Things To Do in Kyoto: Highlights For First-Time Visitors

Travelling to Japan for the first time, but unsure where to start? The land of the rising sun, still deeply anchored in tradition, will certainly surprise you in the best possible way.

And while Japan boasts plenty of fascinating cities and villages, Kyoto is the best starting point for neophytes. Not only does it hold an impressive quantity of temples and castles, it is strategically located on the Tokaido Shinkansen line for easy side trips and has plenty of mouth-watering restaurants to keep your appetite satisfied.

This post first appeared on Expedia Canada Viewfinder Blog, for which I am a contributor – but I figured I could post it here as well, just in case you haven’t seen it!
 

The Best Things To Do in Kyoto

Wander Around Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine kyoto highlights

Thanks to our little friend called jetlag, you will likely be awake well before the sun makes its first appearance. Fret not, however – get dressed and head directly to Fushimi Inari Shrine in order to beat the massive crowds each day inevitably brings.

Fushimi Inari features several minuscule shrines and over 10,000 vermillion “torii” gates, which are stacked up all the way to the top of small but sacred Mount Inari, the Shinto god of rice; foxes, which are said to be Inari’s messengers, are therefore omnipresent across the shrine grounds (in statue form, that is). A wonderful introduction to Japanese culture, that’s for sure!

Spot Geishas in Gion

things to do in kyoto

Welcome to Kyoto’s most famous geisha district! Here you will find experienced geishas and their maiko (apprentices) as well as a high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Entering the neighbourhood feels like stepping back in time, and offers a wonderful glimpse of Edo Japan.

But whatever you do, remember to be respectful to geishas you encounter. If you want to take a picture of them, just ask – a lot of geishas have complained in recent years that tourists act like ruthless paparazzi. Please don’t be that person!

Look Up At The Bamboo Grove

things to do in kyoto
things to do in kyoto
 

Also located in Arashiyama, the celebrated bamboo groves are almost too perfect to be true, and remain one of the most appreciated Kyoto highlights. While beautiful at any time, the grove is particularly remarkable on days of light wind, where you can hear the tall bamboo stalks sway and brush against each other. Bamboos are some of the fastest-growing plants in the world, with some species growing up to 35 inches within a 24-hour period – if you stay put long enough you could technically see one literally grow before your eyes!

Mingle With Monkeys in Arashiyama

things to do in kyoto

On the western outskirts of Kyoto stands Arashiyama, a tiny neighbourhood – which feels more like a mountain village than anything else – is home to a thriving population of monkeys. A short hike leads visitors to Monkey Park Iwatayama, where roughly 100 monkeys roam freely. While nowhere near as famous as the snow monkeys of Nagano, these specimens are definitely a good compromise and will certainly keep you entertained for the duration of your visit. The park is also a good place to admire the mountain and Ōi River, a nationally-designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty.

Visit The Many, Many Temples

things to do in kyoto

things to do in kyoto
things to do in kyoto
things to do in kyoto
 
things to do in kyoto

Seeing as Kyoto served as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868, it only makes sense that it would be home to several significant buildings. And that obviously includes temples – 1600, to be exact! Since a lifetime probably wouldn’t be enough to visit them all, it would be wiser to start with the most iconic, starting with Toji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located just south of Kyoto main train station, Toji was founded in the late 700s and features Japan’s highest pagoda along with two historic wooden temples.

On the other side of town stands Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion – which, by the way, isn’t just a nickname, as the top floors are literally covered in gold leaves. It was the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and acted as the inspiration for the similar and equally interesting Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) later on built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson. Both Zen temples feature beautifully manicured grounds and are well worth a visit.

Things To Do In Kyoto – Where To Stay?

hotel granvia kyoto

As one of the major cities in Japan, Kyoto features an incalculable amount of hotels. It can be hard to narrow it down to just a handful, but Hotel Granvia Kyoto, which located inside the main train station for easy transportation links, features abnormally large rooms by Japan standards. Hotel Gran Ms Kyoto, on the other hand, has a young and dynamic vibe and is within walking distance from historic Gion. Of course, one does not go to Japan and skip the iconic sleeping pod – there are a few in Kyoto, like nine hours, or First Cabin for the “luxurious pod” experience.

20 Comments on Things To Do in Kyoto: Highlights For First-Time Visitors

  1. Wendy
    November 10, 2015 at 11:04 am (2 years ago)

    Thanks for posting this! My husband and I just decided to spend about 12 days in Japan in March!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      November 13, 2015 at 10:40 am (2 years ago)

      Yay! You’re going to have a fabulous time. Hopefully you’ll catch the cherry trees in full bloom.

      Reply
  2. Nick @ Goats On The Road
    November 10, 2015 at 11:25 am (2 years ago)

    That bamboo grove looks incredible, wow!! Beautiful article, Marie. I really enjoyed reading about your highlights from Kyoto…it sounds like an incredible adventure.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      November 13, 2015 at 10:39 am (2 years ago)

      It was incredible! You can hear the leaves move when the wind picks up, it’s an incredible feeling. Kyoto is amazing :-)

      Reply
  3. Estrella
    November 10, 2015 at 5:29 pm (2 years ago)

    Lovely post. I spent 24 hours in Kyoto a few years ago, and really regret not spending more time there (instead I went opted to spend more time in Tokyo). I would love to check out that beautiful Bamboo Grove.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      November 13, 2015 at 10:38 am (2 years ago)

      Me too! I spent way too much time in Tokyo and in hindsight, I wished I’d spent it in Kyoto instead. It’s a more human city, IMO. The bamboo grove and Arashiyama could take a full day, it’s just so beautiful!

      Reply
  4. nestor csm
    December 7, 2015 at 4:49 pm (2 years ago)

    Japan must be a fantastic place to spend a vacation. I heard people there are very polite and helpful, is it so?

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      December 22, 2015 at 10:00 am (2 years ago)

      They really are! Japanese people will go out of their way to help you. I even had an old lady willing to accompany me to the train station after I asked for directions… and it was a 30-minute walk away!

      Reply
  5. Carole
    February 18, 2016 at 2:45 pm (2 years ago)

    I’ve only recently started thinking about Japan as a destination I’d like to travel to. Thank you for some more inspiration

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      February 29, 2016 at 8:42 am (2 years ago)

      You’re welcome! It’s such a special part of the world. I can’t recommend it enough.

      Reply
  6. Rodrigo
    April 17, 2016 at 7:18 pm (1 year ago)

    Hello, thank you for this really useful and easy to read article! I am planning to visite Japan next March with my girlfriend. How many days would you recommend to spend in Kyoto? And in Tokyo? What other must-go city do you recommend?

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      April 25, 2016 at 12:57 pm (1 year ago)

      I think Kanazawa and Takayama are pretty cool. You should plan for four days in both Tokyo and Kyoto.

      Reply
  7. travel fairy
    June 3, 2016 at 5:12 am (1 year ago)

    Always wanted to visit Japan. Seem to be a really nice place. How much do u think would it cost to stay there for 5 days? Thanks

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      June 10, 2016 at 9:54 am (1 year ago)

      It always depends on how much you are willing to spend and what your travel habits are. I would say $100 for a hotel, $20-30 per person per day for food, and a few dollars for transportation and attractions (most temples charge $5 to visit).

      Reply
  8. Bimo
    January 16, 2017 at 9:03 pm (8 months ago)

    Hai Marie,

    I found u have lots info about Kyoto. Could u please give recommendation for photo shooting with rent traditional clothes in Arashiyama or Ninenzaka area?
    We would rent traditional clothes and wear it when walking around those area.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 17, 2017 at 12:46 pm (8 months ago)

      I haven’t done it myself so can’t recommend anyone in particular but I’m sure Google has all the answers.

      Reply
  9. Christie
    January 22, 2017 at 6:55 pm (8 months ago)

    Very helpful article, especially with temple/shrine suggestions. My husband and I will be in japan for almost a week in May. There is so much to do but so little time. We’re trying to fit in most of the must see spots. Do you think 1/2 day at the bamboo groves and 1/2 day in Hiroshima is feasible?

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 24, 2017 at 12:19 pm (8 months ago)

      Not on the same day! Hiroshima is quite out of the way from Kyoto. If you go on separate days it might be doable but then again you’ll be spending nine hours on the train for just a couple of hours in Hiroshima, is it really worth it? Half a day at the bamboo grove in Kyoto is very doable and the entire area of Arashiyama is beautiful, you could easily spend a full day there.

      Reply
  10. FCBC
    June 20, 2017 at 5:54 am (3 months ago)

    Kyoto is one of Japan’s largest cities! Well-known for its many traditional Buddhist temples, as well as gardens, royally palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses! Thanks for sharing your experience!!!

    Reply
  11. June
    August 17, 2017 at 2:02 am (1 month ago)

    I would to visit,I lived Japan when I little this was helpful information so I could vist a different part thanks.

    Reply

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