Kyoto is one of the most unique cities of Japan and has a number of landmarks and districts that are imperative to see. I’ve put together seven of the most notable locations that are must-sees when in Kyoto. If you’ve found another that I didn’t include in the list, I’d love to hear it in the comments!
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari is known as the trail with the thousands of vermilion gates: a trail that leads to the top of Mount Inari through a forested area, meeting Shinto shrines along the way through a path of many, many torii gates. Arriving early morning (we got here at 6:30 am) is really necessary to be able to avoid the crowds of tourists waiting to snap their photos. The closest stations are Fushimi-Inari and Inari stations. It was a 20 minute walk/light hike from the train to our first torii gates after passing the taisha. We accidentally went the wrong way, reaching our first torii gate at a higher elevation than the main entrance, but this hardly affected our experience and time here. The true entrance will have shorter gates and two paths: the right to go in and the left to come out. We did climb all the way to the top, (it’s a 30 minute loop from the second base of the path) but in our opinion it wasn’t worth it. The main attraction is everywhere in between the taisha and the second base. If you go slow, 1-2 hours is all you need!
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama bamboo forest or grove on the west edge of Kyoto is also a highly popular site and requires another early wakeup if you care to get your photos in. It’s a 10-15 minute walk from Arashiyama station and the walk path in the grove is much shorter than we expected, so we only spent 20 minutes here taking in the view of the tall bamboo trees. The time is short but so worth the train ride out.
Gion & Higashimaya Districts
I could probably write a whole piece on the old part of Kyoto. Situated east of the Yamo River, this is a VERY touristy part of the city, because it’s what Kyoto is known for: the traditional Japanese streets with shops and restaurants everywhere. You might even want to take a full day to journey through these streets and hit up popular spots like Gion Tatsumi Bridge, Yasaka Shine in Maruyama Park, and the famous Hokanji Temple which is perfect to catch at sunset or sunrise. Next time we’re in Kyoto, we’re definitely spending a lot more time here.
Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple
Open 9:00 – 17:00
The Golden Pavilion is a Zen temple that is best known for its top two floors being completely covered in gold leaf. As one of the most famous temples in Japan, expect to see a lineup when entering the gate. The doors open at 9 am daily, but I would recommend getting there 15-20 minutes early, enjoy the park in its surroundings (and grab an on-the-spot hot coffee or match latte at the vending machine perhaps), so that you don’t get stuck in the crowd of people trying to get photos of the temple. It’s a short stay within the grounds of the temple and we only spent 20 or so minutes walking around the gardens surrounding it. Note that entrance into the temple is not permitted! There are different ways to arrive at Kinkaku-ji, but as we were coming from Arashiyama that day, we took the JR to Emmachi station and then a bus to Kinkakujimichi. Google Maps is your best friend when finding the best routes to your destinations!
500¥ – 800¥ (depending on season)
8:00 – 17:00
Just a 15 minute walk from Kyoto station, this temple should definitely be on your list of landmarks to see. The walk around the main grounds is completely free but there is an admissions fee to enter the area where they have the temple, garden and market. Yes, it’s beautiful to check out the temple from a closer range, but the photos we took were actually from the outside! You can easily spend 30 minutes seeing Toji Temple, if not less. If you’re planning on sticking around the area, you can also check out the Kyoto Aquarium and Kyoto Tower which are in walking distance of the train station.
Imperial Palace & Gyoen
9:00 – 17:00
Entering the grounds from the NW, you’ll find yourself at a security check-in with many staff members, and you’ll be handed a visitor’s lanyard after you get through. There are also scheduled guided tours for different languages and an indoor seating area to wait for the tour. To our surprise, this was all free of charge, but we decided to go in on our own instead of waiting for a tour. The park is grand and has two main palace grounds: the Imperial Palace and the Sento Palace. Coming from the NW entrance, you’ll be directed to the Imperial Palace as well as the Gyoen National Garden. Honestly, the palaces were a little bit disappointing but the garden was stellar. Unfortunately, you can only walk on the outskirts of the garden and can’t get onto any of the cute bridges across the pond, but with a free pass, it wasn’t a bother at all. We spent about 30-45 minutes here before we headed to the Sento Palace entrance. Sadly, the second palace (SE side of the property) can only be entered with a guided tour, which require reservations and are very infrequent, so we decided to forego this one.
8:30 – 17:30
Byodo-in is in fact in the city of Uji, SE of Kyoto, but in Japan cities are built so close together that the distance between them feels negligible. The temple is a 5-10 minute walk from Uji station and we spent about 45 minutes in the temple grounds. The temple is beautiful and has a decently large footprint. The entrance fee is quite high but it includes access to the museum and there’s a tea salon in the property as well. Much like Kinkaku-ji, you spend your time walking clockwise around the temple and checking out the garden and views of the temple from different angles.
Kyoto still has so much to see and do apart from the seven places I mentioned. Nishiki Market makes one of them, as well as venturing in the busy downtown modern streets or the narrow ones by the small rivers where you’ll be able to find the famous Kichi Kichi Omurice! We spent only 3 days here with tons of walking, and we found that wasn’t nearly enough for a true Kyoto experience.
All photos are taken by Jason Meng Visuals (@jasonmengvisuals) and edited by yours truly.