The Best Things to Do When Visiting Kyoto

things to do in Kyoto, Japan

There is probably no city as beautiful and magical as Kyoto. For more than a thousand years (until 1868), it served as the seat of imperial power in Japan, making it the cultural epicenter of Japan.

Kyoto has golden temples, vermilion shrines, Zen rock gardens, swaying bamboo woods, sizzling bowls of ramen, and graceful tea ceremonies. It is one of the few remaining locations where visitors may see geishas in their full get-up. You may even still see monks in flowing robes performing ceremonies and hear the chanting at the city’s 2,000 temples and shrines.

Every location in Kyoto is special in its own way, and each of them provides a uniquely Japanese experience. If you are hoping to visit Kyoto anytime soon, here are some activities you can do by yourself or with friends and family.

Visit the Kinkakuji Temple

the Kinkakuji Temple Things to do in Kyoto Japan
the Kinkakuji Temple

The Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is one of Kyoto’s most visited landmarks.

It was formerly known as Rokuonji. However, when retiring, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu of the Rinzai Sect moved into this prominent Zen Buddhist temple as his villa. The retired shogun’s initial vision for the temple’s upper two stories — hence the temple’s name, Golden Pavillion — was to have been crafted entirely of gold leaf.

They keep sacred objects, like Buddha’s ashes, in the temple, which, by the way, is called a Sheridan. The three stories of the Kinkakuji Temple showcase a wide range of architectural eras and styles. And wood and white plaster make up the ground floor where the shinden-zukuri technique was employed.

The second floor adopts the Bukke style. And the third floor is styled after a traditional Chinese Zen hall. The Kinkakuji Temple is surrounded by a large pond, from which visitors can admire the temple’s many statues. You can also find the Sekkatei Teahouse at the end of the garden. The temple is open every day from 9 am – 5 pm.

Experience the Wonder that Is the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine

the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine Things to do in Kyoto Japan
the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine

Thousands of traditional torii gates form a rainbow-hued path leading to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine, Kyoto’s most recognizable landmark.

A day can be easily spent exploring the paths that lead to the intricate shrines. The Yotsutsuji Intersection, located halfway up the mountain, offers breathtaking panoramas of Kyoto. The Shinto god of rice, Inari, is honored at the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. So you will find that the trail is dotted with little torii gates and stone fox statues throughout its length. The fox is believed to be Inari’s messenger.

Stroll Around Gion and Southern Higashiyama

Bamboo lanterns at Higashiyama Hanatouro (Lantern Festival) Things to do in Kyoto Japan
Bamboo lanterns at Higashiyama Hanatouro (Lantern Festival)

Bamboo lanterns at Higashiyama Hanatouro (Lantern Festival), Kyoto, Japan. Lanterns made of young bamboo are placed on a stream running through Maruyama Park.

Gion, located in the southern part of Higashiyama, is a must-see for any visitor to Kyoto because it is home to some of the district’s most beautiful and well-preserved alleys. Paper lanterns illuminate the way through this ancient neighborhood, which is filled with wooden homes set on cobblestone streets.

Although there are numerous temples in the region, it is best to stroll around (preferably early in the morning or late at night) and simply enjoy the air. Some tourists even go so far as to hire kimonos so they can experience Japan in full traditional garb. Yasaka-dori, which is where you’ll find Yasaka Pagoda (Hkanji Temple), Ninenzaka, Sannenzaka, Nene-no-Michi, and Ishibei-koji alley are all streets worth exploring. But no photos are allowed in any of them.

During March, the streets are illuminated by hundreds of lanterns, special events are held, and temples are lit for the Higashiyama Hanatouro Festival. What a beautiful sight these streets make at night! Nevertheless, the primary geisha area in Kyoto, Gion, is a beautiful place to promenade at any time of day or night.

Take Part in a Traditional Tea Ceremony

a Traditional Tea Ceremony Things to do in Kyoto Japan
a Traditional Tea Ceremony

Even though you can experience Chado or Sado tea ceremonies anywhere in Japan, the Zen Buddhist traditions of Kyoto make them particularly special.

Any cup they’d serve you at a tea ceremony has been meticulously and artistically prepared. The point of the ceremony is to allow the guests to be present in the moment while appreciating the utensils, each other’s company, and the tea.

Take a Walk Along the Philosopher’s Trail

the Philosopher's Trail Things to do in Kyoto Japan
the Philosopher’s Trail

A pedestrian promenade known as the Philosopher’s Path can be found in northern Higashiyama, lining a canal adorned with cherry trees.

Connecting the more well-known temples of Nanzen-Ji and Ginkaku-Ji in Kyoto, this path spans 2 kilometers (1.2 miles). The Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, after whom it is named, is reported to have used this spot for regular meditation.

Several smaller temples, such as Honen-in, can be visited while strolling along the Philosopher’s Path, making it a relaxing spot to spend time. The route is a must during cherry blossom season in Kyoto.

Stop by Pontocho for a Delicious Meal and a Wonderful Time

Pontocho, Japanese old restaurant and pub alley in Kyoto, Japan Things to do in Kyoto Japan
Pontocho, Japanese old restaurant and pub alley in Kyoto, Japan

Pontocho gives food lovers visiting Kyoto a chance to sample authentic Japanese fare. Near the Komogawa River, you’ll find hundreds of eateries catering to every budget, from high-end establishments to street vendors selling cheap yakitori.

You might want to ditch the guidebook and instead venture out to several restaurants to get the whole Pontocho experience. The best ones tend to be off the beaten path and in smaller towns. But fair warning, their menus are likely only available in Japanese.

The key is to find a restaurant that the tourist would enjoy. A refreshing breeze off the Komogawa River could be the icing on the cake on those scorchingly beautiful days. Booking a tour is great if you want to experience the local cuisine with a local expert without sacrificing your comfort. They may cost more, but your taste senses will be eternally grateful.

Visit the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple

the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage sit Things to do in Kyoto Japan
the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage sit

The temple has been rumored to include a wide variety of mystical artifacts. Close your eyes and take a stroll between two stones at the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the god of love. True love awaits you if you can pull this off, or so they say.

The Otowa Waterfall, which is part of the temple and is separated into three streams representing success, love, and long life, is also connected to the shrine. Take a sip from the fountain of luck that best represents your deepest aspiration. This shrine is worth a trip, not only for its aesthetic value but also for the air of mystery permeating the area.

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