Higashiyama Walking Tour, Kyoto

Higashiyama Walking Tour (Self Guided), Kyoto

Kyoto is a city catering to tourists, especially those who love history, religion, and, of course, Japanese culture. Many of Kyoto's attractions are found 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, where the look and the feel of feudal-era Japan are still preserved.

One of Higashiyama's most iconic landmarks is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, perched gracefully atop a hillside offering panoramic views of the city. Walking down the enchanting cobblestone paths of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Streets, visitors are transported back in time, surrounded by traditional wooden machiya houses and charming shops selling local crafts and delicacies.

Nearby stands Kodai-ji Temple, renowned for its stunning Zen gardens and intricate architecture, providing a serene escape from the bustling streets outside. Nene-no-Michi Lane, named after the wife of a feudal lord, exudes an old-world charm with its narrow alleyways and quaint teahouses.

Yasaka-jinja Shrine, a vibrant symbol of Shinto spirituality, stands as a testament to Kyoto's cultural legacy and hosts lively festivals throughout the year. Just north of it, Chion-in Temple, known as the "Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism," draws parallels to its Roman Catholic counterpart in sheer scale and architectural splendor, featuring a grand entrance gate and sprawling grounds, housing revered effigies and intricate stone pathways.

Finally, Shoren-in Temple, a quiet hideaway, captivates visitors with its exquisite palace architecture and tranquil gardens, culminating in enchanting illuminations during spring and autumn.

To experience the allure of Higashiyama is to immerse oneself in the rich tapestry of Kyoto's past and present. Each step here unveils layers of history and culture waiting to be discovered. We, hereby, encourage you to venture forth and explore this treasure trove of Higashiyama's heritage, where every corner tells a story and every sight leaves a lasting impression.
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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 Lane
  • Yasaka-jinja Shrine
  • Chion-in Temple
  • Shoren-in Temple
1
Kiyomizu-dera Temple

1) Kiyomizu-dera Temple (must see)

Perched high above the sight-dense Southern Higashiyama district, Kiyomizu stands as a timeless emblem of Kyoto, seamlessly blending the sacred with the secular. Beyond the throngs of visitors lies a remarkable temple offering panoramic vistas of the city below. And if you dare to brave the crowds during cherry blossom season, the nighttime illumination of the surrounding trees is a sight to behold.

The temple's genesis is intertwined with the Otowa Spring, aptly named Kiyomizu, or "Pure Water". In 778, monk Enchin Shonin, guided by a divine vision, discovered this sacred spring. Inspired by this revelation, an aristocratic benefactor bestowed a grand hall upon the site, modeled after noble palaces rather than traditional temples, and featuring a regal shingled roof. Within resides a revered 1,000-armed Kannon, unveiled to the public only once every 33 years.

A precipitous viewing platform, originally a stage for sacred dances, offers vistas over the verdant slopes. Supported by colossal pillars without a single nail, the platform's edge plunges 13 meters (43 feet) below. Once a tragic endpoint for desperate souls, it now serves as a vantage point for admiring southern Kyoto's scenic splendor.

Jishu Shrine and the temple's verdant grounds harbor secrets and traditions. Expectant mothers seek solace at the pagoda, praying for safe childbirth, while the Otowa Spring draws pilgrims lining up to sip its healing waters. Divided into three streams, each purportedly bestowing health, longevity, or success, visitors must choose wisely—a tradition upheld for over 1,200 years.
2
Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zakaa Streets

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

Behold the quaintness of Kyoto's eastward lanes, where flagstones pave the way to a journey back in time. These lanes, steeped in history and tradition, stretch like ancient veins connecting the city's revered temples, serene gardens, and "ryokan" inns.

As you meander along, revel in the absence of unsightly overhead wires—oh, the luxury! And fear not, for rickshaw rides await, manned by eager lads donning traditional attire, while colorful yukata-clad maidens add a splash of festival flair. Truly, it's a time warp back to yesteryear, complete with throngs of fellow time travelers.

Amidst the historical façades, modernity peeks through in the form of upgraded shops and eateries—because who wouldn't want a Starbucks nestled within an ancient wooden house? Step into shops, and you'll find yourself surrounded by tantalizing treats like Japanese sweets, pickles, and souvenirs galore. Fancy a tea ceremony or perhaps renting a kimono? Look no further, for this is the ultimate destination for all your cultural cravings.

Tip:
For those seeking respite from the daytime crush of tourists, a strategic visit during the early morning or evening hours is advised. Sure, the shops may be closed, but the subdued lighting only adds to the enchantment of the ancient surroundings.
3
Kodai-ji Temple

3) Kodai-ji Temple

More than your average temple, Kodai-ji is like a cultural treasure chest curated by none other than Japan's widow-turned-nun extraordinaire, Nene. After her powerful husband, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, shuffled off this mortal coil in 1598, she planned her getaway and was fortunate to receive some major patronage from the new shogun. The result? A Zen temple dripping with style.

Before you even step foot in the gardens, brace yourself for an eyeful indoors. Painted 'fusuma' (sliding screens) and a dry landscape that morphs into different designs throughout the year will have you scratching your head like a Zen master pondering a puzzling koan.

Once you hit the gardens, get ready for some serious sensory overload. The upper and lower ponds are like nature's own Instagram filters, reflecting cherry blossoms or maple leaves in a dance of color and light. As you wander up the garden path, you'll stumble upon a memorial hall for Hideyoshi and Nene, while Hideyoshi's love for tea is on full display with two historical tea houses at the top of the hill. On your way back, don't miss the bamboo grove and the jaw-dropping Ryozen Kannon statue, standing tall as a war memorial since 1955.

Nearby, you'll find the subtemple of Entoku-in, where Nene spent her golden years. It may be smaller in scale, but it's big on elegance, with narrow passages and fusuma paintings that'll transport you back in time. And the cherry on top? The option of a green tea set in front of one of Japan's most dynamic rock gardens, ready to soothe your soul after a day of temple-hopping.

Why You Should Visit:
Because Kodai-ji isn't just a temple—it's a whole day's worth of adventure wrapped in a kimono of ancient charm. And while you're at it, you can take a stroll around the neighboring street to soak up Kyoto's timeless atmosphere.

Tip:
Admission gets you into a small museum down the hill, so don't miss it! And be prepared to climb more stairs than you can shake a stick at—just think of it as your daily workout with a side of enlightenment.
4
Nene-no-Michi Lane

4) Nene-no-Michi Lane

Meandering through the historic wonders of Southern Higashiyama, this scenic flagstone pathway connecting key landmarks with the grace of a feudal lord's consort. Named after the wife of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it links the Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka lanes with iconic landmarks such as Kodai-ji Temple and Maruyama-koen Park.

While the occasional taxi or rickshaw may attempt to navigate through the sea of wandering tourists, fear not—this sanctuary is primarily reserved for foot traffic, offering an idyllic setting for leisurely strolls, especially during cherry blossom season, when the path is adorned with nature's finest blooms. And come evening, the tranquility is yours to savor, away from the daytime buzz.

Within this enclave lies the quaint Ishibe-koji alley, where time seems to stand still amidst the rustic charm of wooden homes, traditional restaurants, and cozy ryokan inns—a true embodiment of "wabi-sabi", Kyoto-style, where imperfection exudes its own unique allure.

Venturing further along, one encounters the enigmatic Gionkaku Tower of the Daiun-in Temple—an architectural oddity resembling a whimsical wooden float from the famed Gion Festival. While typically off-limits to the public, this towering structure opens its doors during summer, offering splendid panoramic views—just remember, no photos allowed!

Tips:
As you stroll along the lane, be sure to capture the essence of the journey with joyful snapshots at the signs and lanterns bearing the inscription "Nene-no-Michi" in Japanese. And don't hesitate to reach out and touch the Buddha statues along the way, including the jolly figure of Hotei with his ample belly—see if you can spot him amidst the surroundings!
5
Yasaka-jinja Shrine

5) Yasaka-jinja Shrine

At the eastern edge of Gion's main street looms a magnificent vermilion gate, the steps leading to it serving as a popular backdrop for countless snapshots. Beyond lies a pathway lined with tempting food stalls, guiding the way to Yasaka Shrine. Amidst this spectacle sits a stage with a triple row of lanterns, casting a glow that transforms the scene into a fairy tale come to life.

Yasaka Shrine takes center stage as the proud host of the renowned Gion Festival each July, a lively spectacle drawing throngs of revelers with its array of side events and delectable food offerings. The festival's roots trace back to the year 869, a time of dire epidemic, when portable shrines paraded through the streets in a plea for relief. Since then, it has blossomed into an annual tradition, yet Yasaka Shrine remains a captivating destination year-round, beyond the festival fervor.

Marvel at the Main Building's cypress bark roof, last rebuilt in 1654, while exploring the precincts teeming with sub-shrines honoring revered "kami" (gods) from across the nation. Unsurprisingly, a sub-shrine devoted to beauty often sees the presence of geishas.

Tip:
Adjacent lies Maruyama Park, whose Meiji-era designer artfully harnessed the waters of Lake Biwa to breathe life into its landscape. Here, picturesque arched bridges span tranquil carp ponds, imbuing the surroundings with an unmistakably Japanese ambiance. While cherry blossom season draws crowds, evenings in the park offer a serene retreat, seamlessly blending with the shrine's lantern-lit allure.
6
Chion-in Temple

6) Chion-in Temple

Just north of Yasaka-jinja and Maruyama Park, and a brisk 8-minute stroll north of Kōdai-ji, lies the colossal temple known colloquially as the "Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism". As the head temple of the Jōdo sect, this grand complex, a National Treasure of Japan, rivals its Roman Catholic counterpart in sheer scale.

The monumental front staircase has graced the silver screen, making notable appearances in both "The Last Samurai" and "Lost in Translation". But the true marvel awaits at the impressive Sanmon gate, where visitors can admire an unparalleled display of joinery. Standing tall at 24 meters and spanning 50 meters wide, it reigns as the country's largest wooden gate, a true architectural marvel.

Beyond the gate lies the heart of the temple, a sprawling courtyard crisscrossed by intricate stone pathways. The Miei-dō, or Main Hall, welcomes all with its free admission, housing an impressive effigy of Hōnen, the revered priest who laid the foundations of the Jōdo sect. Nearby, the Amida-dō, or Amida Hall, showcases a splendid visage of the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism, revered for creating a celestial realm where faithful chanters are warmly embraced. Further exploration within the temple's confines requires admission fees.

Tip:
Delve deeper, and you'll encounter two hidden treasures. Yūzen-en, a serene rock garden with a tranquil pond, graces the southeast of the Sanmon gate, while Hōjō-en, a timeless landscape garden dating back to the mid-17th century, lies east of the Main Hall. For an immersive experience, visitors can opt to explore both gardens (open until 4 PM) at a discounted rate.
7
Shoren-in Temple

7) Shoren-in Temple

Looking for a hideout from the tourist stampedes? Shoren-in might just be your ticket. With a rich and prestigious history, its former head priests hailed from the imperial family. Originally an imperial residence, this temple still exudes the elegance of palace architecture.

As you enter, you'll be greeted by ancient camphor trees, standing sentinel for over seven centuries. Inside the Kacho-den, admire paintings of lotus flowers and the esteemed 36 Immortal Poets. And don't miss the expansive tatami room, where visitors can unwind while gazing upon the serene pond garden, crafted by the master artist Soami (d.1525). With a moss garden, dry landscape garden, and azalea garden also on offer, this is indeed a paradise for garden lovers.

Traverse the covered corridors reminiscent of Heian palaces, leading to the main hall featuring a rather unusual object of worship: a mandala. Noteworthy too is the Kobun-tei tea house that rose from the ashes after a fire in 1993. Inside, you'll find paintings by Uemura Atsushi, a Kyoto artist known for his depictions of birds and flowers.

Spring and autumn? That's when Shoren-in flips the switch and becomes the Vegas of temples with its dazzling illuminations. With the deity Shijoko Nyorai associated with light, the temple's luminous events evoke a sense of sacred wonder. Indeed, experiencing Shoren-in's ethereal beauty is an opportunity not to be missed.

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