Even though I was in Kyoto for two nights and three days only, with the help of my tour guide I was able to see some of the most popular tourist attractions in the limited time I had, including some of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here is my list of the top 15 things to do in Kyoto. I haven't covered the Imperial Palace and the Philosopher's Path, which I plan to do in my next trip to Japan.
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine was one of the most important highlights of my trip to Kyoto. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Thousands of vermilion torii gates create a labyrinth of trails that lead into a wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, standing at a height of 233 meters above sea level. There are many fox statues across the shrine grounds as they are regarded to be Inari's messengers.
2. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of the 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites found in Kyoto. It is a nationally designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty. It is also one of the most photographed sites in Kyoto. I consider it as the top thing-to-do in Kyoto. Stately bamboo trees perfectly line a tapering road on either side.
3. Tenryuji Temple and Gardens
Tenryū-ji (formally Tenryū Shiseizen-ji) is the most important temple in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also knows as the 'Temple of the Heavenly Dragon'. The Tenryu-ji garden has been designed by the famous garden designer Muso Soseki in the fourteenth century and still retains the same form. The garden features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the forested Arashiyama mountains.
4. Coffee by the Katsura River
The Katsura River runs through the district of Arashiyama on the western outskirts of Kyoto and is crossed by the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, also known as the Moon Crossing Bridge. Arabica % along the Katsura river is a famous spot in Kyoto for coffee. You can stop here after visiting the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and the Tenryu-ji Temple and gardens, and before proceeding to the Okochi Sanso Villa.
5. Okochi Sanso Villa
Okochi Sanso Villa is a public garden and teahouse of the Japanese film actor Denjirō Ōkōchi. It is off the beaten path and a lot of tourists don't know about these beautiful gardens. There is also a teahouse which serves complimentary matcha tea, however there is an entry fees for the gardens.
6. Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji Temple also known as the 'Temple of the Golden Pavilion' is one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto. The pond with the Golden Pavilion forms the center of the temple's garden. The garden itself is listed as a National Special Historic Site and Special Place of Scenic Beauty. Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels of Kinkaku. The gold was used as a symbol of purification of negative thoughts and feelings towards death. The temple's main image is a stone statue of the Buddhist deity Fudo-myo-o. Although normally hidden from public view, the image has long been revered for miraculous powers. Open-door rituals are held in early February (Setsubun) and on August 16th.
Ryoan-ji is a Zen temple located in the northwest part of Kyoto, Japan. Originally a country house, it was converted into a Zen training temple in 1450. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple comprises of the main temple, the Kyoyochi Pond, the Rock Garden, the tea-room Zoroku and a unique wash-basin of stone 'Tsukubai'. The main building of the temple is called 'Kuri'.
8. Honke Owariya Restaurant
Honke Owariya is the best soba restaurant in Kyoto. It has four shops and the original shop cum restaurant is located near the Old Imperial Palace. The original shop is a wooden building and has the historical machiya appearance, a traditional style of architecture unique to Kyoto. The restaurant offers both table seating and tatami banquet rooms. There is also a tea room (tatami room).
9. Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto
Gion is the most famous geisha district of Kyoto. It is filled with shops, restaurants and teahouses (ochaya), where the geishas entertain. It is located near Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west. One of the major attractions for tourists visiting here is to catch a glimpse of a geisha on her way to or from an engagement at an ochaya in the evenings or while running chores during the day.
10. Shirakawa Dori
Shirakawa Dori is one of the most beautiful streets in Kyoto, Japan. It is located in Gion alongside the Shirakawa Canal and is one of the licensed geisha areas of Kyoto. It is off the beaten path and you don't see many tourists in this area. The street is lined on one side with beautiful wooden restaurants, teahouses and shops, and on the other with willow trees, cherry blossoms and Japanese maple trees that have been allowed to grow out. The willows hang gracefully over the Shirakawa Canal. There are about 3 or 4 bridges that intersect the stream.
11. Kiyomizu Dera
Kiyomizu Dera is a Buddhist temple located in the eastern part of Kyoto. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall, and derives its name from the fall's pure waters. A wooden stage built without nails, houses the temple's primary object of worship, a small statue of the eleven faced, thousand armed Kannon. Behind the temple's main hall is Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. The Otowa waterfall can be found at the base of the main hall.
12. Yasaka Shrine
The Yasaka Shrine, also known as the Gion Shrine, is one of the most famous shrines in Japan. It is a Shinto shrine. Shinto shrines are places of worship and the dwellings of the kami, the Shinto 'gods'. Sacred objects of worship that represent the kami are stored in the innermost chamber of the shrine where nobody can see them. People visit the shrine to pray for good fortune or to give respect to the kami.
13. Tea Ceremony
While I was in Kyoto, Japan, I was able to attend a tea ceremony with a Belgian Japanese tea instructor and tea ceremony teacher in the Enshū school, Tyas Sōsen. He also owns The Tea Crane (www.the-tea-crane.com), a premium, organic and natural Japanese tea company. Tyas was assisted by Stephen Sōshun, a Junior Assistant Grand Master. The entire ceremony lasted about two hours and involved the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, powdered green tea.
14. Staying at a traditional ryokan
For my visit to Kyoto, I stayed at a ryokan-style guest house and slept on tatami mats for the first time in my life. I recommend anybody who hasn't stayed in a traditional Japanese style accommodation, to experience it while traveling to Japan.
15. A Kyoto taxi ride
A taxi in Kyoto is a rather comfortable way of touring this characteristic old city in Japan. If you do not like taking trains or riding on buses, taxis are a great way to commute in Kyoto. The Kyoto taxi drivers are almost always dressed elegantly in white shirt and sometimes matching white gloves, and hardly speak any English. It is therefore vital to have a google translating app on your phone that can translate your destination in Japanese for the taxi driver to read. Or you can have the address written in Japanese. The taxi doors open and close automatically and the fares are recorded on meters installed in the taxis.