GUIDE TO THE BEST 5 UNMISSABLE ATTRACTIONS IN KYOTO
This article on Guide to the Best 5 in Kyoto was last updated on October 18, 2022
Without a doubt, everything I love about Japan is in Kyoto. Kyoto is my favourite city in Japan, followed by Hiroshima, Osaka, Tokyo and Himeji. Kyoto is a city of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, geishas and centuries old landscaped gardens. Tradition and culture exudes at every corner and street of this pretty city. Kyoto is slower and more deliberate in pace. An atmospheric city that takes me back to a different era of shoguns, samurais and monks each time I am in the city.
There is so much to do in Kyoto, that any time spent here will have you longing for more. However, if you have only a few days to spend in Kyoto, ensure you do not miss the best 5 in Kyoto that are in this guide.
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A LITTLE ABOUT KYOTO, JAPAN
Kyoto was the former capital of Japan until 1869 and was the residence of the Japanese emperor between AD 794 and 1868. The city of Kyoto and its regions are a popular destination both for tourists and locals.
As a region, Kyoto is home to at least 1600 temples and shrines, both small and large, famous and not so much. In addition there are many imperial palaces and gardens that just beckons a visit. Besides temples, shrines, palaces and gardens, Kyoto is strictly rooted in formal traditions such as kaiseki dining where multiple courses of precise dishes is served and geisha, who is a female entertainer often found in Gion-shiji.
With Kyoto being home to so much culture, food, vibrancy and history to indulge in, I can confidently say that one cannot have too many days in that cultural city. Strolling through Gion or Pontocho to steal a glimpse of the geisha, visiting the many iconic temples or experiencing a traditional ryokan stay will leave you with lasting memories. No matter how much time you spend in Kyoto, saying ‘goodbye’ will always be hard.
As for me, Kyoto is a place I will return to. Having lived in Japan for almost six months I realise there is so much to see and do here that there will always be new experiences to look forward to. Thus, selecting the best places to top my list for the purposes of this article was a difficult task. Nevertheless, here is my recommended guide to the Best 5 in Kyoto which you simply must not miss when you visit Kyoto.
BEST 5 IN KYOTO, JAPAN
1 | Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto
The Fushimi Inari Taisha is a popular destination in Kyoto. A Shinto shrine most recognisable for its thousands (about 10,000) of orange torii gates. These torii gates line up the path on a steep hillside arching over the sacred Mount Inari. The path has about 12000 concrete steps.
These bright orange gates are said to date back to 711 AD and was built to honour the Shinto God of Rice, Inari. The Inari Shrine is characterised by a pair of fox and vermilion torii gates.
Everyone, both young and old who visit Fushimi Inari climb these steps to the top. It took me a little over an hour to reach the top of the mountain, only because I stopped many times to take in the vista, photos of the torii gates from various angles and to chat along with other travellers. One could climb to the top in about 45 minutes without breaks, but then where is the fun in that, right?
Some of the paths are steep. There are resting areas with little tea-houses where you could stop for tea or ice-cream. If you are hungry, you may wish to try a bowl of kitsune udon along with some inari sushi – both are reputed to be Inari specialities. There are designated viewing points along the paths as well.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is well worth the hike! One feels a sense of achievement when you reach the top.
1.1 | Good to Know Information about Fushimi Inari Taisha Kyoto | Best 5 in Kyoto
Where: Fushimi Inari Taisha
Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-0882, Japan
1 | When planning a trip to Fushimi Inari Taisha, use the map below as a guidedto plan ahead so you could time your breaks for refreshments and for viewing points.
2 | Fushimi Inari is always open and there are no entrance fee.
3 | This mountain is popular both among tourists and locals which means that it will always be busy. Early mornings are best.
4 | Georgina: “I visited Fushimi Inari in May, and it was quite humid then. Best to take a bottle of water with you”.
1.2 | Getting to Fushimi Inari Taisha:
The nearest station to Fushimi Inari is situated at Inari Station. Inari Station takes about 5 minutes to reach by train on the JR line from Kyoto. From Inari Station, it is a short walk uphill a street lined with souvenir shops, food-stalls and restaurants with unique architecture. If you are unsure which way to turn as you get off the train, just follow the crowd and you will get there😊.
Timeless Travel Steps Best Tips about Best 5 in Kyoto:
If you are planning a visit to Fushimi Inari, and like to explore the shrine with a guide, you could book the following tour/s:
1 | For an enriched experience, you may want to join a guide who will share the history of the shrine and all the stories related to its construction. The symbolism of the torii gate, and why people donate them. The Japanese people make an annual pilgrimage here. Check availability on the Guided tour of the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.
2 | Hike a scenic trail up the sacred Mount Inari with an experienced guide. The hiking trail is via a secret bamboo forest on a hidden path that leads to the top of Mount Inari. Book your space on the best selling tour of 3-hour Fushimi Inari hidden hiking tour with a guide.
3 | If you are shutterbug wild, join the popular after dusk photography tour of Fushimi Inari.
2 | Kinkaku-ji Temple | Best 5 in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji is one of the most beautiful Japanese zen gardens in Kyoto which I have been to. I highly recommend Kinkaku-ji and should top every visitor’s list.
Kinkaku-ji is home to the famous Buddhist temple, Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion is a three-storey building and takes its name from the gold leaf that covers the building. Situated in a picturesque pond, the Golden Pavilion is surrounded by tiny little islands dotted all around.
Kinkaku-ji belonged to a Japanese shogun, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1408), who had it built as his private garden. The paths are beautifully carved out, so you could enjoy every corner of the garden, with plenty of shades provided by the tall trees which may have been there since the 14th century or before.
Walking through the garden, you will totally feel the zen, the calmness and the serenity, knowing that you are walking the steps once walked by the Shogun himself! In this beautifully tended garden, you will find pretty little lakes with wildlife where you will want to stop every so often to admire and to capture the moments with your camera. Throughout the garden at this Kinkaku-ji Pavilion in Kyoto, you will find lovely moss covered ground which adds to the softness of the luscious green.
If you need a break, there is a tea-house where you can either sit seiza-style on the floor in-doors or on low-rise benches outdoors.
2.1 | Good to Know Information about Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto | Best 5 in Kyoto
Where: Kinkaku-ji Kyoto
Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8361, Japan
Kinkakuji is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day.
1 | Kinkaku-ji is easily accessible from Kyoto city or Gion-shiji. Take either bus 101 or 205 and its 230 yen. The journey is about 40 minutes. If you can, avoid the school rush hour (before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m.).
2 | Admission to Kinkakuji is 400 yen for adults, and 300 yen for children up to junior high school age.
Timeless Travel Steps Best Tips for the Best 5 in Kyoto:
1 | Enjoy a much richer experience than would be possible independently when you join a guided tour of the Golden Pavilion. Learn about the rich heritage and the historical context of one of Kyoto’s famous landmarks from a knowledgeable and experienced guide. Learn more and check availability on the Kinkaku-ji Guided Walking Tour.
2 | Discover Japanese culture and history on a guided tour of three World Heritage Sites and two shrines. En route, stop for lunch at a popular soba noodle eatery (not included in the tour) before continuing on to your final stop. Check availability on World Heritage Temples and Shrines Tour.
3 | Visit 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ninna-ji temple, Ryoan-ji temple, and Kinkaku-ji temple and discover the art of Zen while learning the rich history of the temples. Experience the traditional culture including matcha and Shakyo. Book your experience on this 3.5 hour UNESCO historical walking tour in Kyoto.
3 | Arashiyama & Sagano | Best 5 in Kyoto
Arashiyama basically means ‘Storm Mountain’ and is situated on western Kyoto. It is designated as a Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty. The Oi River runs through this district and meets Togetsukyo Bridge and changes to become Katsura River. The Togetsukyo Bridge, also referred to as the “bridge under the moon” is a landmark in this district.
This part of Kyoto was popular among the nobles during the Heian period (794-1185). Arashiyama was frequented for its tranquillity and natural beauty, so the name ‘Storm Mountain’ does not really do justice to the serenity of this place.
The one experience all visitors to Arashiyama wish to have is the Arashiyama Bamboo Groves. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of the most photographed areas in Kyoto where people wear their kimono or yukata for the day. It is completely out of this world to walk among the over-arching tall, very tall bamboo stalks swaying gently in the breeze.
In addition to the Bamboo Groves, Arashiyama as an area is picturesque and is dotted with many temples, gardens, quaint shops and restaurants.
3.1 | Good to Know Information about Arashiyama, Kyoto
How to get to Arashiyama from Kyoto Station
Arashiyama is conveniently accessible from Kyoto Station by train.
Take the JR Train from Kyoto Station on the JR Sagano/San-in Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station. When you exit Arashiyama Station, follow signs to the Bamboo Grove. It takes about 10 minutes.
Timeless Travel Steps Best Tips for Arashiyama | Best 5 in Kyoto
1 | A quintessential way to experience the Bamboo Groves and one that is popular in Arashiyama is the hand-pulled rickshaw ride along an exclusive rickshaw path. Enjoy an informative and fully customisable rickshaw tour as you explore the charming and quiet neighborhood streets of Arashiyama. Book your rickshaw ride here.
2 | Explore the best of Arashiyama on a full day guided walking tour. Visit iconic spots such as the Bamboo Forest path, Togetsukyo Bridge, and Kimono Forest on this walking tour along with the best photo spots. Check availability and book your space on this popular activity in Arashiyama.
3 | You may wish to combine sightseeing the best of Arashiyama (beautiful bridge called the Togetsukyo, the scenic bamboo grove and Tenryu-ji temple with beautiful traditional garden) along with food tasting experiences in the Sagano area. Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who will share the history of Arashiyama, and ensure you have the best experience in Arashiyama. Check availability and book your space on the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Food Walking Tour.
4. Heian Shrine and Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto
Some may think that this is an unusual combination because Philosophers Path is usually combined with a trip to Ginkakuji Temple, which is just a 5-minute walk, up the road from Philosopher’s Path. However, I have chosen this combination as I rather enjoyed the 20-minute walk from Heian Shrine to Philosopher’s Path.
4.1 | Heian Shrine, Kyoto
The entrance to Heian Shrine is marked by a giant torii gate, about 25 metres high which overlooks the Okazaki Koen Park. The main buildings are said to be 5/8th of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian period. The Shrine is surrounded by spacious grounds and there is a large open court at the centre, with spacious courtyard between buildings.
Shin’en, Heian Shrine, Kyoto
The most aesthetically impressive part of Heian Shrine is the Shin’en. Shin’en is 33,000 square metres of garden situated at the back of the main building. This garden is divided into East, West, South and Middle. It has lots of flowers, interesting looking trees, ponds and the exact stones that Scarlett Johansson was on in “Lost in Translation” (2003).
4.1.1 | Good to Know Information about Heian Shrine, Kyoto
The entrance to Heian shrine is free but there is a small fee, 600 yen for the garden. I would recommend it if you are looking to spend a leisurely afternoon/evening. There is a sitting area right in the middle of the pond where you can sit, have a picnic or just relax and take in the view.
Getting to Heian Shrine, Kyoto
From Kyoto Station:
Take bus number 5 or 100. It is about half-an-hour journey and cost 230 Yen.
Take the subway to Higashiyama Station and it is ten minutes walk to the Shrine.
Trek from Heian Shrine to Philosophers Path
Best 5 in Kyoto
From the Heian Jingu, I took the 20-minute walk along the residential area till I came to the small winding canal, lined with sakura (cherry blossoms). I didn’t mind the walk as it was an opportunity to see the quiet residential area, the tiny little shops lined up along the canal and really take-in the scenic view.
4.2 | Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto
Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto is a popular destination during the cherry blossom season which is typically late March to early April.
4.2.1 | Useful information about Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto
If you are planning a trip during Hanami (the tradition of viewing and appreciating the beauty of the sakuras), please dedicate some time to planning your travels. The sakura are in full bloom for only 2 to 3 weeks in Spring, between 20th March and 14th April, so you don’t really see them in full-bloom for a full month. Cherries peak at different times and are very weather dependent but they generally peak on 1st April.
If you are travelling to Kyoto during Hanami, ideally, you may need to give yourself more than just a couple of days in Kyoto. Accommodation during the Hanami is typically expensive.
5 | Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto | Best 5 in Kyoto
A visit to Kyoto is incomplete without a visit to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, the iconic Buddhist Temple nestled in the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple which basically means “Pure Water Temple” was founded around AD 780. It is an independent Buddhist Temple and has been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
The Kiyomizu-dera is popular for its wooden stage that stands-out about 13 metres above in the hillside below. The main hall and the stage were built without any nails.
Beyond the Main Hall, you could visit the Jinshu Shrine, which is dedicated to the deity of love, a spot particularly popular with older teenagers and the younger generation in Japan.
Towards the south of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, among the trees, is the the three-tiered Koyasu Pagoda. Popularly visited by women as a visit here is said to bring about an easy and safe childbirth.
5.1 | Good to Know Information about Kiyomizu-dera Temple Kyoto | Best 5 in Kyoto
Where: Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto
Address: 1 Chome-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan
Website: Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto
From Kyoto Station
Take bus 100 or 206. It is a 15-minute journey and cost 230 Yen. Get off at Kiyomizu-michi stop and then it is about a 10-minute walk uphill to the temple.
ADD TO YOUR ITINERARY — FOR A DAY TRIP FROM KYOTO, JAPAN
Alongside the best 5 in Kyoto, there are a number of destinations around the city of Kyoto that easily make for a day-trip .
Himeji is a popular destination for its white castle, built in the shape of an eagle taking flight and surrounded by nine gardens. Nara, with many of its UNESCO buildings and the people friendly deer is another popular attraction both for visitors and locals alike. While visiting Kyoto, you may not want to miss the romantic city of Uji and the sacred Mount Hiei, – all making a fascinating experience of Japan.
finally … on the best 5 in Kyoto
To select the best 5 places to visit in Kyoto was a difficult decision. There are so many more temples here that requires a visit for example Ginkaku-ji also known as Silver Pavilion, the Nanzen-ji and Toji Temple. There is also the Imperial palace which is a popular destination in Kyoto. Last but not least, are the Kyoto flea markets which go back centuries!
Ultimately, my choices for the best 5 in Kyoto rested upon selecting what would give my readers an authentic experience of history, culture and traditions if you were to have just a few days in Kyoto. I sincerely believe that the Best 5 in Kyoto selected here reflects what is quintessentially Kyoto. It will be a rewarding experience if these Best 5 in Kyoto — Fushimi Inari, Kinkaku-ji, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Heian Shrine and the Philosopher’s Path along with Kiyamizu-dera Temple are on your itinerary when travelling to Japan.
My sincere wish is that this post is valuable to you in planning your visit to Kyoto. If so, use the links to book your flight, hotels, activities and accessories. TTS earn a commission at zero cost to you. As always, we appreciate your continued support.
Have a splendid time exploring the best 5 in Kyoto.
Just me, Georgina stealing moments to reflect and admire the beautiful mountains that surround the valley in Arashiyama
BASICS FOR KYOTO, JAPAN
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Ultimate Guide to the Best 5 in Kyoto first published at timelesstravelsteps.com and is regularly edited and updated. Last update June 1, 2022