Higashiyama District in Kyoto – Tips for Visiting

Higashiyama District is a historic neighborhood in Kyoto, Japan nestled between Kiyomizudera and Maruyama Park. The area features restored traditional townhomes (machiya) with a variety of shops, restaurants, cafes, in a picturesque setting evoking the look of “Old Kyoto.” In this post, we’ll share photos of the Higashiyama District and offer tips for what to do while you’re there.

One thing to note before we get started: Higashiyama refers to Kyoto’s eastern mountain range, but also an area of historic, traditional buildings between Kiyomizudera Temple and Maruyama Park. You’ll see Kyoto planning resources reference “Northern Higashiyama” and “Southern Higashiyama” and those refer to the regions situated along the mountains. The Higashiyama District is a neighborhood, and is a smaller subset of Southern Higashiyama. (Confusing, we know.)

For clarity’s sake, we always refer to the neighborhood as the “Higashiyama District” here. We rarely, if ever, will subdivide the mountain range into Northern and Southern regions. Those distinctions are arbitrary and we don’t view them as helpful to someone doing a walking tour along the foothills of the eastern mountains. It’s not like you encounter a sign along Philosopher’s Path that says “Now Entering Southern Higashiyama!”

I don’t really need to emphatically recommend a visit to Higashiyama District, because every itinerary we have that takes you to Kiyomizudera Temple, our #3 thing to do in Kyoto, takes you through this district. If you follow that advice, you’ll see it. If you ignore all that advice, you’d probably ignore any endorsement here, too.

Irrespective of that, I will emphatically recommend the Higashiyama District, because we love it. While there’s something to be said for the real, lived-in areas of Kyoto, this touristy area is beautiful and gives you a sense of what the traditional capital city might’ve looked like before growth spurred by the Japanese Economic Miracle.

Higashiyama District is one of the few areas of Kyoto that is not a mess of telephone polls, power lines, and hodgepodge architecture. In addition to the lack of all that, and the high concentration of machiya, you can also find stone streets, peaceful gardens, and a surplus of tucked away little alleys that are all exquisitely-designed.

You could say the Higashiyama District is a touristy area, but given the popular temples that are here, that would be true regardless of its aesthetics.

One only needs to wander the area around Fushimi Inari to see what the Higashiyama District would resemble were these preservation and restoration efforts not undertaken.

We are huge fans of the design and traditional style found in the Higashiyama District, and even though the entire stretch is under two miles, we could (and have!) spent half the day here.

It’s fun to wander the Higashiyama District, just perusing shops, sipping Matcha & trying sweet treats, checking out the various subtemples, and eating. With that said, here are some of our recommendations for your time in the Higashiyama District…

Higashiyama District Tips

A lot of the stores in the Higashiyama District, particularly as you get closer to Kiyomizudera Temple, sell a variety of trinkets and typical items you’d take home from your visit to Japan for friends and family.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and outside of the area around Fushimi Inari, you won’t find a better selection of these items in Kyoto. Pricing for all this stuff is pretty much uniform all over Kyoto, so buy it wherever it’s convenient.

Sprinkled in among the Kiyomizu-zaka shops are also some very high end shops. One on the left hand side of the street (looking west) near the top of the street has a large vase that changes out frequently, the current one that’s pictured above is priced at ~$8,000.

We often admire the art in this store’s windows, and joke about purchasing that instead of a car. They have other beautiful pieces inside that’ll cost you roughly the price of a kidney. While these items are expensive across the board, they are some of the nicest art pieces for sale in Kyoto, and you should absolutely check out the store even if everything is out of your price range.

There are several shops farther down Kiyomizu-zaka and on the adjacent Ninen-zaka, including a couple that are dedicated to all things Totoro and Studio Ghibli. So, if you’re unable to score tickets to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, buying a life-sized Cat Bus plush might be the next-best alternative!

My “favorite” shop has to be the little gallery on the right as you head down towards Yasaka Pagoda that has an array of explicit creations. These defy description, but let’s just say they give literal meaning to the phrases “boob-head” and “ass-face.” You might want to avert your children’s eyes if you don’t want to explain certain things to them. For adults, they are oddly fascinating and definitely a unique form of art.

Another can’t miss gallery is Asahitouan Craft Shop, which is tucked down an alley to the left as you walk down Kiyomizu-zaka. The art on display inside is gorgeous, but the real highlight for me is the garden of tanuki statues.

Before taking photos in the shops, be sure to see if there’s a “no photos” sign; there are in around half the shop, and this rule should be observed. If there is no such sign, photos should be okay, but you still might consider asking a storekeeper if you see one. For some reason, some of these shops are very zealous about preventing photography, even though they sell the exact same stuff as 64 other gift shops in Kyoto.

As much as it might make the “off-the-beaten-path” traveler cringe, we’d recommend going to the Starbucks in the Higashiyama District (pictured above). Not because it’s the best spot for coffee (definitely not true), but because this is your best chance to go inside a traditional machiya.

This Starbucks is in a perfectly-preserved and restored building, and has second floor seating that’s nice. All in all, it’s one of the coolest Starbucks we’ve ever visited. This is an incredibly popular spot with locals and tourists, so you’d be best advised to go before lunch or after sunset if at all possible. The seating area fills up and the hallways are narrow and tight.

If you want coffee, tea, or matcha that’s actually good, there are no shortage of options. Our favorite is Koma Gallery Cafe. It’s a bit off the main stretch, rarely busy, and features wonderful garden and indoor seating (the table is a work of art).

The owner is an artist of various hats, and the staff are incredibly gracious. I’d go as far as to say this is my favorite coffee/matcha shop in all of Kyoto. It’s also open nightly until 7 p.m., which makes it a great spot to visit while you’re waiting for the streets to empty.

As for places to eat, we like both Katsuki Ramen and Kyoto Katsugyu (Kiyomizu Gojozaka), both of which are on the outskirts of the Higashiyama District proper. There are a few high-end restaurants in the Higashiyama District, but we’ve yet to try them.

Most of the time, we simply walk to Gion for dinner, where there’s a diverse range of excellent restaurants.

If you’re interested in photography and want to take your own photos like the ones here you should know that the Higashiyama District is incredibly busy during the day and up until about 45 minutes after sunset. Particularly at sunset, it’s not uncommon to see one-dozen photographers with tripods lined up on the hill that looks down at Yasaka Pagoda.

Some of these photographers have kimono-clad models, others are actually professional videographers doing travelogues, or YouTubers doing god only knows what as they try to become the next Logan Paul.

This all makes it almost impossible to get photos like the one above. It’d be one thing if all these people were moving so you had a nice photo with kinetic energy of a blurred crowd, but the other photographers all stand in place, so you’re bound to have some random dude in your shot with a tripod.

Because of this, if your time in Kyoto is limited, I’d highly recommend visiting the Higashiyama District for photos at night. While the stores will be closed (which actually makes it easier for photos) and some will have ugly pull-down metal doors, there will be almost zero other tourists and photographers in the area.

If you’re particular about your photos, that’s the best time for them. It’s pretty easy to start here an hour after sunset, walk north towards Maruyama Park and Yasaka Shrine (which you’ll also want to photograph), and then go out to Gion and photograph its nighttime moodiness.

This is my recommended nighttime photo walk of Kyoto if you want street scenery. To be honest, I don’t think either Gion or the Higashiyama District translate particularly well to photos–the area looks much prettier than what’s depicted here–but you might as well shoot these areas for lack of better options.

Unless there’s a festival or night illumination at Kiyomizudera Temple, this area takes on an almost desolate vibe at night. Speaking of festivals, one we highly recommend is Higashiyama Hanatoro, which runs for 10 days starting the second Friday in March.

During this event, lanterns line the streets of the Higashiyama District, businesses stay open late, and there’s a variety of excellent entertainment. (Including Geisha dances at Yasaka Shrine!)

As for my recommended itinerary for Higashiyama District, I think arriving by way of Philosopher’s Path, doing some shopping on Kiyomizu-zaka, and getting to Kiyomizudera Temple just before sunset is ideal. After which, you can go to Koma Gallery Cafe to wait-out the crowds, and then return to the peaceful streets of the Higashiyama District for night photos and to enjoy the serene ambiance. Follow that with a late dinner in Gion (or a night trip to Fushimi Inari if you’re feeling ambitious!), and I think you’ll have a pretty great afternoon and evening in this area of Kyoto!

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 explored Kyoto’s Higashiyama District? What did you think of it? A lovely traditional area, or too touristy? Would you recommend the Higashiyama District to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this area interest you? 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!

4 replies
  1. Alexis Eunice Dimasuay
    Alexis Eunice Dimasuay says:

    Thank you for the wonderful tip. I will be going to Kyoto and visiting Higashiyama and Gion on the same day.
    I just want to ask how many minutes do I need to walk from Higashiyama District to Gion? Are there any signage as well?

    Reply
  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Brilliant article! I’ve been able to add so many “to see/do” to my itinerary because of this. Especially because I’m sending it to a friend as well, I’ve had to add “I KNOW” regarding the Starbucks – but sometimes they’re the places you need to go! Thanks, Sarah – http://www.cerealsarah.com

    Reply
  3. Comfort
    Comfort says:

    Thanks for the tips again. Is there an official beginning or end to the philosophers path? Or would there at least be a recommended beginning and end? Thanks.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *