World Heritage Sites (UNESCO) at Kyoto
Steeped in Japanese history, Kyoto is Japan’s 7th largest city in population, but home to about 25% of Japan’s national treasures, shrines, temples … It is also recognized by UNESCO World Heritage for 17 sites within and around Kyoto for surviving monuments and architectures of Japanese Garden concept (except Nijo-jo) that had a profound effect on the rest of the world from the 19th century onwards!
From 794 to 1868, Kyoto was also the ancient Capital city and the Emperor’s residence. Even today, it is probably one of the few cities preserving the ancient art and traditions from Geisha schooling, Tea Ceremony, Flower arrangement done and observed in their original settings like what it once was.
With a whole list of World Heritage sites at Kyoto, I guess it just doesn’t make sense not to include these in your Japan itineraries and visit at least some of these sites when one is in Kyoto, isn’t it?
Map Overview of all the UNESCO locations
Nijō-jō Castle (Central Kyoto) – location ANijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era. Nijo castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.
Nijo Castle can be divided into three areas: the Honmaru (main circle of defense), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense) and some gardens that encircle the Honmaru and Ninomaru. The entire castle grounds and the Honmaru are surrounded by stone walls and moats. Cherry trees of numerous varieties are planted throughout the castle grounds, blooming during the season from late March through the entire month of April. In addition, the castle also features a plum orchard, which is typically in bloom from late February to early March. Many areas of the castle grounds are also populated by maple, ginkgo and other trees that offer brilliant autumn colors usually during the second half of November.
The entrance of Nijo Castle is a short walk from Nijojo-mae Station along the Tozai Subway Line.
Tō-ji Temple (South Kyoto) – location BToji Temple (“East Temple”) was founded at the beginning of the Hei-an Period just after the capital was moved to Kyoto in the late 700s. The large temple, together with its now defunct sister temple Saiji (“West Temple”) flanks the south entrance to Kyoto and served as the capital’s guardian temples. The temple also become one of the most important Shingon temple besides the sect’s headquarters on Mt. Koya after the renown Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was appointed head priest here.
A popular flea market is held on the 21st of each month at Toji Temple from the early morning hours until around 16:30 in the afternoon. While a smaller antiques market is held on the first Sunday of each month.
Toji Temple is located within a 15 minute walk southwest of Kyoto Station. Alternatively, it can be reached in a five minute walk from Toji Station along the Kintetsu Kyoto Line.
Saihō-ji Temple (West Kyoto) – location CSaihoji, also known as Kokedera, requires a reservation made well in advance by mail to secure an entrance to the temple. Note that reservations are not possible via internet or over the phone. This moss temple garden’s has an estimated 120 different varieties of moss that visitors to the temple can observe in this spectacular place carpeted by lush green moss. Every visitor to Kokedera is also asked to contribute to the observances of kito and shakyo (respectively known as the chanting and copying of Buddhist scriptures, called sutra).
It is recommended to send a postcard at least 7 working days before the date you wish to visit and include your name, number of visitors in your group, address in Japan (this can be a hotel or ryokan), occupation, age (you must be over 18) and the desired date of visit (best to propose at least two or three alternatives). The temple address is:
56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo
Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto, 615-8286, Japan
Enclose a stamped, self-addressed postcard for a reply to your Japanese address.
Kokedera is a 20 minute walk from Matsuo Taisha Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line.
Daigo-ji Temple (South Kyoto) – location DThis large temple complex stands southeast of central Kyoto and includes an entire mountainside of the Higashiyama . The main temple grounds are located at the base of the mountain and are connected via a hiking trail to several more temple buildings around the summit.
The building Sanboin was once used by a general Toyotomi Hideyoshi for his famous cherry blossom viewing party here. Some of the temple’s most impressive weeping cherry trees stand in Reihokan Museum’s garden and are usually in bloom during early April.
Daigoji Temple is located just a 15 minute walk or short bus ride from Daigo Station along the Tozai Subway Line.
Kinkaku-ji Temple (North Kyoto) – location EKinkakuji is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. This temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will, became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was also the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, decades later on the other side of the city.
Kinkakuji can be accessed from Kyoto Station by direct Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205 in about 40 minutes. Alternatively, it can be faster and more reliable to take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes) and take a taxi (10 minutes) or bus (10 minutes, bus numbers 101, 102, 204 or 205) from there to Kinkakuji.
Ginkaku-ji Temple (East Kyoto) – location FThis temple often called the “Silver Pavilion”, has one of the finest gardens in the city. It is however not covered in silver like its gold Kinkakuji counterpart. Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temple buildings, a beautiful moss garden and a unique dry sand garden. It is enjoyed by walking along a circular route around its grounds, from which the gardens and buildings can be viewed.
Ginkakuji can be accessed by direct bus number 5, 17 or 100 from Kyoto Station in about 35-40 minutes. Alternatively, you can reach Ginkakuji by foot along the Philosopher’s Path from Nanzenji in about 30-45 minutes.
Enryaku-ji Temple (East Kyoto) – location GLocated in Kyoto’s eastern mountain range on Mount Hieizan, Enryaku-ji is one of the most important monasteries in Japanese history and the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism. However most of the temple’s buildings were destroyed in 1571 when Oba Nobunaga attacked in an attempt to remove all rivals and unite the country. Enryaku-ji has since been rebuilt in the early Edo Period.
Enryakuji’s attractions are concentrated in three areas: Todo (east area), Saito (west area) and Yokawa. Todo, the main area, is where the monastry was originally founded and where most of the main buildings are located. A pleasant walking trail through the forest connects the Todo with the Saito area, whose main building is the Shaka Hall, the oldest building on the mountain. The Yokawa area, is located several kilometers north of the other two areas and is visited by fewer people. Its main building, the Yokawa Central Hall, is partially built on a slope using pillars.
Enryakuji is located on Mount Hieizan, which lies on the border of Kyoto Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture. The mountain can be ascended from either the Kyoto side by Eizan Cablecar and ropeway, or from the Shiga side by Sakamoto Cablecar. There is also a toll road that leads up to the temple, which is used by buses from central Kyoto.
Ryōan-ji Temple (North Kyoto) – location HRyoan-ji Temple is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden, which attracts hundreds of visitors every day. The garden’s date of construction is unknown and there are a number of speculations regarding its designer. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer.
Ryoanji can be reached directly from Kyoto Station by JR bus. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. There are buses every 15-30 minutes. Alternatively, Ryoanji is a five minute bus ride or 20 minute walk west of Kinkakuji.
The temple can also be reached by the Keifuku Kitano Line, a small train that runs through the calm residential areas of northwestern Kyoto and offers a connection to Arashiyama. To access Ryoanji, get off at Ryoanji-michi Station from where it is a 5-10 minute walk to the temple.
Kōzan-ji Temple (North Kyoto) – location IKozan-ji is an ancient temple said to have been established in the 8th century. The temple was restored in the 12th century by the high priest Myoe. At that time, the residence of a member of the Imperial family was also moved here as Sekisui-in, which is designated as a National Treasure. In the spacious precinct of Kozan-ji is the Butto (a pagoda built for the purpose of Buddhist worship), designated as an Important Cultural Property. The precinct also contains the oldest tea field in Japan, which is believed to have been first planted by Myoe. Among the treasures housed here is the Choju-Jinbutsu-giga, a set of four picture scrolls (a form of ancient Japanese scroll painting) dated from around the 10th and 11th centuries. This set of picture scrolls are designated as National Treasures. The original is currently stored in Tokyo National Museum while the exhibit at Sekisui-in are precise replicas of the original.
To get to Kozan-ji, take the public bus transport, JR Bus Takao-Keihoku line Kyoto Station. This takes about 45 minutes. Alight at the Toganoo stop from where it is a 10-min walk to the temple.
Shimogamo Jinja (North Kyoto) – location JThe Kamo Shrines, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine, are two of the most important and oldest shrines in Kyoto. Shimogamo Shrine, “Lower Kamo Shrine”, is located at the junction of the Takano and Kamo rivers. It is surrounded by the Tadasu no Mori, a forest which was preserved during the modernization of the city and contains trees that are up to 600 years old. Its trees have been famous throughout the shrine’s history. The delicate flowers of the plum trees and the aromatic blossoms of the cherry trees have inspired many visitors. The acclaimed artist Korin Ogata (1658-1716) immortalized the plum trees in his folding screen Red and White Plum Flowers, now a national treasure. The most famous cherry tree is a specimen of Yama-zakura, or mountain cherry tree, that stands in front of the vermillion gate of the forest.
Shimogamo Shrine is a 15 minute walk from Demachi-Yanagi Station on the Keihan Line.
Kamigamo Jinja (North Kyoto) – location KThe Kamo Shrines, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine, are two of the most important and oldest shrines in Kyoto. Kamigamo Shrine, “Upper Kamo Shrine”, stands about three and a half kilometers upriver from Shimogamo Shrine. It is well known for having two sand cones on its grounds that serve a purification function for the shrine, and have been made ritually since ancient times. It is also known for its Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival), one of Kyotos three big festivals and a traditional event held to pray for a good harvest.
Along the Myojin-gawa River, flowing to the north of Kamigamo-jinja Shrine, stands around 30 sha-ke, the homes of Shinto priests built on stone foundations and enclosed with white earthen walls. This area is designated an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings. To the east of Kamigamo-jinja Shrine, surrounded by mountains on three sides, is the Midoro-ga-ike Pond, which is about one kilometer in circumference, where water plants such as ‘junsai’ (water shield) and ‘kingyo-mo’ (a kind of aquatic herb) grow in mass. It is an excellent spot for visitors to enjoy bird watching.
Kamigamo Shrine can be reached in 30 minutes from Demachi-Yanagi Station or from Shimogamo Shrine by Kyoto City Bus number 4. Get off at the last stop, Kamigamojinja-mae. Alternatively, the shrine can be reached in a 15 minute walk from Kitayama Station on the Karasuma Subway Line.
Kiyomizu-dera (East Kyoto) – location LThis huge temple overlooking the Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district is famous for its large wooden terrace that juts out from its main hall, 13 meters above the hillside below. The stage affords visitors a stunning view of the numerous cherry and maple trees below that erupt in a sea of color in spring and autumn! What’s more, the whole structure is built without a single nail used. Also called the “Pure-Water Temple”, it is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall.
Kiyomizudera can be reached from Kyoto Station by bus number 100 or 206 (15 minutes). Get off at Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop, from which it is a ten minute uphill walk to the temple. Alternatively, Kiyomizudera is about a 20 minute walk from Kiyomizu-Gojo Station along the Keihan Railway Line.
Ninna-ji (North Kyoto) – location MNinnaji is the head temple of the Omuro School of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and was founded in 888 by the reigning emperor. Over many centuries, Ninnaji’s head priest is also served by a member of the Imperial Family, hence also known as Omuro Imperial Palace.
The highlight of Ninnaji is the Goten, the former residence of the head priest in the southwestern corner of the temple complex. Built in the style of an imperial palace, the graceful buildings are connected with each other by covered corridors, featuring elegantly painted sliding doors (fusuma) and surrounded by beautiful rock and pond gardens. In addition, Ninnaji is also famous for a grove of locally cultivated, late blooming cherry trees called Omuro Cherries. Because the trees are late blooming, Ninnaji is a good place to visit towards the end of Kyoto’s cherry blossom season, which is usually around mid April.
Ninnaji is ten minute walk west of Ryoan-ji Temple and very close to Omuro Ninnaji Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line. Alternatively, from Kyoto Station, Ninnaji Temple can be reached by a direct JR bus. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Byōdō-in (South Kyoto) – location NThis temple once had a huge complex but most of the buildings were burned down by fires of war in the years of 1180, 1336 and 1570. Present day Byodo-in has only three structures, Amida-do, Kan’non-do and a belfry. Amida-do, a national treasure, stands facing east on Naka-jima island in Aji-ike pond. The layout was designed so that ancient aristocrats can make a bow from the east side of the pond toward Amida-do that represents Pure Land, or the western paradise.
Inside Amida-do, there is a figure of Amida-Nyorai (Amitabha Tathagata) and 51 smaller Buddhist statues playing musical instruments. The primary and smaller statues as well as the canopy above Amida-Nyorai are national treasures. The inner walls that once were painted colorfully to represent Pure Land have mostly faded away. Vivid color reproduction of the wall paintings are displayed in Hosho-kan Museum.
Byodo-in can be reached 10 minutes by foot from Uji station, JR Nara Line. Alternatively, Byodo-in can also be reached in 10 minutes by foot from Keihan-Uji station on Keihan Railway.
Tenryū-ji (West Kyoto) – location OTenryuji is the most important temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. It was ranked first among the city’s five great Zen temples, and is now registered as a world heritage site. Tenryuji is also the head temple of its own school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism.
Unlike the temple buildings that were lost to fires and wars over the centuries, Tenryuji’s garden survived the centuries in its original form. Created by the famous garden designer Muso Soseki, who also designed the gardens of Kokedera and other important temples, the beautiful landscape garden features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and is perfectly framed by the forested Arashiyama mountains.
Tenryuji is just a short walk from the Keifuku Arashiyama Station.
Nishi Hongan-ji (Central Kyoto) – location PNishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji are two large temples in the center of Kyoto. As headquarters of the two factions of the Jodo-Shin Sect (True Pure Land Sect), one of Japan’s largest Buddhist sects, they are a good place to experience contemporary Japanese Buddhism.
Nishi Honganji displays some surviving masterpieces of architecture from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and early Edo Period, including the celebrated Hiunkaku Pavilion. A small Japanese garden named Shoseien is also located another few street blocks east of Higashi Honganji, open to the public with it’s pond and beautiful autumn colors.
The Honganji temples are located within a 10-15 minute walk north of Kyoto Station.
Ujigami Jinja (South Kyoto) – location Q
Ujigami Shrine or Ujigami Jinja is believed to be the oldest standing shrine in Japan. Although there are no official record of when it was first constructed, experts estimate that Ujigami Shrine was well established by 1060. It was also closely linked to Byodo-in Temple as its “guardian shrine”.
Ujigami Shrine is located on the north side of Uji River near the Tale of Genji Museum. It takes about ten minutes to walk there from Keihan Uji Station or 15 minutes from JR Uji Station. From Byodo-in Temple, it is about a ten minute walk across the river via a small island connected by bridges.