In case you don’t know about this little place, here’s a brief overview of Kyoto. Its nickname is City of Ten Thousand Shrines, and for about a thousand years it was Japan’s capital (in fact, “Kyoto” means “capital city” in Japanese). During WWII bombings, it was largely left untouched, so it was able to maintain a lot of pre-war structures and architecture, making it the best city to get a feel for traditional Japanese culture. It’s also not as populated as Tokyo or Osaka, so you won’t feel quite so claustrophobic if you’re not a city person.
Without further ado, I gathered together my favorite places in a guide on what to see in Kyoto!
1. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
This is probably on every “Most Beautiful Places in Japan” I have ever read. It’s a sprawling forest, and best visited on your hotter day. | Use Kyoto City Bus #28, get off at Saga-Arashiyama
2. Kiyomizu-Dera Temple
If you’re like me and you love to find that one spot that overlooks the whole city, you’ll love Kiyomizu-Dera Temple. When you get off and start walking, you’ll see the bright orange entrance from far off, and you can walk in a little circle around the gardens. Apparently there’s a stone called Tainai Meguri that will grant your wishes, but we couldn’t find it! This temple, of course, is one of the more popular tourist destinations (it was briefly featured in Memoirs of a Geisha), but it’s incredibly organized, and people are super polite. | Use Kyoto City Bus #206 or #100, get off at Kiyomizu-ichi
3. Toji Temple
This one was a bit unplanned in terms of being on our list of things we definitely wanted to see. However it was an utterly pleasant surprise. Toji Temple dates back to the late eighth century from the early Heian Period. Its pagoda, at five stories and 54.8 m tall, is the tallest wooden pagoda in all of Japan. | Use Kintetsu Railways Kyoto Line, get off at Toji Station
4. Nishiki Food
Want to experience Japanese food of all kinds? Look no farther than Nishiki Food Market. This ain’t your average marketplace, either. Nishiki has been around since the early fourteenth century, and some families have been running the same shops for generations. My friend and I waited until the morning of our flight to explore, so sadly we didn’t quite get to gorge ourselves, but just the half hour we had was enough to know this place was pretty awesome. If you ever live in Kyoto, this could very easily be your one stop grocery store! | | Use Karasuma Subway Line, get off at Shijo Station
5. Okochi Sanso
This mountain villa was once the property of a famous period drama (“jidaigeki” in Japanese) actor, Denjiro Okochi, and was opened to the public after his death in 1962. The villa is surrounded by 20,000 square meters of garden, and you have to walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove just to get to the entrance. There’s a small observation platform where you’re served matcha green tea and a treat with your admission fee. Due to unfortunate circumstances (*cough* a lost phone and rain *cough*) we weren’t able to explore all the gardens, but we did experience the observation platform, which was the perfect calm. | Use Kyoto City Bus #28, get off at Saga-Arashiyama, walk through Bamboo Grove
6. Fushimi Inari Taisha
Recognize this? If you immediately thought of the scene from Memoirs of a Geisha where a young Chiyo races to a temple to pray to become a geisha after meeting the Chairman for the first time, bingo! While it might very well be one of the most touristy attractions in Kyoto, you won’t find yourself too claustrophobic, and you will regret not seeing this place for a least an hour or so. If you’re like me and insist on getting a perfect shot, I recommend focusing on trying to take pictures in the tunnels coming back down rather than up. You’re more likely to get a brief 30 seconds where no one seems to be coming. | Use JR Nara Line, get off at Inari Station
7. Maruyama Park
This is the perfect place to sit and relax in the midst of exploring Higashiyama. We stumbled across this in our exploring post-Kiyomizu-dera, and simply sat and enjoyed the scenery and pigeons hanging around. | Use Kyoto City Bus #100 or 206, get off at Gion
8. Heian Jingu Shrine
Another shrine we stumbled across quite by accident! You’ll see the huge torii (the name for an entrance to a shrine) in what seems like the middle of a downtown area, and it will lead you across a bridge to this beautiful shrine. It’s particularly stunning around the time the sun begins to go down. | Use Tozai Subway Line, get off at Higashiyama Station
9. Shoren-in Temple
Also known as Atawa Palace, we were told this temple from the 13th century was a bit more off-the-beaten-path given that its a bit hidden and not as large as other temples or shrines nearby. It’s totally worth the effort to find as it’s relaxing and beautiful. Enter the temple and sit along the patio and just relax, enjoy the garden view. If you’d like, you can explore the little nooks of the garden, which features 800-year-old camphor trees. | Use Tozai Subway Line, get off at Higashiyama Station
10. Kinkaku-ji Temple
Do not mix this up with Ginkaku-ji Temple. Unlike in Hangul, which I’ve grown accustomed to, you cannot use g and k interchangeably in Japanese. Ginkaku-ji Temple is known as the Silver Pavilion, but was left uncompleted due to budget constraints, so it is not, in fact, silver at all. Kinkaku-ji Temple is known as the Gold Pavilion, and is in fact gold. Remember G is Silver, K is Gold, kind of like how I once memorized the periodic table abbreviation for silver in science class (Ag, Silver = Ain’t Gold). Anyhow, I saw Kinkaku-ji in the rain, and it gleamed like one would imagine a golden building in the middle of a lake ought to. | Use Kyoto City Bus #205, 101, get off at Kinkakuji-mae
What’s on your list of what to see in Kyoto? I only had a few full days to explore this beautiful city, so I know there must be a bunch more hidden treasures.
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