Japan’s 2nd Most Visited City
As a contrast to modern cities like Tokyo, Kyoto is an iconic cultural center for Japan. Kyoto even served as Japan’s capital for over 1000 years from 794 until 1868.
Its world-acclaimed temples, shrines, and overwhelming natural beauty are enough to make it an absolute must-see for anyone traveling through Japan. The only question, then, is where to begin?
1. Visit Some Shrines and Temples in Kyoto
Hosting over 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto is the ideal place to learn about traditional Japanese religious practices and culture. However, you’re unlikely to be able to visit every one of these temples, even if you tried it might take years! For that reason, we’ve chosen 3 of the most iconic that you definitely won’t want to miss.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine is, by far, the most iconic landmark in Kyoto. Built over 1,300 years ago as a tribute to the Shinto deity of rice and sake, Inari, this shrine is famous for its almost 10,000 red and orange torii gates that line the path up Mount Inari.
Admittedly, as its Kyoto’s most famous shrine, so too does it attract large crowds. We recommend visiting in the early hours of the day (6-7am) or in the evening (after 8pm) to feel a more comfortable visit. These lesser crowded, low-lit hours are said to create the perfect atmosphere for a more eerie or ‘spiritual’ experience.
Perched atop the Otowa Mountain, Kiyomizu Temple presents its visitors with a most beautiful scenic view. This view is best appreciated from the temple’s unique veranda, off its main building. The veranda, or “stage,” stands 40 feet above the hillside on massive pillars, above the treetops, making it the perfect place to appreciate the changing colors of Japan’s cherry blossoms.
Once you’ve gotten to know the temple and its surrounding forest, be sure to have a drink from the Otowa Waterfall for which the temple is named after (kiyomizu meaning “pure water”). The water descends into the temple and breaks into 3 streams from which visitors may quench their thirst. The 3 streams represent longevity, academic success, and love, respectively; visitors should choose one to drink from. However, drinking from all three is seen as greedy and may bring bad luck instead.
Built in 1450, the Ryoanji Temple sits on the northern outskirts of Kyoto and is known for having one of Japan’s most famous Zen rock gardens. With white pebbles surrounding the garden’s 15 rocks in carefully woven patterns, the temple has a very calm, almost mystical feel to it. This garden, and the grounds surrounding it, is also one of UNESCO’s designated historical monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
2. Visit Tokyo’s Most Iconic Neighborhoods
Gion is a quaint, traditional neighborhood famous for its residents, geishas. If you’re not familiar, a geisha is an entertainer in Japan. Usually hired to provide diversions at dinner parties and banquets, by singing, dancing, playing games, and engaging guests in pleasant conversation. On a deeper level, geishas are the embodiment and keepers of ancient Japanese culture. All trained from an early age to be skilled in traditional Japanese art, dance, and music.
Additionally, the charming and historic neighborhood of Gion is filled with tea houses, kaiseki (Japanese high-end cuisine) restaurants. As well as ryokan (traditional Japanese guest houses), and also picturesque antique and local crafts shops.
Arashiyama is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful neighborhoods. Sitting on Kyoto’s western edge, surrounded by trees and mountains, Arashiyama is the perfect place to spend a full day appreciating the natural side of Japan. This area is famous not only for its natural beauty but also for its wooden Togegetsu-Kyo Bridge. An all wooden bridge built over the Katsura River in 1934.
Aside from this famous bridge, Arashiyama also hosts numerous popular landmarks like the Tenryu-ji Temple, Monkey Park, and Bamboo Groves. You’ll also find plenty of small shops and restaurants where you can stop and take breaks along the way. We recommend setting aside plenty of time to appreciate the entire area. It may even be a good idea to dedicate an entire day to this picturesque neighborhood; it’s worth it.
3. Experience Cultural Activities in Kyoto
Geisha Spring Dances
Though you may be able to spot a few geishas in Gion, you won’t really be able to appreciate their embodiment of Japanese culture without spending heavily on tea or dinner. A great alternative is to watch one of the Spring Dances. Like the Kitano Odori (March), Kyo Odori and Miyako Odori (April), and Kamogawa Odori (May) dances. This is your best chance at catching a real performance by the local “geiko and maiko” (the local names for geishas and their apprentices).
Japan’s native Shinto religion is based on the worship of nature and animism. It is the belief that both animate and inanimate objects are embodied with spirits. Consequently, local folklore is full of stories of the yokai or supernatural creatures. A walk through Yokai Street will show you some depictions of these monsters. If you’re lucky, you may even stumble into one of many yokai-themed events that occur throughout the year.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum serves as a tribute to this modern form of Japanese art. Manga refers to a style of comics that became very popular in Japan after World War 2. The museum, opened in 2006, showcases an enormous collection of over 300,000 famous and obscure works by Japanese artists.
4. Taste Kyoto’s Local Cuisine
An essential part of any visitor’s food tour around Kyoto, is the Nishiki Market. It hosts over 100 stalls, each with their own foods and specialty items. With countless different snacks to choose from, this market is the perfect place for an adventurous food tasting. Try some new local flavors here and experience Kyoto through your taste buds.
Kyoto’s Uji City is one of Japan’s most famous green tea producers. With several plantations in the area they even offer tea-picking tours for visitors. Here you can dive into Japan’s tea culture, learn to pick tea leaves like an expert, and enjoy a hot cup of fresh green tea by a mountain-side view.
Alternatively, if you’d rather avoid the manual labor, you can always visit one of Kyoto’s numerous tea houses and part-take in a Japanese Tea Ceremony (or Way of Tea). You can also watch the ceremonial preparation of matcha and, of course, try some yourself afterwards.
Michelin Star Restaurants and Hidden Cafes
A little known fact that most visitors may not be aware of is that Kyoto is home to over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants. With everything from Japanese fine-dining Kaiseki, to classic French cuisine, as well as other fusion-style restaurants on offer.
5. Take a Stroll Down Philosopher’s Walk
Philosopher’s Walk is a pathway along the Lake Biwa Canal in the Higashiyama district of northern Kyoto. This path is famous for its gorgeous lining of cherry blossom trees that, in Spring, drop colorful pink petals with every blow of the wind. Visitors are quoted as saying that this path is breathtaking regardless of the season.
It’s name, Philosopher’s Walk, is a tribute to Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro. He would stroll down this path everyday on his way to and from Kyoto University.
At the end of Philosopher’s Walk, you’ll find the Nanzen-ji Temple. This is a large Zen temple complex that’s not usually very crowded. It is the perfect place for a quiet and calming walk through the trees that’ll lead you to shrines, small waterfalls, ponds, and rock gardens.
Getting Around Kyoto
As you’re planning your visit to the different temples, shrines, and even to one or two of Kyoto’s beautiful surrounding cities, it’s always a great idea to plan how you’ll be getting around. Public transportation can be confusing in new cities, so why waste any time getting lost? Especially if you’re only in town for a few days.
For this reason, a reliable car service can prove to be an indispensable part of your trip. After all, a professional English-speaking local driver can turn any confusing trip into a smooth and unforgettable experience. Plus, it’s always nice to know you’ve got a 24/7 customer support team available that’ll accommodate to your itinerary and transportation needs. Whether it’s for your Kansai International Airport transfer to Kyoto city, to your hotel, or to any of the famous destinations you wish to see while on your trip, you’ll undoubtedly appreciate the comfort.
An Unforgettable Cultural Experience
Kyoto is Japan’s 2nd most visited city for a reason. After all, Tokyo might be the capital city but Kyoto is Japan’s cultural capital, and rightly so. This hub of culture and spiritual significance is a beautiful place to visit. As well as to learn from the history and culture of ancient Japan. If there are any other places you think we’ve missed here, or that you’ve visited and absolutely loved, let us know in the comments. Safe travels, or as you’ll hear in Japan, “oki o tsukete!”