Kyoto is one of my favourite places in Japan. OK so I have many favourite places but I can’t fly into Japan without at least a few nights in this beautiful city. It’s an amazing place to immerse yourself, relax and enjoy walking, eating, culture and history.
Kyoto doesn’t have a bad public transport system, arriving and leaving through Kyoto station is state of the art. Within the city the subway has two lines, one running north to south, the other east to west. Outside of that there are buses and the above ground train lines can be useful around the fringe. Despite that Kyoto is a city I like to enjoy mostly on foot. It’s flat, I feel very safe both day and night, it’s quite compact and the food is so darn good I need to work off those extra calories somehow.
This walking tour takes in many of the highlights of eastern Kyoto. It’s about a 10km walk with a dozen or so attractions along the way. That’s too many for many people to do in one day but if you’re short on time and feeling energetic it’s very possible and if not take it as inspiration, pick and choose those which appeal to you most or break it up and complete it over a couple of days, it’ll give you some ideas of what there is to see and do in the area. If you have any questions please ask either in the comments at the bottom or through our contact page, we love talking about Japan with you.
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A Walking Guide to Eastern Kyoto
Along our eastern Kyoto walking trail we’ll visit many highlights and a few special hidden gems. To learn more about each destination click on the read more link which will take you to a more detailed article on that destination.
Our starting point for this walking tour will be Kyoto Station, this area is an accommodation hub with many hotels located nearby and you can easily reach it by subway, train or bus. Of course you can pick up the tour at any point along the route or complete it in smaller sections that fit with your timing and energy levels on the day.
Kyoto station is futuristic and a destination in it’s own right. The design is so modern and inspired that there was a fair amount of debate in the heritage city around whether it was appropriate when it was first built but it somehow works and doesn’t detract at all from the incredible hisotry that surrounds it.
You’ll find multiple adjacent shopping centres including Isetan to the right of this photo and Porto accessed just down the stairs outside the door. There are hundreds of restaurants, some inside the station on the other side of the ticket gates, others in the shopping centres and if you go up the many banks of escalators to L10 you’ll find a ramen hall, on L11 you’ll find The Cube restaurant street and if you go up one more level you’ll come to the roof top garden for some fresh air and great views.
If you don’t mind hights I’d recommend checking out that glass sky bridge that crosses the the atrium and allows another perspective.
Once you’re done exploring here lets head off towards Higashiyama and the eastern hills.
Our first stop on this walking tour is Sanjusangendo. Perhaps I am a little predisposed to love this temple as it was our first stop on our very first visit to the city but I do highly recommend a stop here if you possibly can. The history of this ancient temple goes all the way back to 1164, it’s main hall is beautiful and it has a small but gorgeous Japanese garden. What is most incredible about Sanjusangendo though is once you step inside that main hall. You will need to take off your shoes and leave then in a cubby hole at the entrance then entre the main part of the temple.
The temple houses 1001 almost life sized carved and gold plated images of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. It’s quite overwhelming so take your time to look around and take in all the detail, there are also carvings of 28 Buddist dieties, and two gardians, the gods of wind and thunder. The centre image of the temple dates back to 1254 and is a 3.3 metre seated statue of Kannon.
Kiyomizudera and Chawan-Zaka
Moving on to our next stop we head north and slightly further east towards Kiyomizudera Temple. You arrive via Chawan-zaka or teapot lane, this is a narrow paved shopping street with wooden merchant houses on either side converted into small stores and restaurants. The approach is quite steep but you can always reward yourself with a small treat on the way up or stop to browse in the shops. There is a shop that sells the BEST Shu Cremu, choux pastries filled with a variety of custard like fillings including seasonal ones like my favourite, sakura. A bit further up a land branches to the left and just down here is a tiny store front that offers nikuman that are absolutely delicious as a small savoury treat to warm up on a cooler day.
Kiyomizudera temple complex was founded in 798 and is very extensive. It includes Jishu Shrine, the main temple with its enormous wooden deck all built without the use of nails, a dramatic pagoda, the Otowa-no-taki waterfall that may grant blessings to those who drink from it and a variety of other temple buildings and attractions.
Yasaka-no-to Pagoda and Ryozen Kannon Temple
From Kiyomizudera temple we wind further north through the Higashiyama district, there is so much to see and discover as you wander through the laneways. Yasaka pagoda is part of Hokan-ji Temple, as you approach through the old neighbourhood you can really appreciate the ornate pagoda looming up before you, it was originally founded in 589 by Imperial Prince Shotoku.
Just around the corner another dramatic piece is the statue of the bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokitesvara) goddess of mercy. This is part of the Ryozen Kannon temple, a war memorial erected in 1955 to those lost in the Pacific War. I found this an emotional place to visit, it includes a memorial to the unknown soldier, representing the 48,000 foreign soldiers who lost their lives on terriotory under Japanese control during WWII. You are provided with a stick of incense at the entry to offer your own prayer or take a moment in silent contemplation.
Yasaka Shrine, Maruyama Park and Gion
Continuing north you may want to detour a little west as you reach Yasaka Shrine along Shijo Dori, the district of Gion lies behind this street to the right and left. It’s a lovely place to wander through the cobbled streets of tradtional homes and tea houses. You’ll also find plenty of lunch and coffee shop options both on the main street and throughout this area.
Retracing you way back to Shijo Dori and crossing Higashi Oji Dori you will find yourself at the gates of Yasaka Shrine, the main Shrine of the Gion area and one that hosts many events during the year. This shrine is particularly important to the local community including Geisha in the area who will regularly participate in events here. We saw Maiko perform on the main stage here on the eve of Setsubun, it was a community event, very busy but mostly attended by locals. When you have had a look around continue out the back gate into Maruyama Park. This is a popular park especially during cherry blossom season when it lit weeping cherry takes pride of place.
Continuing out of the park through the northern gate you will arrive at Choin-in and then Shoren-in. Both are worthy stops at any time of year but are especially stunning locations for autumn colours.
Slightly further northeast is the sprawling Nanzen-ji a zen temple at the base of the Higashiyama mountains just south of the start of the Philosophers path. The grounds are free to enter but various temples and sub-temples on the grounds have a entry fee. It’s particularly beautiful in spring and summer but it’s gardens are worth a visit any time. The massive Sanmon gate shown here was built in 1628 by the Tokogawa clan as a memorial to the soldiers who died in the seige at Osaka Castle.
Next to Nanzen-ji is Eikan-do, one of the temples I am most looking forward to revisiting on our upcoming autumn leaves itinerary. It has many interersting small temples and attractions throughout the grounds and the gardens are beautifully kept. We’ve been told the colours here can be something extra special. I just hope we get the timing right, seasons can be a fickle thing.
The Philosophers Path
Running along a section of the Lake Biwa canal the Philosophers path was a favourite walking path of the Kyoto University Philosophy Professor Nishida Kitaro who would walk the 2 kilometre path twice a day. It really would be a fabulous work commute and although it’s most popular during the cherry blossom season it is an attractive spot all year round and much more peaceful when the cherry trees aren’t in bloom.
This is a small temple set back from the Philosophers Path into the base of the Higashiyama Mountains. Sitting in the shadow of the eastern hills it is damp and mossy and very beautiful. You can enter the temple grounds but the temple itself only has a few special openings throughout the year so we were lucky to make it to one of these.
Contrary to its popular name the silver pavillion isn’t covered in silver leaf as the nearby Kinkaku-ji is covered in gold but this temple has great gardens and an important place in the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan and many of the Japanese arts including the tea ceremony.
Ginkaku-ji is the last stop on our eastern Kyoto walking trail. We hope you enjoy exploring this incredible area as much as we do. If you’ve done enough walking for the day at this point you can easily catch a bus back to central Kyoto or the station from here.
5 Handy Tips for Exploring Kyoto on foot
1 Old school map. Even if you have a data plan and Google maps on your phone it’s worth picking up a paper map to have in your bag. You can pick them up for free at your hotel or at the information centre inside Kyoto Station.
2 Shoes selection. Wear flat comfortable shoes, buy some especially for your trip if you have to. In Japan people walk a lot and you’re going to enjoy your holiday a whole lot more if you feet aren’t aching and blistered.
3 Try local treats. Eating your way around Kyoto is a big part of the enjoyment. Allow time in your day to stop regularly, try a new tea or coffee shop, sit down for a lunch experience, a treat at the market or small store. Street food isn’t as common in Japan as it is in other parts of Asia but where you find it during festivals and near attractions it’s generally really good.
4 Slow down. To enjoy the experience of the old city you will need some time. Rather than ticking off 20 guide book attractions in a day try to allow time to wander down the lane ways and take the odd ‘wrong’ turn. It’s a very safe city so you won’t end up somewhere you’d rather not be.
5 Getting Home. Take a business card from your accommodation when you check in. It’ll have the name and location written in Japanese. Japanese taxi drivers rarely speak English in our experience so you can hand them the card. If you get really lost it will help someone direct you accurately on your way home.
We hope you enjoy this walking Kyoto tour of eastern Kyoto with us. It’s a beautiful and fascinating area to discover and on foot on your own timetable is the best way to do it. If you’ve enjoyed exploring eastern Kyoto you may also like our central Kyoto walking tour at 8.5km including taking in Nijo Castle, the Imperial Palace, 2 historical geisha districts, a foodies market and more.
Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments section below or share what’s your favourite place to visit in Kyoto is and why?