Top Things to Do in Kyoto
Having lived and worked in Kyoto for the last six years, I have been lucky enough to become familiar with the city that truly defines Japan – with over two thousand religious sites, Kyoto is Japan’s premier preserve of it’s glorious past and the city itself holds fourteen percent of Japan’s Important Cultural Properties and one in five of its National Treasures. Of course, the city is just as fascinating now as it was then and, in this article, I will introduce you to the 15 best ways to make the most of this wonderful city.
1. Enjoy the ultimate Torii gate experience at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine, a shrine with a history going back over 1,400 years and proudly standing at the bottom of Mount Inari, is dedicated to the god Inari who is worshipped as the god of both business and rice. It is the business aspect, however, that has gifted Fushimi Inari-Taisha with its standout feature – the thousands of bright, red Torii gates that line the pathway that winds itself up to the mountain peak. These gates are donated by local businesses and individuals, with each one inscribed with the donor’s name and the date of their donation on its back. The sheer volume of gates creates quite the stunning visual, nowhere more so than at the entrance to the hiking trail at the shrine’s rear, where the density of two parallel rows of gates, known as the Senbon Torii (Thousands of Torii Gates), creates what is almost a tunnel and a mandatory photo opportunity for anyone who visits. It is not only the Torii that make Fushimi Inari worth visiting, however – its head shrine buildings are beautiful and well maintained, including a Roman Gate donated by Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1589, and the two-hour mountain hike leads up to some remarkable views out over central Kyoto which must be seen to be appreciated.
2. Dine over the flowing waters on a Kibune Kawadoko
Japan is world famous for its culinary expertise (Japanese cuisine is even listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO), but it’s not just the taste of the food — it's also the various ways in which the Japanese interweave the dining experience with the seasons that gives it this reputation. Kyoto is known for having especially pronounced seasons, and there is no better way to enjoy the summer than eating kaiseki (multi-dish haute cusine) on a kawadoko. Kawadoko are temporary platforms built over stretches of water during Kyoto’s humid summer period and are the perfect way to cool off. The platforms are common in central Kyoto, particularly in the back of restaurants in the Pontocho district, but Kibune, in the north, is most recommended as it has kawadoko which are built literally centimeters over the water, really emphasizing the experience. As a mixture of a way to escape the summer heat, enjoy the summer atmosphere and taste delicious food, trying a kawadoko is, once again, a uniquely Kyoto experience you should not miss out on.
3. Light up your Kyoto experience with Hanatoro
Hanatoro – or “Road of Flower and Light” – is a festival held twice annually in Kyoto and, as the name suggests, involves numerous illuminations throughout the area. In the eyes of many, Japan looks most beautiful at night, with the day-glo Bladerunner-esque LCD lights of Osaka or Tokyo springing instantly to mind for most. However, Kyoto’s strict building laws – in place to protect the city’s skyline – mean that it isn’t lit up in the same way as its peers. Instead, in line with the city’s character, Kyoto’s nightlights are presented in a more austere, less frequent but equally impressive manner. Over ten days in Higashiyama (every March, 18:00-21:30) and Arashiyama (every December, 17:30-20:30) thousands of lanterns and light displays are placed throughout the streets and temples, tastefully bathing already beautiful areas and specially created floral displays in a golden glow; Arashiyama is especially recommended as its famed bamboo forest looks particularly magical during the festival. Hanatoro is a wonderful opportunity for photographers (it’s impossible to take a bad photograph) and a can’t miss for those wishing to be transported away to a more elegant world.
4. Take part in religious activities at Kokedera
Many of Kyoto’s temples have alternative names; although technically named Saihoji, this temple is much more commonly referred to as Kokedera. Kokedera translates into English as “Moss Temple” and, with over 100 variants of the plant within its grounds, the temple more than earns this name. Kokedera is part of Kyoto’s famous “Historic Monuments” and its famous Moss Garden is a must see for anyone visiting Kyoto; found in a grove with a central lake, the circular garden is supremely peaceful and tranquil. What really makes Kokedera stand out, however, is the practices required for visiting; reservations are required to be made at least one week before the intended visit (international applications are readily available) and visitors are only allowed to access the grounds after partaking in religious practices, such as chanting, praying and copying out the sutra (tracing is available for those unversed in such things). While initially this may seem disconcerting, it really adds to the experience of visiting the shrine and makes Kokedera stand out as a highlight in Kyoto’s sometime overawing selection of temples and shrines.
5. Experience the traditional arts at Gion Corner
Gion Corner is an arts theatre with a very international mindset (the official website is available in ten languages, very much a rarity for a Japanese company), and is as popular with tourists as it is with the locals. Presenting the visitor with seven different types of performance – Bunraku Puppet show, Ikebana (flower arrangement), Gagaku Court Music, the Koto, Kyogen (a comedy performance), Kyo-Mai dancing and sado (tea ceremony) – the theatre combines a staggeringly varied number of arts into an enjoyable and mesmerizing experience, with each one timed just long enough for you to gain an appreciation of the artistry of those involved. As a way to maximize what time you have available in Kyoto, there are few places which bear a higher recommendation than this and, with performances running daily from March to December (with three to four shows a week over the winter months), whenever it is you venture to Kyoto, you shouldn’t miss out on such a concise burst of traditional culture.
6. Sample history (and a drop of the good stuff) in the Fushimi Sake District
For anyone with an interest in Japanese sake (rice wine) and Japanese history, Fushimi’s Sake district is a must visit. With many of the area’s white-walled wooden buildings dating back to the late 19th century and the Meiji Restoration, it’s a great example of how old methods and ideals still have a place in modern Kyoto. Famed for the clear waters of its underground springs and its historical importance as a place where important historical figures such as Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Ryoma Sakamoto both have connections (you can stay in a reconstruction of the inn where Sakamoto was attacked), the most interesting part of the area is its large selection of breweries, some of which are open to the public. The best of these is Gekkeikan Breweries, which offers a self-guided tour with good English signage and a free sample at the end. Just try not to enjoy yourself too much.
7. Read a manga or two (thousand) at Kyoto International Manga Museum
Manga is a gateway into Japanese culture for many people, especially younger generations, and is treated as seriously in its home country as other, supposedly higher, art forms are. Kyoto International Manga Museum is Japan’s premier collection of Manga (predominantly in Japanese, though some English books can be found), all of which are available for visitors to sit and enjoy at their leisure. Opened in 2006, the museum is more than just a manga library - though the fact that much of the building’s four floors are walls lined with manga and other rarities shows that its focus is certainly that – as it features a café, a museum shop and displays concerning the history of Manga both nationally and internationally as well as other, temporary exhibits. Another noteworthy aspect is the artificial turf lawn at the front of the building where you can sometimes see cosplayers, who often will gladly take photos with you if you ask.
8. See one of Japan’s “Big Three” festivals by visiting Gion Matsuri
There are few things the Japanese love more than a matsuri (festival) and Gion Matsuri is one of the three biggest in Japan, alongside Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri and Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri. Originating as a way to appease the gods during times of disease, Gion Matsuri has evolved into an event which runs through the whole of July. The highlights are two processions (formerly one) of traditional wooden floats around Shijo-Karasuma intersection on July 17th and 24th, with the 17th having the largest and more impressive of the floats. In the three days prior to each parade, the area’s roads are closed between 6 and 11 pm, allowing for a bustle of people wearing traditional yukata to enjoy festival food (such as yakitori), view the construction of the floats and sample the celebratory atmosphere. Gion Matsuri is a wonderful way to sample Kyoto’s atmosphere and is even worth braving the sweltering July humidity to enjoy.
9. Visit an active film/TV set at Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Jidaigeki, or period dramas, are one of Japan’s most popular contributions to worldwide popular culture, and Toei Kyoto Studio Park (or Toei Uzumasa Eiga Mura) is a great way to explore them further. The site is a working film set that depicts various streets and locations in Edo Period Japan and is used as a filming location by up to 200 productions annually, but doubles up as a theme park, too. In addition to offering the opportunity to rent Edo period costumes in which you can stroll around the park and to watch filming as it happens, the park also hosts a number of other attractions that can be entered via tickets available at various stalls throughout the park. These include exhibitions about famous film directors, video games and anime series, an exciting ninja performance, mazes and a haunted house; the majority of which will be enjoyed by children every bit as much as they will be adults.
10. Take a nostalgic train ride through Sagano on the Sagano Romantic Train
Kyoto is a place with more than its fair share of scenic nature, and there are fewer better ways to enjoy the scenery than a ride on the Sagano Romantic Train. Running from Torokko Saga Station to Torokko Kameoka Station, passengers can take in a winding path through the mountains alongside Hozugawa River, soaking in the stunning forested ravines and get a glimpse of rural Japanese life. Sit on a wooden bench in one of the train's five carriages – one of which is fully opened – and you’ll soon be feeling nostalgic for a life that you weren’t even part of and want to ride again. Kyoto’s four distinct seasons mean that revisiting at a different time of year can bring a completely new experience, with the golden leaves of autumn the railway’s peak time, and is highly recommended.
11. See over 1000 wooden statues at Sanjusangendo
Kyoto is synonymous with temples and shrines and, whilst Ginkakuji and Kiyomizudera are must-sees for anyone, it’s a mistake for any tourist to limit themselves to just the more obvious sightseeing spots. Sanjusangendo is a temple known for its exceptionally long main hall which houses 1001 statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon, the goddess of mercy, beautifully carved from Japanese cedar; one 11-foot tall central statue being flanked by two sets of 500 human-sized statues standing in sets of 10 rows and 50 columns. With the wooden musty smell and dappled light, Sanjusangendo has an atmosphere which stands out amongst Kyoto’s temples and - due to a no indoor photography policy - you’ll truly have to go in person to see what it’s all about.
12. Take a bite out of Kyoto with a stroll through Nishiki Market
Located far away from the sea, the people of ancient Kyoto had great difficulty in obtaining fresh seafood – a staple of the Japanese diet then, as now. This, alongside the abundance of Buddhist temples, led to the creation of Kyoto’s famed and unique food culture, which is best sampled first hand at Nishiki Market. Affectionately known as “Kyoto’s kitchen, this undercover market, with a history stretching back over eight hundred years, sprawls east to west over five blocks parallel to Shijo street and offers both tourists and locals easy access to the whole gamut of Kyoto’s cook book. With some shops handing out free samples, as well as plenty of “on-the-go” skewers to buy and try, almost everything is locally produced, meaning Nishiki Market offers tastes you can’t, and won’t, experience anywhere else.
13. Learn the Samurai arts at the Samurai Kembu Theatre
Kembu is a traditional performance that combines the grace of the katana and the sensu (folding fan). Located in Kyoto’s Higashiyama ward, Samurai Kembu Theatre, which is easily accessible by subway or bus from Kyoto Station, offers the chance to both watch and take part in this uniquely Japanese art form. The theatre’s performances, available during the day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and evenings on Mondays through Saturdays, offer visitors the chance to see a breathtaking 50-minute performance by Kembu masters, truly showcasing the samurai spirit and aesthetic. For those wishing to take things even further, there are four different packages available in which you can try Kembu first hand; the most in-depth of which presents the opportunity to learn a 2 1/2 minute routine with a 15-hour session spread out over three days.
14. Hang out with the monkeys at Monkey Park Iwatayama
Japan’s most famous monkeys reside in Nagano, but you can just as easily interact with our simian cousins if you only have time to visit Kyoto. Located in picturesque Arashiyama, Monkey Park Iwatayama is found atop Mount Iwata. The mountain itself requires a fairly steep thirty-minute hike to traverse, but those who do it are rewarded with the chance to interact with around one hundred and seventy Japanese macaque monkeys. The monkeys themselves, whilst wild, have become accustomed to humans and will happily weave through the crowds as though it is the most natural thing in the world. Although common sense, and due care, are required, you will feel more than safe and even have the opportunity to feed the monkeys with nuts and fruit provided by the park itself in a small wooden hut with wire-covered windows.
15. Learn everything you could ever need to know (and more) about trains at Kyoto Railway Museum
Anyone who has ever ridden a train in Japan will attest that the country has one of, if not the, world’s premier train systems. Japanese society has a love affair with trains born from the machine’s role in the country’s modernization and this is celebrated through Kyoto Railway Museum, which is located just a 20-minute walk west of the city’s ultra-modern Kyoto Station. Incorporating the beautiful wooden Nijo Station House, built in 1904, into its layout, the museum opened in April 2016 and presents a marvelous array of workshops, guided tours and learning areas spread out over three floors that will appeal to everybody, be they train fans or those people wanting to gain a greater insight into the social history of Japan.