Kyoto may just be my favourite Japanese city, if you haven’t heard me say it already. Bursting at the seams with history, traditions and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this city will cast its spell and charm you like no other in Japan. Along with Tokyo, Kyoto is one of the most visited cities by tourists as each offer a completely different side of Japanese culture that you simply must experience.
One of the many things I love about Kyoto is its history. It was once the capital and the home to the Japanese emperors from 794 till 1868; the city has played a large role in the development of Japan over the past years. While Kyoto has seen war, destruction and fire, it was ultimately removed from the list of target cities when it came to releasing the atomic bomb and air raids in the second World War. This was due to the fact that it placed such a large historic value on the country and its people; visit Kyoto and you’ll understand why.
If you plan on stepping back in time in Kyoto, there are more than 2,000 temples to choose from along with many other attractions, areas and historical sites. Don’t feel overwhelmed, here are some places and things I recommend to get the most out of your next adventures in Kyoto:
Becoming more and more popular by the day amongst tourists, Fushimi-Inari Taisha is an attraction you are most likely quite eager to get to, I know I was! Wander through what seems like endless amounts of vivid orange Torii gates, over 10,000 to be more precise, that will please all of your senses.
You’ll find the trail of shrines that are dedicated to Inari, the Japanese Shinto god of rice, will lead you to the forest of Mount Inari. This walk will take you about 2-3 hours, if not you can just wander around and make your way back for food! I found market stalls brimming with traditional foods and kawaii desserts – how cute is this fish pancake/cream/fruit concoction?!
Tip: Get to the area as early as possible for a prime opportunity to get a shot of the Torii gates minus the hoards of tourists.
Getting there: Take the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station just 2 stops to JR Inari Station and as you exit, you’ll find the entrance to the area.
A flawless, golden temple that I am quite sure, judging by the flocks of tourists pushing to get their ideal photo, that it is the most popular attraction in Kyoto. And yes, that is real gold in leaf form covering the top two floors of the Zen temple. Hard to believe, right!? Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion, as it is aptly named, was the home to a shogun by the name of Shikaga Yoshimitsu before becoming a Zen temple of the Rinzai sec following his death in 1408. After its destruction on multiple occasions, the one you can see today was rebuilt in 1955.
For that picturesque photo with the temple and its reflection on the pond, I suggest trying your best to get there on a sunny day. You can wander through the gardens, find the teahouse, visit another temple and then find gifts and food towards the end.
Tip: I took the Kyoto morning tour, which includes the Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle as well. While tours are not really my thing, I would really recommend this one as it is the best way to learn about the history of these UNESCO World Heritage-listed palaces and temples that you wouldn’t know otherwise. Plus, it makes it a whole lot easier to get around to each destination and includes entry fees.
Cost: Per person it costs $82 and you can book in advance here. The tour lasts about 4 and a half hours.
Getting there: A bus from Kyoto Station numbered either 101 or 205 will get you there in about 40 minutes. Or take a tour like I did, which was a lot quicker!
Nijo Castle / Imperial Palace
Translated in English to “Pure Water Temple”, Kiyomizu-dera was founded long before our time in 780. The temple resides on the site of the Otowa Waterfall where it derives its name and originally was linked to the Hosso sect, which is one of Japanese Buddhism’s oldest schools. At the temples base, you will find the waterfall is split into several streams, where visitors can use cups to drink from it. Each individual stream has a different benefit such as learning, love and longevity. Don’t drink from all three, though, as you will be thought of as greedy!
The prime time to visit would be in the later Autumn months of October and November as the temple contrasting with the orange and red hues is beautiful. Also, at the end of November, at night the temple is illuminated for the Autumn leaf season! The same is done for Cherry Blossom season at the end of March through to the start of April.
Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take bus number 100 or 206 for about 15 minutes to Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop. Then, a ten minute walk up the hill is necessary to read the temple.
Peaceful and stunning on any day be it busy with tourists or quite in off peak seasons, Arashiyama is a must when you’re in Kyoto. Reserve about half a day to explore this quaint little town located at the base of Mount Arashiyama. Here you’ll find the famous bamboo grove amongst many temples and gardens. Hike up the mountain on the other side of Togetsukyo Bridge where you’ll find many cheeky monkeys roaming freely that you can even feed!
While Sakura season brings in tourists by the masses, Autumn is, in my opinion, the best time to visit as it is a lot more quite and calm as well as the colours of trees and leaves being unbelievable beautiful.
Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take the JR Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station in 15 minutes. Pick up a map and wander just several minutes before finding yourself amidst it all.
Nara Day Trip
About one hour from Kyoto is where you’ll find Japan’s first capital city and one of the most popular day trips from the city as well as Osaka. The main attraction is of course its free roaming, sassy deer in Nara Park. Deer are thought of as messengers of the gods by the Shinto religion and are most definitely the highlight of Nara. Pick up some deer crackers and they will be on to you straight away trying to hustle you out of the food in seconds. They are extremely tame, though, and can even bow to you and with you before being handed a cracker!
I did spend the majority of my time in Nara with the deer, but you can also find stunning gardens and temples in the area as well.
Getting there: A train from Kyoto Station on the Miyakoji rapid will get you to JR Nara Station in about 45 minutes.
A temple recommended to me by my Airbnb host that truly did not disappoint, even in the pouring rain. Nanzen-ji appealed to me for many reasons, one being the lack of tourists, and the other being that it was quite different from other temples I had encountered. Some say that when you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all, but in Kyoto, I completely disagree. Especially when it comes to this one. You’ll find moss covered walls, a towering old aqueduct passing through the grounds that was used to carry water and goods as well as many sub-temples amongst the impeccably kept grounds and gardens here. If you want Zen and peace, this is where you’ll find it.
Getting there: Walk 5 to 10 minutes from Keage Station, a stop on the Tozai Line.
Japan’s infamous Geisha district found near the Kamo River where a plethora of shops, expensive restaurants and teahouses reside. Geisha are known to entertain in this district, which makes it well known amongst tourists as a Geisha spotting is commonly what people come to Kyoto to see. While it may not be common to see packs of Geisha’s wandering the main streets, explore down the backstreets in the early evening and you may have a better chance of seeing one of these beautiful women.
On Gion Corner you’ll find a cultural Japanese arts show including a tea ceremony, places and dances with real Geishas/Maiko. While the show is made for tourists, you are able to get an idea of art forms of traditional Japan. There are shows daily at 6pm & 7pm and the cost is 3150 Yen.
Getting there: Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line from Kyoto Station will get you to the heart of Gion.
One I haven’t personally been to, but have heard good things about and seen even better photos. This temple and its grounds appear to be prime in the Autumn months when burnt orange and deep red colours dominate the gardens. The temple complex in its entirety covers a mountainside in the southeast of central Kyoto at the mountain’s base.
Getting there: From Kyoto Station, take the Tozai Subway Line to Daigo Station and walk about 15 minutes.
If you find yourself in Kyoto between June and September, I suggest you get yourself to Kibune, stat! Not only in this little town found in the northern mountains of Kyoto will you find a beautiful Shrine, town and ryokans, but restaurants resting on platforms over the river! Sample delicious Japanese food as water flows beneath you. Not only is it said to be relaxing, it’s quite quirky and cool, too!
Getting there: Start at Kyoto Station and take the JR Nara Line to Tofukuji Station (2 minutes), and then make your way to Demachi-Yangi Station on the Keihan Main line (10 minutes. Then, you need to take the Eizan Kurama Line to Kibune-guchi Station (30 minutes), before taking a bus five more minutes to the Shrine!
A popular spot to view Cherry Blossoms in Spring, Philospher’s Path is still equally as charming year round. The stone path lines a canal that is about 2 kilometres long and begins at the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavillion) and takes you to Nanzen-ji. Why is it named Philospher’s Path you ask? Nishida Kitaro walked along this path to Kyoto University while practising meditation before becoming one of Japan’s most well-known philosophers.
Getting there: While it may sound easy to find the path, in the pouring rain, I struggled to locate it. After two hours, I gave up, sadly! With that being said, maybe a map would actually aid you in finding the path. I mean, it is 2kms long after all though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find when I look back in hindsight! If you’re visiting the Silver Pavilion or Nanzen-ji, about five minutes from each is where the path is located.