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Kyoto is a popular destination in Japan and I definitely understand why. It’s a beautiful city where modern trends are perfectly blended together with rich culture and heritage. During our visit in Japan, Kyoto was certainly one of our highlights. In this article you can find both popular and non touristy things to do in Kyoto. So, if you’re looking for some inspiration for your time in Kyoto, you’ve came to the right place.
Japan is such a cool destination and I’m a huge fan. Are you looking for more articles about Japan? Then check out our Japan category for more destinations in Japan!
PLEASE READ: Just a little reminder that you should always be respectful to local people. Be sure to do some research before you go, especially when you’re going to a place with a very different culture than your own, so you’re sure you aren’t offending anyone. One thing that has been brought to my attention is that tourists are increasingly harassing geikos and maikos (qualified and trainee geisha) for selfies and photos; basically acting as paparazzi. Realise that geikos and maikos are people, not a tourist attraction.
20 Fun things to do in Kyoto
1. Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari was immediately on my mind when I thought about Kyoto. It seems that not a lot of tourists skip this shrine when they visit, but how could they? It’s really an impressive and important place in Kyoto. The Fushimi Inari Shrine is a very important Shinto, which is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people.
At the Shrine, there is actually quite a trail you can follow, all the way up to the mountain. And once you’re up, you can have an amazing view over the city. You can visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine 24/7 and it’s completely free!
We went there between 7 and 8 am and its didn’t get busy until 9 am, which gave us enough freedom to take some great photos and really take in the place. It would also be an excellent idea to go here very, very early and walk all the way up the mountain to enjoy the sunrise.
2. Have the samurai experience in Kyoto
The coolest activity that I did on my trip to Kyoto is the Waraku Kyoto Samurai Experience. This one-of-a-kind experience provides you the opportunity to dress as a samurai, practice with a real 200+ year old katana (!), and practice Zen meditation.
The experience begins when you enter the Waraku house – one of the only remaining samurai houses left in the city, and are dressed by the instructors in traditional samurai garb. As you move throughout the rooms of the house, you learn about the history of the samurai, how to properly use a katana, and why Zen meditation was such an important part of samurai training.
After you receive your hands-off instruction, you then move outside to practice proper sword form with a wooden sword. You’ll need to learn quickly as you then move right into swinging an actual sword. With the sword, your objective is to slice through a wet bamboo mat. This was used to train samurai as it mirrors the density of a human shoulder. I’ll admit this part made me a bit nervous – but it was so much fun!
After you get sword practice is finished, next you’ll return to the house to practice Zen meditation. I’ve practiced meditation before, but this was the hardest type I’ve experienced yet, as you have to do it with your eyes open. The instructors are really great at walking you through it though, so you should have no issues. As an added bonus, you will have professional photos taken while you practice and they come included with the cost.
3. Explore the Buddhist temple Kiyomizudera
Kiyomizudera literally means “Pure Water Temple”. The Kiyomizudera temple is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple is mostly known for the wooden stage, 13 meters above the hillside, because of the great view that the stage offers. From there you can enjoy the cherry and maple trees below.
4. Explore the magical Gion
Another place that immediately came to mind when I thought about Kyoto was Gion, the most famous geisha district in Kyoto. Gion is located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west. Many tourists visit Gion with the hope to catch a glimpse of a geiko or maiko making their way through the streets.
During our visit we didn’t encounter a geisha, but it was still impressive to walk around the Japanese traditional wooden machida merchant houses. There is a lot of architecture, history, shops and restaurants in Gion, so there is enough to explore. Why don’t you visit an ochaya (a teahouse) and enjoy a relaxing cup of tea. Or if you have a big budget, visit one of the more exclusive and expensive of Kyoto’s dining establishments and try kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine).
If you do spot a geiko or maiko, be sure to act respectfully, as there have been a lot of complaints about tourists behaving like paparazzi.
5. Enjoy the Cherry Blossoms at the Philosopher’s Path or Tetsugaku-no-michi
Located in the Northern Higashiyama region of Kyoto, Philosopher’s Path, or Tetsugaku-no-michi in Japanese is one of the best places in Kyoto to escape for a moment or a few hours. The path connects Ginkakuji Temple and Nazenji and follows a canal that is lined with Cherry Blossom Trees.
Philosopher’s Path is so named after a Japanese philosopher and Kyoto University professor who used to go for meditative walks along the path regularly. The walking path becomes a pink blossom wonderland in the Spring and many people will come out for a stroll. This quiet, contemplative area is line with cafés, galleries, shops, and more shrines and temples. The path itself can be walked in about 30 minutes, but you could easily spend half a day here.
I recommend grabbing a matcha ice cream and taking a nice quiet walk while viewing the beautiful blossoms and the delight on other peoples faces as cherry blossoms float through the air. Hanami is a common practice in Japan, which means “flower viewing”. Locals enjoy hanami just as much as visitors. Expect to see people out in their kimonos celebrating the season.
If you are in Kyoto in April, I recommend getting tickets to Miyako Odori. This show is a Spring tradition in Kyoto and showcases the seasons as local geisha and maiko perform. It is the perfect show to put you in the right mindset for Spring and the theatre is within walking distance of Philosopher’s Path.
6. Visit the important Tenryu-ji Temple
The Tenryuji temple is the most important temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district and is also a world heritage site. This significant temple is the head temple of its own school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism.
Most of the buildings of Tenryuji have been rebuild during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), as these were lost in fires and wars over the centuries. The garden that accompanies the temple is still completely in its original form. Here you can find a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the Arashiyama mountains.
Tenryuji Temple a beautiful place to visit during your time in Kyoto.
7. Walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arashiyami Bamboo Grove was a lot smaller than we thought, but we still really enjoyed it. Probably mostly because we were there early in the morning when it was still very quiet. Once more and more people started coming, we noticed that it was just too crowded in that small path.
Next to the famous and Instagrammable pathway that you see on the photo above, there is also a lot to do in the surrounding area. For instance, you can visit the Monkey Park or the Tenryuji Temple.
8. Visit Nishiki Market Yuba
Visiting Nishiki Market in Kyoto is a true feast for the senses. The busy street is a great option for visitors to explore and see and taste a great range of Kansai region food specialities. A particular favourite of ours was to visit the deep fried Yuba shop. What is Yuba you may well ask? Yuba is the skin which develops when tofu is made from Soya bean milk, and has a slightly more chewy texture than tofu. In Japan Yuba is consumed as a separate food item, and the deep fried Yuba was a great way to experience this special food. Think a lovely deep fried crust with melted cheese-like yumminess inside! The deep fried Yuba shop is located at the eastern end of the Nishiki Market shopping Street.
9. Visit the beautiful Nijo Castle
Another amazing place to visit in Kyoto is Nijo Castle, with it’s beautiful architecture and amazing history. There are three areas at the castle: the Honmaru (main circle of defense), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense) and the gardens that surround the two circles of defense.
The castle can be entered through a large gate on the east side. It’s possible to hire a audio guide at a kiosk at the gate.
10. Have a brief visit at the Kimono Forest
The Kimono Forest isn’t all that special, but if you arrive in Arashiyama by train at Randen Arashiyama Station you walk past here any way. So if you visit Arashiyama Bamboo Grove it’s nice to stop by here, but if you have to go out of the way to get here, it’s not worth it.
Instead of trees like at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the Kimono forest has transparent pillars with various beautiful fabrics. At the Kimono Forest you can also find the dragon pond, and it’s believed that if you dip your hands in the water, you will be refreshed and blessed with happiness. The Kimono forest is the most interesting and beautiful when you visit it at night, because then they illuminate the pillars.
11. Admire the Saiho-ji Moss temple
The Saiho-ji temple in Kyoto is another World Heritage Site. The area was turned into a temple by the Buddhist monk Gyoki in the Nara Period. Especially the gardens of the temple are special, as approximately 120 different moss grow inside of the temple compound. The moss covers the ground like a lush green carpet. Hence, the nickname “moss temple”.
12. Visit Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion Temple
The Golden Pavilion Temple in Japan’s beautiful city of Kyoto is a little temple of sparkling, shining light situated in the center of a peaceful lake. The temple reflects on the lake and creates the impression that there are really two temples. It would stand a good change of winning the title of most beautiful temple in the world.
Built in 1397, yes, that’s 1397 (!), it was originally a retirement home for a local leader. The temple has 3 stories, the top two are completely covered in gold leaf. The main purpose of the building is to store holy relics related to the Buddha. The temple is surrounded by gardens in the traditional Japanese style where each element mimics a natural occurrence like stone or water. The Golden Pavilion was the inspiration for a sister structure, the silver pavilion, a few miles away.
Like most of Japan, Kyoto is an easy city to navigate. Getting to the Golden Pavilion is easy. You can book a tour or go on your own. The temple can be accessed from Kyoto Station by bus; #101 or 205 for about 230 yen. Another option is the Karasume subway line and get off at Kitaoji Station and take a quick taxi ride form there.
Visiting the Golden Pavilion makes for a wonderful morning or afternoon in the ancient, elegant and inspiring city of Kyoto.
13. Enjoy the view from the Kyoto Tower
The Kyoto Tower can be found across from Kyoto Station. With its 131 meters it’s the tallest structure in Kyoto. The tower stands out in Kyoto because it’s a modern landmark, while Kyoto mostly is famous for its historic temples and shrines.
Even though it’s in contrast with the rest of Kyoto, the Kyoto Tower is a great place to get a 360 degree view of Kyoto and even of Osaka on a clear day.
14. Try Uji Matcha Food and Desserts
In a small town just south of Kyoto called Uji the countries highest quality matcha is produced from green tea leaves. Therefore it is no wonder that you can find the best foods and desserts made from Uji Matcha in Kyoto.
One of the best shops to try Uji Matcha is called Gion Tsujiri. They have multiple shops in Kyoto which serve not only the most delicious Matcha float (Matcha soft serve ice cream on iced green tea) perfect for those hot summer days but also some light meals made from Matcha such as Matcha Soba noodles.
15. Relax at the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
At the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park you can find the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Sento Imperial Palace and various beautiful gardens. We took a stroll around this park and still got a glimpse of the last few cherry blossoms. It’s especially nice to go here when the cherry trees are in full bloom. It’s a bit hard to predict when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, since it varies each year. But it mostly runs from March to April.
Of course everyone actually wants to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. During our visit, there were still some cherry blossoms trees in full colour while it was already the beginning of May.
It’s definitely a great time to visit Kyoto, however, because it’s so beautiful during this time of year, it’s also a lot busier. Thus, you have to consider whether it might be better to actually visit Kyoto in a different time of year just to avoid some crowds.
16. Admire the Zen rock garden at Ryoanji
At the Ryoanji temple you can find the most famous rock garden in Japan! Every day hundreds of visitors flock to this Zen place, probably making it a bit less zen. It used to be an aristrocat’s villa, but it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450.
The temple grounds of Ryoanji include a spacious park area with pond, and there are even some nice walking trails. Furthermore, if you want to try a Kyoto specialty, it’s also possible to try Yudofu, which is boiled tofu, at the restaurant that is situated on the temple grounds.
17. Visit the Honganji Temples
The Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji temple are located right in the middle of Kyoto. Only Nishi Honganji is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this temple you can find the Geido Hall and the Amidado Hall.
Higashi Honganji was built eleven years after Nishi Honganji. Both temples look alike, so I didn’t consider it necessary to visit them both.
18. Learn more at the Kyoto Railway Museum
At the Kyoto Railway museum you can experience Japan’s steps toward modernisation and learn more about the railway history in Kyoto. According to the Kyoto Railway Museum’s website, they seek to “contribute to the revitalization of local communities through business activities centered on the railway.”
19. Go to the Kyoto International Manga Museum
This cool museum is full with, you could’ve guessed it, Manga. There is a crazy big collection of Japanese manga, with a small section dedicated to foreign manga. The museum also shows the development and development of manga internationally. Next to the permanent collection, there are also temporary exhibitions on different themes.
20. Visit L’Escamoteur for some unique drinks
Perhaps after all this sight seeing in Kyoto, you’re craving some drinks? Well, then the place to go for you is definitely L’Escamoteur, one of the best bars in the world! You’ll find this hotspot tucked away in Kyoto; in the attic of a brick building near the Takase canal. It’s a whole experience to be here, and the drinks are just as unique as the setting – expect an interior full of vintage details.
It’s not a surprise that it’s such a unique bar, since the owner, Christophe, is a trained magician! The L’Escamoteur Bar is the perfect place to celebrate your unique visit to Kyoto.
I’m 100% sure that you’ll love Kyoto! Hopefully this article proves useful for your visit and you’ll found plenty of unique things to do in Kyoto. Have an amazing time!