Japan's old imperial capital of Kyoto is a city is so loaded with important, historic attractions that a Japanese holiday without some tourist time in Kyoto would be like doing Italy without a whiff of Rome. Unfortunately, unlike Rome which has most of its sights in the city centre, Kyoto's are mainly scattered around the suburbs, entailing a struggle out of the unattractive, overbuilt and traffic-heavy city centre. However, buses and metro lines are efficient and well marked though many and running complex routes.
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Reality check, a rainy spring day in Kyoto city centre; don't expect an ancient and rural Japanese paradise! Nor blue skies!
Summer months are best avoided due to the unbearably hot and sticky climate, unless visiting for the vibrant Gion Matsuri festival.
Although winter months are cold, Kyoto is less touristy and pricey then, while the snow-covered scenery is wonderfully atmospheric.
Kyoto is almost always packed with tourists, ridiculously so at the best times of spring, autumn and festival periods, so visiting sights early or late in the day is suggested.
It would be a madness to attempt to see Kyoto in just a few days since the city contains more than 2,000 temples and shrines, let alone 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. With attractions dispersed around the city and multi-route bus and metro systems, planning an itinerary carefully is a wise move.
One day? If you are short of time then an official sightseeing package is the practical choice, typically a tour including Nijo Castle, Ryoanji temple, Golden Pavilion, Kyoto Gosho (Imperial Palace Park), Kyoto Handicraft Center, Heian Shrine, Sanjusangendo Hall and Kiyomizu Temple.
Alternatively hike the Higashiyama Kiyomizu-dera walking route, a great way to sample some of Kyoto's major sights and classic neighbourhoods.
See Kyoto Walks.
The unusually high terrace of Kiyomizu-dera temple is good for a Kyoto panorama.
Kiyomizu-dera (picture above. Dera and ji both mean temple); this magnificent temple is one of Kyoto's most famous landmarks and one of Japan's most celebrated temples, mainly for its spacious main hall with large cliff terrace, supported by 18m high wooden pillars. (Japanese people describe a challenge as Kiyomizu no butai kara tobiorita tsumori de... meaning 'like jumping off the kiyomizu platform'. There's a panoramic city view from the terrace and one of the foremost walks starts from Kiyomizu-dera too.
See Kyoto Walks
Kinkaku-ji (temple) or 'the Golden Pavilion', built in 1397 and besieged by tourists
Kinkaku-ji (Golden pavilion, photo above); a lakeside villa converted into a temple covered in gold leaf, this is the most visited sight in the city and the best known temple in Japan. Tourists will never be alone there. Built in 1397 as a retirement villa for a shogun it was burnt down by a young monk, and rebuilt, of course.
Nijo Castle entrance, Kyoto
Nijo-jo (jo=castle), its brooding exterior and glorious garden was the Tokugawa Shogun's Kyoto residence. The interior is highly acclaimed, especially sliding paper doors decorated by Kano School artists.
The zen garden of Ryoan-ji.
Ryoan-ji, famed for its zen garden of 15 irregularly places rocks on raked white gravel, representing islands in an ocean or, some say (after a few too many cups of warm saké perhaps), 'a tiger carrying her cubs across the water', is a supreme art work and the best zen temple in Kyoto if not in Japan; if only you were alone there!
Ginkaku-ji and its reflective white sand; Moon Mound to the left and the Sea of Sand in front.
Ginkaku-ji (Silver pavilion, image above); never actually covered with silver, Ginkaku-ji is preferred to Kinkaku-ji by some aesthetes due to its more subdued style.
It is known for the garden's white sand waves and two sandy piles designed to reflect moonlight, the Kogetsudai (Moon Mound) and the Ginsaden (Sea of Silver Sand).
There is a pleasant half-hour walking trail between the Ginkaku-ji and Nyakuo-ji Shrine, north of Eikan-do, called the Tetsugaku-no-Michi (Path of philosophy).
See Kyoto Walks guide and pictures.
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