A couple of my friends were visiting Kyoto this summer and had asked for my advise on some attractions. As they have only two days to explore the city, I suggested that they make good use of their time carefully as it is impossible to cover all of Kyoto in just a few days. I know that because I was there personally for almost 8 days for leisure and I still feel it’s not enough 😀
Through our conversation, I realised that many people visit Kyoto as a side trip to their main trip in Tokyo or Osaka. So that means most of them spend only 1-3 days to explore the key attractions. Likewise for my friends, their time in Kyoto was limited so I thought compiling a short list of top attractions with city travel tips would be helpful.
Enjoy the read!
1. Nishiki Market
The place to be for sashimi and seafood lovers! Located near the famous Gion district, the Nishiki Market is a lively marketplace that peddles in all things food-related. From fresh seafood, poultry, sushi, local produce to Kyoto specialities like Japanese sweets, snacks and pickles, foodies are guaranteed to go on battle-mode here.
Great for: Foodies!
Travel Tip #1 – Try to arrive early in the morning if you are planning to buy or eat anything!
2. Kyoto Imperial Palace
The residence of the Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868, the Kyoto Imperial Palace signifies the city’s important role in ancient Japanese history. Though the royal family no longer lives here, but the palace and palace grounds are well-maintained. Located within the Kyoto Imperial Park, this is a nice place to picnic and let your kids frolic under the sun.
If you are planning to visit, do take note of this important notice issued by the Imperial Household Agency.
Great for: Families with kids, Japanese culture and history enthusiasts.
Travel Tip #2 – If you intend to take the local city bus to get here, do take note that the distance between the entrance of the palace and the bus stop is rather long. Alternatively, you can rent a bicycle and cycle your way through the park.
3. Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
One of the most iconic architecture in Kyoto, Kinkakuji (also known as the Golden Pavilion) is a must-see for first time visitors and visitors who had very limited time in Kyoto and just want to see its top attractions.
A Zen Buddhism Temple, the two top floors of the structure are covered in gold leaf. Overlooking the pond, the structure shines magnificently under sunlight and is definitely one scene no photographer (amateur/professional) should miss.
Great for: Photography hobbyists and sightseers.
Travel Tip #3 – Don’t be in a hurry! Take your time to appreciate the structure from different angles and you’ll be surprised.
4. Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple)
Another well-photographed Kyoto temple, Kiyomizudera (also known as ‘Pure Water Temple’) is one of my favourite attraction. A UNESCO world heritage site, Kiyomizudera is best known for its stunning wooden balcony that is perched upon a cliff. Depending on the season, the scenic view of Kiyomizudera changes from cherry blossom pink to maple leave orange in the spring and autumn. Incidentally, these are also the best seasons to visit Kyoto.
What can you do here:
- Visit the Jishu Shrine and find your way to love: Dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking, the two ‘love’ stones here which are placed 18 meters apart are said to bring luck in love if you are able to find your way from one to the other with your eyes closed!
- Drink from the Otowa Waterfall: Located at the base of the temple, drinking from either of the three streams of water are said to have different benefits, ranging from longevity, success at school, to a fortunate love life. But do refrain from drinking all three as it is considered greedy (plus, the locals will give you a weird look).
Great for: Photography hobbyists, sightseers, families with kids – everyone!
Travel Tip #4 – Take the best picture of the temple from the opposite cliff! Also, if you are a fan of traditional Japanese sweets like mochi and dango, there are many teahouses on the way up so do check them out.
5. Nishi Honganji
One of the two largest temples in Kyoto city, Nishi Honganji (or the West Honganji) – together with its counterpart Higashi Honganji (East Honganji) located in the East of Kyoto – is the HQ of the Jodo-Shin Sect (True Pure Land Sect), one of Japan’s largest Buddhist sects. The temple is also a UNESC world heritage site and is also a good place to experience contemporary Japanese Buddhism.
Great for: Photography hobbyists, sightseers, fans of Zen Buddhism, Japanese culture and history.
Travel Tip #5 – Located near the Kyoto main station, you can get to this temple in 10-15 minutes by walking. You can also take a shuttle bus from the main station that take less than 10 minutes traveling time.
6. Fushimi Inari
If you still have time after visiting all the essential sites in Kyoto city, why not take a half day trip to the Fushimi Inari shrine in Fushimi Inari-ku? Being the head shrine of Inari, a Japanese deity of foxes that governs fertility and agriculture, the Fushimi Inari is also the site of the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.
Sitting at the base of the Inari mountain, the temple has an iconic mountain trail where over 10,000 Torii gates are placed along the way to the sacred mountain top. The mountain trail leads to many smaller shrines which spans over a few kilometres, so if you are planning to visit it all, be prepared to walk for at least 2-4 hours.
Great for: Photography hobbyists, sightseers, fans of Japanese culture, history and Memoirs of Geisha.
Travel Tip #6 – You can get to the Fushimi Inari Shrine by taking the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station to JR Inari Station (Cost: 140 Yen). It’s just a two short stops away.
Oh, last but not least, also do try to find out if there is any interesting matsuri (festival) going on while you are there. I had the chance to experience the local New Year festival during the Setsubun in Winter but I heard there are similar activities during different seasons. The best way to know will be to ask any locals and they will happy to point out to you on the happening places to be!