There are many many sites to see in Kyoto. In fact there are over 2,000 temples and shrines in this wonderful city alone and that’s before you look at anything else! So before you even get there you need to realize you are never going to see everything this city has to offer. You would have to live there for a month just to scratch the surface. This, however, doesn’t mean you can’t see a lot of the highlights.
Compared to some of the other cities of Japan, the Kyoto city area is relatively small. While visiting we worked out you can actually see an amazing part of the city on foot, and after exploring the city ourselves we have assembled two Self Guided Walking Tour of Kyoto that will show you many of the highlights. We have separated the city into two sections, the North and the South. The walking tour in this post will look at the southern section of the city (northern section coming soon).
As you read your way through the walking tour we go through some of the history behind places you will see. Rather than inundate you with this history we have put the majority of the information in a hidden text box, so you can just skip those sections if you are just interested in finding out about the walking tour itself. If you want to know more, just click on the down arrow.
To make it simple we have started the walking tour at the main train station in town. This is easily accessible from most hotels in Kyoto, so seemed like a good starting point.
Depending on how you want to get back to your hotel will depend on how far you need to walk. If you are happy to take a taxi at the end of the walking tour you will walk from Stop 1 to 7 on the map below (6.3 km / 4 miles, plus walking around at each location). If you wish to get back to the subway it will involve walking back to Stop 8 (an additional 1.7 km / 1.1 miles). The walk from Stop 7 to 8 does have a few small temples and shrines to look at, but is a long walk.
While walking keep your eyes out for a lot of little shrines and temples, as you will find them on what seems like every corner. These smaller ones, while not as spectacular as the ones we have marked, do have a great authenticity about them.
1 – Kyoto Station Building
A great place to start. Being the second largest train station in Japan you could easily spend plenty of time here. With a shopping mall, movie theater, department store and a heap of shops you could spend all your hard earned yen before you even begin to explore the city. However it’s probably not a good idea to be carrying all those bags if you are planning on completing this walking tour! You can complete the walking tour as a full circle (if you catch the subway back to the train station), so maybe finish up your trip with some time walking around buying some bits and pieces to take back home.
While the station is almost 250 years old, the building itself looks very modern for the city of Kyoto, and feel more like a building you would find in Tokyo than here. The modern appearance comes from its expansion back in the mid 1990s.
As the station is quite big, make sure you exit the building to the north. You don’t want to get the walking tour off to a bad start!
For the history of the Kyoto Station click the down arrow
The first Kyōto Station opened for service by decree of Emperor Meiji on February 5, 1877.
In 1889, the railway became a part of the trunk line to Tokyo (Tōkaidō Main Line). Subsequently the station became the terminal of two private railways, Nara Railway (1895, present-day Nara Line) and Kyoto Railway (1897, present-day Sagano Line), that connected the station with southern and northern regions of Kyoto Prefecture, respectively.
The station was replaced by a newer, Renaissance-inspired facility in 1914, which featured a broad square (the site of demolished first station) leading from the station to Shichijō Avenue. Before and during World War II, the square was often used by imperial motorcades when Emperor Showa traveled between Kyoto and Tokyo. The station was spacious and designed to handle a large number of people, but when a few thousand people gathered to bid farewell to naval recruits on January 8, 1934, 77 people were crushed to death. This station burned to the ground in 1950 and was replaced by a more utilitarian concrete facility in 1952.
The current Kyōto Station opened in 1997, commemorating Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary. It is 70 meters high and 470 meters from east to west, with a total floor area of 238,000 square meters. Architecturally, it exhibits many characteristics of futurism, with a slightly irregular cubic façade of plate glass over a steel frame. The architect was Hiroshi Hara.
Kyoto, one of the least modern cities in Japan by virtue of its many cultural heritage sites, was largely reluctant to accept such an ambitious structure in the mid-1990s: The station’s completion began a wave of new high-rise developments in the city that culminated in the 20-story Kyocera Building. Hence some criticize the station’s design for taking part in breaking down the traditional cityscape.
2 – Nishi Honganji
Our first stop is a 2 in 1. Not bad! Two properties sit next to each other and house spectacular worship sites, with the highlight being the Nishi Honganji. Nishi Honganji is the west of the two temple complexes of Jōdo Shinshū (Stop 3 is the east temple). You are free to roam the majority of the grounds, just make sure you remove your shoes before entering the buildings and of course be respectful of the temples by not eating or speaking loud with being in them (these rules will apply to all the temples on this walk).
Also of special note is the entrance, or Karamon gate. It is very impressive, with the gates construction dating back decades before the temples where built themselves.
There is a small temple located to the south of the main complex (the second part of the 2 in 1). Well worth a look as you pass by.
For the history of Nishi Honganji click the down arrow
Nishi Hongan-ji (西本願寺 Nishi Hongan-ji?) “Western Temple of the Original Vow” is one of two temple complexes of Jōdo Shinshū in Kyoto, Japan, the other being Higashi Hongan-ji, or “Eastern Temple of the Original Vow”. Jōdo Shinshū is a school of Pure Land Buddhism, and today Nishi Hongan-ji serves as the head temple of the Jōdo Shinshū organization.
Nishi Honganji was established in 1602 by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu split the main Honganji in Kyoto into two temples, Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji, in order to diminish the power of the Jōdo sect. Nishi Hongan-ji is listed as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3 – Higashi Honganji
The east of the two temple complexes of Jōdo Shinshū is just as spectacular. While we were there, there was some construction on one of the main buildings, but that didn’t take away from the other buildings on site.
For the history of Higashi Honganji click the down arrow
Higashi Honganji was established in 1602 by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu when he split the Shin sect in two (Nishi Honganji being the other) in order to diminish its power.
During the Twentieth Century it was troubled by political disagreements, financial scandals and family disputes, and has subsequently fractured into a number of further sub-divisions. The largest Higashi Honganji grouping, the Shinshu Otaniha has approximately 5.5 million members, according to statistics. However within this climate of instability the Higashi Honganji also produced a significant number of extremely influential thinkers, such as Soga Ryojin, Kiyozawa Manshi, Kaneko Daiei and Haya Akegarasu amongst others.
Some of the buildings were burned down and had to be rebuilt late in the 1800s.
4 – Gardens (optional)
We found this park while walking around. It’s a beautiful quiet place to take a rest as you are making your way to the next stop if you wish. It has a small lake with a beautiful bridge and cherry blossoms if you are there at the right time of year.
5 – Rengeoin Sanjusangendo
This temple ground is also known as the Hall of the Lotus King. It is probably most known for being home to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, who is surrounded by 1000 life-sized Kannons covered in gold leaf. Within the grounds are some beautiful little lakes with coy fish.
For the history of Rengeoin Sanjusangendo click the down arrow
Taira no Kiyomori completed the temple under order of Emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1164.
In January, the temple has an event known as the Rite of the Willow, where worshipers are touched on the head with a sacred willow branch to cure and prevent headaches. A popular archery tournament known as the Tōshiya is also held here on the same grounds since the Edo period. The duel between the famous warrior Miyamoto Musashi and Yoshioka Denshichirō, leader of the Yoshioka-ryū, is popularly believed to have been fought just outside Sanjūsangen-dō in 1604.
The main deity of the temple is Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara or the Thousand Armed Kannon. The statue of the main deity was created by the Kamakura sculptor Tankei and is a National Treasure of Japan. The temple also contains one thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon which stand on both the right and left sides of the main statue in 10 rows and 50 columns. Of these, 124 statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 statues were constructed in the 13th century. The statues are made of Japanese cypress. Around the 1000 Kannon statues stand 28 statues of guardian deities. There are also two famous statues of Fūjin and Raijin.
6 – Toyokuni Shrine
This stop is a shrine (and tomb) of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who died September 18, 1598 in Kyoto. It’s will only be a quick stop, but it is great to see how a city can respect someone who has passed away.
For the history of Toyokuni Shrine click the down arrow
Nobles, priests, warriors, and townspeople gathered at the shrine to celebrate the anniversary of Hideyoshi’s apotheosis with banquets, musical recitals, and boisterous festivity. The shrine was closed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in June 1615 “to discourage these unseemly displays of loyalty to a man he had eclipsed.”
The Meiji Emperor directed that the shrine be restored in Keiō 4, the 6th day of the 6th month (April 28, 1868). At that time, the shrine area was expanded slightly by encompassing a small parcel of land which had been part of the adjacent Hōkō-ji.
7 – Kiyomizu-dera Temple
This is the highlight of all the places we visited in the southern end of Kyoto. There is plenty to see at the bottom of the hill, but you need to make your way up to the top if you want to see the best part of the grounds. On a clear day, you will also get a spectacular view across Kyoto. People amazingly use to jump from this structure (about 13 meters high) as the belief was for those who survived the jump their wish would be granted (maybe they wished they hadn’t jumped!).
As well as the temple there are several shrines on site. One of the more interesting ones is the Jishu Shrine. It involves a pair of “love stones” placed 20 feet apart, which you can try to walk between with your eyes closed. It is believed success in reaching the other stone with their eyes closed implies that you will find love, or true love.
For the history of Kiyomizu-dera Temple click the down arrow
Kiyomizu-dera was founded in the early Heian period. The temple was founded in 798, and its present buildings were constructed in 1633, ordered by the Tokugawa Iemitsu. There is not a single nail used in the entire structure. It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. Kiyomizu means clear water, or pure water.
It was originally affiliated with the old and influential Hossō sect dating from Nara times. However, in 1965 it severed that affiliation, and its present custodians call themselves members of the “Kitahossō” sect.
8 – Getting home
As mentioned above if you are happy to jump in a taxi, do so after the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. After this walking tour you will probably feel that is the best way to get home as you will probably be a little tired. If however you want to get to the subway system then proceed to Stop 8 (Yobai Dori Station). If you are looking for the train system then about half way between Stop 7 and 8 (just before the river) you will find Kiyomizu Gojo Station.
After completing this Self Guided Walking Tour of Kyoto, I hope you enjoyed this area of Kyoto as much as we did. Part 2 (the northern section of Kyoto) will be published soon.
What was your favorite place to see in Kyoto?