Japan’s former capital for over 1000 years, Kyoto is full of ancient sites and traditions. With its beautiful collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites, the city provides a glimpse into Japan’s former imperial glory. Kyoto also boasts some of Japan’s most amazing cuisine and a trendy art scene.
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- Top 5 places to Visit in Central Japan outside Kyoto
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Winter (December-February) – Temperatures fall as you move further north, where regions experience snowfall. Southern areas are relatively temperate, fairly dry and sunny with temperatures rarely falling below 32°F.
Spring (March-May) – The nation experiences low levels of rainfall and warm temperatures.
Summer (June-August) – Usually begins with a month long rainy season during which crops are planted. The summer months are hot and humid.
Autumn (September-November) – Temperatures typically around 46-50ºF with light winds.
Kinkakuji (‘Temple of the Golden Pavilion’)
This Buddhist temple incorporates Japanese architectural features and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Each floor exhibits a distinct style of architecture. The first floor is built in the Shinden style (popular in the Heian Period) with white walls and wooden pillars. The second floor boasts the Bukke style, which was common in samurai residences and its exterior is covered entirely in gold leaf. The third and final floor is covered in gold leaf on the inside and outside. The gardens include the Anmintaku Pond, which is said to never dry up, and statues which visitors throw coins at for luck.
Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion)
The Silver Pavilion is a temple along the mountains in eastern Kyoto, modeled after Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion). The site also includes other temple buildings and Japanese gardens, which visitors walk around to see the buildings. The Silver Pavilion itself contains a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The building is not actually silver, but used to be covered in a black lacquer which became a silvery colour in moonlight. The grounds include a dry sand garden (the ‘Sea of Silver Sand’) and a moss garden, which boasts ponds and streams, islands and bridges. The location in the hills also provides stunning views of both the temple grounds and the city.
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses) where entertainment is provided by geiko (geisha) serving drinks, and performing traditional dances. Visitors can also see traditional wooden merchant houses, which are typically only five or six meters wide. Some of these houses have been transformed into restaurants, serving Japanese cuisine and other international meals. There are also many teahouses where guests can be entertained by geiko. Also worth a visit is the nearby Shirakawa Canal, which is lined with willow trees and is a peaceful and beautiful place to take a stroll.
An aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, this site was transformed into a temple in 1450 and is today the site of the most famous rock garden in Japan. It consists of fifteen rocks placed in groups on patches of moss, surrounded by pebbles. The rocks are laid out such that one rock is always hidden from view, regardless of where the viewer stands. The temple grounds also include a spacious park dating to before the site’s conversion into a temple.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
This ancient Shrine is famous for thousands of vermilion gates, which overarch pathways up sacred Mount Inari. This shrine is the most sacred of thousands of shrines throughout Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Inari’s messenger, the fox, is symbolized across the shrine grounds in the form of statues. Visitors who hike the tunnel-like mountain trails through the gates can see many smaller shrines along the way, as well as attractive views of Kyoto.
The Arashiyama district in the western outskirts of Kyoto has been popular since the Heian period (794-1185) due to its beautiful natural setting and becomes especially popular during the cherry blossom and autumn colour seasons. Many visitors rent bicycles to explore this area. Attractions found nearby include the Togetsukyo Bridge, Tenryuji Temple and the famous bamboo groves. The Tenryuji Temple was built in 1339, although as a result of fires and wars most of the current buildings date from the Meiji Period (1868-1912). The Temple’s garden, however, has survived in its original form and boasts a beautiful pond surrounded by rocks and trees.
In Japanese, Kiyomizudera literally means ‘Pure Water Temple,’ appropriately named due to its close proximity to the Otowa Waterfall on the same site. This temple is famous for its large wooden platform that extends from the main hall, high above the hillside, providing magnificent views of Kyoto. The waters of the Otowa Waterfall are divided into three streams, which visitors can drink from. Each stream’s water is said to possess different powers, bringing longevity, academic success and love respectively (but drinking from all is seen as greedy!)
Note: Some of the buildings at Kiyomizudera are being renovated over the next few years, however this shouldn’t cause too much disruption to a visit.
Nijo Castle was at times both an imperial palace and a residence of the Shoguns (Japan’s former military dictators) before it was given to the city as a historic site in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The castle is divided into three areas: the Honmaru (main defense circle), the Ninomaru (secondary defense circle) and gardens, stone walls and moats, which surround them. The Ninomaru Palace, still in its original form, was the Shogun’s office and residence and consists of multiple buildings connected with corridors whose floors squeak when stepped on, a precautionary measure against intruders. The palace rooms are elaborately decorated and intricately painted and the palace is surrounded by a traditional Japanese garden, including manicured pine trees and ornamental stones.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace was the home of Japan’s Imperial family until 1868, when Tokyo became the nation’s capital. Located in the center of the city, it is surrounded by a large park and enclosed with long walls. The grounds can only be visited on guided tours, which take about an hour and go past the buildings, which cannot be entered. However, the site also includes Kaninnomiya Mansion, where court nobles lived, which is open to the public.
Aoi Matsuri – May 15th
Historically, it is believed that this ritual was performed in order to please the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. The festival has two parts, the procession and the shrine rites. The procession, led by the Imperial Messenger, leaves the Kyoto Imperial Palace and makes its way to the Kamigamo shrine. At the shrine, rituals are performed praising the gods.
Gion Matsuri – Goes on for the entire month of July, with parades on July 17th and July 24th
The festival is thought to have developed as part of a ritual to appease the gods of earthquakes, fire and floods. The time leading up to the parades is known as yoiyama, and in this time, downtown Kyoto is open only for pedestrians and the area is filled with stalls selling Japanese food and sweets. During the yoiyama evenings, private homes open to the public and show family heirlooms. This provides an opportunity to observe traditional homes in Kyoto. The parade floats (Yamaboko) are decorated with tapestries from Japan and around the world. Musicians are also present on the floats.
Jidai Matsuri – October 22nd
Otherwise known as the Festival of Ages, the festival began when the capital of Japan was moved to Tokyo in 1868. The city government worried that the people of Kyoto would lose their pride in the city so they commemorated the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto. The Heian Shrine was built for the first Jidai celebration to celebrate the Emperor Kanmu, who founded the city. The festival begins in the morning as people pay their respects to the former emperors. This is followed by a long procession of thousands of performers dressed as military figures and common people, representing every era in Kyoto’s history. The procession ends at the Heian Shrine.
Top 5 places to Visit in Central Japan outside Kyoto
Osaka is the third largest city in Japan and is the economic center of the region. The city’s landmarks include historic sites such as Osaka Castle, Sumiyoshi Shrine and Shitennōji Temple, as well as museums, theme parks and Kaiyukan, one of the world’s largest aquariums. Additionally, Osakans are known for their love of food so the city offers a large number of restaurants serving various national and international cuisines.
During the feudal era, the Iga school of Ninjutsu (the art of stealth) was based in this region. Today, Iga Ueno’s main attractions are its historic castle and its Ninja museum, which is located in a house once used by the Iga clan. The museum is filled with features such as trapdoors and revolving doors, and tours are given by kunoichi (female ninjas). There are also regular performances, popular with both adults and children, showcasing ancient Ninja skills.
Nagoya is a large city, with a population of over two million. Both in the past and the present, the area has been home to manufacturing industries; as a result, the area was particularly targeted by U.S. air raids in the Second World War. These raids caused huge amounts of damage to the city as a whole, but many of the most important landmarks have been rebuilt, including Nagoya Castle. The city is home to the headquarters of the Toyota Motor Corporation – and for the visitor the Toyota Automobile Museum and the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology are particularly interesting.
Historically, troublesome figures were exiled to Sado island from mainland Japan; today the island has many temples and historical ruins to explore, and there are many outdoor activities which can be enjoyed. The island is home to the world-renowned Kodo drumming group, and there are a number of museums and attractions on the island concerned with traditional Japanese drumming. The island has a thriving fishing industry, and visitors should make sure to sample the famously delicious local seafood.
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