Your First Visit to Kyoto (Where to Stay What to See and What Can’t Be Missed)

When visiting Kyoto for the first time, there are many tourist attractions you will not want to miss, including beautiful Zen gardens, ancient Buddhist temples, vibrant Shinto shrines, and elaborate traditional Japanese festivals. Most tourists stay in Downtown Kawaramachi as it is within walking distance to old Gion. 

Continue reading to discover the ultimate guide for your first visit to Kyoto, where to stay, what to see and what can’t be missed.

Your First Trip to Japan

Kyoto is arguably the first place that comes to mind when you think about Japan. Kyoto is recognized for its beautiful Zen gardens, enigmatic Buddhist temples, vibrant Shinto shrines, and charming geisha.

Kyoto is, without a doubt, Japan’s most rewarding city to explore and one that every tourist should see at least once in their life.

Google Flights To Japan

Why Visit Kyoto?

Kyoto can be considered a reflection of Japan. It is the country’s cultural and historical center. Shrines, traditional temples, gardens, geisha, shops, restaurants, and festivals may all be found in the area. In summary, Kyoto is arguably the most gratifying location to explore in Japan, and it should be at the top of any traveler to Japan bucket list. 

Kyoto City Official Travel Website

How Long Will I Need to Stay to See All the Attractions When I Visit Kyoto?

You should attempt to spend as much time as possible in Kyoto as there are many tourist attractions one won’t want to miss.

Shinto shrines, Japanese gardens, Buddhist temples, or attending a traditional festival are some of Kyoto’s must-see sites and activities.

A good rule of thumb to see a majority of the best that Kyoto has to offer is 3-5 days to see the top attractions.

Festival On The Streets Of Kyoto

Visiting Buddhist Temples in Kyoto

Kyoto is home to many of the world’s most renowned Buddhist Temples. Temples that must be explored when visiting Kyoto include Nanzen-Ji, Kiyomizu-Dera, Daitoku-Ji, and Kinkaku-Ji. 

Kyoto’s Buddhist temples are each a universe unto itself. Some are busy hubs where pilgrims from all over the world congregate.

Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto

Others are solitary, mysterious sanctuaries where golden statues linger peacefully in the dark. Each is a confluence of Japanese arts, from the architecture and woodwork of the gardens’ design and the Buddha figures’ metalwork.

The ideal strategy to visit these temples is to prioritize quality above quantity. Two days is suggested to grasp the beauty of all these Buddhist temples as must-see destinations.

Visiting Shinto Shrines in Kyoto

With over 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto, choosing which one to visit on any trip might be difficult. The most prominent shrines are the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Heian Jingu Shrine, Yasaka Jinja Shrine, and Shimogamo Jinja Shrine.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful and striking sights. The city’s most important shrine is also its most popular, drawing busloads of people.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine Official Website

The Heian Jingu Shrine

With its colorful structures and magnificent grounds, Heian Jingu Shrine is one of Japan’s most aesthetically striking shrines.

It is a relatively modern temple, constructed in 1895 to celebrate the 1100th year of Kyoto’s establishment as Japan’s capital.

Heian Jingu Shrine Official Website

The Yasaka Jinja Shrine 

Yasaka Jinja Temple is a vibrant, bustling downtown shrine in the center of Tokyo, overlooking Gion’s geisha and entertainment area.

It is one of Kyoto’s most prominent temples, and the Kyoto Geisha community has a long history with it. The famed Gion Matsuri takes place every year in July and is held at the temple.

Yasaka Jinja Shrine Official Website

The Shimogamo Jinja Shrine 

Shimogamo Jinja Shrine is one of Kyoto’s most ancient and beautiful shrines. The temple, located at the confluence of the Takano and Kamo Rivers, is surrounded by an ancient forest with trees up to 600 years old, making it an excellent spot to explore.

Shimogamo Jinja Shrine Official Website

Visiting Kyoto’s Japanese Gardens 

Kyoto is a garden lover’s dream come true. It is the ideal site in Japan to immerse yourself in the Japanese garden’s delights. The Karesansui garden at Ryoan-Ji Temple and the Hojo Garden at Tofuku-Ji Temple are some of the most famous Japanese gardens to visit in Kyoto.

The Karesansui garden at Ryoan-Ji Temple 

The most renowned “Zen” garden in Japan, Ryoan-Ji Temple, consists of 15 perfectly arranged boulders floating mesmerizingly over a gravel sea. This placement is deliberate to provide an example of deliberately designed symbolic meaning.

Even after centuries, no one has figured out the mystery of these seemingly random rock clusters that appear to float around in a sea of gravel at Ryoan-Ji Te’s famed dry gravel garden.

Ryoan-Ji, like neighboring Kinkaku-Ji, is best visited just when it opens or right before it closes for the evening to avoid crowds.

Ryoan-Ji Temple Official Website

The Hojo Garden at Tofuku-Ji Temple

The garden at Tofuku-Ji Temple is regarded as a fine example of Shigemori’s early works. It is claimed to depict the Shakajodo, or route to enlightenment, which Shakyamuni followed to become enlightened.

Tofuku-Ji Temple Official Website

Traditional Japanese Festivals to Attend in Kyoto 

Festival Aoi Matsuri

In Japanese, the word aoi means “hollyhock.” Since the Hollyhock leaves are utilized as decorations during the celebration, the event is known as the Aoi Festival.

These leaves were thought to protect against natural calamities. The Aoi Matsuri festival is held every year on May 15

The event began during Emperor Kinmei’s reign, according to Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of ancient Japanese history.

Natural disasters were more likely to occur during this time period. However, the natural disasters stopped once the emperor made gifts to the gods.

Emperor Kanmu acknowledged the deities of the Kamo shrines as defenders of the Heian capital in the 9th century and created the Aoi Matsuri as an annual imperial celebration.

The Gion Matsuri Festival

Gion Matsuri Festival is an annual Japanese festival held in Gion, Japan.

The Gion Matsuri Festival began as a purifying ceremony to appease the gods believed responsible for fire, floods, and earthquakes.

It gets its name from the Gion neighborhood in Kyoto. It was created in the late sixth century. It had become a means for craft merchants’ families to show off their riches and products during the Kamakura era, which lasted from 1185 to 1333.

This festival runs throughout July, culminating with the Yamaboko Junk procession on July 17 and 24. The floats in the Yoiyama Parade are separated into two divisions, Hoko and Yama, and referred to as Yamaboko altogether.

Beautiful tapestries and lanterns adorn all of the floats.

Traditional Japanese musicians and artists are seated in the floats, and traditional Japanese instruments are performed.

The Jidai Matsuri Festival

The Jidai Matsuri, popularly known as the “Celebration of the Ages,” is a traditional Japanese festival celebrated yearly on October 22 at Kyoto’s Heian Jingu Shrine.

The Jidai Gyoretsu, a historical pageant in which a Mikoshi and over 2,000 individuals costumed in costumes portraying various times of Kyoto’s 1,200-year history parade around the city, is the festival’s climax.

The Mikoshi is taken out of the Kyoto Imperial in the early morning, accompanied by a costumed military band playing ancient imperial court music.

The 1.24-mile costumed parade begins in the afternoon, with 2,000 performers dressed as Samurai, military figures, and regular people from the earliest ages through the Meiji Era.

Where Should You Stay When Visiting Kyoto?

Kyoto has some of the top Ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, in the country. It is typically advised that travelers spend their first night in Japan at an elegant ryokan: it’s the ultimate Japanese experience.

However, Kyoto features a broad choice of good hotels, from big names like the Hyatt to lovely boutique hotels like Mume, in addition to Ryokan.

Kyoto Hotels Via Tripadvisor

Renting a wonderfully renovated machiya is an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in traditional Kyoto life.

A Kyoto vacation rental, particularly the finely rebuilt townhouses known as machiya, is another fantastic alternative for families and those who desire their own self-catering area, giving you the feeling of living in your own townhome.

There are various backpacker hostels, guesthouses, and well-known capsule hotels for the budget-conscious.

What is the Best Area of Kyoto to Stay in as a Tourist?

Gion, Kyoto Station, and Central Kyoto are other top areas to stay in Kyoto.

Kyoto Map Via Google Maps

However, the ideal place to stay in Kyoto for tourists is downtown Kawaramachi, which has numerous stores and restaurants and is within walking distance from old Gion.

Should I Hire a Tour Guide when Visiting Kyoto?

While you don’t need a guide to appreciate Kyoto, having one will give you a better grasp of the city. A guide will also relieve you of the burden of figuring out how to move around and make the most optimal use of your time.

Finally, a tour can assist you in enjoying local eateries without having to worry about communication issues.

Hiring a guide will provide you with recommendations for things to visit later in your trip.

First Time To Kyoto

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.