Want to know what to do in Kyoto, the cultural center of Japan? Whether you have a day or a week, there is plenty to do in and around Kyoto!
Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, and for good reason: it is Japan’s cultural heart. It is also one of the only major cities that remained almost completely intact after WWII. Its beauty and significance are why it was spared from excessive bombing during the war, and today we can enjoy the beautiful city because of it!
The main tourist spots are all popular for a reason, so if you go during the day you are sure to be a part of the crowd. One way to escape the crowds (and get those perfect Instagram shots) is to go either super early in the morning or later in the evening.
Pro Tip: The 1000 Torii gates of Fushimi Inari are open all the time, and so is the bamboo grove of Arashiyama.
Things to do in Kyoto, Japan
Kinkaku-ji or “Temple of the Golden Pavilion”
The first time we went here I was stunned by the silent beauty of this temple. Each level represents a different esthetic, and the temple is nearly equaled by the beauty of the surrounding pond and gardens. They number amongst the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto; Kinkaku-ji is also a World Heritage Site. This Buddhist temple dates back to the 1300’s. but over the years has been burned down and rebuilt a few times. The most recent fire was in the 1950’s.
Walking through these torii gates is one of Japan’s most iconic experiences. Our best advice is to just start hiking. Everyone stops for pictures at the beginning, so it can get really crowded. There are several ways to enjoy the gates, from strolling around those at the base of the mountain or diverting off the main path halfway up the trail or making it all the way to the summit. We always made it part way up then took a side trail back down.
The popularity of the Inari sect means thousands of other Inari shrines exist throughout Japan. Visit the Motonosumi Inari Shrine on the northern coast in Yamaguchi Prefecture for spectacular views and the most difficult donation box in all of Japan.
Bloody Ceilings of Yogen-in
One of our most favorite temples in Kyoto is the Yogen-in. When we went, all of the tourists were across the street at the Chishakuin Buddhist Temple viewing the scenic gardens. There were maybe 10 other people at Yogen-in, and that’s it.These bloody ceiling temples are rich in history with blood from one of the most influential suicides in Japanese history staining these ceilings. It’s easily one of our favorite places in Kyoto. Other bloody ceiling temples in Kyoto include Genko-an, Shoden-ji and Myoshin-ji.
Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama
A short hike up the mountain (near the bamboo forest) will take you to the monkey park. Bring some change and you can buy some food to feed them. It is really fun! Remember, don’t look them in the eye!
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
I was really looking forward to the bamboo grove from pictures that I have seen. Even with a lot of other people there, it’s a peaceful walk through beautiful scenery and a wonderful experience. Mornings and evenings are the least busy.
Geisha – Gion district
The best chance of seeing a Geisha is to be in the Gion district. These are disciplined and talented women that dedicate their lives to tradition, so please be respectful. If you see one, count yourself lucky!
There are two awesome reasons to visit this temple. One is that the entire structure is built without a single nail. Second, if you drink from the waterfall below your wish will come true – either with academics, love or longevity!
Day trips from Kyoto
There are so many things to do in and around Kyoto. You can spend anywhere from a couple of days or a couple of weeks exploring this ancient city. These awesome areas nearby are worth exploring too, especially if you will be there for more than a couple of days.
Our main objective in going to Osaka was always the food. We enjoyed the food in Osaka more than Kyoto, specifically the okonomiyaki and yakisoba. See the iconic Glico running man or get lost in the many arcades of Dotonbori. Osaka is a great place to visit for its nightlife, rain or shine. Osaka Castle was built by the great Hideyoshi, and it is larger than you would believe!
Nara is famous for it’s considerate, bowing deer. However, we found aggressively nudging and headbutting deer more than the Instagram-portrayed respectful animals. You might get lucky and have a perfect experience with deer bowing…we were more worried about protecting the kids! It was exciting to see that they really do use the crosswalks, though! If you aren’t going to make it to Miyajima for their deer, Nara is a great place to visit.
This is not exactly a short drive. However, it was one of those things that we wanted to see for ourselves – it’s the tallest single drop waterfall in Japan – so we made the drive with our two kids (3, 4) and it didn’t disappoint. It required a full day and a couple of movies on repeat, but the temple and amazing waterfall were worth it. More about Nachi Falls here.
Known for having some of the best wagyu in Japan, Kobe beef is definitely worth trying. Best advice: lunch is often less expensive than dinner for the same meat quality.
I had never heard of Matsusaka wagyu beef, but Matt assured me it was supposed to be even better than Kobe. It was. The restaurant we went to gave us our own private room where we enjoyed the flavors and textures of the most delicious wagyu that Japan has to offer. If your pocket book can afford it, try them both to see which you like more…if you can only have one, just come to Matsusaka!
Iga Ninja Village
One of our favorite places to visit was Iga. You can dress up like a ninja for the day and explore the castle and ninja museum. The ninja home is filled with fun secret doors and compartments that had me planning my dream home with it’s own secret places. Check out their show! They demonstrate different fighting moves that a ninja would have practiced.
Lake Biwa is just a 9 min train ride or a short drive from central Kyoto. The largest freshwater lake in Japan, it is also one of the oldest lakes in the world. Known for great fishing you’ll definitely see the lake and it’s shores crowded with fishermen. Be sure to see the following:
- Shirahige Shrine; also known as the Grand Torii Gate, it is similar to Miyajima’s floating torii gate.
- Ukimido Temple is a beautiful “floating” temple that you walk out to visit.
Making a visit to Tateyama and the Japanese Alps from Kyoto may be a bit of a stretch, since they’re 4 hours away. However if you are planning on spending a lot of time in Kyoto, then a couple of days north in the Japanese Alps is perfectly reasonable, especially when you consider everything to see there. If you go in the spring, you must try the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and Snow Wall Walk. Literal walls of snow tower above you as you walk through the Japanese Alps! Also in the area:
- Shomyo Falls – The tallest waterfall in Japan at 350 meters. Best to visit during the spring when the snow is really melting.
- Yunokuni-no mari craft village – a quaint village with an umbrella street and several traditional Japanese crafts you can do yourself.
- Tojinbo Cliffs – Dramatic rock formations formed millions of years ago from volcanic activity on the Sea of Japan.
- Shirakawa-go – Traditional thatched-roof style homes in a beautiful setting. If you want an even more stunning village away from the crowds, look here. You’ll learn how you can rent one for the night!
Where to stay in Kyoto:
If you are going to be staying in Kyoto for more than a day or so we recommend staying at an Airbnb. We had wonderful luck at all of the Airbnbs we used in Kyoto.
Best time to visit Kyoto, Japan:
There is really never a bad time to visit Kyoto. Spring is wonderful during sakura season, and the fall colors throughout all of Japan are incredible. It would be an equally great time to visit. Summer tends to bring more crowds but also wonderful weather. In any season, pack an umbrella – it will be good for rain or shine.
Plan your trip:
Any trip to Japan should include time in Kyoto. Seeing the main sites is doable in just a couple of days, or you can take your time and bask in the culture that makes Japan so great!