Recently, Honichi Labo interviewed foreign visitors to Kyoto and asked them about their favorite tourist spots. Here’s their top five, plus another five from us here at Unseen Japan.
Kyoto Samurai Ninja Museum
Located in Nakagyō ward, the Kyoto Samurai Ninja Museum is a museum of pre-1871 Japanese warriors, be they samurai or ninja. Featuring a handsome array of historic armor and weapons as well as some Buddhist statuary, the museum also offers visitors the opportunity to learn how to throw ninja stars (shuriken) and use blow darts (fukiya), or don samurai armor or ninja attire.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine, in Kyoto’s Fushimi ward, also known as Oinari-san, enshrines O-inari ōkami, the kami of agriculture and business. It is famous for its long rows of torii gates.
Together with Toyokawa Inari and Takekoma Inari, it is one of Japan’s Three Great Inari Shrines and a focal point of the Inari faith. It has also appeared in many popular depictions on TV, film, and even in animation. Also a draw to the shrine are the many statues of foxes (gokenzoku), holding everything from sheaves of rice to wish-fulfilling jewels to spiraling granary keys.
Kinkakuji — the Golden Pavilion– is number 3 on the Honichi list. It is the better-known name of the temple still formally named Rokuon-ji. It’s a Muromachi-era temple in Kyoto’s Kita ward built in the 14th century by one of the Ashikaga shoguns as an image of paradise on earth.
Sadly, a monk in the 1950s famously burned it down. It was that arson that both led to the restored, brilliant temple seen today, as well as to Yukio Mishima’s novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
The structure is just one part of a bigger complex featuring gardens and Buddhist statuary. My advice is to get there before there are too many people. While it looks peaceful in the pictures you’ve seen, if you get there during a busy time, it can turn into a loud, frustrating disappointment.
One further word of advice I can offer is to not vault the fence. When I visited in 2005, one of the members of my tour group vaulted the fence to get a better shot of the statues and caused a minor incident. For the sake of yourself and the further preservation of this place that is both a sacred site and a historic attraction, please don’t vault the fence.
Kiyomizudera is a historic temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama ward. It dates to the 8th century but the present buildings date to the 17th century. A tourist attraction for centuries, its stage– jutting out off the cliff it sits on like a balcony– provides a scenic overlook of Kyoto.
It was listed as by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, jointly with other locations in the area, as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, in 1994. The approaches to the temple gate are lined with many tourist shops offering everything from toys to kimono to folding fans to soft-serve ice cream. Take your time exploring it, and be sure to bring money for souvenirs!
Kyoto Nishiki Ichiba
Kyoto Nishiki Ichiba is a fresh food market in central Kyoto. It sits between Sanjō and Shijō between Karasuma Avenue and Teramachi Shopping Arcade. It is a hot spot for buying locally produced and procured ingredients and prepared food, and some stores offer samples for customers to try. The market also has stores that sell cookware.
Amazingly, the market dates to the early 14th century. Some stores are shinise (老舗) that have been operating for several generations.
Unseen Japan’s recommendations
The legendary Buddhist abbot Kūkai– alias Kōbō Daishi– founded Ukyō ward’s Adashino Nenbutsuji temple in the 9th century. The temple precincts house many statues, once scattered around the area but now gathered up there. In late August, the statues are lit with candles in the Sentō Kuyō, a requiem for the dead.
Not far away is Otagi Nenbutsuji, a different temple we’ve covered in a prior article and one worth also visiting if you’re in the neighborhood.
Sagano Bamboo Forest
The Sagano bamboo forest is close to Tenryū-ji temple in the Arashiyama district, part of Kyoto’s Nishikyō Ward. The Ministry of the Environment listed the sounds of the forest as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan. The bamboo grows large and very tall, so tall that the ground level sits in comfortable shadow.
When I visited in 2005, there was a gentle mist, and in the thick of the tall, old bamboo stalks, the air seemed to be an ethereal blue-green. The memory still haunts me 18 years on. If you can go, especially on a cool autumn day, then go.
Seimei jinja, in Kamigyō ward, is a Shinto shrine established in the 11th century that enshrines Abe no Seimei. Abe no Seimei, who was a yin-yang diviner (onmyōji) in service to the imperial court, is a recurring character in popular depictions of the occult.
My own visit to Kyoto happened a few years after the release of the 2001 film Onmyōji, in which Nomura Mansai played Seimei. I was excited to see Seimei Shrine, but unfortunately, didn’t have the time to do so.
While you’re there, be sure to check out the pentagram on the capstone of the sacred well. It’s this same pentagram– also known as the Seimei Bellflower, representing the Five Phases or Five Elements– that the Tohoku Alliance used as its battle flag during the Boshin War of 1868.
Yōkai Street, the unofficial name of a stretch of Ichijō Avenue, will interest fans of yōkai, the creatures of Japanese folklore. Local businesses have statues of a variety of yōkai. Although they don’t primarily cater to tourists, it will nonetheless still be of interest to the astute traveler.
Ichijōji Ramen Street
Ichijōji, in Kyoto’s northeastern Sakyō ward, features the Ichijōji Ramen Street. Japanese “food experience platform” byFood lists six top restaurants on the Ichijōji Ramen Street. They are Gokkei, Tsukemen Enaku, Bishiya, Tentenyu, Tsurukame, and Arajin. From the ramen with the thick soup base at Gokkei, to the mix of tonkotsu and miso at Arajin, there’s sure to be something for every traveling gourmand.
What to read next
- “About.” Shokoku-ji dot jp. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- Justin Arnold. “Yōkai Street.” Atlas Obscura. 31 October 2014. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- Karla Cripps. “Kyoto’s Sagano Bamboo Forest, one of the World’s Prettiest Groves.” CNN Travel, 6 November 2019. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- Sue Gan. “Ichijōji Ramen Street: Top 6 Ramen to Try in Kyoto’s Ramen District.” byFood, 9 December 2022. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- “Goyuisho.” Seimei jinja. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- “History.” Fushimi Inari Taisha. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- “Kiyomizudera no Rekishi.” Kiyomizudera. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- “Kyoto de Gaikokujin ni Ninki no Kankō Supotto! “Fushimi Inari Taisha” wa Nii, Ichii wa?” Honichi Rabo, 29 August 2023. Accessed 6 September 2023.
- “Kyoto Samurai and Ninja Museum with Experience.” Mai-ko dot com, Accessed 6 September 2023.
- “Nishiki Market.” Japan-guide dot com, accessed 6 September 2023.
- Nokoshitai Nihon no Oto Fūkei 100sen. Japan Ministry of the Environment, accessed 6 September 2023.