Kyoto, Japan’s former capital, has long been the center of traditional Japanese culture. At the same time, it is a modern and vibrant major city. Kyoto is packed with attractions, and is the quintessential marriage of old and new, tradition and innovation. There are thousands of shrines and temples in Kyoto, seemingly on every street corner and tucked into every alley. Don’t miss the charms of Kyoto’s old streets, traditional crafts, and historic temples mixed with modern design and city conveniences.
What to See in Kyoto
Nijo Castle in central Kyoto is a palace built by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 as his Kyoto residence. It is an outstanding example of Japanese palace architecture from the feudal era and has beautiful gardens. It is famous for the nightingale floors in the Ninomaru Palace, which make squeaking sounds to alert its occupants to intruders.
Located in the eastern hills, Kiyomuzudera is an iconic temple in Kyoto. Its large wooden balcony overlooks cherry trees in in spring and colorful maples in fall and offers a nice view of the city. The illumination in November, with its fall colors on full display, makes this area one of the most popular tourism sights in Kyoto. In addition to the main temple complex, there is a small “love shrine” on the approach. There are two stones placed far apart, and it is said that anyone who can walk from one to the other with their eyes closed will be lucky in love. Getting to the temple entails a walk up the streets of Higashiyama, which are lined with local Kiyomizu-yaki pottery stores and souvenir shops.
The Gion district is located to the west of Higashiyama and is an absolute Kyoto must see. It is Japan’s most famous geisha district, and one of the last remaining. Take some time to wander the traditional wooden machiya streets, shop for traditional crafts, drink some matcha tea, and perhaps catch a glimpse of a geisha or maiko. Gion Corner, a theater at the end of Hanami-koji, offers a show of traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony and bunraku and dances performed by real maiko.
In north-eastern Kyoto is Ginkakuji, the so-called “Silver Pavilion.” Unlike Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), Ginkakuji was never actually covered in precious metal. The zen temple is notable for its dry landscape garden and moss garden. It was built as the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, and was a center of culture and arts. After walking through the moss garden, continue a walk up the hill behind the temple for nice views of the grounds and the larger area. It is part of the scenic Philosopher’s Path, with Nanzenji on the other end, one of the most iconic places to visit in Kyoto.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
In southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is slightly outside of the city center. Nevertheless, it is not to be missed. Thousands of red torii gates line the path behind the shrine up the sacred Mount Inari. These gates were depicted in an iconic scene in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. The gates are donated by individuals or companies who get their name inscribed on the back of the gate. Hiking the entire trail takes about 2-3 hours roundtrip. However, about a 30-45 minute walk up the hill is a nice rest spot with a view and after that the gates decrease in frequency. Many people enjoy some tofu ice cream at this point before returning down the mountain.
Tofukuji is a large Zen temple in southeastern Kyoto. In the fall, views both of and from the Tsutenkyo Bridge over a valley of maple trees are a spectacular vision of red, orange, yellow, and green. The crowds flock to this temple during the peak season in November. The temple grounds are also worthwhile outside of the fall season and much less crowded.
Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and Ninnaji
Some of the most famous temples in Kyoto are in the north, including the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), Ryoanji, and Ninnaji. Kinkakuji is a truly spectacular sight – a temple with its top two floors covered in real gold leaf in the middle of a pond. It was built as the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu but became a Zen temple after his death.
In contrast, Ryoanji is an understated wonder with its dry landscape garden. Its 15 rocks can never be seen simultaneously from any one viewpoint in the garden.
Further along the same street as Kinkakuji and Ryoanji is a temple called Ninnaji, one of Kyoto’s many World Heritage Sites. It was founded in 888 by the emperor and for centuries a member of Japan’s Imperial Family would serve as Ninnaji’s head priest. The former resident of this head priest is an impressive building in the style of an imperial palace with beautiful gardens and sliding screens. It is also famous for its late blooming cherry trees.
Kyoto Travel: from Tokyo and Osaka
Traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto
Kyoto can be reached by JR Tokaido Shinkansen train. Nozomi, the fastest trains, take 2 hours and 20 minutes to reach Kyoto from Tokyo. Hikari trains take about 2 hours and 40 minutes, and Kodama trains about 4 hours. Both Hikari and Kodama can be used with the JR Pass. Kyoto can also be reached by plane via Kansai International Airport or Osaka Itami Airport, and while slightly less convenient than the shinkansen, it can be cheaper for those without a JR Pass thanks to budget airline options. From the airport. From either airport, Kyoto can be reached by train or limousine bus.
Traveling from Osaka to Kyoto
Kyoto is a short and easy trip from Osaka. There are several train options to choose from, including shinkansen, JR trains, Hankyu Railways, and Keihan Railways. Shinkansen is the fastest option, taking a mere 15 minutes from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station (again, Hikari and Kodama trains are covered by the JR Pass). From JR Osaka Station, Kyoto can be reached in about 30 minutes by JR special rapid train. Hankyu trains take 40 minutes from Umeda Station to Karasuma or Kawaramachi stations in Kyoto. Alternatively, Sanjo Station in Kyoto can be reached on the Keihan line in about 50 minutes from Yodoyabashi Station in Osaka.
Temples in Kyoto are only the Beginning of your Journey
There are no shortage of breathtaking places to visit in Kyoto. It offers a window into the soul of traditional Japan, beautiful scenes of cherry blossoms and fall colors, historic palaces, temples, and shrines, wonderful food, and streets that you will actually enjoy getting lost in. Of course, don’t take our word for it—it’s best to experience the magic for yourself.