World Heritage in Kyoto, Japan
In some ways, Kyoto is the cultural archives of Japan. The city, about an hour from Osaka, was central to Japanese history for well over a thousand years and the marks of that millennium are in every little corner you could possibly explore.
If you come to Japan looking for temples and shrines, you’ll hit a divine motherload in Kyoto. There are more than 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. It doesn’t matter how lost you get, you will also find a red tori gate or a smiling Buddha not far away. The religious and historical are inescapable.
Kyoto first became the capital of Japan in 794AD and, despite a few periods when the power base was moved, remained the centre of politics until 1868. The imperial family over those centuries constructed much of what you can see today. It has only 1 per cent of the Japan’s population but is home to more than 20 per cent of the country’s national treasures.
Within the city, there are 17 specific places that have been designated as part of the official Kyoto listing on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It’s impossible to see them all in a day. I think you’d be hard pressed to see them all in three days even. If you’re the kind of person who likes to explore things in depth then you’ll need to leave yourself enough time to properly understand a city as culturally-rich as Kyoto.
I gave myself just one day in Kyoto, which I now regret. It’s easy to get templed-out in this region of Japan and I fear that was beginning to happen to me. But I still managed to see some of the most important temples and shrines… and finished the day, as the sun set, at the most beautiful of all the sights.
Here’s one way to spend a day in Kyoto.
This castle at the centre of Kyoto is hard to miss. Surrounded by a huge moat and high fortifications, it served as a protection from enemies from when it was built in 1626. It couldn’t, however, protect itself from the fires that destroyed large parts of it on two occasions.
There are two main parts to Nijo-jo Castle that you’ll see when you visit. The first is the main palace – a single-storey building that stretches out over a large area, full of rooms connected with paper doors and tatami mats. Most of the walls have beautiful and intricate paintings or gold leaf designs.
The second part is the expansive gardens and shrines which are carefully manicured and blossom with colour at certain times of the year.
There are many parts to Ninna-ji Temple and, again, it’s easier to think about the two main sections. The first is the ‘palace’, or the mansion of the imperial priest. There’s an entrance fee for this part but it’s worth it because the building is beautifully understated and has a great view across its garden.
The second section of Ninna-ji is ‘everything else’. This part has no entrance fee and includes a five-storied pagoda, the actual temple building, a golden hall, and smaller shrines scattered through the area. After walking through the main and magnificent gate, there’s a long and wide boulevard to the top.
Most of the space in the Ryoan-ji Temple complex is taken up by a lake surrounded by forest. It’s a serene area where you can sit and look at the water and hear the birds in the trees around you.
But the highlight – and the main reason for coming – is to stare at some rocks. The rock garden at Ryoan-ji is world famous and is made up of a large rectangular area filled with white sand and fifteen rocks placed into five groups. There is supposed to be something spiritual in the exact design of the rocks and people do sit and look at it for hours. If it all sounds very zen, you’re right. This is actually a Zen temple.
This is one of the busiest places in Kyoto in the late part of the day as bus after bus arrives with tourists coming for the sunset. Up on a mountain, Kiyomizu-dera has quite a few different sections to discover. There’s the gate, pagoda and shrines at the entrance, which are bright orange and impressively-large.
If you pay the entrance fee, you can go further in to the main wooden temple which was built without a single nail. From the decks here, you can look out across much of Kyoto and see the sun go down towards the horizon, creating silhouettes of the buildings you’ve just walked past.
It’s a stunning way to finish a day in Kyoto and it’s no surprise this is the last stop for the tour groups as well. Luckily Kiyomizu-dera Temple is large enough that it never feels too crowded.