If you only make it to one Japanese city in your lifetime, it’s gotta be Kyoto. The former imperial capital is more than just one of Japan’s best tourist destinations, it’s one of the best cities to visit in world. Period. Even if you’ve think you’ve seen it all, Kyoto will have something up its sleeve to leave you in awe.
When you emerge into the city for the first time, Kyoto probably won’t match up with the Japan of your dreams. The city is, at the surface, modern, and hardly seems like the mystical place the tourist brochures portray.
Don’t let first appearances fool you. The best things to do in Kyoto aren’t found on the busy city streets, but hidden in the back alleys and behind green parks. Stroll around Kyoto a little, and you’ll soon discover Japan as you’ve always imagined it. There’s no way you’ll leave Kyoto without yearning for more.
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Not sure what to do in Kyoto? Start with these top 10 things to do in Kyoto, Japan.
Exploring with no fixed schedule opens Kyoto to you. Kyoto is home to over 400 shrines and over 1,600 temples. No matter where you find yourself in the city, there’ll be something nearby that transports you to another time and place. It’s no wonder Kyoto almost always tops list of what to do in Japan!
Need a little help planning your trip to Kyoto ? Here’s a quick list of the top 10 things to do in Kyoto:
Nothing expresses Kyoto’s artistic side as well as the stylish Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. The 13-meter tall dome stands next to a pond exactly where the 14th-century original stood before being torched by a monk.
The three-level construction is gold-leafed all throughout, presenting a gorgeous façade that’s enhanced by rippled reflection in the pond below. The golden reflections in summer are a scene to behold, but the sight of snow caps in the lush green background during winter is equally beguiling.
See Also: 24 Hours in Tokyo
Getting To Kinkaku-ji: To get to Kinkaku-ji, board bus number 101 or 205 at Kyoto station and get off at Kinkaku-ji Michi bus stop.
Not far from Kinkaku-ji in northwestern Kyoto lies Ryoan-ji, translated as the temple of the peaceful dragon. The current structure dates back to 1488 after the original temple was destroyed during the Onin wars of 1467. The mirror-shaped Kyoyochi Pond, dotted with numerous water birds, welcomes you to the grounds before reaching the monk quarters.
Ryoan-ji is also home to Karesansui, one of the most spectacular Zen gardens in Japan. The garden has 15 mysterious stones, laid in such a way that only 14 can be seen at the same time. Amazingly, the branches in the garden cast borrowed shadows filled with moss. The patterns on the rocks never remain the same twice.
Getting to Ryoan-ji: From Keihan Sanjō Station, catch bus 59. Exit at Ryōan-ji-mae, just outside the entrance to Ryoan-ji. If you’re already at Kinkaku-ji, it’s about a half-hour walk down Hontsuji Dori to Ryoan-ji.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Built around 1500, the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Kyoto. It is popular for the over 10,000 gates that open to each other. Walking through the shrine is an adventure in itself, winding up a mountain that will you take around three hours to climb.
Along the structure are smaller shrines with vendor shops and areas to relax. Many superstitious folks believe that visiting Fushimi Inari-taisha brings success in business. Try your luck and donate to the shrine to get your name etched onto your own vermillion gate.
Getting to Fushimi Inari-taisha: From Kyoto Station, hop onto the JR Nara line to Inari Station. As you exit the station, you should see a large red torii that will lead you to the shrine.
At the far western part of Kyoto is the Arashiyama Mountains where the famous Arashiyama trails lie. A beautifully-trimmed bamboo groove welcomes you to the land of natural beauty with several sites to visit. Monkeys at the Kameyama-koen Park near the mountain top freely entertain you as you gaze at the spectacular Togetsu-kyo Bridge below. Just don’t get too close as the little guys can sometimes get aggressive and snatch up your belongings.
Near the bamboo grove is the Tenryu-ji Temple, surrounded by a stretch of fine gardens. Sneak into Gio-ji Temple for a glimpse of traditional dancing, or head to the right to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple for the famous one thousand stone statues. A view of the 9th-century Daikaku-ji Temple or a visit to the O-kouchi Mountain Villa will leave you equally spirited.
Getting to Arashiyama: From Kyoto Station, take bus 28 to Arashiyama Station. Alternatively, you can catch bus 11 from Keihan Sanjō Station. Tenryu-ji is just west of the station. Once you’ve reached Tenryu-ji, you’ll find the bamboo grove outside the north gate.
No other castle in Kyoto can give you a better glimpse into medieval Japanese history as Nijo Castle. While the major tower was destroyed centuries ago, the fortification walls and moats still remain intact. Constructed in 1601, Nijo Castle is an enormous collection of structures that demonstrate the power of the shogun war lords.
Inside the castle grounds are the five buildings of Ninomaru Palace, the Tozamurai guard house, and the Ohiroma grand chamber. The interiors feature decorative panels and the spectacular nightingale floors that squeak when intruders step down. The castle is open from nine to five apart from a few select days.
Getting to Nijo Castle: At Kyoto Station, you can catch bus 9, exiting at the Nijō-jō-mae stop. You’ll find the entrance to the castle on Horikawa Dori, the large avenue to the northeast.
Built in the 1480s by Ashikaga Yoshimasa as Jishoji temple, Ginkaku-ji is an iconic structure in Kyoto. Although less impressive than Kinkaku-ji, both temples are must-sees while visiting Kyoto. Scholars believe the initial plan was to have the temple covered in silver leaf but the shogun ran out of money before completing the project.
Nevertheless, the silver-less Zen temple is a true representation of Higashiyama culture and a relic of the library style. The surrounding garden is equally striking, featuring a Sea of Silver Sand and a moon platform which is believed to reflect moon light to the Silver Pavilion. Ginkaku-ji is open all year round. Visit in the morning before the crowds envelop the grounds if you want a little peace and quiet.
Getting to Ginkaku-ji: Bus 5 leaves from both JR Kyoto and Keihan Sanjō Station. You’ll need to exit at the Ginkaku-ji-michi bus stop.
Gion District (Gion-Shinbashi)
Primarily serving as a teahouse district for travellers visiting the Yasaka-jinja Shrine in the 18th century, Gion District has since morphed into a modern neighbourhood in the heart of Kyoto. Nevertheless, Shinbashi-dori, on the northern border of Gion, has perfectly preserved the beauty and customs of medieval Japan.
Don’t miss your opportunity to spot geisha sneaking along the street before they mysteriously disappear in a rustle of cloth. Although an authentic geisha entertainment experience is often out of reach for most foreigners, simply seeing them wandering Gion District bestows a special feeling.
Also close by in Gion District is the cherry-tree-lined Shirakawa Minami-dori, arguably the most beautiful street in Asia. Cherish visiting the adjacent Shirakawa River at evening for silent reflection.
Getting to Gion District: From Kyoto Station, it’s about a 30-minute walk to Gion District. Otherwise, grab a train on the Keihan Line to Gion-Shijō Station from Shichijo Station in central Kyoto.
With nearly four hundred years behind it, Nishiki Market isn’t your typical Japanese market. Kyoto’s most famous culinary delicacies and rarest seafoods find their way into the market stalls of Nishiki.
Most of the foods stalls are stacked with orange carrots, grilled squid, rice balls, sugared fruit, or omelets. You’ll be easily overwhelmed walking through Nishiki Market by the welcoming sights and smells of delicious Japanese food, and the lively chatter of the merchants shouting irasshaimase to beckon you to grab a tasty snack. For a break from the edibles, stroll into one of Nishiki Market’s stationary shops to rustle through the never-ending selections of Japanese paper printed with colorful designs and, if you’re lucky enough to spot it, entertainingly bad English translations that can brighten anyone’s day.
Getting to Nishiki Market: The market is one block north of Shijo-dori in central Kyoto. The market runs on Nishikikōji-dōri between Takakura-dōri to the west and Teramachi-dōri to the east. The closest stations are Shijo Karasuma and Kawaramachi on the Hankyu Kyoto Line.
Even in Kyoto, where temples seem to sprout from the pavement at every turn, Kiyomizu-dera will wow you. You can’t help becoming entranced by the temple’s entrance, jutting out of a mountain with 13-metre columns supporting it. The veranda at Kiyomizu-dera is so impressive that the locals use the expression “jumping from the balcony of Kiyomizu” to mean a daring adventure.
Below the balcony runs the Otowa Waterfall. Do as the locals do and take a sip of water to test the popular theory that they have healing powers. Next to the main hall are three smaller halls, Amida-do, Okuno-in, and Shaka-do. All three have deep religious roots connected to Buddha worship. If you can, visit Kiyomizu-dera in the evening when it takes on a stunning glow or in autumn when you can witness a panorama of Kyoto erupting in fall colours.
Getting to Kiyomizu-dera: From Kyoto Station, bus 206 will take you towards Kiyomizu-dera. You can exit at either the Kiyōmizu-michi or Gojo-zaka bus stop, although Gogo-zaka is closer to the temple. From the bus stop its a 10-minute walk uphill.
Lying to the north in Kyoto is a scenic mile-long stretch named Philosopher’s Walk in honor of Nishida Kitaro, a Japanese philosopher. The ever cheerful Lake Biwa Canal alongside the pathway is a scene to behold, but it’s the blossoming cherry trees, if you time your trip to Japan right, that will attract you most.
Walking on this path in spring will refresh you as the wind blows flower petals around you. Reflect on life among the tranquility of the Philosopher’s Walk or grab a drink from the adjacent cafes to keep refreshed.
Getting to Philosopher’s Walk: The Philosopher’s Walk runs between Ginkaku-ji and the Nanzeji neighborhood. The best approach is to take bus 5 from JR Kyoto or Keihan Sanjō Station to the Nanzen-ji Eikan-dō-michi bus stop. Explore Nanzen-ji Temple, one of the most interesting in Kyoto, before wandering towards the Philosopher’s Walk. The start of the path is about a 5- to 10-minute walk north of Nanzeji Temple.
Summary: The best things to do in Kyoto, Japan
- Searching for the otherworldly? Hang with a thieving troop of monkeys and walk through the immense bamboo grove of Arashiyama.
- Want an incredible panorama of Kyoto? Find your way to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto, for big views of the city.
- Visiting during hanami (cherry blossom season)? Contemplate life among the blazing spring colours on the Philosopher’s Walk and along Shirakawa Minami-dori in Gion District.
- Need a quick classic Kyoto experience? Walk through the thousands of vermillion red torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha and gaze upon the golden reflections at Kinkaku-ji.