If I were to recommend just one place in Japan, it would definitely be Kyoto. With its world-famous temples and shrines, Kyoto is traditional Japan through and through. I have been to Kyoto three seasons out of four (about 14 days in total) and have immensely enjoyed Kyoto’s beautiful and vibrant colors.
At first, we tried to visit as many sights as we could (and there are a lot! even a whole week is not enough!), but on our succeeding trips we learned to prioritize. Some places are really worth the visit and re-visits, because a different season will reveal a different but equally beautiful sight.
I have listed my Top 5 must-see sites in an area where you could easily get overwhelmed with the far too many sites. If you have limited time to tour Kyoto, then you can skip all the other destinations except these five (if you believe my taste, that is):
1. Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion). One word: gold. With a gilded temple, what more can you ask for? This is perhaps the most extravagant temple in Japan, with most of the pavilion covered in gold leaf. The pond in front of the pavilion also adds to its photogenic charms. The temple’s magnificence is hard to capture in words, but perhaps the photographs can describe it more eloquently.
2. Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion). Nope, it’s not covered in silver… The temple pavilion’s design was modeled after Kinkakuji, so it was named the “silver pavilion” for comparison (or because it’s catchy, i really dunno). My favorite part of this temple is not the pavilion, but the lovely moss garden. In the autumn, the Silver Pavilion is just beautiful beyond words.
3. Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple). This temple is one of the most popular in Japan, but I like it best for the cherry blossoms in spring and for the kouyou leaves in autumn. During these seasons, the temple has evening illumination events. For me, those are best times to visit.
In addition to enjoying the temple’s sites, part of the fun in visiting Kiyomizudera is to walk in the sloped streets of the Higashiyama District. The district exudes that traditional Japan feel, with its wooden shops and buildings that sells local crafts and souvenirs, not to mention the delicious food that you can try (there are some shops that offer free taste of their delicacy).
4. Fushimi Inari Shrine. If you need to visit one shrine in Japan, then this should be it. The most prominent part of a shrine for me is the torii, and Fushimi Inari Shrine has thousands of these orange-red gates that are closely arranged in rows. The gates cover the trail going up the mountain, which makes for a very interesting hike.
5. Arashiyama. Located in the western outskirts of Kyoto, the place boasts of several sights to behold. I especially like this place in autumn, when the colors of fall accentuate Arashiyama’s natural beauty. The area has a number of attractions, but a half-day walking tour should bring you to the top sites if you are pressed for time.
There is the garden in Tenryu-ji temple , which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The garden is considered as one of the most beautiful in Japan, and I couldn’t agree more when I saw the place in autumn. I first saw it in winter and it was beautiful then, but seeing it in all its autumn glory was just magical.
Another remarkable site is the Bamboo Groves at the back of the Tenryu-ji Garden. I don’t understand how they could make bamboo look so idyllic, but there it was. Walking through the neatly arranged bamboos, I couldn’t help but get carried away by the magic of the place.
One good place for a stroll is along the Hozugawa River, where you can watch the boats leisurely taking their passengers on a tour. Autumn would be the best time for this stroll, as the boats are set on a backdrop of orange-brown-red-yellow leaves from the trees on the mountain slopes. Crossing the river using the Togetsukuyo Bridge is also best done in autumn, when the colors of the forested mountain slopes make the view truly magnificent.
If you are up for some physical activity, a hike to the top of Kamayama-koen will give you a good view of Arashiyama’s fascinating sites. You can also visit the monkey park in Iwatayama to get a good look at the monkeys freely roaming around.
So that’s my best of the best list for Kyoto. If I could, I would definitely revisit these places, especially in spring and autumn. Kyoto is really the most colorful place in Japan for me, literally and figuratively 🙂
For instructions on getting to these places, please visit the ever reliable Japan Guide website.