Kyoto is in many ways the cultural and historical heart of Japan. UNESCO has enshrined a massive 17 of the city’s monuments into a World Heritage Site – describing them as the “highest expression” of the development of Japanese architecture and garden design between the 8th and 17th centuries.
Even if you don’t have much interest in history, the city’s temples, shrines and streets still hold an undeniable beauty and appeal.
From vivid orange torii gates to shining pagodas, read on for a few of my favourite things to do in Kyoto!
1. Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine
Perhaps one of the most recognisable and photogenic shrines in all of Japan, Fushimi Inari is distinctive for the countless orange torii that weave their way up Mount Inari.
I found it really remarkable to behold. There are plenty of crowds towards the bottom of the mountain, so be prepared to have to work to get a photo without anyone else in it. If you have the patience and energy to climb all the way to the top, though, you’ll be rewarded with far fewer people and tons of photo opportunities.
It’s quite the climb though, and really wore me out. I’d recommend taking water with you, and tempering your expectations. While there is the occasional viewpoint with aerial views of the city, besides this and the torii there’s not there’s not a great deal to see. At the very top there’s a shrine and signs that say “top of the mountain”, but that’s it.
2. Higashiyama District
The Higashiyama District is a historic area with picturesque wooden buildings lining the streets. It’s absolutely perfect for strolling around and window shopping.
We began our morning at Kiyomizudera temple and then wandered on foot down Sannenzaka, Ninenzaka and then on to Nene-no-Michi Lane.
I’m honestly not sure what I enjoyed more, the photogenic streets and shop fronts or browsing what was inside the shops. There were so many beautiful items on display – dangerous when you’re backpacking and trying to keep your belongings to a minimum! If you’re after souvenirs of Japan, I’d definitely recommend looking in some of the shops in Higashiyama.
3. The Golden Pavilion / Kinkakuji Buddhist Temple
Admission: ¥400 (approx. $3.80 USD | £3.10 )
This shining beacon of a pavilion is a magnet for tourists (us among them) and rightly so.
I’ll admit, besides the building itself there’s actually very little to see, and sadly you can’t actually get inside. The surrounding stroll garden is pleasant, but nothing outstanding, so you’re really paying just to join the crowd and admire that gilded exterior.
But if you’re anything like me, the beauty of the pavilion is enough that it’s still worthwhile. When the sun hits and illuminates the golden walls…wow!
4. Daisenin (a sub-temple of Daitokuji Buddhist Temple)
Admission: ¥400 (approx. $3.80 USD | £3.10 )
Apologies for the lack of photos here. I knew in advance that photography wasn’t allowed at this little temple but from what I’d heard it seemed a worthwhile visit. Besides, as much as I love to capture places through a lens, sometimes I think I can become too preoccupied with getting a good photo and forget to be present.
We took an information board at the entrance, which effectively constituted a self-guided tour. It contained so many details about the symbolism and images — rocks, gravel and plants signified water, animals and islands. We were captivated. I doubt we could have experienced the garden so fully had we been focussed on our viewfinders!
5. Day trip to Arashiyama
West of Kyoto is Arashiyama, famous for its towering bamboo grove. We spent half a day there, beginning with a short but steep climb up Mount Arashiyama (bring walking shoes!) to reach Iwatayama Monkey Park and some sweeping views over the city…
Getting to Arashiyama
We used our JR passes and caught the Sagano Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station, which was a short walk to the Togetsukyo Bridge and the central shopping area. For other means of transport see Japan Guide.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Admission: ¥550 (approx. $5.15 USD | £4.25 ). Food for the monkeys costs around ¥100 per bag.
I’m averse to zoos and other settings where animals are caged or enclosed, but in this park the many gorgeous macaque monkeys are wild — they roam free, coming and going as they like to the area open to the public.
In fact if a person wants to feed them they have to enter a cage like building to do so!
In this way the macaques know that they will be fed from one specific place, meaning they won’t seek food from bystanders in other areas. Obviously there’s no guarantee you’ll avoid attention from them, though. At one point during our visit, a baby macaque grabbed onto a lady’s leg with earnest.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
After Iwatayama Monkey Park, we visited the Tenryuji Temple briefly and then headed for the part of Arashiyama I was most intrigued to see – the bamboo grove.
It was a little different than I’d expected – the grove wasn’t that big, and sadly you aren’t allowed to enter the bamboo forest itself as there are fences either side of the path. But if you raise your eyes up to the towering bamboo canopy, you can feel the busyness of the crowds melt away as you take in the beauty of the swaying, sky-scraping stems.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you visited Kyoto before? What were your highlights?
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