Kyoto was one of the cities I was most excited to visit in Japan. This excitement was mingled by an almost equal amount of feeling absolutely daunted, simply due to the fact that I was aware of just how much there is to see and do in Kyoto.
It’s a city full of history, and that should come as no surprise as Kyoto served as Japan’s imperial capital for over a thousand years before Tokyo took over the official title. Thanks to its many religious sites, neighbourhoods and other attractions (and as indicated by how many pages of my Japan guidebook were dedicated to Kyoto), it’s one of those places you really need to plan for if you want to see everything.
We spent three days exploring Kyoto, and each of those days was packed with sightseeing and activities. Given its proximity to places like Nara and Himeji, Kyoto is a popular base for day trips, but since we wanted to see as much of the city as possible, we decided to save those trips for when we were in Osaka. For a first-time visit to Kyoto, I’d recommend a minimum of three days, and then add additional days if you’re planning to do day trips while you’re there.
For those of you currently planning a trip to Kyoto, I’ve put together all of my highlights from my time in this city. There’s no limit to what you can see in Kyoto but, in my opinion, these are all of the main sights and activities that should be on any first-timer’s itinerary for this city.
Getting around Kyoto
We were using the Japan Rail Pass to travel around the country, and it also came in handy to get to Kyoto, as well as to travel within the city. The truth is that, even with the JR Pass, getting to all of Kyoto’s major sights will involve spending some extra money.
We ended up using a combination of bus, the municipal subway and the JR lines, which allowed us to get to the places listed in this post. When you get to your accommodation, I’d highly recommend asking for a map of local bus lines, as the bus is often the cheapest option for getting around. We also relied on the Hyperdia app to help plan our journeys around Kyoto.
Out of all of the transport options, we ended up using the bus system the most because it was well connected to most of the main attractions, plus it’s really good value for money. You can pick up an all-day bus pass for ¥500 (current price at the time of writing). We always bought our bus passes outside the main bus station outside Kyoto JR Station. For attractions further afield, we used our JR Pass for the Sagano line (which stops at Nijo and Arashiyama) as well as the Nara line (for Fushimi Inari-Taisha).
There are lots of ways to explore Kyoto, so simply choose whichever one best suits your travel style – and your budget.
THINGS TO DO IN KYOTO
Take part in a traditional tea ceremony
I have to start off my Kyoto recommendations with an activity that Chris treated me to ahead of my upcoming birthday. When in Kyoto, it’s essential to participate in a traditional tea ceremony.
While tea has been a beverage for a long time, it’s said that the ritualised Japanese tea ceremony originates from Kyoto. Once reserved for Japan’s most wealthy and important people, who would compete with each other to throw the most elaborate tea ceremonies, nowadays anyone can take part.
We joined in on a 45-minute group session at Camellia in the Ninenzaka neighbourhood. I drink tea at home every single day, but what I learned is that so much more goes into preparing a cup of tea in a traditional ceremony. Taking off our shoes, we were ushered into a room, where our instructor told us about the history of tea ceremonies in Kyoto and informed us that what we would be doing was a massively simplified version. It was amazing to watch all of our instructor’s movements, which all seemed simple and minute, yet are compulsory for preparing tea in a traditional way.
Finally, we were handed our own cups and bamboo whisks, and went about making our own matcha tea. It’s a lot harder than it looks (be prepared to do some serious whisking) but, in the end, we got to drink our creations, enjoyed with a traditional Japanese sweet. I found the whole experience very interesting and, surprisingly, very calming, which is precisely the emotion that all attendees at a tea ceremony should experience!
If you’re planning to attend a tea ceremony at Camellia (and I suggest that you do!), make sure to book ahead as this little shop can get busy!
Marvel at the Golden Pavilion
Since Kyoto is filled with over 2,000 religious sites, it’s inevitable that any Kyoto guide will feature a fair number of temples and shrines. The first on my list is possibly the prettiest – and certainly the shiniest – of all.
The Golden Pavilion, also called Kinkaku-ji, was built in the 14th Century as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. In accordance with his wishes, the site was turned into a Zen Buddhist temple upon his death. Even at first glance, it’s easy to see why Kinkaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s most-visited locations. Once through the entrance gate, we rounded a corner to see a temple that appeared to float on top of a lake – and the structure also happened to be gold.
The Golden Pavilion’s top two storeys are covered in gold leaf, and the result is a building that looks like it has burst out from the pages of a fairytale. And it’s a bit of a miracle that we can visit it at all, since it has been damaged by fire numerous times.
Although visitors aren’t allowed inside the Golden Pavilion, the temple is surrounded by sprawling gardens, all the better to admire the building from every angle. We visited during autumn, so all of the foliage was modelling hues of red, orange and yellow, making this spot a photogenic introduction to Kyoto’s many treasures. While strolling, you’ll spot people throwing coins at statues in the garden; take part because, if you land a coin in the right place, it’s said a lot of good fortune is coming your way!
Once you’ve seen everything, don’t miss out on grabbing a soft-serve ice cream in the gardens; their black sesame ice cream was my favourite of the whole trip!
Explore the equally beautiful Silver Pavilion
A temple connected with another precious metal, Ginkaku-ji – nicknamed the Silver Pavilion – was built in the 15th Century by the grandson of none other than Kinkaku-ji’s creator.
Also intended as a retirement villa, Ashikaga Yoshimasa stipulated that the site would become a Zen temple when he died. Unlike the Golden Pavilion, though, Ginkaku-ji’s walls were fated to never actually be covered in silver leaf but this wooden building is still beautiful without it. Yoshimasa was a key figure in the artistic and cultural movements of his time, and he was involved with every aspect of designing Ginkaku-ji and its gardens.
I found the grounds of Ginkaku-ji much more extensive than at Kinkaku-ji, with several other temple buildings, varied plantlife and a meticulously kept sand garden to explore. Plus, if you’re willing to climb some stairs, there’s a garden viewpoint from which you can admire the whole complex. Unfortunately, you can’t enter any of the temple buildings, but we were happy to explore the gardens at our leisure.
Get lost in thought on the Philosophers’ Path
Located close to Ginkaku-ji is another major Kyoto attraction and, unlike most of the places on this list, it’s completely free to visit.
The Philosopher’s Path (also called the Philosopher’s Walk) is a 2km-long pathway along the Shishigatani canal. It starts near the Silver Pavilion and ends at Nanzen-ji temple. Its name stems from the fact that Kitaro Nishida, a famous Japanese philosopher and professor, would use the pathway to meditate while on his daily walk to and from Kyoto University.
Lined by cherry trees, the path is at its most popular during hanami (the cherry blossom-viewing festival) but it is generally a busy place. It may be a little difficult to meditate on the path nowadays with all of the other tourists around, but it’s a worthwhile stop on any Kyoto itinerary. There are a few shops, restaurants and street food vendors along the path too.
It takes about 30 minutes to cover the path in its entirety, but leave aside some extra time since the Philosopher’s Path passes several important temples, including Honen-in.
Get your eyebrows singed at Menbakaichidai
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might know that I tend to gravitate towards the quirky while on my travels – and Menbakaichidai is as quirky as it gets!
And we found it completely by chance. One evening at our accommodation, we were trying to find a place to eat dinner. Chris spotted something on Google Maps, which was both highly rated and conveniently nearby. We arrived outside the restaurant and, judging from the little queue outside, we knew we were onto something good.
It turns out, we were at the home of ‘fire ramen’. Located near Nijo Castle, you may have to wait for a little while to try out this unique restaurant, but I guarantee that you’ll be talking about the experience for many years to come.
When it was our turn to go in, we were seated at an ancient, peculiar-looking counter – a counter that had definitely seen some things. We ordered off the menu, ordering both the fire ramen and some gyoza. We were handed some paper aprons and told to hold our arms behind our backs. Ominous? I’d say so.
What happened next was, essentially, a mini fire show, where burning oil was poured on top of our individual green onion-covered bowls of ramen. It was intensely hot and bright but, unlike most food gimmicks, the ramen was really tasty too.
Despite what I called this section, I’m happy to report that we left Menbakaichidai with all of our hairs intact (more or less).
Discover a hidden gem at Shoren-in
As mentioned before, there’s no shortage of temples to visit within Kyoto, especially in the Higashiyama district, and while you can’t really go wrong with any of them, Shoren-in is a hidden gem that shouldn’t be missed.
With its discreet entrance guarded by towering 800-year-old camphor trees, it’s all too easy to simply pass by Shoren-in. Luckily, we knew to look out for it as we had heard of the temple’s pretty gardens, which are at their best in autumn and spring.
Shoren-in was built in the 13th Century as a residence and later developed into a Buddhist temple. After a fire broke out in Kyoto in the 18th Century, Shoren-in had the prestigious status as a temporary home for members of the imperial family. What I loved most about our visit here, apart from walking around the temple’s autumnal gardens, was that we got to tour the interior of some of the temple buildings.
This involved making our way through elaborately decorated rooms filled with tatami mats and paintings, while the open sliding doors afforded us nearly constant views over the temple’s pond and trees. With fewer visitors and plenty of spots to sit and relax, Shoren-in had a very different atmosphere to any of the other temples we visited in Kyoto.
Be amazed by the grand rooms within Nijo Castle
Since Nijo Castle was located close to our accommodation, this was the very first place we visited in Kyoto. We also happened to visit on what turned out to be the rainiest afternoon of our whole Japan visit, so our outdoor explorations of this castle complex were limited.
Thankfully, you need to head indoors to see what makes Nijo Castle so important. There are two palaces on site: Ninomaru Palace and Honmaru Palace. Unfortunately, you cannot take photos inside the palaces, but I was amazed by what we saw. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nijo Castle was built in the 1600s as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns. And, since important visitors would be received here, the castle was built to impress.
Nijo Castle gets very busy, so wandering around the interiors of Ninomaru Palace was slowgoing but that gave us plenty of time to admire what we saw. Each room seemed grander than the next, and the four chambers making up Ninomaru’s Great Hall are the most opulent of all, lined with exquisite screen paintings.
I’d love to visit Nijo Castle again in the future to see more of the complex, but rain or shine, it’s a must-visit in Kyoto.
Visit the eccentric Issen Yoshoku restaurant
If you’re looking for a memorable lunch stop in Kyoto, you can’t go wrong with Issen Yoshoku. Located in the Gion neighbourhood, you won’t find an English sign outside this restaurant but, with an exterior like this, you don’t really need one. Look for a statue of a boy getting his trousers pulled down by a pursuing canine and you’ll know you’ve found Issen Yoshoku!
This popular stop is the home of issen yoshoku, a type of savoury pancake quite similar to okonomiyaki. At this restaurant, there’s only one choice on the menu, along with drinks, so ordering is always an easy affair. Before long, our own meals arrived – and the pancakes are extremely tasty. Made with ingredients including dried shrimp, egg, beef, spring onions and fish paste, I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.
Issen Yoshoku’s food is great, but the restaurant’s decor is another draw for visitors, with the quirky storefront and the many mannequins located inside, including one seated at our table. It’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s eccentric – and it’s the perfect choice if you’re busy exploring Gion.
Spot a geisha in Gion
The Gion neighbourhood may have first developed to cater for the needs of visitors to Yasaka Shrine, but, over time, it has become famous for its entertainment establishments and, of course, geisha.
Although incorrectly associated with prostitution, instead, geisha is a term meant to refer to a woman who is well practised in the arts and in entertainment. While the golden age of geisha culture in Japan has come and gone, Gion is one of the few places where this tradition continues.
Even without taking geisha into consideration, Gion is a fascinating neighbourhood to explore, with historic architecture, temples and picturesque alleyways. We visited during the daytime as well as in the evening, with the latter lending a mysterious atmosphere to the area.
At night, lanterns are lit outside the buildings and, as we were making our way down Pontocho Alley, we caught our first and only glimpse of a geisha. We only saw her from behind, with her expensive gown, sculpted hair and the iconic white paint on her neck, as she made her way quickly and silently into a teahouse. It happened so fast that we weren’t quite sure whether we had imagined it all, but it’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Take in the (many) sights of Arashiyama
There’s so much to see within the Arashiyama area that I would recommend setting aside a half day so that you can explore properly. Hopping on the JR Sagano line, we arrived into Arashiyama very early one morning and set off immediately for one of the area’s most famous attractions.
Located a short walk away from the station, we got to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and, thanks to the early hour, discovered that we had the place to ourselves. This spot remains one of the most otherworldly places I’ve ever visited, with the thick forest of tall bamboo becoming a pocket of silence, making us feel like we were far away from anything manmade.
With only the occasional creak from the swaying bamboo, we made our way through the grove. It may be painful to wake up early, but I can’t explain how magical it was to be there without any fellow visitors. If you only have time to visit one place in Arashiyama, then make sure it’s this bamboo grove.
Since we had some time to spare, we made our way over to Tenryu-ji, a temple complex located close to the bamboo grove. Tenryu-ji is the main temple in Arashiyama and it also holds the title of being the head temple of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect. There’s much to see in this large temple complex, with entry tickets being offered to visit both the temples and gardens, or just the gardens. Since it was a sunny day, we opted for the latter, choosing to admire the temple buildings from the outside instead, with the best vantage point being near the lake, which mirrors the landscape surrounding it.
Ending off our time in Arashiyama, we made our way down the main road to get to Togetsukyo Bridge, a great vantage point to see the mountainous terrain of the area. The bridge is at its most popular during hanami, but I think it looks pretty spectacular during autumn too.
Bring your walking shoes to Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Of course, no Kyoto itinerary can be complete without including Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine – and I feel like I’ve saved the very best for last.
This Shinto shrine, famous for its rows of bright orange Torii gates, has a history that traces all the way back to the year 711. It’s always busy but the one thing I wasn’t prepared for was how large this site is. Since the shrine is located on a mountain (called Mount Inari), there are long trails here, some of which take two to three hours if you want to complete them. Even without doing these walking circuits, we still spent about three hours just exploring the area.
Inari is the patron deity of business and rice, with every single torii within the shrine having been donated by a business or individual. You’ll find the densest concentration of torii near the base of the mountain. Once we had explored some of the buildings near the entrance, we decided to start our climb up the mountain, which begins with two parallel rows of torii. Due to heavy foot traffic, it may take a while to snap the ideal photo, but the good news is that the further you go up the mountain, the thinner the crowds.
The torii connect various buildings – even restaurants – located on the mountainside and, as we walked up, we noticed the regular appearance of fox sculptures, as the fox is considered to be the messenger of Inari. While we lost the crowds as we climbed, the torii also appear more gradually. We ended our walk once we neared the summit, which affords sweeping views over Kyoto.
Going to Fushimi Inari-Taisha was the most strenuous activity we took on in Kyoto, but it’s also one of the most visually rewarding things you can do in the city. But if my time there taught me anything, it’s this: bring comfortable shoes if you want to truly explore this famous Kyoto shrine!
It may look like a lot to fit into three days, but we managed to see all of these places while we were in Kyoto – and, together, they formed the perfect introduction to this historical city. We left Kyoto feeling a little footsore but we also knew that, if our travels ever take us to Japan again, we would, without hesitation, return to the city. I feel like it’s one of those places where, no matter how many times you visit, there’s always something new to see.
Have you visited Kyoto? Is there something I left out that should be an essential part of a first-timer’s visit to Kyoto? Let me know in the comments below!
Want to retrace our steps in Kyoto? Check out the map below:
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