The Best Part of Your Trip to Kyoto: A Day in Higashiyama
The Higashiyama area is packed full of popular sightseeing attractions, making it an extremely popular choice for all kinds of visitors coming to Kyoto. At the same time, many of these visitors don't know the area by its name, making it hard for them to express their love of the Higashiyama neighborhood! It's easy to assume it's all Gion, or go the other direction and never quite realize how close some of these attractions are. But have no fear, we're here to help you make the most of your time in Kyoto, and your day in Higashiyama! If you want to visit shrines, temples, quaint back alleys, and big Japanese avenues, this is the plan for you! If you want to dress like a geisha for a day, see a real-life Kyoto maiko, buy the cutest souvenirs, or just stuff your face with a variety of good food, we've got your back. Read on to learn just how much fun you'll have next time you make it to Kansai, visiting Gion, Yasaka Shrine, Ninenzaka & Sannenzaka, Kiyomizudera Temple, and more!
Starting Your Day: Yasaka Shrine (& Kenninji Temple?)
In our experience, the best way to start your day is at Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社). Depending on where you're coming from, you might even be able to walk right over. If you're coming from a little farther away, you can always take the Keihan Line to Gion Shijo Station, and stroll through Gion on your way to the shrine. Yasaka Shrine is at a notable location at the end of Shijo Street, on one end of the Gion area. There are also a number of buses that stop right in front of your destination, which couldn't be any more convenient.
If you're starting earlier in the day (and plan to move fairly briskly), you can even take a quick trip to Kenninji Temple (建仁寺) before you get to Yasaka Shrine. Kenninji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, and has a beautiful Zen garden. It's often passed over by visitors in favor of Ryoanji Temple (which is across the city, close to the famous "golden temple" Kinkakuji), but both temples have equally beautiful rock gardens that are worth visiting. If you're ready for a day packed with activities, first check out Kenninji's gardens and large dragon-themed roof mural, drawn to celebrate the temple's 800th year since founding. It's a few minutes walk down Gion's Hanamikoji Street.
The Yasaka Shrine is really lovely to visit at any time of day, with the bright vermillion buildings shining in the morning sun, and lanterns that softly glow in the evening.
A handy tip for your travels: temples in Japan almost all close for the night, with opening hours often ending around 16:00. Shrines, on the other hand, sometimes stay open 24 hours! Yasaka Shrine is one of these. You might not be able to buy charms, fortunes, and talismans at night, but you can walk through parts of the shrine grounds and admire the dusky beauty.
Through the Afternoon: Quaint Alleys & the Local Shrines and Temples
Walk through the Yasaka Shrine grounds, go out the back end, turn right and in a few minutes you'll find yourself wandering through some of the most picturesque streets of Kyoto (unless you dawdle in Maruyama Park, behind the shrine). Among these narrow, traditional ways are the popular Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka Streets, sloping paths lined with beautiful old traditional buildings, many of which now contain restaurants and shops perfect for souvenir shopping. If you haven't had the chance to dress up in kimono yet, there are plenty of places in this area that are happy to help. Grab some street food as you ramble between spots of interest, or sit down for a traditional lunch. The charming atmosphere can keep people in the area for hours!
Some of the many spots of interest:
Kodaiji Temple (高台寺) has been around for hundreds of years, and has been a popular destination for many of them. Beautiful gardens and rooms spectacularly decorated using traditional methods, designated as "Important Cultural Assets," draw lovers of traditional Japanese art.
Coffee lovers who like a mix of modern and traditional culture, on the other hand, will enjoy a visit to the local Starbucks. It's in a Kyoto machiya (町屋, a traditional wooden house), so it gives you a chance to sip your coffee sitting on the tatami mats of traditional Japanese-style rooms.
The five-storied pagoda of Hokanji Temple (法観寺) also features in the backgrounds of many pictures of the neighborhood. It's not really a destination, but it does add a certain picturesque touch, doesn't it!
If you pinpoint Hokanji Temple's five-storied pagoda and head to its base, though, its neighbor is a very differently spectacular temple called Yasaka Koshindo (八坂庚申堂). Yasaka Koshindo has fascinating connections to Japanese folk religion, which are interesting to learn about, but the biggest draw is the most obvious: it's colorful! The talismans that cover the walls of the temple, little monkey-shaped "kukurizaru" (くくり猿), make for a pretty beautiful sight. Let's not kid ourselves, it's definitely a great place to snap some photos. As you say in Japanese, it's really "insta-bae" (インスタ映え), or instagrammable.
Keep moving along Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, up the hill with the rest of the crowd, and you'll eventually find yourself at one of Kyoto's most famous temples: Kiyomizudera. The large temple complex is basically built on the edge of a cliff, affording visitors spectacular views of the temple buildings and the rest of Kyoto. Far in the distance you can see Kyoto Tower, but close by the green trees erupt into pink cherry blossom blooms every spring, and then turn every shade of red, orange, and brown when the weather starts to cool. It's worth climbing up the hill, especially since the path up is lots of fun anyway.
~Just a quick warning: the temple is currently (in 2019) under renovation. Visitors can still enter the grounds and even pray in the buildings, but the roof is covered until further notice, making it a little less photogenic.~
Wander back in the direction of Yasaka Shrine for a night stroll through Gion (祇園), a historic Kyoto neighborhood. Gion has long been an enclave of maiko (a.k.a. geisha) culture in Kyoto, and maintains a charmingly retro atmosphere. As the sun goes down, lanterns of all kinds light up the streets, adding a little romance to your Gion excursion (even if you're just doing a bit of souvenir shopping!) Check out Hanamikoji Dori (pictured above) for beautiful buildings, many of which contain high-end traditional restaurants. This is the best place in Kyoto to keep an eye out for maiko, who are always an exciting sight. Please do leave the maiko alone if you see them, though; these women might be fascinating in their beautiful kimono, but they're busy professionals just trying to get to work.
All done with Gion, but not quite ready to head back for the night? If you're feeling really adventurous, you can hop on a Keihan train going south and get off at Fushimi-Inari Station, for a nighttime visit to the beloved Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine (伏見稲荷大社). It's another shrine with grounds that never close, and a walk through the vermillion torii shrine gates (鳥居) as the sun goes down can be really beautiful, and less crowded.
If you'd rather relax a little, join the people of Kyoto on the banks of the Kamogawa River. Especially on weekends, you'll see couples and groups of friends gather on the grassy spaces with drinks and snacks, chatting and enjoying their time outside. Get something to sip on from a local convenience store, and then plop down by the river near Shijo Ohashi Bridge, just steps from Gion. If you like to chat with locals, this is the perfect place to make some new friends.
And with that, you've had a totally Kyoto-filled day! There's plenty to distract any visitor along this route, so you might not make it to every spot we mentioned, but that's okay - that's part of why people love Higashiyama so much!
I have been Kyoto for three times, my last trip was made in 2017 with my family. It has been a historical and wonderful place, worthwhile I could spend more time and visit it again. I have enjoyed my each trips there, however, there have been more