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Kyoto for me was exactly what you imagine when you think of traditional Japan. Endless temples and shrines with traditional streets and housing throughout. And very much a period of time away from the bright lights of Tokyo and Osaka. Kyoto offers a sense of peace and tranquillity in a country now famed for its technology. Although this is the case, there is still a mountain of top things to do Kyoto.
Kyoto is a stunning ancient city located in Western Japan and only a short ride from its livelier neighbour Osaka. Kyoto served as Japan’s capital city for over 1000 years and truly is a city like no other. There is an abundance of temples and shrines to try and work your way through. Alright, Japan is full of temples, but Kyoto offers some of the best in Japan. And you can walk through a bamboo forest in every city.
Kyoto is best travelled through at a slower pace with time for aimless wandering through the immaculate narrow streets. I have created this list out of my favourite attractions in this ancient Japanese city.
As you will be able to see from my pictures, I was luckier some days than others with regards to the weather. A common theme during my time in Japan was beautiful blue skies followed by typhoon-driven rain!
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Where better to start than the iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine. This is a must-see in Kyoto. Head through thousands of bright orange torii gates that snake up through the forest into the hills. You will no doubt have seen this across many Instagram posts and online. And I’m not gonna lie, it is actually pretty remarkable.
As you ascend up the hills, passing under the endless torii gates, there are a number of stone fox statues along the way. I later found out that the fox is considered the messenger of Inari; the Shinto god of rice.
There are multiple options to consider on this hike. You can either take the short round trip through the lower torii gates, or be bold and head round the 5km hike which takes you to the top of the hill.
I’m not going to lie. I attempted this around September time and the humidity was killing me, so I only walked about half of the total path. The bonus if you head to the top is that the higher you go, the quieter it gets.
Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple)
This incredible temple is located in the Northern part of Kyoto. Kinkakuji gets the name “Golden Pavillion” as the top two floors of the temple are covered in gold leaf.
The building’s origin reason for construction was to be the retirement home of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the early 15th century. The building was then converted into a Zen temple following his death.
The temple itself is set upon a pond and surrounded by greenery, making the Golden Pavillion a breathtaking must-see when visiting Kyoto.
The visit starts by walking through the small forest until you arrive at the opposite side of the pond from the temple. The gold leaf makes it immediately catch the eye. After a pleasant wander around the pond, you walk around behind the temple where you really appreciate such a sight.
This was definitely one of my favourite things to do in Kyoto.
First of all, if you are thinking about King Arthur, knights or anything like that… stop. This is not quite on the same scale and has a little more subtly to it. Nonetheless, Nijo Castle definitely makes the list of memorable things to do in Kyoto.
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as a residence for the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867).
Nijo Castle can be divided into three main areas. The Honmaru is the main circle of defence. Followed by the Ninomaru which is the second circle of defence. Finally, there is a large surrounding garden that encircles both of these. The entire castle grounds are surrounded by a moat and stone walls.
The Honmaru can be seen below.
Spend a Day in Arashiyama
After seeing some of inner Kyoto, I headed out to see what Arashiyama had to offer. After Gion, this is probably the most important sightseeing district in Kyoto. Unfortunately for me, the torrential downpour of rain also plagued my visit.
Set on the Katsura river, Arashiyama immediately made an impression on me as soon as I stepped foot out the station. Arashiyama is a short train ride east from Kyoto and has a number of activities nearby.
The highlight of Arashiyama is the bamboo forest.
This allows you to escape the busy city into a world of solitude. The bamboo towers and sways above as you pass by. The rows of the bamboo appear endless on either side of the walkway.
The bamboo forest is open 24 hours a day and has no admission fee, so it is recommended that during peak season, you visit it early in the morning or at sunset.
Tenryuji Temple main hall and garden
Signs for the Tenryuji Temple will greet you as soon as you exit Arashiyama Station. This temple, built in the 14th century, is a World Heritage Site and has an entrance fee of 500 yen. The Zen temple grounds are located near the Bamboo Forest which is perfect to combine into a visit.
The temple is also known for the Cloud Dragon painting in its Dharma Hall.
As you can probably see, the rain was beating down and bouncing off the water during my visit. However, this actually made it a pretty calming experience and atmosphere.
Gion and Southern Higashiyama
Gion and Southern Higashiyama are like stepping back in time into traditional Japan. The small pristine buildings look untouched in the modern world. What each building actually is is pretty indistinguishable (unless you can read the signs!).
This is the district where you will see geisha hostesses, dressed as you would imagine, hopping in and out of cars and buildings. The neighbourhood is filled with restaurants and teahouses.
If you are feeling adventurous, head out for a kaiseki meal or a tea ceremony to dive into the local tradition. Alternatively, it is also fun just to spend some time wandering aimlessly in this area of Kyoto.
Stay At A Ryokan
A highlight of my overall trip to Japan was staying in a traditional Japanese inn. These are called ryokan. A ryokan is consists of the tatami mats, paper doors and windows, and all the other traditional Japanese features you imagine when you think of Japan.
The experience is so different from staying at a hotel or hostel. The service is flawless, the rooms are immaculate, and the food is even better. Check out more on my stay in the Yuzuya Ryokan in Kyoto.
Most ryokan offer a food service that is the equivalent to dinner, bed and breakfast. The main difference is the meal is an event rather than purely a meal. The food is presented beautifully and can consist of many courses. This experience is truly a unique thing to do in Japan.
After a day of sightseeing, I always enjoy a nice meal followed by a trip to a bar or two to relax and unwind. Everywhere I travel, there is always “that street” in a city that I want to try at night at least once. In Kyoto, Pontocho Alley was that street for me.
Pontocho Alley is a narrow alley in Kyoto packed with restaurants and izakayas. During the day you would probably walk right by, but the street comes alive at night.
I was lucky enough to try a big pot of Shabu-shabu while I was in Kyoto. The idea behind Shabu-shabu is that you heat the hot pot with broth and various veg, before dipping thinly cut meat in for only seconds until it is cooked. Another enjoyable dining experience in Japan!
After enjoying some typical cuisine here, head to a nearby izakaya for a well-deserved beer; even if mine was served with the smallest beer glass I’ve ever seen.
Nishiki Market, also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen, is a market containing hundreds of shops and restaurants. The market actually spans 5 or 6 blocks in length. This is the ideal place to just wander through taking in all it has to offer.
This lively market sells lots from knives to fresh seafood. Unfortunately, I was too engrossed in all the fresh and wonderful produce on offer that I never got a better snap of the markets.
Founded all the way back in the 13th century, Tofukuji is another of Kyoto’s Zen temples.
There is a number of different points of interest within this attraction. There is bridge with an amazing viewpoint, a Zen rock garden, and the Kaisando Hall, which serves as the mausoleum of the temple’s first head priest.
During autumn, the most popular viewing area is the Tsutenkyo Bridge. The bridge overlooks a valley of maple trees which turn vibrant autumn colours.
The view from the 100 meter long walkway can be pretty spectacular. Although this is a busy attraction for both tourists and locals so plan your visit accordingly to avoid crowds.
Some of the grounds here are free, but to get the most of your visit, you should pay the small 400 yen entry fee to see all attractions.
Finally, Get Lost In Temples
As I have said, Kyoto is filled with temples. So I don’t want to name every temple under the sun. That being said, here is a list with a few snaps of my favourite temples to visit in Kyoto… without naming too many!
Are you planning a trip to Japan? Check out my top tips before visiting Japan for the first time. Or let me know your top things to do in Kyoto below.