There are many memories waiting to be made in Kyoto.
You would really have to work hard to have a bad time in the city. It is very walking friendly, and surprisingly most things are relatively close by.
You might want to hop on the subway a few times, to get to the red gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha, or the monkeys at Arashiyama, but overall you can expect to see many of the city’s iconic sights by simply walking around the main drag anywhere from Imadegawa Dori at the head of the Kamo River to Kyoto Station about six kilometres to the south.
Here are some suggestions for places to seek out in the city.
Take a Walk Along the Kamogawa
The shallow Kamo River (lit. “Duck River”) in Kyoto runs through the heart of the city’s cultural center. It’s a popular walking spot for both locals and tourists.
There are many storefronts and restaurants that run along the river, and during the warmer months many which sit on stilts above the river open their windows and doors, so that you can eat outside while sitting above the river. Doing this at night is really lovely, and you can see what it looks like from across the river in the top image for this post.
It’s incredibly beautiful, and a great way to spend the afternoon is just to roam around observing people’s habits, eating street food, buying local art, and talking to people. I spent a lot of time hanging out around here.
This is also where the Pontocho, one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining districts is. You’ve got these tiny corridor stone streets with the thatched roofs overhead practically touching, and each restaurant is its own unique space.
This historic street is in the Hamamachi district where geisha used to dwell, and its not hard to imagine the feet of apprentice maiko running along the tiny streets, carrying packages for their sempai. In the modern day, its kept up its reputation as an area that maintains traditional art forms.
There is even the rare chance for a foreigner to see a performance by a real geisha – twice a year at the Kaburenjo Theatre. That being said – geisha apprentices (maiko) perform kyo-mai dance almost daily at Gion Corner, and it’s still a very special thing to see.
The Manga Museum is more like a manga library, and is such a great place.
There’s almost always a special event or going on. I came on the weekend when the front lawn is surrendered to cosplayers. Tons of people show up in homemade costumes and spend the afternoon posing and taking photos of each other.
If you want to catch this, make sure to show up earlier rather than later. I’d recommend coming around lunch time; there’s also a café. The museum itself closes at 6pm, and all the cosplayers are usually gone by then as well.
Beyond that, the museum itself houses 300,000+ items of Japanese manga historical significance. It also hosts workshops, and separate from the actual museum displays there are also shelves and shelves of manga which the public can take down and read to their heart’s content. There are also lots of seating areas.
See the Golden Pavilion Temple
Here is your goal: try and get a shot of the Golden Pavillion without a bajillion people in the frame.
That may not be as hard for you as it was for me. My friends and I must have been crazy because we went during Golden Week (THE public holiday in Japan. If you can avoid it, don’t travel during this time. Lineups for everything, including shrines, are crazy).
That being said, kinkakuji was still beautiful. The sight of the glinting bright gold zen Buddhist temple seated in its Muromachi period garden is not one you’ll easily forget.
There’s also a lovely tea garden I’d recommend stopping at. You’ll come to it if you follow the path behind the temple.
Play With The Monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park and Walk Through The Bamboo Grove Forest in Arashiyama
Odds are high you’ve seen this bamboo grove before.
There is no feeling quite like standing inside the tunnel of green bamboo: the smell of air filtered through fresh bamboo, the flute-like sound of the wind winding through the stalks and gently knocking them about.
When you exit the forest, be sure to continue along the path to check out Ōkōchi Sansō, an early 20th Century Japanese villa.
Once you’ve achieved serenity, you can plan on having it destroyed by the monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park.
To enter the monkey park, you will need to buy a ticket at the park entrance, and then hike about 30 minutes up the mountain to reach the monkeys. It’s not too steep a climb, but I wouldn’t recommend having anything too heavy with you. Save the souvenir shopping for after the monkey park.
Once inside, you can buy treats to feed the monkeys and enjoy the thrill of having bits of apple and banana snatched away from you.
The monkeys are technically wild, but as you might imagine they are very used to human contact. They run around willy-nilly once you reach the top of the mountain. They are definitely safe to photograph and hand food to, but I would always approach them with caution. Let them come to you and don’t run towards them.
Arashiyama is a small area just to the west of Kyoto. The best way to get there from Kyoto is via Japan Railways (“JR”). From Kyoto Station on the JR Sanin Main Line.
Besides the monkeys and bamboo, there’s a whole lot to check out in and around Arashiyama. If you have time, I’d recommend planning to spend the day there. Maybe grab a jinrikisha (rickshaw) as well to your around the city. Flag one down and let them know where you want to go. Use cash. A simple phrase to remember is ‘___ ni ikitai, onegaishimasu!’ (‘I want to go to ___, please!’).
Hike Through Fushimi Inari Taisha
The famous vermillion gates.
I can’t wait to re-visit this city to make even more memories.
If you want to read more on it before your trip to enrich your experience, I recommend The Tea House Fire by Ellis Avery which I read as part of my One Book Per Week Challenge.
Also, if you’re in Kyoto you might want to think about doing a day trip to Nara, the famous deer-dwelling town south of Kyoto. If you’re limited by time (like I was) and want to fit as much in as you can (and you have the stamina), I would suggest leaving Kyoto in the early morning to hike up Fushimi Inari Taisha (it takes about 2 hours to get to the top), having an post-hike snack in the marketplace at the base of Fushimi Inari Taisha (you’ll see it as soon as you get off at the Inari subway stop), and then heading to Nara to spend the rest of the day.
From Inari to Nara is about one hour by car, or one and a half hours by train. Then you’ll be able to spend the day and evening in Nara, and then take the train back to Kyoto afterwards.