5 Must-See Temples in Japan's Old Capital

Here's a look at five must-see sites in Japan's old capital city - Kyoto - showcasing breathtaking views for your Japan trip. We also discuss how to get there.
5 Must-See Temples in Japan's Old Capital

When to visit Kyoto

A trip to Japan would not be complete without a visit to Kyoto. So exactly where is Kyoto? Kyoto lies in Japan’s west-central Honshu Island, roughly 30 miles from the city of Osaka. It’s also the third-most visited city after Tokyo and Osaka. 

Kyoto is the old capital of Japan and the temple city of Japan. Also referred to as the city of a thousand temples, Kyoto comes alive with the blossoming of cherry trees between late March and early April. 

Its most common cherry tree is the hybrid Yoshino cherry. This beautiful tree’s petals are completely white, marked with hints of eye-catching pink. The vast display of cherry blossoms makes spring the ideal time to visit this former capital of Japan.   

These sites may take a while to explore and requires lots of walking.  You might therefore want to pack a good pair of walking shoes for your trip. If you're traveling in summer, humidity can get quite high, so pack your water bottle too to help prevent heatstroke. 

Here's a look at Kyoto’s must-see sites showcasing breathtaking views for your Japan trip. We also discuss how to get there. 

Iconic Shrines of 10,000 Torii Gate At Fushimi Inari Taisha

Iconic Shrines of 10,000 Torii Gate At Fushimi Inari Taisha

Of the array of Japanese historical sites, this Shinto shrine is certainly one of the most beautiful. Located in southern Kyoto, it comprises 10,000 torii gates. This is certainly why you’ll need that comfortable pair of walking shoes, as the gates enclose a multitude of walking trails. These trails culminate at Mount Inari and lead into the renowned Arashiyama bamboo forest, filled with springtime cherry trees. 

This shrine was founded in 711AD. Many visit here to pray earnestly for safety, prosperity, and the fulfillment of wishes. The enshrined deity of this shrine was Inari Okami. 2011 Saw this shrine’s 1300th anniversary. Every year, hordes of worshippers enter the shrine to commemorate Kyoto’s history as the former capital of Japan. 

Once at the JR Kyoto Station, take a train ride to JR Inari Station via the JR Nara Line to reach the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. You’ll have to walk approximately three minutes from the JR Inari Station to get to the shrine. 

Panoramic view from the Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Panoramic view from the Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Japan. It was founded over 1200 years ago. Kiyomizu-dera Temple boasts astounding panoramic views, as it’s located halfway up Mount Otowa. This ancient architectural marvel was constructed using  Japanese techniques, and its main hall and stage have no nails. This is one of the peaks in the Higashiyama mountain range. 

The temple is also referred to as “Kannon Reijo, ” which is Japanese for “holy place.” Kannon is the primary deity of the temple and represents compassion. Kiyomizu-dera Temple has priest guides who provide international visitors with special tours of the temple grounds. 

The guided tours include visits to historical spots and buildings. These buildings are surrounded by the most remarkable scenery. Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple sees about 1,000 cherry trees blossoming each spring. These blossoms are found at other temples and shrines in Kyoto too.   

To reach the Kiyomizu-dera temple, take a train from JR Kyoto Station to Keihan Kiyomizu Gojo Station. You’ll need to walk for about 20 minutes from there to get to the temple, so once again, we stress that you wear comfortable shoes.

Nijō Castle

Nijō Castle

This castle was first established in 1603 and is also one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan. It took 23 years to renovate and was completed in 1626 by Lemitsu, the third shogun.  The term shogun refers to a military commander-in-chief in feudal Japan. You’ll find a karamon gate at its entrance. This symbolizes authority and the prestige of the castle. Inside the gate, you’ll discover Ninomaru Palace. This palace comprises five correlated buildings made of Hinoki cypress. 

The lavish buildings are adorned with wood carvings, over 2,000 spellbinding paintings created by the Kano School painters, and gold leaf. The Kano School was deemed the hugest painting school in Japan until the 19th century. The west side of the palace boasts an exquisite stroll garden with a pond. Every year in spring, the castle’s cherry trees and karamon gate are illuminated at night. 

For traveling to Nijo Castle, take the Karasuma Subway Line from Kyoto station. Then switch to the Tozai Line, taking you to Nijojo-mae Station. You’ll need to walk a brief distance from there to reach the castle. 

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace 

This historical building is situated in the Kyoto Gyoen Garden and boasts a stretch of cherry blossoms in the spring.  It served as the Imperial family home until 1869 with the inception of the Meiji Restoration. The luscious garden here spans 1,300 meters, so you’ll be walking a lot here too. Enjoy tours here hosted by the Imperial Household Agency. The grounds also host the Edo-era Kyoto State Guest House. 

The palace boasts a strolling garden called Oikeniwa Garden. A bridge, namely the Keyakibashi Bridge, lies over a pond here. You can also find grey herons resting on tree barks near the water. Besides that, the historical Emperor’s summer home Ozumisho is on the palace grounds too. 

To reach Kyoto Imperial Palace, take a subway from Kyoto Station via the Karasuma Subway Line. Get off at Imadegawa Station and walk to the palace. 

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Kinkaku-ji Temple 

This pristine temple is another one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Japan. It’s also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kyoto. It’s a Zen Buddhist shrine, and its name is often translated to “Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” The temple is located in Kinkakuji-cho. It was designed way back in 1393 by the esteemed aristocrat Saionji Kintsune. 

The temple stands at a remarkable 12.5 meters at the edge of the captivating Mirror Lake. Be sure to walk around and marvel at the Japanese garden, complete with waterfalls, stone arrangements, and natural springs. 

Once you’ve reached Kyoto Station, it's easiest to travel to Kinkaku-ji Temple via bus. Buses depart for this temple from various terminals in the northern part of the station. 

17 UNESCO historical sites in Kyoto 

There are 17 UNESCO sites in Kyoto.  Here's a list of all of them in case you want to visit even more sites after seeing the ones we've already discussed.  

・Nishi- Hongwan –ji Temple

・Ginkaku-ji Temple  

・Nijō Castle

・Mt.Hiei-zan Enryaku-ji Temple 

・Byodo-in Temple

・Kozan-ji Temple  

・Ujigami-jinja Shrine

・Saiho-ji Temple 

・Kinkaku-ji Temple

・Tenryu-ji Temple 

・Ryoan-ji Temple 

・Shimogamo – jinja Shrine 

・To-ji Temple

・Kamigamo – jinja Shrine  

・Kiyomizu-dera Temple 

・Ninna-ji Temple

・Daigo-ji Temple

How to get around Kyoto city 

When traveling to Kyoto, remember that it has no airport. Its nearest airport is Kansai International Airport (KIX). The best way for you to travel from KIX to Kyoto is via train. This takes approximately 1.25 hours. You can also use the train on your return journey from a Kyoto temple to Tokyo. 

The Japanese bullet train or Shinkansen is ideal for travel between Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. You may also opt for a Japanese Rail Pass for discounted rides if you’re a non-national. 

Seeing that KIX is the nearest airport to Kyoto, it’s best to fly to KIX if you’re in a city in Japan. You can fly from Tokyo’s Haneda or Narita airports directly to KIX in just one hour with the JAL Japan Explorer Pass. You can access more than 30 domestic cities with a JAL Japan Explorer Pass.  

Planning your trip to Japan is a breeze with Japan Airline’s Guide to Japan. We help you narrow your search to find the best sights that’ll make your trip absolutely unforgettable. 

Getting There