Kyoto attracts millions of visitors every year – and I’m proud to count among them. During my visit to the city, I realized that the crowds could get overwhelming. However, that did not deter me from having the time of my life and creating memorable experiences in the process.
With a bit of planning, you too can have a peaceful visit in the numerous introspective attractions Kyoto has to offer. A piece of advice though, you’d do well to turn your stay into a motorcycle tour. For me, everything changed the moment I rented a Suzuki because as a rider, nothing quite measures up to having a good bike for mobility.
However, just because you’ll be traveling on a motorcycle doesn’t mean you can’t get lost in Kyoto’s throngs or enjoy winding your way through the crowds. In fact, whichever way you choose to spend your time won’t matter as long as your heart is in the right place.
Kyoto is filled with breathtaking shrines, picturesque views, endless nature, and tons of opportunities to explore spirituality and get in tune with Oriental mysticism. The vivid street life, the colorful culture, and the sights and sounds all work hand in hand to deliver experiences you’ll live to tell your children and their children after them.
My Favourite Sights in Kyoto
Thousands of years old, Kyoto lies at the very center of Japanese culture. Full of ancient temples, sublime gardens, vibrant shrines, and lively streets, there’s something for everyone in this city. Is it surprising that even the Japanese head over to Kyoto to soak up its culture and credence? Not quite!
Ranked among the most culturally-rich locations on the planet, this city has taken its rightful spot among the likes of London, New York, Rome, and Paris. It is for this reason that I chose to visit this must-see destination. Consider the following sights I was honored to experience and indulge in during my time in Kyoto:
1. Kinkaku-ji Temple
Translating to The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji Temple is as breathtaking as you can imagine. Its golden reflection shimmers across the surface of the rippling pond set before it, creating a sight you’ll never forget.
Not even the throngs of excited tourists will be able to distract you from this majestic splendor. Unveiled in 1955 after the 14th-century original was torched down, Kinkaku-ji Temple is open daily from 9 in the morning to 5 pm.
Admission to the Temple is set at ¥400, and you can get there via buses 205 or 101 from Kyoto Station. Alternatively, you can simply hop onto a motorcycle as me and shoot right up to The Golden Pavilion.
2. Ginkaku-ji Temple
Also referred to as The Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji Temple was the next item on my itinerary for the day. I was, as you will also be, surprised to discover that there isn’t a single ounce of silver on this temple.
Built back in the 1480s for the local shogun, plans were made to coat Ginkaku-ji Temple in silver leaf. However, the shogun (according to common folklore) ran out of money before this part of the project was complete. After his death, this pavilion was turned into the current Zen temple it has grown into.
Even though the temple seems unassumingly small, there’s more to it than meets the eye. More specifically, you will be impressed by the wooded hillside, the raked sand garden, the manicured trees, and the reflective pond. Each one of these sights works hand in hand with the rest to form a spectacular, breathtaking whole.
To get to Ginkaku-ji Temple, you should take bus numbers 100, 17, or 5 from Kyoto Station. I opted out of this hassle and showed up in my Suzuki rental – making a world of difference to my experience.
Admission is set at ¥500, and the temple is open from 8.30 in the am to 5 pm (although the times change from this schedule to 9-430 from December through to February).
3. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Avast complex, Fushimi Inari Shrine is in its own world. This is on account of the arcades of shrine gates (vermilion torii) spread across its thickly wooded mountain. My opinion is that this is the most impressive of all the sights in Kyoto.
The complex is comprised of 5 shrines. It sprawls across the green slopes of Inari-san. Further, there’s a pathway up to the mountain, which you will be pleased to note is lined with tons of atmospheric sub-shrines. Interestingly, Fushimi Inari Shrine is the head temple of the thousands of other Inari shrines scattered across Japan. As such, both tourists and locals flock to the complex on a daily basis.
Lucky for you, there are no entrance fees or closing times.
4. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
As the name suggests, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a quaint neighborhood surrounded by mountains and trees. Lying on Kyoto’s western edge, this Grove houses the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge – an ideal venue for admiring the trees, the cherry blossoms, or the changing fall foliage depending on when you visit.
On both ends of the bridge are tons of gardens, temples, restaurants, and shops for you to explore. Although you have the option of walking around enjoying the sights, you might also want to use a bike for your ecological stroll.
That said, this large bamboo grove will take you into a whole new world. The thick stalks, the strange lighting, and the picturesque sights will tantalize your brain and bring you the peace that the Japanese are famous for.
5. Philosopher’s Path
Otherwise referred to as The Philosopher’s Walk, this route is as beautiful as they come. It follows a fine cherry-tree stream that formed the daily route taken by Professor Nishida Kitaro for meditation and contemplation.
The quiet, peace, serenity, and tranquility of the Path will inspire you to integrate daily relaxing walks while you’re in Kyoto and keep up the trend when you get back home. Consider, for instance, the great shrines, gardens, and temples lined up on the river bank.
6. Toei Kyoto Studio Park
As touristy as you might think it, Toei Kyoto Studio Park should be on your must-see list when you visit the city. For one, you’ll get to dress up as a samurai and get to watch famous local actors on a set.
Otherwise referred to as Eigamura, this studio park is a working movie and TV set that also doubles up as a tour and theme park. Apart from the opportunity to play a samurai, you can also wander around the samurai town and see exhibits of famous films and TV series shot here.
However, it is the live studio performances that will take your breath away. Extravagant swordfights, dramatic body language, great facial expressions, and the convincing dialog will keep you watching for hours on end.
Open from 9 – 5 (and 9.30 – 4 from December through to February), admission to the Toei Kyoto Studio Park costs ¥2,200 (or half if you show up in a kimono, which proved impossible to do on a rented Suzuki).
7. Gion Street
Nestled to the east of the Kamo-gawa, Gion is Kyoto’s most famed geisha and entertainment quarter. Starting out as a series of teahouses, it evolved into a pleasure district in the 18th century.
Today, Gion houses several atmospheric streets and traditional teahouses and restaurants. My advice would be to start from Hanami-koji and trudge along taking in the sights and smells. If you have time and change to spare, pop into any of the old houses, antique shops, and art galleries.
8. Ponto-Cho Street
Few streets in Japan – or elsewhere on the globe, match Ponto-Cho Street. Narrow and designed for pedestrian use, this street especially comes alive when the sun sets. At night, the street comes alive with Japanese lanterns lighting up the traditional wooden exteriors and throngs of elegant Kyotoites making their way into the holds of old bars and restaurants.
Ponto-Cho is the perfect spot to go to if you wish to spot maiko (apprentice geisha) and geiko (geisha) drifting from one appointment to the next – particular on weekend nights at the very end of the street (Shijo-Dori).
Although most of the teahouses and restaurants are difficult to access, there are a couple of reasonably priced places you can spend time inside. That said, you can still opt not to patronize any of the haunts and simply take a nice stroll one evening.
Concluding Thoughts on Kyoto Japan
The Japanese capital for over a millennium, Kyoto is awash with remains of her past glory. The stunning collection of World Heritage Sites, a working geisha district, exquisite cuisine, elaborate temples, and a ton of Zen all make for a pleasant experience. To further add to your enjoyment, I would recommend that you rent a motorcycle if you can ride. The Suzuki I got during my trip enabled me to move from hip cafe to traditional temples without skipping a beat. You too can do the same during your time in the city.
Peter Hanson is a motorcycle enthusiast and expert on motorcycle travel. He loves to travel and has covered a lot of countries over the past eight years. In each country, he takes the time to record his impressions. Visit his blog to read more articles about motorcycle traveling and helpful tips!