Located in the Kansai region of Honshu, Kyoto holds a special place in my heart as the first city I truly fell in love with. It’s been nearly ten years since my first visit, but this time felt as special as it did all those years ago.
The city is home to around 2000 temples and shrines, so you’ll be forgiven for not finding the time to visit them all! Although I’ve visited the more popular Kinkaku-ji, Nanzen-ji and Ryoan-ji before (and these are definitely a must see for a first time visit to Kyoto), I tend to avoid them now in favour of quieter, more peaceful temples. I have included these must-see temples in my shared Google map at the end of this post though, in case you do want to add them into your visit!
When To Visit
We were a little early to sakura season this time round – We were in Kyoto from 27th March – 2nd April. The blossoms were only just starting to bloom and the weather still held some of its winter chill. That didn’t stop us from exploring some of our favourite cherry blossom viewing spots though, nor did it put us off long walks to some of the more peaceful, hidden gardens and temples.
We spent a week in Kyoto in total and as we like early morning starts and slow exploration I haven’t included everything we would usually do on one of our Kyoto trips, although I have listed additional places we’ve been and loved, just didn’t visit this time round.
How To Get To Kyoto
We travelled to Kyoto from Naoshima Island this time round, but previously we’ve mostly travelled from Tokyo.
Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo is super easy, especially if you already have a JR pass, which I highly recommend doing if you’re planning to travel quite far throughout Japan. I’ve had a JR pass every time I’ve visited Japan, and it’s saved me SO much money on train fares. Don’t forget though that you have to order the pass BEFORE you arrive in Japan, and then activate it when you arrive. For more information on the JR Pass, head here .
Travelling to Kyoto from Tokyo:
It takes around 2 hours 40 mins to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto by shinkansen. The journey to and from Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are connected by the Tokaido shinkansen line – fun fact- it’s the most heavily travelled high speed rail route in the world. The fastest and easiest route to take with the JR pass is to catch the Hikari shinkansen from either Tokyo station or Shinagawa station direct to Kyoto station. For more information from travelling to Kyoto from Tokyo, head here.
We however, travelled to Kyoto from Naoshima art island and this is the journey we took.
Travelling to Kyoto from Naoshima:
- Catch the ferry from Naoshima island over to port at Uno station.
- From Uno station catch the JR Uno line (covered with your JR pass) to Okayama station.
- Take the 90 minute direct Hikari shinkansen from Okayama to Kyoto station
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the CUTEST little hostel called Guest House Hachi. It’s a five minute walk from the new Umekōji-Kyōtonishi Station which was really handy for travelling in and out of Kyoto station – One of the central hubs for travelling around the city.
We would have loved to have stayed in one of their private rooms, but sadly they book up really fast (next time)! Their dorm room was great though. The beds were HUGE, the decor was really cute and our bunks were super cosy and secluded. The staff were also amazing. We were staying for quite a while, so they very kindly offered to do all our laundry for no extra cost, and they provide complimentary fresh coffee, tea and hot chocolate all day. Honestly we couldn’t have picked a more well suited hostel for us!
What To Do In Kyoto
There is SO much to do in Kyoto that it can be a little overwhelming. We tend to break our days down into districts when we explore, which enables us to spend more time slowly getting to know each area and allows time to get a little lost/ discover places we wouldn’t usually think to go.
It also means our days are more relaxed and we spent less time rushing across the city multiple times a day. It’s taken a few years to get used to this approach to sightseeing as I’m the type of person who just want to see everything all at once, but it’s a 100% more pleasant and enjoyable way to travel.
The southern higashiyama region runs along the base of the Higashiyama mountains and covers some of the most picturesque areas of Kyoto – Gion, the preserved districts and some of the most beautiful temples in the city.
Hokanji Temple Viewing Spot
This 46 metre pagoda in the centre of Kyoto’s old neighbourhood (check the pinned location on my Google map below) is one of the most recognisable areas of Kyoto.
The little narrow lanes passing the temple are usually bustling with people, and we were surprised to find it fairly quiet on our early morning stroll up to Kiyomizu-dera. During the day when it’s a little busier you’ll often see people walking through here in traditional dress which is such beautiful sight!
Ninen-zaka + Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts
Lined with shops and teahouses, Ninen-zaka is one of the preserved walking districts in the area. You’ll probably find yourself taking this route naturally if you’re walking up to Kiyomizu-dera, and although it’s breathtaking any time of the day, we prefer heading here early morning before the shops open.
By the time we turned back from the temple everything started to wake up, and we grabbed snacks for our walk back. The perfect morning!
We also arrived in time to capture a couple having their engagement photos taken on the steps – they looked so cute!
You’d be hard pressed to take a trip to Kyoto and not visit Kiyomizu-dera. One of the most celebrated temples in Japan it was originally associated with one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism and is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
It’s famed for its wooden stage that offers incredible views across the mountains and sprays of cherry blossom (it was a little early for these to be in bloom when we visited). The grounds are pretty extensive and as well as the huge main hall you can find Jishu shrine, Otowa waterfall and the three storied Koyasu pagoda.
How to get there: Part of the fun of getting to Kiyomizu-dera is the beautiful walk through the preserved districts of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. Be prepared to spend a while travelling here, as it’s very easy to get distracted en route!
Get the subway to Gion-Shijo station and take the leisurely 30 minutes walk through the preserved district up to the temple
Opening hours: 06:00 – 18:00 / No closing days
Admission: 400 yen
Shōren-in is one of the five Monzeki temples of the Tendai sect in Kyoto and is nestled up a side street in the Southern Higashiyama area.
It’s peaceful, sheltered and – for want of a better phrase – a little solemn. I visited on a rainy day in early April and as I sat looked out of the open sliding doors onto the garden I felt (for once) at complete peace. It’s a perfect little sanctuary, and I would have stayed here the whole day had I more time. We also attended a small private tea ceremony here in a tiny tea house in a secluded area of the gardens, which was wonderful and an experience I’d highly recommend. Photos really don’t do this place justice. At one point while we were walking through the halls barefoot, it started to snow. Watching the snow fall in time with the falling cherry blossom was extraordinary. The photos may not do Shōren-in justice, but I hope they give you a sense of why it’s one of my favourite temples in Kyoto
How to get there:
The nearest subway station is Higashiyama Station on the Tozai line, and Shoren-in is around a 5 minute walk from the station.
Opening hours: 09:00 – 17:00
Entry costs: General admission: 500 yen // Including tea ceremony: 1000 yen
For more images head to my blog post on Shoren-in here
The Southeastern area of Kyoto is home to two of Kyoto’s greatest sights – Fushimi Inari-Taisha and Tofuku-ji temple.
It’s not possible to visit Kyoto and not visit Fushimi-Inari Taisha. Arguably the most recognisable of Kyoto sights, it’s also my favourite shrine in the world and makes the perfect start to a day of exploration.
Famed for its pathways of torri gates, the trail leads into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari. It’s the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are though to be Inari’s messengers and you can find hundreds of fox statues located throughout the shrine grounds.
We visited early morning and were joined by a few early risers on their morning hike to the summit. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to walk to the top and back, but there are plenty of places to stop and grab drinks and snacks on the way up.
How to get there: Take the JR Nara line to Inari train station, and the shrine entrance is a five minute walk away.
Opening hours: 07:00 – 18:30 / No closing days
Slightly less crowded than Southern Higashiyama, Northern Higashiyama is home to some of the most beautiful rambling walks, beautiful temples and some of the best sakura spots
Even if you’re visiting outside of sakura season, the path of philosophy is still a wonderful place for a lazy stroll.
The path runs alongside a trickling stream which starts somewhere around Eikan-do temple and ends on the approach to Ginkaku-ji temple.
It’s a walk that Jim and I often like to take when we’re in this area. Starting from Keage station we take a walk up towards the Philosophers path, stopping at Konchi-in temple and Nanzen-ji temple en route, admire the cherry blossoms blooming over the stream (most likely stopping for a cup of matcha at Kisoartech Showroom on the way), then finish at Honen-in temple (sometimes carrying on even further to to Ginkaku-ji if we have the energy)!
How to get there: Take the subway to Keage station and its around a 15 minute walk to the stream
Opening hours: Always open
We stumbled upon Kisoartech Showroom a few years ago. We originally dropped in after we spotted some of their hand carved lacquer pieces in the window and then discovered they have a beautiful little tea room upstairs that over looks the philosophers path.
The view over the cherry blossoms is breathtaking, and it’s the prefect despite from the crowds. We’ve been back multiple times since and on our last visit we ended up meeting some lovely ladies from Korea who we ended up meeting in Seoul a week later!
How to get there: You can find Kisoartech showroom is along the path of philosophy at the turning after the Yojiya cafe. I’ve marked the exact location on the Google map at the end of this post
Address: 43 Honenincho Shishigatani Sakyo-ku Kyoto 606-8421
Opening Hours: Cafe open from 12:00
Honen-in, one of my favourite temples in all of Kyoto.
My first visit two years ago was beautifully peaceful – the kind of peace that only comes when visiting a serene garden in the rain. Part of me was hoping for a little downpour this time round as well, but sadly that came on our walk home instead. Regardless, it was just as beautiful in the spring sunshine and as much of an uncrowded treasure as I remembered it was.
Hōnen-In lies a short walk away from the more crowded Ginkakuji. A thatched gate, moss garden, tranquil koi pond and carefully raked white sand (Byakusadan) make up this beautiful, tranquil space. Despite visiting during cherry blossom season (the busiest time of year in Kyoto), we were two of only a handful of people there.
A perfect place to visit if you’re a fan of moss gardens and quiet shadowed spaces.
Visiting Honen-In Temple
Address: 30 Goshonodan-cho, Shishigatani, Sakyo-ku/ 左京区鹿ケ谷御所ノ段町30
Opening Hours: 06:00 – 16:00
How to get there
From Shijo Kawaramachi catch bus #32 or bus #5 from Kyoto Station to Ginkakuji-mae. From there it’s a five minute walk.
Alternatively you can take the walk from Keage subway station stopping at Konchi-In and Nanzen-Ji on the way and taking in the sakura over the Philosophers walk en route.
Most tourists rush right on past in favour of Nanzen-ji just round the corner, so Konchin-in is usually pretty quiet and tranquil. For anyone who’s read any of my other blog posts (or knows me in person), this suits me just fine, and for those of you who sometimes find large crowds a little overwhelming, it might just suit you too.
Konchin-in is a sub-temple of the Nanzen-ji temple complex, established sometime between the end of the 14th century and the 15th century by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi.
Although what originally drew me in (and what still stands as my favourite part of the garden) is the moss lined pathways, Konchi-in is mostly renowned for its landscape garden the main feature being the duo of crane and turtle island, arranged with rocks and shrubs. There’s also a beautiful rock garden to admire for those who can’t make it to Nanzen-ji.
Although not confirmed, it’s believed the garden was designed by the famous garden designer and tea master Kobori Enshu. You can even visit the tea room, Hasso -no-seki, although this is something we didn’t get round to doing – Maybe one day!
Visiting Konchi-In Temple
March – November: 08:30 – 17:00
December – February: 08:30 – 16:30
Entry costs: 400 yen
Address: 86-12 Fukuchi-cho, Nanzen-ji, Sakyo-ku
How to get there
Take the Tozai subway line to Keage station and walk around 5 minutes,
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Our week in Kyoto consisted of a lot of early starts – We arrived at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove before 7am and still could have done with getting there earlier.
When we first arrived it was just the two of us taking in the still early morning and an elderly couple taking a morning stroll. It was so quiet the only sounds were bird song and breeze rustling the bamboo leaves.
In hindsight I wish I’d spent the first ten minutes making the most of the calm (instead I was wandering around trying to take it all in), because by the time we reaching the end of the path and turned back to shoot, the crowds had already started filtering in.
30 minutes later and we were both congratulating each other on the early start, as by then the grove was absolutely rammed and the photographers had started pouring in. Sadly this area has become such an ‘instagrammable’ location now that even 7am is bustling with stressy photographers. We made a run down to the Oigawa river for an Arabica coffee before we were made to feel too unwelcome (a feeling we’ve unfortunately come to know well on our travels this year)!
We spent the rest of the morning wandering through the area, exploring Okochi Sanso garden and Kameyama park, eating way too many curry breads and soaking up the city views from atop the mountain.
Visiting Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Address: Arashiyama, Ukyo-ku // 右京区嵐山
Opening Times: 24 hours (please be mindful however that this is a residential area. Please show respect by not visiting too late or making too much noise)!
Admission Fee: Free
How to get there:
Arashiyama bamboo grove is a ten minute walk from Saga Arashiyama station (JR line), or a five minute walk from Arashiyama station on the Henkyu railway
Okochi Sanso Garden
Another of my favourite quiet gardens of Kyoto is the beautiful Okochi Sanso. Formally owned by Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro, his house and gardens have now been opened to the public.
Since it was built on the top of a hill, the gardens wind up hill – little stone paths leading from moss garden to shinto shrine to rock garden. It also offers some of the most incredible scenic views of Kyoto, and in the spring time the surrounding hills are dotted with clouds of cherry blossom.
If you’re not visiting in cherry blossom season, don’t worry – the garden is designed to highlight all four seasons; cherry blossom, azaleas, Japanese maple and pine.
Another one of my favourite things about this garden is that the entry fee also includes a cup of matcha tea and a sweet treat, which can be enjoyed in the little tea house after you’ve finished exploring. We often take our time here, as the views into the bamboo forest below are surreal and the atmosphere is so wonderfully peaceful.
How to get there: We tend to visit Okochi Sanso after exploring Arashiyama bamboo forest, as the entrance is directly in front of the end of the bamboo path.
Get the JR line from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama station, and walk the ten minutes through Arashiyama bamboo forest. Admire the hush of the forest en route (or the bustling crowds depending on the time of day you’re heading there)! and head to Okochi Sanso, right at the end of the pathway.
8 Tabushiyama-cho, Saga Ogurayama, Ukyo-ku // 右京区嵯峨小倉山田淵山町８
Opening hours: 09:00 – 17:00
Admission: 1000 yen (includes a cup of matcha and sweet cake)
Kyoto Botanical Garden
It doesn’t matter where we’re heading in the world, one of the first things we’ll start researching are nearby gardens. Why I’d never visited the Kyoto Botanical Gardens before this spring then was a little mind boggling, especially considering it’s home to Japan’s largest conservatory.
It’s also home to over 25,000 specimens, from tropical plants, desert plants, succulents and alpine plants and we spent a happy few hours admiring the greenery and escaping from the spring chill.
It’s not only worth visiting for the conservatory though. Kyoto Botanical Garden boasts an impressive cherry tree orchard (which are amazing in full bloom and were crowded with sakura enthusiasts), a bamboo garden, European garden, lotus pond and sunken garden – you could easily spend a good half a day here exploring if the weather’s good!
Visiting Kyoto Botanical Garden
Address: Shimogamohangi-cho, Sakyo-ku // 左京区下鴨半木町
Gardens: 9am-5pm, last entry 4pm
Greenhouse: 9am-4pm, last entry 3:30pm
Closed December 28 – January 4
Admission Fee: 200 yen (plus an additional 200 yen for the conservatory)
How to get there
We caught the subway to Kitayama station. The botanical garden is directly outside the exit.
Other Things To Do In Kyoto
For first time visitors to Kyoto there are a few other places I’d highly recommend visiting while you’re in the city which i haven’t included in this post:
- Nanzen-ji temple
- Gingaku-ji temple
- Kinkaku-ji temple
- Ryoan-ji temple and garden
- Nijo castle
- Tofuku-ji temple
I really hope you found this post helpful!
Any other questions you have about exploring Kyoto or travelling in Japan in general, let me know in the comments below and I’ll try my best to help!
Don’t forget to give my vlog a watch below – Hopefully it’ll be a really useful tool to help you gauge the weather and in planning your time in the city!