Kyoto is a traditional city with plenty of temples and shrines. The harmony of different components in a Japanese garden has always fascinated me. What better city to experience the spell of these mystical gardens than Kyoto. After landing at Kansai International Airport, Osaka, I made my way straight to Kyoto. I stayed there for 4 nights and three and a half days. In this blog, I list out 20 things to do in Kyoto.
1. Walk around the Gion district in a rented kimono and geta
It will cost you around ¥ 3000 for a basic kimono. If you rate comfort above all else, just click pictures and ditch the traditional wooden sandals or geta. It can be difficult to walk in traditional Japanese footwear if you aren’t used to them. Gion district is best known for its well preserved architecture and streets. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and old style tea houses in the area, however, it is fairly overpriced.
2. Gion shrine
This district is best known for the Gion shrine, also known as the Yasaka shrine. I only saw it in passing, however, it has plenty to offer. There are many buildings and people visit it during New Years and Cherry Blossoms. It was beautifully lit up at night.
3. Watch a traditional Geisha show or catch a glimpse of one
There is something elusive about Geisha. Unless you decide on booking one of the art performances, you can catch a momentary glimpse in elaborate costumes and exotic makeup, as they get out of their cars. This adds further to their star value.
4. Drink tea at a traditional tea house
Stop at a tea house for a nice tea break. Uji city near Kyoto is famous for Uji tea and matcha so try it out here. Scroll down to read more about Uji city.
5. Reserve a table at some fancy restaurant
Gion district has many famous and expensive restaurants. You will, however, need to book it in advance. If you book a place, it is considered rude to cancel in Japan, so show up on time. If you can’t show up, don’t leave cancellation until the last moment. Tardiness is not a part of the Japanese culture.
You should keep an entire day aside for Arashiyama, or even a few days. This district has plenty to offer and if you have time, you can hike up the mountain at the end of the Bamboo forest and visit other less visited temples and gardens. All the temples and gardens have a fee ranging from ¥500 to ¥1000.
6. Forest bathing in the bamboo forest
This district is most famous for its Bamboo forest. It is best visited early in the morning to avoid the crowd of tourists. Walking through the bamboo groves is truly a calming and experience. One of the temples that is on the way when walking through the bamboo grove is Tenryuji.
The onsen or the Japanese hot spring and Iwatayoma monkey park are other popular attractions.
7. Tenryuji Temple
Entrance fee: ¥ 500
I visited the Tenryuji temple which is surrounded by a beautiful Japanese garden with all the features of one. I highly recommend this temple.
8. Okochi Sanso Villa
Entrance fee: ¥ 1000 (includes Japanese tea in the traditional tea house)
At the end of the bamboo forest, you will see entrance to famous villa. The villa is called the Okochi Sanso Villa and belongs to a popular actor by the same name. The The villa has good reviews on google. I was unable to visit it due to lack of time.
9. Togetsu-kyo bridge
This bridge built across the Katsura river gives stunning view of the Arashiyama mountains, specially during cherry blossoms and in autumn. It has a special place in Japanese tradition of coming of age. If you continue walking, you reach the Iwatayoma monkey Park, which is next on the list.
10. Iwatayoma Monkey Park
You can watch Japanese macaques interact with each other in their natural habitat here. I couldn’t visit it due to lack of time.
11. Soak in an Onsen or hot water baths
These hot water sulphur springs are said to have healing properties. In any case it is always pleasant to soak in hot water.
12. Sagano scenic train-ride
If you have enough time, you can take this 25 minute long train ride which as the name suggests, takes you through beautiful landscapes. I couldn’t hop aboard due to lack of time but maybe you can try this out.
13. Walk through the district and enjoy a matcha ice-cream
There are many souvenir shops and the district itself has laid back vibes. Enjoy your walk in this area and eat a matcha ice-cream while you are at it. I don’t recommend eating it while walking as it is considered rude to walk and eat simultaneously.
14. Rokuon-ji or Kinkaku-ji or Temple of the Golden Pavillion
Entrance fee: ¥400
One of the most prominent sites in Kyoto, this golden Buddhist Zen temple is located to the north west of Kyoto city centre. The golden Pavillion reflected in the tranquil pond is a sight that shouldn’t be missed, however, try going early in the morning or later in the day to skip the crowds.
15. Ryōan-ji or Temple of dragon at peace
Entrance fee : ¥500
This is another UNESCO World heritage site, known mainly for its kare-sansui or dry landscape. Club the visit to this temple with Kinkaku-ji because it is hardly 15 minutes walk away.
Fifteen stones are places in a small rectangular space filled with pebbles in concentric circles. From the porch of the tea house, one can meditate upon the stones. From no point can all fifteen stones can be seen together. It is believed that one needs to attain enlightenment before one can see them all together.
16. Jishō-ji or Ginkaku-ji or Temple of the Silver Pavillion
Entrance fee: ¥600
This is another beautiful temple with a beautiful garden located in North Eastern Kyoto that offers spectacular views. This too is a popular tourist destination going during the peak hours.
No entrance fee
This is the head shrine of god Inari and is located at the base of Inari mountain, 233 metres above sea level. It is believed that Inari is the god of rice but has many patrons in business men.
I recommend keeping aside at least half a day because there are plenty of food stalls selling street food and other shops that you might want to explore.
How to reach?
You can take a train from Kyoto station Inari which will cost you ¥140. From there you can walk to the shrine.
It would take you around 2 hours to go to the top of the shrine and back down. The saffron arches are there to guide the way throughout and there are many small shrines along the way. Try reaching early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid crowd. However, as most people don’t go to the top, you will eventually reach a point where the crowds begin to thin and you can enjoy your walk and take good pictures.
18. Tetsugaku-no-michi or Philosopher’s Path
No entrance fee
This route is so called because it is believed that prominent 20th century Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro walked on this path. This small path by the canal, underneath the cherry trees is next to Ginkaku-ji, so club the two together on your visit.. It is a pleasant walk that takes about 30 minutes, unless you stop along the way to visit the sites.
19. Day trip to Uji city
This small town is most famous for its Uji tea. I could only spend about a coupe of hours there but I recommend a day trip from Kyoto. Uji city has many sites including several temples, shrines and some very famous tea shops. The tea shops have a long lines and they close quite early. You can find a tourist information office on exiting the train station. Uji city is best explored by cycling or walking.
Entrance fee: ¥ 600
Phoenix hall: an additional ¥ 300
The Byōdō-in temple is a UNESCO World heritage site and has a small museum with many precious Buddhist artifacts. The Phoenix hall is an elegant building that is featured on the back of the ¥ 10 coin.
Tea tasting in Uji city
Uji city is known for growing superior quality of green tea which makes it a must visit for any tea lover. When exiting the station, I was invited to pay and taste some kind of tea, the name of which I can’t recall. It tasted a little like spinach soup. There is waiting at famous tea shops so I tried out matcha at the only tea shop that would allow me in.
How to reach Uji City from Kyoto
You can take a train from Kyoto station to Keihan Uji for ¥240. You can club the visit with Fushimi Inari Taisha because Inari station is on the way.
Everything closes quite early in Kyoto so be mindful of starting your day early to make the best of it.
20. Bonus site: Saiho-ji temple
I have listed the places that I visited during my stay in Kyoto. However, I came to know of a beautiful moss garden, which can only be visited by prior appointment. Only a certain number of visitors are allowed on any particular day to Koke-Dera or Saiho-Ji temple. One may need to apply at least 2-3 months in advance in order to get permission to visit this temple. Moss gardens are breathtakingly beautiful and had I known of this temple earlier, I would certainly have visited it.
I recommend staying close to the city center or Kyoto station. It would be less time consuming to visit sites due to the proximity of train station and the main bus stop.
I spent two nights in a hostel in Marutamachi, city centre and two nights in Arashiyama. It takes longer to reach places from Arashiyama since you would first have to go to Kyoto station.
I also recommend booking accommodations at least a week in advance or keep a tab on holidays and long weekends because that can cause the prices to go up real high. I paid thrice the amount for last two nights as compared to the first two nights due to long weekend.
To know more about how to navigate through Japan and pricing for food, transportation, cellular services, ATM fees and accomodation, read my blog post a practical travel guide to Japan.
How to reach Kyoto
The closest airport is Kansai International Airport in Osaka from where you can take a train or a bus to Kyoto station. Information center at the airport will guide you on how to reach Kyoto. A JR pass may be helpful, to know more about it, read my post a guide to transportation in Japan.
How to commute within Kyoto city
You can use bus or metro to go from one place to the other. Google maps will guide you about how to reach your destination. I used bus to get around the city.
Single bus journey
A bus journey will cost you ¥ 230. This can get quite expensive and so a cheaper option would be to buy a one day ticket. If you only have to take a single journey by bus, you can follow the following step:
1) I recommend that you carry change of ¥ 230 or a bank note of smaller denomination since you pay when you have to get down and the cash box may not have enough change for denomination of a bigger currency.
2) You will then put in your bank note into the cash box and get change.
3) You are then required to put the exact amount as the ticket price i.e. 230 Yen into the machine. Sometimes the box runs out of change.
One day pass
Single- day pass for travel by bus: ¥ 600(unlimited trips)
Single- day pass for travel by bus and train: ¥ 900.
You only need to stamp the ticket once in the cash machine next to the driver seat. The date will be stamped. For rest of your trips, you can just show the ticket to the driver. I highly recommend the ¥ 600 bus pass because there were times when I boarded the bus going in the opposite direction so I ended up paying ¥ 460 for a single journey. You can travel stress free with the pass.
You can buythese passes from any convenience store.
Travel tip for saving time and money
You can club Kinkaku-Ji and Ryoan-Ji together because they are close to each other. You can do Fushimi-Inari Taisha and Uji City together and visit Ginkaku-Ji and Philosopher’s Path together.
The restaurants close early in Kyoto so don’t wait until it’s too late. For some of the restaurants, you may have to make a reservation beforehand. It is considered rude to cancel a reservation. You can get a variety of things to choose from at the convenience store. I ate a lot of onigiri(rice balls) from the convenience store during my trip.