“No grit, no pearl.” ~ Ernest Hemingway.
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 – while there are some great, almost secret spots in Kyoto, I personally I found the most fascinating sights were the ones well off the beaten track and in the outskirts of the city.
To avoid crowds, it’s a great idea to add some of these places to your Kyoto itinerary. 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 and looking for non touristy things to do in Kyoto, 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 wonders to to your top things to do in Kyoto – including the bonus gem that’s hiding in plain sight. If you’re also heading to Japan’s present-day capital, don’t miss my guide to Tokyo’s hidden gems, too.
I’ve also included some activities to experience around some of these spots to enrich your trip. If you’re keen to find out 11 hidden gems in Kyoto to avoid the crowds, read on for more!
This post contains some affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Stunning Kyoto hidden gems you won’t want to miss
As I love researching any destination in-depth before I visit, I trawled the entirety of the interwebs and used these Japan travel books when I planned my trip to uncover the hidden treasures of Kyoto. Each experience was very rewarding and I’m so glad I made the effort to visit them.
Luckily for you, you can relax… I’ve done 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.
With that out of the way, let’s uncover the hidden gems of Kyoto in no particular order (plus a bonus!):
Breathtaking artworks of Kennin-ji
Wondering what not to miss in Kyoto, especially if you’re a fellow art lover? Let it be this! While many temples and shrines in Kyoto are impressive for their own reasons, I was completely blown away at Kennin-ji 建仁寺 in Higashiyama. If you’re an art lover like me, this is definitely one not to miss just south of the Gion district.
As the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto dating back to the 13th century, Kennin-ji has great historical significance. It was founded by the buddhist monk Yousai who introduced Zen Buddhism (and green tea) to Japan after his studies in China.
Inside the complex are several rooms to explore with traditional tatami mats surrounded by amazing painted imagery of landscapes and dragons decorating the sliding screen doors. Kennin-ji also houses one of Japan’s most famous artworks, the Wind and Thunder Gods by Sotatsu – a National Treasure. To be honest, my pictures here don’t do any artworks’ vibrancy any justice!
The star of the show can be found in the temple’s main hall, with a painting of two fierce dragons intertwined on the ceiling. Being the size of 108 tatami mats, I stood there for ages in complete awe at the attention to detail! These dragons are a new addition to the temple, having been commissioned in 2002 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Kennin-ji.
Colourful “pom poms” of Yasaka Kōshin-dō
Now for one of the most vibrant places to see in Kyoto. Known colloquially as the “pom pom temple”, you’ll quickly realise these colourful balls adorning Yasaka Koshin-do (full name Daikoku-san Kongo-ji Koshin-do) 八坂庚申堂 aren’t pom poms at all. They depict monkeys actually, and may be a fun one to see when visiting Kyoto with kids!
Have you heard of the Three Wise Monkeys in folklore? This small temple tucked away in the Higashiyama neighbourhood behind Kiyomizu-dera is dedicated to the guardian warrior of these monkeys. The vibrant balls tied to the temple are known in Japanese as kukurizaru, a monkey with bound hands and feet.
In order for the temple to grant your wish, the custom is to control your “wilder side” by writing one desire you want to sacrifice on a kukurizaru and leave it at the temple. It’s believed that by taming this desire, it will disappear and your wish will come true. It’s definitely one of the more unusual things to do in Kyoto!
NOTE: As this small temple is located within a quiet residential area, please be respectful to its neighbours. It’s a good idea to keep noise to a minimum in order to not detract from the spiritual ambience here.
Hidden pubs along Ponto-chō’s alleyways
Something I love about Kyoto (and I think many other visitors do, too) is how the narrow alleyways of Ponchoto Ponto-chō 先斗町 become mysterious yet alluring after dusk. On the opposite side of Kamogawa River to popular Gion, Pontocho is packed with bars, eateries and tea houses that mostly locals tend to visit. It’s the unseen Kyoto for visitors who only do a quick day trip!
To foreigners, the dark buildings shrouded in secrecy can be a little intimidating from the outside if you can’t read Japanese. How can you tell if it’s a teahouse, bar or restaurant?
Take it from me, it helps to have a local on hand to take you to the best hidden izakaya (Japanese pubs) to sample regional specialties such as sake, beer, whiskey, sakana (pub snacks) and much more.
If you’re a lover of Japanese pub-style food and local beverages, Pontocho is the perfect place to go bar hopping and maybe spot a geisha or two! Read more about how I discovered a rare red sake exclusive to Kyoto and how I found a local who knew where I could try it in my guide to bar hopping in Kyoto at night, or book your own here.
Crowd-free bamboo groves of Kodai-ji
Kodai-ji is an impressive temple in itself, but its grounds hold a little-known alternative to a popular Kyoto attraction. Built in the 17th century temple to honour Hideyoshi, an important figure in Japan’s history, Kodai-ji’s “dragon’s back” boardwalk is its most well-known feature.
If you venture beyond the obvious, the grounds of Kodai-ji exhibit small twin teahouses designed by Sen-no-Rikyu, founder of the tea ceremony in Japan. They are considered Important Cultural Properties of the country by the Japanese government. Nearby the teahouses, the mausoleum holds a shrine in memory of Hideyoshi and his wife, Nene.
Throughout Japan out of respect, photos of deities inside shrines such as this aren’t permitted but the details of the woodwork decorating this building are exquisite.
Once you’re done exploring the grounds, make sure you don’t forget to take Nene’s path through the peaceful bamboo groves back into Higashiyama’s streets. This is a much less crowded experience than you would expect at the famous Sagano Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama. You should even be able to get photos without other people in them!
TIP: Please don’t be that annoying tourist by carving your initials into the bamboo groves. Overtourism in Kyoto has meant this is a huge issue in Arashiyama, causing extensive damage to the bamboo there. I kindly urge you to be respectful of this otherwise untouched area so it can remain pristine for everyone to enjoy.
NOTE: Wild Japanese macaque monkeys are in this area and they have been known to frequent the forest surrounding the temple. Signs throughout the temple grounds warn the monkeys will bite, so do not make eye contact, take photos or smile (bare your teeth) at them as they consider this threatening. They aren’t as used to humans as the ones in Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano.
Tranquil scenery at Daigo-ji
Daigo-ji Temple & Gardens 醍醐寺 are a great place to start one of your days exploring Japan’s ancient capital. This Kyoto hidden gem is easily overlooked by other travellers, especially day-trippers, 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!
Quiet laneways of Gion
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 the traditional buildings in the Gion laneways as hidden gems because if you venture far enough into the exciting mazes as I have, you’ll be surprised to not see other tourists 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.
Adorable rabbits of Okazaki Shrine
It wasn’t until my third visit to Kyoto that I discovered adorable Okazaki Shrine. Not too far from the famous Heian Shrine, Okazaki-jinja was once one of the four shrines that marked as “compass” point across the city during the Heian Period in the 8th century (when Heian-kyo was Kyoto’s former name).
Dedicated to rabbits and child birth, the shrine is filled with adorable little bunnies left by worshippers. During my trip to Japan in winter, they were covered in a snowy blanket, and still smiling! It’s definitely one of the more unique things to do in Kyoto.
Backstreets 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.
Lush moss gardens of Gio-ji
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, this is the definition exploring Kyoto off the beaten path so my partner and I did make the walk there. I must say the garden is truly one of the most beautiful places in Kyoto: 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 and one of the more quiet places in Kyoto, in my experience.
TIP: 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.
Unique meaning of Adashino-Nenbutsu-ji
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, and this temple is definitely one of the Kyoto secret spots most tourists overlook.
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.
Getting there: Approx 10min walk from Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens.
Incredible aqueduct of Nanzen-ji
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!
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.
Hiding in plain sight: Shimbashi (Shirakawa Minami-dori)
While this is certainly not Kyoto off the beaten track, 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. You’re likely to recognise this street if you’ve seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha.
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 these incredible hidden gems in Kyoto
There you have my incredible Kyoto hidden gems! While there are many dotted around the outskirts of hidden Kyoto, you also don’t have to venture too far from the city centre to find some. Which one was your favourite? Let me know which ones you plan on visiting in the comments below 🙂
If you’re after more travel inspiration, itineraries and advice for planning your trip, take a look through my Japan travel blog featuring more hidden gems and off the beaten path locations throughout the country.
I hope I’ve inspired you to explore off the beaten track Kyoto and embrace some non-touristy things to do there. If you found this helpful please share it on Facebook, Pinterest or join me on TikTok and Instagram for more Japan inspiration!
Until next time,
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