Top Things to Do in Kyoto

Table of contents:

Top Things to Do in Kyoto

Ready to learn more about Top Things to Do in Kyoto?

Venturing into Kyoto’s streets, I felt like I had stepped back in time, surrounded by a seamless mix of historic traditions and modern life. This city, known for striking a perfect balance between past and present, offers a myriad of unforgettable activities.

Delving into the majestic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, one can’t help but be in awe of its towering stalks that sway gently in the wind, a sight often recommended by travel enthusiasts and cultural experts alike for its otherworldly beauty. Participating in a traditional tea ceremony is another must-do in Kyoto, providing a tranquil experience that deepens one’s appreciation for Japanese culture and its meticulous rituals, a practice revered for centuries.

Kyoto is not just about picturesque landscapes and cultural practices; it’s a city that tells the story of Japan’s rich history through its well-preserved temples, shrines, and gardens. Each site, from the iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine with its thousands of vermilion torii gates to the tranquil Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion, offers a unique glimpse into the country’s artistic and spiritual heritage. These places are not just tourist destinations; they are integral to understanding the philosophical and aesthetic values that shape Japanese culture.

For those looking to immerse themselves further into Kyoto’s vibrant culture, the Gion district presents an opportunity to possibly catch a glimpse of a geiko (geisha) or maiko (apprentice geisha) on their way to engagements. This area, known for its traditional wooden machiya houses, offers a rare insight into the elusive world of geisha and is often highlighted by cultural commentators for its authenticity and significance in Japanese tradition.

In a city that champions the coexistence of tradition and innovation, the culinary scene in Kyoto is another aspect that should not be missed. From tasting kaiseki, a traditional multi-course meal that emphasizes seasonality and artful presentation, to exploring the Nishiki Market for local specialties, Kyoto’s food landscape offers a rich tapestry of flavors and experiences, underscoring the city’s deep-rooted connection to seasonal changes and local produce.

Exploring Kyoto, with its rich tapestry of cultural offerings, scenic beauty, and culinary delights, is like unfolding the pages of a living history book. Each visit reveals layers of Japan’s heritage, making it an essential destination for those seeking to understand the heart and soul of Japanese culture.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto is renowned for its captivating path lined with thousands of vermilion torii gates that wind through a mystical forest. This shrine isn’t just a testament to Kyoto’s deep historical roots and cultural traditions but also offers a unique and unforgettable experience for its visitors.

To truly enjoy Fushimi Inari Shrine, it’s recommended to visit early in the morning. This way, you can avoid the crowds and soak in the peaceful ambiance. As you begin your journey through the striking torii gates, you’ll encounter quaint shrines, stone sculptures of foxes, and small torii gates. Climbing to Mount Inari’s summit is challenging, but the stunning views and the feeling of achievement are definitely worth the effort.

Visiting during the cherry blossom season is particularly magical. The vibrant orange of the torii gates set against the soft pink cherry blossoms creates a breathtaking and serene atmosphere. This period highlights the shrine’s beauty and peacefulness, offering an unforgettable visual experience.

Take time to observe the traditional architecture and the detailed craftsmanship of the buildings as you explore the shrine. The vivid red torii gates symbolize protection and prosperity, presenting a magnificent sight.

Gion and Higashiyama

Strolling through the vibrant streets of Gion and Higashiyama, I find myself immersed in a realm rich with heritage and history. Gion, celebrated for its deep-rooted geisha tradition, offers an intimate look into the fascinating lives of these iconic performers. It’s a place where the art of entertainment, honed over centuries, comes alive in the elegant dances and performances of the geisha. On the other hand, the historical district of Higashiyama is a haven of peace amid the hustle and bustle of city life. Here, ancient temples stand as testaments to architectural brilliance and spiritual solace, with their detailed designs and serene gardens.

Gion’s evenings are especially magical, with lanterns lighting up the narrow alleys and the chance encounters with geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) in their exquisite kimonos adding to the allure. This district’s unique atmosphere isn’t just about entertainment; it’s a living museum of Japanese culture and etiquette, providing a window into the meticulous care and respect that underpin Japanese society.

Meanwhile, Higashiyama’s temples, such as the famous Kiyomizu-dera, renowned for its wooden stage that offers breathtaking views of cherry blossoms in spring or vibrant red leaves in autumn, invite contemplation and a deeper understanding of Japan’s religious practices. The area’s cobblestone streets, lined with traditional tea houses and artisan shops, offer a tactile sense of history, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience the cultural heart of Kyoto.

Geisha Culture in Gion

Dive into the heart of Kyoto’s geisha culture by visiting the iconic districts of Gion and Higashiyama. These areas are celebrated for their deep-rooted history and are the epicenter of geisha traditions.

Wandering through Gion’s streets, particularly Gion Shijo, you’ll find yourself surrounded by beautifully preserved wooden machiya (townhouses), which together with the cobblestone paths, offer a glimpse into a bygone era. Gion is renowned as the heart of Kyoto’s geisha world, where the chance to see geishas or their apprentice maikos in their exquisite attire is higher, especially along the famed Hanamikoji Street.

To enrich your experience, consider participating in a tea ceremony, which is a quintessential part of Japanese culture and provides deeper insights into the meticulous art that geishas master as part of their profession.

Moreover, the seasonal beauty of Kyoto adds to the allure of visiting these districts. Maruyama Park, known for its spectacular cherry blossoms, becomes a prime viewing spot during spring. Similarly, the weeping cherry tree at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, is a sight to behold and symbolizes the transient beauty that Japanese culture so often celebrates.

Historical Temples in Higashiyama

Tucked away in the captivating districts of Gion and Higashiyama, Kyoto’s landscape is dotted with ancient temples, each telling its own story of the city’s cultural heritage. Let’s explore three of these historical sites in Higashiyama that are essential for any visitor:

  1. Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion): Known for its informal name, the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji stands as a pinnacle of Zen Buddhism architecture and garden design. Unlike its name suggests, the pavilion isn’t covered in silver but is celebrated for its subtle beauty and the meticulously maintained dry sand garden, which contrasts with the surrounding moss and trees. The approach to Ginkaku-ji is via the Philosophers Path, a path that encourages a reflective journey through nature, enhancing the experience of tranquility.
  2. Kiyomizu-dera Temple: Elevated on the slopes of Otowa Mountain, this temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famed for its wooden stage that juts out from the main hall, offering breathtaking views of the city. Remarkably, this structure was built without a single nail, showcasing the sophistication of traditional Japanese carpentry. The temple grounds burst into color with cherry blossoms in spring and vibrant leaves in autumn, making it a picturesque spot year-round.
  3. Chion-in Temple: Known for its monumental structures, such as the massive Sanmon gate and the spacious main hall, Chion-in serves as the head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism. The temple grounds and gardens offer a peaceful retreat and a chance to ponder the spiritual depth of the site. The immense bell, rung during New Year’s eve, adds to the temple’s allure, creating a profound connection with tradition.

Visiting these temples in Higashiyama not only allows one to appreciate Kyoto’s aesthetic beauty but also provides insight into the spiritual and historical essence that has shaped Japan. Each temple, with its unique features and stories, contributes to the rich tapestry of Kyoto’s heritage, offering visitors a serene escape and a deeper understanding of Japanese culture.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Nestled on the slopes of a picturesque hill, Kiyomizu-dera Temple stands as a testament to the breathtaking beauty of Kyoto. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this temple isn’t just a visual treat but a journey into the spiritual heart of Japan.

Its main hall, an architectural marvel, is constructed entirely without nails, showcasing the extraordinary craftsmanship of ancient builders.

The Otowa waterfall, nestled within the temple grounds, offers a unique experience. Visitors partake in the tradition of drinking its waters, believed to bring good fortune, connecting them to a practice that has been alive for centuries. This ritual enriches the temple’s spiritual ambiance, making every sip a moment of reflection.

Kiyomizu-dera is more than its views and architectural brilliance. The temple grounds feature a striking red three-storey pagoda and a serene forest, providing a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle. Additionally, the temple is renowned for its nighttime illuminations during March, April, and November. These events bathe the temple in ethereal light, highlighting its beauty and creating an unforgettable atmosphere.

Exploring Kyoto means immersing yourself in its history and culture, and Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a cornerstone of that experience. Alongside other historic sites like Yasaka Shrine, Nijo Castle, Heian Shrine, Fushimi Inari, and Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kiyomizu-dera offers a deep dive into the rich tapestry of Kyoto’s heritage. Its unparalleled beauty, combined with a rich history and unique traditions, makes it an essential visit for anyone wanting to understand the heart of Kyoto.

The Philosopher’s Path

Exploring Kyoto led me to the captivating Philosopher’s Path, a scenic walkway adorned with cherry trees that stretches between Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji temples. This 2-kilometer path is a highlight for any visitor to Kyoto, and here’s why:

Firstly, the path offers a profound connection with nature. Its tranquil environment, especially during cherry blossom season, provides a stunning visual feast and a much-needed retreat from the bustling city life. Walking along the canal, surrounded by the gentle pink of cherry blossoms, allows for a moment of reflection and peace.

Secondly, the journey along the Philosopher’s Path is a deep dive into Kyoto’s cultural heritage. Starting at Nanzen-ji Temple, with its impressive Zen Buddhist architecture, and ending at Ginkaku-ji Temple, the famed Silver Pavilion, visitors can experience firsthand the historical depth and architectural beauty that Kyoto is renowned for. These sites encapsulate centuries of Japanese history, offering insights into the spiritual and aesthetic values that have shaped the nation.

Lastly, the path isn’t just a feast for the eyes but also the palate. Scattered along the route are quaint cafes and eateries, offering a chance to sample local cuisine. There’s even a vegetarian restaurant close by, ensuring that all dietary preferences are accommodated. These culinary stops add another layer of enjoyment to the walking tour, allowing visitors to taste the local flavors that make Kyoto cuisine unique.

Visiting the Philosopher’s Path, whether by daylight or in the enchanting evening when lights illuminate the path, is an immersive experience. It’s an opportunity to engage with the natural beauty, cultural richness, and delicious tastes of Kyoto. So, put on your walking shoes and set off on a memorable journey that promises to engage all your senses.

Nanzen-ji Temple

As I make my way toward the Nanzen-ji Temple, the serene beauty of its Zen gardens immediately captures my attention. These gardens are a masterpiece of Japanese landscape design, with every stone and plant meticulously placed to evoke a sense of calm and balance. It’s clear that the creators of these gardens had a deep understanding of Zen principles, aiming to reflect the tranquility and simplicity of the mind in their design.

The architecture of Nanzen-ji Temple is no less remarkable. The temple buildings, with their imposing structures and elaborate decorations, stand as a testament to Kyoto’s rich cultural heritage and the exceptional skill of its craftsmen. The temple complex, established in the late 13th century, serves not only as a place of worship but also as a historical monument that tells the story of Japanese Buddhism and its influence on the country’s art and architecture.

Walking through the temple grounds, it’s easy to appreciate why Nanzen-ji is considered one of Kyoto’s most prestigious Zen temples. Its blend of natural beauty and architectural splendor offers a unique window into the spiritual and aesthetic values that have shaped Japanese culture for centuries. This experience is further enriched by knowing that the temple has been a center of Zen practice and education, attracting monks and laypeople alike who seek to deepen their understanding of Zen teachings.

Zen Gardens

The Zen Gardens at Nanzen-ji Temple stand out as a peaceful haven, and here’s why.

Firstly, the serene beauty of these gardens instantly wraps you in tranquility. The arrangement of rocks, the patterned gravel, and the simple yet profound landscaping combine to form a peaceful atmosphere. This setting not only pleases the eye but also encourages you to slow down, breathe deeply, and connect with a peaceful state of mind.

Moreover, these gardens serve as a source of spiritual inspiration. Designed with meditation and self-reflection at their core, every detail in the garden—from the placement of stones to the selection of plants—is intentional, aiming to foster contemplation and a deeper bond with the natural world. As you stroll through, the tranquil environment facilitates a profound engagement with the spiritual ethos that influenced their creation.

Additionally, the Zen Gardens offer an escape from the hustle and bustle. In contrast to crowded spots like the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Nishiki Market, this space provides a quiet spot for rejuvenation. It’s a place where solitude can be embraced, allowing visitors to unwind and refresh.

Experiencing the Zen Gardens at Nanzen-ji Temple is to immerse yourself in an environment that epitomizes beauty and tranquility. It’s a journey towards serenity, offering a unique blend of aesthetic harmony, spiritual enrichment, and a quiet retreat from the busy world outside.

Temple Architecture

Exploring the tranquil Zen Gardens is just the beginning of your journey at Nanzen-ji Temple. Nestled in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, this temple is a treasure trove of architectural wonders, easily reachable from Kyoto Station or Shijo Station.

As you step closer to Nanzen-ji Temple, its majestic main gate welcomes you, leading to expansive grounds that are a testament to the sophistication of Japanese temple architecture. The temple’s wooden structures blend harmoniously with its serene rock gardens, showcasing the refined aesthetic of Japanese design.

Make sure to visit the Sanmon gate and the Hojo building, where the mastery of traditional Japanese architecture is on full display. The main hall’s grandeur and the unique aqueduct running through the temple grounds are particularly striking, each element adding to the overall beauty of the site.

Surrounded by lush bamboo groves, Nanzen-ji Temple sits near other iconic Kyoto sites like the Yasaka Pagoda and Ginkaku-ji Temple, making it a must-visit for anyone interested in architecture and the rich cultural tapestry of Kyoto.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto stands out as a breathtaking natural landmark, inviting visitors with its tranquil and mystical ambiance. Upon entering this verdant sanctuary, the sight of the soaring bamboo stalks, dancing gracefully with the wind, immediately captivated me.

Here’s why the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove should top your Kyoto itinerary:

  1. Serenity: The experience of walking through the bamboo grove is akin to stepping into a different world. The sound of the leaves rustling in the wind, coupled with the dappled sunlight peering through the thick bamboo canopy, crafts an environment of peace and calm. It serves as an ideal retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life, offering a moment of reflection and inner tranquility.
  2. Visual Appeal: For photography enthusiasts, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove presents a unique opportunity. The bamboo’s towering and orderly rows create a visually stunning pattern that’s both enchanting and distinct. Capturing its essence through the lens, the grove reveals its beauty in photos that are even more striking than one might anticipate, making it an unparalleled subject for both amateur and professional photographers.
  3. Accessibility to Other Attractions: Nestled in Kyoto’s western district, the bamboo grove isn’t only a standalone attraction but also a gateway to exploring the rich cultural tapestry of the area. After meandering through the bamboo, I found myself visiting the renowned Ginkaku-ji Temple, or Silver Pavilion, located just a short distance away. The neighborhood also boasts a variety of quaint cafes and eateries where I indulged in the local gastronomy, further enriching my experience with the local culture and vibrancy.

The allure of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove lies in its ability to embody the essence of nature’s tranquility and beauty. It stands as a testament to the serene and rejuvenating experience that nature offers, making it an essential visit for those seeking solace and inspiration amidst natural splendor.

Nishiki Market

Tucked away in Kyoto’s vibrant heart, Nishiki Market stands as a beacon for food enthusiasts. This iconic food market, stretching across five blocks, offers more than just a shopping experience; it’s a deep dive into Kyoto’s culinary heritage.

As you meander through the market, the plethora of fresh seafood, aromatic spices, and vivid produce captures your senses. It’s a place where local izakaya and sushi restaurant chefs scout for premium ingredients, ensuring their dishes are of unparalleled quality.

Sampling the local cuisine is an adventure here. You might find yourself enjoying the unique flavors of fried tofu dumplings or the rich taste of black sesame ice cream, each offering a glimpse into Kyoto’s diverse food scene. But Nishiki Market is more than a feast for the palate; it’s a doorway to understanding Kyoto’s cultural fabric. A brief stroll could lead you to ancient temples and shrines, echoing Japan’s storied past. You may even spot a geisha, adding a touch of elegance to your exploration.

For those eager to delve deeper into the culinary arts of Kyoto, Nishiki Market provides cooking classes where traditional recipes are shared, allowing you to bring a piece of Kyoto back home. The market is surrounded by cozy restaurants, perfect for unwinding and reflecting on the day’s discoveries.

Nishiki Market is a culinary treasure within Kyoto, offering visitors a taste of the city’s rich food culture set against a backdrop of historical landmarks and tranquil gardens. It’s an essential visit for anyone wanting to experience the essence of Kyoto through its food.

Did you like reading about the Top Things to Do in Kyoto?
Share blog post:

Read the complete travel guide of Kyoto

Related articles about Kyoto