Museums and Sights: overview

Kyoto's most exciting attractions

Museums and Sights: overview

If you could measure a city by its monuments, Kyoto would be one of the world’s greatest. Consider the numbers: 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto Prefecture, 14 within the city limits; around 1,600 temples, 400 shrines and more picture-postcard gardens than anyone can count. This city is home to just 1.2 per cent of Japan’s population, but 20 per cent of its National Treasures.

The problem, of course, is deciding what to visit from this surfeit of attractions. It was in 1994 that UNESCO announced its 14 favourites, and you could do worse than follow its advice. The list flags most of the unmissable sights:Kiyomizu-dera , Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Koke-dera. However, sightseeing and heritage protection lists don’t always share the same criteria, and many visitors will find the lush gardens of Katsura Rikyu, the 1,001 statues of Sanjusangen-do and the avenue of vermillion gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha more memorable sights than the UNESCO-backed Ujigami Jinja or Shimogamo Jinja.

There are also temples that would be the highlight of most other cities, but barely make it on to the B-list here. Until the 15th century, Kennin-ji was among the most influential temples in the country. These days, even though it boasts a photogenic dry Zen garden, fabulous artworks and the grave of the monk who brought Zen to Japan, Kennin-ji is often overlooked in the scurry to reach the landmark temples at the foot of the nearby mountains. Shoren-in has suffered from a similar fate, as a result of its far-too-famous neighbours, despite having once been a temporary Imperial Palace and possessing a garden that is associated with three of the biggest names of landscaping – Kobori Enshu, Soami and Jihei Ogawa. The garden, known for its great acoustics, hosts occasional koto and shakuhachi (bamboo flute) concerts (ask the tourist office for dates).

Be wary, though, of temple fatigue. The city may be awash with architectural masterpieces, but there comes a point when even the most dedicated temple-hopper wilts at the thought of seeing yet another ancient monument. Luckily, Kyoto is much more than an architectural time capsule, and exudes plenty of charm aside from the parts that were built centuries ago. You should not miss the modern art world in the Okazaki region, just south of Heian Jingu. The Kyoto Art Map, available free at Gallery Haneusagi and Gallery Maronie, will lead you to dozens of other independent galleries. Be sure also to visit the impressive National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

Fans of modern architecture can stroll Sanjo Dori to see the early 20th-century works of Kingo Tatsuno, Yasushi Kataoka and Shigenori Yoshii, or the designs of recent years, such as Kyoto Station and the Sfera Building.

But the city’s best new attraction is a forward-thinking museum devoted to an icon of modern Japanese culture: manga. The Kyoto International Manga Museum draws links from the comic books back through kamishibai story-card performances to ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) and even first millennium scrolls, but its eye is on the future. The museum holds symposiums pairing foreign graphic artists with local manga greats, invites DJs to perform inspired sets, and uses manga as a springboard for academic research. The best way to treat Kyoto is not as a checklist of must-sees, but as a bubbling centre of culture, which happens to be furnished with more than its fair share of landmarks.

Gorgeous gardens

No other city in Japan comes close to Kyoto for exquisite gardens, many of which benefit from shakkei (borrowed scenery), whereby the city’s scenic backdrop is incorporated into the fabricated landscape.

The history of the city can be traced in the gardens attached to its temples, shrines, palaces and villas. The peaceful Heian period (794-1185) saw imperial power flourish. With no great power struggles to contend with, nobles were free to spend time on aesthetic pursuits. Consequently, the gardens of Kyoto’s early years were scenic and highly symbolic. Byodo-in, in nearby Uji, is the best example of the era’s ambitious landscaping. Heian Jingu, though built in 1895, borrows consciously from the designs of the earlier era.

Zen arrived from China in the 12th century, coinciding with the rise of the samurai. The monks and warriors shared an austere aesthetic, reflected in the karesansui (dry Zen garden). Devised to aid the priests in their meditation, rather than for admiring, the dry gardens consist of a small area of raked gravel broken up by rockwork and dabs of greenery.

Few gardens in the world have undergone as much analysis as Ryoan-ji, which is an irony, given that analysing is exactly what you aren’t supposed to do. Ignore the speculation of academics over what the layout might mean, and simply enjoy it for what it is: a minimalist, elegant aid to contemplation that has captivated people for half a millennium.

A surprising number of gardens are attributed to Enshu Kobori (1579-1647). If all the claims are true, he must have been a busy man. The gardens of Nijo Castle, Sento Gosho and Konchi-in (a sub-temple of Nanzen-ji, p100) are among those with convincing evidence of a Kobori connection.

In the 17th century, under the introverted regime of the shogun, the nobles were again free to bury themselves in artistic passions. The era brought three of the city’s greatest gardens: Katsura Rikyu , Shugaku-in Rikyu and Sento Gosho. All three are gardens of leisure, to be strolled in rather than studied.

When the shogun was deposed in 1868, Japan opened its ports to foreign trade and influence. Glimpses of these ideas showed up in the garden of Murin-an, where Heian Jingu landscaper Jihei Ogawa blended elements of English lawns with the Japanese stroll garden.

And finally, there’s Kyouen, a 21st-century take on those ancient Zen gardens. It may not last as long or inspire as much awe as its city siblings, but it’s a garden and dining complex that only Kyoto could produce.

Planning ahead

A little preparation goes a long way in Kyoto. It’s not just hotels and restaurants that require advance booking: some of the city’s best palaces, gardens and temples demand that you apply for permission well in advance.

For some attractions, it’s as painless as filling out an online form; for others the archaic application procedure demands that you write to the venue with your request and await their reply. To see the moss garden of Saiho-ji, you’ll need to send them a selection of preferred dates, with a stamped, self-addressed postcard. About two weeks later, you should receive a reply specifying a date and time for your visit. Write to the following address: Saiho-ji, 56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto, 615 8286.

The Imperial Household Agency asks for reservations to visit its properties (Kyoto Gosho, Sento Gosho, Katsura Rikyu, Shugaku-in Rikyu). The easiest way to apply is online. For more information, visit But bear in mind that you’ll need to have an address in Japan to receive the permission card. You can also visit the Household’s office on the western side of Kyoto Gyoen to secure a pass in person. The office is open on weekdays, 8.45am-noon, 1-4pm, but closed on national holidays and over the New Year (29 December-3 January).

In peak season, apply at least a week in advance; off-peak, two days’ notice is usually enough. Bring your passport and they will reserve a place for you on their guided tours. Access to all the imperial properties is free, and the Kyoto Gosho tour is in English, although visitors must be aged 18 or over.

With so many trips that are easy to plan, it may be tempting to skip these sights, but all five are worth the effort of advance preparation.

Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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