There is no denying Kyoto is a beautiful city with amazing old architecture, serene temples and shrines as well as great food and important history. There is always something interesting to see and do – a festival, cherry blossoms, autumn leaves or sprinkling of snow on the old buildings that feels almost magical. Who wouldn’t want to visit?
And while Kyoto receives record numbers of over 50 million visitors every year and the main tourist sights like Fushimi Inari, Kinkaku-ji and Arashiyama bamboo forest are crowded you may find yourself asking – is Kyoto worth visiting?
It all may, of course, depend on many factors, one of them being your level of anxiety in crowded places. From my experience (visited in 2015 and spent 4 weeks in 2019) it’s all about balance. Kyoto definitely should be on everyone’s itinerary. The only thing I would recommend is to balance out the extremely popular with the less crowded and not so obvious.
Here’s my list (in no particular order) of places I found worthwhile. You may want to consider them on your next Kyoto visit.
1. Hike to Kurama-dera Temple
Spend a day hiking and visiting temples in the northern mountains of Kyoto City. We had the idea for this hike from Japan Guide but decided to do it the opposite direction – from Kibune to Kurama and I think it was better. The big Kurama-dera temple is then the last thing before the town and the train station and gets you that big reveal kind of feeling. Which wouldn’t work as good in the other direction.
We caught a bus to Kibune, walked to the Kifune shrine and then hiked to the other side of the mountain through the Kurama-dera temple. Despite great weather, there weren’t many people around (and we saw no more than 5 foreigners). Both, the shrine and the temple, are no less beautiful than the popular temples in Kyoto. They just require a little bit of effort to get to.
2. Have a tea at Mo-An
Mo An is a small, charming cafe in a traditional wooden house. It’s hidden behind trees on top of a hill so it’s unlikely we would just stumble upon it without knowing where to look for it.
The menu isn’t too extensive and while tea and coffees can be enjoyed all day, their lunches (pita sandwich etc) are limited and we weren’t able to purchase any food when we arrived after 4pm.
Tea with the view of Kyoto City is worth the hike.
3. Eat a fantastic ramen
Ramen Sen no Kaze is already popular but I couldn’t leave it out of the list. Simply because it’s the best ramen I’ve had in Japan. Ever. Especially the meat – order extra charshu pork slices because it’s the best part.
During lunch & dinner times the lines are long as the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations. But there is a ticketing system in place which you can connect to your phone and wander around while you wait for your turn. If you don’t mind moving your meal times around a bit come in the afternoon – we visited around 4pm and didn’t have to wait.
4. Have a coffee in a hipster setting
In many cities in the world, you wouldn’t probably feel comfortable with going to a cafe located at the back of an open-space car park on a small side street. In Kyoto, that’s where biggest hipsters go for their coffee fix.
Weekenders Coffee is a tiny cafe serving great coffee. There are no seats inside but a small bench and standing room in front of the entrance suffice.
5. Cycle in rural Kyoto
Cycling tour is a great way to escape the crowds and see a different side of Kyoto.
We went on this adventure on a rather chilly February morning but after the first steep hill, we forgot how cold it was. We got to see gorgeous temples, rural life and stone carvings of Buddha. Tour with Philip is available to book through Airbnb and I highly recommend it.
6. Visit tea plantations
Wazuka is a traditional tea town located south of Kyoto. There are numerous tours which you can join if travelling in a group is your thing. Otherwise, just pop in on a bus #66 from the West Gate of Kamo Station and make your way to Wazuka.
We started with a visit to the Wazuka tourist information centre where we received a map, recommendations regarding our route and return bus schedule. During our short visit, we only scratched the surface but it was a great trip regardless of the length.
7. Stroll around the Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace, which used to be the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868, is another place that should be on everybody’s list. It’s located inside a big garden and is free to enter. All you need to do is let the friendly guards inspect your bag (no drones allowed) and get a tag.
There is a route you should follow, info in English explaining what you’re seeing and staff standing next to some of the buildings keen to answer questions and tell you some interesting facts.
8. Taste all the beers
Spring Valley Brewery is located just around the corner from the famous Nishiki Market. Despite the location, when I visited the place wasn’t full of tourists as one would expect.
The “pairing set” is a great way to taste the most popular brews. They all come with tasty, perfectly matched morsels.
9. Get a great view of the city
Hike to the top of Narabigaoka hill is easy, out of most tourists way and rewards you with picturesque views of Kyoto. You can combine it with a visit to Ninna-ji which you can also see from the top of the hill.