Kyoto sightseeing tips: “tell me the top-10 things to see!”
by Gerhard Fasol
I wrote the first version of this Kyoto tips page for my god-daughter who visited Japan, and she asked me “Gerhard – tell me the top-10 things to do in Kyoto!”…
Kyoto is both a town (Kyoto-Shi 京都市) and a Province (Kyoto-fu 京都府).
Kyoto-shi (京都市) has a population of about 1.5 million.
Kyoto-fu (京都府) has a population of about 2.6 million (including the population of Kyoto-shi), and includes quite a large land area reaching to the sea at the North with the port town Maizuru (舞鶴).
Kyoto tips for a 1 Day visit:
Ryoanji -> Kinkakuji -> Ginkakuji -> Kiyomizutera -> Iyemon Salon for Tea or Fukujuen Tea Company (read more explanations about each of these places below)
More days in Kyoto:
Kyoto sightseeing: how to get around
Kyoto is quite a large town, with about 1.5 million inhabitants, and Nara and Uji are about an hour away by train, so you need some planning to optimize your time in Kyoto and Nara. Get a 1-day, 2-day Sightseeing Bus/Subway pass so you don’t need to pay every single bus trip extra.
You’ll still have to pay extra for the JR lines, private train lines, cable cars etc. Get an ICOCA IC card for that. You may also be able to use your SUICA card from Tokyo, but maybe not everywhere.
Taxis are plenty. Free taxis have a red illuminated sign, occupied taxis have a green sign.
Kyoto: Ryoanji 龍安寺
Much research has been done about the Ryoanji Zen rock garden, see for example:
- Neuroscience unlocks secrets of Zen garden, Kendall Powell, Nature, (26 September 2002), doi:10.1038/news020926-8, https://www.nature.com/news/2002/020926/full/news020926-8.html
- Visual structure of a Japanese Zen garden, Gert J. Van Tonder, Michael J. Lyons, Yoshimichi Ejima, Nature 419, 359-360 (2002) https://www.nature.com/articles/419359a
- Visual Perception in Japanese Rock Garden Design, Gert J. van Tonder, Michael J. Lyons, Axiomathes (2005) 15: 353-371.,https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10516-004-5448-8 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-004-5448-8
There is a wonderful boiled tofu (湯豆腐) restaurant on the grounds of Ryoanji Temple, Seigenin (西源院). Eat a pot of boiled tofu for lunch.
Information is here:
From Royanji, you can either take taxi or bus to Kinkakuji, which is very close by, or you can take the Randen train to Arashiyama (see below). The Randen train stop is about 5-10 minutes walk from Royanji.
Kyoto: Kinkakuji (Gold temple) 金閣寺
Kinkakuji (Gold temple) 金閣寺 is the very very famous temple covered with plated gold.
Wikipedia: Kinkakuji (Gold temple)
Kinkakuji official site
Official site of the Shokoku-ji Religious Corporation
There is a direct bus line between Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji: its the No. 102 Bus, you can see the route map, stops etc here – takes about 1/2 hour.
Kyoto sightseeing: Ginkakuji (Silver temple) 銀閣寺
Ginkakuji (Silver temple) 銀閣寺 is the equivalent to Kinkakuji, but silver plated. However, because silver is less resistant to the atmosphere, all the silver has gone, and Ginkakuji is not covered with any silver anymore but is a wooden temple building. Still, its fantastic, including the wonderful gardens.
Wikipedia: Ginkakuji (Silver temple)
Official site: Ginkakuji
Official site of the Shokoku-ji Religious Corporation
Philosopher’s path (哲学の道)
Kyoto: Arashiyama 嵐山
You could spend the day in Arashiyama. There are lots and lots of beautiful temples, you can walk up the mountain, bamboo forrest, and a beautiful and very famous Togetsukyo bridge. I’ll write more about Arashiyama when I update this blog in the future.
The English language Wikipedia site about Arashiyama is a stub only, and gives only a very small amount of information. There is MUCH MUCH more to see, and you can find much here on the Arashiyama-Navi site.
Japanese friends think that Arashiyama is a spooky place though… but don’t worry about ghosts….
Denjiro Okochi’s residence and gardens, Okochi Sanso (大河内山荘)
Another great place in Arashiyama, in addition to the many temples, is the former residence of the Japanese film actor Denjiro Okochi (大河内傳次郎).
Okochi Sanso (English Wikipedia Site)
大河内山荘 (Japanese Wikipedia site)
大河内山荘 (Japanese Kyoto City Site)
Trains run about every 5-10 minutes between 6am and midnight every day.
You can take Randen between Riyoanji (where the fantastic Zen rock-garden is) and Arashiyama (you need to change trains in Katabiranotsuji-station (帷子ノ辻駅) ). Takes about 20 minutes by Randen. Then spend the day or afternoon in Arashiyama, and take Randen von Arashiyama back into the center of Kyoto – actually not right into the center but almost…
Randen has two lines which join up at the station Katabiranotsuji, where you can change:
- 嵐山本線 = Arashiyama main line, which runs from near the center of Kyoto to Arashiyama
- 北野線 = Kitano Line, which runs from Katabiranotsuji (帷子ノ辻駅) to Kitanohakubaichou (北野白梅町駅). Get off at Riyouanji for Riyouanji temple and Kinkakuji. From Kitanohakubaichou (北野白梅町駅) there are direct buses to Ginkakuji and the Philosopher’s Path.
Kyoto: Kiyomizutera 清水寺
Kiyomizutera is famous for the large balcony “stage”. The tradition is to jump from this stage – don’t even think of trying.
In the Edo period (1700-1900) there are records of 234 people having jumped off this stage, and apparently 85% survived. That means 15% did not – so don’t try.
Kyoto: Mount Hiei (Hieizan) 比叡山
a fantastic cable car + walk + cable car down to lake Biwa trip. Needs 1/2 day at least, better a full day. The views from the top are spectacular – you need good weather for that.
I recommend a round trip:
- Take the Eizan train from Demachi-Yanagi in the north of Kyoto to “Yase Hieizan-Guchi” station
- Take the Eizan cable car to the top station, change to the “Eizan Ropeway” and go to the top station
- Walk around Mount Hiei, visit the fantastic Enryakuji temple (延暦寺), and enjoy the views
- Take the Sakamoto-Cable car down to Sakamoto, close to the Lake Biwa shore
- Look around Sakamoto, see: http://www.hieizansakamoto.jp, or in English: http://www.hieizansakamoto.jp/foreign/index_en.html ,
- Take the Keihan-Line back to Kyoto (you have to change trains at Hamaotsu, the Keihan line from Hamaotsu merges into the Kyoto subway system (Tozai-Line = East-West line)
Enryakuji temple (延暦寺) consists of many temples, the most important is Konpon Chu-do (根本中堂 = こんぽんちゅうどう), which was established in 788, more than 1200 years ago, bringing Buddhism to Japan, and even today is an important center of Buddhist studies.
Biwako (Biwa Lake 琵琶湖)
Biwa Lake (琵琶湖) is Japan’s largest lake, and is elevated 85.6 meters above sea level.
Kyoto: Biwako Canal (琵琶湖疏水)
After the Imperial capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto’s economy collapsed.
In response, Kyoto courageously made a huge investment in building the Biwako-Canal system (琵琶湖疏水), which has three purposes:
- drinking water supply for Kyoto from Biwako Lake
- shipping on the canals between Kyoto and Biwako and within Kyoto
- electricity generation to power electrical lighting and to power Japan’s first electrical street car system
Lake Biwa is approximately at an elevation of 85.6 m above sea level, and Kyoto is approximately 50 – 55 m above sea level. Therefore, water flows along the Biwako Canal naturally, and the difference in elevation makes electrical power generation possible.
All of the Biwako Canal system has been preserved and is partly still functional today, and can be visited. You can also walk along many of the installations and canals, and see the power stations and water works, especially near Keage (蹴上).
To study the history, construction and many details and historic models of the Biwako Canal, including also economic analysis, you can best visit the Lake Biwa Canal Museum of the Kyoto Municipal Waterworks Department in Keage.
Wikipedia: Lake Biwa Canal (English)
Wikipedia: 琵琶湖疏水 (Japanese) (note that the Japanese Wikipedia site is much more detailed than the English version, and also shows a detailed map of the various waterways forming the Biwako Canal System, most of which are still active, or preserved.
You could spend days exploring all aspects of the Biwako Canal. If you only have a few hours, I recommend, you take the subway to Keage station (蹴上駅), visit the Biwako Canal Museum, and then take a walk along the ramp where a rope driven railway used to raise and lower canal boats on trolleys on a railway for ships. This shipping railway is also a great cherry blossom spot in spring. (There is another such inclined railway at another location in Southern Kyoto).
Kyoto: Nijo Castle 二条城
Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) and Sentorii (千鳥居)
The Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine is one of Japan’s most important Shinto Shrines, and its history goes back to the Wado era (708-715AD) or even earlier. Fushimi Inari Shrine’s 1300th anniversary was celebrated in 2011, setting the formal start of its history at 711AD.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is the Head Shrine for about 30,000 Inari-Shrines all over Japan.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is particular famous for its “1000 Torii” (千鳥居), the bright red painted wooden gateways. There are about 10,000 Torii Gates along the mountain paths near Fushimi Inari. Take one of the paths up the mountains passing through thousands of bright red painted Torii.
How to get there: Fushimi Inari Shrine is right outside the Inari Station (稲荷駅) of the JR Nara Line, and the Fushimi-Inari Station (伏見稲荷駅) of the Keihan Mainline (京阪本線) a few minutes south of Kyoto.
Kyoto: Iyemon Salon for Tea (伊右衛門サロン)
if you are looking for a nice place to drink Japanese tea – here is the place. Get a seat at the counter, have the tea prepared in front of you, and ask to have everything explained. Iyemon Salon Kyoto
Iyemon Salon (伊右衛門サロン) is a wonderful place, but its not a mama & papa store – if you are looking for a traditional family tea store, check out the Fukujuen Tea Company (福寿園) below. Today its the flagship store for the Iyemon tea brand of Suntory, one of Japan’s largest beverage and food companies, and you can get Iyemon tea from vending machines and convenience stores all over Japan.
To get there – here is the map. The address is:
〒604-8166 京都市中京区三条通烏丸西入御倉町80番地 千總ビル1階
(actually, Kyoto traditionally has an interesting way of writing addresses. The address is essentially a description how to get there from the nearest road junction, which is Karasuma – 3jou-dori. Its a different address system than any other place I know in Japan).
and her on Google maps
If you are looking for a more traditional tea shop 寺島屋弥兵衛商店 in Uji, or Fukujuen Tea Company (福寿園) are the places to go. See below in the section about Uji.
Kyoto: Fukujuen Tea Company (福寿園)
Iyemon was not always a brand of the Suntory Group: Iyemon Fukui is the founder of the Fukujuen Tea Company, which he founded in 1790, and the Fukujuen Tea Company sold the rights to the Iyemon brand to the Suntory Group in 2004 – quite recently.
The Fukujuen Tea Company still continues trading, and you can visit the splendid Fukujuen Kyoto Flagship store here:
Shijo Tominokoji, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-city, Kyoto 600-8005 Japan
There are stores, restaurants on every floor, and on the 4th floor you can experience Japanese Tea Ceremony.
spend enough time in Uji.
There are two world heritage sites in Uji:
- Ujigami Shrine 宇治上神社
Ujigami Shrine (Kyoto town government site)
Ujigami Shrine (english Wikipedia site)
Ujigami Shrine (Japanese Wikipedia site)
- Byodoin 平等院 This is one of the most famous temples of Japan, its embossed into all Japanese 10 yen coins. You need to book a guided tour to visit the interior of the temple, and you may have to wait an hour or two if its a crowded day (Last time I went there, I visited in middle of January, that might be the best time of the year to visit). Don’t forget to visit the temple museum, which is also very fantastic and contains many pieces of art and explanations.
Byodo-in (Official site)
Byodo-in (English Wikipedia site)
Uji is famous for tea- you can get Uji tea all over Japan, but of course Uji tea is best in Uji. I recommend the following store: 寺島屋弥兵衛商店, sorry could not find anything in English about this tea store. Its the best. Its close to the main road approaching Byodo-in. The location is here on Google-maps.
There are three train lines going to Uji. JR-West and Keihan Uji stations are quite close to Byodoin, about 10-20 mins walk, Kintetsu Ogura-Station is a little further away, about 30 mins walk.
- JR-West (JR Nara line from Kyoto) to JR-Uji (宇治駅)
- Keihan (Uji Line from Chushojima. You can get to Chushojima with Keihan from both Kyoto and Osaka) to Keihan-Uji station (京阪宇治駅).
- Kintetsu (Kyoto Line). The nearest station to Uji is Ogura-station (小倉駅)
Nara is the core of Japan with very very long history, and really needs a site of its own – which I’ll make if I can get round to it. You can spend a week, or a month in Nara, and have not seen all. So minimum is one day trip from Kyoto to Nara, so you can get an idea.
Official site of the City of Nara
Official site of the Prefecture of Nara
Nara (English Wikipedia site)
- The main temple to see is Todaiji 東大寺
Todaiji (Official site)
Todaiji (English Wikipedia site)
- Visit Kofukuji 興福寺
Kofukuji (Official site)
Kofukuji (English Wikipedia site)
- Horyuji 法隆寺 is generally believed to be the oldest wooden building existing in the world.
Horyuji (Official site)
Horyuji (English Wikipedia site)
Horyuji (Japanese Wikipedia site) Horyuji is a bit outside Nara, you need to take the JR train to Horyuji Station, and then Bus No. 72 or a taxi.
Kyoto-Nara by train
There are two ways:
- JR-West Nara Line: 710 yen, takes about 50 minutes – 1 hour. The very last train from Nara back to Kyoto is 23:09-00:12 with the JR-Nara-Line
- Kintetsu Line:
- ordinary commuter trains take 46 minutes and cost 620 yen,
- Kintetsu-Tokkyu (Kintetsu Special Express), goes about every 30 minutes (first: 8:30am, last: 22:50pm) from Kintetsu-Kyoto station to Nara. The last Kintetsu-Tokkyu back from Nara to Kyoto is at 20:30. Takes about 35 minutes. 1130 yen (= train fare 620 yen + express charge 510 yen)
Have fun – and leave any tips or comments in the discussion section below if you like!
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