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What to do in Kyoto (for first time visitors)

During our first visit to Japan, we allocated a 5-day itinerary for Kyoto, during which we tried to explore as much of the city as possible. Knowing what to so in Kyoto we decided to come back and spend a couple of weeks getting to really know Japan's former capital. Kyoto really is insanely beautiful. Kyoto is so well preserved with its quaint narrow streets, lined with wooden houses and intricate corridor like networks of alleyways. So, without further ado, here is what to do in Kyoto.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

No trip to Kyoto can be complete without seeing the famed Fushimi Inari Shrine. Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto Shrine located on the mount Inari. It is known for its countless vermilion torii gates which take you up and down the mountain. In a way, visiting Fushimi Inari is a bit like a pilgrimage. As a tip, don't try to take pictures at the beginning of the circuit but keep on going up and up. You will find more picture opportunities with fewer tourists around.

Fushimi Shrine Kyoto

Kinkaku-Ji

Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan and it is one of the most popular attractions in the country. You cannot go in but you can photograph the building from afar. The well-known picture of the temple is taken more or less from the same spot. There is usually a queue and a guard only allows a certain amount of people in the spot so everyone can take their turn in photographing the famed temple.

Nijo Castle

Nijō Castle is a castle in Kyoto and was the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. The castle was used as an imperial palace. It is now open to the public as a historic site and in 1994 was designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Admission to the castle is 600 yen and you can pay another 500 yen for an English audio guide.

Cherry Blossom

Kyoto is one of the most beautiful cities where you can enjoy the cherry blossom festival. The cherry trees usually start blooming towards the end of March, depending on the weather. That's when the weather also gets a little warmer and Japan really comes to life. I can't imagine anything more incredible, than seeing the sakura season in Kyoto.

Cherry Blossom Festival

Kyoto Imperial Palace

The Kyoto Imperial Palace was once the residence of Japan's Imperial Family. In 1868, the emperor and Japan's official capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. You can now visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace as well as its grounds called Kyoto Gyoen.

Philosopher's Walk

The Philosopher's Walk is an absolute must during your visit to Kyoto. If you like meditating or just want to have a reflective walk, this is the path for you. It is approximately two kilometres long and this path got its name thanks to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's famed philosophers. It is believed he used to practice meditation while commuting on the road now known as the Philosopher's Walk.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest was one of the most incredible things to do in Kyoto. The bamboo stalks look so suave, especially when they rock back and forth to create a gentle hypnotic illusion. Around Arashiyama there are countless shrines and temples which should also be visited as part of the itinerary.

Bamboo Forest Arashiyama-Night

Kurama-dera

Kurama-dera is a temple located North of Kyoto on Mount Kurama. Many visit for the famed Kurama hot springs, one of the best Kyoto onsen. You can spend the night or just visit the temple for one day. Kurama-dera houses some of the National Treasures of Japan.

Gion

Gion was once the entertainment quarters of Kyoto but today remains a well-preserved district with narrow alleyways and traditional wooden houses. This is a great place to spot Geishas or better yet, pre-book a Geisha show to see a more cultural side of the city.

Shijo Dori

Shijo Dori is one of our favourite streets in the city because it’s dotted with all sort of restaurants and food shops. In other words, Shijo Dori is a foodie’s paradise. Visit Shijo Dori in the evening and sample all sort of Japanese snacks and desserts. You can read more about Kyoto food you ought to try.

Shijo Dori Snacks Kyoto

Tea Ceremony

When in Kyoto purchase tickets in advance to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This ancient ritual is an incredible way to learn more about the Japanese way. You will learn how to serve tea and how to drink it properly. It’s a fascinating technique and something we truly recommend you try.

Kaiseki

Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. You will be served small portions of many delicious Japanese treats in order to taste a little bit of everything. By the end of the meal, you will feel full and satisfied.

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is endearingly referred to as the Kyoto’s kitchen. Many locals go shopping for fresh seafood in the morning but the market is also open to tourists in search of sampling some of the city’s most peculiar snacks and sweets. For vegans, we recommend the soy doughnuts with dark chocolate. For non-vegans, don’t forget to try the small octopus on a stick with a boiled egg in its head.

Takotamago

Ginkaku-ji

Ginkaku-ji is a Zen temple also known as the silver pavilion.If you are after a relaxing and quiet temple with beautiful surroundings and landscaped gardens, then make sure to add Ginkaku-ji to your list.

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park was the first place we visited during our trip. We dropped our bags at the hotel in Kyoto and went for a long evening stroll. We came across Maruyama Park by complete coincidence and loved its colours and relaxing feel.

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine is formerly known as the Gion Shrine due to its location in the Gion district. It is home to the famed summer festival called Gion Festival. The Shrine is located at the top of Shijo Dori and very close to Maruyama Park.

Yasaka Shrine Entrance Kyoto

Ryōan-ji

Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple in Kyoto which to this day, remains a bit of mystery for me. It is known for its landscape garden which features rock formations. As every work of art, the garden is open for interpretation. Best to visit and form your own opinion. And hey, don’t forget to come back and tell me what you think.

Kyoto Tower

The Kyoto Tower is the tallest building in the city and it looks a little out of space in a place mainly known for its traditional streets, temples and shrines. It features an observation deck so head over if you wish to enjoy gorgeous views of the city from above.

Mount Hiei

For soft adventure and outdoors lovers, a trip to Mount Hiei is a must. It is located just a fee train stops away from central Kyoto. Take the cable car up to the top and descent on foot. My husband proposed to me on top of Mount Hiei, so this is a rather sentimental spot for me.

mount hiei forest

Sanjūsangen-dō

Sanjūsangen-dō is a beautiful temple located in Higashiyama District of Kyoto. It is famous for its 1,001 statues of the Goddess of Compassion Kannon which look hypnotic and mesmerising. Remember you cannot take any pictures inside the temple.

Kyoto National Museum

The Kyoto National Museum focuses on Japanese and Asian arts. It is well regarded as one of the best and most distinguished art museums in Japan.

Ōkōchi Sansō

Ōkōchi Sansō is a villa with landscaped gardens located just minutes from the Arashiyama forest. It is the former residence of film actor Denjirō Ōkōchi. It is open to the public for a fee. Included in the fee you get a matcha tea and a snack. Best to visit the gardens at the back, from where you can admire stunning views of the nearby forested mountains.

Okochi Sanso Villa

Jojakukoji temple

Jojakukoji temple is located in the Arashiyama district and it’s popular during Autumn when it surrounding maple trees transform into a sea of orange and red hues.

Ishibe Alley

Ishibe Alley is a traditional narrow alleyway in Kyoto. It is also a popular spot for movie makers. Due to its increased popularity, many bars and restaurants are now open for business here. Best to visit during night time, when the street lanterns make the street a great atmospheric place.

Manga Museum

The Manga Museum in Kyoto houses a large collection of comics and graphic novels. For manga enthusiasts, there is also a reading area where visitors can take their time and browse through the books.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is one of my favourite Buddhist temples in Kyoto. It is located in Arashiyama, about 30 minutes walk away from the bamboo forest. It is known for its 1200 rakan, stone statues representing the disciples of Buddha. We visited when it was raining and it was still one of the most beautiful and peaceful temples in the whole city.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

Ninenzaka

Ninenzaka is a well preserved, pedestrian-only street in Kyoto. It can get really busy with tourists, especially during matsuri or the cherry blossom festival. The shops close after 6 pm so you can visit then when the street becomes much quieter. Don’t forget to check the best time to visit Japan.

Kyoto Botanical Garden

You know we love botanic gardens, so we wouldn’t skip a trip to the Kyoto Botanic Garden as well. We visited during Autumn, so the outdoors garden was not in full bloom. However, the conservatory was vibrant and wonderful. We can’t wait to visit again during Spring.

Day trip to Uji

If you are a tea lover like I am, then you know I’m going to recommend a quick trip to Uji. It’s only 10 minutes away by Shinkansen. This is where green tea originates from in Japan and it comes with a lovely story. Uji is perfect for purchasing high-grade ceremonial matcha tea.

Temple Water Uji

Soak in an Onsen

You can’t miss soaking in a Japanese onsen during your trip to Kyoto. Nothing beats that relaxing moment when you enter the hot mineral springs. It is the best way to end the day.

Want more? Check out 50 things to do in Kyoto to further help you create an epic itinerary for your travels around Japan.

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