Beautiful Kyoto is the city most people familiar with Japan will recommend to the first time visitor. Having been the former capital of Japan for a span of over 1000 years and being spared the devastation of bombing raids in WWII, Kyoto is one of the cities in Japan where a wealth of historical architecture is still intact. This is a city you should spend at least a few days in to even begin to appreciate the wealth of culture it contains. Here are five things to do in Kyoto for the next time you visit!
One of the most iconic structures in the city, Kinkaku-ji is a stunning, shimmering, garish affair–bound to be swarmed by tourists, but absolutely worth visiting for a quick look.
The upper two levels of the former villa turned temple are covered in a gold foil which–together with the meticulously laid out natural beauty around it–firmly imprint this scene in the memories of visitors. It’s well worth the price of admission to stroll the grounds and admire the beauty for a spell.
Explore Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a massive Shinto complex sprawling around the base and up the side of Mt. Inari. A key shrine in Japan, Fushimi Inari is most famous for the extensive number of torii tunnels throughout the complex. Torii are the orange and black arches prevalent at shrines throughout the country; Fushimi Inari has them in spades.
There are thousands upon thousands of torii lining the paths, creating mesmerizing tunnels of brilliant orange to walk through. Inari–the deity for whom the shrine and mountain are named–is a patron of business and commerce, so many of the torii were donated by local businesses.
I got lucky and stumbled onto Fushimi Inari after wandering through a labyrinth of posh residential streets. One minute I was walking through a Japanese suburbia, the next I found myself emerging from an alley and stepping into the middle of Fushimi Inari-taisha.
While in the area, I’d recommend checking out Tofuku-ji Temple nearby. This Buddhist facility has some pretty impressive buildings on the grounds; the dark, natural browns of the wood make for a refreshing change from the brilliant orange hues of Fushimi Inari.
Wander through a bamboo grove
A popular destination in Kyoto is the picturesque neighborhood of Arashiyama. Not only is the town a beautiful showcase for old buildings, exquisitely manicured parks, and a lovely river walk; but it also is home to one of the larger bamboo groves in the city.
Wide paths make their way through the grove, the towering stalks of bamboo arching overhead. Soft and mottled fallen leaves carpet the ground and shafts of sunlight pierce the shaded interior through gaps in the heavy foliage. Even when walking the path with the inevitable accompaniment of other tourists, the place is wonderful.
If walking in the company of others doesn’t appeal or if you’d rather not make the trip out to Arashiyama, there’s another great bamboo grove in Kyoto which doesn’t get nearly as much tourist attention. Hidden behind Fushimi Inari-taisha is a wonderful network of trails which wind through a bamboo forest and a literal maze of household Shinto shrines.
While the stalks of bamboo here aren’t as impressive as those in Arashiyama, the absence of other tourists made this my favorite bamboo grove. I spent a few minutes sitting on the side of the path listening to the wind rustle and rattle its way through the bamboo; the stalks clanked hollowly as they swayed back and forth.
Walking further revealed another nice surprise: a path which snaked between farms and through tangled corridors of household Shinto shrines.
Stroll along a river
There are several rivers coursing through the heart of Kyoto. I walked along two and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The more central is the Kamogawa River, flowing past the Imperial Palace, Gion, and Fushimi Inari-taisha, as well as many other key sights. Along the river are boardwalks populated by cyclists, walkers, and picnickers.
Another lovely river for a stroll meanders through the outskirts of the city, including the Arashiyama area. The Oi River flows through the village, cascading over a series of barriers and under several bridges.
Upriver, the river’s name changes to the Hozu, and boatmen wait to take visitors a short way up the gorge. They do the hard work while customers relax in the shade of an awning. Not a bad way to spend part of an afternoon.
Passing the boatmen will lead you to the trail-head for a small temple near the top of the hill. The kindly monk at the top will take a small (required) donation and leave you to soak in the view of the hills and the city behind them. A word to the wise: don’t pet the dog! While the monk didn’t try to bite me, his pooch certainly did…
Meet a geisha
Finally, if you can, try and find a geisha (or geiko in the local Kyoto dialect). Wandering aimlessly around Gion might do the trick or, if you’re like me, you might meet one by chance!
I was crossing a bridge in Arashiyama when I passed a geisha (or possibly an apprentice, known as a maiko). It took a moment for my brain to register what I was seeing, then I just kind of stopped and stared like an idiot. Within seconds, an elderly Japanese couple approached her and asked for a picture. She nodded her head and obliged, the couple bowing their heads in appreciation.
I stepped towards her and, as politely (awkwardly) as I could, asked for a picture as well. Once again, she nodded graciously and I turned to ask the elderly couple to take a picture for me–only to find them walking away. I turned back and, after a moment’s hesitation, improvised a bit:
After taking one of the most memorable selfies of my life, I showed her the picture; thankfully, she seemed amused. Afterward, I thanked her and we each walked away. Travel really is all about those chance happenings! Memories 🙂
There you have it, a list of five awesome things to do in Kyoto. Have you been to Kyoto before? If so, let me know what recommendations you have for fully experiencing the city. I look forward to hearing from you!
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Kyoto is one of my favourite cities in the world! Good run down on things there, although Nishiki food market would be one of the things I would recommend as well, but then again I love my food 🙂
Mmm, I didn’t make it there, but if it’s a food market I’m sure I would’ve loved it! Thanks for the tip… next time 😉
I walked through the Nishiki Market twice in search of “sake tastings” which a friend said was there. I finally realized that their tastings are nothing like wine tastings offered in the US. I walked into the sake store (or stand) and asked to sample some choices to help me decide what to buy! Viola! Sake tasting at Nishiki Market! Suzette, TrySomethingFun.com
Hi Nathan, I love your torri gate photos and the whole post is great too. I went to Kyoto for the first time a few months ago and it was stunning. Did you make it to the monkey mountain in Arashiyama? – Suzette, TrySomethingFun.com
Thank you so much! I absolutely loved Kyoto, what an amazing city!
I didn’t go to the monkey mountain, I walked past it, but did the hike up to the temple instead. How was the monkey mountain?
Malachi Mata - Living in Korea for Expats.com
I have to agree, that is an awesome selfie. I’m always too shy to ask people to take pictures, but I’m glad you did it. You look so happy in that picture. You’re posts, like always, make me want to travel. Perhaps it’s the pictures or the amount of info you put into them. One thing I did notice, however, is that towards the end of this post, you started to get more narrative. I really liked that. It read like a story. I always learn a lot about different things from your posts (You must research a lot) but I get more involved in the story when you give that information in narrative form like that toward the end of this one, and also, the pictures of you give a nice personal touch that I also really like.
Thanks for the feedback! I usually struggle to find a balance between being informative and creating an engaging narrative. Too often my posts are skewed one way or the other. There’s always room for improvement!
Glad you liked the selfie! I was so nervous asking for permission to take the picture, I’m usually more like you and don’t even make an attempt. I just know I don’t care for having my picture taken by strangers, so I feel awkward asking others.
Malachi Mata - Living in Korea for Expats.com
I also feel awkward taking pictures for other people as well. I mean, what if they don’t like it? But the one you took here was well worth the stress I’m sure.
Lovely pics of Kyoto. As always, I’ve truly enjoyed looking into a place through your words and pictures. So beautifully told and displayed. Great work!
Evan and Rachel
Awesome post! We just went to Kyoto this past winter, and even in the cold it was gorgeous! 🙂 We went to most of these places. I can’t believe you stumbled upon fushimi inari–what luck!! haha
And the selfie with the geisha may be the coolest thing I’ve seen in awhile. I only got a bad picture of the back of a geisha, but yours is a whole other level! it made me smile, definitely will be a cherished photo for a long time I’m sure.
I only got to spend a day in Kyoto but I really enjoyed it. There was just something about it that made me feel really at peace and relaxed, though I’m not quite sure what it was. It was even raining the entire time I was there.
One cool thing not on your list that I saw was the Nijo Castle. You can go inside some of the buildings and you can really get a sense of what life used to be like in Japan.
Awesome, thanks! I really want to go back to Japan someday, will check out Nijo Castle when I do 🙂
OH! I recognize the shrines at Fushimi Inari from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha! Such beautiful photos!!
I still need to see that movie! It will be fun to see Fushimi Inari again. Glad you liked the photos!
Those are some amazing pictures. Kyoto is really high on my list of places to hit up next time in Japan. This just makes me want to do it more.
Great upward shots of the bamboo – that area gives off a relaxing and cool environment. Kyoto looks like a fascinating city, I’ll definitely want to spend a few days there when I make it to Japan.
Thanks, man! My aunt and uncle told me Kyoto was amazing, so I had pretty high expectations. It still blew me away. Great place.
I am planning a trip to Japan soon, hopefully if pockets permit. Also, I too want a Geisha selfie! 😀
Good luck! Send it to me if you manage to get one!
sure, I will. Amen! 🙂
That first torri gate photo is stunning!
Am I noticing a trend towards more shareable posts here? Lookin’ good 😉
Thanks, man! That’s the idea 🙂