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.
Gion Geisha District
‘Geisha’ is probably one of the first words that spring to mind when thinking about Japan and the 2005 film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ gave this archetypical Japanese custom a higher profile. 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 Kagai (‘flower town’) an area of the city that is full of teahouses as well as expensive restaurants, bars, theatres and shops. Come early one evening, to have a peek at 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.
- Opening Hours: Open all day but the best time to catch a glimpse of a geisha is in the evening.
- Location: Hanami-koji-dori, north to Shinmonzen-dori, Shijo-dori, and Shinmonzen-dori
- How to get there: Take City Bus 206 from Kyoto Station to the Gion stop.
A visit to Kiyomizu-dera or Otowasan Kiyomizudera in the wooded hills east of Kyoto is like travelling back in time. Kiyomizu-dera (‘Pure Water Temple’) is one of the most celebrated temples in the whole country. Kiyomizudera is best known for its 13-metre high wooden extension that juts out from its main hall, above the hillside below. Read More...
- Opening Hours: Daily 06:00 - 18:00 (18:30 in summer) Jishu Shrine closes an hour earlier.
- Location: Higashiyama area, Eastern Kyoto
- How to get there: City Bus 206 from Kyoto Station to the Gion stop.
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: Apr - Mid-Nov from 08:00 – 17:00, Mid-Nov – Mar from 09:00 – 16:00
- Location: 657 Sanjusangen-do Mawari-cho, Higashiyama-ku
- How to get there: Take bus 206, 208, or 100 from Kyoto Station to the Sanjusangen-do-mae stop.
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 is considered traditional to view them from the Tsuten-kyo Bridge. The temple itself was built in 1236 and later on had to be reconstructed because of several major fires in 1319, 1334 and 1336. The remarkable 22-metre tall main gate is the largest of all Zen temples in Japan. Many structures inside the temple are listed as national treasures. Tofukuji is another must-visit in Kyoto. 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.
- Opening Hours: Daily 09:00 - 16:00
- Location: Hon-machi 15-chome, Higashiyama-ku
- Tel: +81 (0)75 561 0087
- How to get there: JR Nara Line Tofuku-ji Station, Keihan Line Tofukuji Station. City Bus: 208 from Kyoto
This beautiful 5-storey pagoda is all that remains of a great temple that once stood here. Also called the Gion Shrine it is 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.
- Opening Hours: Daily 24 hours
- Location: 625 Gion-machi, Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
- How to get there: From Kyoto Station take Bus 206 or 100 to the Gion bus stop; just off Higashi-oji-dori.
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 being the Hon-do (Main Hall) 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, rung 107 times before New Year and once more to shake off the excesses of the year gone by.
- Opening Hours: Mar - Oct from 09:00 - 16:30; Nov - 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-ku
- How to get there: Take City Bus 206 from Kyoto Station to the Gion stop. The temple is north of Maruyama Park.
Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka
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!
- Opening Hours: Daily
- Location: End of Ishibe-kobe Lane through to Kiyomizuzaka Higashiyama-ku
- How to get there: Take City Bus 206 from Kyoto Station to the Gion stop.
The steep uphill climb to this tiny 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.
- Opening Hours: Daily 09:00 – 17:00
- Location: Choraku-ji is east of Maruyama Koen.
- How to get there: City Bus No.206 to Gion
Kyoto National Museum
Stop in to the Kyoto National museum to view the exquisite permanent collections of archaeological artifacts, calligraphy, sculptures, paintings, ceramics, lacquer work and more. Special exhibitions change regularly so just stop in the beautiful Meiji-era red brick building for details, or check the newspaper for exhibit themes.
- Opening Hours: Tue - Sun 09:00 - 16:30
- Location: Yamato-oji-dori, Higashiyama-ku
- Tel: +81 (0)75 541 1151
- How to get there: From Kyoto Station take Bus 206 or 208 to the Sanjusangen-do-mae stop.
Japanese Traditional Shows
Kyoto is a perfect place to catch a taste of the traditional Japanese shows including popular stage drama like Kabuki and Noh. Kabuki was started by women and has long history dated back in 1603 and nowadays it is performed exclusively by men. It really is quite fascinating to see women's roles performed so gracefully by male actors.
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. Another popular form of Noh is called Takigi-noh which is an outdoor performance with fire placed at each corner of the stage.
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, the tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.
Minami-za Kabuki Theater
- Opening Hours: Depends on performance start times
- Location: East side, Shijo-ohashi-bridge, Higashiyama-ku
- Tel: +81 (0)75 561 1155
- How to get there: City Bus to Shijo Keihan-mae
- Opening Hours: Performances at 19:40 and 20:40 from Mar to Nov
- Location: Yasaka Hall, Gion, Hanamikoji Shijo-sagaru
- Tel: +81 (0)75 561 1115
- How to get there: From Kyoto Stn., Kyoto City Bus #100 or #206 to Gion Stop