The best things to see and do in Kyoto

Destinations

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Japan’s ancient capital is abundant in unique and truly beautiful sights to see, both natural and man-made. Read our tips for the best things to do in Kyoto

If you’re going to visit Japan, you absolutely cannot miss the charming, wondrous, special city of Kyoto. Let us tell you why…

The attraction of Kyoto

Kyoto Tower and city center at night — ShutterstockKyoto Tower in the city center — Shutterstock

Being the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto is quite the tourist mecca. Having said that, Japan’s idea of a tourist trap is very different from the European one. The tourists tend to be domestic rather than foreign and, such is the depth of tradition in Kyoto, tourists are generally respectful and reverent, rather than pushy.

This generally happens on the outskirts, though. The center is similar to any other Japanese city  — concrete, shopping centers and bright lights, albeit slightly toned-down — and this city of 1.5 million people very nearly didn’t exist at all.

Kyoto was top of the list to have an American nuclear bomb dropped on it towards the end of World War II, until the personal intervention of secretary of war Henry L. Stimson, who had been there on his honeymoon and couldn’t bear the thought of it being attacked. Its survival means that one of Japan’s historical and cultural treasures is here for all to see.

Getting around

Kyoto’s main annoyance, however, is the fact that most of the sights are rather scattered. This does mean that your adventure will also include navigating the subway system – which is not extensive with only two lines – and the rather more wide-ranging bus and train network. If you’re there for several days, the best thing to do is to choose one area to focus on each day. So, let’s have a look at the different parts of the city.

Higashiyama

Iconic red-gate path leading to the Fushimi Inari shrine — ShutterstockThe red gates leading to the Fushimi Inari shrine are one of Japan’s most iconic structures — Shutterstock

Higashiyama is an area to the east of the city center. Kyoto itself lies in a valley, and the eastern side is seemingly one long line of shrines, temples, tea gardens, and feudal-era wooden houses lining quiet, narrow streets. The iconic Fushimi Inari shrine and the Kyomizu Buddhist temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are both located in Higashiyama. The views over the valley, particularly from the temple at sunset, are breathtaking.

Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji and Nijo Castle — the pièces de résistance

Kinkaku-ji, the "golden temple" — ShutterstockKinkaku-ji — Shutterstock

If temples are your thing, the most famous is Kinkaku-ji (“golden temple”), one of the most popular tourist sites in the entire country; the only issue here is getting to it. It’s to the northwest of the center, and you need to take a bus, which can be tricky due to the lack of English signage.

Founded in 1397, the top two storeys of this three-storey building are covered with gold leaf, and the building itself houses relics of the Buddha. There’s a magnificent strolling garden, with a huge, reflective pond that mirrors the temple in its waters. Stop by a vendor for a cup of incredibly rich matcha (green tea), which suitably, is garnished with tiny specks of gold.

Entrance to Nijo Castle — ShutterstockThe entrance to Nijo Castle — Shutterstock

More centrally located are Ginkaku-ji (“silver temple”) and Nijo Castle. The castle was built to be the Kyoto residence of the shoguns (Japanese feudal lords), and consists of an outer section, separated by walls and a moat, from the Ninomaru Palace in the center. The palace is a huge complex of spectacular rooms, many of which have an anti-intruder system known as nightingale floors. These floors were designed to squeak like birds when walked on, so as to protect the inhabitants of the palace from sneak attacks.

Be at one with nature

Woman in outdoor Japanese bath with autumn leaves in the background — ShutterstockBathing in an onsen is a quintessentially Japanese activity — Shutterstock

Outside the city to the north, the Kurama and Kibune valleys are beautiful places to walk between, via a huge monastery. On the way, you can partake in a very typical Japanese leisure activity – an outdoor bath.

Onsen is the Japanese word for a traditional hot spring bath which is usually outdoors. The water is completely geothermal and as such, contains many minerals long thought to be beneficial for the body. If you’re okay with public nudity, give it a try, and you might just come out feeling the most relaxed you’ve ever felt.

One interesting disclaimer: you may not be allowed in if you have a lot of tattoos. Tattoos have historically been associated with the yakuza (members of notorious organized crime syndicates) in Japanese societal mentality, although some bathhouses are becoming more accepting of tattooed people — especially foreigners.

Pathway through giant bamboo in Arashiyama — ShutterstockArashiyama bamboo forest — Shutterstock

Heading northeast, even further out of the city, you can get to Mount Hiei, home to yet another mountain-top temple complex including, oddly, a French-style flower garden. It’s accessible by cable car, and has wonderful views over Lake Biwa, before you stroll down the other side, through a huge cedar forest, to the funicular railway which will carry you back down again.

If you want more scenic spectacles, how about Arashiyama in the northwest — another temple district and a famous site of outstanding natural beauty? Stroll through the magnificent bamboo grove and pay a visit to the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where fearless macaques roam free, getting fed by tourists. It’s also here that you can get the most amazing views of the changing colors of the leaves. People come from all around the country in the fall to see the gorgeously vibrant foliage, some of which lasts well into December.

Geisha in Gion

Two maiko walking down a side street in Gion — ShutterstockGion is the best place in the country to spot geisha and maiko — Shutterstock

After you’ve spent your days wandering and bathing, head into the Gion district. This is both a tourist hub and a popular nightlife spot among locals. The character of each street varies widely, and there’s a wide variety of restaurants, bars, tea houses and clubs. This is also one of the very few places in Japan where you’re able to catch a glimpse of some of the few remaining geisha and maiko (younger, apprentice geisha).

There are several geisha/maiko experiences on offer in Gion at varying degrees of expense, such as the Geisha and Tea Ceremony Museum, walking tours, and private dinners. The geisha and maiko even perform dance exhibitions, attended by visitors from all over the country. If you want to see these performances, you can either get the cheap seats (sitting on a mat), or pay to take part in a pre-performance tea ceremony and sit in a reserved seat.

Venturing further

Wild deer in front of the gate to the Kasuga Taisha shrine — ShutterstockNara Park is home to the Kasuga Taisha shrine, as well as lots of deer — Shutterstock

Kyoto is bang in the middle of the densely-populated region of Kansai, which makes it a convenient base for visiting some other notable places.

Take Nara, for example. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, and for this reason, it’s home to scores of temples, shrines, and a park with a 15-foot high golden Buddha statue. The park is also home to lots of surprisingly friendly deer, and the Kasuga Taisha shrine, which dates back to the year 768.

Nagoya, in the neighboring region of Chubu, is only about 40 minutes from Kyoto on the bullet train. In terms of tourism to Japan, it’s a much-underrated metropolis. The city center is like a scaled-down Tokyo — high-rise buildings, blazing lights, stellar entertainment, tons of shops, neighborhoods with their own distinct characters; only a lot easier a place to navigate than the capital. Also, here’s a fun fact: Nagoya Station is the biggest railway station in the world by floor area. Maybe you’ll arrive and be perfectly content hanging out within the station limits.

View of Osaka Tower from the busy Shinsekai district — iStockVibrant and exciting, Osaka is well worth a look — iStock

Another (similarly lively) option is Osaka, the country’s second city. Its metropolitan area has a population of 19 million people, it boasts great food, music and nightlife, and it’s as laid-back as a city of that size can be.

Finally, speaking of nightlife, we can’t fail to mention karaoke. A cliché? Sure, but a fabulously fun one. In Kyoto and all over Japan, private karaoke rooms can be rented by the hour, complete with room service that’ll bring you food and drink from an often wide selection. Discover your juhachiban (the song you sing best) and warble the night away.

So, for a fascinating synthesis of the traditional and the new in a completely one-of-a-kind city, consider an adventure in Kyoto. Japan is currently enforcing some of the strictest entry requirements in the world in response to Covid-19, but once the country opens up again, we promise your experience will be worth the wait.

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