18 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in Kyoto

Jul 22, 2021

Japanese culture has been infused with the ancient arts and traditions of the Shinto and Buddhist religions for centuries. Kyoto, Japan's ancient imperial capital, lies at the heart of Japan's spiritual traditions. As such, Kyoto is one of the most historic and cultural destinations in Japan.

With an intriguing juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, it is no wonder that Kyoto is considered the cultural center of Japan.

The following are some of the top tourist attractions in Kyoto, including landmarks, museums, shrines and temples.


Photo of Kinkaku-ji
Kinkaku-ji: en.wikipedia.org

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, built in the 16th century and Japan's most famous architectural masterpiece, has a golden pavilion on top of its roof. The wooden structure is viewed from a distance through an old Zen Buddhist teahouse, designed to look out of place but create an ideal setting for this iconic view. Kinkaku-ji also has a famous Tokugawa-era garden that includes the Ichi-no-Ni-no-Makura (The Wave Waterfall) and a beautiful pond. It's not possible to enter the garden, which is located in the immediate grounds of the temple itself, but the grounds of the temple are pleasant to wander around and include the surrounding gardens and open woodland. The area of the temple also includes the remains of a Confucian academy from the 10th century and the large Haiden, or Supreme Court, where Emperor Go-Uda presided over a number of trials throughout the Heian era (794–1185) to rule over Japan. The site of the Confucian academy can be visited as part of the temple. The adjacent Kodai-ji is one of Kyoto's oldest temples and dates back to AD 870. Its garden is also worth a visit, while the Nandai-in is a temple said to have been established by Chinese scholar Sugawara Michizane (1145–1203) and the site of the temple was originally the palace of Emperor Sutoku.

Ryoan-ji Temple

Photo of Ryōan-ji
Ryōan-ji: en.wikipedia.org

This Buddhist temple is one of Japan's most important pilgrimage sites and contains two of Japan's most famous statues. The first, a larger-than-life statue of Kwannon-daibutsu, or Great Goddess of Mercy, dates to 13th-century Japan. The second, a slender, sensuous statue of the reclining goddess Tamahime, is the work of the famous 14th-century sculptor and priest Musō Kokushi. Both statues are kept under the protection of small, exquisitely detailed gardens. The temple is within the grounds of the adjacent Jōdo-ji, which houses around 300 statues of Bodhisattvas, including a two-meter-high, gilded "Kannon," or Goddess of Mercy, in front of the main hall.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Photo of Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace: en.wikipedia.org

In contrast to the famous buildings of Tokyo and Kyoto, the Kyoto Imperial Palace is often the largest and most impressive private home in the city. The site has been used as a residence since 794 when Emperor Uda made it his residence. It has been continuously occupied since then, and was burned down in 1864. It has remained uninhabited since and now functions as an exclusive hotel. The palace was constructed in the classical Japanese style and it can be reached through a series of gardens from the main entrance at the south end. Other buildings here include the Shiki Hall, the Okazaki Hall, the Musashi-koma Hall and the Bikyamiminomaru Hall. The palace is open only to hotel guests during normal visiting hours.

Nanzen-ji Temple

Photo of Nanzen-ji
Nanzen-ji: en.wikipedia.org

Since antiquity, the Japanese have worshipped the legendary Mt. Amaterasu Ōmikami in this temple dedicated to the sun goddess. There are two other very prominent temples on the grounds of the main temple, the Honnara and the Sannō-ji. Many of the buildings within Nanzen-ji were constructed in the mid-15th century. The buildings in this area are classified as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government.

Kamigamo Shrine

Photo of Kamigamo Shrine
Kamigamo Shrine: en.wikipedia.org

Kamigamo Shrine was the only Shrine in all of Japan, which did not choose a date for the death of a god. On New Year's Day in Kamigamo Shrine, you will find the Kamigamo River which changes colors depending on the year. You will also find the Nakamise street, which is lined with hundreds of stalls of food and clothes from the new year, to your right. There is a Kannon statue, Fukusayama statue, Suijin statue, Shichirin and other type of Japanese god statues.

Gion District

Gion is one of the most famous districts in Kyoto. The name is derived from the five streets – Gion Higashi, Gion Nishi, Gion Kita, Gion Odori, and Gion Yame – that make up the square. An unmissable part of any visit to Kyoto, Gion boasts a number of appealing sights. The Gionkaden, or Gion Corner, is a famous square lined with chic shops and bars. You can spend hours wandering around this area and on its main street, Gion-Higashi-Dori, and trying the Gion Festival at the end of November every year. In addition to the shops and bars of Gion, visit the Gion Shrine or stroll through Gion's garden district. The Geiko Association has dressed up the famous geisha but the real geisha (not "Miss Japan") of Kyoto still perform to earn a living.

Kyoto Tower

Kyoto Tower is an office building in the downtown section of Kyoto, Japan. Kyoto Tower is one of Japan's tallest skyscrapers, measuring 114 meters (375 feet) in height. It was constructed in 1989, and includes 39 stories of office space and restaurants. The building was planned as a part of the redevelopment of Kyohdodori, a major road in Kyoto.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Photo of Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera: en.wikipedia.org

The Temple of Kiyomizu-dera is a popular temple for visitors to Kyoto. The highlights of the temple are the Kondo (main hall) with its elaborate wood carvings; the Gyoen, with its tranquil forest garden; and Kiyomizu Temple, the oldest temple on the grounds. It's probably the best place to observe cherry blossoms and see the picturesque Zen Garden, which features giant Japanese camellia bushes planted in patterns that resemble famous works of art. The entrance to the Temple is free but visitors must provide their own transport to get to the site.

Shingon-ji Temple

Photo of Tō-ji
Tō-ji: en.wikipedia.org

The Shinto-style Buddhist Shingon temple Shingon-ji dates back to the 11th century and is the last active temple of the influential school of Zen Buddhism. Its most famous feature is the Bodhi Tree, reputed to have been under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The temple is covered in creepers, with small paths leading to several temples and a Shinto shrine. Shingon-ji is most famous as the setting for Tōshō Daishi's death in 835. Today, the statue of the monk sits in front of the main building. The main sanctuary has pictures and scrolls, one of which was donated by the former Emperor Hirohito.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Photo of Fushimi Inari-taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha: en.wikipedia.org

Fushimi Inari-taisha, built in the 9th century and one of Japan's most famous Shinto shrines, is the original source of Japanese Inari, an abundance of foxes and boar that is cultivated throughout Japan, including at this shrine. Its grounds, which include hundreds of stone foxes and giant torii (gates), are popular with the city's shrine-goers on Japanese holidays such as Bun-sum and Ushinawa. The Inari are normally kept behind the main hall and are easily accessible.

Shugakuin Imperial Villa

Photo of Shugakuin Imperial Villa
Shugakuin Imperial Villa: en.wikipedia.org

Located within the grounds of the former Shugakuin Imperial Villa in Kyoto's Ujiyamada district, the palace once belonged to the Morimoto family, which was a leading clan in Japan's uji (temple) system in the early Muromachi Period (1336-1573). Today the magnificent facility is the site of a major exhibition of Japanese ceramics, presented on rotating four- to six-month cycles. The sprawling garden is beautifully arranged and filled with plants and flowers that thrive in the humid Kyoto climate, such as kumquats, zelkova trees and bonsai, some of which are more than 500 years old. The highlight of a visit here is the Shinko-en Pavilion, whose simple elegance is a symbol of the way in which Kyoto and Japan have long admired nature.

Bamboo Grove

Photo of Bamboo Forest (Kyoto, Japan)
Bamboo Forest (Kyoto, Japan): en.wikipedia.org

A special treat for the many travelers to Japan's capital is the Bamboo Grove in the suburbs of Kyoto, which has bamboo trees literally all over the place. Located about 40 minutes from central Kyoto, this relatively new National Natural Monument can be reached from Kyoto Station via the Keihan line. From Keihan line Kyoto Station (departure platform: No. 25) and walk north for one block, then west for about 60 meters to the visitor's center. Those seeking an easy day trip can go directly to the park by taking the Keihan line to Shimo-anjō and then walking approximately 20 minutes through forest to the grove. There are train or taxi services to the site.

Byodo-in Temple

Photo of Byōdō-in
Byōdō-in: en.wikipedia.org

In Buddhist Japan the homes of great Buddhist masters are enshrined within their buildings. Some monks' halls have been converted into temples, such as the Byodo-in Temple in Kyoto, Japan, built in 1433. The temple's shrine (as it is called in Japan) houses the remains of the 14th century Zen Buddhist monk Dōgen, a great formulator of Buddhism's fundamental concepts, and whose vision and teaching of a spiritual reality transcending conventional language and concepts of reason remains a source of inspiration for millions of followers.

Horyu-ji Temple

Photo of Hōryū-ji
Hōryū-ji: en.wikipedia.org

Founded in 652, Horyu-ji is one of the oldest Zen temples in the world. Renowned for its statuary, most of which is made of gold, Horyu-ji attracts people from around the world to its annual gold festival in October, which features dazzling displays of gold sculpting, colorful costuming, and sword dancing, as well as dancing, singing, music, and storytelling during a number of other festivals throughout the year. Located along a 300-year-old, original street, the temple is particularly accessible to visitors. Located just three kilometers north of central Kyoto, the grounds offer numerous viewing points and access to the temple itself.

Yasaka-jinja Shrine

Photo of Yasaka Shrine
Yasaka Shrine: en.wikipedia.org

Originally named Honden, the Shinto shrine's main sanctuary dates back to AD 888, and a processional path lined with shops and other structures leads to this imposing landmark. Next to the shrine's golden halls is the Imadegawa Seifuku-kan, which has a collection of beautiful bronze ceremonial utensils used in Shinto religious ceremonies. These include the Shinto head priest's cane, Shinto ladles and sieves. It's worth taking a boat tour in the area and looking out over Lake Biwa as well, which is surrounded by Shinto shrines and temples.

San-mon Gate

Photo of Heian-kyō
Heian-kyō: en.wikipedia.org

The ancient San-mon (Shokanmon) was constructed during the Heian period in AD 794 to protect the people of Kyoto from floods and to encourage the peaceful growth of the city. Today it stands in the city's western part and is one of Kyoto's most famous historical monuments. Constructed from wood, with walls that are 15 meters thick, the gate is nearly 20 meters high and more than 590 years old. The city is also home to the beautiful Kamogawa River. The quaint, pretty town of Kameoka is located just 30 minutes away by Shinkansen (bullet train), and Kyoto Tower is a breathtaking 100-meter-tall, 1,685-ton structure in the city center.

Ninomaru Palace

Photo of Nijō Castle
Nijō Castle: en.wikipedia.org

Ninomaru Palace (Ninomaru-tei) in Kyoto dates back to the early 15th century and was the residence of the Yodo-Dokoro family. On the evening of the day visitors enter the house, when their presence is announced by a "secret knock," the family members involved go to the door in separate groups and proceed to bow three times in the visitors' presence. The compound includes a large garden, which is laid out in the form of a butterfly. The garden's design has two contrasting characteristics: a large rock-lined pond (tenjo) surrounded by the two types of bamboo, Kaki (weeping), which has wide leaves and small flowers, and "Kaki no michi," which has narrow leaves and is an evergreen.

Toji Temple

Photo of Tōji-in
Tōji-in: en.wikipedia.org

In the northern part of Kyoto, Toji Temple, the most important temple in Japan for over 500 years, is located. Construction on the temple began in 788 in the Heian period, with major changes and additions throughout history. The temple is home to several deities, among them the kami of Hokke-gū, the oldest Shintō shrine in Japan, where the spirit of the emperor is enshrined. The great hall at the temple is lined with 900 jizō statues, the faithful companion of children and travelers, each costing 100,000 yen (US$2,000) to have one carved. More than 300 of these have been donated over the centuries.