Best Things To Do in Kyoto
Kyoto receives scores of visitors each year and crowds can be overwhelming at many of the city's top attractions. But never fear: A bit of planning can yield introspective experiences in peaceful atmospheres. Climb the well-worn steps of a Shinto shrine or contemplate the deeper meaning of a centuries-old rock garden. On the other hand, if you'd like to join Kyoto's throngs, wind your way through the crowded Nishiki Market or flip through comics at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. No matter how you choose to spend your day, your experience will be unique to Kyoto.
Updated March 29, 2019
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As far as Shinto shrines go (there are about 400 in Kyoto), this one is pretty special. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is a 1,300-year-old temple dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake (Japanese rice wine). The shrine complex dates back to the eighth century, but it's not the star of the show. Most visitors come for the close to 10,000 red and orange lacquered torii gates that line the 2 ½-mile-long path up Mount Inari, where the shrine sits. Sometimes in dense rows and other times more staggered, the gates are all engraved with the names of Shinto devotees who donated them.
It takes about three hours to make the trek up the mountain, and some recent visitors say that the hike is mildly strenuous, but almost all agree this is a must-see spot in Kyoto, especially for first-time visitors. Plus, travelers report that there are plenty of places to stop and rest along the way. Peer at the dozens of stone and bronze foxes that line the paths along with the gates (foxes are thought to be Inari's sacred messengers). Or stop in to one of the tea houses or restaurants situated on the path, which serve udon noodle soup and sushi. Because crowds are drawn to their picturesque beauty, Fushimi Inari's trails can get quite congested during the day. To avoid the multitudes, opt for an evening stroll up the mountain – recent visitors say the pervading quiet coupled with the fading light filtering through the trees and torii gates makes for an eerie and spiritual experience. Early morning is another optimal time to experience the shrine sans the crowds.
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Situated on Otowa Mountain in eastern Kyoto, Kiyomizu Temple wows travelers with its stunning natural scenery, which visitors say is best viewed from the verandah off the temple's main building. The "stage," as it's called, sits atop huge pillars more than 40 feet above the hillside and affords visitors panoramas of the surrounding forest. Those views are even more beautiful in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or in the fall with the changing foliage. When you're done taking in the temple's surrounding beauty, you are invited to drink from the Otowa Waterfall, which gave the temple its name (kiyomizu means "pure water"). The waterfall is divided into three streams, each of which is said to bring longevity, academic success or love, respectively. But according to temple etiquette, drinking from all three streams is bad luck, so don't be greedy.
Also within in the complex is the Jishu Shrine, a red-lacquered temple dedicated to Okuninushi-no-mikoto, the Shinto god of love. Visitors who can successfully walk between two stones outside of the shrine with their eyes closed (the stones are about 20 feet apart) will supposedly have their love-related wishes granted. Along with toying with their fates, recent travelers also enjoyed the souvenir shops found along the path to the temple. Many visitors insist that Kiyomizu Temple should be on every Kyoto traveler's to-do list.
- #3View all PhotosfreeGion#3 in Kyoto1.7 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND1.7 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Recent visitors to Gion were in awe of its quaintness (though some travelers note that hordes of camera-wielding tourists can detract from the scenery). This neighborhood is known for its charming historic features: historic tea houses, willow-lined roads, kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurants, wooden ryokan (Japanese guest houses) and shops selling local crafts and antiques. But all of those things are secondary to Gion's real source of fame – the geisha. Visitors to Gion may catch a glimpse of these extravagantly dressed women flitting between tea houses on wooden-sandaled feet.
Contrary to western belief, geisha are not prostitutes. A geisha's primary role is entertainment; she is hired to provide diversions at dinner parties and banquets in the form of singing, dancing, games and conversation. But they are more than mere performers: Geisha are living, breathing gatekeepers of ancient Japanese culture. They train from an early age in traditional Japanese art, dance and music, and perform at exclusive dinners in ochaya (tea houses), usually only for locals. While tourists can arrange geisha dinners as well, it will put quite a dent in a travel budget. Hiring one geisha for the evening with dinner for two can cost about 103,000 yen (about $900) or more. A less costly way to see Gion's geishas in action would be to check out the daily geisha performances at the Gion Corner theater, which cost 3,150 yen (about $28). Or, if you're visiting during April, you can catch the Miyako Odori dance festival – geisha dance performances, which are held four times daily during the festival at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater, cost between 4,000 and 5,500 yen (about $35 to $48) per person. You may also see geisha strolling through the neighborhood; keep a polite distance and refrain from photographing them without explicit permission.
- #4View all PhotosfreeArashiyama#4 in Kyoto4.5 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND4.5 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Arashiyama is a quaint neighborhood surrounded by trees and mountains on the western edge of Kyoto. The neighborhood's most iconic landmark is the wooden Togetsu-kyo Bridge, which has spanned the Katsura River since 1934. It makes a great spot for admiring cherry blossoms or changing fall foliage, depending on the season, though some visitors seem less than impressed with the bridge. If you want to avoid the tourist crowds that congregate on the bridge, consider renting a paddle boat to enjoy the scenery from the water. On either end of the bridge are a number of shops, restaurants, temples and gardens to explore. Some recent visitors enjoy walking around and taking in the sites, but others suggest renting a bike. You can get one for the day for around 1,000 yen (about $9) near train stations in Kyoto.
A visit to Arashiyama can be overwhelming, as there is so much to do and see here. It's best to arrive with a plan of action, and to not try to fit too many activities into one day. For example, you won't want to miss a stroll through the area's lush, peaceful bamboo groves, which recent visitors highly recommend. Once you're through the bamboo, you'll find yourself at Okochi Sanso Villa, a beautifully landscaped former residence of Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro. You can tour Denjiro's mossy, manicured gardens daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and the admission price of 1,000 yen (about $9) includes matcha green tea and cake (make sure you keep your admission ticket to enjoy this).
- #5View all Photos#5 in Kyoto2.3 miles to city centerChurches/Religious SitesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerChurches/Religious SitesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Every day, hundreds of people visit Ryoanji Temple to see its Zen rock garden – which is probably the most famous of its kind in Japan. Located in Kyoto's northern outskirts, the temple was built in 1450, but details surrounding the rock garden's origins are hazy. Its white pebbles, which surround 15 larger rocks, were laid sometime during the Muromachi period (between 1392 and 1573), but beyond that, the garden's origins are unknown.
From any vantage point, at least one of the garden's 15 rocks is obscured from view. But why? Visitors are invited to come to their own conclusions about the garden's deeper meaning. Along with viewing the rock garden, you can explore the temple's grounds, which include a 1,000-year-old pond fringed with lily pads and tree-lined walking trails. The garden, as well as the grounds, are among the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, which were designated by UNESCO in 1994.
- #6View all PhotosfreeNishiki Market#6 in Kyoto1.3 miles to city centerShopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.3 miles to city centerShopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine, a trip to Nishiki Market can be an overwhelming experience. This bustling, five-block-long covered market is lined with more than 100 stalls, each one hawking Japanese foods and specialty items that are hard to come by in the United States. With barely any English signage for reference, it might be difficult to determine what to buy or where to start. But just because Nishiki Market is busy and confusing doesn't mean you should avoid it. In fact, recent visitors said that's exactly why you should go, saying it's an essential food tour. Others pointed out that this is a great way to sample many different local cuisines without having to buy a whole meal.
The key here is to start small. Sample some authentic green tea or nosh on some nigiri (rice balls). After you've acclimated yourself to the flavors, you can work your way up to the unfamiliar: roe-stuffed squid, dried kelp or silky yuba (tofu-milk skin). Of course, connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine can feel free to jump right in, but Nishiki Market can also offer new eating experiences to old pros. Alongside the more traditional Japanese fare, you'll find some trendier shops like Konnamonja, which sells doughnuts and soft-serve ice cream that are both made from tofu (and reportedly delicious). One thing to note: You'll have to sit (or stand) to eat your food. Walking and eating is not permitted, according to recent visitors.
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After years of bitter strife, the aging samurai lord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally wrested power from Japan's many warring clans and unified them at the turn of the 17th century. Upon being proclaimed Shogun (feudal military dictator) of Japan in 1603, Ieyasu constructed a palace that would reflect his supreme power. Nijo Castle in central Kyoto was certainly ostentatious enough to fit the bill. Unlike other noble homes of the day, Tokugawa's gleaming white structure – decorated with ornate wood carvings – was built for show, not for defense. Even the palace's moat and inner wall stood not as defensive structures, but rather as examples of the shogun's exclusivity; only Japan's highest-ranking officials were allowed into the castle's inner sanctum.
That is not to say that Nijo lacked in protective properties entirely. Decades of war had instilled in Tokugawa Ieyasu a deep-seated paranoia, so he had "nightingale floors" installed in his palace. Designed to creak under even the lightest footstep, these floors prohibited anyone from walking through the Nijo Castle unnoticed. Travelers today can tread upon these fabled floorboards as they tour the inside of the castle, but visitors suggest wearing socks, as you'll have to remove your shoes to enter the building. Outside the palace is the lovely Ninomaru Palace Garden designed by famed landscaper and tea master Kobori Enshu. Recent visitors applaud the site’s excellent guided tours in English and say the castle and surrounding gardens are quite beautiful. However, because it is on every tourist's "must-see" list, the castle can get quite crowded. To enjoy your visit in peace, stop by just after opening or right before closing.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Kyoto2.6 miles to city centerChurches/Religious SitesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.6 miles to city centerChurches/Religious SitesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
At nearly 400 feet, Sanjusangendo Hall is the longest wooden structure in Japan (there are archery contests held along the length of the hall every yeah). And lining its lengthy walls is a rare full set of 1,000 wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The human-sized statues were carved from Japanese cypress in the 12th and 13th centuries. Recent travelers are consistently blown away by Sanjusangendo and its statues, calling it an "amazing" and "thrilling" place to visit.
Sanjusangendo Hall is open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. from April through mid-November, and between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. from mid-November through March. Visitors suggest arriving at Sanjusangendo early, as the hall is not well ventilated and only gets hotter and more crowded as the day goes on. Admission costs 600 yen (about $5.25) per person (half-price for children). To get to Sanjusangendo Hall, take bus No. 100, 206 or 208 from Kyoto Station to the Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae stop. Alternatively, you can take the Keihan subway line to Shichijo Station (Sanjusangendo is about a 5-minute walk from there). The temple sits across the street from the Kyoto National Museum, and many visitors suggest stopping by both attractions. For more information, visit the official website (in Japanese).
- #9View all Photos#9 in Kyoto2.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Honoring Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who used to stroll here on his commute to Kyoto University in the early 20th century, the Philosopher's Walk is a roughly mile-long pathway along the Lake Biwa Canal in the Higashiyama district of northern Kyoto. In the spring, the cherry trees overhang the canal blossom, emitting a flurry of petals onto the path every time the wind blows. But recent visitors say that Philosopher's Walk is gorgeous no matter the season.
Past travelers suggested setting aside about an hour to enjoy the walk, noting that you'll probably want to stop along the way to admire the temples and shrines that can be found just outside the walking path. Others also caution that the area can get quite congested during cherry blossom season. Although there are no public restrooms along the walk, there are cafes and shops.
- #10View all Photos#10 in Kyoto1.9 miles to city centerCastles/Palaces, Churches/Religious SitesTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND1.9 miles to city centerCastles/Palaces, Churches/Religious SitesTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
Its top two floors swathed in gold leaf, the Golden Pavilion sits pretty in Kyoto's northern reaches, overlooking the glassy surface of Mirror Lake. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu lived in the gilded structure in the late 14th and early 15th centuries after he passed political power down to his son, Ashikaga Yoshimochi. When his father died, Yoshimochi had the pavilion converted into a Buddhist temple. However, in 1950, an extremist monk set the golden temple aflame, reducing it to smoldering ashes. What now stands is a replica of Kinkaku-ji that was built in 1955.
Many recent travelers note the gorgeous natural scenery surrounding Kinkaku-ji; the golden temple reflecting in the smooth lake makes for a great photo, no matter the season. Unfortunately, some visitors say that throngs of tourists mar the temple's tranquil atmosphere. To enjoy the attraction without the crowds, heed the advice of reviewers and avoid an afternoon or weekend visit. Keep in mind: Visitors are not permitted to enter the pavilion.
- #11View all Photos#11 in Kyoto2.4 miles to city centerCastles/Palaces, Churches/Religious SitesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.4 miles to city centerCastles/Palaces, Churches/Religious SitesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Unlike the very literally named Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion is not actually silver – though it was intended to be. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who built Ginkaku-ji in 1482 as his retirement villa, died before he could swath the structure in silver leaf. But even without the bling, Ginkakuji and its grounds are stunningly beautiful.
The main pavilion, which was converted into a Zen shrine, sits overlooking a glassy pond surrounded by trees. Unfortunately, you can't go in – none of the buildings are open to the public. But visitors come here to enjoy the outdoors. As you stroll around the grounds, you'll come across a lush garden filled with mossy groves, as well as a Zen garden called "The Sea of Silver Sand." If you continue up along the path to the back of the garden, you'll enjoy a stunning view of the temple grounds as well as the city below. Many recent visitors said that a stroll around the garden at any time of day is gorgeous, even if it gets crowded at times (your best bet is to visit right when it opens or on Mondays). Several travelers stopped here while enjoying the Philosopher's Walk as the temple is located just off the trail.
- #12View all Photos#12 in Kyoto0.8 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND0.8 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Many of Kyoto's top attractions pay homage to a Japan of the past, but the Kyoto International Manga Museum focuses on a very current form of Japanese art. Manga is a style of comics that exploded in popularity during the post-World War II period (though some historians date it back to the 12th century) and has steadily been gaining worldwide exposure in the past 60 years. The International Manga Museum, which opened in 2006, showcases a massive collection of Manga (around 300,000 items), from famous works like "Astro Boy" to more obscure comics by non-Japanese artists.
Recent visitors marvel at the museum's extensive collection, and said this is a must-do if you're a manga fan. For many, being able to sit and read the manga copies stored here was a highlight (reviewers said it felt more like a library than a museum). Travelers were also pleased that there were translations in other languages besides Japanese.
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