Temples, shrines, temples, good food, temples, and conveniently close to other top destinations (that, incidentally, have some spectacular temples), Kyoto deserves a prominent place on your Japan itinerary.
After a hectic five days exploring bustling, modern Tokyo, we hopped on the bullet train to Kyoto to spend the next five days experiencing more traditional Japanese culture.
We found five days was a good amount of time to see most of the Kyoto highlights and even squeeze in a few day trips to some nearby attractions.
These are some of the top things to do on a trip to Kyoto, Japan.
Best Things to Do in Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine
One of the most iconic (and instragrammed!) spots in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, an important Shinto shrine that is easily recognizable by its long tunnel of bright orange torii gates. You can follow the gates up to the summit of the mountain on a hike that takes 2-3 hours.
Unfortunately, most of the trail was closed off the day we visited due to a typhoon that had hit the city a few days earlier, so we were only able to access a small portion of the trail during our visit.
Just be warned that as one of Kyoto’s most popular spots, the Fushimi Inari Shrine can get swarmed. Visit early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the densest crowds.
Getting there: The Fushimi Inari Shrine is right by the JR Inari Station and only a short walk from the Fushimi Inari Station.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Another popular destination in Kyoto is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and for good reason. Wandering amid the towering bamboo plants is a truly magical experience—despite the crowds.
Unfortunately, the typhoon that had closed most of the trail at the Fushimi Inari Shrine also damaged the bamboo grove. It was closed when we first tried to visit, but we were able to enter when we tried again several days later. Some of the damage was still visible, but we were able to get a feel for the place.
On a practical note, if you happen to be a walking all-you-can-eat buffet for mosquitos like I am and you’re visiting during the warmer months, be sure to douse yourself in bug spray. We were there in September, and I got roughly 35 bites per limb in the first five minutes. By the time we left I was covered in so many red welts I was worried the customs officers would quarantine me.
Getting there: It is a short walk from Saga Arashiyama Station, JR Sagano line, and the Arashiyama Station, Henkyu railway.
Right near the Bamboo Grove is the Tenryu-ji Temple. Though the temple itself is interesting to explore, the main attraction is the beautiful garden. I was continually amazed by the beautiful Japanese gardens we saw on our trip, and the Tenry-ji garden is one of the best.
Side note: As is often the case in Japan, you will have to remove your shoes when exploring the interior of this temple. So it’s probably not the best time to wear those gladiator sandals with enough straps, knots, and buckles to make a boy scout sweat.
Cost to enter is 500 yen p/p.
Getting there: The temple is a short walk from JR Saga-Arashiyama Station
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
One of my favorite temples in Kyoto is Kinkakuji, a Zen temple that is covered entirely in gold leaf. Nestled among the trees beside a serene pond, it is a beautiful, tranquil place.
Though the interior of the pavilion is not open to visitors, it is possible to see the building from several angles and to explore the grounds.
Cost is 400 yen p/p.
Getting there: Kinkakuji is accessible by direct Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205.
Nanzanji Temple is an important Zen temple with a history dating back to the 13th century (though none of the buildings from that time remain) and beautiful gardens.
The grounds are free to explore, but each of the gardens (as well as the temple buildings) has its own fee to enter.
Entry costs from 300-500 yen depending on the building/garden.
Getting there: It is a short walk from the Keage Station on the Tozai Line.
Still haven’t fully scratched that temple itch? The Tofukuji is (yet another) Zen temple with a history dating back to the 13th century. It is most famous for the beautiful fall foliage, though it is lovely at any time of year.
Be sure to enjoy the view—and snap a few pictures—from the Tsutenkyo Bridge, a wooden covered walkway.
Cost is 400 yen p/p (though some parts of the grounds are free to enter).
Getting there: Approximately 10-minute walk from Tofukuji Station.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Nijo Castle dates to the 1600s. It originally served as the Kyoto residence for the Tokugawa leyasu (a shogun or war lord) but was later used as an imperial palace.
It is known for the intricately decorated interior panels.
And here’s a fun fact: the squeaky floor is not just a result of the building’s old age. Rather, the floor—known as a Nightingale Floor—was built to be intentionally noisy to alert the residents of any intruders. (Funny, our house has nightingale floors too!)
The castle gardens are also exceptionally beautiful and worth exploring, though that basically goes without saying.
Getting there: It is a short walk from Nijojo-mae Station along the Tozai Subway Line.
Traditional Tea Ceremony
Kyoto is the perfect place to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. There are several tea houses (at various price points) throughout the city. We did a very short one at the tea house in the gardens of the Golden Pavilion (our included matcha tea and a traditional Japanese sweet).
Best Day Trips from Kyoto
If you’ve got a few extra days in Kyoto and are interested in seeing some destinations further afield, there are great day trip options from Kyoto.
When we started planning our trip to Japan, one place that was super high on my wish list was Nara. Though it is home to some impressive temples and shrines (most notably the Todaiji Temple, which houses a large Buddha statue), the draw for most visitors is Nara Park, a favorite hangout for the friendly local deer.
If you ever wanted to live out your childhood Bambi fantasies, this is your chance! And since they are Japanese deer (aka, exceptionally polite and courteous), they may even return your bow as a greeting.
Just note that they sometimes lose some of that politeness when food is in sight (but don’t we all). So if you purchase one of the “deer crackers” for sale in the park, prepare yourself. We saw several would-be feeders become the center of a hungry deer mob that looked as friendly as a Chicago street gang. We even saw one deer gulp down a cracker and then continue on to eat the tourist’s paper map. But, for the casual observer, the deer are quite tame.
If you have more time in the city, check out some of the other famous temples and shrines, including the Horyuji Temple and the Kasuga Taisha shrine.
Getting there: Take the Miyakoji Rapid Service from Kyoto Station. The journey takes about 45 minutes and is covered by a JR pass.
One of the most memorable parts of our time in Japan was our day trip to Hiroshima. Most people know Hiroshima as one of the cities struck by atomic bombs during WW2, and visiting the city provides a great opportunity to learn more about that important historic event.
The Atomic Bomb Dome (previously the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Hall) stands as a stark reminder of the damage the atomic bomb caused 75 years ago. From there, take a stroll through the Peace Memorial Park and then visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The museum costs 200 yen p/p (for adults) and, though sobering, it is informative and well worth a visit. The most memorable exhibit contains burnt clothes, toys, and other artifacts left behind by the victims. After looking at those items, you will never be able to view the historic event the same way again.
While no visit to Hiroshima would be complete without acknowledging the city’s past, the Hiroshima of today is vibrant and bustling. If your itinerary allows, take time to experience some of the new as well as the old. We enjoyed a nice stroll along the river and lunch al fresco before jumping on a bullet train back to Kyoto (or at least we thought it was headed to Kyoto, but that’s a story for another day!).
Getting there: Getting to Hiroshima from Kyoto takes 1 hour and 40 minutes on the shinkansen (bullet train) and is covered by the JR pass. You can take either the Tokaido and Sanyo shinkansen lines.
Another easy day trip from Kyoto is Osaka, Japan’s second-largest metropolis after Tokyo. Must-sees in Osaka include Osaka Castle, the Sumiyoshi Shrine, and the Kaiyukan Aquarium.
We had planned to visit Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto but had to cancel due to the typhoon. We hope to get to Osaka on our next Japan adventure!
Getting there: Osaka is accessible in only 12 minutes on the shinkansen train (which is covered by the JR pass).
How to Get Around Kyoto
Public transit in Kyoto—as in most places in Japan—is quick, efficient, and shockingly sanitary, so there is rarely a reason to rent a vehicle or take a taxi.
Trains are a good option, especially if you have a JR pass (more on that later). Kyoto Station is the main train hub in the city, so getting accommodations close by the station is a good logistical move. The JR Nara Line and the JR Sagano Line will take you near several of the main tourist sites.
Subways are another option, though their network is much less extensive than in other Japanese cities like Tokyo (there are only two lines that go north-south and east-west). Subway tickets are not covered by the JR pass and fares range from 210-350 yen per ride. We never ended up using the subways.
Though a bit more confusing and not quite as fast, the transport we used the most was the bus system, since the bus network is quite extensive. Bus fare costs 230 yen per ride for adults or you can purchase a day pass for 500 yen. (Be sure to have coins handy to pay your fare on the bus. We made that mistake once, but thankfully the driver let us off the hook since we were obviously clueless tourists!)
Should I get a JR pass?
One question people ask a lot when visiting Japan is whether to buy a Japan Rail (JR) pass. A JR Pass is a transit pass available to tourists that allows unlimited use of Japans JR trains (and some busses and metros) for a certain number of consecutive days. While it can save you a lot of money, they also don’t come cheap. For adults, the cost is $274 for one week, $436 for two weeks, and $558 for three weeks.
To determine whether pass will actually end up saving you money, it’s important to have an idea of your planned itinerary and how often you think you’ll use it.
We knew we were going to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto, take several day trips from Kyoto (to Nara and Hiroshima), and then travel back to Tokyo. The total without the pass would have cost around 488 USD, which meant buying the one-week pass saved us roughly 214 USD (and more when you consider the money we saved on shorter train rides within the cities). So, for us, getting the rail pass was definitely the right decision.
Just keep in mind that the JR pass must be purchased before you enter Japan. We purchased ours online and picked it up at the Haneda when we arrived. It’s also important to keep in mind that the days must be used consecutively. Because we spent ten days in Japan and knew we had longer train journeys near the end of our trip, we chose not to activate ours until we had been in Tokyo for several days.
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