The 10 Best Places to Visit in Kyoto

Published: September 9, 2014

If you decide to visit Kyoto, Japan, these are the MUST-SEE places!  The most famous and beautiful sights are listed here. 

  1. Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion)

    Kinkakuji is probably the most famous and photographed location in all of Kyoto (and arguably all of Japan).  Though it is located within the hustle and bustle of Kyoto, it will be one of the most tranquil places you will ever visit.  The breathtaking temple is covered in gold leaf, and sits stoically on a mirroresque pond.  The temple and pond are surrounded by peaceful trails to walk.  The property also accomodates various types of birds and flowers.  No matter which season you visit, Kinkakuji will be an unforgettable experience.  It is easy to access from Kyoto station via "Raku" Bus (sightseeing bus) or subway.

  2. Ryoanji-Mai (Famous Rock Garden)

    Ryoanji-Mai is also a highly-photographed site in Kyoto.  It is the Alpha and Omega of all rock gardens.  People can come here not only just to see one of the most famous places in Kyoto, but to join the thousands of others who have made the pilgrammage to contemplate the rocks' symbolism.  The reason behind the rocks' layout has never been revealed.  One can also appreciate the weathered walls surrounding the garden, as the elements have "painted" a scenic pattern that resembles a mountainscape on the wood.  When you arrive, you will see a small crowd of people seated on wooden steps in front of the garden.  But you will hear very little conversation.  Everybody seems deep in thought.  RYoanji-Mai is also easily accessible from Kyoto Station, though it is a little tougher to navigate from the subway system.

     

  3. Ginkakuji Temple (The Silver Pavilion)

    If you visit Kinkakuji, one would also feel obligated to visit its less-heralded (but still famous) sibling, The Silver Pavilion.  Though not as striking as its more famous counterpart, The Silver Pavilion has qualities to appreciate in its own rite.  Perhaps more famous than the building itself stands "The Moon Mound", which is a perfectly shaped conical mound comprised of pebbles located within a small rock garden.  It is supposed to reflect the moon during specific times of the year.  The property also houses walking trails and gardens, much like The Golden Pavilion, and one can also appreciated the understated architecture of this temple when you encounter it at the end of the trail. 

  4. Sanjusangendo

    Located in the heart of Kyoto, and just a stone's throw from Kyoto Station, Sanjusangendo gets overshadowed by the more famous city sights, but still manages to hold its own.  Sanjusangendo is the world's largest wooden building, and it houses 1,001 hand-carved statues of Kannon, along with other buddhist deities.  Showcased in the center is the 6-meter tall Kannon statue, to which monks can be seen giving offerings, burning incense, and saying prayers.  Sadly, photography is not allowed within the main hall.  This temple also features a beautiful garden area to walk around, and a short historical section that showcases the massive structure's past.  Sanjusangendo is about a 5 minute bus ride from Kyoto Station.

  5. Kiyomizudera

    Kiyomizudera (known as "Kiyomizu" to the locals, which translates to "clear water") is another wildly famous site.  It is comprised of multiple wooden structures that sit on the face of a cliff.  The views during Sakura (cherry blossom) season - late March to early April - are breathtaking, as well as during the fall as the leaves change colors.  The trek to the main buildings is also enjoyable, as the elaborate main gate gives way to many smaller shrines within.  There are a handful of relics on display to see in the main hall as well.  Definately a spot for the nature-lover.  Kiyomizu can be accessed easily via the Roku Buses.

  6. Kennin-ji

    Shhhhh - I'll let you in on one of Kyoto's best-kept secrets!  Kennin-ji is a temple buried within the old-fashioned entertainment district of Gion.  Directions are sketchy.  All that can be said is to go down a very traditional-looking street and look to your right... hopefully you'll pick the correct street and find this hidden gem of a temple.  Kennin-ji consists of a residence-style structure and a main temple hall, as well as beautiful gardens.  Traditional paintings can be seen all throughout the residence, but the real treasure floats within the main hall.  Painted on the ceiling is a breathtaking mural of two dragons - just like you imagine when you think of Japanese dragons.  These are the ones.  The dragons of all dragons.  Not dragons seen on cheap souvenirs, but the real deal.  Kennin-ji is a bit difficult to find, though Gion is a walkable district easily accessible by bus or subway.

  7. Fushimi Inari Shrine (10,000 Torii Gates Shrine)

    Another famous Kyoto site, though this one is not for those who don't enjoy a good workout.  Fushimi Inari is famous for its countless Torii gates (red "portal" or "doorway" type structures indigenous to Japan) that sprawl across the mountainside.  Getting to the actual property is a bit of an uphill battle, then once you reach the actual start of the Torii gates, the pathways seem endless.  This shrine can be seen in the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha" where the young Sayuri is seen running through a hallway of red pillars. 

  8. Arashiyama District

    If you're willing to make the trek outside the hustle and bustle of Kyoto, you can head to the Arashiyama district, where you can visit the famous bamboo forest for a breath of fresh air.  All other visitors seem to disappear in the expanse of the park, and you can listen to the wind rustle through the leaves.  Once you finish strolling through the park, you can visit the Arashiyama Monkey Park; an exhausting trek up a winding mountain path that is flanked by MONKIES!  At the top of the mountain, you will find a safe structure to feed the monkies from.  They willing accept offerings of apple from visitors' open palms.  Though Arashiyama is a bit difficult to get to, it is well worth the hassle if you're looking for a bit of the Kyoto "country" life.

  9. Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (Kyoto Studio Theme Park/Movie Museum)

    Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (AKA Kyoto Studio Theme Park) is both a theme park and an actual working movie/television studio.  Old-fashioned streets and houses are replicated with immense detail to send visitors back to Edo-period Japan!  Guests can freely interact and get pictures with the "Geisha" there (Not so easy with the real Geisha in Gion!) and also catch various stage shows of different genres!  (Ninja, superhero, etc).  For the braver guests, there is even a spine-tingling haunted house to go through at the cost of a few extra yen.  All these features are scattered throughout actual movie and television sets.  There are also indicators of the park's modern-day purposes to be seen, such as camera and lighting equipment.  Also on the property are animation museums and other seasonal exhibits.  Toei Uzumasa Eigamura is one of the more expensive places as far as Kyoto sightseeing places go, but is well worth the price and easily accessible by Raku Bus.

  10. Kyoto Station

    While it's definately not the most historical or cultural place to go in Kyoto, this monstrous structure is the heartbeat of central Kyoto.  Aside from serving as the main transportation hub for all subways, buses, trains, and taxis, it also offers seemingly endless shopping possibilities.  Going downstairs (or upstairs) will bring you to a maze of different indoor shopping "districts".  There's the Porta, Isenta, Avante, and other wings with different specialties such as restaurants, souvenirs, or clothing.  Make sure you remember landmarks at the intersections, as it is very easy to get lost.  Kyoto Station is the perfect place to take shelter from the rain or spend the few post-dinner hours before heading to bed.  If your hotel is not located in (or within walking distance of) Kyoto Station, all public Kyoto transportation is dispatched from this building, so getting back will be a breeze. 

Kyoto is the trip of a lifetime.  One trip is not enough to see everything!  It is an amazing place to visit but won't break the bank, and will send you away with memories you will never forget.  It's like no place else on earth.