Kyoto is a top destination for those seeking traditional Japanese history, art, and culture. The city served as the imperial capital from 794 until 1868 and remains a cultural hub filled with temples and teahouses, gardens and geisha. With so much to do, see, and experience in this bustling city of 1.5 million people, here are my top experiences in the city of Kyoto. These are in no particular order ... how could I possibly rank these incredible sights?
Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji
This Zen temple is accurately called "Golden Pavilion," since its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. This shimmering example of temple architecture has burned down many times over the years and was most recently rebuilt in 1955. Its companion, Ginkaku-ji ("Silver Pavilion"), although not actually covered in silver, is also quite a sight and is located just on the other side of the city.
Sagano Bamboo Forest and Iwatayama Monkey Park
Located about 10 minutes apart in Kyoto's Arashiyama district (about 30 minutes from the city center), the Sagano Bamboo Forest and the Iwatayama Monkey Park are both fascinating places to spend a day. The bamboo forest, with its paths through soaring stalks of bamboo, is one of Kyoto's most photographed destinations. Avoid afternoons and weekends to bypass the biggest crowds. At nearby Iwatayama Monkey Park, visitors who take the 35- to 45-minute hike up to the park can get up close and personal with more than 170 wild Japanese macaque monkeys (also known as snow monkeys). Inside the park, you can observe the monkeys (don't touch!) and purchase food to feed them.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
If you're familiar with just one image of Kyoto, it is probably the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine. The earliest structures that make up the shrine complex were built in 711, and today, the shrine is considered the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. In addition to the thousands of torii gates, which are said to mark the transition from the mundane to the sacred, you'll find many fox statues at Fushimi Inari, as the fox is considered the messenger of Inari.
Geisha Culture in Gion District
Although geishas can be found throughout Japan, Kyoto is considered the birthplace of geisha culture, and it is still the best place to learn about and see geisha, which are actually called geiko in Kyoto. Geisha training in the traditional Japanese arts begins between the ages of 15 and 20 and lasts at least five years before the trainee is considered a full-fledged geiko; until that time, they are known as maiko. The best time to spot a geisha out and about in Kyoto is in the evening, around 5:45 p.m. as they head to work. If you want to take a photo, be respectful, don't stand in their way, and recognize that they probably do not have time to pose for a photo.
Nijo Castle was originally built between 1601 and 1603 as the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. Widely considered to be a monument to the power the shoguns held over the emperor during the period, it was intentionally built overlooking the nearby Imperial Palace and includes exquisite details like intricate wood carvings and decorative panels that stand in direct contrast to the stark design of the royal palace.
If you are in search of all of the culinary delights that Kyoto has to offer, Nishiki Market is where you should head. This five-block-long street is home to more than 100 restaurants and shops where you can find everything from fresh seafood and produce to knives and cookware. You'll also find some of Kyoto's culinary specialties, including sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi in this lively market area.
Founded in 778 as a temple to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, Kiyomizu-dera Temple was built entirely without the use of nails. The structure is perhaps best known for the wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, 43 feet from the hillside below. From the stage, visitors can view the numerous cherry and maple trees below, as well as the city of Kyoto in the distance. If you're planning a visit in the next couple of years, note that Kiyomizu-dera's main hall is completely covered as it undergoes renovation of its roof through March 2020. The main hall will still be accessible during renovations.
The Philosopher's Path is a stone walkway that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. It stretches just over a mile through the northern part of Kyoto's Higashiyama district. The path takes its name from Nishida Kitaro, a famous Japanese philosopher, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. The path is lined with restaurants and boutiques, and there are a number of smaller temples and shrines nearby. The most notable of the temples is Honen-in, with an entrance gate that is quite spectacular especially during the autumn leaf season.
Traditional Tea Ceremony
Kyoto is the birthplace of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and thus is the perfect place to experience this highly ritualized tradition firsthand. There are many places throughout Kyoto where one can experience chado or sado, as the ceremony is known, but a teahouse called En offers an authentic tea ceremony that comes highly recommended. For a more exclusive experience, arrange for a private tea ceremony in a local temple.
Hike from Kurama to Kibune
Nestled in the Kitayama Mountains of northern Kyoto, Kurama and Kibune are rustic villages with traditional Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. During the moderately challenging hike of 1.5 hours between the two, you will encounter Kuramadera Temple with its bright red lanterns. The hike ends at the beautiful Kifune Shrine, dedicated to the god of rain.
Want more Japan travel tips? Visit my Japan destination website for details on destinations and can't-miss experiences throughout the country. And when you're ready to start planning your trip, reach out to me at email@example.com, and I'll help ensure it's the vacation of a lifetime!