No grit, no pearl”.
Sometimes the most beautiful of places require the most research and effort to get to. This can definitely be said about places I consider to be Kyoto hidden gems – personally, I found the most fascinating sights were the ones well off the beaten track and in the outskirts of the city. There’s nothing like delving deeper into a destination to see the true side of it and get a glimpse into the local way of life. That’s what being an Invisible Tourist is all about, after all!
So if you’re planning a trip to Japan, you’ve come to the right place 😌 I’m certain by the end of this article you’ll want to add at least some of these 7 wonders to to your top things to do in Kyoto – including the bonus gem that’s hidden in plain sight!
What are some Kyoto hidden gems?
I trawled the entirety of TripAdvisor, Japan-Guide.com and Lonely Planet’s Discover Japan when I planned my trip to uncover these hidden treasures of Kyoto. The experiences were very rewarding and I’m so glad I made the effort to visit them.
Luckily for you, you can relax… I did all the Kyoto sightseeing research to find them so you don’t have to! 😉
If you’re interested in working these gems into your Kyoto visit, some of these are mentioned in my detailed 4 Days in Kyoto itinerary so I also recommend taking a look there. Tailored especially for first-time visitors, it includes how to get around, where to stay, other things to do, what to eat, how to overcome the language barrier and more!
Let’s uncover 6 hidden gems of Kyoto in no particular order (plus a bonus!):
#1 Daigo-ji, South-Eastern Kyoto
Daigo-ji Temple & Gardens 醍醐寺 are a great place to start off your day of exploring Japan’s ancient capital. This Kyoto hidden gem is easily overlooked by other travellers as it’s quite isolated in the southern outskirts of the city.
Here, you’ll find a traditional Japanese bridge leading up to a small temple overlooking a pond. With a backdrop of countless Japanese maples, you can be guaranteed to get many picture-perfect shots during your visit. Exploring the grounds further up the mountainside is also possible, and this would be another great spot to visit during Autumn to watch the leaves change from green to red 🍂 You may even spot a few turtles in the pond!
Cost: Adults JPY 1,500 yen (March 20 – May 15 & October 15 – December 10) JPY 800 during the rest of the year.
Getting there: Approx 35mins from Sanjo to Daigo Metro stations on Tozai Line, then an easy 15min walk from Daigo Metro to the temple.
#2 Laneways of Gion, Central Kyoto
Located right in the heart of Kyoto’s Geisha district in Southern Higashiyama, you’ll find these quaint laneways and residences that will give you a little glimpse at the city’s traditional architecture. These structures date as far back as the Middle Ages and were built to house travellers and guests as they were passing through to the nearby Yasaka Shrine.
I’m classifying these Gion laneways as hidden gems because aside from my travel buddy and I, there wasn’t another soul exploring them!
Getting there: From Higashiyama Station 東山駅, these laneways are about a 15 minute southward walk, in the direction of Kiyomizu-dera and Sannen-zaka. More info on these places in my 2 Weeks in Japan Itinerary here.
#3 Streets of Arashiyama, Northern Kyoto
There are a few little treasures to be found in the Arashiyama area, in Kyoto’s far north-western outskirts. I mention the Arashiyama area a few times in this article because so many people visit the Bamboo Groves and Monkey Park without venturing out a little further to discover what life is really like away from the tourists and selfie sticks.
Wandering the backstreets of the Ukyō-ku ward is an ideal way to capture a glimpse of local life in Kyoto. The traditional architecture of the residences, random vending machines selling beer and even rickshaws were such exciting “I’m in Japan!” moments for me. The best part is these quiet backstreets are on the way to Gio-ji and Adashino Nambutsu-ji which I’ll mention below.
Getting there: These backstreets lie between the Bamboo Groves and Gio-ji, north of the train line.
#4 Gio-ji Temple & Moss Garden, Northern Kyoto
Although Gio-ji Temple & Moss Garden 祇王寺 can be found in the popular neighbourhood of Arashiyama, it is easily overlooked by other travellers. Why? It’s approximately 3.2 kilometres away from the Bamboo Groves, which is quite a walk if you don’t have a bicycle!
In saying that, my travel buddy and I did make the walk to this hidden gem and I must say the gardens are truly beautiful. Emerald moss covers almost every ground surface and depending on the time of year you visit you may also see contrasting purple flowers dotted throughout the grounds. The isolated location means the temple and grounds are very peaceful and you may have the place all to yourself. It’s definitely worth the visit.
Getting there: If you’re not up for walking, perhaps hire a bicycle and ride there instead. Kyoto Option bicycle rental shop is 1 minute walk from Kyoto train station. Alternatively, if you’re curious about the cost of catching a taxi you can check out this great little Taxi Fare Calculator for Kyoto.
Cost: Adults JPY 300
#5 Adashino Nenbutsu-ji, Northern Kyoto
Another lovely little shrine in the Arashiyama neighbourhood is Adashino Nembutsu-ji 化野念仏寺. I believe the purpose of this shrine deserves your attention, I’d not heard this idea before. Each stone in the grounds represents a person who passed away without a next-of-kin. On a positive note, these people who may have otherwise been forgotten are remembered once a year with a small ceremony. I thought that was such beautiful idea!
Adashino Nembutsu-ji is a great hidden gem in Kyoto, especially if you’re planning on visiting during the Autumn months. Many of the surrounding trees were beginning to transform into orange and red hues during my visit at the end of summer.
Cost: Adults JPY 500
Getting there: Approx 10min walk from Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens.
#6 Nanzen-ji, Eastern Kyoto
Not too far from Daigo-ji and surrounded by lovely green hills, you’ll find the unique Nanzen-ji 南禅寺 Gardens in Northern Higashiyama. Nanzen-ji temple dates back to the 13th century and is regarded as one of the most important Zen temples in Japan.
Also on the grounds is a massive working aqueduct that was constructed during the Meiji period in the 19th century. This aqueduct was built as part of a system that carried goods and water to neighbouring Lake Biwa. It reminded me of aqueducts that can be found over Europe.
You can access the top of the aqueduct and walk beside the running water for quite some time. On occasion the surrounding trees create a clearing with views across the city, which was great to see!
Cost: Adults JPY 500
Getting there: From Daigo-ji, walk back to Daigo 醍醐駅 Station and take the Tozai Line until you reach Keage 蹴上駅 Station (15mins). Nanzen-ji is around an 8 minute walk from Keage Station.
#7 Bonus: Shimbashi (Shirakawa Minami-dori), Central Kyoto
This lovely Gion ぎおん street is a Kyoto hidden gem for a different reason: because it’s actually hiding in plain sight in the Southern Higashiyama neighbourhood! While locals and tourists alike walk the street leading to the bridge along the canal here, many visitors wouldn’t realise Shimbashi is actually considered the “most beautiful street in Asia“. It is said that during spring is the most incredible time to visit as the entire street is lined with pink hues from the cherry blossoms.
Concluding Kyoto Hidden Gems
There you have my 7 Kyoto hidden gems! Which one was your favourite? Let me know which ones you plan on visiting in the comments below 🙂 If you’re still wanting more travel inspiration, take a look through my Japan Archives here.
Until next time,
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