Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1300 years. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than 1600 temples, incredible gardens, amazing people, colorful ancient shrines, superb food, and so much more, this is a destination to see within your lifetime, for sure, especially if you are passionate about travel photography!
I did an article a while ago but, after a second visit in Jan 2023, I thought I’ll update it with many new locations and newer (better? 😊) images
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 still-living traditions and incredible opportunities for people and 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. It is said that a Geiko (Geisha’s name in Kyoto) had an influence on the American decision 👧🏻 …
The original name of the city was Heianky, meaning “peace” .😢…
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 (1600 temples there 😢). If I had to pick the main 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.
I had the luck to be able to shoot in that stunning location with our Guide Akie and her beautiful friend Lisa wearing their traditional Kimonos.
Don’t be misled by my images, however. This is a very popular (read busy) place so, the only way to get clean shooting is early morning before the crowds arrive
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!
The symbolism is a very pragmatic one: The mouse eats the rice, and the fox eats the mouse, so, the fox protects the rice 😂
Anyway, this is in my view one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in Japan so get lost on the hill …
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., and is particularly beautiful in the morning light
Kinkakuji is one of the most famous temples in Japan, attracting millions of visitors every year. It was the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. This is a paradise for photographers
Jisho-ji temple (Silver pavilion)
The silver pavilion is another popular and beautiful landmark of Kyoto, (and no, oppositely to the golden pavilion, this one is not recovered with silver)
Situated at the base of Kyoto’s northern Kitayama mountains, that complex is famous for its beautiful moss and dry sand gardens
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.
Many Japanese families will come there in traditional costumes for some Instagram images opportunities 😂
Get there before sunset if you can, it’s an amazing spot for both a view of the ancient temple, as well as for overlooking the modern Kyoto Tower and downtown area.
Ryozen Kwannon temple and memorial
Before climbing the Kiyomizu Dera hill, you can have a look at the nearby Ryozen Kwannon temple and memorial. The 24-meter concrete image of the Goddess of Mercy is a war memorial dedicated to the fallen on both sides of the WW2 Pacific War.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a less know, temple on the outskirts of Arashiyama Kyoto, with a collection of 1200 unique Rakan statues which represent Buddha’s disciples
The original Otagi temple was built in 770 in Harashiyama, floated, and then moved northeast of Kyoto in the 10th century. I have moved again to its current location which was then destroyed by a typhoon in 1950. The “Rakan” statues were all added to the temple between 1981 and 1991…
That place is a bit remote from Kyoto downtown but is really worth a visit 🤩
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 (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!
That popular marketplace in downtown Kyoto is active since the fourteen century and really worth a visit. This is basically a 400 meters long single alley, filled with all sorts of traditional shops
Beyond being a place for amazing food and goods, this is a superb spot to go around and experience traditional living, and a cool place for photography as well…
Of course, in those post -covid days, most people will still have masks (a limiting factor challenge for photography 😢) but the shops on their own are really fun to shoot
At the end of the alley, have a look at the small Nishiki-Tenmangu Shinto temple dedicated to the god of studies and businesses 😊.
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.
As for Fushimi Inari, the forest is actually quite small, and very popular so morning remains a good time for photography and enjoying the place
Gion old streets
This is the 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.
Actually, most of the time, what you’ll see is not geikos but just Japanese girls wearing traditional costumes and looking for taking some social media images with friends …
This makes Gion however a cool place for street photography
Gion Kennin-Ji temple
Zuiryusan Kennin-ji is a 13 century Zen Rinzai Buddhist temple and is considered one of the five most important Zen temples of Kyoto (Kyoto Gozan)
It is literally in the Gion historical district and a nice sunset spot
As stated above, you may see some geikos (Which are in the Kyoto dialect for the word “Geisha”) in the old streets of Gion but are extremely elusive, appearing and disappearing in a flash.
I had the (rare) privilege of an organized photo session with a Geiko and a Maiko (an apprentice Geiko that spends at least 5 years in training before mastering the many skills required to become a fully-fledged Geiko.
Their sulfurous reputation is unfounded in Kyoto, as those are high-class and greatly respected entertainers who appear at high-end dinners, parties, or events to add a special touch to the proceedings trained for years in dance music & traditional Japanese arts.
There are only around 150 Geikos left today in Kyoto, and you’ll need local connections to arrange a shooting session, which is a great thing to do if you’re interested in photography or simply want to know more about their life and traditions
So, here are my (non-exhaustive) recommended places not to miss in stunning Kyoto. The city is as well 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, still rooted in amazing traditions and history.