15 Best Things to do in Kyoto Aside From Temples & Shrines
Do you know that you can find more than 1600 temples in Kyoto alone? It’s an unbelievable truth that totally blew my mind when I discovered it. Even if I live my entire life in Kyoto looking for each, I still won’t be able to see every one of them until my last breath.
That’s right! Kyoto is absolutely full of Temples. But, have you wondered where else you can go in Kyoto without the temples and shrines? Think about it no more because I am sharing them with you now in this blog post.
I scoured all corners of the map of Kyoto just to find these places. They either have awe-inspiring sights, fascinating encounters, or a relaxing experience.
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Things to Do in Kyoto List #1: Visit Nature Destinations
These are a few of the things we can do in Kyoto that are not about temples.
When we look at a topographic map, we can see that Kyoto sits on a valley surrounded by several mountains. This means that Kyoto is near to walking trails which we can access right away.
What I like about hiking are the trails that often bring us to higher ground. It allows us to see the beautiful scenery of nature, and sometimes an overlooking view of cities or towns. And actually, it has several benefits that affect our whole well-being too.
Mount Diamonji is one of the places in Kyoto where we can spot a panoramic view of the city. It is a part of the Higashiyama Mountain Range and also Kyoto’s hiking heritage. Hiking Mount Diamonji is an excellent way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city center and immerse oneself in the little-known but stunning natural side of Kyoto.
Hiking Mount Diamonji is short and easy and would only take not more than a half-day to accomplish the trail with its 466-meter summit elevation. What’s great about the hiking trail is that it connects heritage sites, Nanzen-Ji Temple and Ginkaku-Ji Temple. Thus hiking Mount Diamonji could really be a worthy activity.
How to go to Mount Diamonji
You can proceed to Ginkaku-Ji Temple in northern Higashiyama and start your hike. I found a super detailed guide on how you can hike Mount Diamonji on DIY. If you want to get a hiking guide or join a fellow hiker to make some friends, you can check tabikyo-japan.com. There, you can also inquire and reserve your trip to Mount Diamonji.
If you need a more challenging hike, you can try Mount Atago. It is the highest peak in Kyoto, with an elevation of 924 meters above sea level. There, you can probably see a more stunning overlooking view of Kyoto, but expect that it will cost you more effort and time.
Mass Ave 975, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mount Atago is also a pilgrimage site for locals and some tourists. Here, another temple called the Atago shrine sits at the top of the mountain. Perhaps, when you come to Kyoto, there’s really little chance we can’t find temples and shrines everywhere we go.
Hiking Mount Atago takes about 8 hours to finish, covering the 11.6-kilometer trail to and from the summit. Along the way, it is said that we can get in touch with authentic Japanese asceticism culture, which for me, is an intriguing thing to discover.
How to go to Mount Atago
You can find the buses from Kyoto station with route number #72 going to Kiyotaki. When you arrive at Kiyotaki station, walk until you cross the river, where you can see a torii as the entrance to Mount Atago.
Alternatively, you can again proceed to tabikyo-japan.com to get a hiking guide and hike Atago mountain in a group. However, they only offer hikes from March until November.
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Unlike Mount Atago and Mount Diamonji, Mount Hiei comes with a cable car that can transport you directly to the higher ground without needing hours of hiking. Mount Hiei is a mountain in the east of Kyoto with a height of 850 meters. At its peak, the magnificent scenery of both nature and man-made structures awaits.
Going to Mount Hiei will give us three experiences. First is a lift through the Eizan cable car, the steepest ropeway in Japan. Another is a chance to see a spectacular overlooking view of Kyoto. And lastly, of course, a temple – the places in Kyoto are inseparable from temples.
The unique thing about Mount Hiei
Don’t underestimate the temple. It is kinda different compared to the rest of the temples in Kyoto. It is called Enryaku-Ji Temple, and it is a renowned UNESCO heritage site. Here, we can find the “marathon monks,” who come to finish a 1000-day marathon challenge called “Kaihogyo” to reach enlightenment.
You can read more about this practice through the theguardian.com article. It could be your excellent side trip after hiking or sightseeing in the mountains with everything in place.
How to go to Mount Hiei
There are two ways you can go to Mount Hiei from Kyoto. It’s either you choose the bus or the train. Tourists usually use the train to go to the cable car station.
From Kyoto station, ride on a train following the Eizan line towards Yase Hieizan Guchi. When you arrive, take a short walk to the Cable Yase Station to finally start your journey to the summit of Mount Hiei. Note that the cable car and the bus do not operate during winter from early December to mid-March.
You can start at Kyoto Station and get a train running through the Eizan line if you prefer hiking. Drop by Shugakuin station, then head east. Follow the canal towards the mountains, and you’ll find the trailhead afterward.
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Mount Inari is one of the most appealing mountains in Kyoto, where we can find the hiking trail covered with thousands of vermilion torii. It stands at only 233 meters, making it very easy to hike. The hiking trail lies behind the Fushimi Inari Shrine called Thousand Toriis.
Hiking Mount Inari is a nice thing to do in Kyoto; not temple-focused.
The Torii gates in Mount Inari
The torii gates that line the trail were donated by individuals and businesses hoping to receive good luck and fortune. If we check the pillars of each Torii, we can see the donor’s name and the date of the donation engraved on the back of each gate. The price ranges from about 400,000 yen for a small torii to more than one million yen for a larger torii.
The price ranges from about 400,000 yen for a small torii to more than one million yen for a larger torii.
Most people finish hiking Mount Inari in only two to three hours. They say the trails aren’t that steep, so it should be easy for anyone who wants to try.
Aside from the captivating tunnel-like collection of Toriis, what’s great about this trail is that it has a spot called the Yotsutsuji intersection located halfway up to the summit. There, we get another overlooking view of the beautiful Kyoto skyline.
How to go to Mount Inari or Thousand Toriis
Going to Mount Inari is the same way as going to Fushimi Inari Shrine. From Kyoto Station, get a train that passes JR Nara Line. Drop by the JR Inari Station. With just a few steps, you can arrive at Fushimi Inari Shrine. Then start your hike into the Thousand Toriis Trail.
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Arashimaya Monkey Park Iwatayama
Let’s make a twist this time. We will still be on a mountain, but monkeys will accompany us instead of hiking guides. In Mount Iwata, we can find Arashimaya Monkey Park. We can enjoy nature, see the Kyoto skyline, and get along with the monkeys!
What to expect in Arashimaya Monkey Park Iwatamaya
Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama is a famous Kyoto attraction where visitors can get up close and personal with wild Japanese macaques. It’s going to be a really different experience in Kyoto. And if we visit during the monkey’s child-rearing season during spring, we will be able to see many cute baby monkeys.
We can reach the summit of the mountain after a short hike. There at the peak, we see the skyline of Kyoto. The park has telescopes to let us explore the city from above. We can also see monkeys playing around the fields, ponds, and trees in the same place.
If you plan to bring your kids to the park, you can let them feed the monkeys inside the resting area, where they can give food to the monkey safely.
How to go to Arashimaya Monkey Park Iwatayama
Going to Monkey Park is very easy. From the Kyoto station, take the trains to Arashimaya Station following the Randen line. When you arrive, walk across the Katsura river through the Togetsu Bridge.
In approximately 7 minutes, you will arrive at the entrance of the Arashimaya Monkey Park (see this google map link for reference).
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Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Another destination in Arashimaya that you must not miss, at least during the off-peak time of the day, is the Bamboo Forest. It is one of the best nature destinations in Kyoto that I found. And if you love nature too, you gotta check my list out. 🙂
Visiting Arashimaya Bamboo Forest is the best thing to do in Kyoto, which is not focused on temples.
Arashimaya Bamboo Forest is one of the 100 soundscape destinations in Japan, where you can escape noise pollution in the city and spend some time hearing the sound of nature. Just don’t go during the busiest time when crowds flock to the area so you can get the best experience.
Based on the reviews I read, the best time to visit the bamboo forest is when fewer people come in the late afternoon. In addition, I found another spot near the Bamboo Forest best to visit during the late afternoon. It is called Kimono Forest, located near Arashimaya Train Station.
What to visit after Arashimaya Bamboo Forest
In Kimono Forest, we can see an art installation of 600 backlit pillars with vibrant kimono textiles inside. It’s just one Instagrammable place to visit, especially at the time just before the sunset.
Basile Morin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s the Kimono Forest Google Maps location and Instagram hashtag page if you want to check it out.
How to go to Bamboo Forest
You can choose the bus or train to Arashimaya Bamboo Forest from Kyoto Station. If you prefer the railways, hop on the train that follows the JR Sagano/San-in Line to Saga-Arashimaya Station. When you arrive at the station, continue on foot, and you’ll arrive at the spot after approximately 10 minutes.
If you want to try the bus instead, hop on Kyoto City Bus Number 28. Then alight at Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae station. When you arrive, walk northwards until the Nonomiya bus stop. Turn left, and you’ll come to the Bamboo Forest after a few walks. 7 minutes total walking time.
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Hozugawa River Cruise
Arashimaya is the best place in Kyoto we can visit in which the temples are not the primary destination. Here, a mini-adventure awaits us in the river. It is one of the most incredible things to do in Kyoto that’s not about temples.
I think it is the best way to experience nature in Kyoto in a whole new way; we do not have to hike or anything. We will just sit down, relax, and enjoy the flow while sightseeing the trees at the riverside.
What to expect on the Hozugawa River Cruise
Hozugawa River Cruise is a 2-hour riverboat ride along the Hozugawa River. There we see beautiful colored trees at the riverside during spring and autumn.
The rowers of the boat ride use oars and bamboo poles to navigate the boat and pass the rapids. Yes, there are rapids! That’s why it is exciting.
The river has some sort of historical value. Thus, history lovers can enjoy the trip down the river. It was once used as a transportation route for lumbers and other goods. Cruising the river will let us see the remains of the tools used by the crews who transported the logs.
However, reviews tell that the boatmen will share stories and facts about the river. They would even describe how they control the boat to ensure the safety of their passengers. We can expect that it could not be just a monotonous sightseeing activity with those.
How to go to Hozugawa River Boatride?
Going for a boat ride in the Hozugawa River Boat Ride is easy. We all need to get a train ride following the JR San-in Line. We alight at Kameoka Station and walk toward the boat station for a few minutes.
But, WAIT! Before you decide to follow this, I recommend reading my suggestions from the “Tips for picking the route” section under the “Sagano Romantic Train” discussion.
Take note of the schedule of the boat departures:
- From March 10 to December 13, the Hozugawa River Boat Ride is open from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, with hourly boat departures.
- Then from December 14 to March 9, it only welcomes visitors from 10 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon, with boats leaving every 90 minutes.
Sagano Romantic Train
Sagano Romantic Train can be the best alternative to a boat ride if we want to see the Hozugawa river and the beautiful trees along the riverside.
The train has open windows; even the roof is transparent (not all)! Thus, we can literally see everything we will cross throughout the whole ride.
Actually, the train ride isn’t just seeing the Hozugawa river and the trees along with it, though that is the highlight. The journey will let us experience riding on a nostalgic-looking train from the 19th century, passing across tunnels, steel bridges, and colorful trees, at least during spring and autumn.
Where can I get a ride with Sagano Romantic Train?
There are three stations where we can hop on Sagano Romantic Train:
I provided the link for each station to easily find it on Google Maps.
Tips for picking the route
According to kyotostation.com, we can follow these three recommended routes:
- Saga-Arashimaya to Torokko-Kameoka
- Torokko-Arashimaya to Torokko-Kameoka
- Torokko-Kameoka to either Torokko-Arashimaya & Saga-Arashimaya
While I was researching, I realized that:
- Each train route passes the same track. Therefore, a round trip using the train seems unnecessary.
- The Hozugawa River Boatride and Sagano Romantic Train complement each other and create a roundtrip between Kameoka and Arashimaya.
- Hozugawa River Boatride only follows one route, Kameoka to Arashimaya, because of the downstream flow.
With all of these realizations, it becomes reasonable for us to start the round trip using the train at either Saga-Arashimaya or Torokko-Arashimaya station. Then, take the boat from Torokko-Kameoka back to Arashimaya.
I also learned that shuttle buses are waiting at Kameoka Torokko Station to transfer passengers to the Hozugawa River Boatride departure area. It’s just great! That’s gonna make the whole round trip much easier to do.
Things to Do in Kyoto List #2: Go to Parks, Walks, and gardens
We discussed in the previous sections the spots in Kyoto where we can hike and its natural attractions. This time, we’ll talk about the places still about nature but have already been improved by people.
Let’s start with the area in Kyoto where we left the discussion in the previous section, Arashiyama.
Okochi Sanso Garden
Okochi Sanso Villa or Garden is one of the most beautiful places in Arashimaya that we can visit after going to the Hozugawa River and Bamboo forest. Here, we can be impressed by the stunning landscapes and excellently crafted Japanese structures, like the main house of Okochi Denjiro, the former owner of the villa.
What to expect inside Okochi Sanso Garden
It is said that the main house, the Daijokaku, in the villa is the epitome of the beauty of Japanese residential architecture. It is the first thing that we see once we enter the villa. The villa also has tea houses and several resting pavilions to admire beautiful views of the well-crafted backyard.
wkc.1, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Surrounding Daijokaku is the beautiful multilevel garden that seems to be designed to impress people all year round. In summer, we see blue azaleas blooming, cherry blossoms during spring, pines in winter, and super lovely Japanese maple trees in the autumn.
The garden inside the villa is connected by cobblestone and stepping stone paths, guided by Japanese foot fences, making the whole stroll around the area a super pleasant activity.
What excites me the most is the highest level of the garden. It is where we can find the Moon Light Pavillion and where we can get a chance to behold the spectacular view of the Kyoto skyline. I just cannot wait to see a glimpse of it from the Pavillion.
How to go to Okochi Sanso Villa
Going to Okochi Sanso Villa is the same as how we can visit the Bamboo Forest. First, take a train following the JR Sagano/San-in Line to Saga-Arashimaya Station. Then, continue on foot in the westward direction. We will traverse the Bamboo Forest. Approximately total walking time: 15 minutes.
At the end of the forest, we can see a small path with an uphill slope with an English sign, “Okochi-Sanso Villa.” Follow the way, and after a few steps, we can arrive at the villa’s entrance.
Katsura Imperial Villa
For more than a millennium, from 794 to 1868, Kyoto was considered the capital of Japan. Because, by tradition, the seat of government always lies where the emperors lived. This became the reason Kyoto prospered, and many unimaginable structures were built on it.
What to expect in Katsura Imperial Villa
Katsura Imperial Villa, alongside Kyoto Imperial Palace, stands in grandeur, reminiscent of the prosperity and power once ingrained in Kyoto. We can see houses and tea pavilions with exquisite Japanese architecture designed by the most practiced craftsmen.
Katsura Imperial Villa also houses different exotic trees planted in a lovely Japanese garden. The garden has ponds and islets connected by arched stone bridges amplifying the overall lavish experience inside the villa.
The ponds, however, were designed beautifully too! It is outlined by small cylindrical material placed side by side on the shore creating a small fence against the soil to prevent erosion.
Visitors walk over cobblestone and stepping stones to explore the whole villa with Japanese foot fences. That experience, I think, will make me feel that I’m an elite or an aristocrat, at least for a day.
The Ko-Shoin, Chu-Shoin, and Shin-Goten are a few structures inside the villa. Each was made for a purpose: relaxing activity or gathering events.
Ko-Shoin was built for moon viewing, Chu-Shoin to keep the valuable paintings, and Shin-Goten for an emperor visit. Then outside the main structure of the villa, visitors can see an open lawn used by courtiers to play archery or kemari, a football-like gate of the ancient Japanese people.
From my research, I can say that the villa is really one of a kind and really a must-visit place in Kyoto. Sadly, we must pay Y1000 and reserve a visit before entering the villa.
How to visit and enter Katsura Imperial Villa
Going to Katsura Imperial Villa is easy. If you plan to take the train, head to the nearest train station and make your way to the Hankyu Line. Drop by Katsura Station after. From there, you can start walking to Imperial Villa.
After a 10-15 minute walk, you will arrive at your destination. You can also use the bus to reach the villa. Just hop on Kyoto City Bus #33 from Kyoto station and alight at Katsura Rikyu Mae bus stop.
Here is a detailed guide from travelcaffeine.com on getting a reservation to enter the villa. Everything that you need to know is indicated in that link.
Kyoto Imperial Park
Kyoto Imperial Park is another classical place in Kyoto that we can visit aside from the two villas we discussed a while ago. Here we can find two renowned palaces in Kyoto, Imperial Palace and Sento Imperial Palace.
What to expect inside Kyoto Imperial Park
Inside Imperial Park, we can see the hall where Emperor Taisho and Emperor Showa had their enthronement ceremonies. It is an excellent place to admire Japanese architecture.
Kyoto Imperial Park is also the best place if you want to know what was a “normal” day for an emperor in his home.
Visitors are not allowed to enter the main building. However, they can still check the exterior close-up and explore the gardens full of cherry trees. During spring, the Imperial Palace becomes of the best spots in the city to adore the spectacular blooms without too much crowd everywhere.
If we really want to see what’s inside these magnificent structures, we can proceed to the park’s southwestern corner. There, we can find and enter the Kaninnomiya Mansion, where the court nobles resided for years.
Like the two villas I mentioned above, the imperial park also has beautiful landscaping with paths paved with stepping stones and arched stone arched bridges over some creeks.
However, others find Kyoto Imperial palace a bit simpler than similar spots in Kyoto. You can read a review of the Imperial Palace from Travelcaffeine.com.
How to visit Kyoto Imperial Park
The Imperial Park is located in the heart of Kyoto, just a 1-minute walk from Imadegawa Station, the Karasuma subway line. Before the entrance to the park needs arrangements before entering, like Katsura Imperial Park. Today, we can freely enter the park any time we want.
Tetsugaku No Michi
Included in this list, among the grandest places I mentioned, is Tetsugaku No Michi. It is a simple yet, scenic pathway, also known as Philosopher’s Path. It is a 30-minute pedestrian path connecting Ginkaku-Ji and Nanzen-Ji shrines.
Tetsugaku No Michi’s other name, “Philosopher’s Path,” came from the story of Nishida Kitaro, a 20th-century Philosopher who meditated here on this path every day going to Kyoto University.
What to expect in Philosopher’s Path or Tetsugaku No Michi
We can simply describe the path as a walkway with cherry trees and a canal beside it. But what makes it different from a normal pathway is the presence of “spirituality” or “tranquility” in it, which Nishida Kitaro has encountered during his everyday commute to Kyoto University.
Anyway, visitors usually come to Tetsugaku No Michi to enjoy walking under the blooming cherries during spring or colorful foliage during autumn. Because of its popularity, we can see it filled with tourists, especially during midday.
Most people recommend visiting the Philosopher’s Path during off-hours, usually before dusk, to experience the real essence of the pathway. During the day, especially during peak hours, the Philosopher’s Path gets filled with a crowd. That scenario just defeats the tranquil experience that’s supposed to be encountered when visiting the walkway.
There are several temples and shrines which we can spot along the Tetsugaku No Michi, such as Eikan-Do Zenrin-Ji, Honen-in, and Otoyo Shrines. Also, small shops await if you need to take a break and have refreshments.
Lastly, Tetsugaku No Michi’s northern portion offers an excellent viewing point for watching the five giant bonfires lit on mountains surrounding the city during Diamonji. It is the culmination of the Obon festival that happens every August 16.
How to go to Tetsugaku No Michi or Philosopher’s Path
You can come to Philosopher’s path from either Ginkaku-Ji or Nanzen-Ji shrines it connects. But if you plan to go straight to the Philosopher’s Path, you can follow these steps:
- From Kyoto Station, hop on a train following the Karasuma Line and alight at Marutamachi Station.
- At Marutamachi Station, walk towards the Karasuma Marutamachi bus stop and wait for Bus #204 and #93.
- Alight in Kinrinshakomae Bus Stop and continue on foot eastward. You’ll arrive at the Philosopher’s Path after a 3 to 5-minute walk.
Things to Do in Kyoto List #3: Learn Japanese Unique Culture
Many things make Japan unique. Three of them are the geisha, Samurai, and ninjas. Though geishas no longer held celebrity status, and samurais and ninjas have almost passed into history, their presence did not totally disappear. Now, they serve as attractions in Japan for many travelers.
In Kyoto, there is this picturesque district called Gion, highlighted by the wooden houses and cobbled streets. It is east of Kamo River, twenty minutes from Kyoto Station by Train. Gion is also near Yasaka Shrine, which is already 1350 years old.
Gion was established mainly to give pilgrims of the nearby shrines and travelers accommodation and relaxation. As time passed, Gion improved, adding entertainment for meals, banquets, and other occasions with Geishas as the professional entertainers. Basically, they were the “artists” just before the TV was invented.
Gion became a prominent tourist spot in Kyoto with its beautiful houses, cobbled streets, and the geishas unique to Japan. However, according to onthegotours.com, there are only about 200 geishas and maiko, the apprentice geisha, in Kyoto. Because of this small number, seeing geishas on the streets could be less likely.
Insidekyoto.com suggests that we go to the Shijo-Dori end of Pontocho Alley or Hanamikoji-Dori, for a higher chance of seeing a geisha. Additionally, early evenings of weekends and holidays are the best time to visit.
How to go to Gion
You can take bus #100 or #206 from Kyoto Station and alight at the Gion Bus stop. The ride takes 20 minutes of travel time.
Using the train, you can start at Kyoto station, as well. Get a train ride to Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Line or Kyoto-Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu Line.
Samurai & Ninja Museum
This museum is the best place to learn more about samurais and ninjas. Here we can see dozens of swords and armor used by ninjas and samurais from the Edo period.
We can also get a Samurai Experience from the museum. During that, we will undergo Samurai Training with a Samurai master. The master will teach us Japanese Katana, use a sword, and bow and arrows. During the training, we wear the traditional clothing of a Samurai.
We can also try the Tameshigiri or the traditional method for Samurai to test their skills and the quality of their swords. We will experience slashing the bamboo, cutting it into two in one hit.
Another activity they offer is the Ninja Experience. It’s similar to Samurai Experience, but it is ninja stuff this time. We will learn the secrets of ninjas and how to throw weapons used by the ninja, like the ninja star and ninja blowgun.
How to go to Samurai & Ninja Museum
Going to the museum is very easy. From Kyoto Station, get a train ride following the Hankyu-Kyoto Line. Drop by Kawaramachi Station and walk northwest; you’ll arrive at the museum in a moment.
Starbucks Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya
This is not the usual Starbucks that we know. Though the menu is quite the same, the whole structure of the store is very different. It looks like a “normal” Japanese house if we remove the banner on the second floor and the curtains painted with the mermaid in the entrance.
Inside, we see beautiful Japanese scrolls exhibited on the walls. The floor is designed very Japanese way, with tata mats and cushions lining the floors.
Here’s their location in Google Maps.
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