Kyoto, Japan’s most beautiful city, is not the largest centre in the country, but it has a lot to keep you occupied when you visit. In the interest of helping you parse through the many options available to you on a trip to Japan, we’ve put together the 10 essential things to do in Kyoto. And don’t worry, although Kyoto is famous for its hundreds of temples throughout the city, not every entry on this list is a temple.
Just a heads up: we’ve left off a day trip to Nara because although it’s a popular thing for people to do while in Kyoto, it’s not technically located within the city. We’ve stuck to landmarks and highlights within the city boundaries of Kyoto.
Marvel at Kinkaku-ji
Of all the landmarks in Kyoto, none is as essential or most photographed as Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. Located in the city’s northwest, this Zen Buddhist temple was originally a villa before converting into a monastery that burnt down in 1950. It was then rebuilt into the iconic golden building that you can see today. Beyond the beauty of the temple’s golden paneling, which makes it especially stunning during the spring or autumn, the temple is surrounded by a gorgeous Zen garden that transforms the area into a sea of tranquility, even with all the crowds of tourists visiting the grounds. Also, if you’re interested in exploring religious history on your trip to Japan, the temple is said to contain ashes of the Buddha, meaning it’s also a sacred icon in addition to being a beautiful one.
Pass through the toriis of Fushimi Inari Shrine
The other most photographed icon in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which consists of thousands of red-orange torii gates leading up a hill in eastern Kyoto. The temple itself is dedicated to foxes, which is apparent from the many stone fox statues across the temple grounds. When you visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine, you can spend most of your time admiring the main temple buildings and pass through a few dozen of the toriis to get a taste for the temple’s appeal. However, if you’re in for more strenuous activity, you can hike through the many gates leading up the hill until you reach the summit. It’ll take a while as Inariyama is a much larger hill than it seems at first glance. However, once you reach the top of the hill, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of Kyoto.
Visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace
One of the first things you’ll learn about Kyoto when you visit on a trip to Japan is that it was the country’s imperial capital for hundreds of years. As such, it has a mighty imperial palace that used to be the home of the Japanese Emperor and his court. Located in the city’s north, near Nijo Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace is defined by its massive grounds that are open to the public as well as its manicured gardens and impressive gates. The central palace is only open to the public a few days a year, but the grounds more than make up for the inaccessibility of the palace itself. You’ll find several shrines and palace gates that are attractions in their own right. The Imperial Palace grounds let you experience a taste of what used to be the centre of the Japanese Empire.
Explore Nijo Castle
There are a few castles in Kyoto, but none are more impressive than this massive flatland castle. Built as an ostentatious show of power for the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nijo Castle was built more to be a beautiful statement of power than a defensive fortification. The castle’s white walls make the buildings pop out from the sea of green surrounding it, while the elaborate decorations on the walls and sliding doors inside the castle make it absolutely worth entering. At the castle’s centre lies Ninomaru Palace, with its five wooden buildings and elaborate inner courts. Outside, you’ll find the palace garden as immaculately designed as the interior of the castle.
Kiyomizu-dera is probably the most significant temple in the city aside from Kinkaku-ji and the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Located in eastern Kyoto, this massive temple sits above the tree line, making it a great place to enjoy views of the city. It’s especially stunning during the cherry blossom season and in the fall, when the trees change colour. Regardless of when you visit on your trip to Japan, the massive temple and its intricate designs are worth seeing. There’s also the nearby Otowa Waterfall and the on-site Jishu Shrine to add to the appeal. Just be sure to head to the temple early in the day as it can get crowded in the afternoon.
Discover the hidden waterfall of Nanzen-ji
Most lists of the essential things to do in Kyoto likely wouldn’t include Nanzen-ji above other temples in the city, but we think it’s one of the great hidden treasures of a Japanese vacation to Kyoto. Nanzen-ji has large temple grounds with a fascinating Sanmon gate and a massive Zen garden. You can climb the Sanmon gate to get some good views of the surrounding area and visit the main hojo to admire the screen paintings on the wood panels. However, what makes Nanzen-ji so special is its location next to a hill with a small waterfall. If you pass by the medieval aqueduct, you can climb into the hills, walking by a series of graves and shrines dedicated to various spirits, as well as a small waterfall that trickles down into the garden below. Nanzen-ji and its surrounding grounds offer you the chance to escape into nature and enjoy a genuinely calm (even “Zen”) experience in a large, bustling city.
Stroll the streets of Gion
We told you it wouldn’t just be temples on this list! The old samurai district of Kyoto is the historical heart of the city and one of the best spots to experience medieval Japan. In Gion, you’ll walk along old pedestrian boulevards lined by rustic wooden buildings. You can visit old tea houses or simply admire the folks dressed in traditional garb who’ll walk through the streets. You can even visit an old geisha house or theatre to experience a bit of Japan’s past.
Wander through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The old neighbourhood of Arashiyama lies on the western edge of the city, next to the Katsura River, and has plenty of sites to see within its district borders, the most significant of which is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. If you wander to the edge of the city around Tenyru-ji and Hogon-in, you’ll find a path that takes you through an incredible bamboo grove where the bamboo stalks blot out the sky and go on as far as the eye can see. You’ll find a lot of crowds here on any warm day of the year. The path is not as long as some photographs make it seem, but walking through the bamboo grove and peering out into the seemingly-endless stretches of bamboo stalks has an incredible, almost mystical, feeling to it. You won’t want to miss it on a trip to Japan.
Climb to Iwatayama Monkey Park
You don’t have to wander far from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to experience the Iwatayama Monkey Park, one of the most fun and kid-friendly attractions in the city. If you cross to the south side of the Katsura River, you’ll find a monkey park on the top of the hill in the forest. You’ll have to climb for about 20 minutes through the forest to reach the park, but it’s totally worth it. Once you reach the top of the hill, you’ll find an open area filled with Japanese macaque monkeys who are free to roam alongside visitors. It’s wise not to touch the monkeys, but you can feed them with some monkey food on site and take some incredible pictures of them interacting with visitors and hanging out with their own kind. Beyond the monkeys, Iwatayama Monkey Park is surprisingly high above the city, meaning you’ll be able to capture some incredible views of Kyoto.
Feast on some traditional cuisine
Kyoto might not top the list of Japan’s best food cities like Tokyo, Fukuoka, or even Osaka, but it does have a lot of great food to feast on when you visit on a Japan vacation. Be sure to try some local specialties during your stay in the city, especially some kaiseki ryori cuisine, which is essentially Japan’s answer to haute cuisine. Kaiseki cuisine consists of a multi-course traditional meal of the finest seasonal ingredients prepared into delicate dishes that are as beautiful to look at as they are delicious to eat. As well, if you’re a vegetarian, you’ll find that kaiseki cuisine is incredibly accommodating to meat-free diets.
There is a lot to do in Kyoto, but these 10 attractions are among the best ways to occupy your time in the city while on your trip to Japan. Between all the temples, castles, bamboo groves, and historical neighbourhoods, you’ll find a lot to love in Japan’s old imperial city. There really are few cities where it’s as easy to get lost in the treasures of the past.