Exploring Kyoto – Photography + Travel Guide

Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is a city located on the island of Honshu. The city is famous for its numerous classical Buddhist temples. With over 1600 to choose from, there is bound to be a few that have not been over-photographed. In addition, there are many gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines, and traditional wooden houses to visit. The city is also a beautiful place to visit during the Cherry Blossom season and is regarded by many as the best place in Japan to view the Autumn colours. The district of Gion also gives you the opportunity to get a glimpse of a Geisha (female entertainer) as they move stealthily among the tea houses and private parties.

The city has been long regarded as a magnet for photographers visiting Japan, especially on their first visit. Regardless of the season, you visit, the bamboo grove in Arashiyama and the thousand torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha should not be missed – just make sure you get there early!!!. If there’s not enough to keep you entertained in Kyoto, which is unlikely, it is also a great base for day trips to Osaka & Nara which can both be reached using the JR Pass.

Below is what we covered over the 5 days we were in Kyoto. We spent the entire time here and visited Nara as a day-trip from Osaka. Check out the map at the end of this post and if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment. We hope this helps with planning your trip to the wonderful city of Kyoto.

Kyoto Station

Planning & Getting Around

Getting to Kyoto is pretty simple between the main cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima etc using the fantastic rail system in Japan. The Shinkansen (Bullet Train) will get you from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station in about 2 hours 40 minutes. It’s always a good idea to make a reservation. If you want to get there even faster then consider taking the Nozomi (one way Y13,080 or about AUD$165), however, this is not covered by the JR Pass.

Depending on how much, and how far you plan to travel when in Japan, you may want to consider the JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass). They have many different passes on offer based on the region you want to visit. The passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 days and must be purchased before you arrive in Japan for the best price. Japan Rail is holding a trial from March 8, 2017, to March 31, 2020, allowing you to buy the JR Pass in Japan. Whether this becomes permanent at this stage, remains to be seen. If you are not sure if you should get the pass, you can use the Japan Rail Pass Calculator to see if it is worth purchasing. If you are visiting Japan for just 1 week and spending most of your time in Tokyo, Osaka & Kyoto then it may be more economical for you to buy individual train tickets. We also strongly recommend that you consider purchasing a SIM card (data only) for your Smartphone prior to arrival in Japan. This will make navigation a breeze. In Australia, we bought ours here.

As a photographer, be prepared to do a lot of walking in Kyoto. However, when time is of the essence (or the feet can’t take it anymore) you can use the PASMO card.  We used this primarily in Tokyo, but it is also valid in Kyoto for getting around on the private railway, subway and bus network as well as vending machines, lockers and shops for food/drinks.

Note: From the 1st September 2019 you can now purchase the PASMO PASSPORT card which is only available for visitors. The card costs 1500 yen (which is credited to the card) plus a 500 yen issuing fee and is valid for 28 days. The card also gives you access to many discounts when using the card. It can be used for trains and buses in the Tokyo metropolitan area and across all of Japan. Unfortunately, unlike the PASMO Card, you cannot get a refund for any balance on the card at the end of your visit.

We suggest that you also drop into the Kyoto Tourist Office at Kyoto Station to pick up a Tourist Map of the city.

Geisha in Gion, Kyoto

Camera Gear

Our gear and setup in Kyoto was very similar to what we used in Tokyo. To find out more about our gear read our Exploring Tokyo post.

Camera & Lenses

As was the case in Tokyo, we found that the Sony A7Rii with the Sony 24-105 f4 and Sony 16-35 f/4 were mainly used. For low light shots, the Samyang 35mm f2.8 and the Laowa 15mm f2 also came in handy. The Samyang 12mm f2.8 Fisheye lens also gave us a different perspective at some of the locations. We rarely used the Sony 70-200 f4 lens.

Camera Bag

Although we used our backpack camera bags in the Fuji Five Lakes area we switched back to the Peak Design Everyday Sling 10L bags for busy Kyoto. As we didn’t find it necessary to carry the Sony 70-200 f4 lens, and with only a couple of lenses for us each to carry, we found these bags the best option.

Tripod

Even though we carried one carbon fibre travel tripod (between us) in Kyoto, there were really only a couple of times we used it over the 5 days here. Having said that, we usually try to avoid using them unless shooting in low light or for long exposures. In most cases, it was just too crowded anyway. However, you never know what the situation will call for and the times we did use it, it was well worth carrying around all day.

Filters

As was the case in Tokyo, the NiSi 100mm Square Filter system was hardly used here, however, there were a couple of locations that we planned to use them for specific shots, so we carried them with us on those days. We always carry threaded/screw-in GOBE ND 10-stop filters should we need to do a long exposure. Mostly it was the *GOBE Circular Polariser (C-PL) that was used the most whilst in Kyoto. 

*Use coupon code ‘widescenes’ to get 15% discount off all GOBE products.

Location Guide

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine

Probably one of the most well-known attractions in Kyoto, famous for its thousands of torii gates that lead you along the trail and up Mount Inari (233 meters high). The full walk takes about 2-3 hours (return) and is well worth starting early as it gets very busy here, though the further up the mountain you get there are fewer people about as many don’t walk the full circuit. Many local tourists dress-up in kimonos so there are plentiful opportunities to get shots of the gates and portraits. Entrance is free. For more information on the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, click here.

From Kyoto station use the JR Nara line for Inari Station stop or on the Keihan Main Line for Fushimi-inari Station (KH34) stop.

TIP! 

Try shooting with a wide-angle lens. To get perspective or scale in your shot try to include a person. For a different perspective, we found the 180° fisheye lens was particularly useful here.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama is another extremely popular location that requires you to get there early. If you get there too late it will be extremely difficult to get a shot similar to above.

The grove is not huge. As it bends around you can get a couple of different perspectives to avoid getting people in your shot.  However, as mentioned in the Tip above, try to get a shot with a few people in the composition to give scale to the shot. There is also a smaller bamboo grove area on the other side of the railway tracks where you can get some good shots and play around with some different effects (see images below)

Arashiyama is about a 25 min train trip from downtown Kyoto on the Keifuku Line (Randen) – Arashiyama Line branch. Entrance to the bamboo grove is free.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto

Gion

For the best chance of spotting a Geisha (or Maiko), then we suggest you spend a bit of time in the district of Gion. The district lies north and south of Shijo Street, and stretches from the Kamo-gawa River in the west, as far as Yasaka-jinja Shrine in the east. This area is considered the entertainment district and many Geishas and Maikos (a Maiko is an apprentice Geisha) stealthily move between the tea houses and private rooms in this area. Don’t try looking for one on a Monday as very few work on a Monday night. Best chance is in the evening and stay in the one spot for a while rather than wandering around hoping to spot one. Be respectful, and do not touch them or get in their way just to get a shot. If you’re after some portrait shots, consider booking a Maiko hosted dinner. We used our Samyang 35mm f2.8 lens a lot here as it has a fast aperture for low light and due to its size is very inconspicuous.

From Kyoto Station take bus 100 or 206 to Gion bus stop. The closest subway train station is Gion Shijo Station or Kawaramachi Station.

Maiko in Gion, Kyoto

TIP! 

You have to be very quick once you spot a Geisha or Maiko. We strongly suggest you set up a Preset on your camera (if available) with all the settings needed to capture the image quickly. eg fast aperture such as f2.8, fast shutter speed to freeze the movement (around 1/400th), Auto ISO, AF-C mode, and ContHigh or ContSlow in the Drive Mode. If your camera has AF Face Detection or Eye Detection then consider turning these on as well. Good Luck!

Yasaka Pagoda

The Yasaka Pagoda is part of the Hōkanji Temple located in the Higashiyama Ward of the Gion District and is surrounded by many shops and steep busy alleys. This area can get very busy during the day and into the evening as it is also close to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple (see more info about this temple below). There is a lot of atmosphere in this area with traditional-style buildings (even Starbucks has a cafe located in one of these!) and locals dressed in kimono’s (mostly local tourists) wandering the streets. There are loads of opportunities to get some great street shots as well as shots of the Yasaka Pagoda from a couple of angles. The angle on the right is extremely popular. Try shooting this location pre and post-sunset or sunrise. You may want to consider taking a long exposure with a GOBE ND 10 stop filter (Neutral Density) to help reduce the number of people in your shot and give some movement in the clouds (if any). 

From Kyoto Station take bus 100 or 206 to Gion bus stop. The closest train stations are Gion-Shijo Station (Keihan Main Line) or Higashiyama Station (Tozai Line).

Yasaka Pagoda, Gion, Kyoto

TIP! 

Make sure you get here well before sunset as it is a pretty popular location to shoot. You will need to compete with other photographers for tripod space. An ND Graduated filter (Medium or Soft) will come in handy here to balance the sky with the foreground. Alternatively, you may want to take some bracketed images and blend them together in HDR software or with Luminosity Blending in Photoshop.

Kinkaku-Ji Temple, Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavillion)

The official name of this Zen Temple is Kakanji. Commonly referred to Kinkaku-ji Temple or Golden Pavillion due to the gold leaf that completely covers the impressive main temple that overlooks the large pond. This is another location that is extremely popular and gets very crowded. We arrived around midday and even though there was a huge number of people, there were still lots of opportunities to get shots of this beautiful temple.

Entrance fee is 400 yen. From Kyoto Station, you can take the 101 or 205 bus or the Karasuma Subway line to Kitaoji Station. From Arashiyama you can take the Keifuki Railway to Kitano Hakubaicho, both of which requires some walking (or a taxi ride) to reach the temple.

TIP! 

Try to position yourself so that you can include the water reflections in the shot. A wide-angle lens will also make people in crowded attractions seem much smaller in the shot. Consider using a *GOBE C-PL (Circular Polarizer) to reduce reflections, saturate foliage colours and darken the sky, however, do not overdo it on wide-angle lenses as you may get uneven polarization in the sky.

*Use coupon code ‘widescenes’ to get 15% discount off all GOBE products.

Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavillion)

Its official name is Higashiyama Jisho-Ji, the name Ginkakufi is said to have been designed to emulate the golden Kinkaku-ji Temple during the Edo Period. In contrast to Kinkaku-ji, the Gold Pavillion, the Silver Pavillion has never been covered in silver. This temple was less crowded than Kinkaku-ji and has a peaceful garden and a large dry sand garden.

Entrance fee is 500 yen. From Kyoto station you can take the 5,17, or 100 bus, or if you are coming from the Golden Pavillion take the 204 bus (5 min walk away) and get off at Ginkakuji-michi stop (11 min walk to Silver Pavillion). You can also easily reach it if you are walking along the Philosophers Path.

TIP! 

Try shooting with a wide-angle lens. This way you can shoot closer to your subject and avoid people walking in front of you. If there are clouds and there’s enough space, consider using a tripod and *GOBE 10-stop ND filter to give the clouds some movement. A long exposure will also remove some of the people (the ones that are moving during the exposure) from your shot.

*Use coupon code ‘widescenes’ to get 15% discount off all GOBE products.

Philosopher's Path, Kyoto
Heian Jingu Shrine Garden, Kyoto

Philosopher’s Path

This path is approx. 2km long and follows a canal from Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavillion) to Nanzenji and is lined by hundreds of cherry blossom trees, so as you can imagine this would be a hotspot during Cherry Blossom season (usually April). The path is named after one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, Nishida Kitaro, who walked this path every day on his way to Kyoto University. There are several restaurants, cafes, and boutiques can be found along the path.

Heian Jingu Shrine

A short walk from the Philosopher’ Path (Nanzenji end) is this large and probably one of the quietest shrines we visited (maybe it was the time of year). As you approach the shrine there is a giant torii gate. The shrine was modelled on the Imperial Palace and has a large open courtyard. There is also the lovely Heian Shrine Garden that would look amazing during Cherry Blossom and Autumn seasons. Entrance to the Shrine is free. Garden entrance fee is 600 yen.

Waterfront cafes and restaurants on the Kamo River, Kyoto
Food at the Nishiki Food Market, Kyoto

Kamo River

The riverbanks of Kamo River is a popular area and you will see many people out walking and relaxing alongside the river, especially in the evening. You should be able to get some great shots from the many bridges that cross the river. During the warmer months, many restaurants open their balconies that look out to the river. Blue Hour is great time for shots as the lights glow from these restaurants and homes along the river. This image was taken from the bridge near the Gion-Shijo subway station.

TIP

Blue Hour (immediately after sunset) is an ideal time to shoot. You may want to consider resting your camera on the bridge rather than using a tripod when it is busy. You could also use a NiSi Natural Night Filter to balance the mixed lighting and cut through light pollution.

Nishiki Food Market

Located near Shijō Street and Teramachi Street is Nishiki Markets. A massive covered street lined market place with over a hundred shops and restaurants. As it involves food, more than likely this place will be packed with tourists and locals.

There are some great photo opportunities whilst trying some of the great food available at the many stalls along the way. It’s also a lot easier to shoot the food once you’ve already bought something from the stall.

TIP

Don’t even think about putting up a tripod! Try using a fast lens (f1.4 -f2.8) and raise your ISO to allow for a fast enough shutter speed to handhold in the reduced light. If you are shooting JPG files you may want to consider adjusting your White Balance (WB) setting.

Kyoto Station interior, Kyoto
Nishi-Honganji Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto Station

A destination in itself, especially if you love architecture photography. We spent several hours here. Kyoto Station is Japan’s second-largest station and one of Japan’s largest buildings. There is plenty around to photograph so make sure to allow some time around the station and Isetan Department Store. Also a good spot for a view of Kyoto Tower. Make sure you take the escalators at both ends of the hall.

TIP

Consider using an ultra-wide-angle (12-16mm on fullframe or 8-12mm on APS-C), or even a  fisheye lens (12mm on full-frame or 8mm on APS-C) to accentuate the interior.

Nishi-Honganji Temple

Located north-west of Kyoto Station is the large Nishi Honganji Temple. The largest temple in Kyoto with impressive halls and a good place to experience Japanese Buddhism. We were fortunate enough to be in the hall during prayer time. Surprisingly, it was extremely quiet when we visited with very few tourists there. Entrance is free and many of the buildings can be entered and viewed without restrictions.

TIP

Consider using a wide-angle/ultra-wide-angle lens as the interior is huge. During prayer time you should turn on Quiet/Silent Mode to avoid any noise. 

Nijō Castle, Kyoto

Nijō Castle (Nijōjō)

Nijo Castle is a historic site that was once used as an Imperial Palace. It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto which have been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage SiteNow open to the public, the castle and surrounding moat showcase some of the best examples of Japanese castle architecture. Some of the interior buildings and displays do not allow photography however it is still worth visiting. The exterior views and gardens are lovely and probably even better during Cherry Blossom and Autumn seasons.

Entrance fee is 600 yen plus 400 yen for Ninomaru Palace. Nijojo-mae station is the closest station to the castle entrance.

TIP! 

Consider using a *GOBE C-PL (Circular Polarizer) to reduce reflections, saturate foliage colours and darken the sky. Do not overdo it on wide-angle lenses as you may get uneven polarization in the sky.

*Use coupon code ‘widescenes’ to get 15% discount off all GOBE products.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple is best known for its large wooden main hall built high on the mountainside with great views over the whole site and Kyoto in the distance. This is one of the most popular temples in Kyoto so you can expect it to be busy at most times. There are lots of photographic opportunities of the temple and pagoda from the many viewpoints along the pathway that leads to the Taisanji Temple and Koyasu Pagoda. Further along, is the Otowa Waterfall where visitors take a cup attached to a long pole and choose one of the three streams of water that fall into a pond. Visitors can catch and drink the water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers. Each stream represents a different fortune (Longevity, Success and Love) but to drink from all three is considered greedy. 

Entrance fee 400 yen. The Temple is about a 10-min walk uphill from Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu bus stops.

There are many more things to do and temples to visit in Kyoto. Obviously, few people will have the time to visit everything but we hope this post has given you enough information for a first-time visit to this photographically rich city. We’ll certainly be returning!

Click here to see all our images from Japan

Hotel M's Est Shijo Karasuma

This is where we stayed.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Nijo Castle

Nijō Castle

Nishi-Honganji Temple

Nishi-Honganji Temple

Kyoto Station

Kyoto Station

Nishiki Food Market

Nishiki Food Market

Kamo River

Kamo River

Heian Jingu Shrine

Heian Jingu Shrine

Philosopher's Path

Philosopher’s Path

Ginkaku-ji Temple

Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavillion)

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavillion)

Yasaka Pagoda

Yasaka Pagoda

Gion

Gion

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Click here to see our other Location & Photography Guides in Japan!

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