11 of the Best Things to Experience in Kyoto, Japan

So after our wonderful time in Tokyo, we boarded a bullet train to the gem-filled city of Kyoto.

Pro tip: Be sure to purchase a Japan Rail (JR) pass before you enter Japan as these value for money tickets can only be purchased outside the country. On entry, you validate your coupon and then you're ready to use your ticket. It's worth buying one of these passes if you plan to do a few long-distance trips during your time in the country as there are quite a few places one can use this pass and it could mean some good savings.

And besides the savings, one gets to travel on this super cool looking train!

And did I mention that it's --f--a--s--t?

Kyoto (the former capital city of Japan) is big - bigger than I thought it would be, and it has a wealth of amazingly beautiful shrines and temples - each more sensational than the one before.

Okay, diving right in - here are 11 of my favourite places to visit in Kyoto:

1. Pop in at Kamigamo-jinja Shrine

We got to Kyoto after lunch on our first day and decided to head up to this cute temple first, as we were told there were still some pretty blossoms to be seen there. And they were right - this was the start of the many hundreds of photos I took of shrines, temples and toriis with a blossom tree in the foreground, I couldn't stop myself! Oh, the beauty!

This cute temple had the most adorable little stream and bridge in front of it too. Definitely worth a look-in, I think.

2. Visit Kinkaku-ji/Rokuon-ji/Temple of the Golden Pavilion

This place is a must-see as far as I'm concerned. It was raining as we got off the bus to walk up to this temple, but that didn't stop us (or the hundreds of other tourists that were also visiting that day). The umbrellas proved to be a bit irritating when it came to trying to get some good photos, but by that time I was becoming rather good at taking photos very quickly when there was a gap in the crowds. Hahahaha!

And I had to take a photo of this beautiful ticket - I mean it probably says something very basic, but anything that is written in Japanese always looks so beautiful to me.

This place was sensational, seriously. And the rain almost made it more special, in my opinion. There was a crazy light about which seemed to add to the whole atmosphere of the place and this temple and its surroundings crept into my heart right there.

3. Go to Bar Yanagi

After our rainy day out sightseeing and a delicious sushi dinner, we decided that we needed a nightcap and happened upon a real gem in Bar Yanagi.  This place is advertised as a whisky bar, but we had cocktails there that night and they were superb.

The owner (seen in the photo below) is a sweetheart of a guy who makes the meanest drinks! He doesn't speak English very well, but we still managed to converse a little. We also met three American architects from L.A. there that night and had a great time chatting with them.

Such a special night - in this small, narrow, character-filled whisky bar, chatting to strangers while the rain was falling loudly outside. A great memory. I'd recommend paying this place a visit.

4. Experience Fushimi-inari Shrine and hike the trail up the mountainside

Don't miss this majestic place! We visited the next morning and were totally amazed. I think it's my favourite of all the shrines (and their surrounds) that we saw. No joke.

Photos don't do it justice. The whole area is much bigger than you probably imagine it to be (that was my experience) and there are so many toriis!

The main shrine is located at the base of Mount Inari and there are a few paths up the mountain, through thousands of toriis, that lead to many other smaller shrines. Each torii has apparently been bought/donated by individuals or businesses (I overheard a tour guide saying) in the hope of receiving good luck or fortune. To me, the highlight of this shrine is walking through all of those torii gates that form long tunnels up the mountainside. (Be warned, though - it's quite a hike which could take a couple of hours.)

Pro tip: Go early. We got there by 9am and there were already hundreds of people there. It meant that we queued to get through the first stretch of toriis, but thankfully the walk is pretty long so the crowds tend to thin out as you continue your walk up the mountainside. Another tip: wear comfortable walking shoes as there are hundreds of steps in that place.

I can't tell you how long it took for me to get the photo above - I had to time this shot perfectly - when there was a big enough gap in the crowd - and then Grant was blocking a couple of people here too. You've got to be quite creative. Hahahaha!

Along the way, you get to see so many little shrines with decorations on them: 

Foxes are also very prevalent in the shrine grounds - not live ones, only these statues which can be seen all around the area. They are apparently messengers of the gods.

And how pretty are these origami bouquets?

Smaller shrines further up Mount Inari:

5. Visit Sanjusangendo

The grounds of this place are incredibly pretty and I loved walking around them.

However, the main attraction at this popular temple is not the garden but the actual Sanjusangen-do temple - a long building that houses 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity. 1000 standing statues and 1 seated statue are housed in this long temple hall. And it was quite a sight to see, but unfortunately, you'll have to take my word for it because you are not allowed to take photos in there. It's definitely worth a visit, though - picture this: we were two - of hundreds of people - walking slowly through that long hall, which is pretty dark, and eerily quiet - and it made for quite a surreal experience.

Pro tip: Wear decent socks, as you have to take your shoes off to walk through the Hall.

6. Check out Tenryuji Temple

We caught the cutest purple tram/train out west to see the Bamboo Forest one day:

And after walking through the little town (also super cute) we made our way up to see the famous Bamboo Forest, but on the way, we saw the entrance to Tenryuji Temple and decided to make a detour and walk around these pretty gardens first. And I'm so pleased that we did because that place was spectacular.

See what I mean? It was such a pleasant surprise to stumble upon this slice of heaven when we thought we were only going to see the Bamboo Forest that morning.

7. Walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

But don't miss the forest, because it's also a great experience! (Apparently, everyone thinks so! Hahahaha! No way of ever getting a solitary photo in that place.)

Set aside some time in this area on the day you visit as there are numerous paths from the Bamboo Forest down towards the river.

8. Don't miss Ginkakuji Temple

We weren't planning on visiting this temple either! We had bussed up to do the Philosopher's Walk and when we got to the start of it, we saw a quaint and busy little road and decided to walk up and see all the little stores along it and when we got to the top of the road we saw the entrance to this temple. And boy, what a wonderful surprise. It was nearly closing time, but we made it in just in time to have a quick half an hour walk around this place. I would say - put this temple on your list of places to visit and then you'll get more time to take in all the gardens.

The temple buildings and the Zen gardens were so amazing and the paths and little stream were so enchanting too. It would seem that around every corner in Japan there is untold beauty at the numerous temples, shrines and gardens. Such a wonder. And unexpected finds - even better. We loved walking around all of the grounds, soaking in all the beauty around us.

9. Do the Philosopher's Walk

A lovely walk to do along the canal in this sweet neighbourhood. The path gets its name from Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosopher's, who apparently practised meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. This walk is especially beautiful when the blossoms are out!

I would also recommend a day in this area - taking in the numerous temples in the vicinity and ambling along the canal. Just sensational.

10. Experience Kiyomizu Temple

This temple was absolutely incredible. Don't miss this one either!

The walk up through the surrounding neighbourhood is a slight uphill, but you'll be rewarded with some cute houses along the way. And then you'll climb the stairs to a wonderland of amazing buildings.

All the buildings here are beautiful:

As you can see, I couldn't stop taking photos of all the intricate details and all the buildings:

Even the ticket was beautiful:

This was my second favourite place that we visited in Kyoto (after Fushimi Inari) - a very close second.

11. And lastly, Walk through the Nishiki Market

There are lots of interesting foods to try out in this market - worth a visit for the novelty factor.

And those are my 11 best things to experience in Kyoto.

This is a fascinating city with a plethora of temples, shrines and beautiful gardens. I would definitely add this city to your itinerary as there are so many places that you'll experience here that will stay in your memory, and your heart, forever. 

This city affords a Japanese experience you will definitely savour. We only had four days here and I felt as if we only scratched the surface of seeing all there was to see. 

Last pro tip: Get to the temples and shrines as early as possible in the mornings - before the tour buses arrive and quiet moments of appreciation become rare.

Next up: Nara.

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