This post offers tips for one of our absolute favorite (and free!) experiences in Kyoto: the Philosopher’s Walk. Unlike other points of interest in Japan, this one doesn’t feature a centuries-old cultural or spiritual icon. It is not a UNESCO World Site and it isn’t even marked with a clear entrance. It’s literally a path, but to call it just a walking trail would colossally understate its significance.
The Path of Philosophy is iconic, it is a spiritual experience for many who walk it, and it is culturally significant. Moreover, it belongs on the itinerary of everyone who visits Kyoto. I know that for many people, if something is not “world’s [insert superlative]” it doesn’t merit attention. Others are the exact opposite, seeking out only the spots offering a more subtle slice of local life, away from hordes of tourists. I favor a mix. In any case, Philosopher’s Path is neither of those things.
We’ll get to why later in the post, but first let’s cover some basic info and touring tips for doing Philosopher’s Walk. For starters, it has a lot of different names, as you might’ve already noticed by my interchangeable use of the terms Philosopher’s Walk, Path of Philosophy, Philosopher’s Path, etc. It’s also known as Tetsugaku-no-Michi, and this inconsistent naming is probably the result of it not being an official point of interest with a gate and ticket booth.
Philosopher’s Path is more or less a stone walkway along a canal that has a legacy derived from history. This name has come from the path’s use by influential 20th century Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who meditated while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. Following in his footsteps, literally and figuratively, scholars and others have since flocked to the path trying to replicate his spiritual journey, dubbing the path all of the above-mentioned names, and probably more, in the process.
Of course, the path itself wouldn’t enjoy such a prominent cultural legacy did it not have its own innate draw. I mean, if you showed me some dank alleyway in West Hollywood and regaled you with tales of Nick Nolte making a daily pilgrimage along that route to his crack dealer, I doubt you’d care. Philosopher’s Walk has both legend and inherent beauty.
The path winds past small boutiques and restaurants, as well as a number of temples and shrines. Notable among these are Hōnen-in, Ōtoyo Shrine, and Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji, but there are dozens of smaller shrines in close proximity to Philosopher’s Path, as well. The area through which it passes is culturally rich and beautiful, and the Path of Philosophy offers a glimpse into this while enjoying a lovely stroll. Suffice to say, it has nothing in common with the back-alleys of Hollywood.
From start to finish, the Path of Philosophers is around 2 km, and it would take about 30 minutes to “do” the walk if you were a competitive walker trying to make good time. More likely than not, you’re going to be distracted and make diversions along the way, which is the whole idea.
Beyond stopping for the major points of interest directly along the path, we often wander into shops as well as smaller shrines along the way. There are a number of choice vending machines along the way, spots to get ice cream (the sakura flavor sold during cherry blossom season is a can’t miss), and a couple of crepe stands if you venture a bit more down the side streets.
We’ve also spotted the same artist (above and below) every single time we’ve visited Philosopher’s Path. We purchased a small print from him during our first visit and its one of our most-prized souvenirs from Japan due to the memories attached.
In terms of logistics, the easiest way to start the Philosopher’s Walk is by first going to (and doing) the Silver Pavilion, and then walking the path after you’re done there. This is a great strategy first thing in the morning, particularly during off-seasons or weekdays, but not always what we recommend.
Instead, since the path has no opening or closing hours, it might behoove you to do it early in the morning or in the evening when shrines and temples are not open. There’s another reason to do the Philosopher’s Path at these times: crowds. This seems like as good of a segue as any into the rest of our review and general commentary…
At its best, Philosopher’s Walk exemplifies the quiet beauty and serenity that makes Kyoto the cultural capital of Japan. While it lacks the grandiosity and wow visuals of Kyoto’s most famous temples, what this path delivers is equally important: a walk that allows people to connect with the heart and soul of Kyoto on an intimate level. It allows for reflection and enjoyment of the understated beauty and legacy of the city, which makes it every bit as important as the Golden Pavilion or Kiyomizudera Temple.
There is a problem, though. I used a lot of words that are synonyms for tranquility, and Philosopher’s Path is usually not so quiet. To the contrary, it is quite often the worst of both worlds: understated but crowded with the aforementioned hordes of tourists. If you visit Philosopher’s Path during the middle of the day on a weekend or holiday, you’re likely to leave unimpressed, and perhaps bewildered by all of the people who flock to this location.
In fact, the Path of Philosopher’s is something of a Catch-22: popular for its legacy as a beautifully serene stroll, but often lacking in serenity due to that very popularity.
The solution is pretty easy–and quite essential–go early or go late. If you arrive at and walk the Path of Philosophers before 9 a.m. or after dusk, your experience will differ dramatically from someone who walks it in the middle of the day. I say that this is essential because I cannot imagine feeling the same sense of quiet contemplation while dodging selfie-snapping tourists during the middle of the day.
In fact, I know that you won’t. I’ve done the Philosopher’s Walk on a weekday first thing in the morning during the off-season, as well as midday on a weekend during cherry blossom season. The vibes were at totally opposite ends of the spectrum from one another. The former was the Path of Philosophers at its best: a beautiful, tranquil experience that was downright spiritual. The latter felt more like Shibuya Crossing: Kyoto Edition. (The saving grace of that cherry blossom stroll was that this path is simply stunning during sakura season.)
This presents something of a challenge, as the most straightforward way to approach Eastern Kyoto is by starting at the Silver Pavilion, walking Philosopher’s Path, doing myriad other shrines and temples along the way, and ending at Kiyomizudera. If you’re looking for something efficient, that’s definitely what we recommend.
However, if you don’t mind a bit more walking (and if you’re going to get up early, anyway), we would strongly encourage you to start in the opposite direction, over by Nanzen-ji Temple and walking Philosopher’s Path towards the Silver Pavilion. The downside to this is that you’ll potentially be walking Philosopher’s Path twice (as you’ll likely head back this way), but the upside is that you can do the path early in the morning with literally no one else around, and be at Silver Pavilion when it opens.
The other upside is that you can take the Tozai Subway Line to Nanzen-ji Temple, rather than having to take a city bus if you start over by the Silver Pavilion. (Kyoto’s buses are fine, but potentially more confusing; I always prefer using the rail/subways.) This option adds a bit more walking to your day, but I think it’s worth it.
Regardless of how or when you choose to walk the Path of Philosophers, I think you’ll find it to be a satisfying experience that is a must-do in Kyoto. Even in the heaviest of crowds during Golden Week, I suspect it would be an experience worth having. It definitely won’t resonate with you quite the same way, but even if it’s not a tranquil walk, it’s still a beautiful one. Plus, it’s free and open 24/7, so it’s not like you really have anything to lose!
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you walked the Path of Philosophers? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend Philosopher’s Path to a first-timer visiting Japan or do you think it’s “just a canal” and we’re overhyping it? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto 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!