We wanted to see as many UNESCO world heritage sites as we could. I had already booked a tour the following day for a bus tour that went to both Kyoto and Nara, but we realized that we’d only see a few things. We were staying at the Hyatt Regency Osaka which was a great base for us. The bus tour promised a visit to Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto and Todaiji temple in Nara. That was only two of the 17 listed places. So, we found a private driver for a day on Viator. We wanted to fill in as many gaps as we could.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Japan 612-0882
This was our first stop. The Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of Inari, the god of rice, sake and prosperity and patron of business, merchants and manufacturers. The shrine is at the base of Mount Inari and includes many smaller sub shrines.
At the shrine’s entrance we saw the Romon (tower) Gate, which is the main gate, and was built in 1589 thanks to donations from the samurai warlord and ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It is massive and we immediately saw the first major shrine which is simply called the Main Shrine Building. It was in the shape of a pagoda and if this is all we saw, it would be worth it.
We noticed stone statues around the main shrine that appeared to be unusual looking dogs. There were dozens of these in various poses. We learned that they were foxes. Foxes or kitsune in Japanese are regarded as the messengers of the gods much like the deer of Nara Park in Nara.
Some of the stone foxes even had keys in their mouths. Those were the keys to the rice granaries which they were protecting.
The main attraction at this stop are the thousands of torii shrine gates.
There are more than 11,000 of them. Each of the famous torii shrine gates has been donated by an individual or a Japanese business in the hope of receiving good luck and fortune. The name of the donor is inscribed in black ink on the back of each gate. The cost of donating the torii starts around $400,000 JPY ($4,000 USD) for a small sized gate and increases to over 1,000,000 JPY ($10,000 USD) for a large gate.
We walked through hundreds of these torii gates along the path and we could have spent well over 3 hours in this area. We decided after passing through close to 1,000 of the gates that we would navigate our way back to our driver so we could see some more UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Our next stop was at Yasaka Shrine which is the entrance to Kiyomizudera.
Yasaka Shrine / Gion Shrine
625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 605-0073
Yasaka Shrine is also known as Gion Shrine and is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. Founded over 1,350 years ago, the shrine is located between the popular Gion District and Higashiyama District and is often visited by tourists walking between the two districts. Our driver just parked on the main street, and we crossed it and climbed the stairs to get a photo opportunity. The large red tori gate is impressive.
The shrine's main hall combines the honden (inner sanctuary) and haiden (offering hall) into a single building. In front of it stands a dance stage with hundreds of lanterns that are lit in the evenings.
Yasaka Shrine is well known for its summer festival, the Gion Matsuri, which is celebrated every July. The Gion Matsuri is over a thousand years and involves a procession with massive floats and hundreds of participants.
We came in April, so we missed the festival. However, we found that the shrine becomes quite busy during the cherry blossom season because the adjacent Maruyama Park is a favorite during Sakura season.
1-chome-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 605-0862
It is about a 25-minute walk to Kiyomizudera from the Yasaka Shrine. Our driver helped with this, and we took a shortcut courtesy of 4 wheels.
Kiyomizudera also known as the "Pure Water Temple") is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in wooded hills east of Kyoto and derived its name from the fall's pure waters. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. The main hall of Kiyomizudera is built out on a veranda onto pillars. It was completely constructed without nails.
Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka streets
Masuyacho, Kyoto-shi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-fu, Japan 605-0826
From here, a little north of Kyomizudera are Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka streets. These historic streets are some of the best preserved in Kyoto. The stoned-paved streets are lined with lovely wooden stores selling everything from delicious Kyoto specialties to fine souvenir goods. There are also numerous cafes and restaurants if we wanted a break with a bite to eat or something to drink.
There was a scenic route we took from the Kiyomizudera temple which had us walking on Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka which are below Kiyomizudera. This was only a 10-minute walk, and we loved the preservation of the older part of Kyoto. There were plenty of places to get something to eat or drink, but we had more World Heritage sites to visit.
Our driver picked us up and took us back to the Yasaka Shrine area. He parked and told us how to walk to Hanamikoji Dori street which was the old geisha street.
Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan 600-8340
Hanamikoji is in the Gion district and is known as the geisha district. The area has traditional wooden merchant houses, machiya, and quaint ochaya, or teahouses.
It was only about a 5-minute walk from the Yasaka Shrine and the guide pointed at the traffic light and said there was a street on the left.
The historic architecture of Hanamikoji Street is one of its highlights, particularly the prevalence of its machiya, or wooden merchant homes, which feature narrow facades. Now, these homes are mainly restaurants where you can sample local cuisine prepared in Kyoto style. Tucked in between these machiya are also ochaya, or teahouses, where you can learn more about Japanese heritage during a tea ceremony with a geisha.
We’ve had a tea ceremony before, and Madeline did not want to do a geisha makeover. We just enjoyed walking the street and imagining what it might have been like hundreds of years ago. What we noticed was the houses were very long and narrow. What you see from the street appears to be a very small house. The front is only about 15 or 20 feet wide. This was the result of property taxes that were originally based upon street frontage. As a result, the houses were built with narrow facades but extended up to 60 feet behind. It reminded us of the shotgun houses we saw in New Orleans.
We saw plenty of women dressed as geishas strolling the streets. Our driver said that most of the women in geisha costume were likely to be Chinese. They come, particularly It was time to find our driver again and take a drive to Nijo-ji castle.
541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 604-8301
Our driver tried to park in the lot in front of the castle but he was told it was going to be 3,500 JPY or about $35 USD so he demurred and let us off and told us where he’d pick us up. We waited in line for tickets which went very smoothly.
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun (general) of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle's palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five-story castle keep. We saw what was left of the keep on our walk. Almost 400 years later, in 1994, it officially became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site.
As we entered the grounds with our tickets in hand, we crossed the moat which was the initial line of defense. The moat surrounds the entire castle property which is very large. There were two ticket types, one just for the grounds and a small additional fee to enter the palace itself. We wanted to see the palace primarily because we’d heard of the nightingale rooms.
English audio guides are available for rent at a kiosk just inside the gate. After crossing the moat, we saw the imposing Karamon Gate. This was the entrance to the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense), where the castle's main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace was located.
The Ninomaru Palace was the residence and office of the shogun. The palace had multiple separate buildings that were connected with each other by corridors with nightingale floors. What are these? The floors squeaked when stepped upon as a security measure against intruders. There was no way even for a ninja to sneak up without being heard. The palace rooms are tatami mat covered and feature elegantly decorated ceilings and beautifully painted sliding doors (fusuma).
As we wound our way through the place, we came to the main audience room where the shogun would sit on an elevated floor. He would have been flanked by bodyguards hidden in closets. Lower ranked visitors would be allowed only as far as the adjoining rooms without direct view of the shogun.
After the palace tour, we wandered the grounds and thought we could get out of another gate, but all of the other gates were closed to visitors, so we simply did a tour of the grounds. On our tour, several buildings were closed due to reconstruction, but the visit was certainly worth our time, and we spent about an hour in total.
Now our driver was going to take us to our next World Heritage site, the Golden Pavilion.
Kinkaku-ji temple / Golden Pavilion
1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 603-8361
Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen temple in Kyoto who’s top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It was formerly known as Rokuonji. It was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After his death it became a Zen temple.
Kinkakuji is an impressive structure overlooking a large pond. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War that destroyed much of Kyoto. We learned that it was burned down in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatical monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955 and looks beautiful. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.
We learned that when it was last rebuilt, it was true to the original except for a significant enhancement: both upper stories are covered in gold leaf, in accordance with Ashikaga's original intentions. In 1987, the temple was re-covered in gold leaf five times thicker than the original coating.
The result is a real photo opportunity. That’s all we were able to get because nobody is allowed near the building itself. It’s a security risk now so nobody is going to get near it to cause it any harm.
Our guide told us that each floor of the building had a special significance. The first floor known as the Temple of Dharma Water was built with walls separating it from the balcony only rising half-way, allowing plenty of light and fresh air into the room.
The second story was built in the style of samurai houses because samurai were housed there. It houses a statue of Kannon. The third floor was built in the style of a Buddha Hall in a Zen temple. Inside, it has an Amida triad and 25 Bodhisattvas.
The roof is topped with a golden Chinese phoenix. I had to use a closeup shot to capture the detail on the phoenix.
Madeline and I were with a crowd of hundreds of others so getting a photo opportunity took some time. After taking pictures of the Golden Temple, we strolled on a pathway taking us through gardens en route to a tea house that the shogun had constructed so he had a view of the temple and the pond.
The path leads through the temple's gardens which have retained their original design including Anmintaku Pond that is said to never dry up, and statues that people throw coins at for luck. We then arrived at the Sekkatei Teahouse. From here, we passed with plenty of stalls and souvenir shops and a small tea garden.
We had two more areas to visit before our 10-hour tour was done. We paid for the long ride and the private driver and I’m not sure how we could have accomplished such a detailed tour without someone knowledgeable about all of the areas. Now we were to visit Ryoan-ji temple.
13 Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 616-8001
Ryoanji Temple is the site of Japan's most famous rock garden, which attracts hundreds of visitors every day. We came here because it was a UNESCO World Heritage site and listed in 1994. Ryoanji is probably the most famous rock garden of Japan. It was built on the grounds of a villa of the Fujiwara clan in the Heian period (794-1185).
The deputy of the shogun (general) Hosokawa Katsumoto bought the estate in 1450 and built his residence on it, together with the temple Ryoanji. It was destroyed in the Onin war but rebuilt in 1488.
The rock garden's date of construction is unknown, but it consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. One of the things we heard from the guide was quite interesting. At any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer. You can see the sakura in the background of the famed rock garden.
From here, we rejoined our driver on our way to Arashiyama.
Togetsukyo bridge crossing the Katsura-Gowa River
Saganakanoshimacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan 616-8383
One of the first things you see as you approach Arashiyama is the Katsura river. The Katsura River is a continuation of two other rivers, the Hozu river and the Oi river. The Togetsukyo bridge, also known as the Moon Crossing Bridge, crosses the river and is notable for its views of cherry blossoms and autumn colors on the slopes of Arashiyama. When we arrived, we saw hordes of tourists along the shoreline and the bridge simply taking pictures of the mountains or the cherry blossoms.
The Togetsukyo Bridge is often the first sight that visitors head to see when they arrive. With Mount Arashi serving as a backdrop, visitors can enjoy cherry blossoms, vibrant summer greens, and colorful autumn leaves on the mountain slope. We arrived during sakura season so there were cherry trees all over the mountain slope.
The Togetsukyo takes its name from the romantic notions of Emperor Kameyama in the 14th century, who noted that throughout the night it seemed like the moon was making its way across the bridge. We did not stay for the moon, but the romantic notion of the Emperor stayed with our thoughts as we proceeded.
We walked away from the romantic moon crossing bridge and headed toward the Bamboo Forest entrance. We needed to have our photograph taken before we left.
The Arashiyama and the adjoining Sagano area were developed in the Heian period of Japanese history when the Japanese imperial family and court nobles came here to enjoy the quiet and scenic area. The area is a well-known cherry blossom spot, together with Mount Ogura just west for fall colors and deer.
Bamboo Forest / Sagano Bamboo Forest
6 Sagakamenoocho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 616-8386
We were dropped off by our driver on the main street and he pointed to the left to start us on our journey into the Bamboo Forest. It wasn’t obvious with the exception of the other tourists that were headed in the same direction. We also saw rickshaw drivers taking their guests up the narrow pathway, so we knew we were on the right path.
The Bamboo Forest is one of the most photographed sights in Kyoto. It’s a natural treasure. We walked through the very large grove of bamboo until we came to an intersection. Just ahead was the Nonomiya Shrine. Alternatively, we could go left to the Tenryuji’s temple and the gardens,
We thought we should visit the shrine because we had heard that its torii was one of the oldest.
1 Saganomiyanomotocho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 616-8393
Nonomiya Shrine is a shrine where unmarried imperial princesses would stay to purify themselves for a year or more before taking up their duties at the Ise Grand Shrine. The shrine was used as early as 794. Nonomiya-jinja’s is famous for marriage. Marriage talismans are also sold in the shrine office. Also, next to it is the Kame-ishi (turtle rock) and it is said that if you touch it, it will grant you one wish within a year, so make sure not to forget your wish. We touched it and we’re not telling you about our wish. You have to come and make your own!
6-8 Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Ukyo-ku, Sagatenryūji Susukinobabacho, Japan 616-8385
Tenryuji Temple is the most important temple in the Arashiyama district. It was ranked first among the city's five great Zen temples and is now registered as a world heritage site.
It was built in 1339 by the ruling shogun (emperor) Ashikaga Takauji. Takauji dedicated the temple to Emperor Go-Daigo, who had just passed away. The garden pond above is quiet and beautiful. Tenryuji's buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries, and most of the current were rebuilt during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
Unlike the temple buildings, Tenryuji's garden survived the centuries in its original form. It also has a modest entrance fee unlike the temple itself. It was created by the famous garden designer Muso Soseki. Everywhere we walked, there was more beauty.
We came during sakura season and there were plenty of cherry blossoms but there were so many other beautiful bushes and trees in full splendor. You really need to come during sakura season to appreciate it.
Our driver knew we loved temples and photo opportunities. On our way back, he said he knew a very small temple and we stopped to take a photo. There was a woman walking her dog on the grounds and he spoke to her in Japanese. The temple is still maintained by staff and has two very different torii gates – one wooden and the other stone. Madeline was enthralled and took some photos.
Nishi and Higashi Hongangi Temples
Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan600-8501
On our way back after our driver stopped at the neighborhood temple, we saw a massive temple complex. In fact, it was two temples. The Higashi Honganji Temple is located east of its “twin” named Nishi Honganji Temple. Higashi and Nishi temples were originally one extremely large temple. The shogun (general) Tokugawa Ieyasu split them into east (higashi) and west (nishi) sects because he was afraid the temple's political power would grow too great.
The Higashi Honganji Temple was constructed in 1602, 11 years after its Nishi counterpart. Each temple has its own highlights and interesting features. Similar to Nishi Honganji Temple, Higashi Honganji Temple has two very large halls. The slightly larger one, Goeido Hall, is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto.
Nishi Honganji was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, in 1994.
We had a great time on our tour of Kyoto, courtesy of Viator. We packed quite a lot of activities into a single day. We hope you enjoy seeing Kyoto as well. Check out our UNESCO Kyoto post here for more information on some of the world recognized attractions.