6 Must-Visit Tourist Spots in Kyoto

In a city with over 1,600 temples—including 17 on UNESCO’s World Heritage list—you run into a shrine on every other block. So if you’ve only got a week to explore, how do you decide which spots are worth visiting (and avoid temple overload)? While we were limited to  what was recommended to us by word-of-mouth and our travel book, we found a few we were absolutely. In. Love. With. Here, our list of must-see places in Kyoto; plan to arrive at each by midday at the latest since most tourist spots (especially temples) close between 4 to 5 pm:

1. Kamo River & Botanical Gardens (Central Kyoto)

Looking for a great Kyoto running spot for a sunny spring morning? The best spot is along the Kamo river—miles of tree-lined canal stretching the length of Kyoto where kids hop stones to cross banks and men, herons and ducks come to fish.

Kamo river bank in Kyotostanding on stone in middle of Kamo River Kyoto

We grabbed lunch at a boulangerie by the entrance of Kyoto Botanical Gardens (about a 10 minute run north of where the Kamo river forks), then lazed on the grass and wandered the many flower displays, from hydrangeas and roses to peonies and water lilies.

spring flowers at Kyoto Botanical Garden

2. Sanjūsangen-dō Temple (Southern Higashiyama)

Featuring 1001 wooden statues of Kannon (the 1,000-armed Buddhist god of mercy), each with a unique face and carved by hundreds of artists in the 13th century, Sanjusangen-do temple is ornate and yet so simple–an impressive sight. One huge Kannon statue at the center of the temple is flanked by 500 statues covered in gold leaf, neatly rowed up on each side.

Sanjusangen-do temple Kannon statues

3. Gion & Kōdai-ji Temple (Southern Higashiyama)

With its gently sloped hills and winding streets lined with chic restaurants and shops (including one where we learned the right way to actually use chopsticks), the Gion neighborhood (the old geisha hangout) reminded Olivier and me a lot of Montmartre (the old burlesque neighborhood) in Paris.

At the top of the hill you can visit the gorgeous Kōdai-ji Temple, built in the 1600s by a wealthy widow in honor of her husband. The garden—rolling hills, a lake, a rock garden and a bamboo forest—are stunning. And if you visit between mid-March and May 1, like we did, the temple is open at night and puts on an impressive multicolor light show in the rock garden; after you can stroll the eerily spectacular bamboo forest.

Kodai-ji Temple at night bamboo forest Kodai-ji Temple at night lights

4. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Ōkōchi Sansō & Monkey Park (Arashiyama)

Despite the crowds, the Arashiyama mountains on the west side of Kyoto are a lovely adventure worth a full day trip. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a serene pathway through a stunning forest of thick blue-green bamboo stocks that reach to the sky a hundred feet overhead, the ground freckled with patches of sunlight.

Arashiyama bamboo grove and forest

At the top of the pathway is Ōkōchi Sansō, the estate of Denjirō Ōkōchi, a famous samurai actor from the 1930s. One side of the winding tree-lined gardens overlooks Kyoto, the other the Arashiyama mountains.

Okochi Sanso garden at Arashiyama Kyoto Okochi Sanso garden at Arashiyama Kyoto

On exiting Ōkōchi Sansō, you’ll walk through the Arashiyama park down to the Yozu-gawa river banks, where you can rent a boat or, like we did, stroll 10 minutes to the Tōgetsu-kyō bridge.

Arashiyama river KyotoArashiyama river in Kyoto at sunset

Across the river is the Arashiyama Monkey Park; after a 20-minute uphill walk you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view over all of Kyoto and come foot to face with some of the park’s 140 snow monkeys. The size of small dogs, with red faces and crazy human-like hands, these cheeky monkeys walk right up to people (especially if they think you have food). Otherwise they chill on the dirt, picking ticks off of each other’s backs, as people approach and stare; you can even feed them bananas and nuts through a mesh fence (since they can be aggressive when it comes to food). We were surprised at how close we were able to get and loved watching them…monkey around (harhar).

Snow-monkeys-Arashiyama-Monkey-Park-Kyoto with-snow-monkey-Arashiyama-Monkey-Park-Kyoto

5. Fushimi-Inari Taisha (Southeast Kyoto)

So simple, yet so artistic—8 km of bright red torii gates wind their way up and down a mountain forest, passing five main shrines and dozens of sub-shrines along the way. Be prepared to spend three hours walking—the torii line the entire walkway of Fushimi-Inari Taisha. An impressive, photogenic spot.

Fushimi-Inari Taisha red torii gates in Kyoto

Come hungry—when we visited, at least, it was during Japan’s Golden Week (a national week vacation at the start of May), and a couple dozen street food vendors lined the road to the shrine entrance. After our hike we bought meat and cheese kabobs and a delicious saucy slop of fried noodles and cabbage.

eating kabob at Fushimi Inari Taisha temple

6. Daitoku-ji (Central Kyoto)

A complex of 24 Zen Buddhist temples and gardens, the temples we visited at Daitoku-ji were sumptuous—small and private, delicate and thoughtfully laid-out:

  • Ōbai-in, a tiny wood temple with cozy low ceilings and a bright green garden of small bonsai trees, flowers and moss-covered stones.

Obai-in temple garden in Kyoto

  • Daisen-in, a temple with a gorgeous rock garden (it’s featured on Wikipedia as an example of a classic Japanese rock garden). Large stones representing a sort of Buddhist Noah’s arc scene (animals swimming toward a Garden of Eden island with small trees, rocks and stones representing the peace and serenity of eternity).

Daisen-in temple rock garden

Other Places in Kyoto to Consider

It’s easy to get shrined-out…and while the following places are certainly beautiful in their own right, they didn’t quite capture our imagination as much as the others, mostly because they were super crowded, less well conserved and/or more commercial (i.e., mochi and sake vendors everywhere). So if your time in Kyoto is limited I’d pick just one of these and tack it on to your itinerary if you’re in the hood:

Places in Kyoto We’d Skip

While we were happy to visit all of the places that we did, a few that were far from our favorite list: Kyoto Imperial Palace (you can’t enter the actual palace without special permission—and the park isn’t as lovely as the Kamo river, especially for a run); Shimogamo-jinja (while it is a UNESCO site, it’s also packed…and pricey tickets gain you access for a five-minute visit); Hōnen-in (while this is listed by several guidebooks as a must-visit…and I did buy a painting there from the peaceful garden’s gallery…we just didn’t see what the hype was about).

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