While Higashiyama specifically refers to the hills that run along Kyoto's eastern edge, this is a large area that spans a number of UNESCO World Heritage temples and the most pristine of Kyoto's old townscapes. The area is also home to several of the city's kagai, or geisha districts.
Gion and Higashiyama cover a wide area that is now the heart and soul of Kyoto. It is easily accessed by public transportation. Within the district, most sites are a leisurely walk away.
From Kyoto Station take the no. 5, 7 or 100 bus for Ginkakuji Temple and the northern end of the Philosopher's Path. This journey takes about 40 minutes. Take the no. 100 and 206 buses for Kiyomizu-michi, the nearest stop to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This journey takes about 20 minutes.
Gion-Shijo and Kiyomizu-Gojo stations on the Keihan subway line offer easy access to Shijo and Gojo streets. You can reach the geisha districts, temples and ceramics areas within 15 minutes by walking eastwards along these streets.
Kyoto experienced a cultural renaissance under the 15th century shogun Yoshimasa, who built the exquisite Ginkakuji Temple, nicknamed the Silver Pavilion (though never actually covered in silver) and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here the traditional arts, from tea to ikebana flower arranging, flourished under his patronage. The temple garden, which was completed after Yoshimasa's death in 1490, is famous for its moss and autumn colors, though it is gorgeous the year round.
Running along the foot of the Eastern Hills is a cherry tree-lined canal and trail, known today as the Philosopher's Path. There are some nice little craft shops and cafes to relax at along the way. While usually tranquil, at the peak of the cherry blossoms season this route can be very crowded, so it is best to start early during that time of year.
Follow the Philosopher's Path southbound for about 30 minutes from Ginkakuji Temple, and you will pass numerous temples including Eikando, a prime autumn foliage-viewing spot, before reaching the massive Nanzenji Temple complex. This was once the country's most important temple, and you may well recognize the enormous Sanmon Gate from the Hollywood blockbuster "Lost in Translation." The sub temple of Tenju-an is highly recommended. The Muroan gardens are very close and well-worth a visit to sit and relax.
Further south, towards Shijo Street, you begin to enter geisha territory. Here you can find the ochaya, wooden teahouses, that serve as the residences and reception venues for geisha, though some have been converted into high-end restaurants and bars that are open to the public.
Shinbashi Street is especially picturesque. Furumonzen and Shinmonzen streets close to here are home to a cluster of antique shops.
Shijo Street itself is a lively and modern entertainment area, with abundant opportunities to shop for souvenirs and eat your fill of green tea-flavored sweets. Strolling through the Yasaka-jinja Shrine grounds on the far eastern end, you can continue on through the pleasant Maruyama Park to Chion-in and Shoren-in temples.
Kodaiji is also easily accessible from here and holds interesting night-time exhibitions and light-up events through the year.
If you wish to continue your pursuit of geisha, follow Hanamikoji Street southbound to Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater. Their nightly show, Gion Corner, presents maiko (geisha-in-training) performances as well as introductions to several other Japanese traditional arts.
A stone's throw away is Kenninji Temple, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.
The Kiyomizu area is heaven for ceramics lovers and is host to numerous pottery shops. Ceramicists from all over Japan congregate on Gojo Street every August to peddle their wares.
Kawai Kanjiro Memorial House, the former residence of a mingei potter, is a hidden gem in the area.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a must-see, though prepare to walk uphill and brave crowds to reach it. The roof of the main hall is under renovations until 2020 but is still accessible.
Gion and Higashiyama is a district filled with many of the sites and sights that are the very reason that people flock to Kyoto. You should expect to spend a whole day here, at least, or risk feeling rushed. Two days and an evening are recommended.