An Introduction to Kyoto: Highlights for the First-Time Visitor

temples kyoto highlights

Travelling to Japan for the first time, but unsure where to start? The land of the rising sun, still deeply anchored in tradition, will certainly surprise you in the best possible way.

And while Japan boasts plenty of fascinating cities and villages, Kyoto is the best starting point for neophytes. Not only does it hold an impressive quantity of temples and castles, it is strategically located on the Tokaido Shinkansen line for easy side trips and has plenty of mouth-watering restaurants to keep your appetite satisfied.

Wander Around Fushimi Inari Shrine

fushimi inari shrine kyoto highlights

Thanks to our little friend called jetlag, you will likely be awake well before the sun makes its first appearance. Fret not, however – get dressed and head directly to Fushimi Inari Shrine in order to beat the massive crowds each day inevitably brings.

Fushimi Inari features several minuscule shrines and over 10,000 vermillion “torii” gates, which are stacked up all the way to the top of small but sacred Mount Inari, the Shinto god of rice; foxes, which are said to be Inari’s messengers, are therefore omnipresent across the shrine grounds (in statue form, that is). A wonderful introduction to Japanese culture, that’s for sure!

Spot Geishas in Gion

kyoto highlights

Welcome to Kyoto’s most famous geisha district! Here you will find experienced geishas and their maiko (apprentices) as well as a high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Entering the neighbourhood feels like stepping back in time, and offers a wonderful glimpse of Edo Japan.

But whatever you do, remember to be respectful to geishas you encounter. If you want to take a picture of them, just ask – a lot of geishas have complained in recent years that tourists act like ruthless paparazzi. Please don’t be that person!

Mingle With Monkeys in Arashiyama

monkey park kyoto highlights

On the western outskirts of Kyoto stands Arashiyama, a tiny neighbourhood – which feels more like a mountain village than anything else – is home to a thriving population of monkeys. A short hike leads visitors to Monkey Park Iwatayama, where roughly 100 monkeys roam freely. While nowhere near as famous as the snow monkeys of Nagano, these specimens are definitely a good compromise and will certainly keep you entertained for the duration of your visit. The park is also a good place to admire the mountain and Ōi River, a nationally-designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty.

Look Up At The Bamboo Grove

kyoto highlights

Also located in Arashiyama, the celebrated bamboo groves are almost too perfect to be true, and remain one of the most appreciated Kyoto highlights. While beautiful at any time, the grove is particularly remarkable on days of light wind, where you can hear the tall bamboo stalks sway and brush against each other. Bamboos are some of the fastest-growing plants in the world, with some species growing up to 35 inches within a 24-hour period – if you stay put long enough you could technically see one literally grow before your eyes!

Visit The Many, Many Temples

temples kyoto highlights

Seeing as Kyoto served as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868, it only makes sense that it would be home to several significant buildings. And that obviously includes temples –  1600, to be exact! Since a lifetime probably wouldn’t be enough to visit them all, it would be wiser to start with the most iconic, starting with Toji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located just south of Kyoto main train station, Toji was founded in the late 700s and features Japan’s highest pagoda along with two historic wooden temples.

On the other side of town stands Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion – which, by the way, isn’t just a nickname, as the top floors are literally covered in gold leaves. It was the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and acted as the inspiration for the similar and equally interesting Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) later on built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson. Both Zen temples feature beautifully manicured grounds and are well worth a visit.

Where To Stay In Kyoto?

As one of the major cities in Japan, Kyoto features an incalculable amount of hotels. It can be hard to narrow it down to just a handful, but Hotel Granvia Kyoto, which located inside the main train station for easy transportation links, features abnormally large rooms by Japan standards. Hotel Gran Ms Kyoto, on the other hand, has a young and dynamic vibe and is within walking distance from historic Gion. Of course, one does not go to Japan and skip the iconic sleeping pod – there are a few in Kyoto, like nine hours, or First Cabin for the “luxurious pod” experience.

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About Author

Marie-Eve Vallieres

Marie is a native Montrealer trying to balance a deep love for her hometown and an unquenchable thirst for travel and discovery. She has been to more than 20 countries, lived abroad in both France and the U.K., and is always on the lookout for authentic experiences wherever she travels -- especially if it involves chocolate.

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