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Ten Kyoto World Heritage Sites

Luke K.

by GoWithGuide travel specialist:Luke K.

Last updated : Feb 24, 202319 min read

Things To Do

Kyoto features seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and we have selected ten of the best. If you are planning a trip to Kyoto, then be sure to stop off at some of these great World Heritage temples, shrines, or castles:

Saiho-ji Temple

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Reportedly founded by the Buddhist priest Gyouki in the 700s, the temple was destroyed by war and floods after which it was rebuilt by Soseki Muso as a Rinzai sect temple in 1339. Its official name is Saiho-ji but the temple grounds are covered in approximately 120 kinds of moss which spread out beautifully like a green carpet thereby earning it the name of Koke-dera or “moss temple”. It has been registered as a World Heritage site.

Currently visits are restricted by a reservation-only system through which prior application via return postcard is necessary. Applications are accepted between 60 days and 1 week before the day of the visit, and since it’s on a first-come-first-serve basis, it’s good to mention a second preferred date as well. As well, when visiting the temple, there is also the condition that the visitor has to engage in a religious activity such as copying of sutras before being allowed to view the garden. There are days when there are no sutras being copied, so it is possible to call ahead by telephone.

The garden has an upper and lower 2-stage structure with the upper stage being a dry landscape garden whereas the lower stage is a garden surrounding the Golden Pond which traces out the kanji for “heart” or kokoro. When Yoshimasa Ashikaga was building Ginkaku-ji Temple, he modeled the garden and the buildings on Koke-dera. In the pond, there are the three islands of Asahi, Yuhi and Kiri with moss everywhere around the area but at the time that the pond was being constructed, there had been no moss. The current situation of being covered in moss began at the end of the Edo Era. The approximately 30,000 sq. m. garden is covered with 120 kinds of moss where you can enjoy beautiful scenery all throughout the year. Especially in late November during the season of changing leaves, the contrast between the brilliant colors of the trees and the lush green moss is wonderful.

Admission: ¥ 3000 

Guidebook from Planetyze about Saiho-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Saiho-ji Temple
Tours of Saiho-ji Temple

Tenryu-ji Temple

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Founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339, Arashiyama, Togetsukyo Bridge and Kameyama Park among other places were within the temple grounds. Burned down by fire 8 times, the buildings were mostly re-built in around 1900. However, the Sogenchi Pond Garden has retained its original form from 700 years ago, and was given Japan’s first designation as a Special Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty. In 1994, it was registered as a World Cultural Property as a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto.

For the strolling garden centering on Sogenchi Pond, it takes advantage of the natural landscapes of Arashiyama and Kameyama. Likening it to the tradition of the gateway to success, judging the Ryumon (gateway) waterfall where the large mountain rock fell from the rear of the pond, the Rigyo (carp fish) rock is placed on the side and shows its change into a dragon. With the wonderful cherry blossoms in spring and the changing leaves in fall, there is a beauty like a Japanese painting that never tires no matter how long you look at it. Another point of note is the lecture hall, Hatto, in which a dragon rising above the clouds had once been illustrated but due to severe damage, to commemorate the 650th anniversary of the founding of the temple, Unryu-zu was painted in 1997. Painted on the cypress board ceiling in ink, Unryu-zu, 9 meters in diameter, seems to glare at you no matter where you look and is truly spectacular. Except for special visits in spring and fall, the temple is only open to the public on weekends and holidays. In addition, every 2nd Sunday of the month from 9 a.m., anyone can participate in Zen meditation (training to focus the mind while sitting with your feet folded under you) for free at the Yuunan chamber. On the temple grounds, you can enjoy a vegetarian meal while viewing the garden at Shigetsu. Eating is also considered a part of training in Buddhism, and while vegetarian cuisine is a form of gourmet food, it is also a practice of a simple diet. Based on Buddhist teachings, animal ingredients are not used at all, and it is a cuisine that centers on vegetables and seaweed.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Tenryu-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Tenryu-ji Temple
Tours of Tenryu-ji Temple

Daigo-ji Temple

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In 874, Shobo, a disciple of a disciple of the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai, inherited Kami-Daigo, a top of a mountain where the sacred Daigo spring water originated, and the temple began with the enshrinement of a Kannon statue. The Emperor at the time, Daigo, erected Shaka-do, Yakushi-do and Godai-do Halls and later on, Emperor Murakami had a five-storey pagoda built, so the temple has a deep relationship with the Imperial Family. Even with devastation by fire and war, the temple was rebuilt thanks to Hideyoshi and Hideyori Toyotomi taking the opportunity to hold the “Flower Viewing of Daigo”. The temple grounds are huge and are separated into 3 large areas consisting of Kami-Daigo at the top of the mountain, Shimo-Daigo at the foot and the Sanboin which was built in 1115.

In the spring of 1598, 62-year-old Hideyoshi had 700 cherry trees planted for flower-viewing, and he also had the buildings of the Sanboin along with a garden built, all toward the holding of a grand party which invited 1300 people. Even now, on the second Sunday of April every year, there is a re-creation of the Ho-Taiko Hanami Gyoretsu (Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s cherry blossom-viewing parade) with many tourists coming to watch. For about 3 weeks, various types of cherry trees at Sanboin and the main hall blossom, and the area is well known as a place for cherry blossoms in Kyoto.

Admission: ¥ 600

Guidebook from Planetyze about Daigo-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Daigo-ji Temple
Tours of Daigo-ji Temple

Shimogamo Shrine

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The World Heritage site of Shimogamo Shrine (Kamo-mioya Shrine) is located in the triangular zone bracketed by Kyoto’s Kamo and Takano Rivers.  With belief in the God of Guidance and the God of Victory since ancient times, it is known as a shrine to celebrate the beginning of things. Two east and west main shrines have been built. On the left is the shrine dedicated to the god Kametaketsunomi-no-mikoto who opened a mountain castle in ancient Kyoto, and on the right is the shrine dedicated to his daughter, Tamayorihime-no-mikoto. The buildings, constructed in the Nagare-zukuri style, have been designated as National Treasures. The shrine was reconstructed in 1863, but its majesty as a holy ground with a solemn atmosphere is still felt.

As well, there are many various gods enshrined within the grounds. The God of Marriage is enshrined in the Aioi-sha Shrine next to the tower gates (roumon) of Shimogamo Shrine. Of note are the 2 trees that join into one partway (the Renri-no-Sakaki tree) as a sacred tree. There is a strange legend about the power of the God of Marriage that binds it together. If the tree dies within the grounds, then another such tree will be found. This bound sacred tree is one of Kyoto’s Seven Myths. Then there is Kawai Shrine which is popular with women. Enshrined there is Tamayorihime, the guardian spirit of women. She was believed as a goddess for female beauty from olden times and was also said to the goddess for easy childbirth, child-rearing, marriage, studying and long life. The votive picture, or ema, of Kawai Shrine is the Mirror Ema, and is in the shape of a traditional Japanese mirror. It is a unique ema in that it isn’t seen very much at the other shrines. The surface of the ema with a picture of a face is supposed to represent that of the holder’s face, and after applying painting the face with the woman’s own makeup, a prayer is said. Even if she doesn’t have any cosmetics, crayons are available. A spreading primeval forest from ancient times, Tadasu-no-Mori, surrounds Shimogamo Shrine, and has become a place of relaxation for the citizens. After praying to the gods, the negative ions suffusing the forest makes it a recommended place to refresh yourself. 

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Shimogamo Shrine 
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Shimogamo Shrine 
Tours of Shimogamo Shrine 

Nijo Castle

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Nijo Castle was constructed in 1603 as the Kyoto lodging place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had secured victory in the Battle of Sekigahara. It was later remodeled into the form of Nijo Castle that is seen today by Iemitsu, the third shogunate. As a flatland castle, the structure was built on a larger plot of land after the territory of thedaimyo had increased. In the spacious castle grounds are Ninomaru Palace (National Treasure), Honmaru Palace (Important Cultural Property), and the Ninomaru Garden (Place of Scenic Beauty). While strolling through the castle premises, we recommend viewing these important buildings and the wall panel paintings in Ninomaru Palace, which is an Important Cultural Property.  

Of the more than 3000 wall panel paintings in Ninomaru Palace, 1016 are National Important Cultural Properties. These wall paintings were not produced at the time of the castle’s construction. Rather, they were painted by Kano Tanyu when the castle underwent a major reform in 1626. These wall panel paintings were painted using the method known as the Kano school, in which screen covered in gold leaf are decorated with brilliant pine trees using natural pigments.  

The gardens of Nijo Castle comprise three styles. From the Edo period, there is Ninomaru Garden, from the Meiji period, there is Honmaru Garden, and from the Showa period there is Seiryu Garden.Landscaping stones are placed around the pond with a central island in Ninomaru Garden, which faces the private residencies and the great hall. Although it cannot be seen by tourists from the great hall, this garden was made so that a vast landscape could originally be seen from the hall. This garden is one of the foremost examples of daimyo-style gardens. Honmaru Garden was made according to the instructions of the Emperor Meiji. Seiryu Garden was constructed in 1965 as a combination of Japanese and Western styles. In 2005, in the Journal of Japanese Gardens, a specialist American publication about Japanese gardens, Seiryu Garden was ranked fifth and Ninomaru garden was ranked tenth. In 2006, Seiryu Garden was sixth and Ninomaru Garden was eighth. Viewing the gardens is possible, but entrance is restricted. The gardens are opened to the public during various events, including the end of the year holiday. Please check the website for details. 

Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 200

Guidebook from Planetyze about Nijo Castle
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Nijo Castle
Tours of Nijo Castle


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Kinkaku is a three-story building made of wood. The first story is in the style of a Heian palace, the second story is in samurai-house style, and the third story is in the style of a Zen Buddhist temple. The second and third stories are covered in gold leaf, as is the inside of the third story, except for the floor. The Kinkakuji seen today was rebuilt in 1955 after the building was destroyed by fire in 1950. Major repairs were carried out in 1986, when the gold leaf was reapplied so as to achieve the appearance seen today. Kinkakuji is one of Kyoto’s foremost sightseeing spots, and it is popular with tourists throughout the year due to the beautiful glittering appearance that contrasts with nature in all four seasons.  

Kinkaku, which glitters with gold, is not the only highlight of Kinkakuji. As the name implies, Kyokochi Pond (mirror pond), which is in the garden with a path in front of Kinkakuji, reflects the beautiful view of Kinkaku like a mirror. It is a designated national Place of Scenic Beauty and a National Historical Site. There is also a famous teahouse built in the Edo period called Sekkatei. Sekkatei was given its name due to the beautiful evening view of Kinkakuji from the slightly elevated location of the teahouse.  

Admission: Adult: ¥ 400 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Kinkakuji
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Kinkakuji
Tours in Kinkakuji

Ginkakuji Temple

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Built in 1490, during Japan's Muromachi shogunate, by Yoshimune Ashikaga, the eighth shogun, who prospered in the Muromachi period, Ginkakuji is a structure in which the first floor section is built in a domestic style, and the second floor section is built in the style of a Buddhist temple.

Beyond the main gate of Ginkakuji, proceeding further inside is the Kannon-den, also called the Silver Pavilion. This has been designated a national treasure; the Silver Pavilion is also a building that preserves the hallmarks of the culture of the Muromachi Period.

It is said that the Muromachi period, in which Ginkakuji was built, was an age that blended the aristocratic culture of samurai warriors, monks and court nobles. Much of the well-known Japanese traditional culture that came to be cherished by many people these days, such as tea ceremony, Noh drama, flower arranging, etc., comes from this period. The Silver Pavilion is a two-storied structure.The lower level is the Shinkuden, or the Pavilion of the Empty Mind, in a domestic style; the upper level, called Cho-onkaku, or “Pavilion of the Sound of the Tide,” is in the style of a Buddhist temple.  In front of that stretches a garden, a circuit-style strolling pond garden, also representative of this Higashiyama culture. Built in the center of the pond, the Kogetsudai, or “Moon-viewing Platform,” a mound made of sand; and the Ginshadan, or “Sea of Silver Sand,” are features. The Ginshadan, represented by waves of sand, with the sand in cylindrical rings around the mound of piled up sand, is said to have been built with the idea of the reflection of the moonlight in mind.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Ginkakuji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Ginkakuji Temple
Tours of Ginkakuji Temple

Toji Temple

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It is believed that Toji was built when Emperor Kanmu relocated to the ancient capital (the present day Kyoto, then called Heiankyo) in 794. It was later given to a monk named Kukai, who had returned to Japan after studying new Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism in China, by the subsequently enthroned Emperor Saga. This is how Japan’s first Esoteric Buddhist temple came into existence. Since its establishment, it has continued to prosper as the headquarters of Esoteric Buddhist practices in Japan and still exists as one of the most visited sites of Kyoto. Must-see buildings at this temple are kodo (the Lecture Hall), kondo (the Main Hall) and the five-story pagoda.

The first building you want to view at Toji, a temple with more than 1,200 years of history, is the kodo (the Lecture Hall); it is the center of Toji as well as the central building for Esoteric Buddhist practices in Japan. At this temple, it is said that Kukai dedicated his life to spreading the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism. The three dimensional mandala designs express those teachings visually. Mandala designs, which express the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism in simple terms, were made into a three dimensional display by Kukai to add more reality to the teachings. With a statue of Dainichi Nyorai–a celestial Buddha which symbolizes the cosmos–at the center, the three dimensional mandala consisting of 21 Budda statues is an extraordinary dynamic display. An outstanding work of Esoteric Buddhism sculpture and surpassing the term spectacular, this group of Buddha statues is so powerful that it almost pulls you into another world. It is extremely rare that you can experience a feeling quite this strange and mysterious. Kondo (the Main Hall) at the south side of kodo is also definitely worth viewing. The building that was built in 796 burned down in 1486. It is said that the current kondo was completed in 1603 by the order of Hideyori Toyotomi. Enjoy the spectacular, dynamic architectural styles of the building such as the design of the roof with its lower part cut off at the front – a design also seen on the Hall of the Great Buddha of Todaiji temple. Visitors are allowed to view the interior of the kondo as well.

The five-story pagoda, also referred to as the landmark of Kyoto, is also a building you’d want to observe up close. The pagoda is approximately 55 meters high. It is considered to be the highest pagoda among the existing historical wooden pagodas. The interior features a space expressing Esoteric Buddhism in bright colors.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Toji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Toji Temple
Tours of Toji Temple

Byodoin Temple

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Byodoin temple was established in 1052 when an aristocrat named Yorimichi Fujiwara decided to turn his second house into a temple. The temple building and the Buddha statues created nearly 1,000 years ago have been collectively listed as a World Heritage site. Adding to its glory, the temple’s Phoenix Hall is featured on the Japanese 10 yen coin. The Phoenix Hall recently underwent nearly 2 years of restoration work including a roof replacement and re-coating of its exterior layer; the building has been restored brilliantly to the state it was at the time it was first built, bringing back the splendor of the Heian period (794 – 1185). Though the Phoenix Hall was built as a hall for containing the statue of Amitabha Tathagata, people began to call it the Phoenix Hall because the shape of the entire building resembles a phoenix with wings spread open, and also because the hall’s roof is decorated with a pair of copper phoenix statues. This valuable building attests to the glorious days of prosperity during the Heian period. Built on an island of a pond, the hall’s gorgeous reflection on the pond makes it appear as though it is a palace floating in the treasure pond of heaven. The people of the Heian period regarded the Phoenix Hall as heaven on earth.

The interior of the Phoenix Hall is filled with splendid National Cultural Assets. Sitting in the center is the statue of Amitabha Tathagata, a work of the best Buddhist image craftsman of the Heian period. Some playing instruments, some dancing, and others praying, at the upper part of the wall are the “52 Worshiping Bodhisattvas on Clouds” also crafted during the Heian period. On the walls are a drawing of heaven and a drawing depicting the 9 different levels that the spirits of the dead are directed to–according to the amount of virtue they have accumulated–by Amitabha Tathagata. The lights reflected by 66 copper bells hanging from the ceiling create an ethereal atmosphere in the hall. In spring, the flowers of 280 years old wisteria trees and azaleas add extra beauty to the temple grounds.  

Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Byodoin Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Byodoin Temple
Tours of Byodoin Temple

Ninna-ji Temple

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There are many National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties inside Ninna-ji. The Golden Hall that retains the notable atmosphere of a palace has been recognized as a National Treasure for its Heian Era style as it served as a residence for the Heian nobility. The Goei-do Hall which was constructed in the Momoyama style is an Important Cultural Property as is the temple’s five-storied pagoda, which, unlike other similar pagodas whose roofs usually get smaller the higher the building rises, has roofs that remain the same size, a characteristic of the Edo Era. As well, 14 other buildings have been recognized as Important Cultural Properties, a full experience of highlights of historical buildings. Beautiful paintings of Mahamayuri, Prince Shotoku and other figures on thefusuma sliding doors are incredible. Moreover, at the Reihokan, statues of the Amida Triad and Mahamayuri, the Buddhist text of the Sanjutcho Sasshi and other exhibits have been preserved as National Treasures and temple treasures.

The 500 late-blooming Omuro cherry trees at Ninna-ji are famous, and at a short height of 2-3 meters, they bloom as if they were creeping along the ground. With their deep colors and plump petals, the heavy cherry blossoms have been called otafuku sakura (homely woman cherries). Since these are late-blooming cherries, thesakura season at Ninna-ji in Kyoto is seen as the farewell look for the cherries, and the area is flooded with tourists during o-hanami (flower viewing) season. 

Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Ninna-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Ninna-ji Temple
Tours of Ninna-ji Temple
Shiga Tour Guide - Koichi W.

Koichi W.

4.95 / 5
(56 reviews)

Hi! I'm Koichi. I was born in Osaka, I studied in Kyoto when I was a university student. Now I live in Shiga next to Kyoto. I am a national government licensed tour guide. I have been guiding about 160 groups over the past twelve months. I usually guide my customers mainly in Kansai region including Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kobe and Shiga by public transportation systems. Well, I am curious about Japanese history, especially the history of Japan's ancient times since I was raised next to the world biggest mausoleum of the ancient Emperor called "Nintoku" in Sakai city Osaka which has just become one of the world cultural heritage sites. I dug out some ancient earthen ware vessels around there when I was a primary school student like the adventure archaeologist “Indiana Jones" (It’s our secret!!). That was my hobby. Now, one of my hobbies is outdoor activities such as mountaineering, kayaking, skiing and others. So I would like to take you to some good places where you can enjoy Japanese unique nature. I love to guide foreign visitors from all over the world. I think it is my calling or heavenly given job. Let's go and enjoy together! I hope to see you soon.                                                                                                                                 

Osaka Tour Guide - Takashi M.

Takashi M.

5.00 / 5
(17 reviews)

Hi, my name is Takashi!! When I go abroad, I think that how nice it would be to have a friend there and hang out together. I want you to feel like you have a friend in Osaka and we can go around and explore the city. I was born and grew up in Japan. And I speak English, Spanish and Japanese. I can be the perfect guide for you!! I can also guide you any other cities in Japan, just let me know where you wanna go :)                                                                                                                                 

Osaka Tour Guide - Kazuyoshi M.

Kazuyoshi M.

5.00 / 5
(5 reviews)

This tour mainly tours Osaka and Kyoto. I have lived in Osaka for 10 years and have been to Kyoto 300 times through tourism. I can also offer hands-on guided tours. I can offer maiko and geiko viewing, furoshiki (wrapping cloth) making, matcha (powdered green tea), professional acupuncture in ninja costume, and introduction-type experiences. My Instagram account has been viewed by 130,000 people in one month. Not to mention famous places. I can also guide visitors to places where foreign tourists do not usually go. I can be flexible. Best regards.                                                                                                                                 

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