Kyoto's Five Best Photo Locations

Kyoto's Five Best Photo Locations

For first time travelers to Kyoto, it can be a bit confusing to choose where to shoot. Unlike my previous posts on Madrid and Barcelona which are about three-hour photo walks, this article will be similar to my Tokyo article which involves five different locations. Here is a link to a great website to give you a better overview of each location and other locations worth a look. For those of you who have been to Kyoto, I would expect you to share your photos or suggest other locations.

Kyoto is best tackled by train or bus. Buses are cheaper with day passes available but if you happen to be there during a national holiday there will be a lot of traffic. With my private photography tours, I often try to visit during weekdays and also try to avoid the crowds where possible. Below are some suggestions on when to visit and what sort of gear to take to each location.

Tripods are hard to use in most public locations as there are crowds and you become a nuisance when setting up. Most private entry locations such as gardens and temples prohibit the use of tripods. Shooting handheld for most of the trip is the fastest way to get around. If there are at least four in your group a taxi is the quickest way to get around. I only took a Canon 50mm f/1.2 and a Zeiss 18mm f/3.5 shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III. The five areas divided are Central, North, South, East, and West. Within each area are a few suggestions. 

Google Map route Kyoto

Google Map route Kyoto

The above map route only takes an hour if you wish to explore the philosopher's path during spring followed by the silver temple (Ginkakuji), Aqueduct (behind Nanzenji Temple), and finish off with a late afternoon to early evening stroll through Gion and Pontocho.

Central Kyoto

Kyoto Station

Kyoto station is massive when you exit the main entrance it feels like being in a cocoon. A hyper-lapse or time-lapse up and down the escalators is a fun way to get a feel for the vastness of this station. The escalators seem to go up forever to about five-floor levels. The exterior of the station looks like a cruise ship. Late afternoon or early morning light looks cool in black and white.

architecture, train station, kyoto, japan

Kyoto Station is massive and filled with many architectural photography opportunities.

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is one ground level of about 1 kilometer of food stalls. It's narrow and difficult to shoot in especially since everyone seems to be stopping to eat or take a photo. White balance can be tricky in some parts. The ambiance is electric and the diversity of food from all over Japan makes it worth a short look just before lunch.

Nishiki Food Market

Nishiki Food Market

Pontocho

Lantern alley is my nickname for Pontocho. Once again, its narrow and crowded so be prepared to go shoulder to shoulder down two lanes at most. The area is riddled with restaurants and bars mostly catering for revelers and tourists. Shooting handheld at around 800–1,600 ISO at 1/60s on 50mm worked a treat on f/2.8. I would suggest coming here for dinner after walking through Gion area which is only across the river.

Pontocho

Pontocho

North

Kinkakuji

Kinkakuji, or the Golden Temple as it is known, like all other venues, requires a small entrance fee of about 400 yen. Traffic flow of people is controlled in one direction. The Golden Temple itself can't be entered but many vantage points around the pond and garden path will make for great shots. 

Kinkakuji Golden Temple

Kinkakuji Golden Temple

South

Fushimi Inari

Just like the bamboo grove, Fushimi Inari is always open to public access. I would suggest you get here at about 7 a.m. If using a tripod make sure not to be in the way of other visitors. Japanese are too polite to say something and there are currently no restrictions here. However, I would suggest you shoot fast and move on as the crowds start to build up from around 7:30 a.m. Weekdays in most locations in winter or summer are easier to move about. This location has been voted by trip advisor as the most popular tourist destination in Japan. The torii gates along the entire trail are donations by individuals and companies, and you will find the donator's name and the date of the donation inscribed on the back of each gate. The cost starts around 400,000 yen for a small sized gate and increases to over one million yen for a large gate.

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari

East 

Gion

Trying to find a Geisha in Kyoto is becoming increasingly difficult. Geiko (Senior) or Maiko (Junior) as they are known in Kyoto are well aware of their popularity. They are treated like movie stars and us the tourists are the Paparazzi. 

Geiko, geisha, gion, kyoto

Geiko after dance class

Ginkakuji

In my opinion, I think the silver (Ginkakuji) temple is more picturesque than the golden (Kinkakuji) temple which has more Wabi - Sabi best described as a perfect imperfection. The mix of rock, sand, bridges, ponds, and perfectly positioned trees lends itself to a place where are artists can reflect on the finer aspects of Zen Buddhism. 

Ginkakuji (Silver) Temple

Ginkakuji (Silver) Temple

West

Tenryuji

Tenryuji is a picturesque garden and temple with the focus more on the gardens especially in spring (cherry blossoms) or autumn (cypress trees). The gardens have a back entrance which is directly on the bamboo grove path which makes it very convenient to enter at 8:30 a.m.

Tenryuji Temple and Garden

Tenryuji Temple and Garden

Bamboo Grove

Getting here at around 7:30 a.m. is important to avoid the crowds. The bamboo grove pathway runs for only about 500 meters in key spots with curves or straight lines. Cars are allowed to drive through here so tripods might be in their way. Wedding shoots are done here on a regular basis and large tour groups also walk these paths. 

Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama

Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama

Local Customs at Shrine (Jinja) or Temple (Otera)

As usual, I expect lots of comments and questions sharing info and insights I may have missed. 

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6 Comments

One of the few places left on my list. I'll be going for a couple weeks in the fall but, alas, no Kyoto for me. :-( Maybe next time.

David T's picture

I had lots of fun biking around the city. Traffic is on the left though, so watch out

A fine list. I would also include the Saihoji (AKA The Moss Temple / Kokedera) with the qualifications mentioned in this guide: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3937.html

Alfonso Calero's picture

I will make sure to check out Kokodera in April and November. Thanks!

I was Kyoto last Friday (12/1) for the day. I arrived at Fushimi Inari at 13:00 and it already had a good crowd. It would be an amazing place to shoot empty and freshly painted. It's a must. I took a train and a bus to Ginkakuji. Got there an hour before closing and did a quick lap of the lower areas. Another must see. I then took a cab to Gion hoping to see Geisha. I got there around 17:00. Although it was dark I think it was just too early in the evening to see any. I can't wait to go back!!

Alfonso Calero's picture

The aquaducts behind Nanzenji are also worth a look when on the philosopher's walk especially with cherry blossoms in spring.