You could spend days exploring the Eastern part of Kyoto with its hidden gems and magnificent sights seeded in every nook and cranny. We dedicated the entire day meandering through the narrow streets and alleyways discovering beautiful gardens, serine shrines and dazzling temples. I’d recommend starting from the northernmost part early in the morning and walking your way down. While some major sights are within walking distance, others are far apart and catching a bus (no metro stations available here) is a convenient and affordable way of getting from point A to point B. Here is my guide to the highlights of Eastern Kyoto:
<3 Ginkaku-ji Temple There were few places I genuinely fell in love with in Kyoto and Ginkaku-ji was certainly one of them. This serene Zen temple grounds, modeled after Kinkaku-ji, are tucked away along Kyoto’s eastern Higashiyama mountains and once were the aesthetic and cultural center of a nation.
The pavilion is one of only two buildings on the grounds of Ginkaku-ji which have survived intact the many fires and earthquakes of the past centuries since 1482, when shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built it as his retirement villa. Unlike its opulent sister Golden Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji is an exercise in elegance an restraint. It has never been actually sheathed in silver. In fact some claim that the name originated from the moon light reflecting on the building’s dark exterior (it used to be covered in black lacquer in the past) that gives it a silvery appearance. Since we arrived early, there were hardly any visitors which allowed us to browse the grounds and soak up the atmosphere in peace and quiet, devoid of the frenzy of Kinkaku-ji or Ryoan-ji.
An expansive, meticulously maintained dry sand garden, known as the “Sea of Silver Sand” lays side by side with a mesmerizing verdant moss garden and tranquil woods on the hillsides, creating contrasting yet harmonious landscaping characterized by the traditional Japanese gardens.
A very short hike up onto the hillside provides sweeping views of Kyoto. It was incredibly relaxing to meander through this garden and soak up the charming tranquil atmosphere.
<3 Philosopher’s Path Once you exit the Ginkaku-ji temple, take a quiet and relaxing stroll along the Philosopher’s Path. Tucked away in the lush foothills of the mountains, the path winds along a canal.
It gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. For approximately a mile the canal is lined up with cherry trees (I can only imagined how stunning it is during prime cherry blossom season) as well as little cafes, boutiques and craft shops on each side.
If you are lucky, you might even come across contemplative samurai (or at least that’s what we thought he was) during your stroll.
<3 Heian Jingu Shrine
A giant torii gate marks the approach to the shrine, around which there are a couple of museums. The courtyard of the shrine is very spacious. Behind the main buildings there is an attractive, paid garden with a variety of plants, ponds and traditional buildings. Right as we were entering the shrine, a group of lovely Japanese student girls approached us offering a free tour of the temple grounds so that they could practice their English language skills! How adorable is that?!
<3 Yasaka Shrine The vermilion-and white gate of Kyoto’s central shrine attracts endless visitors throughout the year. I hate to say this, but I was not particularly impressed with it, so if you are on a time crunch or have a so called “temple fatigue”, you can feel free to skip Yasaka Shrine.
However, if you want to check the place out, make sure to wonder around the shrine as it is surrounded by a quite sprawling garden-like area which has very quintessential vibe to it.
<3 Kennin-ji Temple I already expressed my love to Kennin-ji in my previous post. Founded in 1202 this oldest Zen temple in Kyoto offers a beautiful Japanese gardens and wooden hallways with amazing artwork.
It is quite hard to describe the serenity (mainly attributed to the lack of visitors) that this place oozes and the peace it instilled in my mind and heart.
I don’t think there is a place more atmospheric in Kyoto than the district of Gion. Meandering the nooks and crannies of Higashiyama district with its wooden tea houses and traditional merchant shops will invoke a feeling of the old capital city. Read my full guide to Gion district in my separate post.
<3 Yasaka Pagoda
It is one of the most iconic sites of Higashimaya district where you have a unique chance to actually go inside the pagoda and climb all the way up.
A stroll up the steep cobbled street in Higashiyama, will take you to Kyoto’s iconic Kiyumizu-dera, or Pure Water Temple. One of Kyoto’s many world heritage sites and one of the most celebrated temples of Japan Kiyomizu-dera is a sprawling complex which attracts thousands of visitors daily.
Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage which has been constructed without a single nail! It provides a perfect vintage point from where you can marvel a magnificent view of the city, a sight to behold during sunset. I imagine the grounds of the temple to be particularly beautiful during Fall, when the maple trees covering the mountain burst into color. The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams at which visitors greedily quench their thirst. Each stream’s water is said to have a different “powers” causing longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. You can also take a rest and enjoy a bowl of udon in an open year overlooking the gorge under these open huts. On you way back take time to peruse small souvenir shops and indulge in some street food as well.
I hope you enjoyed this little tour of eastern part of Kyoto. It is filled with many wonderful places and spaces and visit there is an absolute must.