Insider’s Guide to Kyoto: The Golden Temple and other Highlights

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Know Before You Go:

When the Vikings were still raiding England, Kyoto became the imperial capital of Japan, at the beginning of the Heian period, and remained so until the court moved to Edo, or Tokyo, in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration.  To cater to the sophisticated tastes of royalty, Kyoto developed a thriving cottage industry of skilled artisans…kimono makers, wood-block artists, potters, lacquer ware craftsmen and fine woodworkers…which still survives, admittedly in a much smaller way, to this day.

Although it has been ravaged by wars, fires and earthquakes, Kyoto’s cultural treasures helped it to be spared from US bombing raids during World War II and as a result it is one of the few Japanese cities with pre-war buildings such as merchant townhouses.  With it 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines as well as a bevy of palaces and gardens, it is a must-visit historic destination.

First time visitors are, however, often surprised that Kyoto is also a busy modern city whose key industries include information technology and electronics (Nintendo has its headquarters here), higher education (there are 38 universities), and film and television production. If you take the bullet train you will arrive via the futuristic glass and steel Kyoto train station, one of Japan’s tallest buildings.  While, of course, you must savor Kyoto’s historical treasures, don’t ignore the contemporary city, with its thriving food markets, fusion restaurants and cutting edge design stores, where local craftsmen use their traditional artisanal training to create contemporary pieces.

Compared with Tokyo’s haphazard development, Kyoto is laid out on a Chinese grid pattern with wide boulevards backed by narrow laneways, making it very easy to explore. The most efficient way to do this is to spend one day on the Eastern side of the city and another in the West.

Eastern Kyoto


Heian-Jingo Shinto shrine

An auspicious place to start is the Heian-jingo Shinto Shrine, built in 1895 to honor Kyoto’s royalty on the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of the city. Its massive vermilion torii gate, one of the largest in Japan, marks the entrance to a sacred space while its main building is designed to imitate the Kyoto Imperial Palace at ¾ scale. (Shinto is the indigenous Japanese religion which focuses on rituals for the living, such as wedding ceremonies, birth celebrations and harvest festivals. Most Japanese also practice Buddhist ancestor worship and funeral services are held in Buddhist temples.)

Nearby, I suggest visiting the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, with its elaborate exhibitions as well as live displays of gold inlay work, lacquer crafts, indigo dyeing, wood block printing, kimonos and obi sashes.

One of my favorite pastimes is strolling along the two-kilometer Philosopher’s Walk, a cherry-tree-lined, canal-side footpath named after Nishida Kitaro, a philosophy professor at nearby Kyoto University, who walked the path in daily meditation.  There are numerous temples secreted along the way, as well as inviting tea houses and shops in a quiet residential neighborhood.  At the northern end of the path, at the top of a hill lined with souvenir shops and stalls selling Japanese delicacies, are the exquisite gardens and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion or Ginkaku-ji, which is not actually gilded in silver but remains an unpainted brown, exemplifying another Japanese philosophy that something plain can also be beautiful.

At dusk make sure you are at the magnificent UNESCO-World-Heritage-listed wooden Kiyomizu-dera, or Pure Water Temple, built into the side of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. Inside is a priceless statue of Kannon Bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy, while the temple’s veranda, supported by massive 13-metre high wooden columns, is the best place to view the sun setting over Kyoto.

Gion District


Maiko or trainee geisha

As evening descends, head to the Gion district, the heart of the geisha quarter, with its wooden inns, restaurants and ocha-ya or traditional teahouses.

There are numerous restaurants here offering traditional kaiseki cuisine, a series of delicate courses based on fresh seasonal ingredients each presented on distinctive ceramic dinnerware.  Kyoto is renowned for its beef, pike eel, tofu and vegetables like bamboo shoots, mushrooms and chestnuts. For more contemporary fare, several interesting fusion restaurants in Gion offer, for instance, a mélange of French and Japanese cuisines at Gion Okumura as well as Italian and Japanese fare at Ti Veglo Bene.  More informal cafes and bars are located in the narrow streets of the neighboring Pontocho district.

You might catch a glimpse of a geisha, dressed in sumptuous kimono, her face painted in traditional white makeup and hair piled high with elaborate decorations, as she slips through a doorway but it is very expensive and next to impossible for foreigners to hire a geisha for an evening’s entertainment of singing, dancing and drinking games. However the enterprising Gion Hatanaka Ryokan, or traditional inn, offers a kaiseki dinner and entertainment with two maiko, or trainee geisha. It is an entrancing experience as you enjoy several songs and dances, play a few drinking games, and learn a little about their lives as you chat through an interpreter.

Early in the day, I love visiting the Nishiki Food Market, dubbed the kitchen of Kyoto, which stretches from Teramachi to Takakura streets along several covered arcade laneways.  There are plenty of temples and shrines here as well, squeezed between stalls selling fresh and dried fish, Japanese sweets, pickled vegetables, tea, tofu, mushrooms and gleaming knives.

Western Kyoto

In the west of Kyoto are more iconic temples including the gorgeous gold-leafed Kinkaku-ji or The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, designed with three different styles: the top floor is Zen Buddhist, second floor is samurai-style, and the third floor is built as a wooden imperial palace.  All three tiers reflect dreamily in the surrounding mirror pond. rickshaw-72

Not far away is the Ryoan-ji Temple renowned throughout Japan for its mysterious rock garden.  Enclosed by an earthen wall, fifteen carefully placed rocks seem to drift in a sea of raked white gravel, highlighting the harmony of Zen meditation principles. From whatever angle you view the garden, you can never see all fifteen stones.

On the western outskirts of Kyoto, in Arashiyama, near the pretty Ooigawa River, lies the Tenryu-ji or Heavenly Dragon Temple with a large pond reflecting the surrounding maple trees. Time your visit to enjoy a delicious lunch of Zen vegetarian cuisine at Shigetsu, located in the temple grounds, where you will savor a presentation of delicate dishes that are a symphony of five different cooking methods, five colours and five tastes. Afterwards, take a rickshaw ride through the cool bamboo forest, where, this being Japan, your rickshaw runner will offer to take your picture at every scenic spot.

When temple fatigue finally sets in there is always the Kyoto International Manga Museum, Japan’s largest comic museum, which is in the process of acquiring every manga ever published. Chill out on the museum’s astro turf and read Astro Boy in English alongside hundreds of translated Japanese manga as well as a huge collection of foreign comics.


Your say

I’d love to hear about your adventures in Kyoto. Please post a comment if you have some other suggestions or ideas to help people make the most of their time in this fascinating city. You may also be interested in my post on Japan’s Hidden Secret:  Tourist-free Kanazawa or “Little Kyoto“.



Tenryu-ji Temple


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Kyoto 35.011636, 135.768029

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

6 comments to Insider’s Guide to Kyoto: The Golden Temple and other Highlights

  • Daryl  says:

    Wow! I have always wanted to visit Japan and Kyoto is definitely at the top of that list. I’m so happy to have found your blog and can’t wait to dig in and read more. :)

    • Sue Henly  says:

      I’m glad you liked my post about Kyoto. Check out the other post on the Kusatsu hot springs. More Japan posts are coming soon. For a country that is so culturally unique, Japan is also very easy for foreigners to visit. It is very clean and well organized and the train system is fantastic.

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      I’ll be posting lots more stories on Japan so stay tuned. Japan offers so many wonderful adventures and culturally rich experiences.

  • Karen  says:

    I have plans to visit Japan with my husband next year. Thank you for a great post, I’ll add Kyoto to our to-visit list!

  • Sue Gough Henly  says:

    Kyoto should be at the top of your list so that you can get a real appreciation of Japanese culture.

  • John Page  says:

    Amazing blog. Loved it. Thanks for all of the detail.

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