10 Best Photo Spots in Kyoto

There’s no doubt the country of Japan is a photographer’s dream. From shrines and temples to mountain vistas and seaside views, Japan offers everything for every shutterbug. And the great thing is there’s always a tour guide in Japan who is more than happy to show you around. One of the most photogenic locales in the country is the former imperial capital of Kyoto.

To tell us more about this amazing city, and where the 10 best viewpoints are to photograph, we enlisted the help of professional photographer Paul Crouse who has lived in Kyoto for almost 20 years. This is what he writes:

There are so many great places in Kyoto, it is difficult to narrow down your choices where to go. But because I take portraits of travelers in scenic locations, I guide photographers around the city and also take portraits of travelers in scenic locations. This has given me excellent opportunities to see many parts of this ancient Japanese imperial capital. The first three locations on this list are very popular and therefore can be exceptionally crowded during the peak tourist seasons of cherry blossom time in April and autumn colours in November, as well as during the New Year’s holidays. No matter the season, it is best to go to the popular sites early in the day on weekdays, if possible. Remember, many religious institutions ban photography in sacred spaces. Please respect that.

1. Fushimi Inari Shrine

This is truly a unique place. Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto famous for the thousands of orange torii gates that line a network of paths snaking up a mountain-side. This is very popular destination and it can get crowded, but it is worth the effort. It is a 2-3 hour hike all of the way up the mountain, although most people head back down the hill after about 30 minutes.

2. Kiyomizu-dera Temple & Southern Higashiyama

If you only have one day in Kyoto, you should explore this area. It is probably the most popular tourist destination in town. Here you will get to see the most of Old Kyoto is a shortest amount of time. The typical walking tour starts from the bottom of the hill at Gojo Zaka up towards Kiyomizudera and then northward to Maruyama Park and Yasaka Jinja Shrine. Make sure to explore the side streets away from the tourist shops, where you will find lots of photographic gems, especially views of Yasaka Pagoda.

3. Arashiyama and Sagano

Tucked in the hills of western Kyoto is Arashiyama. You can easily spend a whole day exploring this area from the Katsuragawa River northward through Tenryuji Temple, the Bamboo Forest and hillside temples of Sagano. This is a very popular year-round destination for Japanese tourists, and Arashiyama can be horribly crowded during cherry blossom and autumn color seasons. It is best to start early on a weekday.  Make sure to have a good map since it is easy to get turned around in the much less crowded streets of Sagano.

4. Nanzenji & Eikando Temples

These are two of my favorite temples. Nanzenji is a large Zen temple complex in northern Higashiyama, and Eikando is a smaller and less famous next-door neighbor. While Eikando is extremely popular (and very crowded) during November for its fall colors, I prefer going there during the rest of the year when there are very few visitors.  At Nanzenji, make sure to explore all of smaller sub-temples in the area.

5. Kurodani

Okazaki Jinja Shrine
Kurodani is a stand-alone hill in eastern Kyoto within walking distance of Nanzenji and Eikando. It is home to the small, but important, Okazaki Jinja Shrine at it’s base, as well as Konkaikomyo-ji Temple and Shinyodo Temple. All of these sites are off the tourist trail, which is part of their charm. Personally, one of my favorite things to do is to sit outside and listen to the monks chanting at Konkaikomyo-ji on an early summer’s evening.

6. Daitokuji Temple

Daitokuji is a large Zen buddhist temple complex in northern Kyoto on Kitaoji Street. This is another location off of the main tourist routes. When you walk inside its walls, suddenly you feel transported back 400 years. Daitokuji is a collection of sub-temples, including functioning monasteries. Some are not open to the public, but a few are, including my favorite, Zuiho-in.

7. Mt. Daimonji-yama

Ginkakuji Temple
This is a great place if you want a panoramic view of the city. The uphill hike takes about 30 minutes from the entrance of Ginkakuji Temple (the Silver Pavilion). You’ll need to be in moderately good physical shape for the hike (it is more strenuous than Fushimi Inari). You’ll end up in the center of the Chinese character “dai,” which is written on the hillside. This Chinese character is lit up by fire during the Obon festival in August. Have a flashlight with you if take pictures of the sunset, because the trail is pitch-black dark coming down.

8. Shimogamo Jinja Shrine

Shimogamo Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine just north of the confluence of the Kamogawa and Takanogawa rivers. As you walk through the woods here, it is difficult to believe that you are in the middle of a large city. Don’t miss the smaller shrine at the south end of the woods.

9. Ponto Cho

Ponto Cho is a kilometer long, narrow pedestrian street lined with restaurants and bars. It is a former red-light district and has the Old Kyoto feel. It is good for taking photos in the early evening, and you might get a glimpse of maiko (apprentice geisha) walking past. There are lots of good places to eat here, including restaurants that have patios overlooking the Kamogawa River during the summertime. Make sure to check the prices on the menu outside the door first — some of these restaurants can easily bust your budget.

10. Kyoto Station

Are you “templed out?” Consider photographing the ultra-modern Kyoto Station, especially in the huge main atrium. While traditionalists hate its design, I think it is pretty cool. The modern architecture is a good contrast to the older parts of the city.

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  • Kenny

    Makes me tempted to re-visit Kyoto again, after just visited there in end September. So many places missed out due to time constraints…

  • PhotoNut

    Isn’t the only reason to take a trip really all about the pics you come home with and pore over for the next month? :) Maybe that’s just me. I hardly leave the house without my camera anymore… much to my wife’s general dismay.

  • RJ

    Great article. I took a guided photo safari to Kenya last year that was completely amazing! Will have to think about Japan for my next vacation.

  • Jennifer

    Wow – beautiful spots (and shots)! Looking forward to a trip to Japan this spring. I can’t wait to try out my skills in a few of these locations.

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