Things to Do in Kyoto

By Amanda Little

Kyoto is known as the hot spot for those seeking temples, and they’re sure to find them! However, among the popular temples and hidden shrines, there is a local life thriving throughout Japan's former capital. See for yourself what hidden gems lie in Kyoto!

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Visit popular shrines

Why not see the temples that gave Kyoto its claim to fame? Some temples, like the Ryoanji Temple, have simple attractions like its famous rock garden, called “The sea of Silver Sand,” but others draw in bigger crowds like the Fushimi Inari Shrine. While there are about 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto alone, this one is pretty special. The 1,300-year-old temple is made up of about 10,000 red and orange lacquered torii gates, an 8th-century shrine, and sits a little over two miles up Mount Inari. Bronze fox statues and stone faces peer at those climbing to the shrine through the gates.

Those not willing to climb up a mountain may prefer Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, or its sister, Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion gleams with gold leaf, overlooking Mirror Lake and beautiful zen garden. The Silver Pavilion unfortunately never received the silver leaf intended for it, but stands beautifully anyway, and overlooks grounds just as stunning.

Wander from the beaten path

While the popular shrines are a sight to see, they draw in massive crowds every day. A stop by them is a wonderful way to get into the history and culture of Japan, but those wishing for more of an adventure can seek out the mysterious yet stunning temples hiding in plain sight. Honen-in is a hidden gem of a shrine, surrounded by trees and away from the business of the main street. Pass through a temple gate with lush grass growing over its roof to a stunning garden and sacred temple. Or stray from the towering Jingo-ji Temple to Saimyoji, where a charming temple lies in a hidden pocket and a hidden waterfall can be found in a grotto behind the temple.

Those looking for a truly otherworldly experience should seek out Nanzen Okunoin. Surrounded by woods with moss-covered stone statues looking on, standing here with the sound of a waterfall in the distance feels sacred. Follow the red-brick aqueduct by Nanzen-in to a small subtemple, then follow the stairs into the forest. You’ll reach a mountain glen, and finally walk into this holy space.

Ponder the Philosopher’s Walk

Follow the path alongside the Lake Biwa Canal as cherry trees arc overhead. This famous path to Kyoto University is called the Philosopher’s Walk, named after Nishida Kitaro, a philosopher who walked the beautiful mile-long stretch on his commute every day. If you visit this beautiful path in the spring, you’ll be treated to the sight of blooming cherry blossoms, with petals raining down over the walk and the canal. In the summer, this path is filled with the light of endless fireflies. The walk takes about an hour, and while it is most popular in spring, the lush area is stunning any time of year. The path starts at the beautiful Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavilion, and is lined with cute cafes, charming shops, and Japanese vending machines. However there are no restrooms along the way, so keep that in mind.

Photo by Instagram user @erie.tvxq

Get lost in fantasy worlds at Kyoto International Manga Museum

Anime and manga is everywhere in Japan, but one of the best places to get your pop culture fill in Kyoto is the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Here, manga lovers can find massive collections of art, comics, and more. Everything from the popular Astro Boy originals to obscure titles, by both Japanese and non-Japanese artists and authors. However, those who cannot read Japanese might find themselves limited to the few titles in other languages. Most of the comics are in the original Japanese, but there is a whole wall dedicated to English versions.

Go geisha in Gion

Visit the charming neighborhood of Gion while in Kyoto to see historic tea houses, kaiseki restaurants, traditional wooden ryokan, boutique shops selling local crafts, and roads dotted with melancholy willow trees. The charming sights of the neighborhood draw in tourists, but the main attraction that brings out cameras are the geisha. These entertainers are extravagantly dressed women who sing, dance, engage parties in games, and hold engaging conversation. But more than that, they uphold ancient Japanese culture. Hiring a geisha for an evening could run about $500, so many opt to visit the daily geisha performances at the Gion Corner Theater, which is about $32. You may also see geisha walking in the street, but it is expected that you respect their privacy and only take photographs with permission.

While the geisha are entertaining, they are far from the only fun you can have in Gion! Many festivals, floats, parades, and historical events are celebrated with enthusiasm. See the 23 yama and 10 hoko (a variety of giant floats) of the Yamaboko, partake in festivals along the river, watch as shrines are worshiped in parade form, enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in a historic tea house, and more! There are even places in Gion that rent kimonos and yukatas to visitors who want to truly revel in the culture of the charming area.

Photo by Instagram user @wonsangeun

Pick out the best souvenirs

The biggest shopping draw in Kyoto may just be the Nishiki Market. This high-energy, five-block-long market is made up of 126 covered stalls, selling everything from Japanese foods to specialty items. Rare few stalls have anything in English, so navigating might be a bit of a challenge, but still incredibly fun. Start small, sample the foods available, and strike a balance between things you recognize like ice cream and doughnuts and unusual things like roe-stuffed squid and silky yuba. Each stall and shop has its own open and closed schedule, but mostly the market operates everyday between 9am and 6pm.

Those who find the market a little intimidating might want to start in Matsuhiro Shoten or Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpo, both of which sell beautiful bags and purses. Matsuhiro specializes in Japanese patterns and metal clasps, while Shinzaburo makes extremely durable bags with cute designs. Kyukyodo’s Incense, Uragu Hacchi’s shrine amulets and cute notepads, and Naito Rikimatsu’s hemp palm brooms are all nearby as well.

Lose yourself in Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Stroll through the natural serenity of a sea of bamboo. Dappled sunlight streams in through the rustling bamboo leaves, and travel fatigue lifts off your shoulders as you make your way through Chikurin no Michi, or the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This stunning destination in Kyoto is a perfect Japanese experience. Feel as though you’ve stepped back in time as the bamboo blocks out the sound of everyday modern life, and escape the heat from the summer sun among the surprisingly cool shoots. Red hints of torii gates and tunnels can be spotted through the bamboo. Following them will lead you to the Kinkaku-ji or Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.

While the grove is among the most photographed site in Kyoto, nothing other than a first person encounter with Arashiyama can capture the otherworldly serenity and beauty of the bamboo forest. You’ll be able to find it from Arashiyama’s main street, north of Tenryu-ji Temple. You can follow well-marked paths the wind uphill, until you reach Okochi-Sanso Villa. You can decide to go in or not, but many recommend you do to complete the nearly mystical bamboo journey. Traveling here during cherry blossom season or when the fall colors are vibrant adds an extra layer of beauty.

Photo by Instagram user @ryozenmuseum

Step back in time at the Ryozen Museum of History

In the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, near the Philosopher’s walk and Kyoto University’s clock tower, the Ryozen Museum of History opens its doors to all kinds of visitors. Experience the end of the Tokugawa shogunate exhibition, learn about powerful historical figures like Ryoma Sakamoto and the Shinsenhgumi, and touch real life battle weapons from the era. Find the 3D videos of the Bakamatsu by following the crowds, and see life-sized panels of what life and war looked like. This museum is excellent for students, history buffs, and is also family friendly.

Taste Kyoto on a plate

It’s no secret that Japan is a foodie paradise, and Kyoto is no exception. Tokyo has plenty of the trendy restaurants and cafes, but Kyoto brings traditional Japanese meals to the table. It may be best to start at Pontocho, a lively alley brimming with restaurants. This is the time to ditch the guidebooks. Hundreds of restaurants all clamor for your attention, with a huge variety of food and price points. Here, the best restaurants are the ones that are small, half hidden, don’t have English on the menu, and may not even have a sign! Pick out the storefront that calls to you most, and point at the food that looks tastiest, or something you recognize that you wanted to try. Some restaurants also overlook the Kamogawa River. On a hot night, find a restaurant with outdoor river seating for the best ambiance.

If you can handle the dining experience at Pontocho, everywhere else will be a breeze. From picking out mochi from the famed Demachi Futaba, sampling candy from the local favorite Issen Yoshoku, and indulging in the incredible eel served up at the Eel and Rakugo on Shinkyougoku-dori, dining in Kyoto is an unforgettable experience.

Stray beyond Kyoto

Japan is an island of unending adventure, and while Kyoto can easily provide entertainment and experiences for weeks, sometimes it’s fun to go a little further! Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, is less than an hour away. It’s packed with history, some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples, and a park where feeding and interacting with deer, nara in Japanese, is the norm. A little further away is Osaka, the second largest metropolitan area behind Tokyo, and the Hyogo Prefecture, which embodies the old way of Japanese living and is home to the beautiful Kinosake Onsen. Go for a dip in the hot springs of Kinosake, or tour through castles and cityscapes in Osaka.

If you’re willing to travel about two hours away, you’ll be able to see the magnificent Himeji Castle. Regarded as Japan’s most beautiful surviving feudal castle, Himeji is both a national treasure and a highly popular UNESCO World Heritage Site. Near the Castle is Mount Koya, the center of Shingon Buddhism. Those seeking spiritual sites and experiences can make the pilgrimage to the secluded temple town here, which is also the start and end site of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

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