Things to do in Kyoto – As you may know, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years! It is considered the center of traditional Japanese culture and is therefore a must-see city for those of you who are traveling to Japan. Kyoto is also a tourist city with huge influxes of tourists during high seasons. But I think it still is a uniquely charming city and that it’s even kind of magical.
You can play Alone in Kyoto by Air to get started and continue reading as we unveil the mysteries of this incredible city!
But before diving into the 12 things to do in Kyoto, here are some practical tips on how to go there and where to stay.
How to Get there
If you’re traveling to Kyoto from Tokyo and if you have a JR Pass, the fastest way to reach your destination is to take the Shinkansen. The 513 km-trip lasts just a little longer than two hours! For train schedules, visit hyperdia.com in its blissfully convenient fully translated English version!
If you don’t have a JR Pass but you do want to go to Kyoto without ruining yourself, you should definitely take the bus. To give you an idea of how much money you can save if you do take the bus alternative, the one-way Shinkansen trip to Kyoto costs 14,000 ¥ (around $126) whereas the bus trip costs only 4100 ¥ (around $37). The only problem is that instead of a two-hour trip, you’ll need 8 hours to reach Kyoto so again here’s what you can do: take the night bus and sleep all the way to Kyoto. You’ll be happy you only spent $37 when you wake up in the morning! To book a ticket, visit Kousoku Bus.
Kyoto has its own customs and traditions and the best way to have a truly authentic experience of Japanese culture, as far as accommodation is concerned, is to stay at a ryokan. I have a blog post on the five best ryokan in Kyoto so make sure to check that out. The one you see in the picture is the Biwako Hanakaido.
If you cannot afford to stay at a ryokan, this hostel should be a great alternative. It is located right in the heart of Kyoto and has some very comfortable capsules. It’s a new hostel by the way; they’d been open for only a couple of months when I called to book a room for two nights back in May 2017.
Okay, those were my recommendations as far as travel and accommodation are concerned, let’s see what the city has to offer!
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #1 – Kyoto Gosho or Imperial Palace
Kyoto’s Imperial Palace is of course one of the major attractions of the city, and one you can’t miss! Let’s be thorough about this and say that Kyoto’s Imperial Palace is actually the former imperial palace because the Emperor of Japan and his family are now living in the imperial palace of Tokyo.
Take a walk around the palace and visit the Kaninnomiya Mansion or the Sento Gosho and its beautiful garden.
To write this article, I had to go back to the pictures I took of my first trip to Japan and Kyoto. It was late 2011 and I remember visiting the Goou Shrine near the palace and wishing to live in Japan one day.
In May 2017, my wish came true and I now live in Japan. I guess dreams can come true if you believe in them. 😉
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #2 – Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of my favorite places in Kyoto. It is a mystical and mysterious place that is a bit scary and fascinating at the same time. I might be exaggerating but there’s a very special ambiance in this bamboo forest.
And it’s with no surprise that Arashiyama bamboo forest is part of our list of the 10 most beautiful places in Japan.
Spot #3 – Zen Ryoan-ji Temple
Ryoan-ji is a Zen Buddhist monastery that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage. It has a cool name that literally means “the temple of the dragon at peace”. Ryoan-ji has a very peculiar stone garden.
There is still controversy over who built the garden but one thing is for sure, there are 15 boulders surrounded by moss in the garden and no matter where you stand, you can only see 14 of them at a time.
Apparently, it is only through attaining enlightenment that one can view the fifteenth boulder. Try it for yourself! By the way, you have to pay ¥ 500 ($4.5) to enter the temple.
You can also visit the beautiful 5-storied pagoda of the Renge-ji temple which is only 5 minutes away from Ryoan-ji.
Isn’t it amazing?
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #4 – Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Temple
The Kyoto Golden Pavilion, also called Kinkaku-ji, is one of the most beautiful temples I’ve ever seen in Japan. Entrance costs ¥ 400 (around $3.6) and is at walking distance from the Ryoan-ji temple.
If you have yens to spare, you can play a game in the Kinkaku-ji gardens where you’re supposed to throw a coin in a bowl to gain abundant riches. That’s what I heard!
Kyoto’s Gold Pavilion was the residence of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and is actually covered in thin gold leaves. A bit flashy, right? It is not very Japanese to boast about wealth but this extravagance was maintained by a small circle of aristocrats in Kyoto who supported the Kitayama culture. The Higashiyama culture and the Ginkakuji temple perfectly contrast with what’s we’ve just seen. Let’s talk about it!
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #5 – Ginkaku-ji or the Silver Pavilion
The Ginkaku-ji was built by Ashikaga Yoshimasa who is none other than the grandson of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who built the Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. So why is this temple called the Silver Pavilion? Well, basically, the grandson wanted to compete with his grandfather and had the idea to cover the whole building in money. Except that a war broke out at that time and he was never able to do it.
So instead of money and other eye-catching designs, the temple was built with simple yet elegant materials, clearly contrasting with the Ashikaga style. So this more discreet style was pleasing to the Japanese who consider the Ginkaku-ji to be more representative of the traditional Japanese culture.
To be honest, I totally agree that the Ginkaku-ji is more in tune with what Japan stands for as a culture. I loved its sand garden and also all the greenery surrounding the temple.
So if you happen to be around, give it a try. You’ll have to pay ¥ 500 (around $4.5) for that but it’s totally worth it.
Spot #6 – The Philosopher’s Path
The Philosopher’s Path is a very famous stone path in Kyoto and I really encourage you to walk it, especially if the weather is nice enough. So what is the Philosopher’s Path and what’s behind the mysterious name? It’s actually a very quiet little stone path that runs along a nice river and is about 2 km long.
The Philosopher’s Path got its name from Nishida Kitaro who used to meditate, walking along the said path every day. You would totally agree with him if you found yourself among the beautiful trees, listening to the sound of the water and the whistling of the birds. Everything around you calls for relaxation and spirituality.
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #7 – Sake Tasting Experience
Sake takes an important part in the Japanese Culture and I recommend this tour if you want to discover the basics of this rice-based alcohol. You will start this experience by walking around Fushimi district that you see above. It’s a beautiful neighbourhood where Sake influenced significantly the history of the district. Indeed, most of Kyoto Sake Breweries are actually based In Fushimi for centuries now. Today, the district is the second biggest producer of Sake after Kobe (in terms of quantity)!
During this Sake tour, you will have the opportunity to visit the Gekkeikan Sake brewery and its very interesting museum. You will get a better idea on all the traditional steps to produce a great Sake. After the museum visit, you will get to try 3 Gekkeikan Sake and they are all very different. I bought the bottle that you see in the picture below. The taste is really amazing, it’s light, a bit sweet and you can find that bottle only in the museum.
After the brewery and the museum visit, your guide will take you to a place nearby to give you a proper Sake lesson. The guide will explain in details the production process of Sake and how changing some settings can affect the end result. You will also get a brief presentation on the different categories of Sake that you can find in shops and restaurants in Japan. You will end the lesson with a tasting session where you will try 7 different bottles of Sake. During this session, you will also learn with which kind of food you can pair each Sake.
In addition to drinking Sake with nice people, I learnt a lot of practical things that will definitely help me to order Sake in restaurants or to to buy the right bottle in shops. To sum it up, the tour was really insightful and very fun at the same time! 🙂
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #8 – Kiyomizu-Dera
Kiyomizu-dera is also one Kyoto’s must-see spots. It’s a quite popular attraction, to say the least. Many women wear kimonos to visit the temple and you can rent one if you’re interested.
It’s very common in Japan to come across Buddhist and Shinto references in religious buildings so keep an open eye for that. The Kiyomizu-dera was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
To avoid tourist crowds (and that happens pretty much every day), try to visit the temple early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
I almost forgot to tell you, don’t fool around in the temple’s fountain, there’s a dragon watching over it…
Spot #9 – Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a Shinto shrine in Kyoto where you will find thousands of red torii all along the way leading to the temple. Most of these torii were built thanks to donations from ordinary people who wanted to help build the temple. Their names are carved on the torii, by the way. So why not donate? It costs between 1,000 and 10,000 dollars to build a torii, depending on its size and location. Are you interested?
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #10 – Gion District
Gion is a very traditional district in Kyoto. The best time to visit it is during the evening and you may see a Geisha or a Maiko (an apprentice Geisha) if you’re lucky. You can find more information about this district in this blog post: Gion Kyoto.
Things to do in Kyoto Japan #11 – Nishiki Market
I love Osaka‘s cuisine, especially its delicious Takoyaki, but the Kyoto cuisine is also really good. Probably not as generous as Osaka’s but slightly more refined. Nishiki Market is a good place to eat in Kyoto, whether you’re looking to try street or restaurant food. Enjoy your meals there! 🙂
If you are into Japanese food, feel to also check this article about the 10 best restaurants in Kyoto.
Spot #12 – Saijosho Daigengu Shrine
In addition to the list above, I wanted to include the beautiful Saijosho Daigengu shrine in my selection. This shrine is a bit like my little secret place in Kyoto. I literally stumbled upon it and have been visiting it every time I travel to Kyoto. I also love the park right next to it. Here’s the shrine’s exact location.
There you go, that was pretty much everything I know about the things to do in Kyoto. I hope it will help you plan your trip to the former imperial capital of Japan. I’ve been to this city 5 times now and every time has been a new discovery. Let me know what your favorite spot in Kyoto is, especially if it’s not in this list!
See you soon, fellow travelers!
PS: If you have more time to spend in Kyoto area, I highly recommend you to visit the beautiful town of Kinosaki Onsen. It’s just 2 hours away by train.