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Kyōto 京都

Geishas in Gion, Kyōto (© rudiuk - Fotolia.com)
Three maiko walking in the streets of Gion, Kyōto

If there is one place where history resides more than anywhere else in Japan, it is in Kyōto (pop. 1,465,000). Capital of Japan from 794 to 1867, Kyōto totalizes no less than 17 sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, 24 museums and 37 universities and has hundreds more of temples and shrines.


Kyōto was laid out following a grid plan copied on the Chinese Tang capital of Chang'an (Xi'an). It is fairly easy to navigate between the perpendicular streets, as main avenues running from east to west are numbered from 1 to 10, the main thoroughfares being : Sanjō-dōri (3rd Ave), Shijō-dōri (4th Ave), Gojō-dōri (5th Ave) and Shichijō-dōri (7th Ave).

The main avenues running on a north-south axis are (from west to east) : Ōmiya-dōri, Horikawa-dōri, Karasuma-dōri, Kawaramachi-dōri and Higashiyama-dōri. Try to remember them as bus stops and train stations are usually named after avenues or junctions names.

Tea ceremony, Kyoto
Tea ceremony
Gion Matsuri, Kyoto
Gion Festival, Kyōto

Shopping streets with izakaya restaurants and departments stores are concentrated along the Sanjō-dōri, Shijō-dōri, Karasuma-dōri and Kawaramachi-dōri.

Kyōto is one of the rare cities (with Nara) which was spared the US carpet bombing during WWII in order to preserve the cultural heritage. But as visitors first set eyes on the city, the impression is one of chaotic concrete jumble. Postwar Japanese officials did not hesiate to tear down most of the traditional wooden houses in the name of modernity, leaving only temples, shrines and a few traditional districts (like Gion) standing.

As a result, tourist attractions are almost all confined to the outskirt of Kyoto, in areas like the Higashiyama to the east, Arashiyama to the west, as well as most of the north and a few sites along the JR Nara line to the south.

Zen Garden, Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto
Zen Garden, Ginkaku-ji Temple
Geishas in the streets of Gion, Kyoto
Maiko in the streets of Gion
Five-storied pagoda at night, Kyoto
Five-storied pagoda at night

A little trivia...
  • Kyōto's oldest shrines are the Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines.
  • Kyōto's oldest temple is the Kōryūji.
  • Kyōto's oldest surviving building is the five-storied pagoda at the Daigo-ji Temple
  • Japan's most important Rinzai Zen temple is the Nanzenji.
  • Japan's highest pagoda is the one at Tō-ji Temple.
  • Japan's tallest temple gate is the Sanmon at Chion-in, closely followed by those of Nanzenji and Higashi Honganji.
  • The Goei-dō Hall of Higashi Honganji is one of the largest wooden structure in the world.
  • The 800-year-old Chōjū-giga scrolls from Kōzanji are considered to be Japan's first manga.

List of attractions by area

Attractions in Northern Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji Temple
Kinkaku-ji Temple
must-see The "Golden Pavilion" is one of Kyoto's best-known attractions, and has been listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1994. Kinkaku-ji was originally built in 1397 as a villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu...Read more
Ryōan-ji Temple
Ryōan-ji Temple
outstanding Ryoan-ji is a Zen temple belonging to Myoshin-ji school of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Its dry landscape garden is one of the most famous in Japan and attracts hundreds of visitors daily. Originally a Fujiwara estate, the site...Read more
Enryaku-ji Temple
Enryaku-ji Temple
outstanding Dominating the upper reaches of Mount Hiei-zan (848m), the Enryaku-ji is an important monastery and the head temple of the Tendai school of Buddhism. It is divided in two main compounds: the Tō-tō (Eastern Pagoda) and...Read more
Nanzen-ji Temple
Nanzen-ji Temple
must-see Nanzen-ji (lit. "Southern Zen Temple") is the head temple of the Nanzenji school of Rinzai Zen Buddhism and is the presiding temples of the Kyōto Gozan (京都五山), the "Five Great Zen Temples of Kyōto"...Read more
Gion District
Geisha in Gion
very good Gion is Japan's prime geisha district and consequently also Kyōto's most famous (and best preserved) traditional neighbourhood. Gion originally developed as a place to accommodate the needs of travellers and visitors to the nearby...Read more
Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Kiyomizu-dera Temple
must-see Kiyomizu-dera (literally "Pure Water Temple") is well-known landmark of Kyōto and one of the most popular temples for visitors in Japan. The temple's beauty is best appreciated during the cherry-blossom and autumn foliage seasons....Read more
Heian Shrine
Heian-jingū Shrine
very good Heian-jingū is a three-fourth scale reconstitution of the Heian-period Imperial Palace. It was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyōto. It is dedicated to Emperor Kammu (737-806)...Read more
Ginkaku-ji Temple
Enryaku-ji Temple
outstanding Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, lying at the foot of Kyōto's Higashiyama, is the more common name for the Tōzan Jishō-ji Temple (東山慈照寺). In 1460, shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa ordered the construction of a retirement villa...Read more
Chion-in Temple
Chion-in Temple
very good Chion-in is the Grand Head Temple atop 7 other head temples of the popular Jōdō ("Pure Land") sect of Buddhism, making it one of the most important spritual places in Japan. The temple was established in 1234 on the site where Hōnen...Read more
Nijō Castle
Nijō-jō Castle
outstanding Nijō-jō Castle was built in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu who intended it as his official residence in Kyōto. His grandson Iemitsu added some structure from Fushimi-jō Castle in 1623. Its ostentatious Momoyama style was meant...Read more
Tō-ji Temple
Tō-ji Temple
outstanding Tōji is one of the 13 temples in Kyōto on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Its iconic five-tiered pagoda rises to 54.8 metres, making it the tallest wooden tower in Japan. It has withstood well the test of time since it was last built in 1643...Read more
Imperial Palace
Imperial Palace
outstanding The Gosho Imperial Palace was the home of the Emperors of Japan from 794, when Heian-kyō (Kyōto) replaced Nara as capital, to 1868, when to capital was moved to Tōkyō. The Kyōto Imperial Palace is enclosed by an earthen...Read more
Katsura-rikyū Imperial Villa
Katsura-rikyū Imperial Villa
outstanding The Katsura Imperial Villa (also known as Katsura Detached Palace) is one of the finest examples of non-religious Edo-era architecture in Kyōto. The palace, old and middle shoin (drawing rooms)...Read more
Tenryū-ji Temple
Tenryū-ji Temple
outstanding Nestled on a slope of Kyōto's Arashiyama district, Tenryū-ji (literally "celestial dragon temple") is listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is the head temple of the Tenryū-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism...Read more
Saihō-ji Temple
Saihō-ji Temple
outstanding Saihō-ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple well-known for its moss garden. It is commonly referred to as "Koke-dera" (苔寺 ; "moss temple"). It is one of the 13 Buddhist temples in Kyōto listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list...Read more
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
outstanding Located about 2km south-east of Kyōto station, Fushimi Inari Taisha is without doubt the largest and most impressive Inari shrine in Japan. It was founded in the 8th century by the Hata family and is the head shrine of no less...Read more
Tōfuku-ji Temple
Tōfuku-ji Temple
outstanding Tōfuku-ji is the head temple of the Tōfukuji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. It was founded in 1236 by priest Enni on the instructions of statesman Kujo Michiie. The temple's name is an association of Nara's two main...Read more
Daigo-ji Temple
Saihō-ji Temple
outstanding The UNESCO World Heritage Daigo-ji Temple is a vast Shingon Buddhist complex in south-eastern Kyōto. Six of its buildings were designated National Treasures of Japan, including the Kon-dō (金堂 ; Main Hall), the Sanbō-in...Read more

More attractions in Southern Kyoto

Interactive sightseeing map of Kyoto

Show Attractions in Kyoto on a larger map

How to get there

Kyōto is on the main shinkansen (bullet train) line, which makes it easily reachable from Tokyo (2h30min to 3h, ¥13,720). Kyōto is just a short train ride away from Osaka (15min by shinkansen or 30min by regular train, respectively ¥3,130 and ¥540), Nara (40min, ¥610) or Nagoya (35min by shinkansen, ¥5,840).

The nearest airports are Osaka Itami (55min by bus, ¥1,280) and Kansai International Airport (1h15min, ¥1,830). Both have flights to the major destinations within Japan and overseas.

Wa-pedia's Rating System

Cities, towns, villages & historic buildings

good : moderately interesting - nice for a quick stop
very good : recommended - to visit if you have time
outstanding : outstanding place - really deserves to be seen
must-see : best of the country - shouldn't be missed
best in Europe : one of the world's great cities (beyond rating)

Natural attractions

good : interesting
very good : recommended
outstanding : highly recommended
must-see : world-class
※ : UNESCO World Heritage site UNESCO

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