Kyoto, Japan: The Top 10 Things to See & Do

September 06, 2018

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


I can think of few cities more evocative than Kyoto. It is, in fact, my favourite city in Japan. The Japanese way of life, philosophies, and customs speak to me of ritual, mystery, and spirituality. No other city in Japan is as steeped in these as the city of Emperors. Kyoto is old Japan in modern times - where the traditional arts and crafts are kept alive by generations of artisans, and where the last remaining geisha in Japan live and work in historic districts that remain practically unchanged for centuries. More than just the cultural capital of the country, Kyoto is also the spiritual heart of Japan - this is a city of temples and shrines, of torii gates and incense, of gods and spirits. 

Kyoto is the city to immerse yourself in the intricacies of Japanese culture - be it elaborate tea ceremonies, joyous hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties), or making offerings to fox statues at Shinto shrines. If you’re thinking of visiting Japan for the first time, I highly recommend you begin with Kyoto that you may understand the unique Japanese way of life. Either way, if Kyoto is new to you, I daresay I have you covered with my list of the Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan.

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Wearing kimono  is considered by the Japanese as appreciative of their culture. I can guarantee that after a day of wearing the national dress you’ll have a whole new respect for the effort required to wear traditional kimono as well as understand why the Japanese are so famously disciplined. For an immersive experience, be sure to take a walk in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. Pop into Gion Corner to catch a traditional performance and an art exhibition - such as this Yayoi Kusama show (below). Learn more about where and how to rent a kimono in my Kimono in Kyoto story.

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of the most photographed sights in Kyoto, but no image can capture the feeling of otherness that this sprawling bamboo grove evokes. Little wonder that the ambience of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is on the Ministry of Environment’s list of “100 Soundscapes of Japan”. The meditative effect and sound of the bamboo swaying and creaking gently in the wind is part of the Ministry’s selection of everyday noises intended to encourage locals to “stop and enjoy nature's music”. Miraculously, when I was there, the crowds of visitors fell silent, seemingly under the spell of the bamboo - now that’s magic.

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple and one Japan’s most famous sights. The main hall, whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf, seemingly floats on a pond. On a bright day the golden facade and its reflection in the water dazzles like the sun. Kinkaku-ji was built in 1397 as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and converted to a temple after his death. Kinkaku-ji was designed to echo the extravagant Kitayama culture that developed in the wealthy aristocratic circles of Kyoto at the time. In 1950, a fanatic monk driven by his hatred of the temple’s beauty burned Kinkaku-ji to the ground: “Beauty, beautiful things, those are now my most deadly enemies." The present structure was painstakingly reconstructed 5 years later, following the original design in all its gilded glory.

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) is far less polarising, even if it was inspired by Kinkaku-ji. Built in 1482, Ginkaku-ji is so named because it was built on the opposite side of the city, after how gold and silver are considered to opposites of each other. Like the temple it was inspired by, Ginkaku-ji was also built as a retirement villa but unlike the Golden Pavilion, its master’s ambition to cover the building with silver was never realised. 

But that’s not to say that Ginkaku-ji  is the silver medal to the gold medal of Kinkaku-ji. The Silver Pavilion attract more than its share of attention. Ginkaku-ji is one of Kyoto's premier sites. The grounds are surrounded by a sumptuous garden covered in tall pines and maple trees that turn a dazzling red in Autumn. Walkways wind aross the pond. A path that, lined with more imposing trees, lead up the mountainside to reveal a stunning vista of the city below. Thoughtful vignettes await in every nook and cranny of the gardens - be it an impressive, towering raked cone of white sand (to symbolise Mount Fuji) or tiny rafts of bamboo on mossy rocks (left). 

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Few can name a more iconic sight in Kyoto than Fushimi Inari Taisha. It’s where a pivotal scene takes place in Memoirs of a Geisha. The spiritual power of Fushimi Inari Taisha is undeniable. Senbon Torii (Thousands of Torii Gates) is a testament to the power of faith - a stunning trail of 10,000 torii gates, painted in auspicious vermillion, densely packed together. Each individual torii gate represents a wish made true, donated by the grateful to the patron god O-Inari-sanFushimi Inari Taisha is vast. The entire complex consists of five shrines, sprawled across a 4 kilometre walk through the wooded slopes of the mountain. Then there are the 40,000 sub shrines scattered acroxss the country, but Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine, the HQ if you will. Hundreds of statues of stone foxes, considered the messenger of O-Inari-san watch you - all the more eerie knowing that the Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred and mysterious figure capable of ‘possessing’ humans (we shan’t even talk about the graveyards). Fushimi Inari Taisha is worth dedicating an entire morning to explore its length and breath. You might even see a traditional Shinto blessing ceremony. Read more about what to expect in my Fushimi Inari Taisha story.

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


It may be tempting to put your feet up and hop in a rickshaw. No doubt it is an experience, and certainly one to try. But it’ll be of some comfort to know that Kyoto is a very compact city, and extremely walkable. So much so that there is an entire attraction dedicated to the act of mindful wandering. The Philosopher's Path (below) is a pleasant stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. The path is so named for Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. It’s easy to see why Kitaro-san would chose this path - in early April the trees are a profusion of cherry blossoms, and in Autumn they are ablaze with a fiery red. The Philosopher's Path is approximately two kilometers long, starting from Ginkaku-ji and ending in the neighbourhood of Nanzenji

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Nishiki Market is a narrow, long shopping street lined by over a hundred shops and restaurants. Located in the city centre, Nishiki Market specialises in all things food-related: from fresh seafood to knives, and is the place to find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties, such as Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi. Most stores specialise in a particular type of food, and almost everything sold at Nishiki Market is locally produced. The market is covered, so not even the harshest of rains can put a damper on a day of shopping and sampling from "Kyoto's Kitchen".


...speaking of tabemono (Japanese for food), it is practically impossible to have a bad meal in Kyoto. Whether it’s matcha (green tea) soft serve ice-creams, a hole-in-the-wall shop for bowls of pork broth ramen and chicken karage (left, above), Michelin-starred sushi at Sushi Wakon at the Four Seasons Kyoto (above right), or a dinner of tempura at Endo Yasaka (below) in Gion. 
I highly recommend trying, at least once, the Japanese principles that inspired nouvelle cuisine: kaiseki. Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, consisting of a sequence of dishes, each often small and artistically arranged. For an opulent, money-no-object introduction, head to Kyoto Kitcho in the Arashiyama district.

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The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Of course you’d love to meet a geiko (as geisha are called in Kyoto) and maiko, a geisha-in-training. A lucky few may spot a maiko on her way back from a hair appointment, or a geiko in Gion on her way to work. But such sightings are less common than you think, and with the trend of tourists choosing to dress up as maiko for photoshoots, it can be hard to tell if the coy, red-lipped beauty before you is the real deal. One guaranteed way to see a maiko and geiko are at Gion Corner, where they perform a traditional dance called Kyo-Mai. There are also kaiseki-style dinners where you can enjoy traditional games, banter, and elegant dances with geiko. If you are lucky enough to be staying at the Four Seasons Kyoto, you can look forward to a dance performance by a maiko in the hotel lobby in the evenings. Definitely an experience for your memoirs.

The Top 10 Things to See & Do in Kyoto, Japan by Posh, Broke, & Bored



The climate in Japan can be notoriously difficult; with extremely humid summers and freezing winters. But Spring and Autumn are temperate, pleasant, and so incredibly beautiful that they invoke nationwide celebration. The best months to visit Kyoto are April and November. There is of course, cherry blossom season (in the last week of March and the first two weeks of April in Kyoto) which is a national cause for celebration. Hanami (viewing parties) are dedicated to witness the fleeting beauty of the blossoms, themselves an icon for mono no aware - the awareness of the transience of all things, which heightens appreciation of their beauty. Just as evocative is Autumn. In October, the festival to see in Kyoto is Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages: where people parade in period costumesfrom Kyoto Imperial Palace to Heian-jingu Shrine). The best weather is in November - with cool but not cold temperatures, sunny skies, and dazzling autumnal foliage at its peak in Kyoto.

This post is dedicated to my sister “Dragonite”, who is fascinated by Japanese culture. I hope this guide to Kyoto will inspire her to book her first ever trip to Japan. I too, hope, that whether or not you’ve been to Kyoto; that you find some joy and inspiration in this travel story. Soon to follow, my travel stories of Tokyo and Okinawa.

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Read my other Kyoto stories:

Read the rest of my Japan stories here.

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