Comprised of atmospheric temples, centuries-old gardens and bustling markets, Kyoto has managed to preserve a historic ambiance. It’s a place to delight your senses, where you can meditate on tatami-mat floors, spot geishas scurrying the streets and admire bright orange torri gates that mark a shrine’s entrance. From bamboo forests to traditional tea ceremonies, read on to discover the best things to do in Kyoto, Japan.
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Hike to the summit at Fushimi Inari
One of the most well-known Shinto shrines in Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is a 1,300-year-old temple dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake. You’ll be immersed in its 2.5-mile stretch of 10,000 bright orange “torii” arches, which are dotted with sculptures of fox statues that are messengers of the gods. The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours, with smaller shrines along the way.
Spot a geisha in Gion
A famed entertainment area and geisha district, Gion is the perfect place to get lost in its maze of quaint, willow-lined streets that are home to anything from guesthouses to shops selling local crafts and antiques. Gion showcases an eclectic mix of architecture where you can get a dose of authentic Japanese culture, from its 17th-century restaurants and teahouses to the elaborately dressed geishas that can be seen shuffling on wooden sandals through the neighborhood.
Admire the foliage at Kiyomizu-dera
A beautiful temple in the city, Kiyomizu-dera is situated on the Otowa Mountain in Eastern Kyoto. Its natural landscapes are simply stunning, particularly from the verandah nestled off the temple’s main building. Make sure to see the Jishu Shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking and the Otowa Waterfall. Meander through the Higashiyama District to reach the temple, lined with shops and restaurants selling specialties like sweets and pottery.
Sample delicacies at Nishiki Market
Take a trip to Nishiki Market to browse through its five blocks of stalls that sell Japanese foods and specialty items. You can sample authentic green tea, nibble on nigiri rice balls or try a roe-stuffed squid or dried kelp in what is called “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, where you can purchase anything from fresh seafood and produce to knives and cookware. Pick your choice of ready-made meals and experience the market’s history of several centuries.
See a temple made of gold at Kinkaku-ji
Also called the “Golden Pavilion” Kinkaku-ji’s top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It is an impressive structure that rests on a tranquil pond, and was originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. It’s now a Zen Buddhist temple and one of the city’s most picturesque attractions, where you’ll also find an old stone pagoda and the Sekkatei Tea House serving traditional beverages.
Stroll along the Philosopher's Path
Take a lazy stroll along Philosopher’s Path, a canal-side path lined with blossoming trees and shrubs. Named after a Kyoto University professor who took this route daily, it explodes with color depending on the season and stretches for over a mile. Stop along the route to enjoy the various restaurants, cafes and boutiques found along the path, or discover a zen frame of mind amongst its ever-changing vistas.
See the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple
Sitting on the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden, Ryoanji Temple was built in 1450. Admire its white pebbles that surround 15 larger rocks that were laid sometime during the Muromachi period, then meander through the picturesque temple grounds to see a 1,000-year-old pond filled with lily pads and walk along the tree-lined walking trails. When you’ve worked up an appetite, visit the on-site restaurant that serves Yudofu, a tofu dish that is considered a specialty in Kyoto.
Take a day trip to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Sitting on the outskirts of Kyoto Arashiyama is a pleasant neighborhood surrounded by trees and mountains. You’ll cross the Togetsukyo Bridge and admire the cherry blossoms or fall foliage depending on the season, then discover a bustling street lined with shops, restaurants, temples and gardens. Make sure to take a stroll through the towering bamboo groves that provide an otherworldly experience, or rent a paddle boat to explore the Katsura River.
Take a step back in time at Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868 until the emperor and capital were moved to Tokyo. Nestled in the tranquil Kyoto Imperial Park, where you can take a tour of the finely decorated gates and historic rooms and buildings, including the Hall for State Ceremonies, the Imperial Library and the Emperor’s Residence. Take a walk along the gravel paths to find weeping cherry trees and a tranquil pond.
Attend a traditional tea ceremony
Tea ceremonies are common in Japan, but attending one in Kyoto is particularly special because it is a 500-year-old tradition. The Japanese Tea Ceremony Room Ju-An is unique in Kyoto because it is the only Zen dedicated Chashitsu open to the public, where you can experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and learn how to perform it yourself. Surrounded by a picturesque garden, koi fish pond and Japanese tea room, attending a tea ceremony is a memorable cultural experience.
Visit the Nijo Castle
Built in the early 17th century, Nijo Castle housed the first Shogun of the Edo period. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the best surviving example of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era. Surrounded by stone walls and moats, you’ll enter through the Chinese style Karamon Gate to see the crown jewel, Ninomaru Palace with its elegantly decorated ceilings and painted sliding doors adorned with pine trees, tigers, leopards, birds of prey and cherry blossoms.
Climb the Kyoto Tower
A modern tower that stands 430 feet above the city, the Kyoto Tower is a stark contrast from the historic temples that dot Kyoto. Comprised of glass and steel, the tower is built upon a nine-story building where you can climb to its observation tower to get panoramic views of the city’s skyline. On a clear day, you can see the mountains Higashiyama and Arashiyama to the east and west of the city.