The best sights and museums of Kyoto

Museums, galleries, temples and shrines – here are the places you have to visit
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Museums & Galleries

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Art, Galleries

Galerie 16

One of the city's best contemporary art spaces, Galerie 16 has been running since 1962. Found a few blocks south of the big Okazaki Park art museums, it's a small space with a big presence on the local art scene, and always worth a look.

Museums, History

Kyoto National Museum

The National Museum is worth a visit just to see the building. Constructed in the 1890s, this neo-classical gem by Tokuma Katayama has been designated an Important Cultural Property. It’s currently closed, but the neighbouring Heisei Chishinkan Hall, a modernist structure by Yoshio Taniguchi, now functions as a special exhibition hall that stages regular, fascinating shows of Chinese and Japanese art and artefacts. It also houses the museum’s permanent collection.

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Museums

Kyoto International Manga Museum

You don’t need to be a manga fan to be charmed by this vast but endearing museum, with a collection spanning three centuries and four continents. Comprehensive English signage narrates the history of the comic genre, and regular workshops, seminars and performances keep the place buzzing.

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Museums, History

Ii Museum

Samurai helmets, swords and body armour are crammed into a huge townhouse in backstreet Gion. Early attempts at curation have been overwhelmed as the rooms overflow with donations of historical treasures. Among the more unusual exhibits are grizzled Buddha statues, the likes of which you won't find even at Kyoto's many temples and shrines.

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Art

National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto

A big, grey box designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki is the unbecoming home of Kyoto’s top contemporary art venue. The 2,600sq m of floor space hosts an impressive permanent collection of around 10,000 pieces, including works by Piet Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp, as well as Japanese paintings, textiles and ceramics. There are strong temporary exhibitions, occasional performances and cinema screenings. The National Museum is always worth a visit.

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Things to do

Sfera Archive

The Sfera Building, designed by Swedish group Claesson Koivis to Rune in 2003, is an oasis of modernity on a street loaded with antique shops and traditional teahouses. It’s cloaked in titanium, with holes punched out to depict cherry tree leaves. Inside, there’s a four-storey ‘culture centre’, incorporating a gallery, café and Sfera Bar Satonaka. Shoppers will find plenty to keep themselves amused, including the Archive, selling CDs and design books in English and Japanese, and the Shop, stocked with modern Japanese interior goods.

Temples & Shrines

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Attractions, Religious buildings and sites

Kiyomizu-dera

If you only visit one temple in Kyoto, make it this World Heritage behemoth. From the balcony at the eastern edge of the complex, you can view an awesome sight: a massive hall and Noh stage supported by 139 wooden pillars. This architectural marvel was built in 1633 using not a single nail, but relying instead on wooden wedges. The temple has a reputation for bestowing good fortune, with numerous ways to appeal to the gods. A natural spring has a sign that states confidently: ‘You can make any wishes here and they will all come true’. Just west of the Main Hall is the Tainai-meguri, a pitch-black tunnel that represents Buddha’s womb. Feel your way down the short, twisting path and you’ll find a stone that can also grant wishes. Despite all this, some worshippers used to leap from the 13m-high stage, believing their prayers would be answered if they survived the drop.

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Attractions, Religious buildings and sites

Kitano Tenmangu

A political conflict saw Heian period statesman Sugawara no Michizane demoted to a menial position on the island of Kyushu, where he died in 903. When earthquakes and storms ravaged Kyoto shortly after his passing, locals feared that Sugawara was exacting revenge on the city. Their solution was to build Shinto shrine Kitano Tenmangu and deify the vengeful spirit. The grounds were decorated with Sugawara’s favourite plum trees, about 2,000 of which blossom each February. To celebrate the occasion, a festival with local maiko and geiko has been held here on 25 February since 1109. The rest of the year it’s a peaceful and photogenic shrine, with a more restrained colour scheme than most of its Shinto brethren.

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Attractions, Religious buildings and sites

Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji is an awesome sight, and has played a significant part in popularising Zen Buddhism in Kyoto. It was built by Emperor Kameyama during the 13th century, and a towering sanmon (main gate) was added to the structure in 1628. The gate offers impressive views across the city, but is most famous as the hiding place of Japan’s version of Guy Fawkes. After a failed attempt to assassinate ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1594, robber Goemon Ishikawa hid away inside the gate until he was discovered and boiled alive in oil. More peaceful, Zen-like reasons to visit Nanzen-ji include the ‘Leaping Tiger’ dry Zen garden of the Abbot’s quarters and a trio of tranquil sub-temples, all of which feature impressive gardens.

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Attractions, Religious buildings and sites

Toji

World Heritage site Toji is best known for its landmark pagoda, Japan’s tallest, but is also home to a host of National Treasures. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and the monk credited with creating Japan’s syllabary, arrived here in the eighth century and set about creating a 3-D mandala to help people visualise his ideas. Even though much of Toji has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, the 21 Buddha statues of the mandala have survived and are on display in the Kodo building.

Best for kids

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Museums, Art and design

Kaleidoscope Museum of Kyoto

The city’s most hands-on museum is one of its most charming. The friendly staff encourage you to get touchy-feely with exhibits such as kaleidoscopes made from dustbins, mobile phones and violins. If you’re suitably inspired, you can join a workshop in the café to make your own polychrome toy.

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Things to do

Monkey Park Iwatayama

Free of fences or cages, this animal-friendly park has almost 120 wild macaques (snow monkeys) roaming around the mountaintop. Visitors can feed the monkeys from an enclosure, and although it’s a trek, they will be rewarded with a great view.

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Attractions, Theme parks

Toei Kyoto Studio Park

Hang out with samurai at this movie-set theme park from Toei, producer of Japanese period dramas and superhero shows. The full-scale street sets depict a Japan of yore, but so does most of Kyoto itself. Nostalgia seekers will find more value elsewhere; children may see things differently.

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