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.
Wander around Fushimi Inari Shrine
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
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!
Arashiyama bamboo grove
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
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
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.
Kyoto guided tours & day trips to consider
- Kyoto Full-Day Sightseeing Tour
- Maiko Performance with Kaiseki Dinner
- Kyoto Small-Group Bike Tour
- Tea Ceremony with a Tea Master
- Morning Tour: Kyoto Imperial Palace, Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle
- Samurai School
- Fushimi Inari and Sake Brewery Tour
- Gion by Night: Culture Performance with Dinner
- Arashiyama and Sagano Morning Walking Tour
- Nishiki Market: The Heart of Kyoto Cuisine