The Best Things to Do in Kyoto

Japan’s former imperial city offers awe-inspiring Shinto and Buddhist temples, beautiful gardens, streets lined with old wooden town houses, and narrow stone lanes where you might see modern-day geisha and stop at an izakaya for a meal.

Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 602-0881, Japan
In 794 C.E., Emperor Kammu moved Japan’s capital to Kyoto, chiefly to keep the large Buddhist monasteries in the former capital of Nara from amassing even more power than they already had. (The capital and emperor moved to Tokyo in 1868.) The present imperial palace dates back to 1855, and it’s not the buildings that stand out but the extremely beautiful gardens and park, which is the city center’s main green space. Travelers need to obtain permission to visit the palace from the Imperial Household Agency, but the park is open to all. The plum trees and cherry blossoms bloom in March and April, and all year round the park attracts joggers, cyclists, walkers, and picnickers.

Kiyomizu-dera on Mount Otowa is one of the most famous temples in Japan, a place that appears in every sequence of Japanese travel photos. The landscape is all cherry trees and forest; it is among Kyoto‘s loveliest spots. The current structure dates to 1633 and is one of 33 temples on a pilgrimage circuit in the Kansai region dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The circuit runs from the south of Wakayama north to the Sea of Japan. You’ll see pilgrims carrying nokyo-cho—books stamped to record the visit—and monks busily inscribing in calligraphy. The temple, set against a steep hill and constructed on huge pilings, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

68 Fukakusa Yabunouchichō, Fushimi-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 612-0882, Japan
Fushimi Inari Taisha on Inariyama mountain is dedicated to the Shinto gods of rice and sake, but Inari is also the god of merchants and that brings a lot of businesspeople to worship here. Everyone else stops by to see the thousands of vermilion torii, or gates (each of which is funded by a Japanese company). They lead to the main shrine, which was built in 1499. Walking underneath the gates is like passing through a fiery tangerine tunnel, and visitors leave behind tiny torii replicas as part of their prayer.

It’s said that the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color. Put the theory to the test at the Koke-dera, or Moss Temple, a veritable spectrum of jades, mints, artichokes, emeralds, and olives. The UNESCO World Heritage site, formally known as Saihoji, is home to around 120 types of moss, which carpet the temple ground’s forested floor in ways Akira Kurosawa couldn’t have dreamed up. Reservations to the temple must be made by snail mail months in advance in Japanese. After arrival, visitors are also asked to participate in Koke-Dera’s religious activities by observing kito and shakyo (respectively, the chanting and copying of Buddhist scriptures, called sutra).
While Japan often remains aloof to many first-time visitors, Kyoto feels intentionally difficult to get to know—even to Tokyoites who visit frequently. Getting some kind of entrée to hidden gems is especially useful here. Enter humble American-turned-Kyotoite Nemo Glassman, founder of Plus Alpha Japan. Many years living in Kyoto has given him a deep understanding of the city’s idiosyncrasies, of which there are many. Plus Alpha will arrange insider tours and intimate experiences throughout Kyoto and beyond. His tours aim to facilitate deeper engagement for travelers, whether imbibing with izakaya chefs, practicing zazen meditation with Buddhist abbots, or enjoying a tea ceremony performed by a maiko (apprentice geisha).
1 Kinkakujichō, Kita-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 603-8361, Japan
Built in the 14th century as a villa for a powerful shogun, Kinkaku-ji temple, commonly referred to as the Golden Pavilion, is an easy bus ride from the main bus terminal in Kyoto. The temple is one of the most popular buildings in Japan, so expect a lot of fellow gawkers. It exemplifies several different Japanese architecture styles, and the top two levels are completely covered in gold leaf. The extensive gardens are beautifully manicured and serene, despite the abundance of visitors using selfie sticks.
Arashiyama Genrokuzancho, Ukyō-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-0007, Japan
In western Kyoto, there is a very large forest of bamboo. As you can see in the photo, the shoots grow very tall, making those who stroll by look quite small. I’m sure there are times when this road is crowded, but when we were there, people were few and far between. My only regret was not understanding that this forest would be the only one we saw. I wish I had taken more photos. Bamboo grows extremely fast, which is why it is the fastest renewable plant product that I know. It is not a tree, it is a grass. Some forests have grown to 20 to 30 feet in a growing season of four months. Just Google Arashiyama bamboo forest and you will see more photos and more data about this location and how to get there. The walk through this forest was most peaceful.
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