I recently returned from an epic two week trip through Japan and it was a truly amazing journey. Japan was both exotic and refined, modern but mystical. My adventure took me from Tokyo to Osaka to Kyoto. Each city was captivating but Kyoto, in particular, I found absolutely mesmerizing. Unlike Osaka or Tokyo, Kyoto was not bombed during the war and so it still has that magical, ancient feel of old Japan intertwined in a contemporary city. Temples, shrines and markets abound; it’s a an absolutely fantastic city to get lost in. I spent four days there but if I could do it over, I would have spent many more. Here are just a few reasons to visit this enchanting city.
My first stop in Kyoto was Nijo-jo Castle and it did not disappoint. Though I was pretty exhausted upon arriving, I made the short walk from my hotel and explored this stunning structure and its beautiful grounds for at least two hours (you could spend an afternoon there if you wanted). Tranquil gardens and intricately carved massive gates await you at this UNESCO World Heritage site that was constructed in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun. It will cost you 600 yen to get in, or about $6 USD.
My favorite thing about visiting new places is always the food and more specifically, the food markets. I love seeing all the vendors’ strange and delicious goods and watching them interact with locals and tourists. The Nishiki Market is the place for that in Kyoto. You’ll find fresh produce, meats, seafood, baked goods, sake, tea and so much more. It’s a utopia for the adventurous food lover for sure. I always recommend taking a food tour when you visit a new country; it’s such a great way to be introduced to the food and the culture. I took the Nishiki Market Tour with Arigato Japan and I could not have been more pleased with the experience. Our guide was local and spoke perfect English. She lead us through the Market, stopping at stalls to let us taste whatever struck our fancy and explaining to us what everything we were eating was along the way. This tour ends with a seven course lunch at a restaurant around the corner from the Market that specializes in tofu which we learned is a specialty in Kyoto due to their amazing water quality (this also makes the area famous for sake). Arigato operates tours in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and I highly recommend them.
Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most popular and most beautiful temples. The main hall is currently being renovated (until 2020) so, unfortunately, it’s covered, but you can still see the rest of the grounds in their original state like the stunning entrance seen here. When I turned the corner down an old cobblestone Kyoto street to see this looming majestically before me, it literally took my breath away. This is an amazingly beautiful structure that is a must-see when you visit Kyoto. There are also some fantastic old streets leading up to this temple, perfect for photographing the old spirit of this lovely city. If you want a photo on these streets without lots of tourists, you’ll need to get there very early (I was there by 7am and there were already people starting to hustle and bustle around).
The Kamo River and its beautiful banks offer a lovely place to picnic or take in the sunset in the evenings. Crossing it also offers beautiful views of the city. Dining on it is a bit touristy, but it’s also a really fun experience and you can take in views like this one as the sun goes down. These restaurants sit in the Ponto-cho area of town, which isn’t a lot to look at in the daytime but comes alive in the most beautiful fashion at night with its pedestrian only streets illuminated by lanterns. I recommend walking around until you find something that strikes your fancy. There are bars and restaurants big and small, lining the river and also tucked away into small alleys and corners.
Kenninji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto and I just happened to stumble upon it on my way to visit Kiyomizu-dera. I’m so glad I did because this was one of my very favorite places and experiences in this city. This temple is beyond tranquil, I believe this garden inside was the most peaceful place I’ve ever been.
I sat in this stunning place for at least an hour after I finally tired of taking photos (none of which begin to do it justice I might add). This temple wasn’t even listed in my guide book (I’m a big fan of Lonely Planet and have been for years). As I said, I just happened to come across it and that’s a part of why I loved Kyoto so much. There are things this fantastic that are considered almost commonplace here.
Teramachi and Shinkyogoku are the two covered shopping arcades in the middle of downtown Kyoto that are lined with everything from high end fashion to tacky souvenier shops. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon for sure, especially if it’s raining (or 100 degrees like it was when I was there). You’ll find lots of cafes and restaurants in this area as well. This was one of the many times on my trip when I indulged in matcha soft serve (something I miss dearly).
This darling little lantern strung canal was literally right outside the door of the Airbnb I stayed in for my last two nights in Kyoto. It’s not a tourist attraction or a popular site here; but I found it to be the most charming little piece of Japan. I loved meandering up and down it early in the mornings and watching all the locals walking and driving it on their way to work and school. It was such a special way to watch the city wake up. I’ll cherish that little memory for years to come. Kyoto, I absolutely adore you and I hope one day I’ll be back.