bamboo grove in arashiyama

Kyoto is an amazing city chock full of history, incredible temples, and beautiful gardens. With so much to see, you’re going to have to plan carefully. Too many temples in one day is a surefire road to burnout, but on the other hand you can only do so much quiet contemplation. Your best bet is to create a mix of the top places to go in Kyoto, being sure to visit key temples or shrines, but also making time to just enjoy the surrounding beauty.

Arashiyama is a district of Kyoto, and its Sagano bamboo grove is one of the most photographed sights on the internet. Bamboo – which is actually a grass – grows roughly 50cm to 60cm (20 in. to 24 in.) over the course of two months. It’s not always a steady pace though. Bamboo can grow up to one meter (3.3 ft.) in a single day! Pretty amazing, right?

When you see the bamboo grove up close, you’ll immediately know why Arashiyama is one of the top places to go in Kyoto. The sounds of the leaves rustling, the sway of the impossibly thin and long stalks, the tapestry of varying shades of green will all have you enthralled. And that’s just the start of what’s great about Arashiyama.

Okochi Sanso is one of the underrated top places to go in Kyoto

Okochi Sanso
Okochi Sanso is an estate frozen in time and immersed in beauty.

You will find Okochi Sanso just up slope a short bit from the top of the above discussed Sagano bamboo grove. The vast majority of visitors skip this spot. You won’t be making the same mistake. (Especially if you’re on our private vehicle Kyoto tour!)

Denjiro Okochi, a famous early 20th century Japanese actor, built this sprawling compound during the 1930s and 1940s. Gorgeous buildings dot the grounds which gently crawl up the mountainside. The gardens are stunning and varied no matter what season you visit, though of course spring and fall are inevitably the most popular. The estate was opened to the public upon Denjiro Okochi’s death in 1962, and the ¥1000 admission fee includes a cup of matcha and a light Japanese sweet in their tea room. Overall, this an excursion absolutely worth your time and money. Even if the tourist masses don’t agree with you.

Kinkakuji the famous Golden Pavilion

kinkakuji in fall
Kinkakuji, in all her glimmering glory.

Though structures and non-religious uses of the property date back even further, Kinkakuji (a Buddhist temple) dates back to 1397. The gold, besides just being an out-to-impress ornamentation, is said to alleviate anxiety towards death. Speaking of death, just before attempting suicide back in 1950, a young monk set fire to the pavilion and burned it to the ground. Rebuilt in 1955, the years since then have brought more and more ostentatious gilding.

You’ll want to plan on about thirty minutes at Kinkakuji. It’s mostly about looking at the pavilion (you can’t go inside it), but the peripheral strolls are nice too. If you are looking for solace, come very early or late in the day. At other times, many fellow visitors will be there in testament to Kinkakuji being one of the top places to go in Kyoto.

Kodaiji, a sometimes overlooked treasure of the Higashiyama district

A small part of Kodaiji’s extensive and monumental temple grounds.

You’re probably going to be in the Higashiyama district for other reasons already. For one, there’s Kiyomizudera, with its stunning views, height defying architecture, and rich history. You’ll also surely want to stroll the period vibes of Ninenzaka shopping street. Near the north end of Ninenzaka is Kodaiji, another jewel of Kyoto that, while not ignored, is not as trafficked as we’d expect.

Kodaiji was established in the early 1600s, placing it on the younger side for Kyoto. More noteworthy than “when” is “who” – Kodaiji was established by none other than the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This famous unifier of Japan is buried here, making Todaiji a must-see for history buffs. Even in you are not that into history, you are sure to enjoy the extensive formal gardens and mountainside bamboo grove. The grounds are calm enough and set up in a way to invite leisurely relaxation and introspection. Todaiji is both grand and gorgeous. Better still, it’s in central Kyoto but not crowded.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is absolutely one of the top places to go in Kyoto

bigred gate at fushimi inari
One of the larger gates at Fushimi Inari.

Formally known as Fushimi Inari Taisha, this shrine is free of admission fees. If you’re watching your budget, that’s a big plus! Additionally, the shrine is quite conveniently reached by both JR and the Keihan train lines. But there’s got to be more about it than that, right?

Fushimi Inari is most recognized for their hundreds upon hundreds of signature red “torii” gates. Near the entrance are some giant ones. Proceeding deeper into the property, you’ll find some shrine buildings of note before starting the walk up the mountain. A trip beneath the hundreds of torii all the way to the top of mountain could take well over an hour! That said, most people just go up part way. To be honest, the view from the top isn’t particularly great. But the magnitude of Fushimi Inari alone is enough to make it one of the top places to go in Kyoto.

Make time for a riverside stroll

kamo river
When the weather’s right, nothing beats a sunset on the river.

The Kamo River (“Kamogawa”) runs from the mountains in the north, south through central Kyoto, and eventually all the way to Osaka, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. You can see the riverside scene around Shijo above. On the west side, behind those dining decks, is Pontocho restaurant alley. Out of view on the right side of the river in the Gion. This is the historic heart of Kyoto.

The river is a very popular place for young people to hang out when the weather’s nice. Should you choose to, it’s possible to walk quite a ways up and down the banks. Or, you can do like so many others and bring a snack and a drink and just chat with your friends or loved ones. However you decide to relax, the banks of the Kamo River make for the perfect spot. And as darkness approaches, the surrounding areas have loads of options for dinner or entertainment.

A healthy mix of sightseeing choices

As we said at the start, a good trip to Kyoto means finding a balance that works for you. Visiting too many temples can make it all very tedious. Too much lounging about bamboo groves and gardens might not impart you with a complete sense of Kyoto. So mix and match as you please, but do consider the options we’ve selected for you here.

All our top places to go in Kyoto presented above are generally best during daytime. If you come in summer, going to Fushimi Inari at night is a viable option. The grounds are open until very late, and they light up the paths for your convenience. But if you’re looking for an evening in Kyoto that skews more modern day, may we suggest our Kyoto night food tour? It’s loads of fun, and very tasty too! Plus, more than just a Kyoto food tour, it’s a cultural romp too! Thanks for reading.

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