On a cold morning in Kyoto, Japan, Stephanie and I set out to spend the day discovering what makes Japan’s cultural capital tick. Fifteen hours—and fifteen miles—later, we limped back into the warmth of our hotel room having done exactly that. Even though we only had a couple of vacation days to spare in Kyoto, a short time was better than no time. When we visited Japan in 2017 we only had enough time to explore Tokyo. We loved Tokyo, and we were glad to have a few days to spend there as well, but leaving the country without seeing Kyoto felt like leaving too much on the table. By the time our JR Tokaido Shinkansen train pulled into the station we were ready to make up for the past.
Kyoto was everything we wanted it to be and more, and we had a terrific time exploring. If you are planning a trip to Kyoto, here are some of the places we discovered as we took a self-guided walking tour through the city. Whether you’re looking for peaceful streets or bustling intersections, or whether you want some typical Japanese food or feel like trying some brand-new flavors, Kyoto has something for everyone.
Arashiyama Bamboo forestOne of the highlights of our visit to Kyoto was the Arashiyama bamboo forest. You have most likely seen these famous green stalks of bamboo which have come to be almost synonymous with Kyoto’s nature scene. The lush bamboo grove is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto, and a walk along the paths that wind through the forest are a great way to see them. The experience of standing at the base of these sky-high emerald behemoths as they gently sway in the breeze creates a remarkably peaceful atmosphere. In fact, the calming sound of the swaying bamboo has been officially recognized by the Ministry of the Environment in Japan; it’s listed among the “100 Soundscapes of Japan” which was created to encourage citizens to discover the natural beauty in their country.
Located on the edge of town, Arashiyama is free to the public and open 24 hours, so if you’re looking for a chance to get iconic photos of the Kyoto bamboo make sure to swing by early in the day to avoid the crowds. We visited the bamboo forest immediately after an early breakfast, not long after the sun rose, and found ourselves almost completely alone during our walk. It was a great way to set the tone for the day. The bamboo forest is a short walk from the Saga-Arashiyama Station, and you will see signs and a walkway that directs you toward the bamboo forest. It’s a must-see during your visit to Kyoto!
More Information: KyotoStation.com
Kinkaku ji TempleQuite possibly one of the most beautiful temples we’ve ever visited, Kinkaku-ji is an absolute must-visit location during your trip to Kyoto. Set among lush gardens, trees, and ponds, the golden temple is covered in gold leaf and is one of the 17 locations designated under the UNESCO World Heritage listing for Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Kinkaku-ji is among the most popular temples in all of Japan.
After you enter the main gate, follow the crowds to the pond around the golden temple for photos. Then, you can proceed along a path that takes you around the temple and up through the gardens. The walk through the complex passes numerous vantage points for great photos, but don’t get too caught up in the scenery: we got a bit distracted and accidentally followed a path that took us right through the temple’s exit! Although it wasn’t a big deal for us, be sure you have explored as much of the temple as you plan to see before you, too, end your visit.
Take a Kyoto Food Tour
We love a good food tour, and Kyoto is the kind of city that benefits from some true local culinary knowledge. Although it’s easy to find great sushi or ramen, some of the best cuisine is hidden away from the typical tourist paths. We took a walking tour with Arigato Japan, and our guide, Cole, combined a great overview of Kyoto and the city’s history with food that truly represented the city’s culture. We had a chance to try a little bit of everything; fresh sushi, hot soup, yakitori, and mochi were all on the menu. Everything we tried was delicious, and it was especially fun to enjoy a progressive dinner through the city while learning about Cole and why he loves living in Kyoto.
Food is, of course, the most important part of any food tour, but we also had the chance to explore the Gion district in Kyoto. Some scenes from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha were filmed in Kyoto, and Cole pointed out some of the locations while weaving in key elements of the city’s history. The food scene in Kyoto can be daunting if you’re not familiar with the ingedients or even the Japanese language, and Cole expertly guided us through menu selections while providing great company during the time we spent with him. If a food tour works within your Kyoto itinerary, we highly recommend including one when planning how you’ll spend your time. Don’t be surprised if you find that a Kyoto food tour becomes one of the highlights of your visit!
More Information: Arigatojapan.co.jp
Nijo CastleBuilt in 1603 as the local residence for the first shogun of the Edo period, Nijo Castle is listed among the Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage sites, and it’s a great place to add to your itinerary. Consisting of two rings of stone walls and moats, the interior has beautiful gardens, incredible architecture, and impressive buildings such as the Ninomaru Palace. Walking through the gardens, it’s easy to get swept away by the peace and tranquility, but it’s also interesting to imagine the contrasting imagery of the warriors and feudal military leaders who once shared these same grounds.
Unfortunately, the palace was closed during our visit, but we still found it to be worthwhile to walk around the exterior of the castle. The outdoors are especially vibrant in the spring and autumn, but we really enjoyed our winter visit. If anything, we found the grounds to be uncrowded with plenty of space to explore. If you are hoping to see the castle’s interior, the friendly staff will let you know which parts of the property can be included in your admission ticket.
A beautiful zen temple in the northwest corner of Kyoto, Ryōan-ji is home to a 500 year old rock garden. Known as kare-sansui or zen gardens, it’s a small landscape composed of rock formations surrounded by small pebbles intricately raked into linear designs. While the meaning of the Ryōan-ji rock garden is considered to be open to interpretation by some, these type of gardens have traditionally been used as a way to inspire meditation.
In addition to the rock garden, Ryōan-ji also has beautiful gardens, ponds, a teahouse, and temples that you can explore during your visit. If you’re looking for a place to find peace and solitude during your visit to Kyoto, consider adding Ryōan-ji to your itinerary.
Fushimi inari taisha shrineWhen it comes to Kyoto, there are two places you have to visit: one is the Arashiyama bamboo forest, and the other is the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. The famous orange and black torri gate tunnel is an iconic site that is a must-see during your visit to Kyoto. Unfortunately for us, we happened to stop by during one of the most holy days of the year, so we were among thousands of locals and tourists there for hatsumōde, or the first temple visit of the new year. The path was jam packed for us, but if you follow the trail further up the mountain, the crowds will slowly disperse and ease up to give you a bit more elbow room. If you’re feeling especially adventurous and you have time, you can follow the trail all the way up the mountain. It can take between two and three hours to walk up and back, but if you’re looking for opportunities to get the signature photo of the orange torri gates without any tourists in your photo, the higher up you go the better your chance will be.
Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple located in the eastern part of Kyoto, and it’s one of the most celebrated historic temples in Japan. Established in the year 778, the UNESCO World Heritage site is often listed among the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto. Unfortunately, the structure was covered in scaffolding during our visit (a sad throwback to other poorly-timed visits to scaffolding-obstructed sites like La Catedral Metropolitana in Panama, Big Ben in London, and the Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia, Bulgaria), but Kiyomizu-dera is worth seeking out even as it is restored. Be sure to look for the Otowa waterfall that runs beneath the main hall—tradition says that drinking the water is good luck!
Philosopher’s WalkIf you are fortunate to visit Kyoto during the popular hanami season each spring, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, you’ll want to be sure to stop by Philosopher’s Walk (or Philosopher’s Path) during your stay. The path follows a walkway along canals lined with cherry trees, taking you by historic temples and beautiful scenery in yet another incredibly peaceful setting in Kyoto. As with most popular spots in Kyoto, we recommend stopping by as early as possible to avoid crowds—it’s popular with both locals and tourists. The path is free to the public, and there are no hours of operation, which means you can decide if a sunrise, sunset, or a midday visit will work best with the timing of other highlights on your Kyoto bucket list.
If you’re looking to experience non-touristy activities during your trip to Kyoto, this might be the place to visit. Known locally as “Ichiwa,” the Ichimonjiya Wasuke confectionary shop has been in its current location for about 300 years, but it has served Kyoto residents traditional treats like aburimochi (skewered sticky rice cakes), green tea, and wagashi since the year 1000. In fact, it’s currently under the 25th generation of family ownership. That bears repeating; Ichiwa has been open for more than 1,000 years with 25 generations of ownership! The lines were pretty long when we stopped by (likely because our visit was so close to the start of the new year), and it’s a little bit of a walk from the city center, but it’s worth a visit if you want an authentic, historic, and delicious local experience.
After your visit, you can stop by the Imamiya Shrine, which is located right around the corner from Ichimonjiya Wasuke. Founded in the year 994, the holy Shinto shrine is home to a stone called ahokashisan which is believed to give special healing properties to those who touch it.
Take a Day Trip to Himeji Castle and Osaka CastleBefore arriving in Japan, we bought Japan Rail passes that granted us unlimited travel on many train and subway lines throughout the country. We decided to maximize our passes and visit a few popular sites just outside of Kyoto. While the temples and castles in Kyoto were surely some of the most impressive and beautiful structures we had seen during our visit to Japan, there were two more that we always wanted to see: Himeji Castle and Osaka Castle.
► Himeji Castle
We visited Himeji first after a two-hour train ride from Kyoto. Upon stepping out of the train station in Himeji, the first thing we saw was the brilliant white castle in the distance as it loomed over the town. Believed to be the inspiration for the Japanese castle emoji you have likely seen while scrolling through your phone, Himeji Castle is also the largest castle in Japan. We didn’t have time to explore the castle’s interior during our brief visit because we still had one more stop to make, but the castle does offer tours if you want a more complete experience.
► Osaka CastleA quick one hour train ride took us from Himeji to Osaka for our second stop, where we had the opportunity to explore the famous Osaka Castle. The most popular tourist attraction in Osaka is also one of the most visited landmarks in the entire country of Japan. Since we had a shorter stay in Himeji, we had a little more time available to explore Osaka Castle, and we were grateful for the flexibility. The walls and moat around the exterior of the castle gave way to gardens and monuments leading up to the enormous Osaka Castle at the center.
One of the most interesting things we saw during our visit to Osaka Castle was a gigantic stone near the Sakura Gate of the walls. Known as the Octopus Stone, the enormous megalith is made from one piece of rock and it measures 18 feet by 38.3 feet. The stone is said to weigh 130 tons, and it instantly reminded us of the giant stones we saw in places like Sacsayhuaman in Peru and Karnak in Egypt. It’s unmissable, and it’s worth seeking during your visit.
Because both the Himeji and Osaka Castles are located in populated areas, finding lunch or dinner during your visit is easy. Both destinations have plenty more to see and do, so if your trip offers you the time and flexibility you may want to extend your day trip in either location to make the most of your visit (and train ticket!).
Hotels in Kyoto
There are tons of great hotels in and around Kyoto, and we chose the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Kyoto Terrace Hachijohigashiguchi, which we found on Booking.com. We were looking for a hotel close to the train station for our day trips and to make moving and storing our luggage as easy as possible, and the Daiwa Roynet Hotel was just a few minutes’ walk from the train station. Overall, we really enjoyed our stay: the room was a bit small, but the bed was comfortable and the bathroom was clean and modern. We also enjoyed the included breakfast buffet, which gave us plenty of fuel as we trekked through Kyoto.
More Information: Booking.com/Daiwa-Roynet-Kyoto-Station
Our friend Cole from the Kyoto food tour has a YouTube Channel with interesting stories and videos related to Japan. He has a wonderful video where he shares tips for where to stay in Kyoto. Check it out for the local perspective!
If you’re looking to reserve a hotel in Kyoto, we highly recommend Booking.com as you research accommodation options in Kyoto. We spent a lot of time on Booking.com as we compared and contrasted hotel choices and it’s an excellent resource.
By the time we boarded the JR train that took us from Kyoto back to Tokyo, we were pleasantly exhausted from a whirlwind visit to Kyoto and a great day trip to explore more of Japan. Kyoto is a city that you shouldn’t miss when planning your own Japan vacation itinerary—it’s the perfect place to learn about and experience Japanese culture. In a city so connected to its past yet still reflective of current trends, we know you will love exploring Kyoto as much as we did!
Are you planning to visit Japan? Here are a few more places in the region to check out!