Though the bright lights of Tokyo are dazzling, if you want to experience traditional Japanaese culture, Kyoto is the city for you! Kyoto is brimming over with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and traditional Japanese cuisine and art. With so many options, it can be difficult to narrow down your bucket list. Let us be your guide—here are 20 things you must do in Kyoto!
Did you know that preparing tea is considered an art form in Japan? This tradition first began when Buddhist monks brought green tea back from China for religious and medicinal purposes. In time, the green tea's popularity exploded, and it became an integral part of Japanese culture.
Kyoto Prefecture is said to be the birthplace of matcha, a light, powdered tea used in a tea ceremony. You can find tea houses throughout the city, making it the world’s best destination for trying it!
Take note: some tea houses require reservations, especially if you would like to experience a tea ceremony with a Geisha or Maiko.
They say that the most artistically inclined Geishas are from Kyoto. This is due to the highly strict training Kyoto's women go through while they're apprentices (Maiko). You can spot the difference between Geisha and Maiko by their clothes. Maiko sport brightly-colored kimono with long obi, while Geishas were subdued colors.
You're unlike to have an impromptu interaction with a Geisha or a Maiko, but you may be lucky enough to spot one in the Gion Geisha District. If you go to Japan during the cherry blossom season or the fall, you can also watch them perform dances in public theaters. Otherwise, you have to hire one of these women to host your party or lead a tea ceremony.
Unfortunately, doing this isn't easy for travelers in Japan. You must go through a trusted third party--like our well-connected staff at All Japan Tours!
If you love Japanese food, the Nishiki Market is the perfect place to satisfy your culinary cravings! The market runs parallel to Shijo Avenue near the Gion District. Each store opens and closes at different times, but most of the shops are open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.
Nishiki Market first opened several hundred years ago, and amazingly, some of the original owners' descendants still work here! Most stores specialize in delicacies such as local sweets, pickles, seafood, and seasonal items. Here, you can eat, browse, and see history in action!
You can't leave Japan without trying on a kimono, and there's no better place to do it than Kyoto! You can go all out and get dolled up like a Geisha or try on a simple rental that you can wear all day.
Many rental shops offer everything from undergarments to accessories, and the staff can also style your hair. They will also safeguard your street clothes while you strut around Kyoto. Don't feel embarrassed about wearing one, Japanese people love wearing kimonos when they go to temples and shrines or attend festivals!
Few performing arts traditions can compare to the uniquely beautiful Kabuki Theater. The actors slowly move in stylized poses, linger over every word in their lines, and suddenly burst into wild choreography at the climax of the scene. Costume and makeup changes happen right before your eyes, while hidden musicians play lulling music to pull you into a fantastical world.
Kyoto's esteemed Minamiza Kabuki Theatre is on Shinjo Avenue near the Gion District. Minamiza first opened in the 1600s, and it is the only Kabuki theater in Kyoto that still stands in modern times. An entire performance usually lasts about four hours, but if you're running short on time, you can purchase a Single-Act ticket to see part of the show.
If you love animals, head to Monkey Park Iwatayama for one of the best experiences of your life! The park is home to approximately 130 snow monkeys, but unlike most parks and zoos, they run free and you can feed them. You can buy apple chunks for a nominal fee but listen to the caretakers'ns carefully. A few friendly monkeys might approach you, but don't look them in the eyes or try to pet their heads! Remember, while they might seem somewhat accustomed to humans, they're wild animals.
Depending on when you go to Japan, check and see if you're itinerary coincides with any of the countries famous festivals. There are three in Kyoto that you don't want to miss! Taking part in one of these grand and storied traditions isn't just fun, it's an opportunity for you to immerse yourself in Japanese culture.
Dating back to the 6th century, the Aoi Matsuri is one of Japan's oldest festivals. It takes place every year on May 15th and includes a parade, dance performances, and horseback archery. Next comes the Gion Festival, the largest of these events, which lasts for the entire month of July. The most exciting days are the 17th and the 24th when teams pull giant floats from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine. Last is the Jidai Festival in October, which celebrates the founding of Kyoto.
Most Japanese people consider Kyoto's kimonos and textiles as the very best in the country. For top-shelf visit the renowned Nishi-jin Textile Center where you can rent or purchase fine cloths. You can even watch a fashion show to get an idea of what you want before you purchase. Can't find a kimono that suits your tastes? Nishi-jin also offers custom designs!
The Fushimi Sake District is famous for both its sake breweries and museums. At Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, you can learn all about Japan’s fascinating sake brewing traditions. Even though the museum was built in 1982, the original site (a sake brewery) was built in 1909. Take a tour to see each stage of sake production, as well as displays of traditional tools. Some of the tools displayed in Gekkeikan Okura’s Museum are up to 400 years old! As you progress through the tour, you’ll hear recordings of traditional sake brewer chants, and at the end sample some of the delicious sake!
Make your way to the peak of Mt. Daimonji for one of the best aerial views of Kyoto. This summit reaches 466 meters (1,528 feet) and is considered a premier place to see the autumn leaves change colors. The hike is fairly steep, so you’ll definitely get your daily workout! From the main viewpoint, climb another 20 minutes to the mountain’s apex. If you’re traveling during the summer, be sure to visit on August 16th when bonfires create the shape of the character “大” , which means ‘large.’
For the best dining experience in Kyoto, head to Pontocho Alley. Pontocho restaurants offer every type of Kyoto dish that you could ever want. The opening and closing times vary from establishment to establishment, but most are open between 17:00 and 23:00. Many restaurants overlook the Kamo River, so you can enjoy a fantastic view while you eat. From May through September, a number of the restaurants even build temporary platforms over the water so their patrons can enjoy a truly unforgettable dining experience!
If your stay in Kyoto becomes overwhelming, travel an hour north to Kurama. This rural town is famous for the Buddhist Kurama Temple and Kurama Onsen—the local hot spring. Kurama Temple is nestled in the mountains, so you can take either a 30 to 45-minute hike or hop on the mountain cable car. The Kurama Onsen is located in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) that is a ten-minute walk from Kurama Station. Even if you’re not staying at the ryokan, you’re still welcome to indulge in the indoor and outdoor baths.
Most cities in Japan hold celebrations of light during winter, but Kyoto hosts these events almost year-round! In March and December, head to Arashiyama for the Hanatouro Festival to see thousands of lanterns illuminating the streets and temples. During the cherry blossom season, Kyoto’s Maruyama Park sets up lanterns at night that highlight the beautiful flower petals. In July, the Tanabata festivals include a spectacular light celebration at Kifune Shrine. During autumn, many of Kyoto's temples (including Kiyomizu Temple) stay open late so the light can showcase the multicolored leaves’ beauty. While Kyoto celebrates light festivals throughout the year, events don’t take place every night. Make sure to check if one of these gorgeous celebrations will happen during your Kyoto trip!
Maruyama Park’s beauty attracts tourists during cherry blossom season and in autumn. Outside of these seasons, this lovely park is always a relaxing place for a stroll. Maruyama Park takes inspiration from Chinese aesthetics and is decorated with multiple manmade ponds and ornate bridges. Years ago, the park was filled with temples much like the rest of Kyoto. Unfortunately, these buildings burned down in a great fire. Instead of rebuilding the temples, the government decided to reopen the area as a public park in the late 1800s. Maruyama Park also features several small shops with refreshments, and you can even enjoy a delicious meal at the Michelin-starred Mizai restaurant.
Shijo-Dori Avenue is Kyoto’s finest place to shop. Like Tokyo’s Ginza, you can find everything from luxury Japanese goods to modern international brands. The most popular department stores—Takashimaya Department Store, Marui Department Store, and Fujii Daimaru—line the street. You can also explore boutiques for high-end brands like Louis Vuitton and Armani. Head to OPA Shopping Mall and Mina Kyoto Mall for reasonably priced brands like GU and UNIQLO. If you’re more interested in traditional Japanese goods, make your way to Tsujikura for washi (Japanese paper) and wagasa (Japanese umbrellas).
Ikebana (‘living flower’) is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. Historians debate the origins of this art form, but many agree Îkebana likely developed around the 7th century when flower arrangements were presented on alters as offerings to Buddha. In Ikebana, blossoms and plants are carefully arranged in vases so that the flowers look like they do in nature. In addition, careful arrangements and specific vase styles help keep the flowers alive as long as possible. Some arrangements are simple while others are quite ornate, and each composition expertly balances the lines, shapes, and colors of the bouquets. Take an Ikebana class in Kyoto and use your new skills to add beauty to your home!
While historians argue over the Rickshaw’s origins, it’s likely that this form of transportation was invented in Japan during the late 1800s. While you explore Kyoto’s cultural heritage, why not travel around town in a traditional way? Kyoto offers plenty of places for Rickshaw rides, especially in the Arashiyama District. In Arashiyama, you can ride through streets that still have machiya (traditional Japanese style townhouses) and feel like you’re stepping back in time. Most of the drivers are quite knowledgeable about the historical significances of their routes, and they often give you interesting lessons along the way.
Calligraphy (shodo) was introduced to Japan from China perhaps as far back as the 5th century. Historically, Japan used the Chinese writing system before developing kana (Japanese syllabaries) during the Heian Period. As a result, Japan gave birth to its own style of calligraphy, which you can learn in Kyoto. If you’ve never studied Japanese before, don’t worry. Your teacher will take great care to show you the tools, the proper position of your bamboo quill, and the exact way to make each stroke.
If you start to feel a little worn out from running to all of Kyoto’s highlights, this may be the perfect time to take a Zen meditation class! Kyoto is home to several Zen Buddhist temples where you can take meditation classes. The practice of meditation, where one becomes highly attuned to one’s breath, is central to Zen Buddhism. You’ll really feel like you’ve immersed yourself in Japanese culture with this amazing, spiritual experience!
If you don’t have time to hit everything on this list, head to the Gion Corner Performance Art Show to see a sampler of all the traditional Japanese arts Kyoto has to offer. The Gion Corner regularly runs hour-long shows that feature traditional Japanese music, theatrical performances, tea ceremonies, and more. Yet, the real show highlight is the Kyomai dance performed by real Maiko. If you’re especially lucky, you might even get a chance to get your picture taken with them after the show! Outside the performance hall, take a look at the Maiko Gallery that displays traditional accessories and videos of Maiko dances. Even though the performances are short, this is still a great way to experience traditional Japanese culture.
When’s the Best Time to Go to Kyoto? There’s never a bad time to experience traditional Japan! Most tourists go in the fall to see the maples change colors or in the spring to see cherry blossoms. Kyoto’s natural beauty attracts travelers from within and outside of Japan, so these are also the most crowded times of year. If you want to avoid crowds as much as possible, try going in the summer, winter, or late spring after cherry blossom season ends.
How Long Should I Stay in Kyoto? Kyoto has so much to see and do—it could take a lifetime to explore everything! If you only have time for a short trip, three days are enough to hit Kyoto’s major highlights. However, a week will provide an incredible, immersive experience!
How Do I Get Around Kyoto? The most stress-free way is to book a tour, of course! A private guide will show you the best places in Kyoto, and get you there on the quickest routes. With a private guide you’ll never get lost, get the most out of your time, and have an expert ready to answer all of your questions! But if you’d rather travel on your own, the easiest way to get around Kyoto is by city bus. Buses run frequently—some within five minutes of each other—and many of the bus stops are named for the famous destinations located nearby.
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