By Tom Fay, author of Must-See Japan (blog: http://www.thomasfay.com)
The undoubted culture capital of Japan, Kyoto is always high on the agenda for most visitors to the country. But with so many temples, shrines, gardens, historic buildings and other attractions dotted around Kyoto’s varied and distinctive districts, it can be difficult to decide where to spend your precious time (and yen).
So in no particular order, here are ten of the best places to visit in Kyoto where you don’t have to spend a single penny!
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
A favourite of Instagramers everywhere, Fushimi Inari is that famous and photogenic Shinto shrine with countless red torii gates lining the woodland paths. It can be crowded at times, but the further up the mountain you walk, the less people you’ll see. Known as the god of rice, Inari used foxes as messengers, so stay on the lookout for the many kitsune (fox) sculptures which are dotted around.
A pretty district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a great place to spend an afternoon, whether it be strolling along the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge or exploring the bamboo groves and picturesque streets to the north of the river. If you’re willing to spend a few yen, there is a great hilltop monkey park to visit (with stunning vistas of Kyoto) while for those with a sweet tooth, a myriad of shops serve a wide range of delicious traditional sweets.
3. Nishiki Market
Sample the sights, sounds and smells of a traditional market, right in the heart of Kyoto. Over 100 small stalls, shops and restaurants are packed into this relatively compact area, offering everything from macha mochi to pickled vegetables and black soy bean tea, and a lot of the vendors offer free samples, so it needn’t hurt your wallet. What’s more, many of the goods on offer are local delicacies which you won’t find anywhere else!
4. The Kamogawa River
Winding through the city from north to south, the Kamogawa is a great place to spend a few peaceful hours people watching. People picnic on the banks, white cranes fish in the shallows, and young couples cavort by the riverside. During cherry blossom season it is particularly beautiful, and during winter the river has a biting brilliance. There are paths on either side of the river too, so it provides a scenic way to cross the city whilst avoiding the sometimes busy roads and traffic.
5. The Philosopher’s Walk
Running for 2km from Ginkakuji to Nanzenji, the Philosopher’s Walk was made famous by the philosopher Nishida Kitaro who was said to meditate along this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. The stone path runs alongside a picturesque canal which is lined with cherry trees, so during cherry blossom season it becomes one of the most popular places to see the blossom, but also makes for a pleasant stroll at any time of year.
6. The Higashiyama District
One of the city’s best preserved historic areas, the stone-paved streets, traditional wooden buildings and old fashioned merchant houses transport you right back to Japan of yesteryear. Nearby attractions include Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine, but it’s only at dusk, when the crowds have disappeared and the narrow streets are lit by the warm hues of shop fronts as they close up for the day, that you can really appreciate the magical atmosphere which makes Kyoto so special.
Kyoto’s world famous geisha district is always popular with tourists, and for good reason. The Hanami-koji and its side streets are packed with traditional ochaya teahouses and shops, while occasionally real geiko (Kyoto-dialect for geisha) and maiko (geisha apprentices) can be seen scuttling down the streets. Take a stroll in the early evening to experience the area’s unique ambience and avoid the worst of the crowds.
8. Mt. Kurama
If you feel the need to escape the hubbub of the city for a while, a quick 30 train ride beyond the northern outskirts of Kyoto on the Eizan Railway Kurama Line will take you to Kurama, a pleasant rural village famous for its mountain temple. There is a short and steep one hour hike up and over the mountain down to the neighbouring village of Kibune, but the wonderful mix of woodland scenery and ancient Japanese culture makes it all worthwhile.
9. Experience a Festival
Whenever you visit Kyoto, you always have a good chance of catching a festival somewhere in the city, and best thing of all is that they are often spectacular and almost always free. The Gion Matsuri in mid-July is one of the most famous festivals in Japan, where massive floats parade along Shijo-dori, as downtown Kyoto becomes a mass of dance, music and colour. In mid-August visitors can witness huge kanji symbols on the hillsides being set ablaze at the Daimonji festival, while Jidai Matsuri in October depicts 1000 years of Japanese history in a 2km procession. Check the listings for festivals and other events every month.
10. Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace is the former residence of the imperial family, until they (and the capital) moved to Tokyo in 1868. The palace gardens used to only be accessible on guided tours with advanced reservations, but since this summer they are now fully open to everyone, so visitors can enjoy the tranquil parkland, manicured gardens, green lawns and wide gravel paths while admiring the (still off-limits) palace buildings.