When you think of the best things to do in Kyoto, what springs to mind? Towering temples? Ancient tea ceremonies? Well, my story with this mesmerizing city began a bit differently. Back when I was living the bustling life in New York, I met this girl, Hanako, straight from the heart of Kyoto. We fell head over heels, and with every late-night phone call and sweet letter, my dreams were filled with visions of Kyoto station, bustling markets, and serene temples.
Now, some might say the best place to fall in love is Paris or Rome, but for me, that magical spot in Kyoto was where my heart lay. Every story she told, every picture she sent made me crave the day I’d set foot in this city—a perfect blend of the old and the new, where tradition dances seamlessly with modernity.
Hanako painted a picture of a city where ancient shrines nestle between skyscrapers and where every alley has a tale to tell.
So here’s my traveler’s diary, my love letter to you, dear reader, and to a city that captures the soul in ways you’d never expect.
Ready to dive in?
And don’t forget to look at my article about the best things to do in Japan!
1. Exploring the Historic Gion District
Okay, so here’s the deal. When I first planned my day trip to Kyoto from Tokyo, I was super hyped about checking out all the famous temples in Kyoto. I mean, who wouldn’t be? But let me tell you about the unexpected gem I stumbled upon: the Gion district.
Now, I had heard of Gion, but actually being there? Whole different ball game. It’s this cool neighborhood that’s like a living, breathing time capsule of old Japan. Everywhere you look, there’s a story – from old wooden machiya houses to geishas gracefully making their way through narrow streets.
Walking around Gion, especially as evening began to creep in, was like being dropped right into a Japanese movie. The streets have this incredible atmosphere, where every shadow and lantern light feels like it’s setting the stage for some dramatic scene. And as someone experiencing Japan for the first time, this was the kind of stuff I was hoping for. It felt authentic, alive, and oh-so-beautiful.
And the best part? Discovering all these cool little spots where locals hang out, away from the touristy rush. It’s like every turn held a new surprise. So, if you ever visit Japan and want to get a real feel of its heart and soul, I can’t recommend Gion enough. It’s not just a district; it’s an experience.
2. Marvel at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion
Okay, so if you’re plotting your trip to Japan and are anywhere near central Kyoto, there’s this place you just can’t skip: Kinkaku-ji, or as many call it, the Golden Pavilion. Now, I’m not a history buff, but even I was floored by the story behind this place. Built way back in the day as a retirement villa for a shogun, it later turned into a Buddhist temple. And, yup, it’s literally coated in gold leaf. Like, how wild is that?
I’ve got to be honest, when I stepped into northern Kyoto and first laid eyes on that golden reflection shimmering off the pond, I felt this wave of calm wash over me. It was one of those rare “pinch me” moments where you forget about your packed itinerary, the bus rides, or where you’re headed next. I just sat there, soaking it all in, thinking, “Man, Japan’s got some serious game.”
Whether you’re into history, architecture, or just want a chill spot to relax, Kinkaku-ji is one for the books. And trust me, you’ll want to whip out your camera for this one!
3. Tea Ceremony Experience in a Traditional Setting
So, you ever get so amped up about something that you have to take a moment to just…breathe? That was me before my tea ceremony experience near the Kyoto Imperial Palace. I mean, I’d spent days in Kyoto hopping from one amazing spot to the next, but this was THE thing I’d been waiting for. Of all the places to visit in Kyoto, this was top of my list.
I’d read about the art of the Japanese tea ceremony and how it’s this whole ritual of preparing and drinking matcha. It’s not just about sipping tea; it’s about mindfulness, respect, and a dash of aesthetics. So, there I was, outside what many claim is the best place to go for this sort of thing, doing my best to channel some inner peace before heading in.
The coolest part? I didn’t just get to watch—I got to join in! With the guidance of this super chill tea master, I was whisking and sipping like a pro. And along the way, I made some great connections. We chatted, laughed, and really bonded over the experience. It wasn’t just about the tea; it was about the people and the memories we created together. So, if you’re looking for a genuine, heartwarming experience, add this to your Kyoto bucket list.
4. Meandering Through the Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama
Let me tell you about Arashiyama. If you ever visit Kyoto, this place is like… stepping into a different world. Imagine you’re walking, surrounded by these towering bamboo shoots that seem to touch the sky, the sun peeking through, casting the coolest light patterns on the ground.
Now, I’ve been to some incredible restaurants in Kyoto and even took a side trip to Osaka, but some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken in my life? Right here in these bamboo groves.
I was having a blast just following the main path when my adventurous side kicked in. I thought, “Why not go off the beaten path a bit?” And oh man, am I glad I did! I stumbled upon quiet corners, heard birds I couldn’t see, and just lost track of time.
If you’re looking for a touch of magic and a break from the city hustle, Arashiyama’s where it’s at. And pro tip: bring a good camera. You’ll thank me later.
5. Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine and its Thousand Torii Gates
So, Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of Kyoto’s must-sees, and for good reason. Beyond being one of the most popular attractions, it’s steeped in history and spiritual significance. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and agriculture, and has been a significant spot for worshippers for centuries. When you walk through those countless red torii gates, it’s like flipping through pages of history.
I decided to make the hike up the mountain, and let me tell you, it’s a journey. With every step, passing through gate after gate, you feel the weight of tradition and the whispers of all those who’ve come before. But it’s not just about the temples and shrines. The view from the top? Worth every step. There’s this peaceful vibe that wraps around you, making all the huffing and puffing up the mountain totally worth it.
If you’re making a list of spots to hit in Kyoto, this one deserves a prime spot. Not just for the history, but for that unique feeling you get walking through those gates.
6. Discovering Kyoto’s Vibrant Food Scene at Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market is like the beating heart of Kyoto’s food scene. I mean, if you’re flipping through a Kyoto travel guide, this place is bound to pop up. And let me tell you, it’s one of the best places to dive headfirst into everything the city of Kyoto has on its plate. The market is a burst of colors, aromas, and flavors that can send your taste buds on a whirlwind journey.
On my visit, I stumbled upon this tiny stall that claimed to have the best takoyaki in town. Being a bit of a foodie, I couldn’t resist. And let’s just say, that claim? Totally justified. Right next door, another vendor was selling mochi, and I kid you not, it was the best I’ve ever had—soft, chewy, and just the right amount of sweet.
If you’re the kind of traveler who loves getting to know a place through its food, then Nishiki Market should be right at the top of your Kyoto list. Every bite tells a story, and it’s a delicious way to get acquainted with this amazing city.
7. Enjoying the Tranquility of Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Visiting Kiyomizu-dera was like hitting the pause button on life. Even with all the top things to see in Kyoto, this temple has its own unique charm that just draws you in. First off, the architecture is downright impressive. I found out it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. The way the temple was built without using a single nail, and how it just stands there, overlooking the city, is a testament to craftsmanship from another era.
But beyond the architecture, there’s this sense of peace that envelops you. I took a moment, found a quiet spot on the temple’s terrace, and just sat there, taking in the city views. It was one of those moments where you just reflect on everything, and it reminded me why exploring new places, like this temple, is one of the best things to do in Japan.
So, if you’re looking for a mix of awe-inspiring architecture and a place to just… breathe, Kiyomizu-dera is where you’ll find it.
8. Rowing Down the Katsura River
There’s something about being on the water that’s just… soul-soothing, you know? Now, throw in the scenic beauty of the Katsura River and its lush landscapes, and you’ve got yourself an experience that easily makes the list of the best Kyoto sightseeing adventures.
I had the chance to row down this river, and while I’d like to say I was the master oarsman, I had some (a lot of) help. My local guide was not only an expert with the paddle but also shared stories about the river and its significance to the city.
If you’re wondering when’s usually the best time to go, early morning or late afternoon offers that golden-hour glow on the water. But honestly, anytime you get to float down the Katsura, listening to the sounds of nature and the gentle splash of the oar, is time well spent.
9. Catching a Traditional Kabuki Performance
So, there I was, in Kyoto, looking to immerse myself in something purely traditional. And that’s when Kabuki theater entered the scene. For the uninitiated, Kabuki is this amazing blend of drama, music, and dance, and it’s been around for centuries. It’s kind of like stepping back in time and watching stories unfold right in front of you.
I snagged a ticket to one of the shows, and trust me, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. The actors, with their elaborate costumes and striking makeup, told tales of love, honor, and betrayal. The music, the moves, the emotion – it was all just…captivating.
If you’re ever in Kyoto and want a break from the usual sightseeing, diving into the world of Kabuki is a fantastic way. It’s definitely among the best places to visit in Kyoto to escape the usual touristy stuff and delve deep into Japan’s rich cultural tapestry.
10. Relaxing in a Traditional Kyoto Ryokan
Let’s talk about leveling up your travel game! So, while everyone’s busy finding the best places to see in Kyoto during the day, here’s a tip: the best time to see the real charm of Kyoto might just be during the night, especially if you’re tucked away in a traditional ryokan.
These Japanese inns are something else.
My stay? Absolute bliss. Imagine sliding open a wooden door to reveal a cozy room with tatami mats. There’s something so grounding about sitting on the floor, sipping on some warm green tea, and just taking a moment to…breathe.
But the real treat? The hot spring baths. After a day of wandering around, nothing beats sinking into that warm, soothing water and letting all your cares melt away. It’s not just a bed for the night; it’s an entire experience. A night in Kyoto, in a ryokan, feels like you’re living a part of Japanese history – and trust me, it’s a chapter you don’t want to skip.
I wrote an entire article with the top list of Onsen in Kyoto if you need 😀
Kyoto, oh Kyoto.
As I sit here, flipping through my travel diary, every page seems to burst with colors, sounds, and emotions from my time in Kyoto. From the age-old temples to the serene ryokans, and the delightful bites from Nishiki Market, every moment was a piece of a beautifully woven tapestry. Kyoto is surrounded by so much history, culture, and sheer beauty that I can’t help but feel grateful for all the memories. If you’re reading this and wondering if you should embark on your own Kyoto adventure – don’t hesitate. Dive in, and let the city envelop you in its magic.
Bonus: Essential Travel Tips for Your Kyoto Trip
So, diving into all those epic Kyoto adventures? Awesome choice! Based on my own escapades, let me give you a leg up with some golden nuggets of advice. First up, make sure you get a view of the city from a high point – the landscape with all its temples and the skyline is a visual treat. And when planning your day, try to start early, especially for the popular Kyoto attractions. Trust me, beating the crowd is always worth the early alarm. Oh, and here’s a cheeky one: keep some coins handy. Those temple donations and vending machines will thank you later! Happy travels!
And make sure to check out the best spots for a massage in Japan!
Q1: What makes the Gion District in Kyoto special?
A1: The Gion District is special for its old-world charm, traditional wooden machiya houses, and the presence of geishas. It’s like a living, breathing part of old Japan, rich in history and culture.
Q2: Why is Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, a must-visit in Kyoto?
A2: Kinkaku-ji is a must-visit for its stunning gold leaf-coated architecture, historical significance as a former shogun’s villa turned Buddhist temple, and its serene setting that offers a moment of tranquility.
Q3: What is unique about the tea ceremony experience in Kyoto?
A3: Kyoto’s tea ceremony is unique for its focus on mindfulness, respect, and aesthetics, providing an immersive cultural experience that goes beyond just drinking tea.
Q4: Why should one visit the Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama?
A4: The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama offer a magical and tranquil experience, surrounded by towering bamboo shoots and serene natural beauty. It’s a place for fantastic photography and peaceful exploration.
Q5: What makes Fushimi Inari Shrine and its Thousand Torii Gates special?
A5: Fushimi Inari Shrine is special for its thousands of red torii gates that create a unique and historic pathway up the mountain, symbolizing tradition and spiritual significance.
Q6: What can one expect at Nishiki Market in Kyoto?
A6: At Nishiki Market, one can expect a vibrant and bustling food scene with a variety of local delicacies, fresh produce, and unique culinary experiences.
Q7: What is the appeal of Kiyomizu-dera Temple?
A7: Kiyomizu-dera Temple appeals for its impressive architecture, UNESCO World Heritage status, and the peaceful ambiance that offers a space for reflection and stunning city views.
Q8: Why is rowing down the Katsura River recommended?
A8: Rowing down the Katsura River is recommended for the soul-soothing experience it offers, along with scenic views of lush landscapes and an opportunity to connect with local culture and stories.
Q9: What is special about watching a Kabuki performance in Kyoto?
A9: Watching a Kabuki performance is special because it’s a traditional Japanese art form combining drama, music, and dance, offering a captivating and cultural experience.
Q10: What makes staying in a traditional Kyoto Ryokan unique?
A10: Staying in a traditional Kyoto Ryokan is unique for its authentic Japanese experience, including tatami mats, green tea, and hot spring baths, providing a historical and relaxing experience.