Higashiyama Area Walking Tour (Self Guided), Kyoto

Kyoto is a city made for tourists, especially the ones with love for history, interest in religion and, of course, Japanese culture. Many of Kyoto's attractions are located in the eastern part of the city, which, in turn, is split into wards. One of them is the Higashiyama Ward, home to several famous temples of Kyoto, as well as the popular Gion geisha district. To find out more about Higashiyama, take this walking tour.
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Higashiyama Area Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Higashiyama Area Walking Tour
Guide Location: Japan » Kyoto (See other walking tours in Kyoto)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 3 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 5.3 Km or 3.3 Miles
Author: emma
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Kyoto National Museum
  • Sanjusangen-do Temple
  • Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Gallery
  • Kiyomizu-dera Temple
  • Kodai-ji Temple
  • Yasaka Shrine
  • Chion-in Temple
  • Shinmonzen-dori
  • Gion District
Kyoto National Museum

1) Kyoto National Museum (must see)

The Kyoto National Museum (KNM) is dedicated to displaying pre-modern Japanese arts and crafts. It is one of the three museums in Japan that is owned and maintained by the Imperial Family.

The KNM is housed in a building designed by architect Katayama Tokuma. It was opened for public viewing in 1897. A new building with display halls, designed by Morita Keiichi was added to the existing facility in 1966. The Museum has over 12,000 objects of which 6,000 are on display. More than 230 objects that belong to the museum have been declared National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.

The Kyoto National Museum is divided into three sections. The fine arts section consists of sculpture, paintings and Japanese calligraphy. The Handicrafts section has pottery, textile, metalwork and lacquer work. The archeology section has objects obtained from excavations in different parts of the country. Notable collections and objects are the largest collection of artifacts from the Haien Era, a collection of rare ancient Chinese and Japanese Sutras, the Senzui Byōbu or landscape screen from the 11th century and the Gakizōshi or scroll of the hungry ghosts from the 12th century. The Museum also hosts special themed exhibitions from time to time.

Why You Should Visit:
To make better sense of what you may see in the temples, shrines, and public spaces of the unique and ancient city of Kyoto.
The exhibits are well-curated; the artifacts & artwork are displayed so as not to be overwhelming, and the English descriptions are cogent & understandable.
There is an audio tour available for 500 yen.

No photo-taking is allowed in the galleries – you aren't even allowed to use smartphones to text or take notes.
Don't miss the small outdoor path that winds through some sculptures and cultural artifacts, however.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 9:30am-5pm; admission ends 30min before closing
Sanjusangen-do Temple

2) Sanjusangen-do Temple (must see)

The Sanjusangen-do is a Buddhist temple in Kyoto dedicated to the Bodhisattva Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara or the thousand-armed Kannon. The 100-meter long structure is the longest wooden building in Japan.

The temple was built under the orders of Emperor Go-Shirakawa before he retired to lead a religious life in 1164. It is managed by the Tendai sect of Buddhism. The building was destroyed by a fire in 1249 and the present structure was built in 1266. Archery contests are held in the west verandah of the temple from the Edo period. A well-known duel between the warrior Miyamoto and Yoshioka Denshichiro was fought here in 1604.

At the center of the Sanjusangen-do temple is a six-foot-tall statue of the Kannon. The statue dates from 1254 and has eleven faces and a thousand arms. The central statue is surrounded by a thousand life-sized and gold-leaf-covered Kannon statues created by renowned sculptor Tankei in the 12th and 13th centuries. Behind the thousand statues are the figures of the 28 Japanese Deities said to protect the Buddhist universe. The Rite of the Willow is held at the temple every January. Worshippers can get their heads touched with a sacred willow branch to prevent and cure headaches.

Why You Should Visit:
While it may look like many other temples from the outside, the main hall with its 1001 Buddhas is an incredible sight.
They have nice English-speaking volunteer guides, but you can also go in by yourself and get almost the same info from the signs.
The surrounding manicured garden is small but pleasant/peaceful enough, worthy of a 10-15 minute stroll before heading out.

Photos are forbidden inside the hall, so buy the cheap guidebook with lovely pictures and text as a memory.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 8am-5pm (Apr 1 - Nov 15); 9am-4pm (Nov 16 - Mar 31)
Admission ends 30 minutes before closing time.
Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Gallery

3) Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Gallery

The Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Gallery is a repository of Japanese folk art. The former home of renowned potter and folk art promoter Kawai Kanjiro houses this unique museum that displays his work.

The well known Japanese potter, Kawai Kanjiro (1890 to 1966) lived and worked in the building that now houses a museum in his honor. He was one of the leaders of the Mingei or Folk Art Movement that sought to preserve traditional Japanese crafts that were disappearing with the advent of the industrial revolution and being replaced by mass produced machine made objects.

The Museum is small and privately run by members of the Kawai family. Visitors can get an insight of how a Japanese family lives while touring the museum. Objects on display are asymmetrical glazed pottery created by the artist, pottery with expressionistic techniques like Tsutsugaki or slip trailed decoration, Ronuki or wax resist decorations and Hakeme or white slip decoration. The artist’s studio and Noborigama or kiln is located at the back of the museum. There is also a special section displaying the woodcarvings created by Kawai Kanjiro. The museum is located in a small street to the southwest of the Higashi-oji-dori and Gojo-dori intersection in Kyoto and stays open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 am till 5 pm.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple

4) Kiyomizu-dera Temple (must see)

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is an independent Buddhist temple in Kyoto associated with the Hosso sect of Buddhism. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Kiyomizu-dera was built in 778 by the Buddhist monk Enchin in honor of the Bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, Kannon Bosatsu. The present building commissioned by the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu dates back to 1633. Kiyomizu-dera means Temple of the Pure Water and gets its name from its location near the Otowa Waterfall. Today many parts of the temple are being renovated and the refurbishments are likely to be completed in 2013.

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is unique because it is constructed without using a single nail. The street leading to the temple is flanked by shops selling handicrafts and sweets. The gates have statues of Deva Kings and Korean Dogs that are believed to protect the temple from damage. The main hall has the design of temples in the Haien era. The outer sanctuary is decorated with paintings donated by local tradesmen and the inner sanctuary has gold leaf images carved on lacquer. There is also a shrine dedicated to the Shinto deity of love within the temple complex. The wooden terrace of the temple offers spectacular views across Kyoto.

Why You Should Visit:
Multiple Shinto-style temples and buildings well kept and positioned up a hill giving access to the great surrounding scenery.
There's a large number of visitors; fortunately, though, the site is large so it can accommodate the volume.
Lots of walking to do but the uphill road leading towards it is lively and packed with interesting souvenir shops.

Some shops let you try the foods/delicacies they sell and that is always helpful as there is such a wide array of products to choose from.
Please note that the main temple is under restoration work and covered with scaffolding until 2020.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 6am-6pm (until 6:30pm on weekends/holidays from mid-April through July and every day in August & September).
Special illumination hours are held in spring for cherry blossoms, summer for the high tourist amount, and autumn for fall foliage. The illumination hours end at 9pm.
Kodai-ji Temple

5) Kodai-ji Temple (must see)

The Kodai-ji Temple was built in 1606 in memory of the spirit of the Samurai warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi by his grieving widow Nene. It is famous for the Maki-e paintings that cover the walls of the Spirit Hall.

The Kodai-ji temple was built using funds donated by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun who was a vassal of the Samurai warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Nene the wife of Hideyoshi became a Buddhist nun after the death of her husband. The temple complex suffered damage by fire in 1798 and only two of the original structures remain. It is managed by monks from the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism.

Many of the structures and objects in the Kodai-ji temple have been declared as Important Cultural Assets. These include the main gate that dates back to 1606 and the Spirit Hall. The Maki-e paintings in the Spirit Hall are worked with gold and lacquer. A notable painting is a well-preserved portrait of Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Another notable feature is a bronze bell that dates back to 1606. The temple is surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens with gravel paths and a bamboo grove. The garden has tea houses designed by contemporary Japanese artists. The gardens are illuminated every autumn between late October and early December and visitors flock to enjoy the tranquil, esthetically lighted garden and the spectacular night views of Kyoto from the temple.

Why You Should Visit:
This temple is a summary of Kyoto: a Zen garden, a worship hall, a couple of tea ceremony rooms, a bamboo forest, a beautiful garden, and two memorial halls.
The garden around the temple is kept to perfection – each stone is meant to be in its location.
Every aspect of this temple is blended in so well – worth spending a whole day exploring it all!
It's also interesting to explore the street on the way around the temple to feel Kyoto's old scenery.

Admission includes access to a small associated museum, located down the hill and across the street from the temple itself.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-5:30pm (entry until 5pm)

Illumination event hours:
Spring: mid-March to beginning of May; after sunset to 9:30pm; Summer: 1-18 August; after sunset to 9:30pm; Autumn: late October to beginning of December; after sunset to 9:30pm; Winter: last day of the year.
Yasaka Shrine

6) Yasaka Shrine (must see)

The Yasaka Shrine is a Shinto temple located in the Gion District of Kyoto. It is the venue of the Gion Matsuri Summer festival celebrated in July.

The Yasaka Shrine was built in 656 AD and was dedicated to the God of prosperity, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, his wife and 8 children. In 869, portable shrines called the Omikoshi were paraded through the streets of Kyoto as an appeal to the deity for relief from a deadly epidemic that ravaged the city. It has become an annual event in Kyoto. The present shrine was the result of a reconstruction of the original buildings in 1654.

The entrance to the Yasaka Shrine is through a red two-storey gate called the Ro-Mon. The entrance is flanked by statues of Shinto guardian Gods and the steps to the shrine are guarded by figures of Korean Dogs. The Honden is the main hall where the Deity is worshipped. Worshippers ring the bell at the entrance to wake the Deity up before praying. To the left of the Honden is the hall for offerings and to the right is the hall where religious ceremonies are performed. Kyoto residents flock to the shrine on New Year Day to pray for prosperity in the coming year. The Maruyama Park near the shrine is Kyoto’s most famous venue for cherry blossom viewing in spring.

Why You Should Visit:
Among the sites to explore in the Gion part of Kyoto, and a great starting point for your walk to Kiyomizu-dera.
You can visit the shrine at any time as the gates are never closed. It is free to enter to wander amongst the grounds.
There are some decent street food options within and plenty of vending machines around so you won't go thirsty.

Try visiting in the evening when the lanterns are illuminated everywhere in the shrine surroundings. The view on the city from the main gate is also particularly nice at this time.
If you go in the late afternoon just before sunset you'll find lots of girls wearing traditional clothes. If you are polite they will probably love to smile for your picture.
Chion-in Temple

7) Chion-in Temple (must see)

The Chion-in temple is one of the most important sacred sites in Japan. It is the main temple of the Jodo-Shu or Pure Land sect of Buddhism.

The Chion-in Temple was built in 1234 by a Buddhist monk named Genchi. He was a disciple of the founder of the Pure Land sect, Honen. It was built on the location where Honen preached his philosophy to the common people and where he fasted unto death in 1212. The Jodo-Shu teachings became the most widely accepted Buddhist teachings in Japan. The Hollywood movie, 'The Last Samurai', was filmed at the Chion-in Temple. Most of the buildings were destroyed by fires and the present complex was built in the 17th century.

Visitors enter the Chion-in Temple through the largest gate in Japan, the 79 foot high San Mon. The large main hall can hold 3000 people. The corridor behind the main hall that leads to an Assembly Hall has a nightingale floor that makes a squeaking noise when a person walks on it. The 74-ton temple bell of the Chion Temple is the heaviest in Japan. A small shrine within the complex called the Mei- Do houses a statue of Honen. The statue is designated as one of the National Treasures of Japan.

Why You Should Visit:
The main building walk-up is a highlight as not many temples have the same size, nor are they open for visits.
The grounds are well preserved, making the visit enjoyable and even serene despite the number of tourists flocking here.
There is also access to the Kyoto Trail up into the hills at the back of the complex.

It is possible to weave through the surrounding neighborhoods and see Kiyomizu-dera, Kodai-ji, Chion-in, and Nanzen-ji, among others, all in one day.
Keep in mind, however, that the area is quite hilly and that Chion-in will have lots of steps.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-4:30pm (entry until 4pm); temple grounds are always open

8) Shinmonzen-dori

The Shinmonzen-dori is regarded as the antique treasure trove of Kyoto. It is a small street with two storied wooden houses in the Gion Dustrict of the City. There are less than 17 stores in the street and each specializes in a well known Kyoto art or craft. The stores have international customers looking for authentic art and crafts and the shopkeepers are known to be trustworthy and knowledgeable.

The Shinmonzen-dori has shops specializing in scrolls, small carved ornaments attached to traditional Japanese clothing called Netsuke, lacquer ware, bronze, wood block prints, screens, paintings, ceramic bowls and antiques.

Well known stores at the Shinmonzen-dori are the Kawasaki Fine Arts store that specializes in selling six panel folding screens. They sell expensive antique screens and budget friendly screens painted by small upcoming artists. Hanging scrolls, Edo period Ukiyo-e prints, ceramics, wood block prints and lacquer ware are available at the store. The Ezoshi store sells both Ukiyo-e prints and the popular 19th century Shin Hanga prints of the new print movement. Kaori the incense shop offers perfumes and incense sticks. The Old Art Kanzando offers a range of porcelain dishes and plates and Imari style of pottery. The shop also sells ornamental hairpins. There is also a government registered Ryokan or traditional inn with a small garden and tea house. Candle lit tea ceremonies are held here on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Gion District

9) Gion District

The Gion District in Kyoto is the location where the traditional Japanese entertainers called the Geisha and their apprentices called Maikos reside and entertain businessmen. The Kyoto word for Geisha is Geiko which means Women of Art.

The Gion District is located around Shijo Avenue in Kyoto between the Yasaka Shrine and the Kamo River. All the buildings that flank the streets are built in traditional Japanese style and are called Machiyas or Town Houses. Inside these are shops, restaurants and Ochayas - traditional Tea Houses where Geiko entertain customers. Gion has been a Geisha district since the 1500s. Part of the street has been declared a Historic Preservation District and the City of Kyoto has made efforts to preserve the traditional architecture by moving all overhead utilities underground.

Tourists flock to the Gion district today to catch site of a Geiko or Maiko en route to her engagement in full regalia. The district comes alive at night when patrons of the Ochayas come for their evening entertainment. A cultural show is held every day at the art center, called the Gion Corner, where tourists can view Geikos performing several traditional Japanese arts like tea ceremonies, dances and short comic plays. In April, the Miyako Odori festival, where Meiko perform traditional dances, is held here.

Walking Tours in Kyoto, Japan

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Travel Distance: 8.7 Km or 5.4 Miles
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Travel Distance: 8.5 Km or 5.3 Miles
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Tour Duration: 2 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.6 Km or 2.2 Miles

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