For many travelers, Kyoto represents the highlight of a trip to Japan, thanks to its rich history and beautiful architecture. Whether you have one day or one week in Kyoto, don’t miss these city highlights.
Built in 1603, Kyoto’s Nijo Castle epitomizes Momoyama architecture with its elaborate screens, Japanese cypress floorboards and intricate wood carvings. While this UNESCO World Heritage Site is much more ornate than many of Japan’s other castles, the builders took defense seriously. Moats, secret passageways, thick walls and “nightingale” floors that squeak when walked on were all incorporated to help protect the Shogun from intruders.
If you only have time for one temple while in Kyoto, make it the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji. Originally built in the 1390s, the three-level structure known as the Golden Pavilion has become a symbol of Kyoto. When the sun is shining, the gold leaf covering the entire exterior surface of the structure literally sparkles, but it’s an impressive sight rain or shine.
Kyoto’s Heian Shrine was built in 1895 in celebration of the city’s 1,100 year anniversary, and it remains one of the most beautiful in the region. Fashioned after the Imperial Palace, this Jinja shrine also houses an extensive garden, complete with a pond and Chinese-style footbridge, as well as an iconic orange torii, or shrine gate.
If there’s one thing Kyoto is famous for besides temples, it’s geisha, and the best place to spot one is in the historic Gion district. The neighborhood -- one of the only remaining geisha districts in all of Japan -- is lined with old wooden tea houses, many of which now house boutiques, restaurants and a few guesthouses. The daily performance at Gion Corner is the best place for foreign tourists to experience this fascinating bit of Japanese culture.
Ryoan-Ji Rock Garden
Located on the grounds of Ryoan-ji Temple, you’ll find a mysterious dry rock garden with fifteen rocks scattered across a white gravel bed. Experts aren’t sure what the rocks represent or why the garden was built, but they all agree that it’s one of the best examples of Zen Buddhist landscaping in Japan.