If only more first-time visitors to Japan knew about the many Kyoto hidden gems, it could help ease overtourism issues at what I call the “Big 4” attractions! But, the most rewarding places require much research and effort to get to, so where to venture in Kyoto off the beaten path?

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. But there are also some overlooked spots to uncover near busy areas, which you’re about to find out.

To avoid crowds in Kyoto, it’s a great idea to add some of these alternatives to popular spots and cultural experiences 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! 

Stunning Kyoto Hidden Gems You Won't Want to Miss | The Invisible Tourist

If you’re planning a Japan trip 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.

I’ve also included unique local experiences to create your own Japanese souvenirs and enrich your trip. So if you’re keen to find out 16 hidden gems in Kyoto to avoid the tourist crowds, read on for more!

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Kyoto Hidden Gems You Won't Want to Miss | The Invisible Tourist
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TIP: If you’re also heading to Japan’s present-day capital, don’t miss my guide to Tokyo’s hidden gems, too.

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 first Japan trip a decade ago to uncover the hidden treasures of Kyoto. Each experience is very rewarding and I’m always so glad I make the effort to visit them.

Luckily for you, you can relax… Over the past decade I’ve revisited Japan multiple times to keep adding to this list, so 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.

Getting there: 5 mins walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Line.

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 off the beaten path!

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.

Getting there: 5 mins walk from Kennin-ji Temple along Yasaka-dori street.

Little-known Yasaka Kōshin-dō is one of the unique Kyoto hidden gems
 

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. 

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 groves 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 initials into the bamboo groves. This is a huge issue in Arashiyama, causing extensive damage to the bamboo. I kindly urge my readers to be respectful and “invisible,” so it can remain pristine for everyone to enjoy.

NOTE: Wild Japanese macaque monkeys are in this area, 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.

Getting there: 5 mins walk from Yasaka Koshin-do.

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!

Getting there: 5 mins walk from Gion-Shijo Station over the Kamogawa River.

Ine Mankai

Hidden bamboo groves around Fushimi Inari Shrine

Most tourists don’t realise they can tick off two significant Kyoto sights in one go at Fushimi Inari Taisha — the famous red torii tunnel and bamboo groves without having to travel an hour between each. However, Fushimi Inari’s bamboo groves are unknown to most foreign tourists, only being able to be found on a secluded local hike.

Knowing how busy Arashiyama’s Sagano Bamboo Forest is these days, it felt like I was using a massive cheat sheet to experience bamboo groves in Kyoto without crowds here.

The best part? The tour guided us along a hidden path to Fushimi Inari’s summit, where we learnt the significance of the shrines there, made wishes and enjoyed a lovely panoramic lookout over Kyoto — without barely anyone else in the entire 3 hours.

Hidden Bamboo Grove near Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari bamboo groves is one of the hidden gems in Kyoto

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!

Getting there: 10 mins walk from Daigo Station on the Tozai Line.

Daigo-ji

Daigo-ji, Kyoto

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.

Getting there: 15 mins walk from Keage Station on the Tozai Line.

Ema at Okazaki Shrine, Kyoto

Forgotten Fushimi Momoyama Castle

While overlooked by most visitors to Kyoto today, perhaps you would never guess that this now abandoned structure was the site of one of Japan’s bloodiest and most significant turning points during the Warring States Period (1467 – 1615).

Originally built in 1594, the floorboards of Fushimi Momoyama Castle were stained with blood from ritual seppuku by Tokugawa Ieyasu’s soldiers after an 11 day siege against enemy Ishida Mitsunari. It was this act that contributed to Tokugawa winning the Battle of Sekigahara, ultimately reunifying Japan.

To honour his men who made the ultimate sacrifice, Tokugawa as Shogun ordered the blood-stained floorboards to be reused as ceilings in temples across Kyoto. You can still see these stained ceilings at Genkō-an, Hōsen-in, and Yōgen-in.

Getting there: 20 mins walk from Tamabashi Station on the Keihan Main Line.

TIP:On approach to the castle, don’t follow Google Maps’ lead because it will walk you around the back to the left. Stay to the right and enter through the front entrance, which has an old gate.

Stunning azaleas at local Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine

Fellow azalea lovers, you can’t afford to miss this shrine in spring! Known as tsutsuji つつじ in Japanese, the azaleas at Nagaoka Tenmagu Shrine are some of the most impressive (and tall) I’ve ever seen, and some of the most beloved in Japan. It’s no wonder, since they are 150 years old!

The shrine is dedicated to Sugawara-no Michizane, a poet and scholar during the Heian Period (794–1185). At the shrine’s entrance, expansive Hachijoga-ike Pond features vibrant red kaiseki restaurants that appear to float on the water’s surface. Cross its arched stone bridges to enjoy the expansive gardens.

Due to the main torii gate facing west, this is one of the nicest sunset spots in Kyoto. The name means a shrine that is “hard to leave,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Getting there: 10 mins walk from Nagaoka Tenjin Station on the Hankyu-Kyoto line.

Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine is a stunning hidden gem in Kyoto during spring

Nagaoka Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto off the beaten path

Scattered Daruma dolls at Daruma-dera

Also known as Horin-ji and dating back a century, I had the entire temple all to myself during a spring visit, which is the busiest time of year in Kyoto. With the grounds doted with around 8,000 Daruma dolls, worshippers here pray for a long and happy life. 

Based on a Buddhist monk from centuries ago, Daruma talismen represent perseverance and resilience; they jolt upright again after being knocked over. It’s fun to wander through and find Daruma in all shapes and sizes at Horin-ji. Don’t miss the painting of Daruma on the ceiling of the main hall!

Horinji Temple (Darumadera) in Kyoto off the beaten path

Rare golden torii of Mikane Shrine

Hoping to send some financial success your way? Gold is the symbol for this in Japanese culture, while the ginkgo leaves symbolise prosperity. Both these things can be found at Mikane Shrine (Mikane-jinja), it’s rare golden torii stealing the show.

The Sun goddess Amaterasu is enshrined here alongside the Moon god Tsukuyomi. The god of blacksmiths and metals is, too! If you’re planning to visit Nijo Castle (which is one of the most underrated attractions in Kyoto in my opinion), Mikane Shrine is just a few moments’ walk away.

Getting there: 5 mins walk from Nijojo-mae Station on the Tozai Line.

TIP: I recommend visiting from 17:00 onwards, after the Nijo Castle crowds are gone for the day. This shrine is in a residential area popular with locals, and the shop directly opposite has lined traffic cones prohibiting people from loitering on their property. To “be invisible,” visit inside the shrine to make a wish, take a quick photo and be on your way.

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 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.

Backstreets of Arashiyama

Japanese Rickshaw

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 20 mins walk from the Bamboo Groves, which the majority of tourists aren’t bothered to do!

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. Ranbura Bicycle Rental beside Arashiyama Station on the Randen tram line. Alternatively, if you’re curious about the cost of catching a taxi you can check out this great little Taxi Fare Calculator for Kyoto.

Kyoto hidden gems: Gio-ji moss gardens

Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens

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.

Adashino Nenbutsu-ji

Adashino Nembutsu-ji

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.

Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji's working aqueduct

BONUS 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 Shirokawa 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, and vibrant azaleas afterwards.

TIP: Don’t miss the mini shrine opposite Tatsumi Bridge called Tatsumi Dai-myojin. I completely walked past in during my two summer trips to Kyoto as it was hidden by leafy tree branches. It was only with the bare trees on a winter visit I noticed the shrine’s torii there!

Shimbashi in Gion, Kyoto - Most Beautiful Street in Asia

Gion Shinbashi (Tatsumi) Bridge, Gion Kyoto

Kyoto hidden gems such as Shimbashi-dori can sometimes be hiding in plain sight!

 

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, my free Japanese for tourists cheat sheet, what you should pack for Japan, day trips from Kyoto, my Japan two week itinerary for first time visitors, 3 week Japan itinerary which explores off the beaten track, honeymoon itinerary for Japan, or even my guide to places to visit in Japan that are off the beaten path.

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, come and join my free Japan Off the Beaten Path Facebook Group, share it on Facebook, Pinterest or follow me on TikTok and Instagram for more Japan inspiration!

Until next time,

The Invisible Tourist

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28 Comments

  1. I was just in Kyoto days ago and you really cant see it all in a day. I have to choose the important ones since I was only there for a day trip. It was very tiring but worth it. I didn’t see the shrine/ temple with rabbits. But got to see the one with pompoms. Have to go back someday for more shrines and temples. Thanks for sharing your travel.

    1. So glad you got to see Yasaka Koshin-do at least, MB! Hopefully you’ll be able to return someday and see more. Thanks for reading 😊

    1. There is so much in Kyoto, it’s not really possible to see much in a single day! Hopefully I’ve encouraged you to spend a little time off the beaten path. Thanks for your comment, flor 🙂

  2. Wonderful Kyoto, i’m going to there in Mid of Nov 2018 but i just have 1 day to explore Kyoto, I think i will be disappointed not have much time to explore after see your beautiful picture ( hidden gems )

    1. The main thing is that you are going, nhr! Just try to be prepared before you go so you can make the most of the time you have. The things you don’t see this time are a good reason to go back again 😉 Have a great trip!

  3. Awesome listing here. I’ve been to 4 of these and I found them equally as atmospheric as the major hotspots, but far more serene. All were easily reached too.

    1. Thanks so much, Scribbling Geek! I definitely agree about these gems being just as atmospheric yet more serene that the hotspots 🙂

  4. Thank you for the insightful article. When I think of traveling I’ve always thought of being invisible and finding gems that tourist guides overlook. Goi-Ji moss forest is a favorite, actually every destination you shared above is exquisite, I see myself visiting all of them when I visit Japan in 2021

    1. It sounds like you’re an Invisible Tourist too! 🙂 I agree about Gio-ji as well, it was definitely worth the massive walk to get there. It’s truly beautiful. You’ve got lots of time to plan your trip – very exciting. I hope you have a wonderful time in Japan!

  5. Great one… this looks really amazing & honestly I don’t wanna miss this any case.

    Thanks for sharing this post !

  6. I was in Kyoto this summer but for such a short time I feel like I saw nothing! This is a great post, saving it since I definitely have to go back to see all these things 🙂

  7. I love finding hidden gems!! And when someone does it for me it makes it wven betywr. I wish I had this when I was in Japan but good inscentive to plan a new trip. I love how al these places are so peaceful and awe inspiring. Great post!!

  8. The Daigo-ji temple has to be my favorite gem in Kyoto, it looks so peaceful there. I would like to walk along the streets of Arashiyama as well, and discover the local life of the city, away from the tourists.

    1. Daigo-ji is so lovely, isn’t it! I’d love to go back when the Autumn leaves are in full swing. The red hues would be so incredible to see. Thanks for your comment, Joanna!

  9. Kyoto looks so amazing, I think if I were to ever visit Japan, this is definitely where I would go as the big cities hold less appeal for me. The gardens especially look so serene and calming!

  10. Beautiful pictures, great post! Never been to Kyoto or Hapan before, but would definitely love to go! I think my favourite would be the mossy forrest! That looks and sounds absolutely stunning!

    1. Thanks, Jacqueline! Yes Gio-ji Moss Gardens were so incredibly beautiful and tranquil. I hope you get to visit Japan someday 🙂

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