Best things to see in Kyoto and surroundings
We’ve spent 9 nights in Kyoto and surroundings since this area is famous for Japanese maple trees getting red by this time of the year.
Below we will summarize the best things to see in Kyoto and surroundings with the pictures we’ve taken and some tips when visiting Kyoto during high season to avoid crowds.
Summary of the post
Best things to see in Kyoto and surroundings
1. The philosopher’s path with some of the temples
The philosopher’s path is quiet even during high season. It is a very peaceful place close to a river stream. People are very nice and there is nice food all around. That’s where Èric had one memorable experience already 7 years ago while solo travelling in Japan, when while being alone in the temple, a person inside one of the temples prepared a sweet and a green tea and said “present”. It was one of the things of a trip that you will never forget and it shows the amazing hospitality of Japanese people that is difficult to compare with any other culture we’ve seen before. This time, the temple was closed but something similar happened to us when walking close to the river. Two people were preparing some green leaves with a flower on top and told us that this was for good luck in our lives if we dropped the leaf with the flower on the river stream and let it swim. We did that and it was a nice experience. They just did that for the sake of it, for fun and for free.
2. The bamboo forest and optionally the monkey park
The bamboo forest of Kyoto is very famous because it has a high concentration of bamboo trees and the people that bring others while running with the big wheels are there making tours for tourists and for Japanese people as well. It’s a beautiful place but nowadays it’s quite crowded during high seasons. We went for sunset to see less people, but it was still quite busy. However, there’s a very nice bamboo park that is not so well-known and that’s in the hidden path of the Fushimi Inari mentioned below, where you can be with almost no tourists, even with high season. The monkey park is also worth visiting if you’re out of high season and if you haven't visited Bali before. This time we skipped it since Èric was there 7 years ago and the amount of monkeys is actually very little compared to Bali. Probably there are many more tourists than monkeys ^^
3.If you time your trip, visit some of Kyoto’s traditional festivals
In our case, we timed our stay at Kyoto to be able to attend the Jidai Matsuri fest, which is an ancient costume procession that is very famous in Japan. This year it was on the 22nd of October. It’s special because the costumes are really well made but it’s also a very quiet fest… with almost no music. Of course, it’s to preserve a tradition but as a foreigner from Barcelona it’s a bit calm :D
4. Visit the golden temple of Kyoto
This is a must if you’re in Kyoto because it’s a temple like no other in Japan. It’s very photogenic and therefore, in our world of Instagram, it’s very popular. But despite being so popular it’s still very nice and worth visiting it in our opinion. If you go very early in the morning (at 9 AM is the opening time) or around 12:30 (when people tend to be hungry) and during the weekdays, you will be lucky to see the temple and be able to take some pictures without people in the background.
5. Explore and eat at Nishiki market.
The fish market of Tokyo is great and offers good food but we had the feeling that Kyoto offers even more variety of food. The crab pieces with or without tempura are really good and there’s a place called Gyaoza with Kobe and Wagyu meat that is really tasty. David Beckham was there with his daughter this June. There’s a picture of them there. I must say I’m not a huge fun of David Beckham since he played for Madrid and not for Barça but I leave it here for the people who are :D haha.
6. Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari is free and is a shrine that covers a huge mountain with many Tori (shrine doors). It’s a really amazing and beautiful place but it’s extremely overcrowded during the high season. 7 years ago Èric was there and was alone with only a couple of cats and some Japanese praying. Today there were so many people that you had to queue while walking!!! We didn’t like the first 3 minutes of this experience but luckily we found a hidden path going back to the mountain. This path leads to the top of the mountain and by the time we were on the top it was sunset and most of the tourists had disappeared leaving space for us and some bats.
Moreover, in this hidden path you will find a bamboo forest and you will also find a “waterfall” for praying and purifying and a wood carpenter. We would really recommend stopping by this wood carpenter. His English is very good because he’s learned from the tourists who escape from the tourists and his work is really cool! His main job is repairing statues from temples but he also does some amazing wood craft as a hobby and you can buy some of these pieces. Moreover, he explained us all the meanings of the Tori, the foxes in front of them, how they are built and how people pray. The Tori doors actually last only 15 to 20 years because they are built of cedar wood and this one doesn’t last long with water and bugs. So there are many companies that actually produced this Tori and make a living out of them. The date of building and the company that build it is actually the writing you see behind of each Tori. The stones in these small temples are actually stones representing gods, even though they look like graves. And the foxes are always in pairs, one with the mouth open, representing the beginning and one with the mouth closed representing the end. They both protect the Tori and the name of the shrine is actually given because Ina means rice and these two foxes were supposed to protect the rice fields in the past.
This carpenter was actually also doing something that we didn't know it was possible. He was catching hornets to protect his honey bees and putting them in alcohol to drink it after 5 years, when the poison is not there anymore. Yikes...
7. Kyoto Imperial Palace and its Japanese gardens
Kyoto Imperial Palace is huge and also has a beautiful garden. You can enter for free and it’s definitely worth it if you’re around. You can see some of the Japanese paintings as well as the beautiful trees with the ponds. The colors of autumn are really nice in this palace.
8. Nijo castle
The Nijo castle is not one of the biggest in Japan, like Matsumoto or HImeji but it’s still a very nice construction with water around. It’s also a world heritage site if you’re into collecting these places.
9. Ninenzaka streets and Kiyomizu-dera
These streets are very beautiful and photographic, that’s the reason why in 2023 it’s extremely full of people since most of the people using social media know the classical picture of Kyoto and want to take that picture with themselves on it.
We would say it’s worth visiting it but ideally early in the morning or late during the day.
The temple is also very beautiful and has a nice pagoda and nice views of Kyoto from above but we didn’t go because we happened to be there on a Monday and that’s exactly the day where the Japanese schools do school trips to visit the temple resulting into this amount of busses and people in this area…
As the things above, 7 years ago it was quite different with many less people ^^
10. Day trip to Nara: Huge Buddhas, wooden temples and many deer
Nara is really beautiful and it was an amazing experience to go there. We would say it’s one of the best day trips you can do from Kyoto. You can see a detailed post about Nara here.
11. Day trip to Himeji castle and Koko-en garden
Another nice day trip is to go to Himeji’s castle, which is the most famous Japanese castle. It’s very big, white and beautiful. The Koko-en garden garden with the maple tree foliage is really beautiful as well! You can see a detailed post here.
12. Day trip to Uji, the paradise of Matcha and a world heritage temple
We’re tea lovers and you can see that in the top sections where we have a section only about tea. And Uji is supposed to be the place where matcha started. It has many tea fields and many many ways in which you can enjoy the matcha: they have matcha ice cream, matcha noodles, matcha cookies, matcha Kitkat… you can see more about Uji in this post here.
13. Day trip to Osaka, for food (Takoyaki: octopus balls), markets and the famous aquarium
Another famous place close to Kyoto is Osaka. You can reach that with a local train and Osaka is maybe not as beautiful as Kyoto but it offers nice food and has a beautiful aquarium with two whale sharks in it, which is very special. You can see more details on a day trip to Osaka here.
14. Enjoy Kyoto’s culinary mixture: Sake, Izakaya’s delicacies, Kobe, Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki, Sake Tasting at an Izakaya
Kyoto is close to Kobe, close to Osaka and relatively close to Hiroshima (at least with the Shinkansen), so it has a lot of influence on the food of all these places.
Sake tasting at an Izakaya!
Eating food at the Nishiki market
Enjoying the Hiroshima Okonomiyaki (with noodles)!
Kyoto and surroundings offer a huge variety of attractions that make this region extremely popular, especially for first time visitors. Moreover, the colors of the temples during autumn are really beautiful. The variety of food is exquisite. All this makes it to one of the top destinations of Japan and that's why it's also very full of people. Therefore, you need to plan the trip carefully to try to avoid the crowds and still enjoy your holidays ^^
We hope you liked this post and tips about Kyoto and surroundings and are motivated to visit it!