Kyoto is the city of Japan that has the most charm for visitors thanks to the many temples, castles and other historical sites. There are a few main must-see temples but in total there are too many you can see in a trip. My advice is don’t try to see each and every temple if a few days are all you have, if you do want to see more temples, give it more days. Also be strategic in the temples you are planning to visit since some are close by to each other. For guidelines, the below are the temples I was planning to Visit and why they are on top of my list. And then I will share with you my actual itinerary.
Top places to Visit in Kyoto:
1. Kiyomizu Dera – Kiyomizu Dera is a floating temple that has many street food leading up to it. It is spectacular during spring when the surrounded trees blossom their red flowers.
2. Rengeoin Sanjusangendo – This is also known as the 1001 Buddha Temple where Stone carvings of Buddha face lines each other. Legend has it that there will be one that looks different to the rest for each Individual.
3. Kinkaku-ji – Maybe one of the most famous one as well as some say overrated. It is also known as the Golden Pavilion Temple. A temple afloat on a lake that’s been covered with actual gold foils. You can’t enter the temple just awe it from a distance with other countless tourists.
4. Ryoan-Ji – Ryoan-Ji is very close to Kinkaku-ji, 20 minutes by foot or about 5 minutes by bus. It is the temple that most famous for its Zen Garden. It you want to see the Zen Garden of Japan, here is your temple.
5. Yasaka Shrine – Yasaka Shrine is conveniently located near Gion, which you will visit anyway so it’s worth to have a look around.
6. Fushimiinari-Taisha – If I have to pick one that is most amazing this will be it and obviously so do many other think as it won Recent Trip advisor choice award. Each of the shrine is a donation and it goes around the mountain. It is a good hike if you want to climb the mountain. This shrine is open 24 hours but you really don’t want to go there after dark. This shrine is dedicated for the Fox Spirit, one of the most powerful and respected spirit in Japan.
7. Kodai Ji Temple – Kodai Ji Temple is quite near Yasaka Shrine. It is dedicated to Hideyoshi Totoyomi, one of the most powerful and respected figure of Japan. It has beautiful zen garden and architecture.
8. Nijo-Jo (Nijo Castle) – One of the oldest castle in Japan, it let you into how the most powerful ruler of Japan, the shogun lives in its Golden Era. You can also experience the charming sound of nightingale floor.
9. Imperial Palace
10. Heian Castle
11. Arashimaya – Arashimaya is most famous for the bamboo forest. Like the fushimi Nari, this site is open 24 hours but then again it is best to avoid coming after dark and to catch it during daylight for the best view.
12. Gion – Gion is known most as a Geisha village or District where you can sometimes spot a dolled up geiko or maiko and if you’re lucky can strike a pose with them. All in all Gion is not just about Geisha, it is such a never ending streets and alleys full of restaurants, dessert places and modern shops.
13. Nara – Nara is a charming city outside of Kyoto most famous for the wild roaming harmless deer.
14. Nishiki Market – I love market so market always fascinates me though we didn’t get to visit this market. Market is always full of local delicacies and unique things you can buy probably cheaper than anywhere else. Near Nishiki Market is a popular Ippudo Ramen.
We catch the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. JR Kyoto is an attraction in itself so check it out while you’re there.
What to eat in JR Kyoto
– Ramen Street – 10th floor
There’s a corridor full of different ramen shops in JR Kyoto including some really popular ones like Ikkousha and Masutani. The line to eat these ramen is incredibly long. It is hard to pick one since most has very long queue but we decided to try Masutani. Basically all ramen we had in Japan are awesome.
– Katsu Kuta – The Cube 11th Floor
As we were strolling at JR Kyoto, we came across a really packed restaurant with long queue called Katsu Kuta. We later found out that this has such a great review. Didn’t get to try but will certainly looking forward to be back.
Yasaka is the Shrine near Gion. Since we stay close to the area, we walked to Gion and pass this Shrine hence pay a quick visit.
We spend the rest of the night walking around Gion. In Gion, where you want to visit is the Hanami-Coji Street. There are plenty of restaurants, teahouses and shops in Gion.
We spotted a restaurant called Kamehachi Bekkan tucked in a dark alley that looked really popular but unfortunately for us they were fully booked. The restaurant serves matsunabe or hot pot. It looks really yummy and you should try it just make sure you make a booking.
Kamehachi Bekkan: 208-3 Shimokorikicho, Pontocho Shijo-dori Agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
Since we can’t get a seat at Kamehachi Bekkan we had Sukiyaki further down the road. This is the first time we had a Sukiyaki. I always thought that Sukiyaki is a hot pot but it is actually not. It only has a little liquid and pile of veges. But after a while they all wilted and it is like in between stew/stir fry dish.
Le Bac A Sable
This is a French bakery/café 5 minutes walk away from our accommodation. We had a beautiful breakfast here of fresh French bread, perfectly cooked omelette and mouth watering Danishes.
Kiyomizu Dera is famous for its stunning wooden terrace. This temple was build in honor of Kannon Bosatsu in 780.
Opening hours: 6:00 – 18:00
Adult: 300 JPY
Children: 200 JPY
This place is definitely worth a detour from Kiyomizu Dera. Located about 10 minutes walk away from Kiyomizu Dera is one of the most popular café serving a very smooth single origin cup of coffee.
It was out of the way but we head to Kinkakuji from Kiyomizu Dera to catch the 2 most famous temple in Kyoto. The bus trip to Kinkakuji was quite long thanks to the traffic jam along Gion area. After arriving, we were hungry and we had the Ohkonomiyaki or Japanese Pizza by the street leading up to Kinkakuji, it was yum.
Kinkakuji temple was build in 1397 and most famous for its luxurious exterior being covered in gold foils.
Opening hours: 9:00 – 17: 00
Adult: 400 JPY
Kids: 300 JPY
Because we decided to get an ice cream we didn’t catch the bus but walk instead. By the time we get there, they no longer accept visitors, ahhh the frustration. The one thing I didn’t get to see, the Zen garden *sob*. Mainly because we didn’t know there’s another temple near Kinkakuji, we didn’t pace our time well, now that you know, make sure you don’t miss it like we did.
We stay about 5 minutes away from Heian Jingu shrine. FREE ENTRY.
Chion In is extremely close to Heian Jingu so we just walked there. Staying so close to them, it feels like a waste not visiting these temples. Turns out Chion In is under reparation for most of it. FREE ENTRY.
Tosuiro is the restaurant in Kyoto that is specialist in its tofu (soybean curd) degustation. Everything they serve is made of or has the component of Tofu (Vegetarian, rejoice). There are two branch of Toisuro one in Gion and the other in Kiyamachi. If you love tofu like me this is a must. The food won’t blow your mind but it was a pleasant experience. It was also well priced for what it is in my opinion.
Gion branch: Japan, 〒607-8167 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Yamashina Ward, Nagitsuji Fushikawacho, 23−1.
Kiyamachi (Main) branch: 517-3 Kamiosakamachi, Sanjo Agaru Kiyacho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-0961, Kyoto Prefecture.
TIPS: Come during lunch time and booked ahead at least 2 days prior to secure place. The lunch price is a fraction of dinner price for the same type and quality of food. This is also apply to other fancy restaurants – lunch is always cheaper. So make your lunch fancy and dinner simple to save money for more of the fancy stuff.
Initially we thought we will spend most of our times exploring temples and would skip Arashiyama and Nara. How glad I am that we didn’t. I had one of the most blissful times in Arashiyama in the picturesque bamboo tunnel. The sunrays that’s been filtered with the rows of bamboo makes a breathtaking sight.
Also, we had one of the best meals in Otsuka. While in Arashimaya the only temple we visited was the Tenryuji Temple.
Tenruji Temple Entry Fee: 500JPY
Opening hours: 8.30-5.00
Otsuka is a restaurant that you will come across when you are heading to the bamboo forest from the train station. It is one of the best restaurants in Kyoto specialising in Beef. It is definitely the best beef we ever had in our life. We had the Marusawa that has been described as “A combination of the finest in appearance, flavour, aroma, this cut of beef is so unbelievably good that you will taste it in your dreams.”
And The Flat Iron Steak that has been described as “ An exceptional cut of beef, an entire cow yields only 2 kilograms. Has a deep, robust flavour.”
Marusawa beef cost 5,900 JPY for a 150g serving and the flat iron Steak cost 3,500JPY for a 150g serving. If you are on budget, don’t worry. You can taste the premium beef of Japan starting only from 1,100 JPY which is their bowl of rice topped with mouth watering beef slices.
These beef takes enjoyment of steak to another level. It is so tender and melt in your mouth. It is almost butter-like. Check out the marbling on the meat.
Nara is a town outside of Kyoto. It is about an hour away by train either from Kyoto or Osaka. You can see wild harmless deer all over the park, temples and public area in Nara.
Though, I come here mainly for Todaiji Temple, the oldest and biggest Buddhist temple in Japan. Todaiji is certainly massive and has breathtaking architecture. I couldn’t stop staring.
Entry to Todaiji: 500 JPY
Opening Hours: 9.30-5.30
I noticed that all the temples in Nara are quite expensive and more expensive than ones in Kyoto. There are many other temples.
We visited the Kofukuji and Kasuga Taisha Shrine (renowned for the rows of stone lantern) without entering.
Nara is a small town and has many interesting corners that are very quaint like in Edo Era. Other than temples, Nara has many other place of interest.
We chose to visit Nara Machi, Nara Machi is a merchant area that has a lot of shops and places to dine. In Nara Machi we tried very interesting curry rice, best mochi ever and an Udon place that looks spectacular (though we didn’t try since we were so full).
Nara is great for a day trip but we have no time to lose so we head back to Kyoto and visit Nijo Castle. I promise myself that I must visit at least one castle and experience what is Nightingale floor. After all, I spend some good amount of days in my high school reading Otori Trilogy Across The Nightingale Floor on my bus ride back home. Nijo Castle is also convenient from the JR Train line (Making max use of my JR Pass).
It wasn’t a bad decision; Nijo jo is one the oldest Castle in Kyoto. The entry gate was outstanding and it reminds me of a samurai headpiece. Touring across the castle is really worth it and doesn’t disappoint. When you hear the word Castle, you’d imagine grandeur and luxury like Buckingham Palace, or King Louis Palace. But Japan Castle is anything but. It is even more modest than say your house. There is no furniture there and the rooms are just wooden rooms with tatami floor and walls that are made up of sliding door decorated with painting. All the walls are covered with beautiful (yet somewhat simple) paintings by Japan renowned painter in the Era. Beside it, they have beautiful and serene garden.
To protect the paintings, they cover the window and no photographs are allowed. And yes, the flooring on the corridor is what’s known as the Nightingale Floor. The floor was made in such a way with wood and nail that will make like a pleasant bird chirping noises when you walk atop it. This is to protect itself from intruders during the most turmoil era of Japan.
I was just saying how great it will be to sip a tea overlooking the beautiful garden. The Japanese warlords certainly know how to enjoy the little pleasure in life. Then on the exit, there is an actual tea house. The price was a bit steep but it was certainly nice to sip the tea overlooking Japanese Garden.
Fushimiinari Taisha Shrine
Fushimiinari Taisha Shrine is actually on the JR line that goes to Nara. But instead we leave it to the last since we were worried that we didn’t manage to visit the other attraction that has earlier closing times. Fushiminari Aisha open 24 hours so anytime before dark is fine to visit. Unless you are planning to hike the mountain then you need plenty more time. You surely can adjust your itinerary accordingly.
If anyone ask me what are the best things to see I Kyoto I’d say Fushimiinari Taisha and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. The rows of bright orange shrine forming a tunnel of Fushimiinari Taisha is spectacular. Each of these shrines is a donation for the Mountain God. If you are wondering whatever the Japanese characters on the Shrine said it indicates who or what organization donates that particular shrine.
It is very easy to get to Fushimiinari Taisha, just a few stops away from any station in Kyoto and the shrine is already visible from the train station.
What to eat near Fushimiinari Taisha: Kendonya, Handmade Udon
Back to downtown, we head to Sobanomi Yoshimura not that far from JR Kyoto station. Sobanomi Yoshimura is a restaurant specialised in soba noodles. Japanese renowned for making anything so perfectly, there’s no exception with these noodles. Soba is the noodles we see in oriental supermarket, the stiff stick that usually comes in bundle of 3 expect that here they are 100% fresh and handmade. But they exactly has the same consistency and perfect shape, only taste so much better.
We had the noodle soup with tempura set and Kyoto delicacy set. I think Kyoto delicacy is really nice and unique. Next time I’d really want to try the dipping noodles though I’m not sure how to order it (hey google translate, I’ll need you for this) but no matter how your soba are prepared – cold, hot, soup or dipping, soba doesn’t get much better than this at all.
Things I’d come back for:
This 3 mitchelin star restaurant is only 5 minutes away from our accommodation. We were eager to try but we had lunch at Lawson instead after learning that the cheapest set of dish cost USD 300 per person. But we were greeted very warmly by the staff and they still bow to us when we decided to walk away. I tell myself to return one day perhaps, when I have that much budget to spend. Lunch and breakfast is cheaper though. You can have traditional Japanese Breakfast for around USD 50, much less than dinner price.
There is many other Michelin stars restaurant of up to 3 in Kyoto. Haven’t I mention Japanese are so perfect in what they do hence there is little surprise there right.
An Udon place near Heian Jingu and Gion which mean near my accommodation but we never get to try. To be honest, we didn’t get to had any Udon at all while in Japan which makes me all the more eager to try next time. Udon is actually one of my favourite foods but since everything else are so great I didn’t feel as if I missed out on anything.
In Kyoto you will use a lot of bus. Each bus ride cost about 200 JPY so it make sense to buy a day pass that is only 500 JPY a day. This bus pass is available in many places. All convenient stores sell them as well. They are also come as a blank so you can activate it as you ride on your first bus of the day.
Other fun things to do in Kyoto
A lot of people hire Traditional clothes. Kimono is one of the prettiest and vibrant traditional attire in my opinion. Hire traditional clothes to make your Kyoto experience all the more memorable. Not to mention the photos will turn out amazing.
Money Saving tips:
– Make lunch your fanciest meal of the day
– Take a one day bus pass for multiple travel
– Kyoto is very close to Osaka (only a short 30 minutes train ride) so you can stay in Osaka and have a day trip to Kyoto anytime you like if you can’t find cheap accommodation in Kyoto.