A quiet meander along a canal, the Philosopher’s Path gives you a chance to unwind and explore a different side of Kyoto, with added seasonal treats.
What is the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto?
Stretching between Ginkaku-ji and Nyakuou-ji temples, the 1.5km path gained its name thanks to the influential Kyoto philosopher, Kitaro Nishida, who would walk along it on his way to university. Nishida would often use his walks for meditation, and it’s pretty easy to see why.
Called Tetsugaku-no-michi in Japanese, people often flock to the waterside paths to view the cherry trees in spring or colorful leaves in autumn, following the streams as they head out to Lake Biwa. As well as a refreshing break from busy streets, it’s a great way to see some temples and shrines—with mini-detours to well-known and lesser-visited options aplenty. The walk takes around an hour and a half, with time for wandering. If you begin at the north end (near Ginkaku-ji), you’ll find yourself a short stroll from the Higashiyama area—perfect for a lot more wandering.
The Philosopher’s Path, or Walk, is a great place to visit all year round, as the scenery offers something unique for every season. While spring gets crowded, the colder months also have their highlights, and what could be better than a brisk walk in the (nearby) mountain air on a winter’s day?
Unsurprisingly, spring is by far the most popular period, as delicate cherry blossom lines the canal. Prepare to see traditional hanami parties with locals and visitors alike enjoying the transient flowers. The cafes and food stalls are in their element during this time, and you’ll be spoiled for choice (but also battling for a seat).
During summer, a magical event takes place along the water, with fireflies appearing as dusk falls. As the hot days begin to cool, these glowing beauties transform the Philosopher’s Path into an anime-esque scene. Bring something to sit on and keep your eyes peeled—whether you’ve seen them before or not, the fireflies are pretty amazing.
Autumn and winter
The added bonus of copious amounts of cherry trees is that in autumn they contribute to the changing leaves with a fantastic color palette of golden browns. The second main seasonal highlight of the Japanese calendar, autumn leaves are a slightly more somber affair. Offering a chance for reflection, the leaves invite a more zen appreciation, often lost in the merriment of spring’s hanami. In winter, soft snow sometimes coats the ground, offering a magical winter scene you’ll struggle to beat.
That medititation life
While the crowds and cafes might be a bit of a distraction during spring or on autumnal weekends, the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto is still a place for meditation. The countless shrines, temples and smaller spiritual sites offer focused points of thought. Along the path itself, take your time to appreciate the sounds of water and birdsong, as well as the relaxing sight of flowing water and the signs of seasonal change around you.
Nishida founded the Kyoto School of Philosophy, and his daily walk was a key point in his meditation. Born in the Meiji era, he was able to frame the world using Eastern and Western views and was a keen exponent of the logic of ‘basho’—the closest translation being place in English, but which is a less concrete concept than one might expect. He also believed the pure experience was the most profound, something you can imagine well sitting alongside the water.
Sights, shrines and temples along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto
The path has a whole host of tempting detours which will distract you on your stroll, including plenty of spiritual spots. Look out for the following.
Starting off with a pretty famous one, Ginkaku-ji, known as the Silver Pavilion, is the lesser-visited sister of the world-renowned Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. Now a Zen temple, Ginkaku-ji was originally a retirement villa and was only converted in 1940. Highlights include the moss garden and the Sea of Silver Sand complete with sand cone, known as the moon-viewing platform.
Offering one of the best first impressions of any temple in Kyoto (and that’s saying something), this understated but atmospheric place is a great detour. The moss-covered gate roof sits above worn steps and invites you to walk between sand mounds to achieve purification. Once inside (and purified), make sure to see the stone bridge, the mini-art show in the storehouse and the secret area behind the main hall.
In the same grounds you’ll also find Anraku-ji and Reikan-ji, two small but pretty temples which make a nice little side-mission before you rejoin the Philosopher’s Path.
Known for its fall colors, Eikan-do is the head temple of the Seizan branch of the Jodo-shu Buddhist sect (don’t worry, no one will test you on the way in). Founded by one of the monk Kukai’s students, it has a series of different buildings and spaces to explore with adjoining wooden corridors, a small rock garden, the Tahoto Pagoda and the very pretty Hojo Pond. If you’re around in autumn, then be sure to head over in the evening for their illuminations—although expect crowds, it’s very popular!
A small shrine with a totally-worthwhile reason to visit: Otoyo-jinja has mice guarding the entrance. Forget foxes, this place does things its own way, and it’s far cuter than you might expect.
The shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi, a god who had a great relationship with mice after they saved him from a fiery death at the hands of his beloved’s father. The mice offer good luck for childbirth and learning, and it’s a particularly popular spot for those born in the year of the rat.
One of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan, Nanzen-ji dates back to the 13th century. As another converted retirement villa, it has an especially impressive Sanmon—the large wooden entrance gate—which was constructed in 1628. You can still climb onto the gate’s balcony for views across the city—and all this before you’re even in the temple grounds.
Inside, you’ll find rock gardens, beautiful paintings and a little further, a surprising addition. A giant brick aquaduct stands just outside the Hojo (the former head priest’s residence)—built in the Meiji period, it once carried goods from Lake Biwa to Kyoto.
Canal-side cafes and restaurants near the Philosopher’s Path
As the popularity of the path grows, there are more and more cafes and shops popping up along the way, so factor in some time for a coffee break. Since the canal was built to revitalise the area’s economy back in the Meiji period, it’s kind of bringing the project full circle with local businesses thriving alongside the water.
Philosophy Cafe will appear midway through the walk and is a great lunch spot, with quiches, pizzas and delicious homemade tarts and cakes to enjoy. Further along, close to Santuario Otoyo, is Komichi, a little cafe serving shaved ice and tea—perfect in the warmer months.
If you keep going, you’ll find Kanoshojuan Teahouse (near to Kumano-Nyakouji Shrine)—a traditional spot serving matcha, seasonal desserts and other sweets. And if you’re around in the evening, Monk is a smart restaurant serving 7-course dinners for about ¥7,000 yen, using a firewood-kiln. Relying on fresh, seasonal produce, the menu changes frequently and is a great way to treat yourself after a day’s exploring. They have three serving times: 5.30pm, 7pm and 8.30pm—we recommend you reserve in advance (you can do so online in English).
Getting to the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto
Kyoto’s city buses 5, 7 and 10 coming from Kyoto Station stop near Ginkaku-ji, which is near the start of the Philosopher’s Path. Alternatively, you can take the subway to Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Line, which is located about 20 minutes away. Another option is to walk the path backwards, starting at Nyakuou-ji, by taking city bus 100 to the bus stop named “Miyanomaecho”.
At various locations along the Philosopher’s Path rickshaws offer their services—this is an old-fashioned form of transport using the impressive leg-power of men pulling the carts. If you’ve not tried one it can be pretty fun—it’s a popular date activity, but is nice with friends too. It costs around ¥8,000 for half an hour but you can try it for 10 minutes for around ¥3,000 (prices vary).
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Post first published in January, 2016. Last updated in February, 2019.