Kyoto is quite unlike any other place I’ve visited. The city is growing day-to-day, yet it still remains humble, with a great devotion and respect for its history and ancient faith. It is a place where I would like to live for a couple of months and explore, because it has such a rich past, full of mysticism, culture and tradition that still awaits to be discovered. It is also an incredibly beautiful place, located in the heart of the mountains. It is one of the most explorable places on earth; you’ll never run out of mysteries.
Surprisingly enough, I found that some of the most amazing places in Kyoto, like Nanzen-ji Temple or the Philosopher’s Path and the whole of the Arashiyama area, are often not very well-represented in travel guides. You don’t really get to know what they’re all about, and a lot of travellers miss out on these places. There are, it is said, 1000 Buddhist temples in Kyoto, and there’s plenty more to see in the city, but these 11 are the places in Kyoto that should be on any traveller’s list.
Kyoto’s famous Geisha district is full of some of the most beautiful and peaceful streets I’ve seen. It is located on the eastern bank of the river, Kamo-gawa, and it used to be (and still is) home to that offer geisha entertainment.
The most beautiful street is Shimbashi, lined with old houses and antique stores (do be aware of tourist traps!). It runs next to the river, and in the spring it is lined with cherry blossoms. Oftentimes you can spot the Maikos, or geisha trainees taking pictures on this street dressed in traditional robes and hairstyles.
My top recommendation for Gion: dine in one of its many restaurants, and go to a Geisha show or dance. It’s an unforgettable experience. You may prefer the dance, but if you choose a show (or it’s your only option), don’t miss out. Although you may not understand a thing, it’s an amazing display of culture and entertainment of Kyoto (the costumes and makeup are truly astounding) , and you are guaranteed a good time.
2. Tenryu-ji Temple
This beautiful zen temple is located in Arashiyama, right next to its famous bamboo grove. Like most of the sites in Kyoto, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of beautiful white temples, and plenty of zen gardens to be explored.
Its name means “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon” and it is the most important temple in the Rinzai Zen Buddhism branch, dating back to the 1300s. Fun fact: before Tenryu-ji, on that same place stood the first Zen temple in all of Japan.
A tip for visitors to this site: make sure you’re buying the right ticket. There is a ticket to enter the gardens only, one to walk and visit the main hall, and another to visit the two.
3. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
It is one of Kyoto’s most iconic and famous sites and for good reason: it is surreal. It is unlike any other forest, the endless, tall and dancing bamboos serenading the crowds that visit it with a warm rustle when the wind rushes through them. No photo can capture just how striking this place is. Read more about the bamboo grove here.
4. Okochi Sanso
At the top of the path leading through the bamboo grove, you’ll find Okochi Sanso the private villa of the famous silent-era samurai actor Okochi Denjiro, who constructed this gorgeous home at the looking down on Kyoto over a 30 year period. Go in, you will not regret it.
You can explore the gardens, where you can enjoy the view of Kyoto from above and take amazing pictures. It’s a short visit that’s well worth it.
At the end and on your way out, don’t forget to try a free and delicious cup of traditional matcha tea.
5. Nijo Jo Castle
Best known for its ornamented gates and intricate golden decorations, what a lot of people don’t know is that it’s the inside of Nijo Castle that is truly special. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take any photographs inside, but walking through the halls of this ancient places that has served as a temple, home, palace, and samurai residence.
Inside, you can view colourful paintings on the walls in each of the rooms, which each had a special function in the residence, and read about the things that happened inside this place, learning about the people who walked its halls.
You can also explore the massive gardens, with some of the strangest plant-life I’ve ever seen, along with a beautiful man-made pond with koi fish and decorative stone bridges, as well as view the outside of the walled palace and its surrounding moat and stone walls.
6. Kinkaku-ji Temple
Also known as “The Golden Pavilion”, this temple is one of the most photographed in all of Kyoto for its striking golden colour and its reflection on the surrounding lake. It also belongs to the Rinzai Zen school of buddhism, and the pavilion stores several relics of Buddha (which visitors, sadly, cannot view). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a shining phoenix greeting visitors from all over the world. Save this one for a sunny day, so you can view it in all its glory, or for the golden afternoon hours.
7. Ryoan-ji Temple
This temple’s main sight is the rock garden that made it famous. It is completely different from the rock garden’s characteristic of the Middle Ages, with no trees in sight, and only white gravel and rocks. It is said to have been created by Zen monk Tokuho Zenketsu in the 1500s and is a great spot for a short meditation. The temple allows for visitors to walk inside and view the rock garden and rooms (without shoes), as well as the surrounding gardens.
When visiting, look for the Tsukubai, a unique stone basin with the inscription: “I learn only to be contented”, an important teaching in Zen dharma.
Honen-in is another one of Kyoto’s most surreal sights. This temple is covered in moss, giving it a fairytale-like atmosphere and making it seem magical. The two mounds of sand are said to purify visitors at the entrance, and as you walk through the gardens you can see the moss-covered shrines and constructions rising from the ground, almost as if they were a part of nature itself.
The grounds are free to roam, and are some of the most exquisite displays of man and nature as one on earth. It is also quite secluded, and not very well-known, creating a peaceful, silent, and crowd-free space to explore and meditate. It is the most serene spot in Kyoto.
9. The Philosopher’s Path
Saving my favourite three for last, The Philosopher’s Path and its surrounding areas is the one place in Kyoto that I regret not exploring any further. Initially, I wasn’t even going to visit it due to time constraints (I had to get to the Geisha show on the other side of the city), but I managed to at least walk a portion of it, and visit the temples of Nanzen-ji and Honen-in in the process. I am convinced, with what little I saw, that this is the of the most beautiful and breathtaking place in Kyoto.
The Philosopher’s Path is not just a canal that you walk next to, nope. It is surrounded by the most beautiful neighbourhoods and walking streets in Japan, lined with small artsy stores and beautiful old houses, as well as western-style cafés and tradition matcha tea houses. Lined with cherry blossoms, I could have spent at least an entire day exploring this place, and I have promised myself to return, rent a bike, and do just that.
10. Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
If you are as in love with Torii gates as I am, then you will love this place. And even if you don’t, you will.
Fushimi Inari Taisha was founded in 711 on Mountain Inari when the god of the same name was enshrined here, and it is the main Inari shrine in Japan. It is over 1300 years old, and striking, perhaps one of the most humbling shows of culture in Japan. There are over 1000 tore gates, of all colours, ages and sizes, leading the path up to the top of the hill.
The shrine is also famous for its kitsunes (foxes), which are considered messengers of the gods. Once you reach the top, you’ll be met by thousands of stone lanterns and tiny tore gates stacked along the path. It’s an atmosphere similar to that of Toshogushaden Karamonmae: simultaneously eerie and peaceful. Then, as you make your way back down, houses will start popping up and mixing with the thousands and thousands of shrines that lead back to the entrance of the temple, in a true show of the closeness of religion with modern Kyoto, and unique sights that you will not find anywhere else.
11. Nanzen-ji Temple
This is my favourite place in Kyoto.
Nanzen-ji… Where do I even begin? Picture this: you walk into a massive plaza, with huge moss-covered spaces covered in tall trees and cherry blossoms, and surrounded by old, all-white villas on all sides, and at the very heart a towering wooden structure greets you, its old age-ravaged cracks inviting you to cross under it (or climb it for a view from the balcony), its rusty metal doors wide open. The gate of Nanzen-ji is even more striking than the wooden structure of Todai-ji Temple in Nara, because it seems so much more fragile and ancient.
In the surrounding villas, you will find gorgeous zen gardens, ponds and shrines inviting you to explore them and pay your respects.
And at the very back of the complex, you will find a most unlikely sight: an old aqueduct crossing the temple grounds that you can walk on (I don’t know how far you can walk go on it, but it’s definitely an adventure worth seeking!).
I don’t even know how to describe this place, it’s completely mesmerizing… It has left me without words. The massive and beautiful place that was created here is peaceful and harmonic, so full of spirituality that it’s almost tangible in the air and with so much diversity within its many temples. And I truly believe, that when in Kyoto, this is the one place that you’ll want to stay in for hours.