Japan is a land of dichotomy, always maintaining a balanced approach to modern advancement and tradition. Where other cities in Japan have technology, Kyoto has temples, reigning as the country’s cultural capital. When Kyoto was initially listed as a target for the catastrophic a U.S. atomic bomb during WWII, the Secretary of War demanded that it be taken off due to its cultural importance.
Those who venture to Kyoto can expect magical sights of bamboo forests, ornate shrines and temples, impeccably dressed geishas, theatre performances, rambunctious monkeys, and blooming cherry trees when the season permits. Travelers can learn all about art, tea, Zen Buddhism, and other pillars of Japanese culture all within the borders of this easily-accessible city.
Kyoto is a wonderful place to visit any time of the year, though the best time is in spring or fall to avoid harsher weather and crowds. If you’re lucky enough to visit during spring, you’ll experience the city with a backdrop of blooming cherry blossoms. Likewise, fall comes with warm hues of red, orange, and yellow from the maple trees that match perfectly with the warm-colored temples. No matter when you go, you’re sure to be amazed.
Lets explore the best things to do in Kyoto:
1. Wander through the incredible Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Kyoto’s most iconic treasure, the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is located at the end of a flamed colored walkway made up of thousands of traditional torii gates. Visitors can easily spend a day wandering through the trails surrounding the network of ornate shrines. Half way up the mountain, expect incredible views of Kyoto at the Yotsutsuji Intersection.
The Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine honors the Shinto god, Inari, known as being the god of rice.
Recommended tour: Fushimi Inari Shrine Guided Walking Tour
2. Visit the Kinkakuji Temple
Amidst a placid lake and surrounded by trees is the golden Kinkakuji Temple, a Zen temple wrapped in gold leaf, with the top floor gilded both inside and out. It was originally built as a retirement home for a famous shogun, who sanctioned the building to become a temple after his death.
Go early in the morning to see the sun glean off of the temple and to beat the crowds.
3. Participate in a tea ceremony
Though tea ceremonies, known as chado or sado, are available all throughout Japan, experiencing one in Kyoto is especially sacred due to its strong Zen Buddhist roots. During a tea ceremony, the cup of tea is prepared artfully and carefully before serving it.
The ceremony is meant to acknowledge the utensils, each other’s company, and the tea itself all while being mindful of the present moment.
Book online: Tea Ceremony Ju-An at Jotokuji Temple
4. Visit the Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Atop a beautiful hill is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site surrounded by cherry trees. The temple is known for hosting an array of magical features. Walk between two stones with your eyes closed in front of the Jishu Shrine, build to honor the god of love. If you can do this successfully, then you will find true love.
The shrine is also connected to the Otowa Waterfall, which is incorporated into a separate shrine and divided into three streams symbolizing success, love, and a long life. Drink from the stream that correlates to your greatest desire for good fortune. This shrine is definitely worth the visit not only because of its beauty but also because of the mysticism that surrounds it.
Suggested tour: 3-Hour Kiyomizu-dera Temple Walking Tour
5. Enjoy a panoramic view of the city at the Kyoto Tower
A modern structure in a city of temples, the Kyoto Tower is the tallest building in Kyoto. Visitors can view panoramic views of the city extending all the way to Osaka. On the platform, telescopes and LED touch screens highlight notable landmarks, so that you can put a name to what you’re seeing. Go at sunset for the best experience.
6. Dine at a restaurant in Pontocho
Near the Kamogawa River, Pontocho is a lively alley with restaurants lining each side. There are hundreds of restaurants offering everything from fine dining to inexpensive yakitori. Don’t blindly follow what your guidebook tells you, the best restaurants are usually small, hidden, and might not advertise their menu in English.
The best strategy for finding memorable cuisine is to simply walk into whatever shop’s ambience appeals to you most. On a hot night, sit at a restaurant overlooking the Kamogawa River, as the flowing water tends to cool the air.
Fun tour available: Casual Pontocho Evening Food Tour
7. Find peace at the Eikando Zenrinji Temple
If you’re looking for a peaceful place to enjoy Japanese architecture and relax, go to the Eikando Zenrinji Temple. Not as crowded as many of the other temples in Kyoto, though just as stunning, this temple is hosts a serene environment with large koi ponds. The best time to visit is in autumn, when the maple leaves turn various shades of red. Walk up to the pagoda for an even more incredible environment and view of Kyoto.
8. Monkey Park Iwatayama
Put on a comfortable pair of shoes and head uphill to a park full of monkeys. Be warned, there are monkeys everywhere. Swinging through the trees, scampering across the path, and even daring to come close for a better chance of stealing food, these primates provide entertainment for everyone.
If you’re feeling brave, you can buy a package of nuts and apples from a nearby shop to feed the monkeys. Keep all bags zipped tight – the monkeys have no qualms about rummaging through your bag in search of an extra treat.
Available tour: Arashiyama Guided Animal Walking Tour
9. Nishiki Market
No matter if you’re a shopaholic or just a browser, the Nishiki Market is an interesting place to spend a day. Here, you can find delicious treats, handmade traditional crafts, ceramics, textiles, and more.
Foodies will love the fresh seafood section and sampling the local fare like dumplings, pickles, freshly roasted tea, fish cakes, and yakitori from the food stalls. This is a great stop for extra hot or rainy days, as the entire market is shaded.
Recommended tour: Nishiki Market Small Group Walking Tour
10. Walk down the the Philosopher’s Path
Following a canal this trail starts from Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji.
The Philosopher’s Path in Arashiyama is a place of peace and meditation. Along the path you’ll find some smaller temples and shrines as well as some restaurants and cafes.
Available tour: Guided Walking Tour around Philosopher’s Path
11. Climb to the top of Mt. Kurama and relax in the hot springs
About 20 kilometers from the center of Kyoto is Kurama, a quaint town known for its traditional hotels and baths. Travelers can hike to the top of Mt. Kurama to Kurama-dera, an ornate Buddhist temple just above town. Those who want to save their energy for later can even take a cable car halfway up. Past the temple is a steep hiking trail surrounded by old trees with outstretched roots where its common to see songbirds, deer, monkeys, and other wildlife.
Available tour: Kyoto Hike and Hot Springs Visit
12. Enjoy the Kyoto International Manga Museum
Japanese cartoonists have a unique style of drawing figures for their audience. Manga is created for adults and children alike, and is commonly seen all throughout Japanese pop culture – with a significant history that draws back to the late 19th century.
At the Kyoto International Manga Museum, you can browse through popular manga, learn about its influence in the post-WWII era, watch artists create manga, and even have your portrait drawn. Though the majority of manga is in Japanese, there are quite a few English copies in the gargantuan manga library. Fans of Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and Sailor Moon are sure to feel a pang of nostalgia.
13. Smell cherry blossoms at Maruyama Park
Maruyama Park is Kyoto’s best place to view cherry blossoms. In the evening, the central weeping cherry tree is even lit up for a spectacular display. The magical thing about this park is that it has many varieties of cherry blossoms, so visitors can witness a range of color, size, and texture. Enjoy a cup of tea or warm meal under the trees and watch the cranes float by on the nearby pond.
14. Sanjusangendo Temple
Handcrafted from wood, this temple houses one thousand incredibly detailed statues of the deity, Kannon, and took over one hundred years to finish. The contrast between the temple’s simple exterior and ornate interior is a unique atmosphere to walk into. Each Buddha is covered in gold leaf, and though they look similar, every single one is slightly different. No matter if you are religious or not, this temple is a must-see.
15. Wander through the Gion District
Gion is Kyoto’s entertainment district, known for being a hub for artists, theatres, and geishas. It’s easy to spend sun-up to sun-down in this area, exploring all that it has to offer. Gion hosts the Minamiza Theater, renowned for featuring kabuki shows – a genre of theater that features dance, dramatic make-up, and bright colors. Visitors can also walk down Hanami-koji, the cherry tree lined main street, and write down their hopes and dreams to place upon the Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine’s magical stone. In between cultural attractions are hundreds of cafes, food stalls, and perfectly placed benches.
There is no better place to find an interesting, cultural, and well-rounded view of Kyoto than in the Gion District.