In the cultural and historical heart of Japan, Kyoto off the beaten path offers breathtaking yet overlooked temples, gardens, and towns. Disciples of architecture and design will particularly appreciate Kyoto’s hidden gem destinations.
Kyoto receives millions of visitors a year. The most popular spots, like Fushimi Inari Taisha or Kiyomizudera, struggle to manage overtourism. However, there are over 1,600 temples and 400 shrines in the greater city of Kyoto area, many of which receive few visitors. Kyoto Prefecture spans from Nara to the coastline of the Japan Sea and is home to countless towns, cities, and countryside gems.
“Off the beaten path” is relative. In a city as visited as Kyoto, even less popular attractions may still receive a considerable amount of travelers. This guide highlights places you may not think to put at the top of a short itinerary, but are still accessible and interesting.
Kyoto Off The Beaten Path
Day Trips From Kyoto
The city of Uji sits between Japan’s ancient capitals, Kyoto and Nara, and makes for an easy day trip from either starting point.
The region has a centuries-old history as the heart of Japanese tea production. Today, you’ll find historical temples alongside modern shops selling tea products.
You can spend an hour or two exploring Uji’s downtown area or head north of Uji River to leisurely discover quiet temples and hiking areas.
For those unafraid to venture into the countryside, Wazuka is truly the most special town in Japan. The area is the main producer of Uji tea, one of the most famous regional teas in the world.
Because it is a bit challenging to reach, Wazuka offers visitors a serene escape from city life. Rent bicycles to slowly explore the magnificent landscape of rolling, hillside tea fields.
Located about 1.5 hours by train or car south of Kyoto, Hasedera is one of Japan’s most majestic mountainside temples.
Hasedera was founded in 686 AD and has been used as a training ground for Buddhist monks. Visit the temple early enough and you will hear monks chanting sutras.
The temple’s long staircases lead you up the hillside and out onto sweeping views of the mountains and surrounding forest. Cool mist often shrouds Haseda in the mornings, lending a magical feel to the temple grounds.
Lake Biwa offers cycling enthusiasts a glorious, multi-day loop around its shores. The route, called Biwa-Ichi (Biwa Loop), is around 180km if you follow the primary trail directly and up to about 230-250km if you explore nearby sights.
The trail is flat, clearly marked if you follow the lake counter-clockwise, and suitable for all levels. Note that while most of the route follows scenic, lakeside trails, a few sections are on busy roads.
The easiest access point from Kyoto to begin a cycling trip is from the city of Otsu (just 10 minutes by train from Kyoto Station).
Consider Ginkaku-ji the overshadowed little sister of Kyoto’s iconic Kinkaku-ji (the golden pavilion). While hoards of visitors make the pilgrimage to the northeastern corner of Tokyo to see Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavilion) receives just a fraction of the crowds.
Unlike the shining gold exterior of Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji was never covered in precious metal. Instead, according to legend, the temple received its name from the way moonlight reflected off of the dark wooden design.
A lush and mossy Japanese garden surrounds the temple. Walk along the various pathways of the temple grounds, observing the quiet surroundings. The temple served as an artistic center of Kyoto for many centuries. The art of Japanese tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, and architectural and garden design developed on the temple’s grounds.
A quaint street filled with shops and cafes leads to Ginkaku-ji. The street is reminiscent of Kyoto’s popular Gion neighborhood but minus the rush of people.
Visit Ginkaku-ji to experience a blend of the best parts of Kinkaku-ji and Gion, without having to leave Kyoto.
If you appreciate Japanese architecture and design, visit Tenryu-ji, a stately Zen Buddhist temple in the west of Kyoto.
The Japanese garden wraps around the temple’s main buildings. Featuring a pond, manicured sand, and many cherry blossom trees, the garden’s design is largely preserved from its creation in the 14th century.
The temple’s main hall showcases traditional Japanese architecture through beautiful thick wooden beams and tatami rooms. A wide balcony traces the perimeter of and connects the buildings, from which you can see out onto the garden.
Despite neighboring the popular Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Tenryu-ji is often overlooked by visitors.
The large Buddhist temple complex of Nanzen-ji holds many historical buildings, including centuries-old temple structures and a large brick aqueduct from the early 1900s.
Despite its proximity to Kyoto’s more popular attractions like Kiyomizudera and Gion, relatively few visitors see this towering temple. The emptiness of Nanzen-ji adds to its quiet, almost mystical atmosphere.
For a figuratively “off the beaten path” spot, Nanzen-ji sits conveniently in the center of the city and is worth adding to your Kyoto itinerary.
For a quiet escape in the city of Kyoto, head northeast to Enkō-ji. An expansive, traditional Japanese Zen sand garden welcomes visitors to the temple grounds. The swirling sand patterns capture the ephemeral essence of nature and serve as a visual aid in meditation.
Enkō-ji can be accessed from Kyoto Station by train and bus in about 45 minutes.