Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is one the most mysterious and haunting Shinto shrines in all of Japan. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters and belongs to the shrine grounds. This intriguing shrine was dedicated to the god of rice and sake by the Hata clan in the 8th century. As the role of agriculture diminished, deities were enrolled to ensure prosperity in business enterprises.
This iconic image of Japan was the inspiration for Bulgarian artist Christo’s Central Park Gates.
The Kinkaku-ji, or "Golden Pavilion," is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Built as a pleasure pavilion by a 15th-century shogun and burned down by a deranged monk in the 1950s, it has now been rebuilt to its previous exquisite perfection.
Rising above its reflecting pond like an apparition, the golden pavilion is most impressive sight, especially if you’re there on the four or five days per year when it’s covered in snow. The only problem is, as you might guess, that it’s almost always packed with visitors. For these reason, we recommend going just after it opens, just after it closes and, if possible on a Monday morning.
Stop by the Ginkaku-ji, the “Silver Pavilion” to Kinkaku-ji’s gold. Like the Golden Pavilion, the Ginkaku-ji was built to be the retirement villa of a 15th-century shogun and was converted into a Zen temple after his passing.
The Ginkaku-ji is renowned for its meticulously landscaped gardens, including a dry garden dubbed the “Sea of Silver Sand,” unique for its huge sand cone nicknamed the “Moon Viewing Platform,” and a sizeable moss garden with pond, islands and bridges.
One of the oldest temples of the city, Kiyomizu is built high on massive stilts in the eastern foothills, with excellent views of Kyoto. Kiyomizu means “pure water,” and the temple takes its name from the Otowa waterfall that flows within its grounds. The waterfall tumbles in three streams, said to represent wisdom, health and wealth. Visitors typically queue up to sip from ladels provided (first use one cup to rinse your hands, then a second cup to sip from, and finally a third cup to stand on the ladel’s end to allow water to flow down and rinse the handle).
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s top sights and for good reason: standing amid these soaring stalks of bamboo is like being in another world. It is particularly popular during the cherry blossom and fall color seasons.
If you’ve been planning a trip to Kyoto, you’ve probably seen pictures of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Along with the torii tunnels of Fushimi Inari Shrine and Kinkaku-ji Temple, it’s one of the most photographed sights in the city. But no picture can capture the feeling of standing in the midst of this sprawling bamboo grove – the whole thing has a palpable sense of otherness that is quite unlike that of any normal forest we know of.
With its world-famous stone garden (karesansui) Ryoan-ji is another of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Zen rock garden, measuring 2,659 square feet (247 square meters) in area, is believed to have been originally landscaped in the 15th century. It consists of 15 moss-covered small boulders in a sea of raked white gravel, and is laid out so that when viewing the garden from any angle (other than a bird’s-eye view), only 14 rocks are visible – the 15th becoming visible, it is said, upon enlightenment.
An imposing, quintessential Zen temple that made a cameo in Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation, the Nanzen-ji Temple contains an enormous two-story sanmon, or main gate, that is one of the largest in Japan. The ascent up steep stairs to the second-story balcony rewards visitors with breathtaking views. In the main temple building, pause and enjoy a cup of green tea; savor the sound and sight of a waterfall emptying into a pond, and you will understand why the Nanzen-ji temple has been a Zen holy place since the 13th century.
Explore Nishiki market, where myriad food stalls serve yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick), fried fish, oshinko (pickled vegetables), and much more. Nishiki is where many residents of Kyoto do their grocery shopping if they have time; it is similar to wet markets in Hong Kong, except they are much cleaner and more dedicated. Generally, each storefront only sells one thing: bonito fish flakes, root vegetables, fresh fish, or locally made sake, for example.