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
- Kyoto Highlights: Top 10 Places to Visit
- 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
- What’s the food like in Kyoto?
- 1. Matcha Parfait: Bittersweet heaven
- 2. Yudofu: Warm and nutritious
- 3. Kaiseki: A crystallization of Japanese cuisine
- Japanese knick-knacks and sweets are perfect souvenirs!
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.
Their cuisine is famous for kaiseki course meals, yudofu, and matcha items like 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
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Kyoto Highlights: Top 10 Places to Visit
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.
Nanzenji Temple臨済宗大本山 南禅寺
- Address 86, Nanzenji Fukuchicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto 606-8435
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.
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 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.
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.
What’s the food like in Kyoto?
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.
1. 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 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.
2. 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 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 very simple, so you can taste every ingredient that goes into the dish.
3. 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, 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.
There’s a very wide variety of matcha sweets!
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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