Higashiyama Walking Tour, Kyoto

Higashiyama Walking Tour (Self Guided), Kyoto

Kyoto is a city catering for tourists, especially the ones with love of history, religion and, of course, Japanese culture. Many of Kyoto's attractions are located in the eastern part of the city, which itself is split into wards. One of them is the Higashiyama Ward, home to several famous temples of Kyoto, including centuries-old Zen and Shinto sites such as lantern-lit Yasaka shrine and hillside temple Kiyomizu-dera, where the look and the feel of feudal-era Japan is still preserved. To find out more about Higashiyama, take this self-guided walking tour.
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Higashiyama Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Higashiyama Walking Tour
Guide Location: Japan » Kyoto (See other walking tours in Kyoto)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.6 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: emma
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Kiyomizu-dera Temple
  • Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zakaa Streets
  • Kodai-ji Temple
  • Nene-no-Michi (The Path of Nene)
  • Yasaka Shrine
  • Chion-in Temple
  • Shoren-in Temple
Kiyomizu-dera Temple

1) Kiyomizu-dera Temple (must see)

Kiyomizu-dera 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 original temple 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 the location near the Otowa Waterfall. Today, many parts of the temple have been renovated.

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 features the design typical of the Haien era. The outer sanctuary is decorated with paintings donated by local tradesmen, and the inner sanctuary carries gold leaf images carved on lacquer. Also, within the complex there is a shrine dedicated to the Shinto deity of love. The wooden terrace of the temple offers spectacular views across Kyoto.

Why You Should Visit:
Multiple Shinto-style temples and buildings are well kept and positioned up a hill giving access to the great surrounding scenery.
Despite a large number of visitors, the site is spacious enough to 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, which is always helpful, given a wide array of products to choose from.
Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zakaa Streets

2) Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zakaa Streets (must see)

The Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zaka are two parallel streets in the Historical Preservation District of Kyoto. They retain the environment of old Japan with traditional Japanese wooden houses flanking a stone paved street.

The Ninen-zaka means Two Year Hill & Sannen-zaka means Three Year Hill. They are located at the foot of the Higashiyama Mountains. The streets are popular with tourists because they are located near famous Kyoto landmarks including the Kiyomizu Dera Temple, the Kodai ji Temple and the Yasaka shrine. Visitors also come to pay homage to the famous Japanese portrait artist, Yumeji Takehisa whose house is located here.

The shops that line the streets sell traditional arts, crafts and products like incense sticks, fans, textiles, candles, confectionary, souvenirs and intricate tableware. Some of the houses are restaurants and tea houses where weary tourists and shoppers can rest their feet. The two streets are steep slopes and can be difficult for some visitors to climb. The Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zaka Streets give visitors a sense of what streets were like during the Haien era in Kyoto.
Kodai-ji Temple

3) Kodai-ji Temple

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 temple was built using the 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 have survived.

Managed by monks from the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism, the Kodai-ji temple has many of its structures and objects declared Important Cultural Assets. These include the main gate from 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. Within the garden there are tea houses designed by contemporary Japanese artists. The gardens are illuminated every autumn between late October and early December, and visitors flock here regularly to enjoy the tranquil, aesthetically lighted garden and the spectacular night views of Kyoto opening 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 surrounding the temple is kept to perfection – each stone is meaningfully placed in its location.
Every aspect of this temple is blended in so well and worth spending a whole day exploring!
It is also interesting to explore the street around the temple to feel Kyoto's ancient atmosphere.

Admission includes access to a small associated museum located down the hill, by the Path of Nene, and across the street from the temple itself.
Prepare to climb many stairs up just to get to the temple; once inside, you'll have to do another climb up the mountain.
Nene-no-Michi (The Path of Nene)

4) Nene-no-Michi (The Path of Nene)

Nene-no-Michi Lane is a path that runs by Kodai-ji Temple, and is named for the widow of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was known as Nene. The temple was found by Nene herself, hence the name of the path. Pretty much a pedestrian-only zone, this path is a perfect place for a stroll and gets particularly picturesque in spring when the cherry trees are in blossom, which in turn also makes it just as crowded. At this time, amid the ambling masses of tourists you can meet many people wearing kimonos and yukatas, creating the feel of ancient Japan.

This flagstone walkway passes by many important sights in the Southern Higashiyama area, linking Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka with the Kodai-ji Temple and Maruyama-koen Park along the way. One of its highlight attractions is the Gionkaku tower of the Daiun-in Temple – a somewhat queer looking structure resembling a wooden float like the ones used in the Gion Festival.

Normally closed to the public, the Gionkaku tower is open in summer, but do remember to check online if it is indeed open before going. The 36-meter tall tower offers a spectacular view, but no photos are allowed, unfortunately.
Along the Path of Nene there are many signs and lanterns with the words “Nene no michi” written in Japanese. Taking a photo at such signs is a popular joyful activity.
There are also a number of Buddha statues allowed to be touched, so feel free to do that. Among them there is one of Hotei, a Buddhist figure with a big belly. See if you can find it!
Yasaka Shrine

5) Yasaka Shrine

The Yasaka Shrine is a Shinto temple located in the Gion District of Kyoto, and is famous for being the venue of the Gion Matsuri Summer festival celebrated in July. 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. Since then it has become an annual tradition in Kyoto.

The Yasaka Shrine was built in 656 AD and was dedicated to the God of prosperity, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, his wife and 8 children. The present shrine is the result of a reconstruction of the original buildings carried out in 1654.

The entrance to the Yasaka Shrine is through a red two-storey gate, called the Ro-Mon, flanked by statues of Shinto guardian Gods, while the steps to the shrine are guarded by figures of Korean Dogs. The Honden is the main hall where the Deity is worshiped. Worshipers 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 a 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:
One of the sites worth exploring in the Gion part of Kyoto, and a great starting point for a 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 around the grounds.
There are some decent street food options within and plenty of vending machines around so you won't go hungry/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

6) Chion-in Temple

The Chion-in temple is one of the most sacred sites in Japan. This is the main temple of the Jodo-Shu or “Pure Land” sect of Buddhism, and was built in 1234 by a Buddhist monk, named Genchi. The latter 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 up to 3,000 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.
Shoren-in Temple

7) Shoren-in Temple

The Shoren-in Temple is managed by the Tendai sect of Buddhism. It is a beautiful and tranquil temple set amid green surroundings at the foot of the Higashiyama Mountains near Kyoto. It is one of the Monzeki temples in the city where the head priest was a member of the Imperial Family.

The Shoren-in Temple was built by the retired Emperor Toba for Gyogen, the head priest of the Enryaku-ji Temple and his seventh son who was Gyogen’s student. Until the Meiji era, only members of the Imperial Family could become head priests of the temple. When the Imperial palace burned down in the Shogun era, the Shoren-in temple served as the temporary residence of the Empress Gosakuramachi.

Visitors to the Shoren-in pass through the entrance to a drawing room with beautiful paintings covering the walls and sliding doors. The largest building within the complex is the Shinden. Another notable structure is the Shijokodo Hall that has two rare paintings, one featuring a Mandala or traditional Buddhist geometric painting, and the other – a drawing of the Deity Fudo Myoo. The gardens surrounding the temple have old and large camphor trees, and are illuminated at night during spring and autumn.

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