The center of Kyoto is laid out in an easy-to-navigate grid-like pattern, with some locations such as the Imperial Palace and Nijō Castle taking up whole blocks, sprawling out with gardens, ancient halls, and fortifications centuries old. Despite being a city with all the luxuries you’ll need, Kyoto also possesses a charming natural aspect most easily understood alongside the Kamogawa River. Tucked amongst the many modern businesses are traditional machiya homes, museums, shrines, and temples, all just waiting to be discovered in the heart of the city.
Kyoto’s International Manga Museum is the result of the partnership between the city of Kyoto and Kyoto Seika University. Not only is it a museum for people to visit in order to learn about and enjoy manga culture, research and studies are carried out by the university as well. Located near the intersection of Oike and Karasuma streets, the large building and its grassy lawn make for an interestingly nostalgic sight, outwardly a school building but containing a fun world of comics within. Not only Japanese comics, either- the “International” in their name means you can take a look at a variety of manga from countries all over the world. Walking through what used to be a school leads you from large library rooms filled with books you can take and read anywhere on the grounds freely to more informative, display filled areas with information in Japanese and English. Rare books abound as well, and it’s an interesting trip through time taking a peak at Meiji Period comics and post-war “rental books” to see what people at that time were drawing and reading. Even if you aren’t a huge manga fan this museum can prove interesting from a cultural standpoint, for those looking for a leisurely day, or those with children.
Kyoto Sweets Museum
A little building tucked in beside a sweets shop on the college campus end of Karasuma Street, Shiryokan has one room on its upper floors that serves as a museum about wagashi, Japanese sweets. Within the room are several displays of amazingly well-crafted wagashi examples as well as historical documents like recipe books once used to illustrate sweet designs and seasonal offerings. Upon arriving at the exhibition room you’ll be surprised to see what you might think is a plant, but is actually delicately crafted and technically edible, everything from the tree trunk to the most delicate petals painstakingly made from various sweets. The sweet shop who sponsors the museum, Tawaraya Yoshitomi, can trace its history back to 1755. Be warned that there is no English language information available in the museum.
One of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, Shimogamo Shrine is one of a pair alongside Kamigamo Shrine that was constructed in the sixth and seventh centuries in order to protect against malign influences. One of seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, the shrine complex is surrounded by the Tadasu no Mori forest that shelters visitors in a world of green and winding streams as well as a small shrine used to pray for beauty. The Shimogamo Shrine buildings themselves are a lovely example of the classic white and vermilion colored architecture of Shinto, with a particularly striking two-storied gate and highly arched taikobashi bridge. The Mitarashi-sha subsidiary shrine on the property is located over a fresh underground spring and provides a picturesque scene, and visitors may also be interested in the small shrines dedicated to the Chinese Zodiac. One of the biggest festival parades in Kyoto, the Aoi Matsuri, also winds through and makes a stop at Shimogamo Shrine along their route to Kamigamo Shrine, serving as a reminder of just how important these shrines were considered by emperors in the past.
The Kamo River, or Kamogawa, is an important fixture in Kyoto, popular with citizens and tourists alike. On any given day you can find people taking a walk, exercising, relaxing, picnicking, feeding wild birds, or even striking up the band along the riverside. Special paths allow people to walk close to the river separated from the main street-level sidewalks, and bridges throughout the downtown area offer lovely views both downriver and up towards the mountains. In the past the river flowed directly through the middle of the ancient capital, but it was diverted to the east since it was considered a bad omen for the city to be divided in two. It served as an important source of fresh water and also aided in commercial enterprises such as yuzen fabric dying. While in Kyoto be sure to save some time to just relax by the river, whether it be in spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, in the summer when visitors flock to riverside restaurants for a cool breeze, in fall for the crisp air and colors, or in winter to view the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Known as the Kyoto residence of the famous leader Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun of the Edo Period), Nijō Castle is a stronghold that represents the prestige and power of the mighty leader known as the unifier of Japan. Construction on the castle was begun in 1601 and finished 25 years later by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu. In 1939, the castle was donated to the city of Kyoto and was officially opened to the public. Enjoy exploring and learning about Ieyasu’s dramatic and interesting life - no one said history had to be boring! With hundreds of varieties of flora as well, Nijō-jō is also a great place to view some of Japan’s treasured seasonal beauty.
Gosho (Imperial Palace)
The seat of Japanese imperial power for six centuries, the Imperial Palace stands within a sprawling park popular for leisurely strolls, jogging, picnics, and flower viewing. Hidden behind high walls and closed gates is the Imperial Palace itself, preserved as it was since the Emperor moved to Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s. Now easier to enjoy than ever thanks to increased public viewing hours, we highly recommend those in Kyoto take a look at this glimpse into history. Past the gates are various buildings that held important functions such as the Hall for State Ceremonies, the Emperor's living quarters, the Court Room, and the Imperial Study. Woven throughout and beside the buildings are gardens, trees, and a pond, making for a refreshing atmosphere. The grand and imposing buildings, constructed in a mostly open manner, allow you to imagine what life might have been like in that palace hundreds of years in the past. The Sentō Imperial Palace gardens are also located within the park for those who want to see more lovely traditional landscapes.
Mibu-dera is famous as the temple that once served as the headquarters to the illustrious/infamous Shinsengumi, a special police force organized by the shogunate to protect their interests in Kyoto during a time of political turmoil between forces supporting the military government and those who wished to return to imperial rule. Several graves of Shinsengumi members lay within the temple grounds, as well as a statue of leader Kondō Isami. Mibu-dera is also home to a large main hall, stupa, and sub-shrines. One of Kyoto’s oldest temples, Mibu-dera is a prime example of a temple that has remained relevant in the modern age, now operating many community services out of the temple grounds such as a daycare and retirement home.
Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum
One of the finest examples of art born from utilitarian items is Japanese netsuke: in a land without pockets they originally served as toggle-fasteners on the ends of cords used to keep one’s belongings secured at the kimono’s obi sash. Over time, these once simple, round pieces evolved into miniature sculptures, some of them becoming true works of art fit to be displayed beside the finest in the world. Netsuke reached an artistic height in the Edo period (1603 – 1868), and these classic works were built upon by generation after generation of craftsmen, their passion and skills inherited by contemporary artists operating to this day.
To gain true appreciation for these miniature works of art, don’t pass up the chance to visit the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum located near Mibu-dera temple in central Kyoto. Housed in a two-story samurai residence painstakingly restored to its former glory, this art museum is the definitive place to learn and admire the fine carving and creative spirit of Japanese netsuke.
A small temple located near the Imperial Palace, Rozan-ji is most famous as the site of the former manse where Murasaki Shikibu, author of the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, spent her years. Now known not only for its impressive history but also its lovely garden, Rozan-ji is most gorgeous when its periwinkle colored bellflowers are in full bloom throughout the grounds. Because of its connection to the Heian Period author, the rooms of the temple are filled with interesting items such as picture scrolls of the classic tale and games played by women of the period. Though the temple only contains a few rooms, an altar, and a garden open to the public, Rozan-ji is a quiet place where you can take a seat and simply enjoy the view.
Kyoto is home to several shrines and temples that, despite their treasures and natural beauty, remain somehow unknown to the average visitor. Honpō-ji, a Nichiren sect temple in central Kyoto, is one of these hidden gems! Especially recommended in sakura season when it provides a quiet place to enjoy cherry blossoms without the usual tourist crowds, Honpō-ji is also home to works by the famous 16th century Japanese artist Hasegawa Tōhaku. The most famous is his Nehan-zu (“The Death of Buddha Shakyamuni”) scroll painting, which is a whopping 10 meters tall and 400 years old! Honpō-ji also has a tranquil garden and a small museum, which makes it the perfect choice for the discerning visitor looking to enjoy a temple in peace.