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10 Best Things to Do in Higashiyama

Fushimi - Higashiyama Attractions

From the oldest remaining Buddhist temples to the flagstone-paved lanes and traditional teahouses Higashiyama attractions offer a taste of a traditional way of life that is still maintained today. Catch a glimpse of the illusive geisha with their precise steps in seemingly impossible geta clogs. Visit the temples where Japanese people have flocked for New Year celebrations for centuries. Relax in the most famous cherry blossom viewing area in the country at Maruyama park. To visit Kyoto and not go to Higashiyama ward is to not have seen Kyoto at all.

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Kiyomizu Shrine

A visit to Kiyomizu-dera in the wooded hills east of Kyoto is like travelling back in time. Kiyomizu-dera (‘Pure Water Temple’) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most celebrated temples in the whole country. Kiyomizu Shrine is best known for its 13-metre high wooden platform that juts out from the main hall.

The platform affords visitors great views out over the numerous maple and cherry blossom trees below that burst into a bright sea of colour in spring and autumn. It also has panoramic views of Kyoto city centre in the distance. The main hall was built without the use of nails and houses the temple's primary object of worship – a small statue of the eleven faced, thousand-armed Kannon.

One of the most appealing aspects of a visit to Kiyomizudera is the walk to the temple along the steep and busy lanes of the Higashiyama district. The many shops and restaurants in the area have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries, and products on sale range from local specialties, such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, to standard souvenirs.

Its serene location is quite far from the main area of Kyoto requiring a strenuous uphill walk, but the wonderful views and 1000-year old buildings are well worth the effort. Kiyomizu-dera can be reached from Kyoto Station by bus number 100 or 206 (15 minutes). Alight at Kiyomizu-michi bus stop, and it's a 10-minute walk up the hill to the temple.

  • Opening Hours: Daily from 6am to 6pm (extended opening times in the summer months)
  • Location: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862, Japan
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Gion Geisha District

‘Geisha’ is probably one of the first words that spring to mind when thinking about Japan. Kyoto used to be a major centre for geishas but things change rapidly and nowadays it is said that there are less than 500 left in the old capital. In Kyoto, geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) frequent Gion, a traditional neighbourhood east of the Kamo River. Come early one evening to see these beautiful women hurrying to work at the elite and costly teahouses. They are dressed in elegant and expensive traditional silk kimonos with their hair up and wearing chalk-white makeup as they walk along in their wooden geta clogs and white socks. These young and friendly women sometimes slow down and turn to tourists’ cameras with lovely smiles. Their job is to sing, dance, play traditional instruments and entertain their guests, and the cost of their company is not cheap.

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Sanjusangendo Hall

This imposing grand hall is famous for its 1,001 life-sized statues of Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) from the 12th and 13th centuries, all beautifully carved from Japanese cypress wood and covered with gold leaf. Other interesting statues include 28 Buddhist deities and two temple guardians. This 100-metre hall is considered Japan's longest wooden structure. Every January people gather for the famous centuries-old archery contest held behind the temple.

  • Opening Hours: April – November from 8am to 5pm, November – March from 9am to 4pm
  • Location: 657 Sanjusangendomawari, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0941, Japan
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Tofukuji Temple

Tofukuji is a Zen temple with a huge open temple complex and beautiful gardens. Every autumn the temple is crowded with tourists who come to admire the perfect autumnal colours of the Japanese maple trees in combination with traditional temple architecture. It's considered traditional to view them from the Tsuten-kyo Bridge. The remarkable 22-metre tall main gate is the largest of all Zen temples in Japan. Most of the property in Tofukuji’s grounds is free of charge to enter but the garden and Tsuten-kyo Bridge requires an admission fee. It's easy to reach the temple on the JR Nara Line or Keita Line to Tofuku-ji Station.

  • Opening Hours: Daily from 9am to 4pm
  • Location: 15-778 Hon-machi, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, 605-0981, Japan
  • Tel: +81 (0)75 561 0087
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Yasaka Shrine

This beautiful 5-storey pagoda in the east of Kyoto is all that remains of a great temple that once stood here. Also called the Gion Shrine, it's the centerpiece of the annual Gion Festival. Built in the 7th century, the enshrined Shinto deity Susano-no-Mikoto symbolizes prosperity and protection against pestilence. A ritual when attending Yasaka Shrine is to write a prayer, wish or thought on a small piece of paper and tie it to the tree covered with tiny paper bows.

  • Location: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0073, Japan
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Chion-in Temple

Built to proclaim the superiority of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, Chion-in features the colossal Sanmon gate – the most imposing of any Japanese religious site. The temple is located where Honen, the founder of the Jodo sect, initiated his teachings and later fasted himself to death in 1212. Suffering the fate of many Kyoto temples, it has been ruined by fires and earthquakes numerous times; the oldest buildings still standing are the Hon-do (Main Hall), which was rebuilt in 1633, and the Daihojo (Abbots’ quarters) rebuilt in 1639.

The main hall houses a huge bell which plays a vital role in New Year celebrations. It's rung 107 times before New Year and once more to shake off the excesses of the year gone by. The temple is north of Maruyama Park and close to the Gion area of Kyoto.

  • Opening Hours: March to October from 9am to 4.30pm, November - Feb 09:00 – 16:00; not all buildings open to public
  • Location: 400 Hayashi-shita-cho 3-chome, Yamato-oji, Higashi-hairu, Shimbashi-dori, Higashiyama-Ward, Kyoto, Japan
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Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka historic streets

These flagstone-paved roads are one of four preservation areas in Kyoto, retaining all the charm of a bygone era. The names Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka translate as 'Two Year Slope' and 'Three Year Slope' respectively. A stroll through the streets will reveal exquisite wooden buildings, tiny gardens and cozy tearooms. Local folklore holds that if, while walking on the steps, you happen to trip you will suffer two or three years bad luck, so watch your step! Both of these these streets are found in the east of Kyoto, on the way to Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

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Choraku-ji Temple

The steep uphill climb to Choraku-ji Temple is not for the faint-hearted, but the panoramic Kyoto views from the top is a fitting reward. The path leading to the temple is lined with stone lanterns that, when lit during the summer months, create an amazing sight. The temple dates back to the 9th century. This quaint temple is in the east of Kyoto, close to Gion district. 

  • Opening Hours: Daily from 9am to 5pm
  • Location: 626 Maruyamacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0071, Japan
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Kyoto National Museum

The Kyoto National Museum is home to an exquisite collection of archaeological artifacts, calligraphy, sculptures, paintings, ceramics, lacquer work and more. The museum has up to 6,000 exhibits on display at any one time. Special exhibitions change regularly so just stop in the beautiful Meiji-era red brick building for details, or check online for more details. The museum is walking distance from Shichijo subway station.

  • Opening Hours: Tuesday - Sunday from 9am to 4.30pm
  • Location: 527 Chayacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0931, Japan
  • Tel: +81 (0)75 541 1151
  • How to get there:
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Traditional Japanese Theatre

Kyoto is a perfect place to catch a taste of the traditional Japanese theatre, including popular stage drama like Kabuki and Noh. Kabuki was started by women and has long history dating back to the 1600s. Nowadays it’s performed exclusively by men. It really is quite fascinating to see women's roles performed so gracefully by male actors. Kyoto Minami-za is the best place Kabuki theatre in the city. It’s close to Gion-Shijo subway station on the eastern bank of the Kamo River.  

Another classic stage performance to see when in Kyoto is Noh, which also has an all-male cast. The slow movements and the use of masks as part of the performance are very interesting. If time allows, visit a unique theatre called Gion Corner which offers seven of Kyoto's professional performing arts – kyogen classical comedy, kyomai dance, gagaku (music of the imperial court), koto harp, bunraku puppet theatre, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.

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