Once the capital city of the powerful Japanese empire, Kyoto is now a popular tourist destination located in the southern-central region of the large island of Honshu. Known as one of Japan’s greatest ancient cities, Kyoto is a booming cultural center full of beautifully ornate shrines and temples, historic landmarks, sprawling bamboo forests, lively theater performances, and delicious cuisine. The city is unique in that it largely avoided the bombing destruction of World War II; therefore, it is one of the few cities in the country that has been able to maintain several of its prewar buildings and historical sites. Kyoto’s cultural importance has drawn visitors to its city for years, and its rich historical, cultural, and culinary traditions make this city an ideal spot to soak in all the best that Japan has to offer. Keep reading below to see the best things to do in Kyoto, Japan!
1. Climb up to the Fushimi Inari Shrine
Settled upon a scenic hilltop in southern Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari shrine is a 1,300-year-old Shinto temple dedicated to Inari, the deity of rice and sake (rice wine). While there are about 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is special due to the beautiful 2 and ½ mile path lined with gorgeous red and orange torii gates that lead all the way up to the mountaintop shrine. You could spend a full day wandering through the mountain trails, taking in the gorgeous vistas of the city below, and exploring the vast network of decorative shrines.
2. Visit the Kiyomizu Temple
Part of Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kiyomizu-dera is ancient Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto surrounded by stunning cherry trees (which are especially beautiful when in bloom in the Spring months). The Kiyomizu Temple is not only beautiful, it is also famous for being shrouded in magic and mystery. Within the complex is the Jishu Shrine, an ornate temple dedicated to the goddess of love, and ancient legend has it that if you walk with your eyes closed through the two stone pillars located outside of the shrine, you will find your one true love. The temple is also located next to the beautiful Ottowa Waterfall, which is divided into three streams that represent longevity, academic success, and love, respectively. Drink from the stream that holds your deepest desire, and see if it comes true!
3. Explore Nijo Castle
Constructed in 1603 for the samurai lord and shogun (feudal military leader) Tokugawa leyasu, Nijo Castle is arguably the best surviving example of palace architecture from the feudal era of Japanese history. Located in Central Kyoto, this gleaming white structure full of ornate wood carvings was used as the leyasu’s exclusive palace and was only open to Japan’s highest ranking leaders. Today, Nijo Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and open to the public to explore this amazing piece of history.
4. Wander through the district of Gion
Gion is the city’s most famous district for entertainment, historical landmarks, and traditional arts. The neighborhood is full of historic tea houses, Japanese haute cuisine restaurants, shops that sell antiques and local crafts, lively theaters and dancing, and traditional Japanese guest houses. Yet, Gion is perhaps most widely recognized as being the city’s Geisha district. Contrary to the popular Western idea of geishas as Japanese ‘escorts,’ geishas are actually entertainers who are held in very high esteem in Japanese culture. These women are famous for performing the ancient traditions of art, dance, and music; yet, they are so much more than just performers: they are the gatekeepers of traditional Japanese culture. Training from a young age in ancient Japanese artistry and music, geishas are living examples of Japanese cultural history. Extravagantly dressed in colorful kimonos, traditional makeup, and wooden sandals, these women perform in various theaters throughout the Gion neighborhood. If you are looking for a taste of true, authentic Japanese culture, then these performances are a must-see!
5. Taste the Delicious Flavors at Nishiki Market
Nishiki market is an iconic experience for anyone traveling to Kyoto. This five-block-long covered market is filled with over 100 stalls, all of which sell Japanese specialties that are probably pretty unfamiliar to the North American pallet (but isn’t that the point?!). Wandering through the market is a fantastic way to sample local foods: start with some authentic green tea and rice balls, and work your way up to dried kelp, stuffed squid, and tofu ice cream.
6. Spend a day in Arashiyama
Located on the western edge of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a lovely neighborhood surrounded by mountains and cherry trees. The most iconic landmark in this area is the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, a historic wooden bridge built in 1934 that spans the Katsura River. Many visitors like to walk the bridge, but renting a bike is another great option, as both ends of the long bridge have several gardens, shops, and restaurants to explore. During your time in Arashiyama, you also must take a long stroll through the famous, towering bamboo groves and pay a special visit to the Monkey Park Iwatayama, which is home to a troupe of over 130 Japanese snow monkeys!
7. Participate in a Traditional Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony was born in Kyoto, so participating in this ancient tradition is a ‘must-do’ when visiting the city. There are several traditional tea houses in Kyoto, and some of the most famous are in the Gion neighborhood (see #4). These tea houses are the perfect places to experience the calm, graceful tea ceremony and taste the lively, aromatic flavors of authentic, locally-grown Japanese tea.
8. Experience the Zen Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple
Recognized as one of the finest examples of Zen landscaping in all of Japan, Ryoanji draws hundreds of visitors every day to its famous Rock Garden, which consists of 15 rocks scattered across an expanse of raked white gravel. The garden is a puzzle, and its true meaning is open to the interpretation of the beholder. The temple grounds also include an idyllic 1,000 year old pond lined with lily pads and gorgeous walking trails. Pair a trip to the temple with a visit to the Golden Pavilion, a gorgeous Buddhist temple swathed in gold and surrounded by the natural beauty of Mirror Lake; the two are within walking distance of one another!
9. Taste Sake at the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
Founded in 1627, Gekkeikan Sake is not only one of the oldest sake breweries in all of Japan, but also one of the oldest in the world. At the museum, visitors learn about the history and tradition of making sake (traditional Japanese rice wine) and get to observe over 400 samples of the ancient tools used to make this cultural drink. At the end of the tour, visitors can partake in a sake tasting that includes several speciality Gekkeikan sake products.
10. Enjoy a Bowl of Ramen
Kyoto is one of Japan’s most competitive “Ramen cities” and has countless restaurants that serve this beloved dish. Restaurants like Honke Daiichi Asahi, Ramen Sen no Kaze, and Ichiran are some of the most famous Ramen restaurants in the entire world, and they offer a wide assortment of traditional Ramen dishes, all of which will have your mouth watering!
11. Take a Leisurely Stroll through Philosopher's Walk
Looking to pass a leisurely afternoon? Head to Philosopher’s Walk, a serene mile-long, tree-lined pathway along Lake Biwa Canal in northern Kyoto. The path, which is named for the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro who used to stroll along the walkway on his commute to Kyoto University in the early 20th century, is especially beautiful in the spring when the cherry trees are in full blossom, but visitors insist that the path is gorgeous at any time of the year. Stop along the way wander through the shrines, temples, cafes, and shops that line the path for a calm and lovely afternoon.
Kyoto is a city heaped in traditional arts, theater, music, and delectable food. A visit to Kyoto will most certainly enhance your appreciation for the richness of Japanese history, and it will leave you with a fascination and love for the beauty of its culture.