Given its deserved reputation as the centre of traditional culture in Japan, it’s almost redundant to say that Kyoto has more than its fair share of sightseeing spots and landmarks for any tourist, whether local or international, to enjoy. However, as anyone who has ever cracked open a guidebook to the area will surely testify, the sheer amount of temples, shrines and castles in Kyoto city and its surrounding area can initially feel quite daunting, especially if you’re only stopping off as part of a larger tour of the country or simply on a whirlwind weekend visit.
However, the volume of places to visit also means that certain parts have a high density of spots that you’ll surely want to see, so, with careful planning, anyone can easily check off two or three of Kyoto’s highlights in as little as half a day with relatively little fuss. In this article, you’ll find how you can visit Kinkakuji, Ryoan-ji and Ninna-ji, three of the seventeen locations listed as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list, in half a day.
Kinkaku-ji (The Temple of the Golden Pavillion)
Arguably the most famous of Kyoto’s zen temples, and home to one of the most popular buildings in Japan, Kinkaku-ji is swarmed by tourists from all over the world all year round and is one of the first places people think of when they think of Kyoto. It’s most famous and iconic structure, the Golden Pavillion, was rebuilt in the 1950s after it was the victim of an arson attack by a monk, an event fictionalized by Yukio Mishima in The Temple of the Golden Pavillion and its subsequent film adaptation by Kon Ishikawa. Despite its relative youth, the pavilion is still a sight to behold and an absolute must for anyone stepping foot in Japan, never mind Kyoto.
Open from 9am, and located in Northern Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji is isolated from the city’s limited subway system but can easily be reached by bus; the quickest way to get there is to use the subway Karasuma line to go north up to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes and Y260 from Kyoto Station) before switching to the 101, 102, 204 or 205 numbered buses (10 minutes and Y230). Getting off at Kinkakujimae bus stop will place you directly across from the entrance into the temple grounds, with entry costing just Y400. Luckily for tourists, an informative brochure, that will help you appreciate Kinkaku-ji’s numerous features a little more, is included in the ticket price. Once through the gate, you’ll find yourself almost immediately facing the beautiful gold-plated pavilion itself, each floor representing a different style of architecture, as it presides over the beautiful kyoko-chi, or mirror pond, so called because it provides a beguiling reflection of the central structure.
Even though the main attraction of the temple is the first thing you see, that’s not to say the remainder of the site is an anti-climax. Laid out as a strolling garden, you can slowly ease your way around and past the pavilion towards the other, less extravagant sights on show, such as the hojo (the former priest’s living quarters), An-min-taku pond, and a small group of statues which people throw coins at as it is believed to bring good luck. This leads into a brief uphill walk, at the peak of which you can enjoy the sight of the pavillion’s roof poking above the tops of the trees, and then the Sekkatei Tea House. The house was built in honour of an imperial visit in the 17th century and has a purposefully plain appearance in order for those drinking there to focus on the tea itself, rather than their surroundings; a common feature of traditional Japanese tea culture.
Across from Sekkai Teahouse you will find a small souvenir shop, mainly selling charms and other mementos, before you exit the paid grounds. If you like, from here you can partake in refreshments at the small tea garden or from the ubiquitous vending machines, check out another, larger, souvenir shop, or take a brief stop at Fudo Hall, a small Buddhist temple, and perhaps light one of the numerous charm candles for sale on the left side of the hall. As soon as you are ready to leave, it’s time to move onto Ryoan-ji and its renowned rock garden.
Ryoan-ji (The Temple of the Dragon at Peace)
After leaving Kinkaku-ji, walk back to the road where you got off the bus and turn right to start heading towards Ryoan-ji; it’s a pleasant 20-minute walk westward which allows you to get a feel for the more relaxed atmosphere of northern Kyoto. Eventually you’ll reach San-Mon, the main gate into the temple grounds, and, upon entry, you will be greeted by Kyoyo-chi pond and it’s surrounding strolling garden. Kyoyo-chi’s three small, accessible islands, and the fact that the grounds are a little more spacious and a little less busy than Kinkaku-ji allows for more room for a relaxed stroll that you can enjoy at your pace. Additionally, if you find yourself wanting to something to eat it’s possible to try Yudofu, a Kyoto speciality, at a small tatami-matted restaurant.
After you’ve finished soaking up the atmosphere, it’s time to move on to the main reason for coming. Heading north through Chokushi-Mon, pay the Y500 fee and you will enter into the Kuri, the temple’s main building. Although a number of places of interest are unfortunately, closed off to the public, you can still see the abbot’s chamber before heading straight to the famed Kare-sansui Zen Rock Garden.
Built to be viewed from a seated position on the hojo veranda, Kare-sansui has gained its reputation partly thanks to its ambiguity. A history muddied by uncertainty as to when exactly it was built and by whom, plus the fact it was reconstructed after a fire in the late 18th century, has resulted in the intention and the meaning behind the garden’s idiosyncratic layout being lost to the ages. The garden is made up of fifteen stones (some sources place the garden as originally containing nine stones, so it is unknown when, and where, the additional six were placed), only fourteen of which can be seen at anyone time, denying any viewer a perfect view of the garden. This has led to a great amount of discussion as to what the implicit meaning of purposefully obscuring at least one stone at any given angle (save from above, of course) is, though perhaps the simplest answer is the traditional adage that one can not see the complete garden until full enlightenment is achieved. Regardless, as with any piece of art, the true meaning of Kare-sansui is down to the individual and there are a lot of interesting theories, from academic to spiritual, that are out there to be found if such things grab your interest.
Assuming you started your half-day journey through Northen Kyoto at 9am, the time will probably now be around 11:00am, giving you just enough time to check out one more place before you have lunch. By exiting Ryoan-ji the same way you came in and carrying on down the same road as before, you’ll soon come across Ninna-Ji, a temple located to the south-west, less than 10 minutes away; it’s hard to miss thanks to the huge wooden gate standing at its entrance.
Entrance into Ninna-ji’s grounds is free (except for during Cherry Blossom season, when a Y500 fee is charged). Upon walking through the Nio-mon gate, you have a choice to make. If you look to your left you will see the entrance to the Goton Palace and it’s associated gardens. This is one of two parts of Ninna-ji that you will have to pay to see, (the other being Reiho-kan Hall which you will see ahead to your right) though the Y500 fee is more than worth it as the Goton Palace Gardens are, rightly, considered the highlight of what Ninna-ji has to offer. If, however, you don't want to pay any money then Ninna-ji still has a significant amount of sights to see, including the Kon-do, a Japanese national treasure, and a five-storied pagoda; the first pagoda of the three temples you will have visited on your sojourn through Northern Kyoto’s world heritage sites.
Near to Kon-do you will always also see the temple’s famous grove of Omura Zakura cherry trees, which were planted in the 17th century, when a significant proportion of the temple had to be rebuilt following it being destroyed during the Onin War 150 years previously. With a varied selection of sights to see and an interesting and varied history, Ninna-ji is a worthy, if relatively unheralded, place to visit and acts as a nice cap to your half-day in Kyoto’s northern sector.
So, with the morning trek completed you’re surely in the mood for something to eat and drink. From here, it’s probably most efficient to catch the JR Bus back to Kyoto station, which costs just Y230 and takes thirty minutes. However, if you want to continue exploring outside of central Kyoto, you can catch a train to beautiful Arashiyama by using the nearby Kiefuku Kitano line. The choice, as they say is yours.