Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1000 years, now with 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than 1000 Buddhist temples, incredible gardens, colorful ancient shrines, superb food, and so much more. A destination to see within your lifetime, for sure, especially if you are passionate about travel photography!
This city, located in central-western Honshu, remains the center of traditional Japanese culture. The history of Kyoto started around the year 794 when it became the location of Japan’s imperial court. The Emperors of Japan were based in Kyoto up until 1869 when the court relocated to Tokyo. It is one of the most historic cities on the planet, with amazing and still-living traditions and incredible opportunities for landscape photography.
Luckily, Kyoto was largely untouched by the American bombing during WWII, so we can still enjoy its amazing heritage today. The Target Committee of the United States Manhattan Project had Kyoto at the top of the list of targets for the dropping of the atomic bomb, but as one of the executives had visited this wonder, it was taken off the list. The original name of the city was Heianky, meaning “peace”…
Top 10 places to see in Kyoto
There is an infinite quantity of wonders to explore in this city, so the list obviously can’t be exhaustive and can only be incomplete. If I had to pick just 10 and landmarks and areas not to miss for any photographer or tourist, these are what I would recommend:
This is the mother of all shrines, located in Fushimi-Ku. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates (entrance to a Shintō shrine), spread across a narrow passageway leading to the top of the hill. The trail spans over 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) and can take a while to walk.
The mountain and the shrine are dedicated to the goddess of rice, Inari. The fox is considered to be the messenger of the goddess, so you can find amazing fox statues everywhere. The light appears to come from the goddess herself!
Kinkalu-Ji, the Golden Pavillon
This is an iconic Zen Buddhist temple (officially named Rokuon-ji). It is obviously one of the 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city, and one of the most visited places in Japan. The name literally means “the Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, for good reason…
This is also a very famous Buddhist temple in the eastern part of Kyoto. Founded in 778AD, with some buildings from the 17th century, it is also very popular for its amazing view of Kyoto from the temple’s wooden stages. Get there before sunset if you can, it’s an amazing spot for both a view of the ancient temple (like the cover of this blog post, as seen above), as well as for overlooking the modern Kyoto Tower and downtown area.
The Imperial Palace (Gosho Palace)
The palace is located in a park of 80ha, surrounded by high walls. It is especially known for its pure and elegant design and the use of natural materials (wood, bamboo, paper, and straw). It is believed that some of the ornament details have never been surpassed in beauty.
Heian Jingu Shrine
This is one of the most famous and impressive Shinto shrines in Kyoto, with a large, imposing torii gate of almost 25 meters high.
You’ll observe people praying in this huge complex, as well as the famous Omikuji trees with paper fortunes and prayers.
Heian Jingu Shrine Japanese garden
The “Garden of the Gods” is a lesser-known area by tourists, besides the Heian Shrine, and is (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful gardens in Kyoto, out of many. The wood-covered Taihei-Kaku, Hashi-Dono bridge, reflecting on the Seiho-Ike pond, is an amazing spot for photography or simply for a peaceful moment. So take the time to go there!
This is a popular marketplace in downtown Kyoto. Beyond being a place for amazing food and goods, this is a superb spot to go around and experience traditional living. This is a cool place for photography as well…
The forest of the sacred Mount Kona serves as the largest cemetery in Japan. Cemeteries are not usually tourist landmarks but there are a few places in the world where I would advise you to go. Okunion is one of them (like, for example, the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires), so it’s worth a (respectful) visit and photoshoot.
Arashiyama Bamboo grove
This is one of Kyoto’s top sights and most photographed places in Kyoto. There is a walking tour that is really worth getting immersed in this very special forest. Even if you will for sure not be alone there, it truly feels like a different world. Visit the Tenryu-Ji Temple nearby, as well.
This is the most famous Geisha district in Kyoto, around Shilo avenue. The beautiful wooden tea houses are where the Geishas and Maiko (Geisha apprentices) work. You can sometimes see them on the ancient, narrow streets.
5 tips when going to Kyoto for the first time
November and April are great times to visit
April, obviously, is the famous cherry blossom or Sakura season, so an amazing time to go. November, for fall season colors, is also a great choice and makes for a superb shooting experience and amazing photography prints subjects, as per my image below of the Golden Pavillon.
Bring good shoes, you’ll be walking… a lot
Kyoto’s transportation system is a bit complicated (even for Japanese people) so if you don’t speak the language, while Google Maps and a daily bus pass are necessary and helpful, you’ll end up hiking a lot on foot. By the way, this is absolutely safe and great, as there is so much to see all around!
Prepare a bit for your trip… and wake up early
Link to the above, as there are so many (thousands) tourist spots, it is probably good to list the main spots you want to see if you only have a couple of days and like landscape photography. Kyoto is also increasingly crowded and my pictures maybe sometimes a bit misleading on this. If you want images with no tourists, wake up early and stay late. This might allow more easy interactions with locals as well…
Get lucky, bring some coins
Five yen coins (with a hole) are supposed to bring good luck (in business and in love) when offered in a temple. So take a chance, who knows? Other coins would be fine, as well, like in the luck fountain at Tenryu-Ji Temple…
Enjoy some of the best food on Earth
You are in the heart of Japanese culture, with infinite (and safe) food options in a restaurant or in the markets, so enjoy. If you’re a foodie on a budget, restaurants offer much better deals for lunch than for dinner.
Kyoto is known for having its name attached to the Kyoto Protocol international agreement, linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This protocol aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.
The city has, in the last thousand years, been close to sustainability principles, protected its environment and scenery, and it does feel that way when you’re walking around. Some tangible trends are confirming that the city is on an intentional journey towards sustainable goals, so this now 1300-year-old city might build a future for the next few centuries.