Top 10 Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan

As Japan’s “cultural capital,” Kyoto has no shortage of things to do and places to see. Its temples and shrines alone number over 1,600, with a dozen of those being UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Its allure goes far beyond the spiritual, with Kyoto offering so much that you could spend months here without experiencing all of the city’s highlights.

In putting together this list of the top things to do in Kyoto, we’ve done exactly that. We’ve now visited over 100 temples and shrines in Kyoto, including (but not limited to!) all of the major temples in the city. We’ve also experienced Kyoto’s top museums and other tourist attractions, and have eaten at just as many restaurants as we’ve visited temples (but that’s another list for another day).

At some point we’ll try to do a comprehensive ranking of everything there is to do in Kyoto (or at least an 11-20 follow-up to this list), but this should at least be a good place to start if you’re planning a visit to Kyoto. While things other than temples earn their spots on this, it is worth noting that these are exceptions rather than the rule.

If your time is limited in Kyoto, we would not recommend visiting a single museum; do the superior ones in Tokyo (even the highly regarded Kyoto Railway Museum has two superior counterparts near Nagoya and Tokyo). That’s probably for the best, as Kyoto’s temples and shrines represent an embarrassment of riches, and you’ll most definitely want to see more than the ones that have made this list…

T10. Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple)

I’ll level with you: the Golden Pavilion makes this list almost entirely due to peer pressure. I don’t think I’ve seen a single resource of things to do in Kyoto that puts Kinkakuji Temple below #3, and sometimes it ranks that highly on lists of things to do in all of Japan. After our first experience here, encountering a sea of other tourists despite visiting fairly early in the day, we were ready to write it off. Between the crowds and a mild sense of “that’s it?” we were underwhelmed.

Deciding we wanted to give it a fair shake since everyone else loves the Golden Pavilion (and also in order to tweak our Kyoto itineraries), we decided to revisit Golden Pavilion shortly before closing. The experience was decidedly improved, and enough to justify giving it a spot on this.

To Golden Pavilion’s credit, it’s beautiful and unique–unlike anything else on this list. It’s also a spot you absolutely should not skip (in terms of priorities, it should be in your top 5), if only to form your own opinion. You very well might agree with the chorus of respected voices that love the Golden Pavilion, and disagree with us in ranking it so low. (But really, #10 in Kyoto is still very respectable!) Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Golden Pavilion

T10. Ryoanji Temple or Daitokuji Temple

I had a tough time choosing between these two, and each are represented for reasons other than what you might think. Ryoanji Temple is renowned for its rock garden, arguably the most famous in Japan. I think that this garden is popular, in large part, because its origins are unclear, as is its meaning. The rock garden being shrouded in mystery and leading visitors to ponder its meaning, and project their own interpretation, certainly lead to its popularity.

Ryoanji Temple’s rock garden is beautiful and interesting, to be sure, but I was just as impressed with the temple’s unique design around a large pond, and the outlying buildings that are scattered through the woods. Those buildings themselves also hold a lot of beauty, particularly in the form of the paintings on the fusuma in Hojo, the head priest’s former residence from which you view that famous rock garden.

Daitokuji Temple is a traditional Zen Buddhist temple–one of the largest in Kyoto. It also features two-dozen subtemples, some of which are arguably more renowned than the main temple itself. Daitokuji ranks highly not for its famous subtemple, Daisenin. To the contrary, Daisenin is overcrowded, has a laughably strict no-photo policy, and even without these downsides would be overrated.

Instead, Daitokuji Temple makes the list for its labyrinth of free areas dotted with paid areas, including Zuihoin, which contains my favorite rock garden in Kyoto. Zuihoin is an unheralded rock garden that is more visually engaging and evocative than either of the two celebrated rock gardens found at these two temples.

9. Ninnaji Temple

Adjacent to Ryoanji Temple is Ninnaji Temple (in fact, it’s pretty easy to walk from the the Golden Pavilion to Ryoanji Temple to Ninnaji Temple). Despite being less than 10 minutes away by foot, Ninnaji Temple sees dramatically fewer visitors than Ryoanji, since it’s not on the “tour bus circuit.”

Ninnaji’s free grounds impress, with the five-storied pagoda towering visible from a distance (and likely being what draws some visitors here). However, it’s the paid Goten building, the the closest most people will get to being inside an imperial palace in Kyoto, that earns it a place here.

The beautiful fusuma that are painted to represent the four seasons in Kyoto are a personal highlight in Goten, but the peaceful and meticulously designed gardens rival those fusuma for that title. There’s also a strong sense of shakkei in the gardens here, as borrow from the scenery of the outer grounds (including that five-storied pagoda) to really enhance their scenery. Goten is an absolute must-visit. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Ninnaji Temple

8. Path of Philosophers

Path of Philosophers/Philosopher’s Path/Path of Philosophy (it doesn’t seem that there’s an official, consistent name) is a stone walkway along a canal that, essentially, connects the Silver Pavilion to Nanzenji Temple with a variety of temples and ordinary businesses in between. The path derives its name due to its use by influential 20th century Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who meditated while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.

We absolutely adore Path of Philosophers. It just feels like a quintessential Kyoto experience, and it’s really difficult to articulate its power beyond that. Although most visitors flock to it during cherry blossom season when it’s absolutely stunning, we actually prefer it any other time of year when it’s more serene and contemplative. There’s a chance you won’t find it as compelling as us, but you’ve got nothing to lose since it connects the next to stops on this list! 😉 Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Path of Philosophers

7. Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple)

The line that prefaces almost any discussion of the Silver Pavilion is that it’s not actually covered in silver. It’s almost a warning for the superficial types–the kind decked out in LV with gold iPhones and jewel-covered sunglasses–who show up to the Golden Pavilion in hordes, or perhaps a plea: stay away. 

The irony here is that, while it’s probably not a bad idea to set expectations from the outset, the Silver Pavilion offers so much more than the Golden Pavilion. Whereas the pavilion itself is the primary draw of the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion itself is fairly unremarkable.

At the Silver Pavilion, it’s the whole package that impresses: the half dozen other temple buildings, the dry sand garden, and the moss garden spread across beautiful forested grounds. It’s an excellent and serene (if you beat the crowds) place to explore, and perfectly encapsulates the vibe of a zen temple. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Silver Pavilion

6. Nanzenji Temple

After finishing the Path of Philosophers, you’ll (more or less) arrive at Nanzenji Temple. In our separate post about Nanzenji, we called it one of the most underrated temples in Kyoto. If fall colors season crowds were any indication, calling this underrated might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s still nowhere near as crowded as some of the most popular spots in Kyoto.

Nanzenji’s ranking is a result of its diversity. The temple features some incredible variety spread amongst its many buildings and subtemples: a Sanmon gate, main hall, shrines, rock gardens, tea rooms, pond gardens, fusumaand an aqueduct.

That last item–the aqueduct–is the unequivocal highlight. It’s something we’ve still yet to see anywhere else in Japan, and following the aqueduct up the hillside reveals a treasure trove of other details at Nanzenji Temple. It also doesn’t hurt that the highlights (in our estimation) of Nanzenji are all free of charge. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple

5. Wander Higashiyama & Gion

Part of me feels like this shouldn’t make the list at all because “geisha spotting at night in Gion” is one of the most overhyped, cliched, etc., things to do in Kyoto. Beyond Hanami-koji being off-putting since it’s swarming with tour groups (at least they’re typically small ones) doing exactly that, it feels a bit creepy and stalker-ish. It’s also simply not that interesting once you get past the ‘exhilaration’ of the chase.

Then there’s the rational part of me, that feels it’s unfair to penalize the beautiful districts of Higashiyama and Gion just because one activity you can do in them is stupid. This part of me realizes Gion and Higashiyama are two of the most beautiful districts in Kyoto, featuring traditional architecture, intimate side streets, and a wealth of shopping and dining options.

While I personally prefer a late night spent wandering around the side streets of Higashiyama–I’ll never forget the communal joy of seeing the blood moon here several years ago–as it’s more peaceful, Gion is most definitely a more happening place at night. Between its many Michelin-starred restaurants and high end shopping, Gion feels a bit like a mix of Kyoto and Tokyo, in the best ways possible.

4. Kyoto Monkey Park

It’s a mountain full of wild Japanese macaque (snow monkeys) and if that’s not enough to convince you that this belongs in the top 5 things to do literally anywhere, I don’t know what else to say.

In addition to that, there’s a pretty hike through a forest to reach the summit of Mount Arashiyama, a “human cage” through which you can feed the monkeys apples or crackers, and some of the best panoramic views of Kyoto from the edge of the city in Arashiyama.

You’ll also witness some potentially hilarious interactions between the snow monkeys, and some heartwarming ones if you’re lucky enough to visit when there are infant macaque around. While some of the older males can be a bit cantankerous (just like humans!), even their temper-tantrums are a hoot. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Monkey Park

3. Kiyomizudera Temple

If you’ve read any other resources about Kyoto, it should come as no surprise to see Kiyomizudera Temple near the top. Along with Golden Pavilion and Fushimi Inari, it’s part one of the three spots that tops just about every list.

From the approach through the historic streets of the Higashiyama District to wandering the paths that lead to the temple’s outlying buildings, there’s something special about Kiyomizudera. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an exemplar of Kyoto’s temples, featuring excellent variety: large main hall, pagoda, shrines, waterfall, plus stunning views of the city and mountains.

Kiyomizudera is especially beautiful during the autumn foliage and spring sakura seasons, when the temple has an added splash of color, and is enhanced by the natural beauty of fall colors and cherry blossoms. While the whole experience is dampened right now by the large-scale refurbishment (through 2020) of the temple’s famed main hall, it still deserves a spot at the top of any list about Kyoto. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kiyomizudera Temple

2. Kurama-dera Temple

I probably spent more time debating and researching whether to include Kuramadera Mountain Temple than I did writing this post. It’s located in the village of Kurama and is often considered a day trip out of Kyoto (and is about the same duration of a commute as a trip to Nara), but it’s technically within the city of Kyoto.

That technicality, and the fact that it doesn’t seem like Kuramadera is on anyone’s radar despite it being one of the absolute best places I’ve visited anywhere in Japan, is what compelled me to include it here. With several temple buildings spread from the base of the mountain to its summit–and its own cable car for accessing the temple’s main buildings, there is a lot to see and appreciate at Kurama-dera Temple.

As much as it’s a temple, Kurama-dera is a place of exploration and discovery. As cheesy as that might sound, I think it’s entirely apt. During the long hike from the train station below to the main buildings perched atop Mount Kurama, you’ll encounter plenty of shrines and beautiful details. All of this encourages you to venture further, with a new “reward” around almost every turn of the hike. Our tip: skip the cable car, walk all the way to the top–and keep going through the forest path until you arrive at Kibune. It’ll be among the best days you spend in Japan. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kurama-dera Temple

1. Fushimi Inari

Here’s how much we love Fushimi Inari: during our month-long stay in Kyoto, we specifically booked an Airbnb right next to the shrine. In hindsight, this was a mistake (that’s another topic for another post), but the point is that we feel that strongly about Fushimi Inari.

During that trip, I visited Fushimi Inari more times than I can count, and every single time, I discovered something new. Most visitors come for the 10,000 torii gates and don’t venture far beyond the first loop, but those who dedicate more time to Fushimi Inari are rewarded handsomely with a treasure trove of beauty, quiet corners, and breathtaking views. (I particularly love Fushimi Inari at night.)

Fushimi Inari draws accolades far and wide, and is even hyped at the temple’s entrance as the #1 attraction in Japan based on TripAdvisor reviews. Unlike some points of interest in Kyoto (looking at you, #T10), Fushimi Inari lives up to the hype and then some. For once, TripAdvisor reviewers are right: this is the best thing to do in all of Japan. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Fushimi Inari

If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited any of these places in Kyoto? How would you rank them? Anything in Kyoto that we didn’t include that would make your top 10? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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6 replies
  1. Donald
    Donald says:

    Oh, I forgot something else that would be in my top 10 – Nishiki Market! Like Kyoto’s version of the Ferry Building in SF (rather than Tsukiji Market in Tokyo), this densely packed alley contained some of the best cheap eats I had in the city, including fried chicken (possibly karaage), shrimp skewers, and Nissei soft cream.

    For anyone who enjoys browsing and grazing, I’d call it a must-do, and a pleasant break from temple/shrine ‘overload.’

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I know a lot of people love Nishiki Market, but it’s sort of a ‘meh’ from me. Yeah, they have some great street food, but it’s often PACKED with people, and I just don’t find the environment that pleasant. On the other hand, I love Tsukiji Fish Market, so I guess to each their own.

      Reply
  2. Donald
    Donald says:

    Love this list. Really fortunate to have visited most of these in November, but there are still enough I missed to warrant returning one day (Ryoanji, Daitokuji, Ninnaji, and Kurama-dera). Also, your photos are a reminder of how *different* some of these spots would feel at any other time of year, such as Philosopher’s Path during sakura season (or any of them in winter).

    For me, Tenryuji in Arashiyama would fall in my top 10 – I found the garden grounds to be absolutely stunning. So would strolling around Arashiyama in the early morning, before its streets and bridges become crowded. That said, I think your Kyoto Top 10 is one of the most comprehensive and well-reasoned I’ve seen, and it’s amazing how many sites beyond your list have elements that are ‘top 10’ worthy!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Kyoto definitely transforms with the seasons, and that’s a big reason why we keep going back. Now we just need some winter time with serious snow!

      As for Tenryuji, I have had a post about it sitting in my drafts for ~5 months now. I need to rewrite at least part of it, because my opinion of it has changed (for the better). I still don’t consider it a top 10 location, but perhaps top 20. Definitely belongs in an Arashiyama itinerary.

      Reply

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