"What should we do in Kyoto when we're not with KyoTours?"
That's one of the most popular questions we get from guests during the booking process. There's so much to see in Kyoto, it can be overwhelming trying to plan your days here. Furthermore, you don't want to overlap your own sightseeing with something you may see on a tour with us.
Read on for our best suggestions for additional sightseeing that will complement your time spent with us exploring Kyoto.
Higashiyama - Eastern Kyoto
Kiyomizudera is a major tourism site that many visitors often want to see. It can be a very enjoyable spot, but we recommend visiting either very early or late in the afternoon. The area gets VERY crowded and the throngs of people can suck some of the enjoyment from the experience. The temple itself is currently under reconstruction and is covered up to get it ready for the Tokyo Olympics, so expect limited views and some areas to be off-limits. The streets leading up to Kiyomizudera are known as Ninenzaka and Sananenzaka, and are filled with interesting shops and restaurants. This is a great spot to buy ceramic teacups and traditional crafts, as well as fun tourist gifts. The temple is open from 6am to 6pm (a much wider range of hours than most temples), so you have a chance to arrive early or late as you please to avoid the crowds. If you like tofu, consider having lunch at Okutan at the top of the Ninenzaka steps.
Walking north from Kiyomizudera will bring you to Maruyama Park and Yasaka Shrine. This area is a bit quieter than some other tourist hotspots in Kyoto, but the park does get very crowded during the cherry blossom season in April. Brightly colored Yasaka Shrine is a great location for some pictures, and there are usually food stands set up near the western entrance to the shrine if you want to try some local food. Through the northern entrance of the park is Chion-in Temple. Even if you only walk past the temple's entrance, it's worth heading over to see the massive wooden gate at the base of the hill. This temple also houses Japan's largest bell, which is quite a sight, especially if you can visit on New Years Eve to see it being rung by dozens of priests at once.
Shoren-in is a wonderful little temple just north of Chion-in that has become very popular with guests in recent years. It features a very nice garden with several different styles of landscapes, a beautiful pond, and a small bamboo grove. You can even order matcha tea at the admission window for 500 yen. Proceed into the building behind the entrance hall and gift shop, and have a seat on the red carpet laid out on the tatami mat floor. The staff will bring in your tea and sweets in a few minutes. Most foreign visitors don't know that tea is available here! As you walk through the garden, towards the end you'll come to a large bell that you can actually ring. The chance to ring one of these temple bells is quite rare, so give it a big hit! If possible, visit this temple in the morning before it gets too busy, as it is small and can feel crowded with only a small number of other visitors.
If you walk the Philosopher's Path up to Ginkakuji (the silver pavilion) in northeast Kyoto, be sure to stop at Eikando Temple at the south end of the path first. This impressive complex is one of Kyoto's best, and features some brilliantly colored artwork and interesting statues. The gardens that line the covered walkways here are also highly enjoyable. Outside of the autumn leaves season, this temple is rarely crowded. If you want a great lunch, stop at Okonomiyaki Zen nearby to try the famous "Japanese pancake" loaded with noodles, cabbage, seafood, meat, etc. This small hole in the wall place run by an elderly couple is known among locals as a great spot for some homestyle cooking.
Central and Northern Kyoto
Located right in the center of the city, Nijo Castle is one of the best sights in Kyoto, but also one of the busiest. Arriving early when they open won't beat the crowds here, because that's when all the tour buses show up as well! The best time to visit is probably at lunch time when the tourists head over to nearby Nishiki Market for a bite to eat. The interior of the Ninomaru Palace here is visually impressive, and architecture lovers will be very happy here. As nice as the grounds outside the palace are, if you're pressed for time, consider just seeing the palace and heading out to your next location. There are better gardens elsewhere.
Speaking of which... Fans of Japanese gardens should be sure to check out Daitokuji Zen temple complex. We've already blogged about this place before several times, and you can easily spend half a day there exploring the narrow pathways and hidden gardens. Various temples and gardens are open in different seasons, but four main temples are usually open year round. This place is still largely off the radar for most tourists, so you'll have a good chance to catch a few moments of being the only visitor at a quiet Zen garden. We love doing private tours of this complex for garden lovers, so please let us know if you are looking for an in-depth custom tour of these wonderful gardens.
Nishiki Market is a must-visit for any food lover in Kyoto. Recent years have seen it swamped with tourists, making shopping and browsing a real challenge in certain seasons. Avoid the mid day lunch rush, but try to arrive before things start closing up around 4:00pm. You can read our blog about Nishiki for more detailed info about where to eat there.
Next to Nishiki is Teramachi Shopping Arcade, which is actually two long parallel covered streets full of interesting shops and restaurants. You can easily spend a few hours here browsing. If you've heard of Japan's famous animal cafes, you'll find ones here with cats, owls, dogs, and hedgehogs. A few of my favorite casual lunch places here are Katsu Kura (tonkatsu), Makino (tempura), Ukiya (soba), and Kimura (sukiyaki, very retro). If you're looking for unique Japanese items, just to the east of this area is a large store called Loft that has a little bit of everything from home goods to fun quirky gifts. There's also a great used kimono shop called Chicago, and a Uniqlo and G.U. upstairs in Loft for casual Japanese fashion.
Up on the northern rim of the city, Kinkakuji (the golden pavilion) and Ryoanji Zen rock garden should be visited as a pair thanks to their close proximity to each other. There's no direct train to get up here, so you'll have to use the city bus or a taxi. Kinkakuji can get very, very busy, but it's an iconic site that is a must-see for many visitors. Ryoanji (more info on the garden here) is a 20 minute walk west, and is often a little less crowded. If you are lucky enough to arrive right when they open or are one of the last visitors admitted in the afternoon, having this garden to yourself is a real treat. The casual noodle restaurant located by the parking lot here is a satisfying place to get lunch. If you want to try some casual revolving sushi, check out Kurazushi, a fun restaurant located on the walk between Kinkakuji and Ryoanji. If you're looking for a casual conveyor belt sushi experience, this is it. (This is NOT fine dining, but much of this cheap sushi will be better than what you've had back home)
If you happen to be in town on the 25th of the month, head over to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine for one of Kyoto's best flea markets. Hours worth of bargain shopping and local food stands here. The shrine is worth visiting on other days too, as the architecture and artistry of the buildings here is really incredible. In late January, hundred of plum trees bloom here and the area is very festive with all sorts of winter celebrations happening on the weekends. Accessible by bus or taxi, or a 20 minute walk from JR Enmachi Station.
Arashiyama - Western Kyoto
Our Arashiyama Backroads Tour covers this area pretty extensively, so we don't recommend heading out here on your own if you're already going to be visiting with us. For everyone else, no trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit to this rural area on the western edge of the city, so consider spending at least a half day over here on your own if you can.
The main sightseeing destination in this area is the Sagano Bamboo Forest. It's an impressive site, made even more impressive if you can arrive when the crowds are light. If you find that you're waking up early from jetlag, consider making this one of your early morning destinations. Seeing this at 7:00am when you're the only one there is well worth rising early for. Nonomiya Shrine in the middle of the forest is a nice little spot, and if you walk north from there and cross the railroad tracks, you'll find an area on your right where you can actually walk into the forest on a narrow path. Perfect for pictures.
If you only see one temple in this area, make it Tenryuji Zen Temple. I would suggest just buying the ticket for the garden here (500 yen), since there's not much you can see from the inside of the temple that you can't see from the outside. The garden is the main attraction here anyway. Even when it gets busy, your view of the landscape will be unobstructed, as the main pond garden is a viewing garden, not one you walk through. Consider entering this temple from the parking lot off the main street and exiting out of the north gate directly into the bamboo forest.
At the far west end of the bamboo area is Okochi Sanso Villa. This magnificent garden is often overlooked by tourists distracted by the forest, but it's not to be missed if you enjoy gardens. The entrance price is a little high at 1,000 yen, but your ticket includes a visit to the tea house inside the garden where you can enjoy some matcha tea and sweets (some of the best sweets in the city actually). The maples turn color here very early, so you can see some nice autumn leaves here as early as mid to late October. The garden is a little bare in winter, but the views of the city from the top of the hill make up for it, and if you're lucky enough to visit on a snowy day, the mountains nearby will look wonderful.
From the villa, walk south through Kameyama Park towards the river. This enjoyable river walk is great in any season, but expect heavy crowds in autumn and spring. You can rent a rowboat (at your own risk) and row over to the small waterside restaurant set up in most seasons on the south bank. Pull up and buy some snacks and beers (yes, drinking and boating seems to be alright here) to complete your Arashiyama experience. Coffee lovers should check out Arabica% Coffee along the north bank. This is one of Kyoto's best coffehouses, so expect a long line during peak hours. Continue along the river and eventually you'll hit Kyogetsu Bridge and the main street in central Arashiyama.
Lots of places to get lunch or do some shopping on the main street, and the famous Monkey Park is located across the bridge to the south. Be sure to pick up a soy donut and yuba soy skin if you want a local snack. There are also a few places to try croquettes filled with potato, beef, and even bamboo. The area is known for tofu as well, so consider trying that while you're out here. If you really want to eat something unique, you can book lunch at Shigetsu restaurant inside Tenryuji temple and enjoy some vegetarian Zen cuisine. Not for everyone, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how creative they can get with vegetables, soy, and tofu. Even the smallest lunch set there is quite a bit of food.
Arashiyama can be reached from Kyoto Station by the JR Sagano line (240 yen to Saga-Arashiyama Station) or by taking the Randen streetcar from Shijo-Omiya Station in the center of the city (220 yen flat rate per ride). You can get up to Kinkakuji and Ryoanji easily from Arashiyama via taxi to make it a full day and get the most of your time in northwest Kyoto.