Five Sights Every New Visitor to Kyoto should See

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Boasting 17 World Heritage sites and a stunning array of Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines, Kyoto is a treasure house of Japanese history and culture. Today local guide Setsuko shares with us five places every first-time visitor to Kyoto should explore during their visit to her beautiful city.

As you may know, Kyoto was an ancient capital of Japan for more than 1000 years. Today, many travelers to Kyoto are keen to see the ancient Japanese treasures left over from this long history. Through my experiences as private tour guide for six years, I would strongly recommend these five sights to people visiting Kyoto for the first time:

1. Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkakuji is a Zen Buddhist temple. The world-famous pavilion of the three-story building stands by a beautiful man-made lake. The surface of the second and third floors is covered with real gold leaf. The golden pavilion is just breath-taking, especially in the morning, when on a clear day you can see its reflection shimmering on the lake’s surface.

2. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle was built in the early 17th century by the shogun as a temporary residence. Ninomaru Palace is about 400 years old; the original building stands with a variety of paintings, wooden carvings, and metal ornaments. You take off shoes at the entrance, and then enter the palace, where you can see what grand power the shogun had.

3. Sanjusangendo Temple
Sanjusangendo Temple has a 120-meter-long hall and it’s famous for its 1001 golden Buddhist statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. In the centre, you see a large, sitting statue and 500 life-size statues are standing in ten rows each side. Every Kannon has eleven heads and 42 arms. All together they make a truly impressive sight.

4. Fushimi Inari Shrine
This is a renowned Shinto shrine. A great number of people come here to wish for their business success. It’s famous for its thousands of red gates called “torii” in Japanese, regarded as barriers against evil spirits. When you walk through the red tunnel of red gates, you may feel something special (or mysterious).

5. Gion District
Gion is famous as Kyoto’s Geisha District. You have surely heard of Geisha before; they are female experts of Japanese traditional arts. In Gion you will see lots of traditional Japanese-style houses with lattice. Many of them are restaurants and shops, and others are called “ochaya” or teahouse, where maiko (trainees to the geiko, usually between 15 and 20 years old) and geiko (geisha) entertain guests by showing their Japanese dance, playing traditional games, talking and serving sake. If you are lucky, you may meet maiko moving to and from their house. But be careful not to be too excited when you meet her!

Thank you Setsuko! This is a terrific primer for the first-time visitor. If you’re looking to gain a deeper understanding of Japanese history and culture, and glimpse parts of Kyoto fewer tourists see, consider getting in touch with Setsuko for a private tour.
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