Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is historically noteworthy as the country’s capital for a thousand years and Japan’s largest city until the 16th century. It also offers visitors 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This travel guide shows those you can enjoy in a single day.

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1 Kyoto Tower in Kyoto, Japan

Someday if you are standing beneath the Kyoto Tower for the first time, then you probably just arrived by train to this city of 1.5 million people in the heart of Japan on Honshu Island. The name means “capital city.” It was the seat of the country’s imperial government from 794 until 1869. Consider this tower as the epicenter for 17 UNESCO World Heritage Site Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Some are within walking distance and can be seen from this 328 foot observation deck. The two most famous temples – Golden Pavilion and Fushimi Inari Taisha – are reachable by bus, train or an expensive taxi ride. Others are in the adjoining cities of Uji and Otsu.

Kitsuya-bashi Dori & Karasuma Dori, Kyoto Japan 600-8216
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2 Shakyo at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan

Without question, the most popular site for tourists while visiting Kyoto – and among the best in Japan – is Kinkaku-ji. The grounds date back to the Kamakura period (1185 – 1332) and became a Zen temple in 1422. This building at the entrance (Chumon Gate) is labeled Shakyo. This is a Buddhist practice of reflection resulting in inner peace as the body and mind are harmonized.

1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, Japan
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3 Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan

During the 14th century, nobleman Saionji Kintsune built the Kitayama-dai villa here. In 1397, it was acquired and expanded by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. He called his lavish retirement estate Kitayama-den Palace. During the 15th century, his son, Yoshimochi, converted the elegant property into Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple). More commonly, this national treasure is referred to as Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion Temple. The surrounding lake is aptly named Kyoko-chi meaning Mirror Pond. Dotting the reflective water are ten islets. The results: absolutely stunning!

1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, Japan
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4 Phoenix Atop Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan

In Japanese mythology since the mid-6th century, the Phoenix is called Hō-ō. The sunbird brings goodwill as it descends from the heavens and is typically shown sitting on top of a torii (gateway) to a Shinto shrine. This ornament is made of bronze and adorns the roof of the Golden Pavilion Temple. It is symbolic of an imperial household.

1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, Japan
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5 Golden Pavilion Side View at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan

The Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji represents different architectural styles: shinden on the first floor, samurai, and zen on the third level. The temple’s gold leaf protected with lacquer is radiant in the sunshine. Inside are Buddha relics qualifying it as a shariden. The original of this magnificent structure was destroyed by arson in 1950 at the hands of Hayashi Yoken, a mentally ill monk. This replica was built in 1955. The Golden Pavilion is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, Japan
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6 White Snake Pagoda at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan

Encircling the Golden Pavilion is a footpath through a garden. In Japanese, the style is referred to as kaiyū-shiki-teien. The manicured greenspace features mature trees, a small waterfall, temple buildings and the White Snake Pagoda centered on an islet and surrounded by the pond of An-min-taku. The trail ends at the Sekkatei Teahouse. As you stroll along, you can imagine how tranquil this setting was before invaded by tourists.

1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, Japan
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7 Main Gate at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

Fushimi Inari Taisha was established in 711 at Mount Inari as the first shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Today, Japan has over 30,000 shrines honoring Inari. This one in Kyoto is still considered the primary one. Your excitement will build as you approach the entrance and see the first magnificent building in the background: Rōmon. According to legend, Japanese lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi commissioned the Tower Gate in 1589 after his prayers to Inari Ōkamito were answered to cure his ailing mother. This structure is also known as Sakura-mon meaning Plum Blossom Gate.

Japan, 〒612-0882 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Fushimi Ward, Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
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8 Main Hall at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

The Main Hall at Fushimi Inari Taisha is Gai-Haiden. It contains the relics of five deities including the shrine’s namesake, Inari. This religious structure was destroyed by fire in 1468 during the Onin Rebellion. Its Uchikoshi Nagare-zukuri design was then meticulously rebuilt by the end of the 15th century.

Japan, 〒612-0882 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Fushimi Ward, Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
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9 Legend of Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

According to legend and documented in Yamashirokoku Fudoki, Irogu no Hatanokimi was practicing his archery in the early 8th century by shooting at rice cakes. One of them transformed into a swan and flew to the mountaintop. The landing spot then miraculously became an abundant rice field. The miracle was called Inari and the location enshrined to the god of rice.

Japan, 〒612-0882 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Fushimi Ward, Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
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10 Senbon Torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

The most visually fascinating feature of Fushimi Inari Taisha is Senbon Torii, meaning thousands of gates. Estimates vary, but there are over 10,000 of these bright vermillion gates lined side-by-side winding to the top of Mount Inari. Worshippers and businesses have donated them to the shrine since the Edo period beginning in 1603. These gifts are accompanied by a substantial money contribution to the shrine.

Japan, 〒612-0882 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Fushimi Ward, Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
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11 Walking Inside Senbon Torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

People are mesmerized while walking through the virtual tunnels of Senbon Torii. The surreal pathway stretches for about 2.5 miles and requires over two hours to reach the top at 765 feet. A parallel walkway of gates is used for the return trip. Each gate is inscribed with a message from the donor. Be prepared to feel the push and shove from other tourists. But the average day’s crowd pales in comparison to the early January celebrations – especially Saitan-sai on January 1 – when thousands of worshippers come to pray.

Japan, 〒612-0882 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Fushimi Ward, Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
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12 Stone Lanterns at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

All of the people inside the Senbon Torii can make you feel a bit claustrophobic. The trails in the surrounding forest are just the opposite. Among the mature trees and bamboo stands are thousands of small shrines. So consider exiting the Senbon Torii at the Yotsutsuji Intersection after about a 45 minute walk and then enjoying a tranquil descent. Shinto shrines began using tōrō lanterns during the Helan period (794-1185). The stone versions used in gardens are called dai-dōrō or ishi-dōrō.

Japan, 〒612-0882 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Fushimi Ward, Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
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13 Fox Holding Key at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Japan

There are numerous fox sculptures at Fushimi Inari Taisha because the shrine is dedicated to the Japanese deity (kami) Inari and the fox is considered to be his messenger. Inari’s foxes (kitsune) are patrons of several things, including tea, agriculture/harvest, industry and prosperity. This fox holds the key to a rice granary in its mouth. The animal was first worshipped at this shrine in the early 8th century.

Japan, 〒612-0882 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Fushimi Ward, Fukakusa Yabunouchicho
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14 Sanmon Gate at Koshoji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

Shinran was a 13th century Buddhist monk. Although he was defrocked before dying at 89 in 1263, his association with Hōnen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, led to doctrines that established the Koshoji Temple. Since 1876, it has been the head temple of the Kosho sect of Jodo Shin Buddhism. Sanmon Gate is the entry. Although Koshoji Temple shares a moat with the adjoining Hongwanji Temple, they are not affiliated.

Japan, 〒600-8261 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Shimogyo Ward
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15 Temizuya at Koshoji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

In the foreground is the temizuya at Koshoji Temple. This type of water purification basin is a prominent and important feature within a Shinto shrine. Before a worshipper is permitted to enter the haiden (main prayer hall), they must first perform the cleansing ritual. This is done with a single cup of water from the hishaku dipper to wash the right then the left hand followed by the mouth.

Japan, 〒600-8261 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Shimogyo Ward
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16 Goeido Gate at Nishi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

Goeido-mon is the primary entrance to Nishi Honganji (alternatively Nishi Hongwanji). The temple is referred to as Western Honganji because it is one of two Honganji temples in Kyoto. The religious property is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and designated as an Important Cultural Properties of Japan. The pedestal lantern in the foreground is called tatchidōrō. Notice the delicate carvings of dragons at the base of the fire box (hibukuro).

Japan, 〒600-8501 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Shimogyō-ku, Monzenchō
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17 Goeido Gate Lantern at Nishi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

This lantern hanging from Goeido Gate, the main entrance to Nishi Honganji Temple, is called a tsuri-dōrō. Its shape represents the elements of Buddhist cosmology: earth, water, fire, wind and void (or heaven). In Japanese, they are called chi, sui, ka, fū and kū.

Japan, 〒600-8501 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Shimogyō-ku, Monzenchō
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18 Founder’s Hall at Nishi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

Goeido is one of two large wooden structures in the center of Nishi Honganji Temple. The Founder’s Hall is dedicated to Shinran Shonin, the Buddhist monk who established the Jodo-Shin sect in the mid-13th century. 47 years after his death in 1263, his grandson Kakue created a temple around the Shinran’s mausoleum and named it Hongwanji. This means the Temple of the Primal Vow. The original structure was destroyed by warfare in 1336. After moving several times, this location was created in 1591. Nishi Hongwanji was ravished by an earthquake five years later and then a fire in 1617. This version of the Goeido was built in 1636. Founder’s Hall is designated as a National Treasure of Japan.

Japan, 〒600-8501 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Shimogyō-ku, Monzenchō
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19 Amidado Altar at Nishi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

This altar is inside Amida Hall, the primary place of worship (hondō) at Nishi Honganji Temple. It is dedicated to Amida Buddha. The name Amitābha means “Infinite Light.” According to the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism professed by Hōnen during his life (1133-1212), anyone who believes in Amida and calls his name will be reborn. The Hall of Amida Buddha was constructed in 1760.

Japan, 〒600-8501 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Shimogyō-ku, Monzenchō
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20 Dendo-in in Kyoto, Japan

This hexagonal brick building with a mosque-like dome was built for the Shinshu Shinto Life Insurance Company in 1912. It was designed by Ito Chuta. He was one of the leading Japanese architects of the 20th century. The entrance is flanked by stone, mythological creatures called cryptids. Since 1973, the Honganji Dendo-in building has been a research center for the Nishi Hongwanji Temple. The unique structure is a Kyoto City Designated Cultural Asset.

196 Tamamotochō, Shimogyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 600-8346, Japan
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21 Amida Hall Gate at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

At the end of the 16th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu led a campaign to seize power. When he was appointed shogun (military leader) of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, he took several steps to solidify his strength. Among those actions was to split the Shin sect. This resulted in two Shin Buddhism temples in Kyoto: the original Nishi Honganji Temple founded in 1591 and this one a few blocks away called Higashi Honganji. Their sect is called Shinshu Otani-ha. This is the Amida Hall Gate, an entrance into the Eastern Temple of the Original Vow. It was built in 1895.

Karasuma Shichi-jō Agaru, Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto 600-8505, Japan
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22 Amida and Founder’s Hall at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

At the center of the Higashi Honganji Temple are the Amida Hall on the left and the Founder’s Hall on the right. Amida-dō houses an image of Amida Buddha, Prince Shōtoku (the founder of Japanese Buddhism) plus the seven patriarchs of Pure Land Buddhism. Enshrined on the altar of Goei-dō is Shinran Shonin. He was a 13th century monk who founded Jōdo Shinshū. Together, these two wooden structures connected by a corridor stretch an incredible 420 feet. Both buildings date from 1895 after their predecessors were destroyed by fire in 1864.

Karasuma Shichi-jō Agaru, Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto 600-8505, Japan
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23 Dragon Sculpture at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

The Japanese dragon is a common visual at Buddhist temples. Adopted from Chinese mythology, the nihon no ryū is associated with water and are sometimes worshipped as a kami or spirit. From the mouth of this dragon sculpture flows water for the temizuya, the purification basin at the Higashi Honganji temple.

Karasuma Shichi-jō Agaru, Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto 600-8505, Japan
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24 Founder’s Hall Gate at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto, Japan

The most elaborate entry into the 23 acre Higashi Honganji is the Founder’s Hall Gate. The two-level, 92 foot gate was built in 1911. Inside are the images of the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni), his primary disciple (Ananda), and the future Buddha (Bodhisattva Maitreya). On top of the wooden structure are the words Shinshū Honbyō. This is the formal name of the Higashi Honganji Temple.

Karasuma Shichi-jō Agaru, Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto 600-8505, Japan
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