are not an alarm of potential danger but is music to the ears of any visitor on a cultural tour of Japan.
The 15th century temple of Ryoanji is synonymous with its stone garden — probably the most famous stone garden in Japan or anywhere in the world.
Fifteen age-worn rocks sit in a sea of pebbles, immaculately raked by Zen monks into precise whirling patterns.
Those pebbles, an uncountable number of them, river worn, were individually selected for the garden. Yes, you read that right. Each of those pebbles was chosen for its size and consistency and colour.
The garden is designed for meditation, and is arranged that wherever you sit to meditate you can see only 14 of the 15 rocks. When you find you can see all 15, you have achieved enlightenment.
The stone garden at Ryoanji has been the object of fascination and study for philosophers, artists, and the devout for centuries, and has generated a whole culture of its own.
While the stone garden might be the most famous feature of Ryoanji, it is not the only fascination. Visitors will see the fine Kyoyochi pond (or water garden), and classic teahouse and tea garden. The temple is also home to another unlikely fascination: a stone basin, designed as a Zen mystery of its own. Ask your guide about the secret message in the apparently random kanji engraved on the basin.
Ryanji is part of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Why have one torii gate when you can have 10,000 of them?
Fushimi-inari is one of the oldest shrines in Japan, dating back to the 8th century — and if it’s age and influence weren’t sufficient to make it notable, it has all those orange gates.
These structures, always painted in this cinnabar colour, can be seen at every Shinto shrine in Japan and they signal the entrance to a sacred space.
Fushimi Inari is dedicated to the fox god — originally associated with the rice harvest, the fox became the god of trade and so it is that the businessmen of Japan are devoted to this cunning deity. Each of the thousands of gates at Fushimi Inari has been donated by a business eager to catch some of that foxy guile and luck. And Fushimi Inari has inspired something like 30,000 sub-shrines up and down the country.
The shrine is set on a steep and beautiful hill, so there’s a bit of walking involved, but Fushimi Inari is one of Japan’s signature experiences.
Tetsugaku-no-michi - The Path of Philosophy
Testugaku-no-michi, the Philosopher’s Path: what an evocative name, and completely appropriate for Kyoto, the ancient city of devotion and spirituality.
The path is so named for Kyoto University’s Nishida Kintaro who is said to walked this route as a form of meditation every day.
The modern visitor is not required to ponder the imponderables to take this walk, which takes you alongside a venerable waterway lined with cherry blossoms. In the spring when the trees are in bloom the Philosopher’s Path is spectacular and is featured on Dragonfly’s Cherry Blossom Tour.
The two-kilometre route takes you from Nanzenji to Ginkaku-ji and takes you by a number of other notable sights, as well as arts and crafts shops. Don’t be put off by the length of the walk because the route is blessed with an abundance of charming cafes and tea shops where you can rest and meditate further on your meditations.