One of Fushii Inari Shrine's famous dog statues.

Kyoto should definitely be on your first trip to Japan’s agenda. But what is Kyoto famous for? As the historic capital of Japan, Kyoto is chock full of temples and shrines, plus of course gardens. But the city is also.. well, a city. There are interesting market districts, lively dining and entertainment areas, and plenty of other sights to boot. Ultimately, the question is not what is Kyoto famous for, but rather what famous things in Kyoto will you have enough time for?

What about that devilish dog pictured up top? Well, you can find him at Fushimi Inari Taisha, a fantastic shrine to visit anytime day or night, any day of the year. If you’d like to take a deep dive into the folklore behind these dog statues, check out this article. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Now please read on for some of our other recommended sights in this awe inspiring city!

Going for the Gold at Kinkaku-ji

Arguably the most famous temple building in Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji welcomes throngs of tourists on a daily basis. Traffic flow is managed with finesse and just a bit of cattle prodding (just kidding – mostly!), but almost all visitors feel it’s worth it. After all, would you go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower?

In the grand scheme of Kyoto history, this gold-plated beauty is really not all that old. In fact, the current structure only dates back to 1955. A mentally ill monk burned it down, then unsuccessfully tried to kill himself. But let’s focus on the bright side, and the glory of what the building it today! This is a Zen Buddhist temple, and the gardens surrounding the golden pavilion are equally beautiful any time of the year. Incidentally, a less crowded but perhaps even more important Zen Buddhist temple is a mere fifteen minutes’ walk from here, and is our next stop on this “What is Kyoto famous for” tour de force.

What is Kyoto famous for? A garden filled with rocks of course.

Meditative rock formation at Ryoan-ji Temple
What do you see? What do you feel?

Although there has been a temple on this land since the mid 1400s, Ryoan-ji’s rock garden probably only dates back to the 1600s. If you’re interested in Kyoto history, you’ll soon enough discover that essentially nothing survived the Onin War, a civil war (1467-1477) followed by the Warring States period (“Sengoku Jidai”) that witnessed sporadically intense violence all the way until 1615.

All that warring is long behind us, and now we are blessedly left with this lovely rock garden. The garden whispers strongly, inviting us to meditate. Soon enough you will stop wondering what the rocks objectively mean, and start feeling energy flows and the impact of relativity and adjacent power orbits. Or maybe you won’t. Regardless, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not visiting this spot. Incidentally, you can visit Ryoan-ji on the extended version of our Kyoto Car Tour!

From feeding the soul to feeding your stomach: Nishiki Market Street

NIshiki food market
How many delicious Japanese foods can one shopping street proffer?

What is (another thing) Kyoto is famous for? Food, of course! And Nishiki food shopping street is a mecca for all things foodie in Kyoto, both prepared and for cooking. Baby octopus on a stick? No? Even if it’s cooked? There’s a cooked quail egg stuffed into the, umm, head cavity. I knew you’d come around. But don’t fret, there’s lots more on offer! Kyoto is famous for its tofu, and you’ll find it in many forms here. Yuba is the skin of the cooled tofu, and it is absolutely scrumptious with a touch of wasabi and soy sauce. Freshly made soy milk is also a must-sip.

Even if you’re not in the market for ready-to-eat, you’ll find lots of great snacks, teas, Japanese pickles (“tsukemono) and other goodies to squirrel back to your room (or even your home country) for later enjoyment. The market is not open at night, and it’s best to come between 11am and 5pm. Nishiki Market is conveniently located in the middle of downtown Kyoto and just across the river from the Gion district. We here at Pinpoint Traveler run a popular night food and culture tour in this part of town, and we’d love to host you!

Get to know an awe-inspiring engineering project from the late 1800s

19th century aqueduct at Nanzen-ji compound
Not all things historic in Kyoto are temples or gardens.

In the late 1800s, cutting edge engineers built this monument connecting Lake Biwa and Kyoto City. This marvel is still in use today. The elevated portion of the canal above, by definition an aqueduct, runs through the Nanzen-ji temple and garden compound.

Back in the late 1800s, Japan was newly opened to the West, and a voracious consumer of the new science and tech opened up to them. This canal once had boats ferrying passengers along portions of it as well, but those days have now long passed. Hot tip: If you’re interested in this era’s architecture in Japan, Nagoya’s Meiji Mura is a must-visit!

Come see where the Imperials once held court

The main ceremonial hall at Kyoto's Imperial Palace
Expansive, uncrowded, and unhurried, Kyoto’s Imperial Palace holds court serenely in the middle of the city.

The imperial family may have moved to Tokyo around 1870, but that’s no reason to not maintain a beautiful palace in central Kyoto.. Even better, it’s completely free to visit! The walled palace grounds are located in the middle of a 910,000m² green space formally known as Kyoto Gyoen. Make a point of spending some time strolling around the gardens and such.

Inside the Palace grounds you will find buildings and rooms (viewable only from the outside) that are generally regal if a bit sterile to the untrained eye. Still, the grandiosity is sure to impress. One can imagine the intrigue and other happenings that could have occurred here. Your path around the grounds will also take you by a lovely, postcard-like Japanese garden scene. Cherry blossoms and spring beauty may be ephemeral, but a proper Japanese garden such as this looks beautiful no matter what the season.

This is just the start

So what is Kyoto famous for? So much more than what we’ve grazed upon here. You could spend countless days exploring the beauty and history of Kyoto. A sage piece of advice, however, is to not schedule more than two temples per day. You don’t want to get temple burnout after all! Take the time to find quiet spaces and meandering paths. You just may find some of the deeper meaning the great philosophers have designed the land to foster!

If you’re looking for some help making the most of your Kyoto time, please check out this selection of our Kyoto experiences! Thanks for reading.

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