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 traditional streets of Sannenzaka and Ninnenzaka 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.
Situated in the eastern Higashiyama area, Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous and celebrated temples in Kyoto. The temple was founded in 778 AD and contains buildings from the 17th century, including a main hall designated as a National Treasure. The temple’s wooden stage is undoubtedly what the temple is most famous for, offering an outstanding panoramic view of Kyoto rising out of a sea of maples. Drink the sacred water filled with good karma at the Otowa no Taki waterfall, wish for a loving relationship at the Jishu Shrine, venture into the “womb of the bodhisattva” tunnel and admire the numerous examples of beautiful architecture… There are countless ways you can enjoy Kiyomizu-dera.
Sannen-zaka & Ninen-zaka Streets
Two streets near the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple that connect it to Nene no Michi and further sightseeing adventures, the steep Sannen-zaka and meandering Ninen-zaka are some of the most popular shopping streets in Kyoto, and most certainly in the Higashiyama area. Composed almost entirely of traditional wooden buildings, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve slipped back in time while making your way up the stone paths, passing by shops selling a variety of goods from traditional crafts to more local treats. Whether it’s incense, figurines, accessories, Kyoto sweets, tea, or souvenirs, you’re bound to find it on one of these streets. Stylish cafes abound as well, so if you want to take a break just find a seat and watch the world go by. Just be careful while you’re shopping- an old wives’ tale says that if you trip on Sannen-zaka (Three Year Hill) you will die within three years! Watch your step with those shopping bags!
The main road winding up to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera, Chawan-zaka, (“Teacup Hill”) was named for its location in the past as part of Kiyomizu’s booming ceramics industry. There used to be kilns all over the area where local potters fired up their creations for sale, and though kilns have to operate outside the city these days, there are numerous shops around who still make the sale of pottery their primary trade. Because of Kiyomizu’s popularity with tourists this street is also filled with newer shops catering to those needs, such as gift shops, food vendors, kimono dressing services, and more. It’s a crowded uphill walk, but if you have the time before or after the temple take a leisurely look at what the shops have to offer or grab lunch. You might be surprised at the wide variety of goods to be found.
Nene no Michi
A picturesque street that connects popular shopping streets Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka with the beautiful Kōdai-ji Temple, Maruyama Park, and Yasaka Shrine, Nene no Michi (Nene’s Path) is named for the wife of the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. An area of Kyoto where one can really feel the remaining traditions and aesthetic values of the path; the street is line with temples, teahouses, exclusive shops, and homes of the wealthy. Largely pedestrian-traffic only, Nene no Michi is a wonderful spot for a stroll or even just to take you from one sightseeing spot to another in the Higashiyama area.
Kōdai-ji was founded in 1606 in honor of the Sengoku period warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his legal wife Nene (Dharma name: Kōdai-in Kogetsuni), who took the tonsure and become a Buddhist nun after her husband’s death. It can be easy to accidentally walk past this temple’s tree-sheltered stone staircase entrance, but those who make the short climb can enjoy not only a historical landmark but a beautiful example of Momoyama period architecture. Because the temple was founded in order to carry out prayers for the deceased Hideyoshi, many treasures remain that are related to him, and Hideyoshi and Nene are worshiped at a sanctuary on the grounds. The most striking detail of this temple is the quality of maki-e lacquer work visible on and in the various buildings on site. In addition to the architecture, the grounds themselves are worth a leisurely stroll, featuring a pond and meandering path through a small bamboo forest. Kōdai-ji also regularly participates in night openings and illuminations, providing an interesting chance to experience a temple after dark.
A quaint alley leading off from the popular shopping street of Ninen-zaka, Ishibe-kōji has a traditional look to it that makes visitors feel as if they’ve stepped out of time. Developed for rented rooms and high-class homes, the narrow, stone-paved streets have a definite quality feel to them. Those who find themselves in the area might want to take a jaunt down this photogenic street and take a look at some of the classy shops along the way.
Hidden at the end of Hanami-kōji street, Kennin-ji is a Buddhist temple belonging to the Zen sect. Founded in 1202, the founding priest was Yōsai, who is famous for introducing Japan not only to the Zen sect but also to the tradition of drinking tea. At first the temple practiced a mix of Tendai, Shingon and Zen Buddhism, but during the tenure of the 11th abbot, Kennin-ji converted to a purely Zen temple, the first of its kind in Kyoto. The temple suffered from fires and was rebuilt in the mid-thirteenth century and again in the sixteenth century. With a ceiling covered in an ink painting of two giant dragons and gorgeous interior gardens, Kennin-ji is also home to the famous painted screen depicting the gods of wind and thunder that can be found reproduced all over Kyoto.
Kyoto Ebisu Shrine
Called Ebissan by the locals, Kyoto Ebisu Shrine is known as one of the country’s three most popular shrines dedicated to Ebisu, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. Considered the patron of fishermen and business people, Ebisu’s jolly figure with his telltale fishing pole can be found throughout the grounds. Located just south of the Zen temple Kennin-ji, this Ebisu Shrine is the place to be during the January Tōka Ebisu festival, when business owners from all over gather in the hopes that the shrine’s lucky bamboo will bring good fortune to their enterprises.
The most famous shrine in the Gion area and a patron of the arts with a 1,350 year history, Yasaka Shrine, or Gion-sha, is a beautiful site full of character and natural charm. Susano’o no Mikoto, a great god of storms and sea in Japanese mythology is worshiped there alongside his wife Kushiinada-hime and the Yahashira no Mikogami, their eight children. The colorful shrine is a popular spot for tourists and its street-facing two-storied vermilion gate is a district landmark. Once inside the gate you can access several subsidiary shrines, some of which are famous for things such as helping you become beautiful or find love in a relationship. The main hall is a lovely sight with the prayer hall in front of it strung with lanterns serving as the stage for many a cultural performance throughout the year, particularly those performed by the geisha from nearby districts. During the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival) throughout July many events are held at the shrine, making the already popular Yasaka Shrine even livelier.
One of the most popular public parks in Kyoto, as well as the oldest, Maruyama Park lies at the end of Nene no Michi and connects to Yasaka Shrine and Chion-in Temple. With an area of 86,000 square meters, the park contains a small pond and bridge as well as sprawling lawn and trees. It also has Japanese restaurants and a few small food vendors, who increase in number during the local festivals. The main attraction of the park is the weeping cherry blossom tree in the center of the park that brings in the crowds during the spring sakura season when the tree is lit up at nightfall. Maruyama Park is a lovely place for a picnic or to just relax for a bit during a long day in Higashiyama.
A scenic street in the heart of the Gion area, Shirakawa-dōri lies alongside the Shirakawa canal and is flanked by willow on one side and sakura cherry trees on the other. The buildings that line the canal are high-class restaurants, inns, and teahouses that offer gorgeous riverside dining and Kyoto cuisine. Since it's slightly off the beaten path it isn't as crowded as other areas of Gion can get. A popular local shrine, Tatsumi Daimyōjin, is situated at the fork in the cobblestone path, and bridges over the bubbling river lead off to the local geisha districts.
A geisha district, or hanamachi, Miyagawa-chō is comprised of traditional wooden buildings and the businesses that support such a cultural neighborhood. Teahouses, salons, and other shops line the street and it isn’t so farfetched a possibility that you may see a geiko or maiko making their way to work or some appointment. A slightly more sedate and calm area than the more bustling Gion Kōbu geisha district, Miyagawa-chō is well suited to a quiet walk or contemplation, as well as providing a charming glimpse of old Kyoto lifestyle and aesthetic. The kabuki theater Minami-za falls into the Miyagawa-chō purview and the connection to kabuki theater is historically stronger in this neighborhood than the other Kyoto hanamachi. For those who enjoy kabuki as well as geisha entertainment you may do well to seek your company in Miyagawa-chō or purchase a ticket for one of the district’s annual dances performed at their local kaburenjō theater.
Yasaka no Tō
One of the enduring symbols of Higashiyama, the Yasaka Tower is a five-storied pagoda under the management of the nearby Rinzai Buddhist temple Kennin-ji. Rising above the shorter buildings surrounding it and towering over those who approach it through the narrow alleys, Yasaka no Tō is a great photo opportunity and worth a stop for those wandering the area. Those interested can even go inside up to the second floor and take a gander!
A temple built by the famous warlord Taira no Kiyomori for Emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1164, Sanjūsangen-dō is primarily famous for its 1,001 statues of the Goddess of Compassion Kannon in her thousand-armed incarnation along the entire length of the thirty-three ken (unit of measurement) hall from which the temple gets its moniker. The temple complex used to be larger until a fire decimated it and only the main hall was rebuilt, but visitors are more than satisfied with the impressive contents of the long wooden structure. Not only is the hall filled with the golden faces of a thousand Kannon, but 28 statues of Buddhist guardian deities also line the front row. The hall itself shows its age in the many arrow notches that can be found in the wood on the edge of the building, proof of the Tōshiya archery competition once held at the temple hundreds of years ago.
A temple located at the eastern end of Kyoto’s Shichijō street, Chishaku-in is somehow often overlooked by foreign tourists despite its amazing cache of gorgeous art, as well as a lovely garden. The beautiful frame garden can be enjoyed from the veranda of the Grand Drawing Room in any season, and the interior is lavishly decorated in both modern and traditional shōheki-ga paintings, some of which are recreations of gold-leaf covered National Treasures that can be seen in the temple’s Treasure Hall. Chishaku-in is one of the more active training temples in Kyoto, and it is not rare to encounter a group of disciples or a ritual in progress when wandering the expansive temple grounds.