The Higashiyama area is rich with temples, shrines, gardens, and other sightseeing spots spread along the Higashiyama mountain range that surrounds Kyoto from the east. Known as one of the most well preserved districts when it comes to historical architecture, one can easily spend a whole day wandering the sakura-lined Philosopher’s Path and seeing where the road takes you, or exploring the countless temples and shrines that can be found along the way. With dining and shopping just as easily found, everything you need for a trip to Kyoto can be found in Higashiyama.
With its moss covered gardens, bamboo groves, and interesting dry-sand garden, Ginkaku-ji lives up to the phrase “simple is beautiful”. Located in northeastern Kyoto, the temple was built in 1482 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the grandson of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who built Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). Originally Ginkaku-ji was a retirement villa from which Yoshimasa propagated the surge of cultural pursuits that would later be referred to as “Higashiyama Culture”, but it was converted into a temple after Yoshimasa’s death in accordance with his wishes. Now the temple stands as a testament to the intrinsically Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, with a simple wooden pavilion overlooking a pond and carefully crafted sand designs full of symbolism and deeper meaning.
A small temple accessible as a quick detour from the scenic Philosopher’s Path, Hōnen-in is an independent Buddhist temple that possesses a removed and calm atmosphere. Not many tourists come to this neck of the woods outside the popular fall leaf viewing season, so the grounds are relatively peaceful. The most charming point is the thatched-roof main gate and two sand art constructions just inside. Unlike most sand gardens you’ll see in Kyoto, these two patches of sand have been raised and compacted with designs etched in to the top that vary by season. A small pond crossed by a stone bridge lies on the straight path from the gate, but deviating to the left will take you to a carved stone stupa and an interesting modern art installation. The actual buildings on the property are only open to the public once in spring and once in fall, but walking along the edges of it will bring you to the worship hall and a statue set in to a small cave. More than what you can see directly, enjoy Hōnen-in for the peaceful break it can give you.
Located in the museum-heavy Okazaki area and built for the city’s 1,100th anniversary, Heian Jingū is a new shrine as far as Kyoto goes. A replica of a famous Heian Period structure, its architecture has a distinctive Chinese influence noticeable throughout. Visitors enter through the grand Ōtenmon Gate into the outer sanctuary, a sprawling open space surrounded by look-out towers with a large ritual hall directly ahead. Heian Shrine’s Shin'en Garden, which consists of four distinct sections, is particularly beautiful and famous for its cherry blossoms in spring and irises in summer. The torii gate leading up to the Heian Shrine is actually one of the largest in the country, towering overhead at a height of about 24 meters. Heian Shrine is host to the grand Festival of Ages in October as well as many others throughout the year.
Kyoto City Zoo
Located in the Okazaki Park area, the Kyoto City Zoo is a good place for families with young children to spend some time entertaining them on a nice day. Though the zoo is under construction in several places at present, the majority of the exhibits are still open. Though somewhat small, there is a wide variety of animals available for viewing. Themed exhibit areas include Monkey World, the Tropical Animals House, a Petting Zoo, the African Sahara, and a Birds exhibit. There are several places in the zoo to sit and eat as well as just relax, and the toilets are all outfitted for family convenience.
A private museum featuring the collection originally assembled by wealthy businessman Hosomi Kokoan (1901-1978), the Hosomi Museum sits just beside Okazaki Park and is a marvelous structure combining traditional and modern architecture. With three floors above ground and two below, the building leads you up and down stairs and in and out of rooms as you progress through the exhibitions. With a large collection of Buddhist art and relics from the Early and Middle periods of Japanese history and many picture scrolls and wall hangings from the Early Modern Period, the collection offers a pleasing variety and several stand-out works such as the statue "Deer Bearing Symbols of the Five Kasuga Deities" and ink paintings by the famous Hokusai. The museum also has a delicious cafe and interesting gift shop on the premises, and the top floor is a fusion tearoom that offers tea and sweets on days it isn't host to events.
National Museum of Modern Art
Located in the Okazaki Park across the street from the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, the National Museum of Modern Art is a partially glass structure housing a variety of contemporary artwork. With a large collection rotated every few months, visitors can choose to see only the exhibition on the fourth floor or purchase a combination ticket that allows entry to the special exhibitions of outside works. The inside halls feature expansive galleries with high ceilings, and encourage visitors to not only take their time viewing the art but also a library of art books and the Heian Shrine torii gate. Whether it’s pointillism, cubism, contemporary paintings, mixed media, photography, modern sculpture, ceramics, or installations, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, MoMAK for short, has plenty to offer.
Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art
One of the oldest art museums in the country, the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art can be found in Okazaki Park near the famous Heian Shrine. Opened in 1933 to commemorate the coronation of the Shōwa Emperor in 1928, the museum is a grand building that features two stories of exhibition halls. With lofty ceilings and wide open viewing rooms you don't have to worry about feeling crowded and can stroll past the paintings at your own leisure or take a seat on a cushioned bench and simply observe. The exhibitions are rotated every few months so even repeat visitors can enjoy, and fans of contemporary and traditional art both are sure to be pleased with the sorts of collections the museum pulls together.
A small private museum tucked away in the meandering streets surrounding Nanzen-ji Temple, the Nomura Museum houses the collection of famous Japanese businessman and politician Tokushichi Nomura II (1878 – 1945), known in the art sphere as Tokuan. Nomura was passionate about traditional culture, particularly tea ceremony, nō theater, and painting, an interest well reflected in the vast collection he amassed over his lifetime. After his passing the Nomura Museum was founded in order to share his collection with the public, rotating exhibitions seasonally. The exhibition room features a tea room, alcoves for hanging scrolls, and multiple large viewing cases and areas for items such as tea bowls and nō costumes. Tea ceremony is also performed at the museum, with various styles represented by different masters who come each day. Please be aware that the museum is closed in the summer (June - August) and winter (December - February).
A private villa originally built by the Taisho Period statesman Yamagata Aritomo, one of the founding fathers of modern Japan, Murin-an is a scenic paradise tucked away between busy streets and larger famous sites. Donated to Kyoto City in 1941 some years after Aritomo's passing, the villa has been preserved and is now open to the public. Containing an absolutely lovely little pond and a stroll-type garden, the buildings on the property are a small teahouse, a two-story traditional structure that serves as the main building, and a Western style building converted into a museum of sorts that contains information and photos about the man who owned Murin-an as well as the garden's designer, Ogawa Jihei. Most notably for history buffs, the second floor of this building contains the room where Aritomo and three other political heavy hitters sat down to discuss policy before the Russo-Japanese war in 1903. Even if history isn't your thing, the garden is possessed of a beautiful aesthetic and sense of layers around a winding stream and waterfall that can make you completely forget how busy the world just over the garden wall really is.
Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no Michi)
The pedestrian walkway that connects the two famous temples Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji, the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no Michi) is popular with tourists for its scenic beauty. Unlike most things in Kyoto, this path’s name is based in modernity, having earned the thoughtful reputation from a 20th century professor of philosophy at Kyoto University, Kitaro Nishida, who is said to have used the path for daily meditation. If you don’t stop along the way the walk takes about thirty minutes, but we recommend you take your time and visit the temples and shrines you’ll find on the path, enjoy a local restaurant, or just stop and smell the flowers. The Philosopher’s Path is particularly busy during the hanami cherry blossom viewing season, when people flock to the area for a close-up view of the short-lived sakura flowers.
A Pure Land Buddhist temple near the large Nanzen-ji complex, Eikan-dō is most famous for its autumn foliage and the light-up event it hosts in late fall. Founded back in 853 by a disciple of the famous monk Kūkai, this temple was a place of learning that nurtured the Pure Land sect it now belongs to. With gardens dominated by maples, the grounds of this temple are alternatively bright with fresh greens or brilliant reds, with countless people arriving in pilgrimage during the peak season. Built up against the Higashiyama foothills, a two-story tahōtō pagoda offers a great view of the city and precincts, and the covered stairs winding up to it are architecturally fascinating. Numerous halls are likewise connected by covered walkway, and Eikan-dō is also known for its Mikaeri Amida, a statue of Amida Buddha with his face turned to look over his shoulder. Whether you attend during the day or the special night illuminations, Eikan-dō isn't likely to disappoint.
Formerly known as Zenrinzen-ji, Nanzen-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, it is one of the most well-known Rinzai Zen temples in Japan. It was originally Emperor Kameyama’s retirement villa and it includes a temple hall and garden centered around a pond. Nanzen-ji is home to a sanmon (a great gate that holds importance within Japanese Buddhist temples), an exquisite European style canal and also multiple sub-temples, each with its own charm. You can enter the Nanzen-ji complex free of charge, but the Abbot’s Quarters and each sub-temple has its own entrance fee. The area is one of Kyoto’s best spot to view the romantic red and orange autumn leaves in the fall.
A temple in northern Higashiyama with a history of imperial patronage as a monzeki temple, Shōren-in is located near the large temple Chion-in and Awata Shrine. Also known as the Awata Palace, Shōren-in was once used as a temporary imperial palace after fire ravaged the original, and it’s atmosphere has been compared to the stateliness of an imperial residence. Greeting visitors with giant camphor trees nearly a thousand years old, Shōren-in features several halls filled with gorgeous screen paintings both traditional and modern as well as a lovely strolling garden containing a small pond and vibrant azaleas. Green tea can be enjoyed while observing the garden from within, and special light-ups twice a year offer a chance to see the temple illuminated beautifully after dark.