UNESCO is probably best known for designating World Heritage Sites, cultural and natural sites that show "outstanding universal value". There are currently 22 world heritage sites in Japan, 18 cultural ones and 4 natural ones. There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto alone. We wanted to maximize our Kyoto tour with a private tour. Here is a list of the 17 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto:
- Byodo-in temple
- Daigo-ji temple
- Enryaku-ji temple
- Ginkaku-ji temple
- Kamigamo-jinja shrine
- Kinkaku-ji temple
- Kiyomizu-dera temple
- Kozan-ji temple
- Nijo-jo castle
- Ninna-ji temple
- Nishi Hongan-ji temple
- Ryoan-ji temple
- Saiho-ji temple
- Shimogamo-jinja shrine
- Tenryu-ji temple
- Todai-ji temple
- Ujikami-jinja shrine
Top ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto
There are many attractions, and they fall into several sub-categories including palaces, castles and temples. You can check out our detailed itinerary in our post of Kyoto Attractions. Here are the top 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites you should visit. You can visit most of them in a single day if you have a driver.
541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 604-8301
You will see the name Nijo Castle or Nijojo Castle. For simplicity, we will use the name Nijo. The Nijo Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once the official Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who ruled Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Nijo castle’s main tower burned down in the 18th century. The castle’s Ninomaru Palace is worth the visit. It features beautiful interiors such as paintings on ornate sliding paper doors, gold leaf covered rooms, elegant ceilings and the ninja proof chirping nightingale floors. The latter is a design feature to prevent the stealthy from sneaking up on the occupants that were sleeping.
The photo above is of the Kara-mon gate of the Nijo castle.
FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA SHRINE
68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Japan 612-0882
Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of Kyoto’s most important shrines and is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. It was founded in 711. The grounds are very impressive, and you will find the impressive torii gates.
You can walk for miles at this shrine, and you will see hundreds of these torii gates leading you around the property.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 602-0881
The Kyoto Imperial Palace is the former residence of the Emperor and the Imperial family of Japan before the move was made to the Tokyo Imperial Palace in 1869. When you visit, the palace grounds are open to the public and feature several beautiful buildings built in the classical Japanese style. The original palace was built in 794 with the present Imperial Palace constructed in 1855; it still acts as an important place for official state ceremonies.
1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 603-8361
Kinkaku-ji Temple is known as the “Golden Pavilion.” It is one of the most famous attractions. It was originally built in 1397 as a retirement villa for the Shogun and later converted into a Zen Buddhist temple. The temple’s top two floors are completely covered in brilliant gold leaf making it a terrific photo opportunity against a lush green background.
1-chome-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 605-0862
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. It is a World Heritage Site. The temple was founded in 780 and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Its biggest attraction is the main hall, which is built on a mountain slope with a wooden framed balcony that looks out over the cliff offering spectacular sweeping views of Kyoto. The balcony was built without the use of nails, highlighting the amazing craftsmanship and skill of traditional Japanese carpentry techniques.
1 Kujocho, Minami-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu, Japan 601-8473
To-ji Temple is a large ancient Buddhist temple complex that has stood over 1,200 years. It was originally built as one of the guardian temples of Kyoto. It is famous for its five-story pagoda, which is the highest in Japan at over 300 feet in height.
86 Kyoto-fu, Kyoto-shi, Sakyo-ku, Nanzenji Fukuchicho, Kyoto, Japan 606-8435
Nanzen-ji Temple is a Zen Buddhist temple and is famous for its large brick aqueduct which stands in the temple complex and looks like an ancient roman ruin.
The aqueduct was built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) as part of a canal system to carry water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa. The temple was established by Emperor Kameyama in 1291 after his death on the grounds of his former retirement villa.
Momoyamacho Okura, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Japan 612-8051
Fushimi Castle is also known as Momoyama Castle or Fushimi Momoyama Castle. It was originally built in 1592 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as a retirement palace. It featured gold leaf walls, as well as elaborate furnishings and decorations. The current structure is a 1964 replica of the original.
4220 Sakamotohonmachi, Otsu-shi, Shiga-ken 520-0116, Japan
Enryaku-ji Temple is a monastery located on Mount Hiei which overlooks Kyoto. It was founded during the Heian Period in 788 and is one of the most important monasteries in Japanese history. Many of Japan’s most influential monks studied here.
This is about a 2-hour train ride away but with a private driver, you can reach this within an hour.
Omuroouchi, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8092, Japan
Ninna-ji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in western Kyoto. The temple complex was founded in 888 by the retired Emperor Uda and features a five-story pagoda as well as gorgeous temple buildings.
So, there you have it! Our top 10 places to visit in Kyoto. Come to think of it, if you have the time, maybe you could spread this over 2 or 3 days. There is really so much to see in each place.