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10 Must-do Things while Staying in Kyoto

Updated: May 29


Looking out to the Kyoto mountains at a rainbow in the fall
Taken from the Monkey Park in Arashiyama

Kyoto is famously known for being Japan's former capital in the west. The city is bursting with life from both its historic roots and its developed metropolitan cityscape. A visit to Kyoto usually consists of exploring both of these areas. As a nature lover and city lover, this city hit all my criteria for travel!


When to Visit

I've visited in late September and November, but the scenery really came to life in the fall. The foliage is impossible to escape, with colorful trees guiding you through historic sites, and cooler temperatures, this is the perfect time to visit! It was around 50s-60s (Fahrenheit) everyday. I would aim to stay here in the fall season, so around late September to mid-November. If you're looking at the springtime, try to arrive early April through March to see the cherry blossoms. I have lived in DC and Seattle where we already have cherry blossoms, so that's made it less appealing for me! I definitely want to travel to Japan in July or August next so I can hike the famous Mt. Fugi.



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Getting Around

The best way to get around is always the local subway trains and buses. They are inexpensive and run frequently. They can get you to everywhere you'll want to go here. Use your Japan Rail pass or local Suica card and Google maps and you'll have no issues. We took a train out to the shrines more north to see a little more nature which was fun! It was quite a walk uphill, but my partner and I enjoy a little workout, especially with our coffees and snacks from 7-11. There's no shortage of local eateries; we tried a few bakeries that were just incredible! We even found a cafe that had matcha babka which was so cool!


Top 10 Must-do things in Kyoto

Kyoto has a couple of different neighborhoods and areas, but the main sites are pretty organized in terms of location. Arashiyama consists of historic tourist sites whereas Kyoto downtown area has more of the local, city vibe. Both are great and should be part of your time in Kyoto.



1. Get your fortune revealed by Kifune Shrine

This area is a little out of the way, but I recommend starting early if they're high on your list to see. This was our walk from the train station to the lunch at Hirobun. It was at least a mile, but pretty beautiful and quiet. The views of the river were so gorgeous since the sun was out! We did not see any wildlife sadly, but loved all the cute animal signs along our walk.


The Kifune shrine was really neat; there was virtually no one else there since we arrived late morning. My boyfriend's fortune was overall very positive whereas mine was a lot more dark and cryptic, so beware that these might not be what you expect! The steps are you grab a fortune paper, you drop it into the water and watch the ink reveal itself, then you can translate it via the QR code or Google Translate for photos of text. Then you tie it up and place it with the others.



2. Nagashi Somen: Flowing Noodles

You've probably seen videos on tiktok of noodles flowing down bamboo shoots, and there's a place outside Kyoto where you can eat some! It's is a super cool experience. Keep in mind they also have places closer to Tokyo for this. This was kind of a tourist trap because you have to pay cash just to enter the waiting area, but it also was a super fun to try once. People start to line up about 20-30 minutes before opening hours. I'd only recommend Hirobun if you're visiting Kifune Shrine as they're both within walking distance of each other. It moves fairly quickly since the meals are all set the same, and they work to get you in/out efficiently.


3. Explore all of Arashiyama district

This will likely take at least half a day to a full day of exploring. All of the sites are relatively close together, so plan to have good walking shoes. If you're here in the fall, you're in for a colorful treat!

Start your morning at the Arashiyama Park Observation Deck. I recommend arriving early to avoid crowds. When we got here in the morning there was only one other person, and then we had the view all to ourselves. It was a peaceful way to start our morning. Then head off to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This place gets very crowded, but it's still worth walking through- since it doesn't require much time. We actually came through this backwards starting from the end, which worked to our advantage since less people were around! Tenryu-ji Temple is next! It's only a few yen to visit and it's an enjoyable site to walk through. I loved seeing the coy fish in the little pond with the stunning mountain backdrop. Okochi Sanso Garden is a short walk away, and you can enjoy some tea and light snacks here after your hike through the park.


A trip to Kyoto wouldn't be complete with a visit to one of the traditional tofu houses. I follow a mostly vegetarian diet (with the exception of fish), so I was super excited to try a tofu house and taste some vegan cuisine in Japan! These restaurants usually require you to take off your shoes because of the tatami mats, but it's so worth it! The food is incredible and the view we had was absolutely stunning. Our meals were expensive ($~60+ for 2 of us), but we were very full and enjoyed the experience. We ate lunch at Tofu dishes Matsugae. This is most easily done as you visit Arashiyama since there are several along the main street. We didn't see many foreign tourists in these, but don't let that scare you away. They are a cultural experience and worth the money and especially great if you're vegan or vegetarian.


Nonomiya Shrine is definitely worth walking through as well. You can do a quick walk-by/through this shrine. Kimono Forest - This is a quick site to see, but worth visiting if you're already nearby. Monkey Park Iwatayama: This site is located at the top of a mountain in Arashiyama. It's easily accessible from the city, but does require some good shoes for getting to the top. The nice things about hiking to it is you lose a lot of lazy tourists along the way, so much less crowded than I expected. Not only do you get to see and feed adorable monkeys, you get to take in a beautiful view of Kyoto as well! This is where I got most of my souvenirs in Japan! I also picked up a few dog accessories in one of the Shiba-Inu themed stores.


4. Hike the Fushimi Inari Shrine

 This is a great way to get your cardio in and be outside on a nice day. I recommend going earlier in the morning after a light breakfast. It's less hot and less crowded, the views were so rewarding! I did this as a solo hike during my first trip to Japan. I found it very relaxing to walk up the steps while listening to some music and I also got to meet some other solo travelers! The second time I did this I hiked with my partner and it was really nice too! You only need regular walking shoes as it's mostly all steps.

Pro tip: if you want photos with the shrine, just walk about a half mile up and there will be hardly anyone in your shots! Everybody tries to get photos at the beginning, but you can just keep going and it'll empty out.


5. Visit Kinkaku-ji

This zen Buddhist temple is probably the most beautiful piece of architecture you'll see while in Japan; it's like something out of a movie! Despite the hoards of tourists fighting their way for the perfect picture, you can still achieve a great photo because of the way the site's path is angled for visitors. Almost no tourists can be seen in your picture, but we all know they're there! ;) There's a little gift shop at the end of the walking path where they sell good luck charms for your pet's health! This is a bit out of the way so we took a taxi here to save time during our trip.


6. Take a Historic Walk in a City Park: Kyoto Imperial Palace or Nijo Castle

This place was packed with all kinds of rich history. It's located In the center of the city and it's a very large park, so make sure you have plenty of time and good walking shoes! We missed the guided tour by 15 minutes, but they have these running pretty often, check their website for schedules.


Nijo Castle is also not too far away from the palace, you can definitely walk there. I recommend arriving early for this site as to avoid the crowds. It's rich in history and takes you back in time. We self-guided our way through this castle and spent about 45 minutes here.


7. Stay at a Traditional Guesthouse or Ryokan

I usually go for a guesthouse or traditional Ryokan hotel when staying in Kyoto. Hotels can actually be very expensive close to the city center. Guesthouses are very much a cross between hotels and Airbnbs. It's all the cultural experience of an Airbnb, with the standardization and familiarity of a hotel.


I recommend finding a guesthouse around or in the city center of Kyoto that is within walking distance (~15 mins) to the subway stations. This way you can make your way through the local stations to Kyoto station and then either to Nara or Osaka for day trips. We stayed at the Rinn Mibu-Dera guesthouse and had an extremely comfortable and lovely experience. The second visit I had, my partner and I stayed at Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura. This was awesome, the staff members were so kind and we were able to reserve a private onsen experience with their hot tubs. This was super romantic and relaxing for us. You do have to sleep on the mats for this one, which is why it's cheaper, but I enjoyed having that as part of our experience! We were walking distance to plenty of public transportation as well.


8. Eat and Explore Nishiki Market


This is a great market to try some street food and explore more of the local Japanese culture; it does close early though. Pick anywhere and try some ramen! Drink at a Sake bar in Gion - No one can deny the delicious sake! Stumble your way into one of the small, tucked away bars and experience the Japanese whiskey and Sake.


While in the Kyoto city center area, there are so many different streets to wander down and find food. I recommend finding a food you haven't tried yet and getting that, you can't really go wrong! There's no shortage of Ramen places, so definitely get some while you're there, but don't forget to try the delicious Udon noodles!


9. Spend a day with no itinerary and walk around Kyoto!

This is a great chance to bike or walk and see where it takes you. Bikes are everywhere in this city! It's the perfect way to explore all the hidden places in Kyoto. The city is a lot slower paced than Tokyo and Osaka, so I would feel comfortable being on a bike here.

There's tons of shopping to do in the city center. Kyoto was a lot more industrial and developed than I expected. The buildings aren't very tall like you see in Tokyo, but there are still a lot of modern buildings and cars. We enjoyed just stumbling into random bakeries and places with no real set itinerary.



10. Take a day Trip to another city

Kyoto is a great place to make your home base while exploring Japan. From here, you have quite a few options for day trips.

  1. Nara - If you're short on time, then Nara is a easily accessible city to explore. It's worth it for meeting all the cute deer! It's about a 30 minute ride on the local train from Kyoto station.

  2. Osaka - You could arguably spend more time than just a day trip here, but if you only have a day to spare, then you dont want to miss out on Osaka. Osaka castle is breathtaking and the Dotonbori river with all the neon/futuristic lights is like something out of a movie! If you have the JR pass, you can take the Shinkansen from Kyoto station to Osaka station, it is very easy to travel between the two cities. Osaka Universal studios is also a must visit if you have the time!

  3. Hiroshima - If you have more time to spare and a JR pass to burn through, then you should consider visiting Hiroshima. We unfortunately didn't have enough time to go, but it was on our top list! It's about 1.5 hours away from Kyoto.

  4. Kurama - Kurama is a rural town tucked away in the northern mountains of Kyoto and is just about a 1.5 hour ride from Kyoto. If you're looking for a less touristy, relaxing day trip, this is a top contender.




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Hi! I'm Jackie and my dog is Sora. I work remote as an engineer, but I love to spend my free time in nature and by traveling to new places. I take my camera wherever I go, and sometimes my drone.

Somewhere With Sora is a Seattle-based lifestyle and travel blog that provides helpful travel and adventure tips for all kinds of trips, with or without the dogs.

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