Of the 1000s of Kyoto activities to choose from these are the best. They are sorted (roughly) by popularity. We have also thrown in a few of our favorites.
In Kyoto, a spectacular temple (that would be a big attraction in another city) can go virtually unnoticed. When planning your itinerary consider a mix of popular and quiet (off the beaten track) attractions.
1. GionGion is one of Japan's most exclusive entertainment districts. Many of Gion's streets haven't changed all that much in the past 300 years. Geisha establishments, tea houses and fine restaurants dot Gion's streets. In this area, you have a good chance to spot a Geisha or Maiko darting to work.
If you happen to visit Kyoto in July be sure to check out the Gion Festival.
2. Nijo CastleThe castle of the first Tokugawa Shogun (Tokugawa Ieyasu). His clan ruled Japan from 1600-1868. Nijo Castle was the Shogun's Kyoto residence and headquarters all this time. It's one of the largest castles in Japan.
The floors of the castle have a distinctive squeak. This is by design. The purpose: to detect ninja assassins.
3. Kiyomizu-dera TempleKiyomizu-dera was selected as a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World (but didn't make the final list). It's the most visited temple in Kyoto.
Kiyomizu-dera is a large complex that has been around since 778. The present buildings date back to 1633. There isn't a single nail used in their construction.
The stage of the main building is 13 meters (42 feet) high. There's a legend that anyone who jumps from the platform and survives is granted a wish. There have been 234 recorded jumps (85.4% survived). No word on how many jumpers were granted their wish. The practice of jumping from the stage is now prohibited.
Kiyomizu-dera is famous for its waterfall that comes out in 3 streams to feed a pond. The water can be caught by visitors as it falls. It's supposed to be pure. The water is also said to have the power to grant wishes.
There are several small restaurants and charm shops onsite.
4. Fushimi Inari ShrineFushimi Inari Shrine is a photogenic shrine dedicated to Inari (the god of rice and business). Local businesses (eager to please Inari) donated the shrine's many gates (torii).
The shrine stands at the foot of a mountain. Several mountain paths lead up to smaller shrines. Many are dedicated to foxes (foxes are the messengers of Inari). Foxes are sometimes considered gods themselves and are thought to have the ability to shapeshift to human form.
5. Adashino Nenbutsu-jiAdashino Nenbutsu-ji is a Buddhist temple that's home to around 8,000 small Buddhas. It's thought to be an ancient burial ground that's home to a large number of unmarked graves. Once a year, all 8,000 Buddhas are lit up with candles in a ceremony to remember the dead (sento kuyo).
6. Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple)Kinkaku-ji is a golden pavilion (coated in pure gold leaf) located in a stunning Japanese walking garden. It's one of the most photogenic temples in the World.
The original building dated back to 1398. In 1950 a 22 year old schizophrenic monk burned the temple to the ground. It was promptly reconstructed. Kinkaku-ji is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Japan.
7. Nanzen-ji TempleNanzen-ji is one of the largest and most important temple complexes in Japan. The temple's massive Sanmon entrance gate commemorates those who died at the siege of Osaka Castle in 1615.
8. Sanjusangendo HallSanjusangendo Hall is a large Buddhist temple that has been around since 1164. The temple collection includes 1000 life-sized Buddhist statues who are armed. They once stood guard outside the temple in military columns.
9. Ginkaku-jiGinkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion Temple) is modeled after Kinkaku-ji (Gold Pavilion Temple). It was to be covered in silver foil. However, the Ōnin War repeatedly delayed these plans. The temple remains unfinished to this day.
Ginkaku-ji is surrounded by a Japanese garden. There's also a famous sand-garden outside the temple that was designed by Soami (1472—1525). Soami is considered (by many) to be Japan's greatest landscape artist.
10. Ryoan-ji TempleRyoan-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple that is home to the tombs of seven former Emperors (The Seven Imperial Tombs).
It's also home to Japan's most famous rock garden. It's not known how long the garden has stood here or who designed it. The meaning of the garden is also unknown. These are all matters of study and speculation. One interesting aspect of the garden is that one stone is hidden from view from every vantage point.