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Things to Do in Kyoto

Boasting an impressive 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites—one of the world’s largest collections—Kyoto epitomizes traditional Japanese culture. Quaint, serene, and rooted firmly in tradition, the city operates at an entirely different pace than bright, frenetic Tokyo. In the historic Gion district, geishas scurry to work wearing trademark silk kimonos; during sakura (cherry blossom season), Maruyama Park swells with pastel-pink flowers; and in Nishiki Food Market, vendors front stalls selling Japanese delicacies. Kyoto brims with dazzling Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, all set against striking natural landscapes typical of Japan. Tick off more highlights in less time on sightseeing tours, which typically cover the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), Nijo Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace, Heian Jingu Shrine, and Kiyomizu Temple. Culture vultures can arrange a traditional tea ceremony and watch a Maiko show, nature lovers can hike through Arashiyama and the Sagano Bamboo Forest, and foodies can master the art of Japanese cuisine during a sushi-making lesson. Within easy reach of Kyoto are several popular destinations that make ideal choices for half- or full-day tours: Nara, home to Deer Park (Nara Park) and Todai-ji (one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan); and Osaka, with its picturesque canal, grand Osaka Castle, and vibrant Dotonbori district. Farther afield but doable as a one-day tour, Hiroshima and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park are popular among travelers looking to learn more about Japan’s history.
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Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha)
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One of Kyoto’s most sacred temples and among the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, the Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha) is dedicated to Inari, the God of rice. The shrine’s five magnificent temples lie at the foot of the Inari mountain, and thousands of red torii gates (the Senbon torii) mark the forested trails to the top.

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Gion Corner
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Gion Corner is a convenient place for art lovers to visit while in Kyoto, as it brings seven traditional Japanese performing arts together under one roof. Attending one of its nightly performances is an ideal way to spend an evening in the heart of the Gion entertainment district while learning about traditional Japanese culture.

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Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
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With its gleaming gold tiers reflected in the lake below and a backdrop of forests and twisted pines, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) is an enchanting sight. Dating back to the 14th century, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and among Japan’s most visited temples.

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple
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Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of Japan’s oldest and most eye-catching Buddhist temples. Its classic red pagoda has been influential to Japanese architecture for centuries. Located on a hilltop, Kiyomizu-dera Temple is also worth visiting for its sweeping views over Kyoto.

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Nishiki Market
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With more than 100 shops, stalls, and vendors selling everything from fresh-off-the-boat fish and seafood, to tasty sweets and sushi takeaway, Nishiki Food Market is a wonderland of culinary delights. Kyoto’s biggest and most popular food market is a local institution and a popular attraction for traveling foodies.

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Arashiyama Park
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For classic Kyoto in a nutshell, head to Arashiyama Park. The perennially popular area is rich in temples and a riot of fall colors in November, with pink cherry blossoms in April.

The park area embraces several major sights, including Tenryu-ji Temple, founded in 1339. The main temple of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by tranquil Zen gardens and bamboo forest.

There are many other temples in Arashiyama, including the Gio-ji, Jojakko-ji and Daikaku-ji temples. Another highlight is walking across the Moon Crossing Bridge, with views over to Mt Arashiyama.

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Sagano
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Often mistaken for the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, Sagano expands north of the Togetsukyo Bridge in Kyoto. The tranquil area encompasses some of Kyoto’s most stunning landscapes. With rural residential areas, mountains dotting the horizon, fields ablaze with color and a famous bamboo forest, Sagano may just be one of Japan’s prettiest (and lesser known) spots.

By far, Sagano is best known for its bamboo groves. Walking trails wind through the forest, with thin, tall bamboos lining either side. Sun light filters through the narrow trunks, casting shadows along the path. Beyond the grove, one of the best ways to experience Sagano is on bicycle. In addition to the bamboo groves, there are numerous temples to explore, as well as the river and the well-traveled bridge. This idyllic nook on the outskirts of Kyoto should not be missed.

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Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho)
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The Japanese royal family lived in Kyoto Imperial Palace(Kyoto Gosho) until 1868, when the capital moved to Tokyo. It’s located within the Kyoto Imperial Park, which also houses other palaces and shrines. This must-visit attraction allows visitors to gain a greater understanding of Japan’s rich history and culture while enjoying landscaped gardens.

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Himeji Castle (Himeji-Jo)
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If you only have time for one day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, make it Himeji Castle (Himeji-Jo), renowned as Japan’s most beautiful historic citadel. Also known as White Heron Castle, the UNESCO-listed hilltop structure was built in 1580 and features a five-story central tower with surrounding moats, walls, and pagodas.

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Nijo-jo Castle
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UNESCO World Heritage Site Nijo-jo Castle, a fortified complex dating from 1603, was the official residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun. Walk in the pretty gardens or visit Ninomaru Palace to see fine Japanese artworks. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto, a city already full of must-visit attractions.

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More Things to Do in Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion)

Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion)

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The Silver Pavilion temple in Kyoto’s eastern mountains has no silver on it at all. Legend has it that when Shogun – or military ruler – Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa in 1482 on the grounds where Ginkaku-ji stands today, he grandly stated he wanted the entire pavilion covered with silver to imitate the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), built by his grandfather. The villa was converted to a Buddhist temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490, and the shining nickname persists today.

The circular route around the Silver Pavilion begins in a dry sand garden, named the “Sea of Silver Sand,” where a cone-like representation of Mt. Fuji has been dubbed the “Moon Viewing Platform.” The grounds open up to a moss garden featuring ponds with islands and short bridges, streams, and a variety of foliage. The path snakes up a hill leading to a viewing point of the entire temple grounds and the city beyond. The path comes full circle with up-close views of the Silver Pavilion itself. Unlike some of Kyoto’s famous temples, none of the buildings at the Silver Pavilion can be viewed from the inside.

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Mt. Kurama

Mt. Kurama

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Folklore says that Sojobo, an ancient mythological king who rules over minor deities, inhabits Kurama, a rural temple town in nestled in the northern Kyoto mountains. In the 11th century, Sojobo taught swordsmanship and magic to a famous Japanese general. Although the famous stories are still told, today Mt. Kurama is most famous for its natural hot springs, temples, and nature trails.

Visitors to the area flock to Kurama-dera, a Buddhist temple resting on a steep mountainside above the town. To reach it involves a 30-45 minute hike that can be cut in half by taking a cable car halfway up the mountain. A Shinto Shrine provides respite along the way; it has become famous for an annual Fire Festival that takes place in October. Nature enthusiasts can continue hiking past the temple to several others along a route to the small town of Kibune.

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Togetsu-kyo Bridge

Togetsu-kyo Bridge

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Once a destination for nobles, the Arashiyama district of Kyoto boasts small-town charm and beautiful mountainside views. Today, the popular neighborhood attracts tourists and nature lovers. The scenic neighborhood’s iconic landmark, Togetsu-kyo Bridge spans the Katsura River and provides panoramic views of lush mountainside foliage, gentle river swells, and local fisherman navigating the shoreline. The bridge’s history extends back 400 years and has been featured in many historical films.

Crossing Togetsu-kyo Bridge is a highlight of any visit to Arashiyama. From feeding carp fish over the railing to enjoying the splendor of cherry blossoms in the spring and fall foliage, the bridge is a gateway to a simple, stunningly scenic way of life. Another popular way to see the bridge is by a boat ride along the river.

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Tenryu-ji Temple

Tenryu-ji Temple

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Located in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the five great temples of Kyoto. Make a stop at this sprawling Zen temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates from the 14th century, to experience its traditional Japanese landscape garden.

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Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine)

Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine)

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Host to Japan’s most famous festival, Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine is located in the heart of Kyoto. Yasaka Shrine dates back to the 7th century, when it was known as Gion Shrine for its location near the Gion district, famous for the geisha that live and work there. The shrine consists of several buildings. The main hall houses an inner sanctuary and a secondary hall. One of the most prominent features of the shrine is a large stage out front lined with hundreds of lanterns. One of the most popular times to visit the shrine is in the evening or at night, when the lanterns light the stage.

The annual Gion Matsuri festival began more than 1,100 years ago at Yasaka Shrine. In modern times, it takes place every July. Originally, the festival sought to expunge the city of illnesses. Today, the festival celebrates craftwork. Intricate fabrics, textiles, and sculptures adorn floats that men carry through town. Music, costumes, and street food contribute to the festive atmosphere. Yasaka Shrine is also a popular place to visit during the Japanese New Year and during cherry blossom season.

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Pontocho Alley

Pontocho Alley

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Foodies who spend any time in Kyoto will want to dedicate at least one evening to PontochoAlley, an incredibly atmospheric dining area packed with restaurants and exclusive tea houses lining a narrow, cobbled alley just west of the Kamo River.

Visitors from around Japan and the world come here for the open-air dining along the river and the opportunity to spot apprentice and master geishas scurrying to their appointments. While most of the tea houses are difficult to visit without a connection, visitors will find a range of restaurants — everything from inexpensive yakitori to modern Kyoto cuisine – to choose from in the evenings.

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Ryoan-ji Temple & Garden

Ryoan-ji Temple & Garden

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No matter from where visitors view Japan's most famous rock garden, at least one rock is always hidden from sight. That's one of the reasons that Ryoan-jiTemple, a temple with an accompanying zen rock garden, attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally a residence for aristocrats, the site was converted to a Buddhist temple in 1450. The temple features traditional Japanese paintings on sliding doors, a refurbished zen kitchen, and tatami, or straw mat, floors.

The temple's main attraction has always been the rock garden, as much for its meditative qualities as a desire to find meaning in its minimalistic attributes. The garden is a rectangular plot of pebbles with 15 larger stones on moss swaths interspersed seemingly arbitrarily. Some have said the garden represents infinity; others see it in an endless sea. Ryoan-ji is nestled down a wooded path that crosses over a beautiful pond with several walking trails. The luscious setting is as attractive as the temple itself.

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Tofuku-ji Temple

Tofuku-ji Temple

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Few places on earth are more breathtakingly beautiful than Fall in Tofucku-ji Temple. During cool autumn months travelers and locals make the journey to this Zen temple in southeastern Kyoto that’s known for its incredible colors and brilliant Japanese maples. Visitors climb to the top of Tsutenkyo Bridge, which stretches across a colorful valley full of lush fall foliage in fiery reds and shocking oranges.

Visitors who make their way to Tofuku-ji other times of year can still wander beautiful temple grounds and explore places like the Hojo, where the head priest used to reside. Well-kept rock gardens provide the perfect spot for quiet contemplation and a stone path near the Kaisando is lined with brightly colored flowers and fresh greenery that’s almost as beautiful as the Japanese maples this temple is famous for.

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Sannenzaka & Ninenzaka

Sannenzaka & Ninenzaka

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Travelers hoping for a glimpse of a more traditional Kyoto will feel like they’re stepping back in time upon first stepping into the Imperial-era shopping district of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka. This pair of gently sloping, pedestrian-only roads, considered among the most attractive streets in the city, are lined with traditional shops, restaurants and tea houses occupying traditional wooden houses.

Shoppers will find chopsticks, fans and handmade crafts, while foodies can sample mochi balls, green tea ice cream or matcha cakes. Whether you come to shop, eat or simply soak up the atmosphere, take care not to stumble. According to local legend, slipping on either street will lead to bad luck (or even death) in two or three years respectively.

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Jojakko-ji Temple

Jojakko-ji Temple

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Jojakko-ji Temple is not an ordinary temple; it was built on the side of a mountain in the thick of a famous bamboo grove. Finding it feels like an adventure, and climbing to the top feels like a workout. The view of Kyoto from the top of Jojakko-ji Temple rewards the effort mightily.

Located in the idyllic Arashiyama district of Kyoto, Jojakko-ji Temple was built in the 1500s, and the journey to it is all uphill from its gate. Its steep staircase leads to multiple buildings, including a main hall and a pagoda that houses a Buddha. The sites along the way offer respites from the climb, and one of the most popular of these resting points is a mossy area with the bamboos directly overhead. The top of the pagoda offers an incredible view over the city, and this hidden gem of a temple is undoubtedly worth the train ride out to Arashiyama.

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Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu)

Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu)

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One of Japan's most important large-scale cultural treasures, Katsura Imperial Villa(Katsura Rikyu) preserves traditional Edo period architecture and garden design. Tatami, or rice straw mats, line the interior floors, and screen walls separate the ancient drawing room from tea houses. A circular walking trail around the estate leads to a pond in the center of a zen garden, on which many other Japanese gardens have been designed.

Completed in 1645, the Villa housed the Katsura Family, members of Japan's Imperial Family. Although Imperial Family members live in Tokyo in modern times, the residence provides a look into the stately life of princes in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, the Imperial Household Agency manages the Villa.

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Daitoku-ji Temple

Daitoku-ji Temple

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A large walled temple complex, a visit to Daitoku-ji in northern Kyoto reveals ancient sub-temples and many traditional Zen gardens. The main Daitoku-ji temple sits on the eastern side of the grounds. This structure was built in 1319, although it was destroyed in a fire in the next century and rebuilt again in the 16th century. Also on the east side of the complex are the Butsuden Hall, Hatto Hall, Hojo Residence, and the famous Sanmon Gate featuring a statue of the tea-master, Sen no Rikyu.

There are many sub-temples within the complex, but only a few of these are open to the public on a regular basis, including Ryogen-in, Zuiho-in, Daisen-in, and Koto-in. Those particularly interested in Japanese gardens should not miss the beautiful Daisen-in rock gardens, which wrap around the temple building and date back to the beginning of the 16th century. Elsewhere, Koto-in was established in 1601 and features a garden considered to be a masterpiece in simplicity that is famous for its canopy of maple trees, which are particularly stunning in the fall.

There are a number ways to experience Kyoto’s ancient temples and traditional gardens, with various day trips from Osaka and Tokyo. One of the best ways to explore this side of Japan’s history and culture is on a Kyoto bike tour, where you can discover other religious shrines and temples in the area, such as Kinkakuji and the Kitano Tenmangu Temple.

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Kennin-ji Temple

Kennin-ji Temple

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The oldest and one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto, Kennin-ji was founded in the year 1202 by a monk. Situated near the famous Geisha district of Gion, Kennin-ji attracts Buddhist monks on pilgrimage, as well as religious locals and tourists, and curious explorers.

The main hall is a bastion of solemnity. The architecture features rooftops that curve upwards toward the sky, as if in prayer. The original temple complex contained seven buildings, but fires throughout the centuries destroyed many. The temple was rebuilt in the mid-thirteenth century and again in the sixteenth century. Today three outstanding buildings remain: the Dharma Hall, the principal building; a tea house; and the Imperial Messenger Gate. Interestingly, the gate dates back to the 12th or 13th centuries, and today marks from stray arrows during battles can still be seen.

Kennin-ji boasts a stunning Zen garden. Like most Zen gardens, Kennin-ji's is defined by its simplicity and beauty. An aesthetically pleasing placement of rocks, trees, and grassy areas create a calming, peaceful atmosphere for strolling or simply sitting and thinking.

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To-ji Temple

To-ji Temple

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The spindly needle atop the 55 meter (180 foot), five-storied pagoda of To-ji temple keeps protective watch over the city of Kyoto, as it has done since its construction in the early 9th century. The tallest pagoda in Japan, it has become a symbol and iconic image of Kyoto. Several Buddha statues reside inside the famous wooden structure, enhancing its religious and historical allure.

The temple itself dates from 796, two years after the capitol moved to Kyoto. At the time, To-ji, along with a no longer existing sister temple, guarded the capitol. The temple’s feature image is that of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Medicine, further promoting To-ji’s status as a protector. To-ji was one of only three temples allowed in Kyoto in the early years of its reign as capitol, and it’s the only one that still stands today.

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