Top 8 Attractions In Kyoto

Kyoto is an ethereal city that’s packed with over 1600 shrines and temples, countless beautiful Zen gardens and more history than you could possibly hope to absorb in a single visit. This is one of the few places on Earth where having a pre-planned itinerary is mandatory. There’s so much to see and do that it would be very easy to get overwhelmed. To make things easier below is my list of the top attractions you must see while in Kyoto.

1. Fushimi Inari Shrine

The one place that I absolutely had to see while in Kyoto was Fushimi Inari. This shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of rice and sake. While beautiful, this iconic shrine is famous for having over 10,000 red and orange lacquered torri gates lining the 2.5 mile path up Mount Inari. These gates are staggered, creating a covered path up the mountain side. I’ve seen many pictures of these gates, but seeing it in person exceeded all my expectations.

During the day this site will be jam packed with tourists, while in the evening Fushimi Inari is quieter. Just before dusk, the fading light filters through the trees and over the orange torri gates, treating visitors to a unique and otherworldly experience.

Directions: Fushimi Inari Shrine is free to visit and is accessible via JR Inari Station on the JR Nara subway line.

Below is a video from my visit to this site:

2. Tofukuji Temple

Down the street from Fushimi Inari is Tofukuji Temple. Founded in 1236, Tofukuji is one of the principal Zen temples in Kyoto. In the Fall people come from all over Japan to see Tofukuji’s garden, which glows with spectacular autumn colors.

After leaving Fushimi Inari I stumbled across this site. I was lucky enough to be in Kyoto during the turning of the leaves. It was an overwhelming experience and an intense sensory overload.

The most popular view is from the Tsutenkyo Bridge, which spans the valley of lush maple trees. Also not to be missed is the Kaisando Hall, which has an amazing pebble Zen garden in front of it.

Directions: This is walking distance from the Fushimi Inari Temple.

Fees: 400 yen (Tsutenkyo Bridge and Kaisando Hall), 400 yen (Hojo and gardens).

3. Gion

Gion is a magical district in Kyoto, famous for its historic streets, charming tea houses and wooden ryokans. Gion is one of the few places where (if you’re lucky) you might catch a glimpse of a Geisha shuffling between tea houses on wooden sandals. Contrary to western belief, the Geisha is not a prostitute – she’s an entertainer. Hired at dinner parties and banquets to sing, dance and provide company.

Gion also is famous for the Kiyomizudera Temple, one of Japan’s most popular temples. Built high on a wooded hill, it offers its visitors great views of Kyoto from its wooden terrace. Right below the temple is Higashiyama, a bustling area that’s filled with amazing stores, restaurants and street vendors.

As you explore Gion, keep your eyes open for small temples and gardens. The smaller venues tend to be less busy and allow you the opportunity to enjoy the spiritual surroundings in peace.

Directions: You can find Gion on the eastern bank of the Kamo River in central Kyoto. You can get there by taking the 100 or the 206 bus from Kyoto Station, or by taking the train to Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line.

4. Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)

Two of the most popular temples to visit are the Golden and Silver Pavilion Temples.

The Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) is swathed in golden leaf, shines in the sunlight and overlooks the glassy surface of a mirror lake. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu lived in the gilded structure in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and after he passed his son, Ashikaga Yoshimochi, took power. When his father died, Yoshimochi had the pavilion converted into a Buddhist temple. However, in 1950 an extremist monk set the golden temple aflame. What now stands is a replica of Kinkaku-ji that was built in 1955.

The Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) is not actually silver — though it was intended to be. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, built Ginkaku-ji in 1482 as his retirement villa, died before he could swath the structure in silver leaf. Even without the silver, Ginkakuji is still stunningly beautiful.

Golden Pavilion Directions: To get to Kinkaku-ji, take Kyoto City Bus No. 101 or 205 from Kyoto Station (about 40 minutes) or bus No. 101, 102, 204 or 205 from Kitaoji Station (about 15 minutes). The temple is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day, and entry costs 400 JPY (about $4 USD) for adults and 300 JPY (about $3 USD) for first- through ninth-graders. Children younger than that can enter for free.

Silver Pavilion Directions: Ginkaku-ji sits in Kyoto’s northeastern reaches; you can get there via buses 5, 17 and 100 from Kyoto Station. It’s open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. from March to November, and from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. from December to February. Admission is 500 JPY (about $5 USD) per person.

5. Arashiyama

Arashiyama is an idyllic neighborhood that is blessed with incredibly beautiful nature, mountains and hosts some of Kyoto’s most iconic landmarks. A visit to Arashiyama can be intense as this is an area that has a lot to do and see. Some of the highlights from my visit included:

  • Tenryu-ji Temple: a sprawling Zen temple with one of the finest gardens in Kyoto and wonderful mountain views.
  • Bamboo Grove: walking through this grove, under the towering bamboo stalks, is a powerful experience. The bamboo sways in the sky while the sound of the rustling leaves fills the air. Even though the path is short and the site is packed with tourists, this is still a unique experience.
  • Iwatayama Monkey Park: across the river in Arashiyama is the Iwatayama Monkey Park. To reach it you’ll need to take a 20 minute hike up a mountain path. Once you arrive you’ll get to spend time with over 100 Japanese macaques monkeys that freely roam between visitors. You can also buy monkey treats and feed them from inside an enclosure.

Directions: The fastest access from Kyoto Station to Arashiyama is provided by the JR Sagano Line (also known as JR Sanin Line). The one way ride to Saga-Arashiyama Station takes 15 minutes and costs 240 yen.

6. Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is a bustling five block market lined with 126 stalls that sell specialty Japanese foods. This is a great place to get adventurous and try unique foods that you wouldn’t find at home. Don’t worry though, you’ll find everything from tame food offerings like nigiri to the more eclectic like roe stuffed squid. So bring your appetite and get ready to expand your culinary horizons.

Directions: Nishiki Market is one block north of and parallel to Shijo Street in central Kyoto, within walking distance of the Shijo, Karasuma and Kawaramachi subway stations. Free to the public, most of the market is open every day from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Nishiki Market sells Japanese and specialty food items. photo credit: Nishiki Market via photopin (license)

7. Ryoan-ji Temple Rock Garden

The history of Ryoan-ji Temple’s dry rock garden is a mystery. No one knows who designed it or what the 15 rock formations scattered across the raked white gravel means. Academics have guessed that it could be a tiger carrying a cub across a stream, others say that its an ocean accented with small islands or maybe its the sky dotted with clouds. The one thing that everyone can agree on is that this is one of the finest examples of Zen landscaping. This space invites you to quietly contemplate and meditate during your visit.

Directions: Ryoan-ji can be reached on the number 59 bus route. Admission is ¥500 and the temple and garden opens daily 8am to 5pm (8.30am to 4.30pm from Dec to Feb).

Nobody knows who designed or the meaning of the 15 rocks in Ryoan-ji's rock garden. photo credit: Zen Gardens. via photopin (license)

8. Day Trip To Nara

Nara is a popular day trip from Kyoto. 40 minute by train, it’s a beautiful town that’s famous for its temples and wildlife. The Todaiji temple is known for housing the largest Buddha in an enclosed building. Walking into Todaiji and seeing the statue of Buddha was an impressive sight.

Nara is also famous for the deers that roam freely around its parks and temple grounds. These deers are literally everywhere. You can buy deer snacks in the park areas and feed them. Be warned, once they sense you have food they will swarm you.

Directions: If you have the JR Ticket you can take the JR Nara line for free (otherwise it costs Y690) which departs from JR Kyoto station.

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