Fushimi-Inari shrine and its multi-gates in Kyoto. Japanese overkill at work. Photo by Azurfrog
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.
Tourists dressed as geisha with rickshaw in central Kyoto. Photo Andresmh
Best season in Kyoto
The five-story Pagoda in Ninna-ji which is famous for its grove of the late blooming cherry trees. The Omuro blossom’s peak time is usually mid April while other kind of cherries blossom from mid to the end of March in Kyoto. Photo by Kumamushi.
The very best time to visit Kyoto is probably March-April and October-December when there’s less rain, more sunshine, lows down to 5C (41F) and highs between 10C (50F)-20C (68F). March is also cherry-blossom time, a big event in Kyoto.
Although winter months of January-February are chilly with lows between 0C (32F)-5C (41F) and highs around 10C (50F), Kyoto is less touristy and pricey then, while the snow-covered scenery is wonderfully atmospheric.
Mid-summer months are best avoided due to the unbearably hot and sticky weather, unless visiting for the vibrant Gion Matsuri festival. July-August temperatures generally reach highs in the 30Cs (86F) with humidity around 70%.
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. A sunny spring day in Kyoto is ideal but don’t expect an ancient, rural Japanese paradise all the time!
How to plan your Kyoto visit
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, including 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 Centre, Heian Shrine, Sanjusangendo Hall and Kiyomizu Temple.
Alternatively hike the Higashiyama Kiyomizu-dera walking route, a great way to sample some of the city’s major sights and classic neighbourhoods.
See Kyoto Walks
Kyoto main attractions
Kiyomizu-dera (dera and ji both mean temple)
The unusually high terrace of Kiyomizu-dera is good for a panoramic view over the region. Photo by BriYYZ
This magnificent temple is one of Kyoto’s most famous landmarks and one of Japan’s most famous 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 terrific city view from the terrace and one of the best walks starts from Kiyomizu-dera too.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji (aka the Golden Pavilion) in mid-winter. Photo by Laitche
A lakeside villa converted into a zen temple covered in gold leaf, this is one of the most visited sights in the city and one of the best known temples in Japan. Tourists will never be alone there. Well…perhaps in a snowstorm? Built in 1397 as a retirement villa for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu before it was burnt down by a young monk, and rebuilt of course.
Jisho-ji, known as Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion). Photo by Antoinejou
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).
Japan’s most famous zen garden, the Rock Garden of Ryoan-ji, viewed from Hojo, used be the head priest’s residence. Photo by Cquest.
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), ‘a tiger carrying her cubs across the water’. It is designed so always at least one of rocks is hidden from the view from any vantage point. That is a supreme art work and the best zen temple in Kyoto, if not in Japan; if only you were alone there! (try a snowstorm? a typhoon?!)
An Imperial villa with a fine teahouses and outstanding classical Japanese garden, this exquisite Japanese structure shows how Japanese buildings can coexist with nature. Photo by Raphael Azevedo
Yamaboko Junko, the grand procession of floats on July 17th, Gion Matsuri. Photo by Corpse Reviver (mate, could you bring back the shoguns?).
The festival of Yasaka Shrine, Gion Matsuri, dates back to 869 and is the city’s most illustrious event and one of three most acclaimed festivals in Japan. This religious celebration takes place annually, not actually in the Gion District but on the opposite side of Kamo River – Kawaramachi. Various parades and fixtures are held throughout the month of July, though Yamaboko Junko is the biggest. More than 30 floats up to 25 metres tall and weighing up to 12 tons are hauled by large teams of small men.