Kyoto City Guide

Teahouses, temples, cherry blossom and torii gates; Kyoto brings the Japan of your imagination to life. A cradle of culture and heritage, this ancient city is the spiritual heart of Japan and showcases many of its best-loved customs and traditions – from mysterious geisha to unique cuisine, passed down through the generations.

Unlike the gleaming metropolises of Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, Kyoto has retained a feeling of old Japan like no other. The city boasts over 1,500 shrines and templesxvii, from the magnificent Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shinto shrine to the gold-plated Kinkaku-ji, and the colourful Gion District is home to some of the most beautiful and historic streets in all of Asia – each lined with exquisite machiya townhouses that will prompt you to raise your camera. 
Wonderful architecture, exquisite food and layer upon layer of rich cultural traditions; Kyoto has it all. If you’re fascinated by Japan’s unique culture and have long dreamt of visiting the land of the rising sun, our in-depth Kyoto guide introduces one of the unmissable highlights of this fascinating, extraordinary country.

Architectural highlights

Unwavering in its commitment to retaining a sense of old Japan, Kyoto is home to some of Japan’s oldest and most beautiful architecture, as well as a vast concentration of temples, shrines and pagodas. Here, we introduce some of the city’s man-made wonders you won’t want to miss.

Ginkaku-ji

kyoto ginkaku ji

Built by shogun (the military dictator of Japan between 1185 and 1868) Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the late 15th century, Ginkaku-ji was converted into a Zen temple upon his death and remains so today. Yoshimasa built Ginkaku-ji as a retirement villa, but his love of art meant that the building took on a new role as a cultural centre, with flower arranging, theatre performances, poetry readings, garden design and ceremonies taking place throughout the grounds. Today, this cultural focus remains, and a walk around the Silver Pavilion and down the Philosopher’s Path will reveal traces of the building’s artistic and horticultural past – from its distinctive moss garden to its ornate exterior architecture.

See the gleaming Kinkaku-ji on our momentous Treasures of Japan tour.

Nijo Caslte

Nijo Castle Kyoto

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, Nijo Castle is one of the great architectural monuments of Japan’s Edo Period. The former residence of Tokugawa leyasu, who established the powerful Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan from 1603-1867, Nijo was later completed by the shogun’s grandson, who significantly expanded and fortified the castle. The site is divided into three distinct areas: the Honmaru, the innermost part of the castle; the Ninomaru, serving as a second circle of defence; and a series of gardens that wrap around the outside, protected by a large stone wall. Perfectly preserved since the 18th century, the castle offers profound insight into the power and might of Japan’s Edo Period shogunate.

Unearth the shogunate legacy of Nijo Castle on our Japan Unveiled itinerary.

Kinkaku-ji

kinkaku ji kyoto

One of the most dramatic architectural highlights in Kyoto; Kinkaku-ji is a Zen temple with a difference. Built in the early 15th century as the retirement home of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Kinkaku-ji typified the extravagance of the age, and saw much aristocratic revelry during Yoshimitsu’s lifetime. Following his death, the building – like many former residences of the shogun – became a Zen temple. What’s so unique about Kinkaku-ji is the gold leaf gilding which covers both the interior and exterior of its upper floors, making the temple gleam in the sun. As well as its eye-catching architecture, the temple is also home to a beautiful cherry blossom garden.

See the gleaming Kinkaku-ji on our momentous Treasures of Japan tour

Ryōan-ji

Ryoanji Temple Kyoto

Home to one of the most famous rock gardens in Japan, Ryōan-ji is a beautiful Zen temple, which began life as an aristocratic villa in the Heian Period. While the Kuri temple of Ryōan-ji is itself impressive, most visit to see its rock garden. The garden consists of 15 large stones, arranged on ‘islands’ of moss and surrounded by a layer of fine white pebbles, and looked upon by a scattering of vivid pink blossom trees. The effect is wonderfully peaceful and quietening.

Gaze upon Ryōan-ji’s rock garden yourself with our Essential Japan itinerary.

Cultural features

Few cities on Earth boast as rich a well of culture as Kyoto. Art, music, theatre, food; the city is beloved for its traditions, customs and way of life, all of which have been passed down through the ages. Here, we showcase a handful of the city’s notable cultural locations.

Fushimi inari

Fushimi inari Kyoto

This sprawling shrine is arguably Japan’s most spectacular religious site, and easily one of the most memorable heritage destinations in Kyoto. Serving as the ‘head shrine’ of 40,000 other shrines which are scattered across Japan, Fushimi inari is a fundamental part of Japan’s spiritual and religious heritage. Built over several decades, the shrine is most famous for its countless vermillion torii gates, which in themselves stand as an extraordinary visual spectacle. So iconic is the backdrop of Fushimi inari that the site featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha, which is acclaimed for its portrayal of the beauty of old Japan.

The Way of Tea

kyoto tea

The ultimate in Japanese hospitality; the tea ceremony is a time-honoured tradition which dates back centuries, and stems from the historic Zen Buddhist Chadō practice, which translates as ‘the way of tea’. Often taking place over several hours, the ceremony celebrates meticulous preparation and the study of aesthetics, both of which are integral to Japanese culture. The ceremony centres on wellbeing and enjoyment, and is designed to still the mind from everyday distractions – aiding focus and relaxation.

Geisha

Geisha Kyoto

Literally translating as ‘artisan’, geisha are synonymous with Japanese culture, and are particularly prominent in Kyoto. Emerging in the 18th century, geisha are women who dedicate their lives to Japanese culture, art, dance and music, providing entertainment at banquets, concerts, private performances and tea ceremonies. Considered custodians of Japanese culture, their role is to safeguard the customs and traditions of the past, while showcasing their charm and refinement for today’s generation. Clad in the customary kimono and wearing traditional ­maiko make-up, the geisha is an icon of the Far East, and an unmissable cultural highlight on your visit to Kyoto.

Culinary delights

Nowhere on Earth does cuisine quite like Kyoto. Whether you’re looking for Michelin-star gastronomy or authentic street eats, the city delivers local flavour like no other. And with free time to explore Kyoto on several of our Japanese escorted tours, pursuing the city’s finest fare is time well spent.

Sake

sake kyoto

Japan’s celebrated short has a long association with Kyoto, with the city’s Fushimi district being a centre of sake production for centuries. The tree-lined canals of this historic neighbourhood are lined with wooden buildings where sake has been brewed over generations, and most of the city’s brewers use water sourced from Fushimi’s famous springs. Fushimi’s water is said to have a soft, mellow quality that makes it ideal for sake production, and local brews are often paired with homegrown Kyoto cuisine to create the perfect flavour pairing.

 

Where to try

Sample traditional Fushimi sake

Gekkeikan Okura Museum

Scenic Freechoice gives you the option to sample traditional Fushimi sake at the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, which, as well as serving as a museum dedicated to the drink, also houses its own sake brewery, established in 1909. 

Shojin ryori

Shojin ryori

With strong ties to Zen Buddhism, it makes sense that Kyoto has not only adopted the religion’s shrines, temples and teachings, but its cuisine too. The city is one of the best places on Earth to sample authentic Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, which comes in the form of Shojin ryori, a sophisticated form of traditional dining that was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 13th century. The main components of Shojin ryori comprise of tofu and seasonal vegetables, which are believed to bring balance to body and mind. The culinary style has had a major influence on Japan’s kaiseki haute cuisine, which we’ll come to next.

Where to try

Seek out Shigetsu in the grounds of Tenryu-ji Temple

Shigetsu

Where to try it: For a unique experience of authentic Shojin ryori, seek out Shigetsu in the grounds of Tenryu-ji Temple, which offers some of the very best Buddhist cuisine in the city.  

Kaiseki

kaiseki kyoto

Multiple courses, fresh flavours and outstanding presentation; kaiseki is without question the principal haute cuisine of Japan. Influenced by the aforementioned Shojin ryori, kaiseki takes the principles of Buddhist cuisine – balanced flavours and seasonal ingredients – and pairs them with the very best fish, meat, sauces and produce to create a show-stopping culinary ensemble. Kaiseki restaurants tend to be on the exclusive side, with many of them earning Michelin stars, but you can also sample the cuisine at traditional Ryokan inns.

Where to try

A three Michelin-starred restaurant

Hyotei

Some of the finest kaiseki restaurants are found in Kyoto, with one of the very best being Hyotei – a three Michelin-starred restaurant that’s known for its authentic, uncompromising cuisine and refined surroundings.