Wondering exactly what to see in Kyoto? Don’t miss these ten spots!
One weekend in May, my friend Lynsey and I got lucky with a 5 day weekend from our schools in Korea. So we decided to hop over to Kyoto and see all we could see. We had a total blast as it was both our first time in Japan, and we’d heard so much about how beautiful this city is. Here’s what we got up to while we were there.
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Why is Kyoto so important?
In case you don’t know about this little place, here’s a brief overview of Kyoto. Its nickname is City of Ten Thousand Shrines, and for about a thousand years it was Japan’s capital. (In fact, “Kyoto” means “capital city” in Japanese.)
During the WWII bombings, it was largely left untouched, so it was able to maintain a lot of pre-war structures and architecture. This makes it the best city to get a feel for traditional Japanese culture. It’s also not as populated as Tokyo or Osaka, so you won’t feel quite so claustrophobic if you’re not a city person.
Without further ado, I gathered together my favorite places in a guide on what to see in Kyoto!
Top 10 Places to Visit in Kyoto
1. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Also known as the Sagano Bamboo Forest, this is probably on every “Most Beautiful Places in Japan” list I have ever read. It’s a sprawling bamboo forest that’s open year round with no admission fee, and it’s as breathtaking as every list says it is. To have it more to yourself, aim to visit early in the morning. Even later in the evening was quite lovely.
- Arashiyama Half-Day Walking Tour – This will take you through the grove as well as to Nonomiya Shrine and Tenryuji Temple. Check prices + availability here
- Sagano and Arashiyama Walking Food Tour – Visit more of the Arashiyama district, Togetsukyo Bridge, and Tenryuji Temple as well as the bamboo grove. You’ll also be able to sample traditional Japanese food. Check prices + availability here
2. Kiyomizu-Dera Temple
If you’re like me and you love to find that one spot that overlooks the whole city, you’ll love Kiyomizu-Dera Temple.
When you get off and start walking, you’ll see the bright orange entrance from far off. You can then walk in a little circle around the gardens. Apparently, there’s a stone called Tainai Meguri that will grant your wishes, but we couldn’t find it!
This temple, of course, is one of the more popular tourist destinations (it was briefly featured in Memoirs of a Geisha), but it’s incredibly organized, and people are super polite.
Kiyomizu-Dera Temple Tours
- Kiyomizu-Dera Temple Half Day Tour – In this walking tour, you’ll also see Kodaiji Temple and Yasaka Shrine. Check prices + availability
- Temple Tour from Kyoto – Along with Kiyomizu-dera, you’ll see Todaiji Temple, Nara Park, Kofukuji Temple, Kodaiji Temple, and Yasaka Shrine. Check prices + availability
3. Toji Temple
This one was a bit unplanned in terms of being on our list of things we definitely wanted to see. However, it was an utterly pleasant surprise. Toji Temple dates back to the late eighth century from the early Heian Period. Its pagoda, at five stories and 54.8 m tall, is the tallest wooden pagoda in all of Japan.
4. Nishiki Food
Want to experience Japanese food of all kinds? Look no farther than Nishiki Food Market. This ain’t your average marketplace, either. Nishiki has been around since the early 14th century, and some families have been running the same shops for generations.
My friend and I waited until the morning of our flight to explore, so sadly we didn’t quite get to gorge ourselves, but just the half hour we had was enough to know this place was pretty awesome. If you ever live in Kyoto, this could very easily be your one-stop grocery store!
Nishiki Food Market Tours
- Nishiki Market + Teramachi Street Tour – Go through Nishiki’s shops as well as doing some shopping on Teramachi Street and a visit to Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine. Check prices + availability
- Donburi Cooking Class + Nishiki Market Tour – Shop for ingredients around Nishiki and then make your own donburi dish. Check prices + availability
5. Okochi Sanso
This mountain villa was once the property of a famous period drama (“jidaigeki” in Japanese) actor, Denjiro Okochi, and was opened to the public after his death in 1962.
The villa is surrounded by 20,000 square meters of garden, and you have to walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove just to get to the entrance. There’s a small observation platform where you’re served matcha green tea and a treat with your admission fee.
Due to unfortunate circumstances (*cough* a lost phone and rain *cough*) we weren’t able to explore all the gardens, but we did experience the observation platform, which was the perfect calm.
6. Fushimi Inari Taisha
Recognize this? If you immediately thought of the scene from Memoirs of a Geisha where a young Chiyo races to a temple to pray to become a geisha after meeting the Chairman for the first time, bingo!
While it might very well be one of the most touristy attractions in Kyoto, you won’t find yourself too claustrophobic. Also, you’ll regret not seeing this place for a least an hour or so. If you’re like me and insist on getting a perfect shot, I recommend focusing on trying to take pictures in the tunnels coming back down rather than up. You’re more likely to get a brief 30 seconds where no one seems to be coming.
Fushimi Inari Tours
- Sake Brewery Visit + Fushimi Inari Shrine – Learn more about sake brewing and then stroll through Fushimi. Check prices + availability
- Kyoto Morning Tour – Along with Fushimi, visit Uji Byodoin Temple, and Taihoan Tea House. Check prices + availability
7. Maruyama Park
This is the perfect place to sit and relax in the midst of exploring Higashiyama. We stumbled across this in our exploring post-Kiyomizu-dera, and simply sat and enjoyed the scenery and pigeons hanging around.
8. Heian Jingu Shrine
Another shrine we stumbled across quite by accident! You’ll see the huge torii (the name for an entrance to a shrine) in what seems like the middle of a downtown area. It will then lead you across a bridge to this beautiful shrine. It’s particularly stunning around the time the sun begins to go down.
Heian Jingu Shrine Tours
- Kyoto Afternoon Exploration – Visit Heian Jingu, Sanjusangendo Temple, and Kiyomizu-dera. Check prices + availability
- Kyoto Backstreet Cycling – Along with Heian Jingu Shrine, visit Miyagawacho, Gion’s machiya houses, and Yasaka Shrine. Check prices + availability here
9. Shoren-in Temple
Also known as Atawa Palace, we were told this temple from the 13th century was a bit more off-the-beaten-path. It’s pretty hidden and not as large as other temples or shrines nearby.
However, it’s totally worth the effort to find as it’s relaxing and beautiful. Enter the temple and sit along the patio and just relax, enjoy the garden view. If you’d like, you can explore the little nooks of the garden, which features 800-year-old camphor trees. |
10. Kinkaku-ji Temple
Do not mix this up with Ginkaku-ji Temple. Unlike in Hangul, which I’ve grown accustomed to, you cannot use g and k interchangeably in Japanese.
Ginkaku-ji Temple is known as the Silver Pavilion but was left uncompleted due to budget constraints, so it is not, in fact, silver at all. Kinkaku-ji Temple is known as the Gold Pavilion and is in fact gold. Remember G is Silver, K is Gold, kind of like how I once memorized the periodic table abbreviation for silver in science class (Ag, Silver = Ain’t Gold).
Anyhow, I saw Kinkaku-ji in the rain, and it gleamed like one would imagine a golden building in the middle of a lake ought to. It’s a Buddhist temple that dates back to 1397.
Gold Pavilion Tours
- Kyoto Morning Sightseeing Tour – In addition to Kinkaku-ji, visit Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and Nijo Castle. Check prices + availability
- Kyoto Whole Day Tour – Visit Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji Temple, and Fushimi Inari along with Kinkaku-ji Temple. Check prices + availability
Kyoto Travel Tips
- Flying In – You’ll fly into Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, which is about an hour from Kyoto. If I remember correctly, we just got a shuttle bus from the airport to Kyoto Station and went to our Airbnb from there.
- Where to Stay in Kyoto – We didn’t want to stay in a hostel, so we chose an Airbnb! It was lovely, but it’s no longer listed and it was kind of far from the center anyway. Aim for somewhere close to Kyoto Station if you want to be central, like this home a 4-min walk away or this apartment 10-minutes away.
- Transportation – If you’re not doing a tour, we got around using Kyoto’s buses or walking around. It’s pretty easy to navigate — just make sure you have exact change!
- Wifi – I don’t know if things are different now, but when we were there, there was no wifi anywhere. I remember hearing that Japan seemed quite stingy with their coverage too! If your accommodation doesn’t offer a pocket wifi like ours, try ordering one ahead and getting it at the airport.
What’s on your list of what to see in Kyoto? I only had a few full days to explore this beautiful city, so I know there must be a bunch more hidden treasures.