Best Things To See In Kyoto Japan – Kyoto is old Japan writ large: atmospheric temples, sublime gardens and traditional teahouses. In fact, there are more than 2,000 temples here that invite visitors to take a deep breath of Japan’s rich traditions.
Grab some fabulous food – best experienced at foodie Nishiki Market – and you’ll find almost as many reasons to linger as there are sushi and ramen noodle toppings. This is a city full of sights, and despite Japan’s expensive reputation, you can see a lot of it for free. It would be easy to spend a lifetime exploring Kyoto’s historic neighborhoods and serene natural surroundings, but with less time to spare, it pays to prioritize. Plan a trip around the following must-see sights and experiences.
Best Things To See In Kyoto Japan
Kyoto’s magnificent Golden Pavilion is one of the most iconic sights in the country, and with good reason. The upper two parts of this Zen temple are completely gilded in dazzling gold leaf, a reflection of the luxurious tastes at the time it was first built. Kinkaku-ji was burned down several times during its long history, but the reconstruction is largely faithful to the 14th-century original. When you see it from a distance, surrounded by pine trees and reflected in the clear waters of the pond below, it is a spectacular and otherworldly sight. Go early or late on a weekday to avoid the inevitable crowds that its beauty draws.
Kyoto Travel Guide (updated 2023)
You’ve experienced gold – then comes silver, in the form of Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto’s Silver Pavilion. In fact, the name comes from the unfulfilled ambition of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the shogun who built the temple – it was never actually covered with silver, but its delicate grace is the living embodiment of the Japanese aesthetic of
, which finds beauty in simplicity, transience and imperfection. In addition to the temple itself, there are wonderful Zen gardens to explore: take the walking path past a meticulously raked sand garden with a huge cone representing Mt Fuji – a space said to have been created for moongazing – then meander through moss. gardens, small ponds and islands connected by stone bridges.
The alleyways of Kyoto’s geisha district (Gion) offer an atmospheric introduction to a timeless way of life © Juri Pozzi / Shutterstock
The city’s most famous geisha district, Gion, is an atmospheric maze of charming back streets and traditional townhouses. Geisha – known here as
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– still walk around the narrow lanes in immaculate kimonos and makeup, as they have been doing since the Edo period. On one level, it is a museum piece, but the interiors of many of the buildings have been transformed into art galleries, charming tea rooms and shops selling specialist local arts and crafts. Despite Gion’s fame, it is still the best place in Kyoto to escape the 21st century.
In a city blessed with fabulous food, it would be rude to pass on the refined and elegant experience of eating kaiseki cuisine.
Consists of a number of delicate, small courses, mostly vegetarian, served on delicate crockery and lacquerware – the preparation and service are as outstanding as the food itself. Diners are usually served in private rooms at specialty restaurants, such as the highly regarded Kikunoi, and many
Meals for guests. Prices can be steep when it comes to this Japanese haute cuisine, but it will be the meal of a lifetime.
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Gates creating a vermilion tunnel up the mountainside, Fushimi Inari Taisha is probably Kyoto’s most photogenic Shinto shrine. It is dedicated to Inari – the god of rice, good harvest and business success – and the gates are all gifts from individuals and companies, erected to encourage the gods to be generous with luck and prosperity (the black kanji characters indicate who donated each) . Nestled between the monumental gates are hundreds of miniature versions offered by those on smaller budgets. Foxes are believed to be messengers of Inari, so you’ll also find countless fox statues throughout the vast grounds. Head up the mountainside to escape the crowds that clog the lower levels.
Nishiki Market positively exudes the atmosphere of old Japan. You can really imagine what it was like here before someone decided to attach the word ‘super’ to the word ‘market’. For a break from Kyoto’s temple trail, wander through the stalls to discover some of the fascinating and sometimes bizarre ingredients that go into Japanese cuisine, and the tools used to prepare it. When you’ve had your fill of peeking through drums of slimy, shiny, slippery and spicy ingredients, try the finished product from one of the market’s street food stalls. Tempted to make your own? Go to Aritsugu for high-end cookware and knives as sharp as samurai swords.
While tourists descend on the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove like paparazzi snapping photos of a big-wig celebrity, nearby Ōkōchi Sansō sits out of the spotlight like a star waiting to be discovered. This charming estate is the former home of famous 1920s samurai film actor, Ōkōchi Denjirō, and its expansive gardens invite a long, lazy wander. There are good views from the top of the hill, and traditional tea is served
The name of this popular Buddhist temple translates as “pure water temple”, a nod to the sacred Otowa Falls. Pouring into the grounds of Kiyomizu-dera, the falls are divided into three sections, and drinking from them is said to grant either longevity, academic success, or luck in love depending on which stream you choose. For extra help in your love life, head to Jishu shrine behind the main hall. In front of it are two large stones, and walking between them with your eyes closed is said to bless you with true love. You’ll want to keep your eyes open on the temple’s wooden porch; it protrudes 13m above the mountainside, offering panoramic views over Kyoto.
Best Things To Do In Kyoto, Japan: Top Attractions To See
The district of Arashiyama is known for its enchanting 500 m long bamboo forest © Emma Shaw / Lonely Planet
The picturesque, temple-filled district of Arashiyama in the west of Kyoto is an attractive place to explore. Centered on the Togetsukyo bridge, this historic district is famous for its enchanting bamboo grove, where the air is cool and the light takes on a mysterious green hue. To get the most out of walking under its towering canopy of bamboo stalks, come here early in the morning, before the Instagrammers gather. Nearby is the magnificent Tenryū-ji temple, whose sprawling landscaped gardens perfectly embody the concept of
(borrowed landscape), co-opting nearby mountains into the design. The temple’s restaurant, Shigetsu, is a great place to try the traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine known as
Nijō Castle was the residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled Japan for 260 years © Pal Teravagimov / Shutterstock
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The imposing ramparts of Nijō-jō are a visual testament to the power of Japan’s old military leaders, the Tokugawa shoguns, and the magnificent palace buildings within testify to the shogun’s fabulous wealth. The Ninomaru palace and its luxurious rooms are open to the public to explore – a treasure trove of intricate carvings, stunning murals of animals and seasonal trees, and beautifully painted sliding doors. Some rooms have hidden rooms to hide bodyguards in, and are connected by “nightingale floors” that sing when stepped on, apparently to warn residents of intruders and murderers!
Boasting some of Japan’s best green tea, Kyoto is a great place to witness a matcha tea ceremony © Nishihama / Shutterstock
The fabled green teas of Kyoto are regarded as some of the highest quality teas in Japan, and possibly the world. The small town of Uji just south of Kyoto produces some of the best brews. The best way to try is to attend a traditional one
Tea ceremony; Camellia and En are two elegant teahouses where you can learn about Japanese tea history and etiquette, as well as how to make (and taste) the perfect cup. Alternatively, head to Ippodo tea shop or the bustling Nishiki Market if you’re looking for teas to take home. Take some too
The 18 Best Things To Do In Kyoto, Japan (2023 Update)
Carefully raked gravel representing rippling water, stylized arrangements of rocks, pruned trees, lush moss, dripping water – just one Zen garden would be enough to leave you feeling serene, but at Daitoku-ji you have a mini-world of them. This complex of wandering lanes and subtemples hides some of Kyoto’s most beautiful
(dry landscape) gardens. The compound also serves as the Rinzai Daitoku-ji school of Zen Buddhism headquarters – you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the city that feels quite meditative and atmospheric.
You could lose yourself for days among the shop-filled back streets of Kyoto – signs for shopaholics and anyone hoping to recreate elements of Japanese life at home. Hours can only be deleted in the
Boxes or stationery sections of Takashimaya and other luxury department stores, and Kyoto’s clothing stores sell everything from lavishly decorated kimonos to stylish costumes for cosplay. Once you discover the many traditional shops selling everything from lacquerware and eggshell fine ceramics to brilliant
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– these traditional Japanese inns have woven tatami mats on the floor, futons instead of beds, and an atmosphere that breathes from the walls. Kyoto at its best
Offer a sublime blend of fine Japanese cuisine, attentive staff who treat you as an honored guest, and beautiful rooms with gardens. You may have to give up private bathrooms,
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