Kyoto districts: Nine best for sightseeing, food and culture 

Kyoto is a city suspended in time, a place where traditional wooden homes line cobblestone streets and historic teahouses rub shoulders with contemporary restaurants and boutiques. This is the ultimate guide to Kyoto districts. 

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for 1000 years. Although it relinquished its title in 1868, the city is still known as the cultural heartland where tradition holds steadfast against the onslaught of modernity. Located on the island of Honshu, Kyoto is home to Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces, gardens and bewitching towns, some of which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Kyoto districts showcase traditional Japanese architecture, cobblestone streets and lush natural landscapes next to contemporary hubs of restaurants, retailers and entertainment venues. The best way to experience all the ancient city has to offer is by spending a little time in each of Kyoto’s districts. 

Gion Hanamikoji Street, Higashiyama, Kyoto.
Gion Hanamikoji Street, Higashiyama, Kyoto. ©Unsplash/Jay

North and south Higashiyama: Historic architecture and temples

Tucked into the base of the eastern mountains, the Kyoto districts of north and south Higashiyama stretch from southern Shichijo-dori to northern Sanjo-dori. Known for its wonderfully preserved historical architecture, Higashiyama has temples and ancient laneways, and buts up against one of Kyoto’s main geisha districts, Gion. In Higashiyama, visitors will find one of the most famous temples of Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera – a beautiful example of Edo-period religious architecture – which is near the charming shopping streets of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka. Lined with traditional timber buildings occupied by local artisans selling crafts, treats and other wares, walking the streets of Higashiyama is like stepping back in time. 

Things to do in Higashiyama:

Nene no Michi is a pedestrian walkway connecting the two principal shopping streets of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka. Filled with temples and tea houses, it leads to Maruyama Park where cherry blossoms bloom in spring. While visiting this Kyoto district, stop in at Kōdai-ji temple, the Instagrammable Ishibe-kōji street, the Kennin-ji Buddhist temple, and Kyoto Ebisu Shrine

Kiyozumi-dera, Kyoto
Kiyozumi-dera ©Unsplash/Su San Lee

Gion: Iconic sights and geiko culture

Located at the northwest end of Higashiyama, Gion is a small Kyoto district with a strong geiko (geisha) culture and several UNESCO World Heritage sites. The township of Gion has been perfectly preserved, allowing visitors to immerse themselves within the streets lined with latticed timber shop fronts and sudare (bamboo veranda screens). Gion has three key areas, Shijo Avenue which has modern retailers, Hanami-koji, and the beautiful locale of Shirakawa where upscale restaurants, inns and teahouses can be found. Perched on the banks of the Kamo River, Gion is a great location from which to base a trip to Kyoto as it’s within walking distance of central Kyoto, Higashiyama hills and Pontōcho. 

Things to do in Gion: 

Be sure to see the most famous shrine in the Gion area, Yasaka Shrine, the iconic five-storied pagoda, Yasaka Tower, Tatsumi Bridge which was made famous by the film Memoirs of a Geisha, and the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Kenninji Temple, at the end of picturesque Hanami Lane. 

The Gion Matsuri is a festival of prayers for protection against plagues and natural disasters, centred around Yasaka Shrine and held annually in Kyoto. It’s one of the country’s most renowned and vibrant cultural celebrations spanning the entire month of July. The event includes tea ceremonies, theatre performances, traditional music concerts and food stalls.

Geiko in Gion, Kyoto.
Geiko in Gion. ©Unsplash/Boudewijn Huysmans

Fushimi: Torii gates and sake 

Nestled in the south of Kyoto along the road that leads to Osaka, Fushimi is a hilly Kyoto district known for sake production. While many tourists venture into Fushimi to see the 1000 red gates of the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, those who explore further afield will be rewarded with flavourful riches. Central to Kyoto’s sake production for centuries, Fushimi has more than 20 breweries and an interesting history as the site where activist samurai fought for the restoration of imperial rule 150 years ago, leading to Japan’s modernisation. Note, the Fushimi Shrine complex gets extremely busy so the best time to visit is early weekday mornings. 

Things to do in Fushimi:

If visiting during the cherry blossom season of spring, consider taking a cruise on Lake Biwa Canal, which was built to carry water from Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture to Kyoto. Check out the Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum, or take a stroll through Ujigawa Park which hosts a cherry blossom festival in spring. Other points of interest in the district of Fushimi include Tofukuji and Daigoji temples and Fushimi Inari Sando shopping street. 

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Taisha ©Unsplash/Davis Emrich

Pontōcho: Food, drinks and good times

Running along the Kamo River, Pontōcho is a narrow yokocho (alley) close to Gion in downtown Kyoto. Accessible from four stations and hidden between the retail hubs of Shiji-dōri and Sanjo-dōri, Pontōcho is home to izakayas, bars, restaurants and teahouses. The atmospheric location comes to life at night when patrons sit elbow-to-elbow beneath glowing paper lanterns in alfresco kawayuka restaurants. This area serves as a suitable base for tourists looking to explore the traditional districts of Kyoto without compromising nightlife, as Pontōcho is within walking distance of Gion and some of Higashiyama’s historic sites. 

Things to do in Pontocho:

Pontōcho is home to a thriving geiko community and is one of only a few Kyoto districts to host Haru-no-Odori, the annual Maiko (apprentice Geiko) and Geiko spring dance performances that occur from late March to May. 

Pontōcho yokosho in Kyoto
Pontōcho. ©unsplash/Ayumi Kubo

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Kamigyo Ward: Escape the tourist traps

One of the two original wards, Kamigyo Ward is located in the heart of Kyoto and is one of the most peaceful Kyoto districts to visit. The quiet residential streets are home to Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and beautiful buildings that reflect the old-world charm of the city. The Imperial Palace and the west bank of the Kamo River fall within the boundaries of Kamigyo Ward, and the palace gardens are a stunning sight to behold during the spring sakura season, or during autumn when the leaves turn vivid shades of red and orange.

Things to do in Kamigyo Ward:

While the Imperial Palace is undoubtedly the key drawcard of this district, the Sentō Imperial Palace, Shiramine Shrine and Seimei Shrine are also tucked away within Kamigyo Ward. Shokoku-Ji temple is an ancient and major Zen Buddhism centre also worth visiting when in the area. 

Imperial Palace Garden, Kyoto
Imperial Palace Garden ©Unsplash/Martijn Baudoin

Downtown Kyoto: Retail therapy 

Downtown Kyoto is the perfect place to spend a rainy day. The small and walkable district is packed full of hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, clubs and covered arcades. Although there aren’t many historical sites or landmarks to see in Downtown Kyoto, the district does lay claim to Nishiki Market. Nicknamed ‘Kyoto’s pantry’ for its array of culinary delights and local produce, exploring the maze of vendors at is an essential experience for food enthusiasts.

Things to do in Downtown Kyoto:

Looking to indulge in a little retail therapy? Teramachi and Shinkyogoku arcades are two of the most popular shopping streets in Kyoto, and Daimaru is one of Kyoto’s largest and most opulent department stores for luxury retail, and all three are found Downtown. On the flip side, the best manga museum in Japan can also be found Downtown, at the Kyoto International Manga Museum

Nishiki Market, Kyoto
Nishiki Market ©Unsplash/Owen Roth

Central Kyoto: Convenience and ease of access 

Comprised of many smaller districts, Central Kyoto spans the wide plain of land in the centre of the city, excluding areas such as Downtown, Kyoto Station Area and Nishijin. It’s a convenient location from which visitors can find two key attractions, the Kyoto Gosho (Imperial Palace) and Nijo Castle, and Kyoto Botanical Gardens.  

Things to do in Central Kyoto:

Visit Funaoka Onsen, one of the best public bathhouses in Kyoto, or Kamigamo-jinja Shrine Handicraft Market, which is one of Kyoto’s least visited – but most historically important – shrines. To get a taste of local life, stroll through Sanjo-kai Shotengai shopping arcade where many old family-run stores are still operating. 

Nijo Castle, Kyoto
Nijo Castle ©Unsplash/Eleonora Albasi

Nishijin: Artisans and kimono

Located in the northwest part of Central Kyoto, Nishijin is a traditional Kyoto district where machiya – traditional timber townhouses – can be seen, and the historic art of textile design can be discovered. The area is known for its ‘old Kyoto’ feel and traditional weaving houses, many of which sell kimono fabrics and obi sashes. 

Things to do in Nishijin: 

Visit the Nishijin Textile Center to learn how kimono are made, or the Orinasu-kan Museum to learn more about the textile district and view Noh theatre costumes. HOSOO, an innovative textile company and showroom founded in 1688, specialises in superior fabrics for high-end interior design and fashion. 

Geiko in Kyoto.
Geiko taking photos in Kyoto. ©Unsplash/Aya Salman

Arashiyama: Bamboo groves and monkeys 

Positioned to the far west on the outskirts of Kyoto and set against a mountainous backdrop with bridges, ponds and cherry trees, Arashiyama is where the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove grows. While Arashiyama is a 30-minute trip from Kyoto proper, it’s often crowded with tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the famed Togetsu-kyo Bridge – a fantastic viewpoint for cherry blossom season – and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tenryu-ji Temple. However, there are plenty of other sights to see in this Kyoto district. 

Things to do in Arashiyama:

Meet Japanese macaques at Iwatayama Monkey Park, check out the imperial property of Okochi-Sanso Villa, or rent a boat and float through the Hozu-gawa area. Although small, Gio-ji Temple is a rather notable photo opportunity with its thatched roof and mossy grotto. Nearby, the Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa is thought to be a prime example of Japanese architecture and garden design. 

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. ©Unsplash/Gio Almonte

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