Filled with Japanese traditional culture, Kyoto is a very popular destination for tourists to Japan. However, there are so many temples and other famous places – how do you know where to visit?
Well, for the beginner, we’ll go over the classic Kyoto highlights you’ll want to visit first. Enjoy the best of Kyoto, with great lunches and sweets.
- Table of Contents
- What’s Kyoto like?
- Getting to and around Kyoto
- Convenient Kyoto sightseeing passes
- 1. Fushimi Inari Taisha, a noteworthy shrine
- 2. Arashiyama and its beautiful bamboo forest
- 3. Kinkaku-ji Temple
- 4. Nanzenji Temple
- 5. Sanzen-in Temple
- 6. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
- 7. Nijo-jo Castle
- 8. Nishiki Market
- 9. Gion/Gion Shopping Street
- 10. Ginkaku-ji Temple
- 11. Matcha Parfait: Bittersweet heaven
- 12. Yudofu: Warm and nutritious
- 13. Kaiseki: A crystallization of Japanese cuisine
- 14. Ryoan-ji Temple
- 15. To-ji Temple
- 16. GEAR
- 17. Tetsugaku-no-michi Street
- 18. Togetsu-kyo Bridge
- 19. Kyoto Station
- 20. Gion
- 21. Amanohashidate
- 22. Ninna-ji Temple
- 23. Gion Matsuri
- 24. Kyo no Tanabata
- 25. Maruyama Park
What’s Kyoto like?
Though Tokyo is the current capital of Japan, that role belonged to Kyoto until the year 1868. Even as Japan modernized as a whole, Kyoto held onto its Japanese traditions and scenery.
You can still find old temples and shrines about the city, and the seasonal cherry blossoms and red leaves are also a beautiful sight to behold.
Famous elements of Kyoto cuisine include kaiseki course meals, yudofu, and items that incorporate matcha green tea, such as parfaits. Yatsuhashi is a confection that serves as the usual Kyoto souvenir, but matcha sweets are also very popular with tourists. Traditional objects like bags and hand towels are also good choices.
Getting to and around Kyoto
Getting from Kansai International Airport to JR Kyoto Station will take an hour and 45 minutes by limousine bus, and an hour and 20 minutes by express train.
Once there, you’ll mostly be getting around in buses with the JR Kyoto Station being your base.
However, since buses get crowded during the tourist seasons of spring and autumn, it’s best to use the subway, trains, and your legs as much as you can. As Kyoto is fairly flat, renting a bicycle is another excellent option to get around.
Convenient Kyoto sightseeing passes
Save money and hassle - make your trip extra memorable by getting these useful tickets!
1. Fushimi Inari Taisha, a noteworthy shrine
With red shrine gates lining its paths, this mysterious holy site is very popular with tourists nowadays. Constructed over 1,300 years ago, Fushimi Inari Taisha has more than 30,000 sub-shrines all over Japan, conferring blessings of a bountiful harvest, business success, familial stability, and the granting of wishes.
The most striking place is the “Thousand Shrine Gates”, which, as the name suggests, is a continuous line of the red gates. This was gifted by those who had their prayers and wishes granted, and the gates have been there since the Edo period.
If you don’t have any time, make sure to at least see this path of gates, and if you have some hours to spend, try walking through the gates around the mountain.
2. Arashiyama and its beautiful bamboo forest
You can walk to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest from Saga-Arashiyama Station, about 15 minutes by train from JR Kyoto Station. Beloved as prime villa grounds by nobles for over a thousand years, it’s a very popular area for its beautiful nature and wealth of temples. Most notable is its bamboo forest. The mystique of the bamboo stalks on all sides has won it popularity on TV and posters.
The mountain and river view from Togetsu Bridge is also essential. The world heritage site of Tenryu-ji Temple and its beautiful garden, as well as Nonomiya Shrine, known for its blessings of good relations, are also very worth a visit.
3. Kinkaku-ji Temple
Kinkakuji Temple is the iconic gold-colored temple you see in many photos of Kyoto. Originally, Kinkakuji Temple was a mountain villa for the Saionji family, who were court aristocrats. It was given over to the third Shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, who built it up even further to become a uniquely luxurious villa. Later in Yoshimitsu’s life, many a great banquet was held here at the behest of Emperor Go-Komatsu leading the villa to become his prized possession.
4. Nanzenji Temple
Kyoto's Nanzenji Temple is extraordinarily beautiful in every season, and it seems a postcard-perfect photo awaits at every turn. There are many beautiful spots in Nanzenji Temple for snapping photos, such as the Sanmon mentioned in the Kabuki play of the same name, the brick aqueduct, and the garden representing a Zen interpretation of the world.
5. Sanzen-in Temple
Set in Ohara, in north-eastern Kyoto's Rakuhoku district is Sanzen-in Temple, one of the Five Monzeki Temples (served by head priests from the imperial family) of the Tendai sect in Kyoto. The Ojo Gokuraku-in Hall, which is built in the simple style, enshrines the statue of Amida Sanzon, a National Treasure. Contributing to the temple's fame are its beautiful gardens, including the Shuheki-en Garden and Yusei-en Garden. The forested Ohara area offers beautiful scenery unique to each season.
6. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Kiyomizudera Temple is one of the can't-miss points of interest in Kyoto. The old historic temple, reportedly opened in the year 778, is a designated world heritage site. Its 130,000 square meter premises are situated halfway up the side of Mt. Otowayama and include over 30 buildings and monuments.
Home to many national treasures and important cultural assets, Kiyomizu-dera Temple is full of highlights, making it popular among visitors to Japan.
With sunset views looking out across the city, the temple has garnered romantic associations.
The main hall houses a priceless statue of Kannon Bodhisattva, goddess of mercy, and several other buildings designated as 'national treasures' are spread around the grounds. The numerous streams and waterfalls are said to have therapeutic properties, and drinking from each one is said to improve health, longevity and academic success.
7. Nijo-jo Castle
Nijo Castle is a World Heritage Site consisting of a moat, two concentric walls, gardens and the remains of a tenshu tower. It was built in 1603 by Ieyasu Tokugawa, first shogun of the Edo era, with the purpose of housing the Military Commissioner of Kyoto and the shogun when he visited Kyoto. During the age of the third shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa, it underwent heavy renovations to accommodate Emperor Gomizuno-o. This is when murals drawn by Kano Tanyu were commissioned, among other art.
8. Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is known as Kyoto's kitchen and sells a variety of food products, including seasonal ingredients and vegetables unique to Kyoto, yuba (tofu skin), eel, dried foods, sushi, tofu, desserts, and obanzai (traditional Kyoto-style dishes).
Over 130 stores line the market today. The market also attracts visitors from across Japan and the world who are looking to buy Kyoto specialties, making it a bustling destination all day long.
Virtually all the establishments specialize in food and food-related goods, focusing on fresh and local produce.
Tourists and locals mingle as they browse the various storefronts selling various seasonal vegetables, pickles, side dishes, sweets and the freshest meat and fish. Many shops offer free samples too!
9. Gion/Gion Shopping Street
Shijo Dori, the main street that runs from Kamogawa to Yasaka Shrine, is known as “Gion Shopping Street,” and is home to a myriad of restaurants and souvenir shops. The covered sidewalk makes it a beautiful place to walk, even in bad weather.
Gion Shopping Street祇園商店街
- Address Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0074
10. Ginkaku-ji Temple
Ginkaku-ji Temple is known for the harmony of the white sand and lushly growing moss in its neatly manicured garden and the beauty created by the Zen temple's quiet and peaceful atmosphere.
It has also earned tremendous popularity among tourists as a place to enjoy magnificent scenery in each of the different seasons, from the camellias and azaleas of spring and summer to the colorful leaves in autumn and snow-scape in winter.
Ginkaku-ji is often mentioned in conjunction with Kinkaku-ji, similarly a sub-temple of Shokoku-ji Temple branch of Zen Buddhism.
Sample Kyoto Cuisine
Kyoto has some unique dishes and cuisines, including its famous matcha treats and dishes that use subtle-tasting dashi.
Matcha parfaits use ice cream made with green tea and are an excellent choice when you’re in the mood for sweets.
If you want something more substantial, there are warm yudofu and kaiseki, a collection of various Japanese dishes.
There’s also the obanzai restaurants, where you take pieces of a larger dish into smaller plates.
Another can't-miss are restaurants serving up kyoysai - heirloom Kyoto vegetables that are used in a variety of tasty dishes you can only find here.
Whichever food you’re after, the trick is to arrive at a restaurant when it opens up to avoid crowds.
11. Matcha Parfait: Bittersweet heaven
The matcha parfait is a Kyoto classic, popular enough to have people line up for it. It most prominently features slightly bitter matcha ice cream, mixed in with jelly, cream, castella, bavarois, shiratama, and more. Though the specific ingredients differ by the establishment, there’s always a variety. If you’re tired out from sightseeing, there’s nothing better than taking a quick break with a matcha parfait.
12. Yudofu: Warm and nutritious
Yudofu is a Kyoto item popular for lunch or dinner. Kyoto has high-quality groundwater, so it’s been a site of tofu creation since the Edo period. Tofu is boiled in konbu dashi, then eaten by dipping into a light soy sauce for an amazing taste. The recipe is straightforward, so you can taste every ingredient that goes into the dish.
13. Kaiseki: A crystallization of Japanese cuisine
One much-loved form of cuisine is kaiseki. They take dishes made from the freshest seasonal vegetables and fish and put them into beautiful plates and bowls, serving them in courses. Most of them are lightly flavored with dashi, and each dish tastes so good it almost feels like a shame to eat.
Kaiseki cuisine is not cheap, and a beginner should shoot for a 3,000 to 5,000 yen lunch course, which is on the cheaper side. You’ll want to do your research beforehand, as well – the restaurants have different rules, such as required reservations, credit card usage, shoes allowed, and so on. Remember to wear or bring socks for restaurants that have a no shoes rule. Take off rings that might damage the tableware and hold back on cologne or perfume as it might interfere with the dishes’ scent.
Japanese knick-knacks and sweets are perfect souvenirs!
Japan has a culture of souvenir-giving, and Kyoto has plenty of souvenir shops. One of the most popular items is Nama Yatsuhashi, coarse red bean paste wrapped in mochi flour. It has a noticeable cinnamon scent. Available flavors have increased to include fruit, chocolate, sesame, and more. You can usually find a small variety pack, giving you a fair amount to test out.
Otherwise, you’ll find cookies and Baumkuchen cakes made with matcha green tea, and cute bags and hand towels with Japanese patterns. Kyoto Station has many souvenir shops around it, so don’t hesitate to pay them a quick visit and get some shopping done.
14. Ryoan-ji Temple
Ryoan-ji Temple was built in 1450 and is most famous for its rock garden, with fifteen stones carefully placed on a bed of raked white gravel.
A viewing platform allows visitors to take in the scene, although from whatever angle you view the garden, you can never see all fifteen stones at once. No one knows when or who designed the garden or what it signifies, and this mystery just adds to the garden's allure.
After sitting in quiet contemplation, visitors can explore the temple's extensive grounds, including larger gardens home to beautiful trees and moss, and the Kyoyochi Pond, which looks particularly splendid in autumn.
15. To-ji Temple
On the 21st of each month, Kobo-san fair is held in the temple grounds with stalls selling everything from antiques to food.
Built in 796 to protect the city, Kobo Daishi was made head priest of To-ji in 823, making it one of the most important temples for Shingon Buddhism. The main hall (kondo) displays a mix of Chinese taste (tenjiku-yo) and Japanese taste (wa-yo), while other buildings house an array of interesting 21 statues called 3D Mandala .
Now running for many successive years, GEAR is the first non-verbal show of its kind to originate in Japan.
Utilising a range of techniques, from stage effects used in traditional Kabuki plays to the latest technology, GEAR tells a moving story set in the future and offers a mesmerising theatrical experience for people of all ages.
The intimate theatre seats only 100 people, and the performers mime, break dance Juggling and perform magic, all without 'words', in an engaging story full of action, music and stunning visuals. There is nothing else quite like it in Kyoto!
17. Tetsugaku-no-michi Street
It passes by a number of quiet and picturesque temples, and is renowned as one of the best places to enjoy the cherry blossoms in the spring, when beautiful pink blossoms overhang the path like a canopy.
The path is named after Nishida Kitaro, a famous philosopher at Kyoto University who used to walk and meditate there daily.
Kyoto Prefecture Kyoto City Sakyo Ward Jodo Temple Ishibashi Town-Wakaoji Town, 606-8406
Kyoto Station （JR Tokaido Line / JR Biwako Line / JR Tokaido Shinkansen / JR Kyoto Line / JR Sagano Line / JR San-in Line / JR Nara Line / Karasuma Line / Kintetsu-kyoto Line）
40 minutes by bus
- Phone Number 075-761-3863
- Address Kyoto Prefecture Kyoto City Sakyo Ward Jodo Temple Ishibashi Town-Wakaoji Town, 606-8406
18. Togetsu-kyo Bridge
19. Kyoto Station
The first Kyoto Station was built in 1877 just a little north of the current structure, using red brick - the most modern material available at the time.
The present Kyoto Station was completed in 1997. Made of glass and steel, it is visually striking and very different from the traditional structures Kyoto is most known for.
As Japan's second-largest train station, Kyoto Station was constructed to accommodate the millions of visitors the city sees each year. Inside the station complex is a department store, hotel, theater, and numerous restaurants and shops.
Kyoto Station Building, 901 Higashishiokoji-cho, Shiokoji-dori, Karasuma-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, 600-8216
Kyoto Station （JR Tokaido Line / JR Biwako Line / JR Tokaido Shinkansen / JR Kyoto Line / JR Sagano Line / JR San-in Line / JR Nara Line / Karasuma Line / Kintetsu-kyoto Line）
- Phone Number 075-361-4401
- Address Kyoto Station Building, 901 Higashishiokoji-cho, Shiokoji-dori, Karasuma-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, 600-8216
Dozens of tea houses were built along Hanami-koji in the Edo Period (1603-1868), many of which have been lovingly preserved, although most now function as restaurants.
The northern part of Gion is called the Shirakawa area and the charming buildings running alongside the canal create a picturesque scene day or night.
A natural land bridge of white sands and green pine trees, according to legend, it was created as a path to the heavens by the deity Izanagi-no-Mikoto.
The sandbar stretches for 3.6 kilometers, and visitors can enjoy walking or cycling from one end to the other.
Amanohashidate is best viewed from one of the hilltop parks, and tradition dictates that this is done by facing away, bending over, and gazing at it upside down through your legs!
22. Ninna-ji Temple
Ninna-ji Temple is an impressive temple complex in northern Kyoto, created as a summer retreat for the Imperial Family and founded in 886. It was tradition for a member of the Imperial Family to act as head priest, and this custom lasted until 1867, when the Imperial household moved to Tokyo.
The temple grounds are extensive and contain an elegant five-story pagoda, a huge main gate, beautifully landscaped gardens, teahouses, prayer halls, and living quarters. What's more, the grounds are famous for their late-blooming cherry trees if you happen to miss the blossom in other parts of Kyoto.
23. Gion Matsuri
This is one of Japan's most famous festivals, held in the Gion district during the whole of July.
The festival started as a religious ritual to appease the gods following a deadly plague in 869.
The festival's highlight is the 'Yamahoko Junko,' a parade held on the 17th and 24th July, where decorated wagons are pulled through the streets. In the days before the parade, the streets are lined with night stalls selling snacks and sweets.
In a tradition known as the 'Byobu Matsuri,' some private houses in the kimono merchant district display their family heirlooms and allow people to see a traditional Japanese residence.
24. Kyo no Tanabata
Tanabata (Star Festival) began around the year 700 and has origins in a Chinese legend of two stars and lovers, Hikoboshi and Orihime, who were seperated by the Milky Way and only able to meet once a year on July 7th.
Now people write their wishes on paper and hang them on bamboo branches, in the hope that the stars will make them come true.
The 'Kyo no Tanabata' is Kyoto's own take on the festival, with people writing wishes on postcards to decorate shrines and temples in the city. People walk around in 'yukata' (casual summer kimono), and there are many special events around the Horikawa and Kamogawa River areas.
25. Maruyama Park
It is the perfect place to sit and rest after touring the sights of the Higashiyama area and contains stroll gardens, rest houses, orchards and even restaurants.
The park is at its best in early April during Kyoto's cherry blossom season, when crowds of people gather for blossom-viewing parties under the trees.
The park's centrepiece is a glorious old weeping cherry tree, which when covered in blossom and lit up at night is a breathtakingly beautiful sight.
From places as beautiful now as they were a thousand years ago to very Japanese dishes, Kyoto is a place where you can experience traditional Japan all at once. Explore and eat to your heart’s content and enjoy the wonder of Japanese culture.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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