1. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle, with its well preserved walls, towers, and a moat, was built in 1603 and later served as the seat of government. The complex has several buildings containing many significant works of art, and is famous as the location chosen by the emperor to issue the rescript abolishing the country's once powerful Shogunate (the de facto military rule of Japan during most of the period spanning from 1185 to 1868).
Highlights include the castle's East Gate (Higashi Otemon, its main entrance); the Inner Gate, or Karamon, notable for its fine carvings and decorated metalwork; and beyond this, the elaborate Mikuruma-yose. The site's most important building is Ninomaru Palace, consisting of five separate buildings linked by corridors, and with exquisite interiors decorated with paintings by Kano Tanyu and his pupils. The principal apartment is the Hall of the Imperial Emissary (Jodan-no-ma), matched in splendor by the adjoining rooms, Ni-no-ma and Tozamurai-no-ma with their paintings of tigers.
Also of interest is the adjacent building with its large Audience Hall surrounded by a gallery and with sliding doors with large paintings of larches on a gold background. The fourth building, the Kuro-Shoin, has animal paintings by Kano Naonobu, while in the Shogun's private apartments are paintings of mountain landscapes.
2. Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine
One of Japan's most famous shrines, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine is a must see when visiting Kyoto. Founded in AD 711 and dedicated to the goddess of rice growing, Ukanomitama-no-mikoto, the shrine is still frequented by merchants and tradesmen who pray for prosperity. The main building dates from 1499 and features a spectacular 4 kilometer long avenue of bright orange "torii," or arches. Also notable are its many sculptures of foxes, reputed to be messengers of the gods. A great time to explore the shrine is at night; not only will you be rewarded with a unique glimpse of this wonderfully illuminated heritage site, you will be rewarded with few if any crowds.
3. Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)
Originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and now a Zen Buddhist temple, the magnificent Golden Pavilion is one of Kyoto's most picturesque attractions. Taking its name from the gold leaf adorning the top two of its three floors, a design element believed to alleviate any negativity associated with death. The structure has been rebuilt in its original form a number of times, this most recent incarnation dating from the late 1950s. Built over a large pond, the site is also famous for its beautiful grounds, as well as its old stone pagoda and the Sekkatei Teahouse with its traditionally served beverages. To avoid the summer crowds, it is best to plan your visit for either winter or autumn, the latter is spectacular thanks to the fall colors.
4. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
In the east part of Kyoto, the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, an important UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies in a picturesque location on Otowa Mountain overlooking the city. Visitors can enjoy a delightful stroll to the temple along quaint Tea-pot Lane with its small shops and craft stores. Founded in AD 790 and dedicated to the 11-headed Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy whose statue can be seen here. The existing buildings were erected after 1633 in the period of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, and stand mainly on a rocky outcrop high above the Otowa Waterfall. Highlights include the large terrace of the Main Hall, built on 30 meter tall pillars with five rows of cross beams and used as a stage for temple dances and ceremonies. The terrace affords spectacular views over the city and the surrounding wooded hills, especially when the leaves change color in fall.
5. Sanjusangen-do Temple
Sanjūsangen-dō (Rengyoin Temple), or the Temple of the 33 Niches, takes its name from its rather unusual structure: its facade is divided into 33 (sanjusan) niches to reflect the belief that Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, could take on 33 different personifications. Originally built in 1164, the present elongated building was constructed in 1266 after a fire destroyed its predecessor, with evidence of its former importance as a place of training in archery still seen in the many holes in its ancient pillars and timbers made by arrowheads.
The most important of its many works of art is the Kannon with a Thousand Hands, a nearly three and a half meter tall statue, which dates from the 13th century and is noteworthy for the 500 standing figures of Kannon lined up on either side of it. Also worth paying attention to, are the additional sculptures of the 28 "celestial auxiliaries," spirits considered subordinate to Kannon, located behind it.
6. Kyota Imperial Palace
The original Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto-gosho), built in AD 794 and replaced several times after being destroyed by fire, remains one of the city's most visited historic sites. Although the present building was constructed in 1855, it still impresses. Occupying a large, once-walled, enclosure near the heart of the city, highlights include its finely decorated gates and important rooms and buildings, including the Hall for State Ceremonies (Shishinden), the Emperor's Residence (Seiryo-den), the Courtroom (Ko-gosho), and the Imperial Library.
While the lovely grounds of this Kyoto landmark are open to the public, the palace itself can only be visited as part of a guided tour operated by the Imperial Household Agency. Check their website for reservations and application forms.
7. Nishi Honanji Temple
The chief temple of the original Jodo-shinshu sect, Nishi Honganji Temple is an outstanding example of Buddhist architecture. Highlights include the Hondo, or Main Hall. Rebuilt in 1760, noteworthy features include a number of fine rooms decorated with paintings on gold backgrounds, and numerous important statues, some dating from the 6th century. Also of interest is the Founder's Hall (Daishi-do) with its much admired statue of Shinran, carved in 1244 and later covered with a coat of lacquer (varnish) mingled with his ashes. Another remarkable building is the Daishoin, or Treasury, with various rooms named after the exquisite wall and ceiling paintings with which they are decorated, including the Sparrow Room (Suzume-no-ma), the Room of the Wild Geese (Gan-no-ma), and the Chrysanthemum Room (Kiku-no-ma) with its fine 17th-century paintings of flowers in gold and white by Kaiho Yusetsu.
Also of interest is the Higashi-Honganji Temple of the Jodo-shinshu sect, founded in 1602 and home to a number of examples of fine artwork.
8. Gion's Geishas & Temples
Famous as an entertainment and geisha district, Gion is an area of Kyoto that is well suited to explore on foot. On the eastern bank of the Kamogawa River, Gion is an eclectic mix of modern architecture and historical beauty that provides a unique taste of numerous Japanese traditions, from the elaborately dressed geishas to well preserved 17th-century restaurants and teahouses offering a glimpse of old Japan. Centered on an area encompassing Hanami-Koji Street, Shijo-dori Street, and the waterside promenades of Shirakawa Minami-dori Street.
Gion is also famous for its many fine temples, in particular the 15th-century Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) and the Chion-in Temple, one of Japan's most famous temples, notable for its 24 meter high, two-story tower (Sammon-san), which houses the country's largest bell weighing 71 tons, cast in 1633, and rung only during festivals in mid April. Gion is a wonderful place to enjoy a walking tour at night, too.
9. The Byodo-in Temple
The Byōdō-in Temple, established in AD 988, boasts many unique buildings, shrines, and artworks worthy of a visit. Highlights include the Phoenix Hall (Hoo-do), with its bronze phoenixes on its two gables and rich interior décor; 11th-century paintings, including an imposing gilded figure of Amida (celestrial buddha); and an altar and ceiling inlaid with bronze and mother of pearl. Adjoining is the Kannon-do, a hall directly above the river and known as the Tsuridono, or Fishing Hall.
Be sure to spend time visiting the temple gardens with their many fine ponds, as well as the Byōdō-in Museum with its treasures relating to the temple site, including its 52 wooden Buddha statues, carved phoenixes, and the original temple bell. Also worth a visit is the Zen Tenryu-ji Temple, from which you can access the wonderful Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, an area full of tall bamboo that is simply breathtaking.
10. Katsura Imperial Villa
Originally constructed in 1624 for Prince Hachijo Toshihito, brother of Emperor Goyozei, the Katsura Imperial Villa is home to splendid historic architecture and one of Japan's most famous historic gardens. Designed by Kobori Enshu with assistance by the prince, this beautiful garden is laid out in such a way that the visitor always sees things from the front; smaller gardens are grouped around a large pool with the summits of Mounts Arashiyama and Kameyama in the background. Highlights include the Miyuki-mon Gates and the many garden paths, some made from river pebbles and others of rectangular cobbles, edged by mosses and bushes, and leading through further gates into the inner garden with a group of buildings known as the Goten at its center.
A particular highlight here is the veranda of Furu-shoin, specially designed to permit observation of the moon, and the three rooms of the Naka-shoin with its many fine paintings by Japan's leading artists. If time allows, be sure to stop and enjoy a meal or light refreshments in one of the many on-site teahouses.