Kyoto is famous for its temples, but nothing prepares you to the scale of it. There are temples all over the city, and it’s hard to decide which to visit.
I bookmarked the main sites in Google Maps and started exploring from the southeast.
Every temple is different: Sanjusangendo has 1,000 golden Buddhas, Kiyomizu-dera has great views, Fushimi Inari Taisha has 10,000 tori gates going all the way up the mountain.
But they’re all great, so whichever you choose to visit would be fine. The temples are such a big part of Kyoto that you really can’t walk more than 5 minutes without spotting a shrine somewhere.
The most popular temples can get quite crowded, especially on weekends, so it’s good to visit on weekdays or early in the morning. Some temples are free to visit while others charge an entrance free (usually Y400-600), but it’s always worth the price. The only thing is that it does add up when you’re visiting many temples in one day.
It’s tricky to decide where to go, but these were some of my favourites:
Sanjusangendo with its golden Buddhas.
Zenrinji which is the most magical place, with free green tea and lovely gardens.
From there you can follow the Philosopher’s Path, a quiet walkway by a canal where cats hang out, artists sell their watercolours and carps swim nearby.
The path takes you to Ginkakuji, a temple with beautiful gardens.
Kinkakuji with its golden pagoda.
Fushimi Inari Taisha with its endless tori gates. It get really crowded, but if you take the time to climb all the way up Mount Inari over a couple of hours it’s pretty quiet at the top.
Off the main path you can also find an amazing bamboo forest – which was completely empty when we visited.
Kenninji with its twin dragons and quiet zen garden.
Kyoto also has lots of little backstreets with traditional-looking buildings.
In Eastern Kyoto you can find Ninenzaka, a pedestrianised area full of little shops selling handicraft (for which Kyoto is famous) and local delicacies. This is also where you can rent a kimono and pretend to be a geisha for the day. It’s a busy area but a cool place to visit.
One of the cute cafes around there is the Hello Kitty Cafe, where you can sit down with Hello Kitty herself and enjoy a ridiculous ice cream sundae (Y1030).
Elsewhere, Gion corner and Pontocho are also full of cafes and bars that look authentic and cool.
Right in the centre of Kyoto is Nishiki Market, a traditional market selling all sorts of Japanese food. Although not particularly veggie-friendly, it is a great place to visit to take in the atmosphere and spot local delicacy.
Around the market there are also lots of other shopping streets selling souvenirs and Japanese handicraft.
Alternatively, Sanjo-Kai Shotengai is another nice market, located close to Nijo Castle (and mush less crowded).
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE
I headed to Arashiyama early to try and avoid the crowds. The area is famous for its bamboo forest, but it’s also a nice place to wander around as there are lots of cute shops and the Tenriji Temple.
The bamboo groves are really impressive and unlike any forest I’d seen before. You can spend some time taking photos and just taking in the atmosphere – it’s definitely quieter than most other places in Kyoto!
FOREVER MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
I’m a big fan of Yayoi Kusama, so I was happy to discover there was an exhibition of her artwork in Kyoto. The Forever Museum of Contemporary Art (tickets Y1200) is located in East Kyoto close to some of the main temples in the area. The museum has five large exhibition rooms and they had lots of Yayoi Kusama’s work on display, which was a great opportunity to see some of her work in Japan.
HOW TO DO IT:
STAY: I stayed at this Airbnb which was really good. Kyoto is not as expensive as Tokyo and there are plenty of options.
GO: Most people go to Kyoto via bullet train, and that’s what I did. The service from Tokyo is regular and takes a bit under 3h. Plus it’s definitely something to experience in Japan!
TRANSPORTATION: Kyoto has great transportation links and it’s fairly easy to navigate the system with Google Maps. You can use an IC card (their equivalent to an oyster card) on most transportation. Urban trains are often JR-operated so are free with a JR pass. Especially in Eastern Kyoto, many of the temples are within walking distance.
VISITING TEMPLES: The main draw to Kyoto are the temples, but there are so many it’s hard to choose which to visit. I went to lots of them, and from my experience all the larger temples are worth a visit, so in a way it doesn’t really matter which you choose – they’re all different and each has something special to offer.
WHEN TO GO: I visited in October for four days, but you can easily spend a week there. At times it was still really hot at 30 degrees, which made all the walking a bit difficult. Some of the main temples (such as Fushimi Inari Taisha) get really (really) crowded at weekends, so visit early on a weekday – but the main sights are always busy, so you never get the place to yourself.
Checking out some temples off the beaten path is a good way of enjoying them with a bit more time and space.
SHOPPING: Kyoto is famous for handicraft, and there are tons of shopping areas in the city centre selling yukatas, furoshiki, Japanese dolls and lots more. Prices tend to be good, but often vary from place to place.
Most temples also have little shops selling souvenirs and amulets. There are usually labels in English to indicate if something should be used as an offering only or if you can take it home with you.
FOOD: Kyoto has a good amount of veggie places. The area around Nishiki market is full of options – we visited Cafe Matsuontoko which served delicious vegan burgers (meal for two including drinks for Y3000).