Best of Kyoto – 10 Attractions You Must Put On Your Japan Itinerary
Inside Kyoto, it’s easy to get spoilt for choice. Here is your easy guide to choose the best iconic and historic spots, so that your holiday is filled to the brim. You may also love Ultra Instagrammable Spots in Japanese Countryside, Japan beyond Tokyo and Kyoto – Signature Experiences,
1. Nara Park
At 45 min train ride from Kyoto is Japan’s first permanent capital city of Heijo. The city today is known as Nara and was established in the year 710. As the political influence of Nara’s powerful Buddhist monasteries grew to become a serious threat to the reigning government, the imperial capital was moved to Nagaoka towards the end of the century and eventually to Kyoto.
Due to its past as Japan’s 1st permanent capital, every street, every nook and corner in Nara is full of historic sights. But what’s truly unique about Nara is the Deer park, which is about 5 mins walk once you are out of the Nara Station. This is not really a park park but an open area where thousands of deer roam around. Freely. There are no enclosures and the deer can playfully come in close proximity. You can buy rice crackers from the many street vendors and feed them. This park has been around for over a hundred years.
If you fancy interacting with animals in a free atmosphere then you are going to absolutely love this experience. There isn’t much of a choice, you will HAVE to cross the deer park if you are headed to see the Big Buddha.
Nara is also home to some of the biggest temples and statues of Buddha and it is second only to Kyoto for Japanese national treasures. The Todai-ji temple was the head temple of Japan and it became so influential that the Capital City had to be moved out of Nara to Nagaoka, so as to cut down its influence on the government.
Today, Todai-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its main hall, the Big Buddha Hall is the largest wooden building of its kind, not only in Japan but in the world. Almost as tall as a modern 15 storey building, the main hall houses a solid statue of Buddha cast in gilt bronze. It amazing to think that the statue itself is as high as 5 storeys. Standing at the foot of the statue and looking up to the Great Buddha is almost hypnotic.
You may find it difficult to believe that the present structure is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size built in 743. Outside the temple complex is a replica of the Ashok Chakra , rolling meadows and a large pond.
3. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
There are so many ways in which nature can astound you, daze you, and leave your admiring for more. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one such man-planted forest in Kyoto. Standing amidst soaring stalks of bamboo is like being transported to another world, where the gentle sun rays trickle in all possible directions from high above. Look at it for over more than 30 seconds and you will capture a panorama never to forget in a lifetime. Move yourself gently in circles, all the while looking up and you will see the panorama spin around you. The whole experience is almost magical and un-worldly
This is also one of the most photographed sights in Japan.
4. Tenryu-ji Temple
Once you have gawked at the Arashimaya bamboo grooves and had your fill of instagram ready pictures, head to the Tenryu-ji temple which is a little walk away, within the forest, therefore making it a must visit. Without a doubt, the grounds of this 14th century zen temple are among the most acclaimed gardens you will see in Japan. A large pond catches reflections of multi-colored maple trees and is rich in colorful marine life. Spring being undoubtedly the best time to visit owing to the beauty of cherry blossoms.
The temple is built in pure carved wood and personifies tranquility. The most significant part of the Tenryu-ji temple is the Hatto or the Dharma Hall. Traditionally, Hatto in a Zemple was the meditation hall where the master delivered his sermons, teaching the Buddha Dharma to the assembled monks. In present times it is used primarily for important ceremonial functions.
The temple and garden, each have a separate entry ticket. It’s recommended, you buy both.
5. Fushimi Inari Taisha
The magical, seemingly endless vermilion torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Taisha is undoubtedly Japan’s second most popular postcard image. No guesses for the 1st – Mt Fuji ofcourse. This Shinto shrine dating back to the 8th century is easily on top of everyone’s bucketlist.
Spread over 4 km of woods atop mount Inari, the sheer vastness of Fushimi Inari will leave you awe-struck. There are 5000 torii gates, each donated by a Japanese business. The main gate and the main shrine sit at the bottom of a mountain also named Mount Inari. At the mid-level of the mountain is the inner shrine that is reached by a path passing through the vermilion torii’s. At about 1.5 hour’s trail up the mountain are tens of thousands of mounds for private worship. The view from top and all along the trail is simply breath-taking.
A little bit about the shrine’s religious significance now –
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of the god Inari, the Shinto god of rice or business per say. Foxes are considered as the Inari’s messengers, hence sacred fox statues can be found all around. This is the most popular shrine in Japan and is said to have 32,000 sub-shrines dedicated to it all over Japan.
Don’t forget to drink orange juice, straight out of the fruit at one of the many street vendors lining the exit of the temple.
Kinkaku-ji is almost always packed with visitors, walking in a long queue around the surrounding pond. Try to pick a time when crowd isn’t there – avoid holidays and weekends when it is too busy to enjoy.
This gold leafed temple complex was once the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple after his death in 1408. The temple style echo extravagant Kitayama culture that developed in the wealthy aristocratic circles of Kyoto during Yoshimitsu’s times.
You must read the popular novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima Yukio which is based on the story of Kinkaku-ji being burnt down to ashes by a young monk.
Kinkaku-ji is also the storehouse of sacred relics like the Buddha tooth amongst many others.
7. Imperial Palace
Imperial Palace or Gosho served as the residence of the Emperor of Japan until the imperial family move to Tokyo following the Meiji Restoration. Spread over a mile, the palace is built of wood, with low rooflines which is very distinct and is the essence of traditional Japanese architecture.
The palace ground and garden is open to public for viewing, however the palace itself remains off-limit. You will need to apply for permission at the Imperial Household Agency office to step inside the palace, which is a bit troublesome. What’s so great about this place is the impressive variety of trees in the garden, and is very popular for both hanami (cherry viewing) and fall colors.
Come here to step back in time and experience traditional Kyoto, especially between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine for it is densely populated with temples and shrines, some as close at a mere 500 meters apart. The 1000 year old Kyoto, which was once the capital city of Japan can be best experienced in the narrow alleys of Higashiyama. Well-preserved traditional Japanese wooden houses, Shinto-shrines and beautiful parks invoke a feeling of old world charm. This pedestrian only narrow winding path is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto.
You will also find dozens of shops selling local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets, pickles, crafts and other souvenirs. The Japanese “Tea ceremony” is a must-do cultural activity in Higashiyama. Street is crammed with tourists, so come early in the day to beat the crowds.
Things to do here inclue renting a kimono, sampling traditional Japanese street food or enjoying formal traditions such as Kaiseki dining, consisting of multiple courses of precise dishes
9. Geisha spotting in Gion
Adding to the beauty and charm of this street are Geisha’s hurrying along the streets between engagements. Geisha culture has a feel of the Japan gone by. If this is your first time in Japan, seeing a Geisha is sure to be top of your list.
Gion was the birthplace of the Geisha culture and often referred to as the Geisha capital of Japan. Geisha, geiko, or geigi are Japanese women who are employed in the business of entertainment by performing the ancient traditions of art, dance and singing. They have a distinctive traditional costumes and makeup. Gion served as the entertainment district and was best known as home to Geisha dancers.
Geisha spotting in Gion is easy while dining or at tea ceremonies or while strolling down the street. Though be careful not to confuse them with the many visitors who dress up as Geisha’s
Yasaka Hall on the north side of Gion’s Kaburenjo Hall
An excellent way to get a crash course into the local history and Geisha’s culture, this theater is one of the touristy things to do in this region. Book in advance as these shows are very popular and tend to get sold out.
The one hour show is all about showcasing all seven forms of Kyoto’s professional performing arts – classical comedy, dance, music of the imperial court, harp, puppet theater, flower arrangement, and a sneak peak into the tea ceremony. You could choose to pay and attend an authentic and elaborate tea ceremony immediately after the show. The explanations of the performances are given in English.
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