Kyoto was the former capital of Japan until 1869. It was the residence of the Japanese emperor between AD 794 and 1868. It is a popular destination both for tourists and locals. As a region, it is home to at least 1600 temples and shrines, both small and large, famous and not so much. In addition there are many imperial palaces and gardens that just beckons a visit. Besides temples, shrines, palaces and gardens, Kyoto is strictly rooted in formal traditions such as kaiseki dining where multiple courses of precise dishes is served and geisha, who is a female entertainer often found in Gion-shiji.
With Kyoto being home to so much culture, food, vibrancy and history to indulge in, I can confidently say that one cannot have too many days in that cultural city. Strolling through Gion or Pontocho to steal a glimpse of the geisha, visiting the many iconic temples or experiencing a traditional ryokan stay will leave you with lasting memories. No matter how much time you spend in Kyoto, saying ‘goodbye’ will always be hard.
As for me, Kyoto is a place I will return to. Having lived in Japan for almost six months (you can read about my stay in Japan here)I realise there is so much to see and do here that there will always be new experiences to look forward to. Thus, selecting the best places to top my list for the purposes of this blog was a difficult task. Nevertheless, here is the suggestive ultimate guide to the Best 5 places in Kyoto which you simply must not miss.
Best 5 places to Visit in Kyoto, Japan
1. Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto
The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is popular for its thousands (about 10,000) of orange torii gates. These torii gates lines up the path up a steep hillside with about 12000 concrete steps.
These bright orange gates are said to date back to 711 AD and built to honour the Shinto God of Rice, Inari. The Inari Shrine is characterised by a pair of fox and vermilion torii gates.
Everyone, both young and old who visits Fushimi Inari climb these steps to the top. It took me a little over an hour to reach the top of the mountain. Sometimes, these steps were steep but it was well worth the hike! One feels a sense of achievement when you reach the top.
I stopped to take in the luscious greenery and the many photos of the beautiful torii gates from all angles plus making new acquaintances along the way. Also, there are many tiny shops where you can stop and have your lunch or drinks.
Tip: I was here in May and it was quite hot then. Best to have a bottle of water with you.
Map of Fushimi Inari
Travel tip to Fushimi Inari, Kyoto
Tip: This mountain is popular both amongst tourists and locals which means that it will always be busy. Early mornings are best.
The Fushimi Inari is situated at Inari Station, a quick 5-minute train journey on the JR line from Kyoto. From Inari Station, it is a short walk uphill a street lined with souvenir shops, food-stalls and restaurants with unique architecture. If you are unsure which way to turn as you get off the train, just follow the crowd and you will get there😊.
2. Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji is one of the most beautiful Japanese zen gardens in Kyoto which I have been to. It is popular amongst tourist too, so it’s not one to be missed!
This famous spot is home to the Buddhist temple Golden Pavilion, a three-storey building covered in gold leaf situated in a picturesque pond, with tiny little islands dotted all around. It belonged to a Japanese shogun, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1408), who had it built as his private garden. The paths are beautifully carved out, so you could enjoy every corner of the garden, with plenty of shades provided by the tall trees which may have been there since the 14th century or before.
Walking through the garden, you will totally feel the zen, the calmness and the serenity, knowing that you are walking the steps once walked by the Shogun himself! If you need a break, there is a tea-house where you can either sit seiza-style on the floor in-doors or on low-rise benches outdoors.
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple in Kyoto is surrounded by little islands dotted everywhere..
Travel tips and Useful information on Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji is easily accessible from either Kyoto city or Gion-shiji. Take either bus 101 or 205 and its 230 yen. The journey is about 40 minutes and if you can, try to avoid the school rush hour (before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m.).
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3. Arashiyama & Sagano in Kyoto
Bamboo Grove + Owl Café + Stroll along the Katsura River
Arashiyama in Kyoto
Arashiyama basically means ‘Storm Mountain’ and is situated on western Kyoto. It is designated as a Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty. The Oi River runs through this district and meets Togetsukyo Bridge and changes to become Katsura River. The Togetsukyo Bridge, also referred to as the “bridge under the moon” is a landmark in this district.
This part of Kyoto was popular amongst the nobles during the Heian period (794-1185) and were frequented for its tranquillity and natural beauty, so the name ‘Storm Mountain’ does not really do justice to the serenity of this place.
Owl Cafe, Arashiyama, Kyoto
As one can imagine, as is elsewhere in Kyoto, the main streets of any touristic places are always lined with little shops which are unique in their offerings, be it food, gelato or souvenirs. Interestingly, there was an owl café on the main street here, where a drink is included in the price of the entrance fee. You can walk through this cafe where the owls are nicely secured to the branches. You can touch them!
It was not as exciting as I thought it would be, but I guess it is worth a visit if you are thinking of something of interest for your kids.
Bamboo Grove, Arashiyama, Kyoto
From the main street, the Bamboo Grove is conveniently accessible from the entrance of Tenryo-ji Temple. As you walk through the gardens and when you arrive at the north gate, take a left as you exit and keep walking, you will soon see and find yourself in the magical midst of the tall, very tall bamboo stalks, swaying in the gentle breeze, with rays of sunlight coming through its canopy high above you. You could feel the gentle breeze against your skin and the serenity of the place. Being here, is one of those “awe” moments and you simply got to experience it! What seems like an endless thick green bamboo grove, continues uphill.
Follow this main path and you will reach Okochi-Sanso, a sublime villa, surrounded by lush gardens. I did not visit the Okochi-Sanso because I wanted to spend more time taking a stroll along the river over a cup of coffee.
Stroll along River Katsura, Arashiyama, Kyoto
The stroll along the river was an amazing experience. There are people around, but it is also very quiet. It is almost like everyone is just quiet, taking in the serenity, the beauty, enjoying and waiting for the sun to set.
Exploring the little hills along the river proved to be another rewarding experience as I came to little huts tucked away within the lushes of the greens. It was safe and thankfully there were no snakes! You need to be here to know what I am talking about 😊
Travel tips and Useful information on Arashiyama, Kyoto
Other experiences in Arashiyama:
- Tenryu-Ji Temple
Tenryu-ji Temple is a 14th century temple. It is one of the main attractions in Arashiyama. It is popular for its magnificent Zen garden and its traditional tea house.
Okochi-Sanso has a magnificent garden with breathtaking views over Kyoto. It has been featured in a number of movie sets.
3. Kameyama-Koen Park
This is a beautiful park where you can enjoy exploring the many trails that lead in and out of this peaceful sanctuary. Some trails lead you directly to the mountains.
Getting to Arashiyama, Kyoto
Arashiyama is conveniently accessible from Kyoto Station by train.
Take the JR Train from Kyoto Station on the JR Sagano/San-in Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. When you exit Arashiyama Station, follow signs to the Bamboo Grove. It takes about 10 minutes.
Tour Suggestions for Kyoto
4. Heian Shrine + Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto
Some may think that this is an unusual combination because Philosophers Path is usually combined with a trip to Ginkakuji Temple, which is just a 5-minute walk, up the road from Philosopher’s Path. However, I have chosen this combination as I rather enjoyed the 20-minute walk from Heian Shrine to Philosopher’s Path.
Heian Shrine, Kyoto
The Heian Shrine or Heian Jingu is a Shinto shrine and is relatively new. It was built in 1895 to mark the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto as capital of Japan. It is dedicated to the first emperor, Emperor Kammu (737-806) and the last emperor, Emperor Komei (1831-1867). Heian was the former name of Kyoto.
The entrance to Heian Jingu is marked by a giant torii gate, about 25 metres high, which overlooks the Okazaki-koen Park. The main buildings are said to be 5/8th of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian period. The shrine is surrounded by spacious grounds and there is a large open court at the centre, with spacious courtyard between buildings.
Shin’en, Heian Shrine, Kyoto
The most aesthetically impressive part of the Jingu is the Shin’en. Shin’en is 33,000 square metres of garden situated at the back of the main building. This garden is divided into East, West, South and Middle. It has lots of flowers, interesting looking trees, ponds and the exact stones that Scarlett Johansson was on in “Lost in Translation” (2003).
Travel tips and Useful information on Heian Shrine, Kyoto
The entrance to Heian shrine is free but there is a small fee, 600 yen for the garden. I would recommend it if you are looking to spend a leisurely afternoon/evening. There is a sitting area right in the middle of the pond where you can just sit, have a picnic or just relax and take in the view.
Getting to Heian Shrine, Kyoto
From Kyoto Station:
Take bus number 5 or 100. It is about half-an-hour journey and cost 230 Yen.
Take the subway to Higashiyama Station and it is ten minutes walk to the Shrine.
Trek from Heian Shrine to Philosophers Path
From the Heian Jingu, I took the 20-minute walk along the residential area till I came to the small winding canal, lined with sakura (cherry blossoms). I didn’t mind the walk as it was an opportunity to see the quiet residential area, the tiny little shops lined up along the canal and really take-in the scenic view.
Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto
Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto is a popular destination during the cherry blossom season which is typically late March to early April.
Travel tips and Useful information on Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto
If you are planning a trip during Hanami (the tradition of viewing and appreciating the beauty of the sakuras), please dedicate some time to planning your travels. The sakura are in full bloom for only 2 to 3 weeks in Spring, between 20th March and 14th April, so you don’t really see them in full-bloom for a full month. Cherries peak at different times and are very weather dependent but they generally peak on 1st April. If you are planning a trip, then you need to consider the followings:
- Where you will be going to for the Hanami?
- When will you be going?
- Where would you stay?
Ideally, you will need to give yourself longer time, more than just a couple of days in Kyoto. Accommodation during the Hanami is typically expensive.
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5. Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto
No visit to Kyoto is complete without a visit to Kiyomizu-dera.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple which basically means “Pure Water Temple” is situated in the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto. It was founded around AD 780. It is an independent Buddhist Temple and has been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
The Kiyomizu-dera is popular for its wooden stage that stands-out about 13 metres above in the hillside below. The main hall and the stage were built without any nails. It is said that the wooden stage offers a magnificent view of the maple and cherry tress below and a spectacular view over Kyoto. However, the hall was closed for renovation during my visit and is expected to reopen in March 2020.
Unlike other temples I had visited, I found the entrance to this temple to be extremely busy with visitors, especially older teenagers who were also rather noisy. I soon understood why.
Jishu Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto
Beyond the main hall, was the Jishu Shrine, which is dedicated to the deity of love. In front of it are two stone pillars of 18 metres apart. If one could walk from one pillar to the other successfully, with their eyes closed, it is said that the one will be lucky in love. There were many older teenagers who were doing this with great excitement. I understood then, the popularity of the temple amongst the younger generation in Japan.
From here, as I started exploring the grounds, I began to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding hills.
Koyasu Pagoda, Kiyomizu-dera
In the far distant of the south of the temple, among the trees, is the three-tiered Koyasu Pagoda. This is a popular place visited by women as a visit here is said to bring about an easy and safe childbirth.
Travel tips and Useful information on Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto
From Kyoto Station
Take bus 100 or 206. It is a 15-minute journey and cost 230 Yen. Get off at Kiyomizu-michi stop and then it is about a 10-minute walk uphill to the temple.
My conclusion on the Best 5 in Kyoto
To select the best 5 places to visit in Kyoto was a difficult decision. There are so many more temples here that requires a visit for example Ginkaku-ji also known as Silver Pavilion, the Nanzen-ji and Toji Temple. There is also the Imperial palace which is a popular destination in Kyoto.
Ultimately, my choices rested upon selecting what would give my readers an authentic experience of history, culture and traditions if you were to have just a few days in Kyoto. I sincerely belief that the Best 5 selected here reflect what is quintessentially Kyoto and will be a rewarding experience if these Best 5 places, Fushimi Inari, Kinkaku-ji, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Heian Shrine + Philosopher’s Path and kiyamizu-dera are on your itinerary and are visited in the least.
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August 2019, Update