Better Know a Neighborhood: Southern Higashiyama (Kyoto)

It’s time I branched out from the Tokyo neighborhoods I’ve been covering in this series and start introducing some other cities. So, on to Kyoto, a city that I just can’t seem to get enough of lately. I was just up there in March and already I am scheming on how to go back before the summer heat really hits!

One of my favorite areas (and a popular one at that) in Kyoto is the southern Higashiyama area. Higashiyama literally means “eastern mountains” and that’s exactly where this neighborhood sits, snuggled up against the hills. Since the 14th century, it’s been a favorite locale for temples, shrines and private villas. Numerous traditional gardens hide behind these sumptuous structures, making this a delightful neighborhood to linger in. You could quite easily walk through the area in under an hour, but why would you want to? Spend at least a half day discovering the quaint shops, cafes, and sights below:

I’d start any visit to Southern Higashiyama at the Kiyomizu Temple. This is the UNESCO-honored granddaddy of them all, with an enviable mountain perch and a massive porch that provides striking views over both the city and the ever-changing forest palette (cherry blossoms and maples are particularly spectacular here). A well-marked path leads up the hill behind the shrine, allowing for the perfect photo op of this nearly half-century old structure which was built without the use of a single nail. Within the temple grounds, don’t miss the “love stones”, a pair of rocks placed 18 meters apart. Legend holds that if you can successfully walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, you’ll find true love.

Kiyomizu Temple
Kiyomizu Temple

From Kiyomizu-dera, meander downhill along the Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka. These two lanes, whose names translate as “three year slope” and “two year slope”, hint at the old superstition that pilgrims who stumbled on these lanes would merit that length of bad luck. If this area seems insanely picturesque, it’s due to its designation as a historic preservation district and is one of the best (and only) spots left in Kyoto to glimpse the wooden two-story homes of former merchants.

Along the Ninenzaka
Along the Ninenzaka

As you walk the Ninenzaka, you might notice a long set of stairs that seems to disappear up and over the hill. This is the entrance to Kodai-ji, a temple that once functioned as a nunnery. It’s most famous resident was the widow of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, considered one of Japan’s unifiers in the 16th century. Unless you’re really into Japanese history, it’s not one of Kyoto’s more memorable or photogenic temples, but there is a small bamboo forest and a lovely teahouse on the grounds.

Teahouse at Kodai-ji
Teahouse at Kodai-ji

If you don’t get too sidetracked by the shops and cafes along the route, eventually the Ninenzaka will lead you to Maruyama Park (a top sight for cherry blossom viewing in the spring) and the back of the Yasaka Shrine. This colorful shrine, allegedly founded in 656 AD, is a favorite of the citizens of Kyoto. On any given day, you’ll find parents arriving with newborns to receive a blessing, young and old alike clad in kimonos, and businessmen and tourists stopping in for a quick prayer. Yasaka Shrine is also the epicenter of the Gion Matsuri every July, a festival that’s considered to be one of Japan’s top three.

Cherries in bloom in Maruyama
Cherries in bloom in Maruyama Park

Southern Higashiyama is home to an amazing tofu restaurant with a stunning garden, an intimate tea ceremony experience, and my favorite chocolate cafe. Want an itinerary that helps you make the most of a day in this neighborhood? Contact me for more details!

6 thoughts on “Better Know a Neighborhood: Southern Higashiyama (Kyoto)

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  1. Higashiyama is one of my favourite parts of Kyoto to visit and love visiting this area during the spring or autumn. Kiyomizu-dera and the other temples in Higashiyama have special evening illuminations during this time, which are truly spectacular and only add to the atmosphere of this amazing place.

    1. Lovelycomplex, you’ll love Kyoto! It’ll definitely be hot and humid this summer but it’s such an amazing city to explore. Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions. Are you coming to Kyushu at all? 🙂

      1. No I don’t think I’ll make it as far as that. Although I really wanted to go to Fukuoka and Okinawa. I’ll be in Japan for about 20 days, and one week will be spent in Tokyo. So that leaves just under 2 weeks to travel I guess…which feels really short, but I don’t know. It’d be great if I could! ^ ^

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