Top Sights of Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto has some of Japan’s most famous sights and the crowds to match. Still, on a beautiful Wednesday in early October we braved the crowds and headed for Fushimi inari, the Arashiyama bamboo forest and the Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple. I had also visited the area on a rainy Saturday in mid-September with my Aunt Jan and will be combining the two visits for this post.

Public transportation to these sights is very manageable. The Keihan train line works best for Fushimi inari but the other two are better by bus. The bus map may looks crazy at first but once you get past the maze of colored lines it’s straight forward and easy to follow. Get a day pass (500 yen) if you are planning on doing more than two bus trips in one day. A transfer counts as a separate trip. You can buy a pass at the Kyoto train station, at some hotels or on the bus; otherwise you need exact change (230 yen).

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi inari, famed for its orange gates that weave across the hillside to the top of the hill, is Lonely Planet’s top sight in Kyoto and one of my favorites as well.

The shrine complex wasn’t too crowded when we arrived at 8am but was a madhouse when we were leaving around 10. It’s really the main complex and the bottom of the pathway that gets so congested. Past the first section of gates the crowds thin out and continue to thin as you climb.

It’s not a difficult climb if you are in reasonable shape. Websites vary on how long the hike is, generally stating from 4 – 6 kilometers with around a 200 meter change in elevation. There are plenty of opportunities to rest at shrines along the way or at tea houses or snack shops for that matter.

The top section is the prettiest. Even if it has fewer gates there are larger open sections of green forest between the gates. You also pass more elaborate shrines. The fox is the icon of choice with representations at nearly every shrine. The top itself isn’t that different from the other stone shrines along the way.

On the way back you have your choice of taking a detour back down to the main gate that bypasses the masses. I took this detour with my Aunt on the first visit, but with Don decided to brave the crowds back through the gates.

To our surprise a young man was setting up a camera on a gorilla-pod in the middle of the pathway and plopped down on one knee to propose to his beloved. A touching moment that stopped traffic in both directions.

The street from the shrine to the train station is lined with street food vendors, shops and restaurants.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Crossing to the northwest corner of the Kyoto is where you will find Arashiyama, that lovely spot of bamboo forest graced by a dry grass border. You know the photo. Unfortunately so does everyone else.

You’ll have to get here early if you want a chance at getting that shot without the crowds or just your special someone, otherwise this place is a zoo. Fortunately the bamboo dwarfs the tourists and you can still get a feel for the majesty of the soaring canes.

I visited the area twice, once on a rainy day in mid-September and again on a pretty day in early October. Although the light on the rainy day was very, very dim I love the photos with the umbrellas. I would also note that the rain, it rained all day, did not discourage the tourists. There were as many people on the rainy day as there were on the clear one.

Okochi Sanso Gardens

At the end of the bamboo path is the Okochi Sanso Gardens, once the home of a samurai film actor who died in the 60s. A meandering path winds through a small manicured garden with viewpoints overlooking the mountains and city.

On the rainy day the saturated greens were magical while on the sunny day the shadows formed intricate patterns on the moss floor.

Macha green tea and a sweet are served at the end with the “green tea ticket” given at the entrance with your admission. At 1000/person it’s more expensive than some gardens but worth the price for the seclusion and quality of the gardens.


The Tenryu-ji temple, located just off the bamboo path, can be toured garden-only for 600 yen or including the temple buildings for an additional 300 yen. We chose just the gardens after visiting several temples the day before.

The gardens are beautiful but were packed, even on a rainy Saturday. The paths that wind around the complex buildings and the mossy forest just adjacent thin the crowd, making the walk quite pleasant. Plants are labeled in several languages.

The higher paths through the azaleas were less busy. This place must be amazing in the spring with an entire hillside of blooming azaleas. The garden also borders the bamboo forest.

The crowds congregate at the pond with good reason. With the leaves just starting to turn it was one of the prettiest settings we’ve seen in Kyoto. For photographers the pond is best visited on a rainy day or in the morning light.


Many consider Kinkaku-ji, the majestic golden temple that glitters in the sunlight, one of the top sights in Kyoto. Lonely Planet doesn’t mention it as a top sight but simply remarks in its description of the temple that it is “one of Japan’s best-known sights”.

From Arashiyama to Kinkaku-ji  take the number 11 bus to the end of the line and change to the number 59.

We tried to end up here later in the day to avoid some of the crowds. I don’t know if there were any fewer people at 3pm but I don’t see how there could be many more. This was the most tourists we had seen anywhere, so many it was almost comical and worth the trip just to see so many people packed around one temple.

There is only one path that goes around three sides of the temple then up and over a hillside and out the exit. The views of the golden temple with its reflection in the water are stunning. You can get a good shot if you wait a little for your turn at the railing. It’s harder, however, to get a shot of yourself or your special someone with so many others trying to do the same thing.

As far as crowd control, I don’t know if arriving at 9am when they open would be much better. Most sights have been busy pretty early so 9 may not be early enough. I also don’t know how the light is in the morning. Late afternoon on a sunny day in early October was close to perfect light.

October 4, 2017

For links to all the posts in this series see the Japan page.

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