[Special Edition] 30 Things to Do in Kyoto From the Standards to Hidden Gems
Kyoto is one of Japan’s leading tourist destinations. Many tourists find it almost impossible to come up with a proper sightseeing plan, as the region is overflowing with famous spots, including various shrines and temples. This article aims to solve their plight by introducing 30 activities in the region that both locals and foreign tourists highly recommend!
Where is Kyoto?
As a part of the Kansai region in western Japan, Kyoto neighbors Osaka and Nara. You can get to Kyoto Station in about 80 minutes via the JR Express “Haruka” if you are coming from Kansai International Airport, and in around 140 minutes by shinkansen (bullet train) if you are coming from Tokyo Station. In this guide, Kyoto will be divided into 10 areas, and the famous spots in each area will be showcased.
The area around Kyoto Station, which is considered as the gateway to the rest of Kyoto, is full of eating and drinking establishments, as well as lodging facilities. There is also a subway station and a bus terminal there, making it a great sightseeing base. There are two World Heritage Sites nearby - To-ji Temple and Nishi Hongwanji - as well as Kyoto Tower, which is the landmark of Kyoto.
Check Out the Goju-no-To at To-ji Temple
Formal name: Konkomyo Shitenno Kyoo-gokoku-ji Himitsudenpoin
Located inside the precincts of To-ji Temple, the wooden Goju-no-To (Five-storied Pagoda) has been a beloved symbol of Kyoto for many years. With a height of roughly 55m, it is also the tallest pagoda in Japan. The sight of it beautifully blending in with the background scenery, which changes every season, is quite famous all throughout Japan. If you plan to take a picture, do so in the afternoon, as the sun is right behind it in the morning. During the spring and fall, it is lit up at night.
Admission fee (Kondo and Kodo Halls): From 500 JPY/Adult, From 400 JPY/High school student, From 300 JPY/Child who is junior high school age or below
Go Souvenir Shopping at the Kyoto Station Building
This is a large commercial facility that contains everything from a hotel to restaurants and even a theater! This includes a plethora of souvenir stores that offer a rich lineup of Kyoto souvenirs, ranging from standard wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) like yatsuhashi (a type of cookie made from glutinous rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon) and Ajari mochi (dumplings with a sweet red bean paste filling), up to traditional handicrafts like Kiyomizu ware (handmade and hand painted pottery from Kyoto). It is annexed to the famous department store, Isetan, so you can check out trendy pieces of clothing whilst shopping. If you’re looking for Japan-made electronics and appliances, there are several consumer electronics stores like BIC Camera nearby.
Higashiyama and Gion
Higashiyama and Gion are spread out to the south of Sanjo-dori Avenue, which is in the eastern part of Kyoto City. Starting with the World Heritage Kiyomizu-dera Temple, these areas are home to so many famous temples and shrines that it’s almost impossible to explore them all in a single day! Gion, in particular, is enveloped in a lively atmosphere thanks to its rows of eating and drinking establishments, as well as souvenir shops. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a maiko (apprentice geisha)!
Take in the Beauty of Kiyomizu-dera Temple
This is an ancient temple that was built in 778. The platform of its Hondo (Main Hall), which juts off a cliff, presents a superb Kyoto-esque view. It is also a famous fall foliage spot in the autumn, as the silhouette of the Hondo is beautifully reflected among the deep red maple trees. The roughly 1,500 sakura (cherry blossom) trees planted around the temple’s grounds also make it a great hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot in the spring.
Admission fee (Hondo and Platform): 400 JPY/Adult, University and high school student, 200 JPY/Junior high school and elementary school student
Stroll Through the Approach to Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Around Kiyomizu-dera Temple, there are several slopes and alleys that are lined with restaurants and souvenir shops. Every road has a unique vibe. Kiyomizu-zaka, for example, is full of energy thanks to visiting tourists. On the other hand, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka have a unique vibe that’s incredibly particular to Kyoto. There are two other roads that are a little away from the main approach that are also worth checking out: Chawan-zaka, which is known as the birthplace of the high-end Kiyomizu ware, and Ishibe-koji, which is well-known for how beautifully its stonewalls and cobblestone paths blend together.
Don't Miss Out on Sanjusangendo's Senju Kannon!
Official name: Rengeo-in
Sanjusangendo is a temple that was built in 1164 at the wish of the retired emperor (due to abdication) of that time. Its wooden Hondo, which is registered as a national treasure, is the longest in Japan with a total length of 120m. Its majestic appearance is so splendid that it will surely grab your attention. Enshrined in the hall are 1,000 standing statues of Senju Kannon (1000-armed deity of mercy) surrounding a seated statue of Senju Kannon. The impressive display will take your breath away! Admission fee: 600 JPY/Adult, 400 JPY/High school and junior high school, 300 JPY/Child
See the Best Fall Foliage in Japan at Tofuku-ji Temple
Formal name: Enichisan Tofukuzenji
Home to the biggest monastery in Japan, this Zen temple’s grounds are where you can experience one of the best fall scenes in the country. Around mid-November, about 2,000 maple trees start changing colors, painting the temple in beautiful hues. The best spot to view the fall foliage from is Tsutenkyo, a bridge that goes over a mountain stream. The golden fall foliage is truly a sight to behold!
Admission fee (Tsutenkyo and Kaisando Hall): 400 JPY/Adult, 300 JPY/Junior high and elementary school student
※Tsutenkyo and Gaunkyo get especially crowded during the fall foliage season, so it may be prohibited to take photos then
Celebrate the Gion Festival at Yasaka Shrine
If you’ll be visiting Kyoto in the summer, make sure not to miss the Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri), which is one of the three biggest festivals in Japan! Organized by Yasaka Shrine, this is a month-long festival that takes place in July. Its main highlight is the Yamahoko Junko, which occurs on July 17 and 24. In this event, gorgeous yamahoko (floats), which are called “moving art museums” and weigh as much as 12t, are pulled and paraded around town by local residents. One of the most thrilling parts of this festival is the “tsuji-mawashi”, which is when the floats change direction at an intersection. People in charge of the music and those pulling the floats have to work together to change the direction of the floats. When they succeed, they are given a round of applause by spectators!
Walk Through Hanamikoji-dori While Clad in a Kimono
Hanamikoji-dori is a street that stretches north to south from Sanjo-dori up to the front of Kennin-ji Temple. Rows of charming buildings on both sides of the cobblestone road create an old-fashioned Japanese townscape.
Why not dress up in a kimono (traditional Japanese clothing) if you plan to explore Hanamikoji-dori? There are many shops in Gion that let you rent a kimono, including ones with staff who can speak English and Chinese, such as the famous Kyoto Kimono Rental Rei.
Be Amazed by the Twin Dragons Painting at Kennin-ji Temple
This is the oldest Zen temple in Japan, having been founded in 1202. It is full of sights to see, from three stunning gardens to multiple works of art, such as the national treasure, Fujin Raijinzu Byobu (folding screens bearing paintings of the Wind and Thunder deities). However, there’s one sight that many tourists claim is a must-see. Head to the temple’s Hatto (Lecture Hall) and look up at the ceiling to find it. It’s an impressive ink wash painting featuring two intertwined dragons!
Admission fee: 500 JPY/Adult, 300 JPY/High school and junior high school, 200 JPY/Elementary school, Free/Child who is younger than elementary school age
Worship at Yasui Konpiragu
This shrine is famous for “breaking off bad relationships and creating good ones”. It has an incredibly unique method of praying. First, after praying, you need to write your wish on a katashiro (substitution charm). Next, pass through the hole of the Enkiri Enmusubi Ishi (a megalith that will help you break off bad relationships and create good ones) while holding the katashiro. You must pass from the front to the back first to rid yourself of bad relationships, and then pass from the back to the front to build good ones. Lastly, stick the katashiro to the megalith. You can purchase a katashiro from the table on the left side of the monument.
Take in the Seasons at Shoren-in Temple's Beautiful Garden
Shoren-in temple is a high-ranking temple that’s known as one of the three monzeki (a kind of temple that’s led by a person of high status like the founder of a sect) of the Tendai sect. It contains gorgeous gardens that treat visitors to lovely seasonal views of nature. These gardens are illuminated at night during the spring and fall. Walking around the lit gardens is a magical experience!
Admission fee: 500 JPY/Adult, 400 JPY/High school and junior high school student, 200 JPY/Elementary school student
Special night-time admission fee: 800 JPY/Adult, 400 JPY/High school, junior high school, and elementary school student
Shijo Kawaramachi is one of Kyoto’s most prominent commercial areas. It is filled with shopping spots like Shinkyogoku Shotengai, streets filled with drinking establishments like Kiyamachi, and famous department stores, such as Daimaru and Takashimaya. Regardless of the time of day, it is always crowded with people.
Go Shopping at Teramachi-dori
Stretching from north to south, Teramachi-dori is a street filled with rows of temples, shrines, and historic sites. Its unique atmosphere is partially formed from the various specialty shops that call it their home, including ones that specialize in used books, antiques, and Buddhist ritual implements. If you’re looking to shop, head to Teramachi Kyogoku Shotengai, which is in-between Sanjo-dori and Shijo-dori, or to the nearby Shinkyogoku Shotengai. There are also a bunch of souvenir shops in the area that carry all sorts of goods. Examples include Kyoto Memory, which sells unique merchandise like ninja-related goods, and Kyowado, a store that mainly dabbles in Kyoto-esque items like yatsuhashi.
Eat and Tour Your Way Around Nishiki Ichiba Shotengai
Located a street north of Shijo-dori, this is a market spanning roughly 400m of space from west to east. Ever since it first opened about 400 years ago, it has been lovingly called “Kyoto’s Kitchen” for selling all sorts of food-related goods. The roughly 130 stores housed in this market sell not just ingredients, but also takeaway food. If you eat and tour your way through the market, you can savor various tastes. Examples of foods to try are the raw tuna carpaccio from Sengyo Kimura and the chocolate croquettes from Inoue Tsukudaniten.
Arashiyama and Sagano
Located in northwestern Kyoto City, this beautiful and scenic area extends in all directions from its core, Arashiyama Station. It used to be a holiday resort area for emperors and nobility back in the day. In present day, it is famous as one of the best fall foliage spots in Japan. It is also home to World Heritage Sites like Tenryu-ji Temple and Saiho-ji Temple (Koke-dera).
Ride a Rickshaw Over Togetsukyo
Togetsukyo is a bridge that’s about a minute’s walk from Arashiyama Station. It was designed to blend into the landscape of Arashiyama, creating gorgeous scenery made up of cherry blossoms in the spring and fall foliage in the autumn. Why not explore the area with an old-fashioned rickshaw (two-wheeled vehicle that’s pulled by a person)? You can board one at Togetsukyo Kitazume, which is the main boarding spot for rickshaws.
Stroll Through the Bamboo Grove Path
Walk around 12 minutes from Arashiyama Station and you’ll encounter a roughly 200m long path filled with rows of bamboo stalks. The never-ending greenery and the sound of rustling leaves in the wind create an extraordinary atmosphere. Together with Togetsukyo, it is one of Arashiyama’s most famous tourist spots. It is a great place to visit even on rainy days, as the color of the bamboo stalks when drenched in rain is equally as magical. Every December, this path is illuminated in the evening. Visit to see this different yet equally as fantastic sight for yourself!
Don't Miss Tenryu-ji Temple’s Garden!
Official name: Reikizan Tenryu Shiseizenji
Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the Kyoto Gozan, which are five of the highest-ranking Zen temples of the Rinzai sect in Kyoto. It is especially well-known for its Japanese garden, which was created using the “shakkei” method, wherein the landscape of Arashiyama was incorporated into its overall design. Many tourists recommend visiting during the spring for the cherry blossoms or in the fall to catch the changing colors of the leaves. You’ll be treated to a view that looks like it came straight out of a painting!
Gardens (Sogenchi and Hyakka-en) Admission Fee: 500 JPY/Person who is high school student age or older, 300 JPY/Junior high school and elementary school student, Free/Preschool student
Ride the Romantic Train
The Torokko Ressha (Romantic Train) has a nostalgic appearance and is powered by a diesel engine. It travels along Hozukyo Gorge for about 25 minutes one-way. Riding it will give you a glimpse of the beautiful Hozukyo Gorge from the train windows. The scenery is always amazing, with cherry blossoms in the spring, fall foliage in the autumn, and snow in the winter. You can purchase tickets for the train at major JR West stations or online. Note, however, that it may be difficult to procure tickets during the fall foliage season.
One-way fare: Adults: 620 JPY/Adult, Children: 310 JPY/Child
※These are flat rates
River Raft Down Hozugawa
This is an activity that you can enjoy at a mountain stream called “Hozugawa”. Relying solely on the expertise of the boatmen, you’ll have to traverse down a raging stream filled with large and oddly-shaped rocks in a small boat. Slipping through rocks and getting drenched in the splashing water are some of the thrilling experiences you can gain through this activity! A standard sightseeing plan for many tourists is to ride the Romantic Train to Kameoka, the boarding site for river rafts, and then river raft their way back to Arashiyama.
Sample fare (regular boat): 4,100 JPY/Adult, 2,700 JPY/Child (4 years old to elementary school age)
Savor Tofu Dishes at Arashiyama
Tofu, a healthy ingredient that is made by processing soybeans, is one of the specialties of Arashiyama. Despite what most people think, it actually comes in a variety of flavors and textures. For example, Saga Tofu from Saga Tofu Morika, a long-established shop with a history of over 150 years, is known for being particularly soft, smooth, and firm. If you want to eat some tofu, you’ll find many restaurants in the area that serve a variety of tofu dishes. For instance, Anju is a place where you can relish yudofu (boiled tofu) so soft, it literally melts in your mouth. There’s also Yudofu Takemura, which is famous for its Goma Dofu that fuses tofu with sesame seeds, as well as for its Yuzu Kamadofu, which is made by steaming tofu that’s been put into a hollowed-out yuzu (a type of Japanese citrus).
The Kinkaku-ji area is home to several World Heritage Sites, such as Kinkaku-ji Temple, Ryoan-ji Temple, and Ninna-ji Temple. These three temples are connected by a roughly 2.5km long road called “Kinukake no Michi”, making them easy to visit while strolling around. There are also other famous spots in the area, such as Kitano Tenmangu and Myoshin-ji Temple.
Visit Kinkaku-ji that Glitters in Golden Color
Official name: Rokuonji
This is one of Kyoto’s most iconic spots. It is popular for its Kinkaku, which is an outstanding pavilion covered in gold leaves. Nobody can stop themselves from taking a picture of the Kinkaku with the pond in front of it! The pavilion looks especially gorgeous when bathed in the light of the setting sun, so if you plan to visit this spot, come at dusk.
Admission fee: 400 JPY/Adult (high school age or older), 300 JPY/Junior high school and elementary school student
Gaze at the Ryoan-ji Temple's Rock Garden
This Zen temple is best known for its Hojo Teien, which is an internationally acclaimed rock garden. The best way to enjoy this exquisite garden, which consists of 15 rocks and white sand, is by taking your time and looking at it from different angles. What’s unique about it is that no matter the viewing angle or position, one of the rocks will always be hidden behind the other rocks. There is a theory claiming that this was purposefully done to create something incomplete yet beautiful - the true essence of Zen.
Admission fee: 500 JPY/Adult and high school student, 300 JPY/Junior high school and elementary school student
Worship at Kitano Tenmangu
This is the head shrine for the approximately 12,000 Tenjin shrines scattered all over Japan. It is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, the deity of learning. The main shrine is designed in a “gongen-zukuri” style, wherein the main hall and worship hall are connected through a passageway. Beautifully decorated with golden ornaments and elaborate carvings, this shrine has been designated as a national treasure. Although it possesses a wide array of attractions, one particular attraction that many tourists go to see is the Ichigan Joju no O-ushi-san. It is a cow statue that is believed to grant one wish if you rub it. Kitano Tenmangu is also famous for its seasonal scenery - plums in the spring, fresh verdure in the early summer, and fall foliage in the autumn.
Occupying the whole area north of Higashiyama and Gion, this area is home to the World Heritage Ginkaku-ji Temple and Heian Jingu Shrine, which has a majestic vermilion-lacquered main shrine. It is dotted with temples and shrines of varying sizes, as well as several cultural spots like zoos and art museums.
Explore the World of Wabi Sabi at Ginkaku-ji Temple
Official name: Higashiyama Jishoji
Alongside Kinkaku-ji Temple, this is known as one of the most famous temples in Kyoto. It is renowned for its Ginkaku (Kannon-den), which is a simple yet elegantly designed structure. A beautiful Japanese garden is sprawled around Ginkaku and the pond right in front of it. The main features of this garden are the Kogetsudai, which is a pile of sand shaped like a mountain, and a pile of cascading sand made to look like a staircase known as “Ginshadan”. These features are said to embody the Japanese aesthetic sense of “wabi sabi”, wherein one finds beauty in simplicity and imperfections.
Admission fee: 500 JPY/Adult and high school student, 300 JPY/Junior high school and elementary school student
Visit Nanzen-ji Temple
Official name: Zuiryozan Taiheikoku Nanzen Zenji
This is the most prestigious temple among the Kyoto Gozan. It is filled with must-see attractions, such as the massive Sanmon (main gate) and the Hojo Teian, which is a famous dry landscape garden. A popular place to take commemorative photos in Nanzen-ji Temple is the Suirokaku, which is an aqueduct that was built in 1888.
Hojo Teien admission fee: 500 JPY/Adult, 400 JPY/High school student, 300 JPY/Junior high school and elementary student
Enjoy the Jidai Matsuri at Heian Jingu Shrine
The Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) is a major festival that is held at Heian Jingu Shrine every October 22nd. During the festival, people dress up in costumes reflecting certain parts of Kyoto’s history and parade through the town. They can choose from eight different sections of Kyoto’s history. Around 2,000 people usually join this event, resulting in a parade that’s roughly 2km long. This spectacle is so grand that it is considered to be one of the top three biggest festivals in Kyoto! If you look at it from afar, you will be able to see the transitions in Kyoto’s history like as if you were gazing at a picture scroll.
This refers to the area surrounding Nijo-jo Castle, a World Heritage Site. Located right in the middle of town, it is near famous spots like Shinsen-en and Mibu-dera Temple. From this area, it is also easy to reach Arashiyama, as Shijo-Omiya Station on the Randen line is just a bit south of Nijo-jo Castle.
Take in the Beauty of Nijo-jo Castle
This castle used to be the Kyoto base of the Edo Bakufu, who were the samurai government during the Edo period (1603 - 1867). Most tourists come here to see the national treasure, Ninomaru Palace, which is believed to be elegantly decorated to display the power of the Edo shogunate. The partition walls inside the palace, of which there are over 3,000 of them, are also gorgeous and worth seeing. Their designs differ based on the role of the room, so it could be worth exploring several of them to see how the atmosphere of the room changes!
Admission fee: 600 JPY/Adult, 350 JPY/High school and junior high school student, 200 JPY/Elementary school student, Free/Child who is younger than elementary school age
This is the southern part of Kyoto City. It is home to Fushimi Inari Taisha, which is one of the top tourist spots in all of Japan. Aside from a string of temples and shrines, this area is also famous for sake (Japanese rice wine) brewing. One popular example of this is Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, where you can sample various sake.
Check Out 1,000 Torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha
This shrine has always been an incredibly popular spot in Kyoto. The secret behind its fame is the Senbon Torii, which comprises of a countless number of torii (shrine gates). The vermilion gates form a long tunnel in the midst of a deep green forest, creating a gorgeous view. Many people go home after seeing the torii and main shrine, but there are actually plenty of wayside shrines and temples at Mt. Inari, which is the mountain behind the main shrine. In total, it should take you around two hours to see everything at least once!
This nature-rich area is located in the mountains north of Kyoto City. One of the ways to get there is to ride the Eizan Electric Railway from Demachiyanagi Station. It is famous for being home to the popular Kurama-dera Temple and Kyoto’s oldest shrine, Kibune Jinja.
Dine by the River in the Summer
If you visit Kyoto in the summer, you must try “kawadoko ryori” in Kibune. This refers to food that is enjoyed on terrace seating by the kawadoko (riverbed), which is barely higher than the river’s surface. Thanks to the cool wind, the temperature is 10 degrees lower than Kyoto City, allowing diners to relax and enjoy the cool breeze even under the scorching sun. Kaiseki (multicourse meals) served in trays are the staple menu at these sort of establishments. They are usually made up of refreshing dishes that incorporate ingredients such as the local fish from the river, edible wild plants, and various seasonal ingredients. Kawadoko establishments are usually open from May to late September, but since they’re so popular with both tourists and locals, you should book well in advance.
This refers to the scenic area that is right next to the south of Kyoto City. It used to house the villas of nobility long ago, but now, it is dotted with famous spots. Examples include two World Heritage Sites: Byodo-in Temple and Ujigami Jinja.
Visit Byodo-in Temple
Built in 1052, Byodo-in Temple is an iconic Uji sightseeing spot. One particularly famous attraction of this temple is the Hoo-do (Phoenix Hall), which is a national treasure that was built on top of an island in the center of a massive pond. In fact, it’s so well known that it was even used as the design on Japan’s 10-yen coin! It looks like a phoenix with its wings spread out, and its vibrant vermilion color is beautifully reflected on the surface of the pond. This temple is home to several other treasures, such as the Statue of Seated Amida Nyorai - another national treasure that is said to be the ideal image of a Buddhist statue.
Admission fee:600 JPY/Adult, 400 JPY/High school and junior high school student, 300 JPY/Elementary school student
Eat Matcha Sweets in Uji
Uji is a famous production area for Uji tea, which is a kind of high-end green tea known for its sophisticated aroma. Naturally, it has a lot of popular establishments that make and sell sweets that use matcha (powdered green tea). One particular store that’s incredibly popular with tourists is Itoh-Kyuemon Uji Honten Sabo. It uses generous amounts of matcha in its parfaits and Bavarian cream. Its wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), such as anmitsu (cubed agar agar jelly, fresh fruits, and sweet bean paste drizzled with syrup) and zenzai (red bean soup), also incorporate plenty of matcha.
Average budget: 800 JPY (1,000 JPY for lunch)
Foreign language menus: English and Chinese (simplified and traditional)
Aside from the spots featured above, Kyoto is dotted with a lot of other famous sights, such as the World Heritage Daigo-ji Temple and Shimogamo Shrine. If you want to explore a particular spot in this article, why not build your travel itinerary around it?
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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