Kyoto Station Area
The travel hub that brings most visitors into the city, Kyoto Station stands at the center of a vibrant shopping and dining area built up around it and other traditional locations such as the large Tō-ji and Tōfuku-ji temple complexes. This is the first place most tourists explore upon arrival, so make the most of it! Make sure to stop by the Tourist Information Center for some advice or travel inspiration before you leave. Numerous bus stops allow for travel almost anywhere in the city, and for those looking to spend some time in the area there are countless temples, gardens, stores, and restaurants available.
The central hub for Kyoto transport as well as the station most tourists arrive at by bullet train, Kyoto Station is a glittering jewel of modern architectural marvel amidst the largely traditional setting of the surrounding city. Japan’s second largest station building, Kyoto Station is fifteen stories of transportation, hotel, shopping mall, performance stages, department stores, and offices. The very first Kyoto Station was opened by decree of Emperor Meiji in 1877, but the current building was designed by Hiroshi Hara and opened in 1997, commemorating Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary. Even people who don’t need to use a train can find a reason to head over to Kyoto Station. Shopping can range from souvenirs to fashionable clothing, and the underground shopping mall Porta connects users all over the local area, including the numerous bus stops in front of the station and the large Yodobashi Camera complex across the street, as well as the fashion boutique towers and night bus stops on the station’s south side. The futuristic and largely glass building rising up against the bright Kyoto Tower makes for a striking skyline, and if you have the time, why not explore around? You’ll be surprised what interesting nooks and crannies you can discover in Kyoto Station.
The tallest building in Kyoto at 131 meters, Kyoto Tower stands above the skyline as a bright white and vermillion structure with a rounded viewing platform near the top. Completed in 1964, its opening coincided with the Tokyo Olympics and the opening of the shinkansen. A bit of a cheater, Kyoto Tower actually starts from the roof of a large commercial building filled with gift shops, restaurants, a hotel, and even a sentō (public bath) in the basement. Popular with couples as a date spot, the viewing platform is located 100 meters up and offers a 360 degree view of Kyoto. Depending on the season the décor changes and events are sometimes held at the top, and on a clear day you can see as far as Osaka. See if you can pick out the famous areas of Kyoto on every side, and enjoy the sight of gardens, temples, and shrines preserved as green patches within the mesh of more modern buildings. Keep your eyes peeled for the Kyoto Tower mascot, Tawawa-chan, who is said to appear on the observation deck on weekends and holidays. If you can’t meet her in person, a figure is available to take commemorative photos with as well!
Boasting a colorful exhibition of garments once worn by Japanese nobility in the Heian period (794–1185), the Costume Museum is a go-to place for lovers of Japanese history, traditional fashions, and the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. Using a model mansion built on a 1:4 scale and dozens of dolls, the museum recreates the garments, furniture, instruments, means of transportation, religious rituals, and the overall lifestyle from more than a thousand years ago based on numerous historical documents and extensive research.
Stories from old illustrated scrolls are brought to life through accurate and thorough reproduction of fabric colors and patterns as befitting each character and their standing at court. None of the fine details are neglected, from paintings on folding screens to foods consumed in a specific season, and a visit is guaranteed to give a deeper insight into the world of classical nobility. Photos are allowed, so everybody can try and make their own picture scroll of this miniature Heian residence and its inhabitants!
The museum is located on the fifth floor of the Izutsu Samegai Building, close to Nishi Hongwan-ji temple and within walking distance from Kyoto Station.
Kyoto is a paradise for those looking to take in the old capital’s traditional shrines and temples, but as a decently sized modern city in its own right, Kyoto is also home to a bevy of parks, museums, and more. Especially popular with families is Kyoto Aquarium, an aquarium in Umekoji Park that is home to twelve different themed areas exhibiting a variety of aquatic creatures that includes river-living Japanese giant salamanders, fish from the seas of Kyoto, playful seals, popular tropical fish, and spellbinding jellyfish. The Kyoto Aquarium is a staple with locals that makes for a fun afternoon for families, couples, or tourists looking for something to do indoors on a rainy day.
Kyoto Railway Museum
If there’s one thing Japan is praised for the world over, it’s the punctuality, wide coverage, and convenience of its railway system. Here in Kyoto you’ll surely make use of the shinkansen bullet train when you arrive or leave, and the local lines that crisscross the city for sightseeing… But if you want to do more than just ride, you can always visit the Kyoto Railway Museum! Opened in 2016, this shiny new museum is a sprawling space that covers everything about trains, from their construction and operation to their history and services. Interactive in many ways, this museum has lots of areas where guests can touch and operate exhibits in a way that makes things both educational and fun, making it great for visitors traveling with families. The real trains are hard to overlook, but be sure not to miss the train conductor simulators and the country’s largest train diorama!
Tō-ji, the Eastern Temple, is all that remains of a pair of temples built in the late 700s that guarded the Rashomon Gate into Kyoto and was thought to guard against malign influence entering the capitol from the south. When arriving in Kyoto by bullet train you may catch sight of a pagoda rising up out of the city near the station- and that pagoda belongs to Tō-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other buildings of note on the grounds include the Kondō main hall and the Kodō lecture hall which house a variety of Buddhist statuary. The Miei-dō hall often hosts memorials for the Shingon sect founder Kōbō Daishi, and a statue of him stands on the temple grounds. The gardens are most pleasant during sakura and fall leaf viewing season, and on the 21st of any month a large market appears at Tō-ji from 8am to 4pm.
One of the Five Great Zen Temples in Kyoto, Tōfuku-ji was founded in 1236 by a famous monk Enni Ben’en who had recently returned from studying Rinzai Zen Buddhism in China. The large sanmon gate at Tōfuku-ji is actually one of the oldest of its kind in Japan, and the grounds contain numerous sub-temples, but Tōfuku-ji’s true attraction for tourists is its myriad of amazing gardens. Some of the gardens are as new as the 20th century, when the art of Japanese garden design underwent a sort of modern renaissance. Within the Abbots’ Quarters is an iconic, checkerboard-esque moss garden as well as a sprawling Zen rock garden along the front of the hall. Most famous, however, is Tōfuku-ji’s Tsūten-kyō bridge, a raised, covered walkway that spans a small valley filled with Japanese maples. Visitors can also access the strolling garden that makes up the shallow valley and its sides, and across the bridge lays another small complex around the Founder’s Hall, which also features a charming garden that includes both Zen rock features and shakkei, borrowed scenery.