best kyoto temples

Picture your most elegant image of Japan–-a woman in a floral kimono walking under the shade of her paper umbrella or a zen garden perfectly manicured in a courtyard of red maples–-this is Kyoto. Even in a country that was tragically razed in World War II, this former capital remained pristine. Having all their cultural relics intact gives its residents, and all the Japanese who visit, a special sense of pride for their heritage. This is a place where kimonos are daily attire, ancient shrines overflow with offerings, and geishas rule the night. It’s hard not to fall in love with Kyoto, but to really make us smitten, we had the most amazing combination of lodging: Couchsurfing with a local and honeymooning at a luxury hotel. With insider tips from our Kyoto CS buddy and the top concierge in town, we saw the best of Kyoto. Check out our Kyoto City Guide.

Kyoto City Guide

Couchsurfing is an incredible network of people who open up their homes to travelers looking for a place to stay and an inside track to the local culture. Sometimes you have hosts that simply point you to their spare sleeping space and others who thrive on the cultural exchange, excited to share their city with you. Our Kyoto host Kazu was definitely the later. His apartment is 200-square feet and he doesn’t even own a couch, yet he invites travelers nearly every week into this home. We arrived to his place and he already had a grand tour of Kyoto planned for us. Our night started at the 400-year old and fabulous Nishiki market.

Kazu of Peeece

The market was full of beautiful boutiques, gourmet shops, and eateries a little too far north of our travel budget to partake in–except for Kazu’s secret spot. This little stall had these incredible squid dumplings for under $3–an unheard of price for a meal in Japan!

night illumination at Kodaiji temple

Kazu’s local knowledge continued to impress with our next stop at Kodaiji temple. There was special light exhibit happening that month, illuminating the space in the most dazzling ways–the lawn was sprinkled with LED lights creating a galaxy effect, the Japanese maples shined electric red, and these massive bamboo stalks seemed to stand like skyscrapers.

visiting Gion

On our way home that night we went to the legendary Geisha district, Gion. Geishas are highly skilled entertainers mostly performing behind closed doors and by invitation only. We caught a glimpse of a few being chauffeured to their next appointment and saw the dimly lit facades of the tea houses. It was all a bit mysterious so we went back by day and found a neighborhood with old-world charm, where artists come to paint the traditional river homes and where young couples go to photograph their wedding portraits.

best people watching in Japan

We assumed this traditionally dressed couple in the Gion photo above was on a wedding photo shoot, but as it turns out, kimonos and wooden shoes are how many Kyoto-ites like to dress. We went to the spectacular Kiyomizudera temple and couldn’t help but sneak photos of the gorgeous ladies coming to enjoy the fall foliage against the bright orange gates.

Hyatt Regency Kyoto lobby design

Later that day we left our couchsurfer Kazu’s place and checked into the Hyatt Regency Kyoto. (Yes, we lead double lives, but hey…it keeps things interesting, right?) This hotel in the historic area of Higashiyama Shichijo was the perfect (and super luxurious) home base for some of Kyoto’s prime attractions— it’s across the street from the Kyoto National Museum, next door to the 12th-century Sanjusangendo temple, and just down the road from the UNESCO Kiyomizu-dera temple. It was not only incredibly convenient but had stunning interiors and some of the most helpful staff.

Hyatt Regency Kyoto restaurant

After hearing about our slightly crazy 500-day honeymoon, the Hyatt Regency GM, Ken, invited us to join him for drinks. We chatted endlessly over sake and just when we thought he couldn’t be any nicer he insisted on us having dinner at the hotel’s traditional Japanese restaurant, Touzan. Each course was more beautiful and delicious than the last.

japan's longest wooden temple

The next morning we walked one door down to the 12th-century Sanjusangen-do Temple. This Buddhist site is filled with 1001 beautiful kannon sculptures and is the longest wooden structure in all of Japan. Fun Fact #1: Being so long and narrow, the temple grounds have been doubling as an archery range for national competitions since the 12th century. Fun fact #2: One of the annual highlights is the Ōyakazu marathon where contestants shoot as many arrows as possible for 24 straight hours. The current record holder shot 13,053 arrows with 62% hitting the target from 198 feet. Wow!

Golden Pavillion Kyoto

To make sure we saw the most and best of Kyoto, Ken arranged a car for us…and this was no taxi. Our driver Mr. K was a professional guide to Bill Gates, Tom Cruise, the Dalai Lama, and the almost famous HoneyTrek. He introduced us to everything from Kyoto’s top sites, like the gleaming Golden Pavilion above, to his favorite bonsai nursery–all enhanced by his insider knowledge.

Fushimi torri gates

Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine may have an impressive 1000+ years of history but what makes it a star attraction is not the age of its torii gates but the sheer volume. This shrine to the patron of business is made of 1,300 shiny orange gates all sponsored by various companies in Japan, each trying to get in good with the god of success. Hiking the winding corridors of the tightly packed gates is a hypnotic and must-do Kyoto experience.

Rokuonji Temple facade

Heading to the outskirts of Kyoto we reached the beautiful Arashiyama. This riverside retreat is one of the best places to see the Japanese red maples in fall and the cherry blossoms in spring so whenever you go, go here to take a boat up the canyon, see the Rokuonji Temple (above), stay at the amazing Hoshinoya ryokan, and revel in the endless charms of Kyoto.

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  1. carol laager says:

    Once again what stunning pixtures. It shows the beauty of Japan, the dress, the scenery, architecture, cuisine. You cover it all. Love how colorfully they dress!! Love the fll foliage pictures and the pictures of you two. Yes you do lead double lives. …one day camping out and the next day at sme fancy resort with private tour guides. Lol. Take care of yourselves, mi amigo

  2. Cam Wears says:

    Great photos guys! Looks like you had a wonderful experience. We love Kyoto, and Japan for that matter, and hope to return one day with a better budget. It was tough being there as backpackers, so much to see and do an eat!

    1. Kyoto is totally amazing as is Japan. Did you guys do any couchsurfing there? That and WWOOFing totally helped our budget.

  3. Chelsea Iversen says:

    Awesome post! So beautiful! 🙂 I loved Kyoto, but your pictures rock even more than I remember. How cool that you guys were able to create a super local experience there!

  4. David Carillet says:

    Best post.

    I was planning to go in spring for the cherry blossoms. Now I want to go in autumn just as much. Not happy with you guys! =P

    1. David, wow thanks! We almost flipped our trip so that we could be there for the cherry blossoms, it looks like it would be incredible, but man fall blew our socks off. Not only are the fall colors so vibrant–the whole city seems comes alive in the leaf peeping excitement! Either time of year you go, you can’t lose.

    2. @davidcarillet:disqus just WAIT until you see this post coming up about Kanazawa and the ridiculously amazing time we had there learning Japanese culture. Save your duckets, you are going to do this. I promise you. OMG.

  5. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) says:

    We spent 5 days in Kyoto—the longest of any place we visited in Japan—and we still barely scratched the surface! I know Tokyo gets most Western visitor’s attention, but for us, Kyoto definitely reigned supreme. One of the unexpected delights for us was definitely our day-trip to Nara, which definitely gave us a sense of “Old World” Japan that I think is getting increasingly more difficult to find.

    How did you manage that shot at Sanjusangen-do Temple? When we went, they were very adamant and diligent about ensuring that nobody took any kind of photos within the temple itself!

    1. yeah Kyoto needs two weeks i think. such a dynamic city….we just sent our friend Deb there for a whirlwind tour! so with regards to those photos…you are right they were super strict….but ya know…its a thrill sneaking photos where you aren’t supposed to. the hardest part was hiding behind the pillars because every other opening had a security video camera overhead. diligent is RIGHT!

  6. Wow. This looks like such an unbelievable trip! Please tell Kazu that the team at Couchsurfing HQ says hi!

    1. Marian, wow thanks for taking the time to come over and read it blog and leave a comment. So you work at CS? Can you tell the team we fell in so much love with CS in New Zealand and Australia that we decided to extend our trip another 150 days to include about 8 European countries. Thanks for the comment, hope to have you along for the journey, either on the blog email updates or through Facebook (links to both below).

      Have a great week Marian,

  7. Rashaad Jorden says:

    I love the photos of Kyoto!

    Is Kyoto a vibrant city at night? I spent five days/four nights in the Kansai region the end of 2008/beginning of 2009, but I only spent one night in Kyoto (I spent the other three in Osaka), and I never really explored it at night.
    It seems like you explored the more rural areas of Kyoto. It’s great seeing images of Fushimi Inari Taisha. I once rang in the New Year there, and my short time was crazy.

  8. MICHAEL & ANNE, WOW this looks unbelievable. Your trip is so AMAZING.
    Your father is looking in saying “Way To Go Michael Patrick”.

  9. Gadi Tun Beinginawe says:

    Great post, guys!

    We are planning our RTW trip now and will definitely use your site

    as a guidebook 🙂

    We are glad to hear that couch-surfing is kicking and screaming in Japan too .

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