With its charming wooden tea houses, vibrant food scene and over 2,000 temples and shrines (yes you read that correctly!), Kyoto remains Japan’s cultural capital, even after the political title was given to Tokyo in 1868.
The city is a dream destination for those who love to wander and discover — and snap photos along the way. Let this handful of Kyoto destinations guide your path and turn your Instagram into a visual feast.
1. Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine Trail
Love to hike? Well, you will never forget the stunning trail that links the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine, founded in 711, to the summit of Mount Inari just outside the city. The pathway’s thousands of vermillion torii (arches) were each donated by individuals and businesses to honor Inari, the god of rice, who has long been worshipped as the patron of business. The trail’s bright forms, shifting shadows and varied perspectives are a photographer’s dream.
2. Gion District
The picturesque streets of Kyoto’s Gion district are not to be missed. Known as the city’s entertainment district, it’s studded with traditional teahouses (ochaya) and theaters, including Minamiza Kabuki Theater with its ornate façade and gabled roof. Gion is also Kyoto’s most famous geisha district — if the stars align, you may catch a glimpse of one of the elegantly attired female entertainers, known for singing, dancing and lighthearted conversation, or one of her apprentices (called a maiko) on the way to work.
3. Arashiyama (Bamboo and Kimono Forests)
This one’s a twofer: On the western outskirts of Kyoto lies Arashiyama, a Japanese government-designated historic site and “place of scenic beauty” that holds two of Japan’s most beautiful forests.
The Bamboo Forest is iconic for its soaring trees — some reaching 20 meters high — and the dreamy 500-meter path that cuts through them all. The densely lined trail feels like something out Oz’s Emerald City, and it’s also the go-between for the Nonomiya Shrine (mentioned in the 11th Century novel “The Tale of Genji”) and the scenic Tenryuji Temple.
The second forest of sorts is manmade but still captivating, especially for those obsessed with Japanese textiles. A series of 600 fabric-wrapped pillars in the Randen Arashiyama train station, the colorful “grove” created by artist Yasumichi Morita displays the Kyo-Yuzen fabric-dying technique used since the Taisho period to create the traditional kimonos we associate with Japan today. If you happen to be there at dusk, the pillars illuminate from within thanks to LED lights, casting a warm — and oh-so-photogenic — glow.
4. Kinkakuji Temple
Go for the gold by visiting northern Kyoto (about a 20-minute drive from Arashiyama) to check out one of Japan’s most tantalizing landmarks, the Kinkakuji Temple. Also referred to as the Golden Pavilion, the Zen temple’s top two floors are covered in gold leaf and glitter like an impossibly massive jewel against the green landscape. When you enter the 700-year-old structure, you may want to zoom in on the architectural details, as each level represents a distinct style from a historical era, including the Heian and Edo periods.
5. Rurikoin Temple
About an hour by train from Kyoto, Rurikoin Temple is worth the trip. Located in the village of Yase at the base of Kyoto’s Mount Hiei, it’s open only during the spring and fall. That’s when the lush surrounding flora is at its peak and framed perfectly by the temple’s expansive floor-to-ceiling windows. Once you are finished snapping away at the heart-stopping view from the second floor, wander through the site’s surrounding gardens — and snap some more!