Whether it’s the sparkling, flashy lights of Tokyo, the ancient temples of Kyoto, or a walk in the peaceful Takayama countryside; the wintery slopes of Hokkaido or relaxing in an Onsen (Japanese hot springs) overlooking Mount Fuji; cheering at a Sumo wrestling match, or perhaps sipping Sake at a brewery in laid back Okinawa — there is something to be found for everyone in beautiful Japan.
Kyoto is steeped in history & culture. The surrounding mountains & forests also make it an excellent hiking spot.
Here are 10 majestic sights to take in when in Kyoto.
Kiyomizu Dera Temple
The crown jewel of all temples in Kyoto, perched at hilltop, it affords sprawling views of the city. The temple itself is an architectural marvel, with massive verandas, pillars & several shrines. Although always crowded, it’s well worth the visit during the Sakura aka Cherry Blossom season in spring or during fall.
Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Temple
Completely covered in gold, this temple looks resplendent in its reflection on the pond. Naturally, it’s INSANELY crowded. I’m sure it’s quite the tranquil sight at sunrise or sunset. To avoid crowds, locals later advised us to visit either early in the day or towards the closing hours on a weekday.
This tall bamboo grove forest truly makes you feel like Alice in a super cool wonderland. If you’ve hiked on any trail with bamboo forests (such as Pipiwai Trail in Maui, Hawaii), this will seem familiar.
This was my favorite thing to see in Kyoto. I strongly recommend going early in the morning. You can hike the full length of Fushimi Inari at dawn, to catch the sunrise at hilltop. It’s as much of a mystical experience as it is an adventure.
Home to Geisha culture, Gion is the place to be at night. Geishas are skittish & rare to spot. To see one, you have to either book a private dinner, which is super pricey or catch an annual performance during the Sakura season at Miyako Odori. I have to share a story with you. We did spot a geisha on the street and she was as breathtakingly elegant as you’d imagine. However, a group of tourists wouldn’t stop following her. Surrounding her from all corners, they loomed, snapping picture after picture with blinding flashes of light exploding in her face. This paparazzi attack left her utterly distressed. Can you imagine dealing with that on your way to work? Let’s make a pact not to harass locals abroad in our quest to capture the moment. Some moments are just meant to be relished minus cameras.
Miyako Odori is pretty unique (skip the tea ceremony though — you walk in a room…. and drink tea by yourself, which isn’t exactly ceremonious.) Not to be missed is the stroll by Shirakawa Minami-dōri, an exquisite sight at night, with antique shops, art galleries, restaurants facing canals & lanterns.
This pathway is lined with white & dark pink cherry blossoms, falling all over you and leaving a trail of pink all over the canal below. You can stop by famous landmarks & several famous temples such as Ginkaku-ji on the way.
Chawan-Zaka (Tea-pot Alley)
This narrow & steep alley dotted with souvenir, trinket & tea shops is on the up hill route to Kiyomizu Dera. The hustle & bustle of the shopkeepers, haggling in Japanese between the street vendors & shoppers and aromatic, hot street food creates a charming appeal.
As a vegetarian, I was warned that Japan “doesen’t have many options.” I was pleasantly thrilled to find the opposite! Some of the most delicious, savory, complex flavors of Asian food we discovered during our travels, was in Japan. Street food is delicious, as are hole in the wall eateries, and the Kaiseki (formal dining). Here are foods you must try in Kyoto:
Yuba in noodle soup (a chewy, soft by-product of Tofu, that doesen’t taste as yuck as Tofu); Ume Onigiri (rice cakes with plum pickle), Sakura deep fried ice cream, Strawberry Mochi. Most hotels will go out of the way to accomodate vegan/vegetarian diets and make a custom version of the traditional 18 course Japanese breakfast. If you love food as much as I do, go to Japan just for this. Seriously. I literally sat for 2 hours, just eating. Here’s my thoughts on it:
The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is modeled after Daigo-ji. This massive temple ground has several bridges, courtyards, pagodas and is simply spectacular during Fall.
Kyoto is the place to see Cherry Blossoms in full bloom. Lining every street in different shades of white to pink, it feels like you’re looking at a painting, until you start walking into it.
Other notable temples are Kurama-Dera, Tofuku-ji. If gardens, ancient architecture & zen are your thing, here is a helpful resource to plan top temples to visit in Kyoto.