Kyoto is a must in your itinerary, especially if you’re visiting Japan for the first time! Although it’s not an administrative capital of the country any longer (the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1868 once the power of the shogunate was over and the Imperial family wanted a new start), it’s undoubtedly still its cultural capital.
It’s a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has so many historical monuments and sites you won’t be able to see a fraction of them in a day! I’ve prepared a list of the most famous locations and things to do in Kyoto: you’ll probably need at least 3 days to see those as they are located quite far away from each other, spread over 11 different wards or districts.
Here, I talk about some of the activities I enjoyed in Kyoto; some of them are well-known, and others are less known by tourists. Hope you’ll like them as well!
1. Higashiyama-ku: Yasaka Pagoda
Higashiyama (東山) is one of the most visited parts of Kyoto, and let me show you which attractions are not to miss in this district! 46 metre tall Yasaka pagoda (八坂の塔), the remaining part of the 6th century Hokanji Temple, is undoubtedly one of the most photographed sites in the whole of Japan!
Located in the historical Higashiyama district, it’s a perfect photo spot, not to mention its cultural significance. We also tried one of the best matcha I ever had right there as well: it was sold from a small movable stall by Rocca & friends. By the way, did you know that Kyoto is famous for its matcha?
It’s also worth visiting Yasui Kompiragu shrine and crawling underneath its famous stone to shed off all the bad things!
2. Higashiyama-ku: Walk along Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka
Ninenzaka (二年坂) is probably my favorite area of Kyoto after the Arashiyama forest. Translated as ‘two-year hill,’ that’s actually a hill with historical buildings located on both sides of the pedestrian road leading to Kiyomizudera Temple (清水寺).
It’s best to explore it together with the Sannenzaka (三年坂, ‘Three-year hill’) road nearby. It’s the best of old Kyoto you can see today. You can see all skirts of arts and crafts there like calligraphy or pottery with the shop owners usually working there for generations!
For instance, we bought an umbrella from Hokusai Graphic, made all according to tradition. I was also pretty impressed by all the wooden and traditional Japanese Starbucks cafes there (you know I’ve got a soft spot for Starbucks, right?).
3. Higashiyama-ku: Admire the colours of Yasaka Koshindo Temple
Yasaka Koshindo Temple (八坂庚申堂) is a small Koshin temple in Higashiyama dating back to Heian period and famous for its unique colorful appearance. Koshin is actually a system of beliefs (not very popular now) with roots in Taoism however it was influenced by other forms of faith as well.
For instance, there was an idea of three spirits, or sanshi, living in a human body who collect one’s deeds and then bring then to a Heavenly Deity to judge upon. Those colourful round bags, or balls, are called kukurizaru – actually they represent a monkey with bound limbs (this is an allegory of taming one’s desires and character). You can wish upon a kukurizaru talisman: you should write down your desire on it, and after that your wish will be granted – and eventually you’ll become a better human being.
4. Higashiyama-ku: Get lost around Gion
Gion (祇園), or a historic geisha district, also within Higashiyama, is another unmissable spot in Kyoto because you say Kyoto – you think Geisha.
I hope I don’t have to remind you that Geisha is very far away from an escort girl? It’s more of an intelligent companion able to entertain guests and has multiple skills like conducting a tea ceremony, playing traditional instruments, and dancing. In dialect of Kyoto, geishas are called ‘geiko’.
In reality, you can hardly meet a real geisha on the cobbled streets of Gion because this occupation is dying out. If you’re lucky, you might see a maiko, a girl who’s learning to be a geisha (and that’s not easy!). The vast majority of people dressed in kimono in Kyoto are just tourists.
On another note, I must add that in my experience, Japanese people are very positive when foreigners wear kimonos, yukatas, and other traditional clothing. During my very first visit to Japan, I chose not to dress up in it because I was concerned about cultural appropriation; however, later, I learned that the Japanese usually see this as an appreciation of their culture and encourage visitors to try it!
5. Higashiyama-ku: Yasaka shrine
Yasaka shrine (八坂神社) is the most famous shrine in Gion area of Kyoto. Its story can be traced back to 656 when the spirit of Susanoo-no-mikoto, local deity and younger brother of Amaterasu (see below), was enshrined here.
After the sad evens of the 9 century when the city was devastated by epidemic, the Yasaka – jinja became a main site of Gion Festival that should keep the city from harm. It still takes place in July and is famous for the procession that includes portable shrines. Moreover, inside you can find Utsukushii Gozen-sha, where you can ask for a beauty – what a great spot to visit isn’t it!
Bonus: Want to see more in Higashiyama and nearby located Sakyo-ku?
Other locations to visit are Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kodaiji Temple (高台寺), Shoren-in (青蓮院), and Chion-in (知恩院). Ginkakuji Temple (銀閣寺, or Silver Pavilion, I talk about it below) is located quite near as well. And don’t forget to walk along the Philosopher’s path (哲学の道, Tetsugaku no Michi)!
You might also like to see a lesser known site, Goryo Eji Tonsho (御陵衛士屯所跡, Guardians of the Imperial Tomb), in Kodail Gesshinin Temple, which Kashitaro Ito and his group of Imperial loyalists used as their base.
6. Higashiyama-ku: Visit Miyako Odori performance
One of the most authentic experiences related to Geisha you can have is attending Miyako odori (都をどり), with ‘Miyako’ meaning ‘the capital’ referring to Kyoto as the former capital and ‘odori’ meaning ‘a dance .’It has been running since 19875 and is held only in April.
This is a performance where real maiko – geishas in training – dance and sing traditional verses. We booked our visit in advance: it was held in Kōbu Kaburen-jo theatre with a tea ceremony held in advance of the performance. In addition, there were poster stands with interviews with Maikos reflecting on why they chose this path and the importance of keeping the tradition alive.
The story itself depicted four seasons featuring 8 dances, and we could follow the narration by the small Earphone guide, a device that provided us with an English translation and a commentary on what was on stage. The duration of the performance is one hour. Photography during a performance is obviously forbidden.
7. Nakagyo-ku: Try to mute your steps at Nijo Castle
The Nijo castle (二条城) is another important Kyoto landmark. Given the place Kyoto occupies in Japanese history, there’s no surprise that the castle of one of the most influential men of the era, Tokugawa, who was the shogun and had more power than an emperor, was built here. It dates to 1603 and manifests the power of this dynasty (it came into decline only in the second part of the 19th century) by the structure of the rooms and lavish decorations.
Famous nightingale floors are the famous feature of the Ninomaru Palace inside the castle. No matter how carefully you step on it, the floor makes a squeaky sound. This was some sort of protection against unwanted guests and intruders: some even call those anti-ninja floors! The mystery behind it is simple: the materials the floors are made from make a chirping noise when scratching upon each other.
The gardens in the castle are worth visiting as well: I absolutely admired the Sakura trees there! We were also lucky to see some traditional performances there and to observe the city from the remains of the castle walls.
8. Nakagyo-ku: Shop at Nishiki Market
Nishiki market (錦市場, Nishiki Ichiba) is a shopping arcade where you can buy not only souvenirs, skincare products, and different goods but also try the cart variety of the most delicious food!
Try famous tsukemono or pickled veggies – there are a few shops selling those, and stop by at Sengyo Kimura Fish shop dating to 1620, at favorite Aritsugu Knife Store run by one family for generations, and a century-old Daiyasu Oyster shop. We also visited a hedgehog cafe where we fed a tiny, cute hedgehog with some insects.
You can also visit the Kyoto Samurai & Ninja Museum nearby.
9. Nakagyo-ku: Learn about Oda Nobunaga at Honnoji Temple.
Honno-ji temple (本能寺) was founded in 1415 and bemonged to Hokke-shu Hommon sect. You can spot a statue of Nichiren, famous monk from Kapakura, there too. It might be off many touristic radars however it was a site of an incredibly important historical event.
If you’re planning a travel to Japan, you must learn three names: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Three Great Unifiers of Japan whol lived in the 16ht century. And Oda Nobunaga was attacked at this very place by his own vassal Akechi Mitsuhide (the reasons of this are still unclear) in June 1582 and was forced to commite suicide. Toyomi Hideyoshi avenged Oda Nobunaga and carried the unification process on. The current temple is the reconstruction of an older temple dating to 1928.
Also Honno-ji temple is viewied as a symbol of diplomatic relationship between Japan and Korea as one of Korean missions stayed here in 1719.
10. Fushimi-ku: Explore Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
I bet you all have seen a shrine of ten thousand torii on your social media after it appeared in Memoirs of Geisha movie, it became especially crowded with tourists.
And that’s the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine (伏見稲荷大社) dedicated to the Shinto deity Inari, linked to rice, good harvest, and prosperity in general! At the entrance, you can find statues of the deity Inari’s messenger fox with a few sheaves of grain representing a good harvest.
And did you know that torii are built as the donations of individuals or even companies wishing for luck and prosperity? You can go up to the top of Inari mountain, passing thousands of torii, or just wander around a part of the path; this place is impressive.
11. Dine with a view over Kamogawa
Kamogawa (鴨川), or Kamo River, spread over a few wards, is a river flowing through the centre of Kyoto. I
It used to be the primary source of drinkable water for the city. There are lots of restaurant terraces on the riversides – why not spend some time there if you’re not in a hurry? Especially in spring when the river shores are covered with blooming sakura trees!
12. Kamigyo-ku: see Kyoto imperial palace and Goen national garden
Kyoto Imperial Garden and Palace (京都御所) might be the least impressive spot on my list because today you can’t enter the buildings of the palace and can only stroll in Kyoto Imperial Garden Goen, open to the public.
However, this landmark has a huge historical significance, and I wanted to have a glimpse of it myself (maybe you’re thinking the same!) As the name suggests, it served as the main residence of the Imperial Family while Japan’s capital was still in Kyoto (till 1868, when the administration moved to Tokyo), and you can see some remnants of 9 outer gates and some houses there too.
13. Kita-ku: skip the crowds at Kinkakuji Temple
The Kinkakuji Temple (金閣寺) is not only one of the most visited places in Kyoto but in the whole of Japan! It’s a Zen Buddhist temple built in 1397 under the name of Rokuonji Temple. But just by looking at these pictures, you can easily guess why it became known as the Golden Pavilion.
Yes, it’s really covered in gold, and it looks especially mesmerizing in the reflection in the pond nearby. Although it’s located a bit far away from other attractions, expect crowds of people gathering on the site.
If you were wondering, there’s also Ginkakuji Temple (銀閣寺), meaning Silver Pavilion. Initially, it was erected for Ashikaga Yoshimasa, but after his death, it was converted into a Zen temple in the late 15th century (it’s located in Sakyō-ku.)
14. Ukyo-ku: see 15 stones from one point at Ryoanji Temple
The Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺), meaning Temple of the Dragon at Peace, is located not far from the Golden Pavilion. It’s mostly famous for its rock garden in karesansui style. If you’re not familiar with this sort of heritage, it might appear less impressive. However, once you learn some basics, it opens up as a magnificent part of ancient art.
For instance, you see the carefully made landscape with white gravel representing water, black stones representing land, moss representing forests, etc. You also cannot see all 15 stones from wherever you stand! The temple also has beautiful green grounds with a pond that looks fantastic during the Sakura season.
On the other note, I found an information that actually Japanese didn’t see rock gardens as something special while Japan was closed to foregners. When Japan opened up in mid-19th century, Europeans got very impressed with this concept of a garden because they never saw anything like this. And after being appreciated by others, Japanese (who felt a bit behind the rest of the world in Meiji period) learnt to treasure this type of gardens even more!
You can combine going to Ryoanji Temple with visiting the Gold Pavilion because those two landmarks are located pretty close.
15. Ukyo-ku: get lost in Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama (嵐山) is located quite distant from other Kyoto attractions: we went there from Osaka. We had to go to another train station than Central Kyoto station.
However, it’s an absolute must-see. Bamboo Grove is a site of lush natural sights and tranquility even if there are thousands of tourists: the plants are going metres and metres up, forming a green magic tunnel. If you want to avoid the crowds, come here at the earliest hour you can handle.
Please remember that you have to behave respectfully: in recent years, there’ve been cases of barbaric acts when tourists scratched their initials on bamboo trunks (which is obviously unacceptable).
16. Ukyo-ku: fell in love with Tenryu-ji Temple
Tenryu-ji Temple (天龍寺) in the Arashiyama area is another landmark you can’t miss.
It’s the main temple of the Tenryu branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Originally built in 1255 as a palace, it was converted into a Zen temple in 1339. There are a few halls to explore; however, the original buildings were lost to fire.
Apart from seeing the Cloud Dragon (actually this is how the name of the temple is translated) image in Hatto (Lecture) hall, exploring the gardens – which remained intact – is the best thing you can do there.
The pond with rock islands and little waterfalls, surrounded by gorgeous trees and shrubs inside the bamboo grove with herons and other birds living their best lives there… what can even be better.
17. Ukyo-ku: learn the history of Nonomiya-jinja
Nonomiya-jinja (野宮神社) is a quiet and tranquil shrine surrounded by a bamboo grove you might encounter while exploring Arashiyama. It dates back to the 9th century. Can you imagine that it’s been mentioned in The Tale of Genji, the most famous Japanese piece of literature dating to the 11th century?
Nonomiya-jinja was linked to the special purification ceremony performed by women and is the place where Saigū was appointed. Saigu was a young and pure lady from the Imperial family prayed to Amaterasu, the sun goddess and the ancestor of the Imperial line, who stayed in Nonomiya-jinja for three years before departing to Ise Grand shrine, Mie Prefecture, where she was to become the main priestess of.
Although the Saigū system was abolished in the 14th century when the Imperial family came into conflict with shoguns, you can still see the historical representation of the procession Saigū Gyōretsu (斎宮行列) that still takes place in October each year.
18. Ukyo-ku: admire Okochi Sanso Garden
Okochi Sanso Garden (大河内山荘) is another beautiful spot located in Arashiyama. In contrast with other landmarks, it’s quite recent because it’s a former villa of Japanese film star Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962), famous for its roles as samurai in jidaigeki period dramas.
The real highlight of this residence is the garden (although you can also spot the villa itself, an open-air museum, and a tea house), highlighting the best of each season. The family of the actor still owns the estate.
19. Ukyo-ku: Watch the boats on Katsura River
The Katsura River (桂川) in Arashiyama area is formed by two smaller rivers: Hozu rover and Oi river. Traditinally, it was seen as a natural west border of the ancient capital of Kyoto.
Now you can take a boatride there as one the nobles once did or just observe the lush greenery and the traditional boats floating along with a help of bamboo pole. You can also have a look at the historical Togetsukyo Bridge (however it’s not that impressive as you might think), visit Monkey park and visit some ancient shrines of you have time!
20. Try delicious treats in all wards of Kyoto
I’d have totally lied if I had said that I went to Kyoto solely for historical landmarks.
Delicious treats were high on my list as well! I don’t know whether the venues still serve the same desserts and drinks as many could’ve had during the pandemic; however, let me show you what we had ourselves, such as 3D lattes and Hanami-inspired desserts around Kinbukicho area not far from the Kyoto Manga museum!
Make sure you get matcha drinks and desserts as well as this is the speciality of the city.
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- Yokohama, Kanto
- Kanagawa prefecture, Kanto
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- What I adored in Japan
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Hope you enjoyed my blog!