If you follow our adventures, you probably know how crazy we are about Japan -discover 10 things that make us love this country. It all started with a trip in Tokyo. Then we took the bullet train destination Kyoto, and that was the icing on the cake. Kimonos, zen gardens, traditional ryokans, temples, bamboo forests, green tea and ramen. Japan like we dreamt it.
Kyoto is a great destination for a first time in Japan -preferably paired with a few days in Tokyo. Surrounded by mountains, the city hides countless zen gardens, traditional ryokans, delicious restaurants, ancient temples and historic streets. The city is so full of enchanting sites, it's a pleasure to just wander around Kyoto and get lost, in search for new discoveries.
If the city is small enough to experience a lot even in a short amount of time, you will have to choose your priorities. I put together for you a list of 10 things to do in Kyoto -these things that made our trip so rich!
10 things to do in Kyoto
After a fantastic ride aboard the Shinkansen -Japan's futuristic bullet train- we arrived in Kyoto, the cultural capital of the country. I went on this trip with someone who's been passionate with the Japanese culture forever, my father. We stayed 5 days visiting the city, which was a perfect length of stay -although we could have easily stayed a few more days...
#1. Get lost in Kyoto station
Kyoto Station is more than just a place to catch a train. It's Japanese architecture at its best!
Designed by the architect Hiroshi Hara, Kyoto station's giant futuristic structure of glass and steel is a splendid juxtaposition against the traditional and ancient buildings of the city's past. True haven for photographers, this architecture masterpiece attracts artists from around the world. We stayed for hours there, wandering around with our cameras, getting lost between giant escalators, stairs and platforms.
#2. Explore the Zen gardens
Seeing a Japanese garden was an old dream for both of us. For centuries, they have defined a unique beauty -a fusion of landscape and design.
Kyoto has the biggest concentration of zen gardens in all of Japan. If many can be found inside temples, you can also have beautiful surprises when going to a restaurant or a ryokan. Every type of Japanese garden is represented in Kyoto, from austere Zen gardens to flamboyant stroll gardens. They're all spectacular.
We explored countless of gardens and couldn't get enough of them. But here are the ones that caught our attention...
- Kenin-ji : The oldest Zen temple in Kyoto hides a fine dry landscape garden. The Japanese sliding doors create beautiful frames around the views. Fabulous!
- Ryoan-ji : Located in North Kyoto, this is one of the most famous rock garden in Japan, and one of the most fabulous we've seen.
- Okochi Sanso : Home to a famous actor in samurai films, this villa holds a magnificent garden that offers fine views over the city. It's one of the most incredible places we've seen in Kyoto. At the end of the visit, you can get a tea and a piece of cake on a traditional Japanese tatami. To finish in beauty.
- Daitoku-ji : A collection of fantastic zen gardens. Daisen-in is one not to miss.
- Konchi-in : Magnificent dry landscape garden in Northern Higashimaya. We're alone with mosquitoes here. So magical it's hard to leave the place, even though we're getting bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes -we're in awe of the beauty of the place.
- Nanzen-ji : a classic Zen garden where you can enjoy a cup of tea with a view.
- Sento Gosho : (photo above) To visit the Emperor's garden, you will need to book your visit beforehand in Sento Imperial Palace with your passport. This guided tour is a good choice if you want to explore a gigantic zen garden while learning about Kyoto's history. Less charming than the small gardens we visited before, but very impressive.
#3. shop in nikishi market
Exploring Nikishi Market is a great way to discover all the weird and wonderful foods to go into Japanese cuisine. Big fishes, colorful treats, all kind of dried things (fruits, seafood...), EVERYTHING is different here! There's so much to discover. And to taste!
This narrow alley lined by shops and restaurants has a busy and pleasant atmosphere. It's a great place to meet the locals and discover the Japanese culture.
#4. Savor japan's authentic food
There are so many flavors to discover when you travel in Japan for the first time. Ramen, tempura, sushis, noodles, yakitori, miso, kishimen, sashimis, sushis, okonomiyaki, curry, soba, udon, sake, green tea... There's enough for you to try a new dish everyday!
#5. Visit the 'big' temples & shrines
With more than a thousand temples to choose from, you're spoiled for choice in Kyoto!
It's hard to know where to start with such an array of ancient temples rich with spiritual tradition.
Here are some the most popular temples in Kyoto:
- Fushimi-Inari Taisha : One of Japan's most popular shrines. Dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century, the entire complex sprawls across the wooded hill of Inari-yama. It gets particularly beautiful at sunset, when the sun lights comes between the red toriis -a real playground for photographers. It was a great discovery, even though it's the most crowded place we've visited in Kyoto.
- Nanzen-ji : One of the finest temples in Kyoto, surrounded by a stunning zen garden.
- Kinkaku-ji : The famous Golden Pavillon standing out from the water, in the middle of this beautiful landscape is a must-see. We arrived early to avoid the crowds, but realized the place is always crowded -you can't avoid it. The spectacle is magnificent anyway.
- Kiyomizu-dera : Situated on the wooded hills of Kyoto, this massive temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It's best known for its wooden stage that juts out 13 meters above the hillside below and offers stunning views.
- Tofuku-ji : Particularly famous for its spectacular autumn colors.
#6. Discover the temples off the beaten track
If you want to avoid the crowds, aim for the less popular temples in Kyoto. You can easily find yourself alone in an old temple, with the most serene atmosphere.
Temples are everywhere in Kyoto, you won't have any trouble to find some beautiful ones. Here's a few suggestions.
- Jojakko-ji : (photo above) Gorgeous pagoda in the middle of a lush nature.
- Daitoku-ji : A collection of zen temples and gardens, Daitoku-ji is a separate world from Kyoto. One of the most peaceful place we've discovered in the city. The complex contains a total of 24 temples, so you can readily spend a whole afternoon there. That's also where we ate some of the best sushis ever, prepared with passion by a fantastic chef. It's all vegetarian and delicious. Unfortunately... I cannot find the address of that place, I'll have to go back to get it!
- Kenin-ji : A true island of peace and serenity and one of the most magnificent gardens.
- Gio-ji : It's quiet, and it's green, so green. The ground is all covered with a thick layer of moss. In the middle of that, a lovely old temple.
#7. stroll in the picturesque alley Ponto-Cho
Ponto-Cho is one of the most enchanting neighborhoods in Kyoto. This is one of the city's five traditional geisha districts. It's best visited in the evening, when the hanging lanterns are all lighten up, creating a wonderful atmosphere. It's a great place for people watching. The alley is packed with restaurants offering aaall kind of local food.
#8. Spend a day in the wild in Kurama & Kibune
Half an hour train ride from the city, you'll find a peaceful valley to escape from the crowds. We enjoyed spending a day hiking and exploring placid temples.
In Summer, the best is to start in Kurama and to walk up to Kurama-Dera temple on top of the hill, that offers spectacular views. You'll pass through a lush forest, crossing vertiginous trees with massive roots, tiny shrines and waterfalls. It feels so good to be in the outdoors after days exploring cities!
The trail takes you all the way down the other side to Kibune. With restaurants suspended above the river, it's the perfect place for a romantic dinner -good excuse to come back to Kyoto with G! It's a very popular escape for Kyotoites. With lanterns, staff wearing kimonos, onsens by the river and delicious local food, the atmosphere is more than charming.
#9. Take a stroll in Gion
Picturesque little streets, traditional houses, artisanal boutiques, tea houses and quaint cafes, Kyoto's traditional neighborhood abounds with treasures.
Gion holds some of Asia's most beautiful streets. Take your time, and get lost in its historical beauty.
#10. immerse yourself in arashiyama's bamboo grove
Take a tram for a beautiful ride to Arashiyama, where you'll find the magical green neighborhood of Kyoto. Between the tremendous bamboo forest, the locals with their colorful kimonos and the temples around, the effect is quite hypnotic! Photos won't make justice of the mystical atmosphere. That's one of those place you have to see. With the sunlight playing between the trees, the foliage dancing with the wind and the fresh air...
Where to stay in kyoto?
IN a ryokan !
That's the way to do it. Sleeping in a ryokan is actually very comfortable, you'll sleep on a futon set on a tatami. Bare in mind that the walls are made of paper, so you'll have to be silent.
We stayed in Ryokan Nakajimaya, it was absolutely perfect, and the owner was adorable.
TIPS: Print a map before you get there, you might have trouble to find your hotel otherwise.
How to get to Kyoto?
- By train : It's the occasion to take the Shinkansen, Japan's famous bullet train. It's ultra clean, fast, it's like traveling in business class.
- By plane : You can also fly to Osaka, then take a train to Kyoto (1h45).