Essential Kyoto



Golden Pavilion

Within walking distance from the Rock Garden, this is the most photogenic of all Kyoto temples.

Its top two floors are covered in gold leaf and the small lake in front reflects its pagoda-like structure to perfection.

Although you’ll read that it was established in 1397, this current incarnation of the Golden Pavilion dates from 1955 after the original was burned by a mad 22-year-old novice monk five years earlier.

It still looks gorgeous though and eminently snappable from every angle.

Do spend time walking around the rest of the temple grounds, as the gardens here are arguably the most beautiful in Kyoto.


Nijo castle


Surrounded by a moat in the centre of Kyoto and splendid in its display of dominance, Nijo castle and the sheltered Ninomaru palace in the interior were the seat of the shogun, the real power in Japan for nearly three centuries.


Every detail is designed to bolster the shogun’s prestige. The tiger designs at reception are there to frighten the visitors. The evergreen pine drawings to wish eternal life to the almighty Tokugawa clan. The creaking ‘nightingale’ floorboards are specially built to warn guards of creeping assassins.


All in all, the best glimpse of 17th-century Japan you’ll ever get.


Imperial Palace


These grounds have been the residence of the Japanese Emperors for more than 500 years until the Chrysanthemum Throne moved to Tokyo in 1869.


Surrounded by huge walled gardens that were previously off-bounds, but are now open to the public, they provide a veritable oasis in busy downtown Kyoto.


There are six gates surrounding the palace, each with a specific purpose, while inside there is a multitude of buildings ranging from a waiting hall for official visitors and a porch for carriages to a massive ceremonial hall.


Japanese Emperors have been enthroned there since 1521 until 1990, when current Emperor Akihito opted for a low-key televised ceremony in Tokyo.


You don’t need to book in advance to visit the Imperial Palace anymore, but it’s still free.


Rock Garden


Ryoan-ji temple in the far northwest of Kyoto holds this remarkable rectangular garden surrounded by clay walls, twenty-five metres long and ten metres wide that contains just fifteen rocks scattered in carefully raked white gravel.


Created around 1500 by a Zen monk, it remains the ultimate setting for contemplation.


There is no spot at floor level where you can see all fifteen stones at once, as some are always hidden behind others.


Yet even from above you will require more than a flicker of enlightenment to see the arrangement as ‘a tiger crossing a mountain stream with its cub’.




Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Given that it holds the #1 spot of Tripadvisor’s Things To Do In Kyoto expect tourists, many tourists.

Despite the crowds, however, the shrine of the Goddess Inari is likely to be the most spectacular sight you’ll glimpse in the city and there is stiff competition.

Inari is the goddess of good harvests and, as an extension, of prosperity and success, so the grounds are rich with offerings by the devout.

The most impressive among them are the 10,000-odd vermillion “torii” gates that extend to the summit of Mount Inari itself.

The messenger of the goddess is the fox, so statues of foxes abound in stylised poses, their mouths holding either a key (to the warehouse of riches), a scroll (containing the wisdom of the elders) or a ball (full of our wishes).

Unlike in other shrines, there is an English information desk where every aspect of symbolism is explained by enthusiastic devotees.

With all this and a long line of cheap food stalls by the exit, maybe Tripadvisor is right after all.


There is only one place to stroll about in Kyoto at night: the charming neighbourhood of Gion with its picturesque lanterns and ‘izakaya’ traditional taverns that was the red-light district until the 1950s.

It’s strictly look-don’t-enter, however, as a quick glance at the menu prices on display tends to shock those of us with modest bank balances.

So eat around Kyoto station first and play geisha-spotting games afterwards.

Kyoto Station

Kyoto station is more than a terminus for trains or buses: it’s a modernist maze of elevators and a confusion of floors with fashion boutiques and shops that encompass even a five-star hotel.

The basement, moreover, is brimming with affordable restaurants and takeaways from every corner of Japan and all over Asia; you’ll even find French and Italian outlets if you’re homesick.

If you feel posh, take the lift to the eleventh floor of the Isetan Department store by the eastern entrance for some more exclusive establishments with only slightly more expensive nosh and attentive waiters who bow, smile and, as in all over Japan, do not expect a tip.



You can get Japan included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world