If you like temples and history, Kyoto is your place to go to. In this city, you find over 2000 temples and shrines. You will also find Inari Shrine. It is one of the most pictured shrines in Japan. Strolling through its thousand orange gates is lovely. Further, Kyoto is home to Japan’s most beloved temple (Kiyomizudera) where you can stock up on good luck. Here is a list to get some organization into the many Kyoto sights.
Don’t miss these Kyoto sights
#1 Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha)
It is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Fushimi Inari Shrine has ancient origins, long before the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794. The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours. However, visitors are free to walk just as far as they wish before turning back. Along the way, there are multiple smaller shrines with stacks of miniature torii gates that were donated by visitors with smaller budgets. Walk through 1000 orange gates and count the fox statues which are the smart messengers of the Gods.
Watch a Kagura Ceremony
At the bottom of the shrine, there is a stage where you sometimes can watch a Kagura ceremony. Observe how pretty Japanese women play instruments, dance and serve tea. You could also pay a fee to receive a blessing by these women. Behind the first plateau, the walk with the thousand orange gates starts. At the beginning, it’s incredibly crowded with tourists but it will get better, the further up you walk. In total, it takes 30 to 40 min to reach a viewing platform with blue benches and a few restaurants. You will also encounter a few restaurants along the way, which offer locally themed dishes such as Inari Sushi and Kitsune Udon (Fox Udon), both including pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), which is said to be a favorite food of foxes.
At the viewing platform, you can catch your breath and enjoy the view over Kyoto. If you decide to turn back now, you won’t miss much, as the trail doesn’t offer a lot of variety from here and the gates are further apart. Yet, if you decide to do the round course anyways, it will take you about 1 hour to get back to this point and you can enjoy some more views from the top.
How to get to Fushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari Shrine is located just outside JR Inari Station, the second station from Kyoto Station along the JR Nara Line (5 minutes, 140 yen one way from Kyoto Station, not served by rapid trains). The shrine can also be reached in a short walk from Fushimi Inari Station along the Keihan Main Line.
#2 Kiyomizudera (清水寺, “Pure Water Temple”)
This one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of Otowa Waterfall.
How to get there
Kiyomizudera can be reached from Kyoto Station by bus number 100 or 206 (15 minutes, 230 yen). Get off at Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop, from where it is a ten minute uphill walk to the temple. Further, Kiyomizudera is about a 20 minute walk from Kiyomizu-Gojo Station along the Keihan Railway Line. Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams, and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit. Namely to cause longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. However, be careful, because drinking from all three streams is considered greedy. Unfortunately, nobody could explain to me which stream means what and everybody just drank out of one stream. In the end, they all are for good luck.
Getting your share of good luck and visiting the temple
Surrounding the temple, there are many more installations to collect some good luck or get rid of your worries. I had no idea that Japan was so superstitious! It was a lot of fun. All these little activities you can reach for free by walking up the path on the right, leading a bit away from the temple. On the other hand, if you walk up straight, you can fully experience the temple and will reach its main entrance.
Is it worth to pay the entrance fee?
The entrance fee is 400 Yen and you should spend it if you want to get a short cut to the back of the temple, where Otowa waterfall and the other activities for good luck and love are located. Plus, it’s also worth to enter the temple if you are interested in this historical, religious temple and want to see it from the inside. However, to me, as a normal tourist, it wasn’t different to other temples, that were free and even prettier. Nevertheless, it does offer a nice view from a small terrace. In addition, the temple’s outside was under construction when I was there).
#3 Higashiyama District
Back at the foot of the water temple you can dive into the tourist food and souvenir street with a few historical buildings and explore Higashiyama district. Moreover, they are very generous with handing out free samples of traditional Japanese desserts and tea or coffee or spices. If you need something more substantial, buy a seasoned cucumber on a stick.
How far should I walk?
The walk between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine is only about two kilometers long and could be done in half an hour. However, you could easily spend half a day or more in the area, visiting the various temples, shrines, shops and cafes along the way. Good walkers are likely to enjoy walking beyond Yasaka Shrine past Chionin and Shorenin Temples to Heian Shrine, and possibly even further via Nanzenji and the Philosopher’s Path to Ginkakuji Temple. Further, you can find many small statues spread all over Higashiyama and if you rub them, you will also collect more good luck.
#4 The Philosopher’s Path (哲学の道, Tetsugaku no michi)
This is a pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. The path follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Usually in early April these trees explode with color. Therefore, this area becomes one of the city’s most popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots.
#5 Tempel Byodo-in (Uji)
Take the train (JR Nara line) to Uji and have a look at this pretty temple which is imprinted on the 10 Yen coin with the famous tea plantage.
#6 The Fushimi Sake District (伏見)
This is a charming, traditional sake brewing district along Horikawa River in southern Kyoto. The region is home to nearly 40 sake breweries thanks to the soft water that flows plentifully in from underground springs. Therefore, Fushimi has become the leading sake brewing district along with Kobe’s Nada district.
Visit Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
(Opening Hours: 9.30 am to 4.30 pm (last entry at 4 pm), 300 Yen). Gekkeikan is a leading sake brewer and one of the oldest family-owned companies in the world, founded in Fushimi in the early 1600s. The well-done museum shows the tools and procedures of sake production. The explanations are even in good English unlike in other museums. At the end of the self-guided tour a tasting is included.
#7 Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社, Shimogamo Jinja, “Lower Kamo Shrine”)
It is located at the junction of the Takano and Kamo rivers. The shrine is surrounded by Tadasu no Mori, a forest which was kept in its natural state even during the modernization of the city and contains trees that are up to 600 years old. Shimogamo Shrine is a 15 minute walk from Demachi-Yanagi Station on the Keihan Line. Alternatively, Kyoto City Bus number 4 towards Kamigamojinja-mae can be taken from the station to Shimogamojinja-mae bus stop (5 minutes, 230 yen) directly beside the shrine.
#8 Matcha Shops
In Kyoto you will see a lot of green due to all the Matcha specialty shops. Try a matcha cake, ice cream or a drink with matcha and buy some green souvenirs for the people at home. There are many shops opposite of Kyoto train station, near Kyoto Tower or in all the other busy shopping streets.
#9 Watch how candy is made
In the busy shopping arcade near Gion, there is a candy shop with a live show corner. During their candy showtimes, you can watch how they make small, colorful bonbons with smileys and well wishes. Afterward, it’s a pleasure to taste a freshly made sweet.
#10 Rent a Kimono
While exploring the Kyoto sights, you will notice many Asian people who are made pretty as if it was their wedding day and who are walking around in wonderful kimonos. Apparently, it’s a thing to rent a Kimono in Kyoto and then go and take pictures in front of all the sights. You can rent a Kimono for $30 to $40 per day.
#11 Gion (祇園)
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. You find Gion area around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and Kamo River in the west. It is clustered with restaurants, tea houses (ochaya) and shops. In the tea houses, you get the chance to see a geisha (geiko) or their apprentice (maiko) doing their magic. Alternatively, a more touristy place to see how the Geishas entertain is the theater at Gion Corner (end of Hanami-koji street). In the show you will see several traditional Japanese arts. Real maikos are performing some of them, which is a treat. However, be careful, the show gets full quickly and therefore you should best reserve it in advance.
#12 Where to eat in Kyoto?
We found that after 7 pm pretty much everything in Kyoto seems to be closed. Only the area around the train station is still alive with people. There, you find a whole variety of restaurants and bars, most of them offering dishes with meat. Even more choices you find on the top floor of the mall one street behind the bus station, next to HUB pub. We loved the all you can eat Shabu Shabu restaurant.
What is your favorite point of interest in Kyoto?
Book your hostel in Kyoto here and receive a special price. We had an airbnb one JR stop from Kyoto in Nishioji, which was fine as well and had a very local feeling to it. From Kyoto, Nara or Osaka are just one short train ride away. Don’t miss out on visiting the biggest aquarium of Asia in Osaka.