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Top 7 Places to Visit in Kyoto

Before going to Japan I was convinced Kyoto was going to be my favorite city. I even had doubts I was going to enjoy Tokyo given that I usually prefer traditional over modern places. But then Tokyo totally swept me off my feet. And if I was to make a comparison between the two cities, I would say I love Kyoto, while I'm in love with Tokyo. Gosh, this is really messed up! 

Tokyo and Kyoto are two incredibly different faces of Japan. While Kyoto mostly lacks the vibe and craziness of Tokyo, it is the most Zen city I know. In spite of being huge, Kyoto is serene. Everything has a low profile here. The buildings are mostly uneventful and not very tall. People dress normal-ish. Kimonos are still in fashion. And once I entered a place of worship, I felt like stepping back in time. And no temple or shine in Tokyo had this effect on me. Not to mention Kyoto has so many temples and shrines that one would need months on end to visit them all. We barely stayed five days, out of which it rained two, and one we spent attending a festival, so we clearly didn't get to see as much as we would have loved to. Nevertheless, out of all places we did visit in Kyoto, these 7 are our favorites. And we both feel like they are a must visit for various reasons.


Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine



OK, we actually went to see this one on one of those two rainy days. But it was our last day in Japan and we just couldn't leave without visiting it. I loved 'Memoirs of a Geisha' both the movie and the book and this is the shrine that appears in the motion picture. What is really surprising and completely different at this shrine is the huge number of vermilion Torii gates, of different sizes, grouped in countless rows. It is estimated that there are well over 10,000 Torii gates at Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. I really wasn't expecting so many of them! They form covered trails up the mountain and one can walk for hours under the enchanting roof. Each gate has a black inscription written on it, and that's the name of the company who donated it to the shrine. Inari is not only the god of rice but also the patron of business and having a Torii gate here is believed to bring good fortune. We even spotted a couple of inscriptions in Latin letters! Also, the entrance is free, as it is at most shrines in Japan.


Kinkaku-ji Temple, or The Golden Pavilion



We arrived at Kinkaku-ji just as the sun was gently caressing its pure gold leaf covered facade with the last rays of the day. It was also the moment we realized we weren't the only ones who saw the image of this gorgeous pavilion in pictures all over the internet. Even at the hour before closing time, the gardens were packed with visitors. This must be the most popular place in Japan! (being a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably helps too) The pavilion houses relics of the Buddha and each floor features a different architectural style, though we were not allowed to get anywhere near the building. Nevertheless, the gardens were delightful and allowed us to admire the pavilion from different angles. 


Ginkaku-ji Temple, The Silver Pavilion



The Silver Pavilion was built following the model of the Golden Pavilion. And this temple's gardens were our favorite in whole Japan. I wouldn't know to explain why, it's just that they were so serene and zen (after all Ginkaku-ji is a Zen temple) and we had a marvelous feeling about them. It also happened that the temple was situated within a stone's throw of the house we had rented from Japan Experience, so this was the first temple we visited in Kyoto. Also the sand garden at Ginkaku-ji and the pile of sand that symbolizes Mount Fuji are quite a sight and the moss covered wooded grounds are pretty spectacular too. It was the first time we saw people carefully sweeping the moss. It would have never occurred to me, not in a million years, that somebody can actually have this in their job description.


Gion District



This is another 'Memoirs of a Geisha' moment. OK, I admit I should have probably used a different image to represent Gion, but I just couldn't help it. After all it's the funniest photo one can take in an otherwise sober district.

Gion is one of the best known and most exclusive geisha district in all Japan. It also recently underwent a restoration project and all utilities were moved underground. Gion is the setting of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' and guided tours are organized around it, showing curious visitors the places mentioned in the book.

Anyways, Gion is fascinating mostly after dark. The old style teahouses are receiving guests as ever and geiko (local term for geisha) entertain anyone who care to pay the price. And if you wander the streets of Gion long enough you can even meet a geisha. Well, we stumbled on one to be honest; just as she managed to briefly escape a group of tourists insisting on blinding her with their flashes. I was too startled to take a proper picture of her as she appeared right in front of me, especially as I wasn't looking for geishas. Before I realized what was going on, the group swiftly followed her around the corner and all I learned from this was that tourists can probably be worse than paparazzi.


Kiyomizu-dera Temple



Kiyomizu-dera is yet another UNESCO Heritage Site from Kyoto. Its biggest attraction is the main hall, which is made entirely out of wood. And when I say entirely I really mean entirely. Not one single nail was used and the building still holds together, thank you very much! (though restoration work is currently in progress)

The hall is built on top of a cliff and its large veranda is supported by some very tall pillars. Apart from having some spectacular views over the city and the waterfall nearby, it looked to us that either the architect really enjoyed a challenge or that was the only spot still available on the face of the earth. Back in the Edo period people actually saw the humor in this, and believed that whoever jumped from the 13m high cliff and survived, would supposedly have their wish granted. Records have it that over 200 people jumped and more than 85% survived. This practice is nowadays prohibited for obvious reasons.

But if you feel like trying your luck with mystic stuff, you can always give the 'love stones' a try. Why do I have the feeling that I got your attention now? Well, the love stones are two stones 6 meters apart and whoever manages to walk between them with their eyes closed will find love. You know how they say, hope dies last. But before you jump on the first flight to Japan to complete the quest, do know there is no scientific evidence about it and walking 6 meters between the stones it's not all that easy because of the large number of visitors who might cross your path. That being cleared, please do jump on the first plane to Japan. It's a wonderful country and as long as you visit for the right reasons, it's cool.


Ryoan-ji Temple



Ryoan-ji, also called the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, has one of the best rock gardens in Japan. Plus it's a UNESCO Heritage Site (one of 17 in Kyoto). The garden can be contemplated from the porch, which was actually quite nice as we also enjoyed some warm autumn sun. The grounds have a number of details to be discovered and a big pond covered with pretty waterlilies. The temple building can be entered by anyone, provided you take off your shoes. However, the rock garden is the main attraction and can either leave you cold or stir the most profound revelation within you. Though the garden looks like a no-brainer due to its simplicity, it apparently has some very complex and varied interpretations. Unfortunately we left just as puzzled as we arrived and our world is still the same.


Arashiyama Bamboo Grove



Well, we couldn't have left Japan without seeing a proper bamboo grove, could we? Arashiyama is actually located on the outskirts of Kyoto, but it is accessible by JR line from the Central Station. We also happened to stumble on a festival here and that kind of caught our attention on the way to the bamboo grove. But once we actually got to walk the 500m long pathway guarded by majestic bamboos, we discovered an incredible feeling of tranquility mixed with just the right amount of mystery. Being a festival day, the pathway was pretty busy, but something tells me this is not the case on a normal day when one can walk and discover this unique place without being disturbed. While we've seen bamboo groves at different temples in Japan, none was this big, nor free of charge like the one in Arashiyama. So from my point of view, it doesn't get any better.


Useful information:

How to move around: The best way to travel around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and economical way to travel throughout the country. For train route ideas and city guides, check out Japan by Rail.

Further readings: Before going to Japan we highly recommend you read the following books for a better understanding of the Japanese culture and lifestyle: Kyoto City of Zen, A Geek in Japan, Japan: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture and The Otaku Encyclopedia.

56 comments:

  1. Bookmarked your page. I'd love to see some of those when I get to Japan!

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    1. Oh, you must! All these places are so beautiful and unique!

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  2. Wow, what an amazing post and love the photos! This post has convinced me to travel to Kyoto on my Winter break in a few weeks time - I think everyone should try to visit Kyoto at least once in their life. Stunning!

    Thank you!
    Ciara :)

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    1. Have you visited Kyoto before? I hope you'll have better weather than we had! Have tons o fun! :)

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  3. Great post with most of my favourite places covered. My favourite place in Kyoto would have to be Kiyomizu-dera. I love the whole experience of walking up Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) with all the shops selling Kyoto handicrafts, snacks and souvenirs to the view from the amazing wooden veranda.

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    1. I too loved the Teapot Lane. So colorful, it almost equaled the temple experience. I was just puzzled why they didn't let me take photos of the beautiful Japanese umbrellas. Other than that, the way up to the temple can also be a fascinating culinary experience, as there are tons of opportunities to sample local delicacies for free (and then buy the ones you like best, of course!) ;)

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  4. I've never been to Japan but all those places look fascinating. Wonderful pictures, protected sites and some great stories. I love the idea of a solid wooden building without any nails.

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    1. Oh, wait till you see Todai-ji Temple from Nara!! It was the largest wooden building in the world till 1998.

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  5. I'm dying to visit! This is definitely on my dream destination list.

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    1. Oh honey, you've been to Japan but missed Kyoto? You MUST go back!!

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  6. We have heard several times, "If you only can visit one place in Japan, make it Kyoto". I can see why.

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    1. Yes, Kyoto is all about Japanese history and traditions. Tokyo is modern (thought to be honest I was expecting it to be even more modern than it is. Somehow the western world caught up I guess)

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  7. Beautiful photos! Lovely places! Most of all well written stories! Thanks for sharing with us this tourist haven. :)

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    1. Thank you Princess for stopping by and thank you for your kind words. Kyoto is amazing! :)

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  8. Time to add Japan to my bucket list, Your first photo is stunning...

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    1. You should definitely add Japan to your bucket list! It is such an amazing country, so different, and such an unbelievable mix of old and new.

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  9. Beautiful photos, my dear! Another reason to visit zen Kyoto. My husband was there a while ago, and he has been raving about it since.

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    1. Thank you, love! I can totally understand why your husband liked Kyoto so much. Next time we visit we definitely want to give it more days and hope for better weather ;)

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  10. Replies
    1. Kyoto is absolutely amazing, I'm sure you will have a blast!

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  11. that was a wonderful trip you had!
    i need some advice here, i shall be visiting tokyo for a conference in the end of feb, and ill only have one weekend for sightseeing and stuff... i was planning to visit kyoto by shinkansen (nazomi)for one day, but i was wondering if i could have a guided tour in kyoto (as ill be all by myself and im not veryyy good with the maps, hehe). i have also come across this "kyoto walks" pamphlet (http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-503.pdf)so i was just wondering if i can do this tour all by meslf with the help of this pamphlet? is it that easy to walk around kyoto from place to place?
    your comments and suggestions will be highly appreciated. thanks a bunch. :)

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    1. Hi Cybil, thanks for stopping by!

      Let's see... I totally recommend you experience the Shinkansen (especially if you haven't been with it before), plus as a bonus you can see Mt Fuji on your way from Tokyo to Kyoto.

      But... One day is NOT enough for Kyoto.

      Anyways, given your limited time, I recommend you either pick one area and visit the temples and shrines there or choose 2-3 attractions that you find most interesting and try to visit them using the public transportation system. In my opinion, Kyoto (with few exceptions, like Gion) is not a very beautiful city, and by walking around you would only waist precious time. You go to Kyoto to visit the temples, not explore its streets.

      Kyoto is a large city and it has a great number of temples and shrines, and it seemed to me they were all worth visiting. Even the small ones were fascinating (though less crowded).

      Alternatively you can visit the temples of Nikko. They are much closer to Tokyo and while gorgeous, you can visit the whole complex in one day. See our previous post about day trips from Tokyo. I hope this helps somehow.

      Have a wonderful trip! And let us know what you did in the end ;)

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  12. Yes yes YESS!! What a great post! I only passed through Kyoto for a few days (spent over half of my 90 non-Visa days exploring Tokyo) but I wish that I'd had more time...especially seeing as how I apparently missed some great sites :( Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. Well, then probably your next 90 non-Visa days in Japan should be spent in Kyoto ;)

      Don't worry, we feel the same. We missed quite a few amazing places too. We definitely need to go back.

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  13. Oh my...how awesome. The other night I had a dream I went to Japan. I have never really thought we would get there, but I'd love to. Especially after reading about Tokyo like this. (I also pinned your first pic. That really spoke to my soul.) Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I can only recommend you visit Japan. It's such an amazing country!! And Kyoto (which is not Tokyo - I've heard many people making this mistake) is absolutely a gold mine from an cultural point of view.

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  14. I have always wanted to go to Kyoto. Beautiful photos!

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    1. Thanks Michael! Kyoto is so beautiful and photogenic!

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  15. I've been to Kyoto many times.
    I agree that Fushimi Inari is a nice experience. Nearby is the famous Tofukuji Temple that is especially popular during autumn with all the great colored leaves!
    I recommend Arashiyama in general (not only the bamboo grove). It's especially beautiful during spring and autumn.

    I just love the Higashiyama district. It's always so nice to stroll around there.

    As I'm a huge fan of Japanese castles I can also recommend Nijo Castle and Fushimi Castle. The latter is near the earlier mentioned Fushimi Inari Shrine. http://zoomingjapan.com/travel/momoyama-castle-kyoto/

    A bit outside of Kyoto City is Uji (famous for Byodo-in and green tea) and Amanohashidate ("the bridge to heaven").

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    1. I want to go back NOW! It looks like we missed even more places than we thought in the first place :( *sigh*

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    2. The problem with Kyoto is that there's so much to see that even if you live there you'll never be able to explore everything!

      I guess that's good news for Kyoto, though.
      People will always come back to see more! ;)

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  16. Great blog piece. Always love to hear others favourite bits from Japan!

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    1. Thank you! Kyoto is an amazing city and it has an incredible number of places that must be visited. We wish we could go back and visit more.

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  17. The thing that makes the Ryoanji garden so famous is that the rocks are laid out so that, no matter your vantage point, you can never see all 15 of them. If you move and a hidden rock becomes visible, a different one will disappear

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    1. We found the Ryoanji rock garden cool precisely because of this kind of details. Definitely one of the most intriguing places to visit in Kyoto.

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  18. We just returned from Japan and now I want to turn around and go back - we obviously missed one of the best places! -Veronica

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    1. Kyoto is always a good reason to go back to Japan, even if you've seen it before.

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  19. Thank you for this list! I'm headed to Kyoto next week and I can't wait to see all of these... :)

    Eartha

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    1. We can't wait to read your stories :) Have fun in Kyoto. It's one of the best places in Japan.

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  20. Nice post. Kyoto seems to be a cool place. Nice images!

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    1. It surely is. One of the most interesting cities in Japan. There are so many places to visit in this city, it's incredible!

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  21. Great list of place to visit in Kyoto. Can't wait to go to Japan next year.

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    1. Happy to hear you'll be visiting Japan soon, James. I hope Kyoto is on your list ;)

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  22. Visiting Kyoto, Osaka and Nara this Nov, will definitely visit the places you recommend in the list:)

    Thanks Laura,

    Simon

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  23. Wow! I missed some great stuff. I was in Kyoto for 7 days in May...I did a lot but wish I could have fit in more. I did manage to go to Arashiyama and Kikakuji. It was amazing but next time I'm taking your recommendations with me.

    This is my solo trip story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9I6Ku0tY9SM

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    1. It's impossible to see all Kyoto's attractions in 7 days. But then Kyoto is such a charming city that it surely deserves a second and even a third visit ;)

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  24. We have just back from Osaka and Kyoto 2 months ago, i have to admit that Kiyomizu-dera Temple is our favorite! We somehow slightly earlier to see the leaves turn red entirely:)

    Simon Lee

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    1. Kiyomizu-dera is such a special temple, isn't it? We visited Kyoto about the same time of the year and missed the fall foliage, though in some parts of Japan the leaves were already turning red...

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  25. Kyoto and Tokyo are two best places to visit in Japan. These two cities are attracted million of foreign visitors every year it has 16 World Heritage Sites, including Himeji Castle and Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyotohas 16 World Heritage Sites, including Himeji Castle and Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. I am going Japan after my hawaii island tours in summer.

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  26. Kiyomizu-dera is such a special temple
    debt relief

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  27. Going there tonight. Excited, thanks for the list!

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  28. I have been visited Japan about a year ago with my friend. Lots of places that I like there but a place that I like the most is "Kinkaku-ji Temple". It is also known as "The Golden Pavilion". It is one of the most popular temples of Japan. I must want to go there again in my life.

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    1. Absolutely right Howard! The Japan has covered many tourist attractions for visiting. This place is the most famous place in Japan. I personally visit in this country before my tours from los angeles with my businesses partner. The Tokoy tower, Tokoy Skytree and Tokyo Disneyland are also nice places for visiting. If you again chance to go there so you visit in these attractions. I hope you like it.

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  29. Oh wow! These pictures are gorgeous. You've captured Kyoto beautifully - I've always wanted to go and now so even more.

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