Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and known as the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines”. In actuality there are about 2000 temples and shrines in the city, but that is surely plenty for a two-day visit! Fortunately the city was spared devastation during the Second World War, and today many of the temples are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Higashiyama district is steeped in history and contains many of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto. Starting at the top of the hill, you can make your way down to the center of town and take in some of many temples in the area, and get a feel of the old capital. Be prepared for big crowds though, especially on weekends and holidays.
This Buddhist temple is the anchor of Higashiyama and possibly the most popular in all of Kyoto. The main hall is a huge wooden structure (and not a single nail used in its construction) that sits on the side of the mountain with great views over the city. The complex includes several smaller shrines, including the Jishu shrine dedicated to the “Love God” of matchmaking. Walk with your eyes closed from one “love stone” to the other, and you’re assured to find your love match!
During my visit, some of the buildings were covered in scaffolding for maintenance, and there was no access to the pagoda further up the hill. But a worthwhile visit, despite the big crowds.
Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka Streets
The pedestrian walks leading up the Kiyomizu temple are lined with shops selling traditional handicrafts, souvenirs, and local snacks. Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka preserved historic streets in particular have a cluster of traditional wooden storefronts along the narrow alleyways. Being on a hill, you also have great views over old rooftops and glimpses of nearby temples. Some of the side streets are quiet and less crowded, which is a nice break from the throngs of tourists. It is also very popular for (women) tourists to rent kimonos for the day and stroll the area.
Located further down the hill, Kodai-Ji Temple is a quiet oasis from the busy alleyways. The temple buildings are surrounded by Zen gardens where you can relax and admire the lush greenery and meticulous landscaping. Fall colours were beginning to show (about 3 weeks later all of Kyoto will be an explosion of bright red, orange, and yellow foliage). The temple site also includes a small bamboo grove.
At the bottom of the hill, Yasaka Shrine is located within walking distance to the Gion geisha district and is sometimes referred to as the Gion Shrine. Every July it is home to the Gion Matsuri festival, possibly the most famous festival in all of Japan. The Gion district originally came into existence as an entertainment area for visitors and pilgrims to this shrine.