Kyoto, Japan is the pinnacle of Japanese culture. A holiday to Japan is not complete without a visit to Kyoto, and the famous Kyoto temples, castles and shrines. This article will explain how to get to Kyoto, and what to see when you get there.

Getting to Kyoto

The best way to get to Kyoto from other cities is by the bullet train (shinkansen). You can use a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) to take the bullet train to Kyoto Station. If you don’t have a JR pass you can still buy shinkansen tickets to Kyoto from JR stations which the shinkansen passes through.

Interior of Kyoto Station
Kyoto Station is one of Japan’s largest buildings, and is the second largest train station building in Japan.

Kyoto train station is a mega-hub as far as stations go, and is a tourist attraction itself. It services two JR lines and some private lines. It is quite a sight, very large inside and looks to be a very new building with lots of shopping, cinemas, hotels and more. Kyoto station is easily accessible from the other major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Okayama and more.

Astro Boy statue outside Kyoto Station
Just one of the statues outside Kyoto station.

A quick travellers tip for this station, my friend had a very funny experience, when he encountered a toilet inside the station that did not have toilet paper. It is extremely rare, but some places require you to purchase toilet paper. My advice… if people are handing out tissues on the street (which they do everywhere, popular method of advertising), then do take a few and keep them in your carry bag.

Getting to the main tourist attractions in Kyoto

Kyoto is a city that requires a bit more exploration, but it is well worth it. Unlike other cities where you step off the train and you are amongst it all, you generally have to take a bus to get to Kyoto’s temples, castles and shrines. There is a major bus terminal adjacent to the station with plenty of information in English.

As Kyoto is such a popular place for Japan tourism, you can find tours and tourist information in English to help you find the right buses. Take a look outside the station to find these.

A Kyoto temple you must visit

You will not find any photos of the interior of Sanjuusangendou (translated literally into 33 ken/length hall) here, as the monks forbid it. However, inside this building is one of the most amazing sights you will see perhaps not only in Kyoto, but all of Japan…

Sanjuusangendou view from the temple gardens.
Sanjuusangendou view from the temple gardens.

The main hall contains a marvel, the Thousand Armed Kannon Statues. This temple is a National Treasure, and it is easy to see why. The hall contains 1000 life-size statues, all coated in gold (the remnants of the original coat anyway), all striking different poses. Some are from the original temple and some were rebuilt in the 13th century.

Sanjuusangendou verandah, used over hundreds of years for traditional archery competitions and displays.
Sanjuusangendou verandah, used over hundreds of years for traditional archery competitions and displays.

The outside of the hall contains the temple gardens, strewn with shrines, ponds and more. Since the Edo period, the verandah outside the hall has been used for famous and traditional archery competitions, and marks can still be seen underneath the roof of the walkway.

One of the ponds in the gardens surrounding Sanjuusangendou temple.
One of the ponds in the gardens surrounding Sanjuusangendou temple.


Kiyomizu Temple

This temple in Kyoto is easily one of the biggest temples I have ever been to. It is positioned on the mountain overlooking Kyoto, and is extremely popular, especially in the Japanese spring.

Kiyomizu Temple
Kiyomizu Temple, viewed from one of the shrines.
A view of Kyoto city from Kiyomizu temple.
A view of Kyoto city from Kiyomizu temple.

Around the temple are many large and small shrines. A popular activity at a Shinto shrine is to drink natural spring water, it is a form of prayer (but I just make a wish!). You can just watch and learn, but the basic method (I’m told…) is to first wash your hands (with the water in the rock basin) take the ladle, which is on a long handle, fill it with water which is dripping down from the small rock canal. You then pour a small amount into your hand and drink it.

Drinking spring water from the Kiyomizu temple shrine in Kyoto.
After hands are washed, drink from the ladle.


Things to do and places to visit in Kyoto

UPDATE: May 23, 2013
Since first publishing this article I have traveled Kyoto a lot! Here are some more things to do and see in Kyoto, see more articles for in-depth information:

  • Hire a bicycle in Kyoto – and see the city like a local!
  • Stroll through Fushimi Inari Taishi – the World Heritage mountain shrine with 4km+ of red/orange torii lined trails. Free to visit and just 2 stops from Kyoto station.
  • Visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace – This is a stunning site, a look inside the emperor’s palace when Kyoto was Japan’s capital. Daily free English guided tours are available (see the article for all the details you need to book a tour).
  • Visit Nijo Castle – located in the center of Kyoto, not far from the Imperial Palace is a unique flatland castle.
  • Gaze in awe at the Golden Pavilion Temple – Kinkakuji is one of the most famous icons of Kyoto, get up close and see this World Heritage site.
  • Stay at the 9hours capsule hotel – located near Gion and the Kamo River, this is a uniquely modern Japanese accommodation experience!
  • Stroll through Shimogamo Shrine – just north of Gion/9hours Capsule Hotel along the Kawa River, this is an ancient World Heritage site that most tourists don’t get a chance to see.

The pinnacle of Japanese culture

Kyoto has it all when it comes to Japanese culture. It is also a great place for authentic Japanese food and drink, as well as purchasing unique, hand-made souvenirs.

This article is basically a travelogue of a day trip which my friends and I did in Kyoto. We arrived by around 9AM, and between seeing the sights, had time for a nice lunch and souvenir shopping before getting on the bullet train to Okayama.

Other famous places in Kyoto that you should (and that I want to) visit are: Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion); Saihō-ji (Temple with famous moss garden); Nijō Castle (with fortifications, a palace, older palace ruins and gardens); and many more…