Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan until the mid-19th century, when the royal family moved to Tokyo. As a result, the city of Kyoto is steeped in history, with 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, thousands of religious shrines and temples, well-preserved historic homes, and a variety of other attractions.
The Imperial Palace was the home of the royal family and offers a view of Japan’s past. Although the palace was originally constructed in the mid-1300s, it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times over the ensuing years, almost always in the original style .Tours of the palace are given in English twice per day and last about an hour. The tours do not enter the buildings themselves, so everything is viewed from outside and through windows. Admission is free.
The Nijo Castle is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the home of a shogun. It was originally built in 1603 and features extensive gardens and a large moat. The interior has numerous examples of period Japanese screens, which are considered masterpieces. Visitors are allowed to wander the castle and its grounds freely; however, photographs and drawings are not allowed. The entrance fee, as of early 2011, is about $7 USD for adults.
The Gion District is the traditional geisha and tea house area in Kyoto. The area has numerous 17th-century-era tea houses, and a wide variety of them include geisha entertainment. However, these are by invitation only; you must know an existing patron of the geisha houses to be invited inside. In the Gion Corner, tourists can see traditional puppetry shows and enjoy court music. Also in Gion District is the Minzamiza Kabuki Theater, which is believed to be where Kabuki originated.
Thousands of temples and shrines in both the Buddhist and Shinto traditions are scattered throughout the city — one of the standouts is the Kiyomizu Temple. It was originally founded in 798, but the current structure dates from 1633. The temple sits on a cliff and offers spectacular views of the surrounding area. Large gardens on the temple’s grounds are full of cherry trees and become quite popular when the trees are in bloom.