Though the bright lights of Tokyo are dazzling, this bustling metropolis doesn’t offer many places to experience historical Japan. In contrast, when you visit Kyoto, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped right into authentic Japanese culture! Kyoto is brimming over with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural heritage attractions, 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!
You’ve probably heard of Japanese Green Tea, but 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 popularity of green tea exploded in Japan and became an integral part of Japanese culture. Kyoto is said to be the birthplace of matcha, a light, powdered tea used in tea ceremony, and tea houses are found throughout Kyoto, making this city the world’s best destination for experiencing a traditional tea ceremony! Take note: some tea houses require reservations, especially if you would like to have a Geisha or Maiko make your tea.
While Geisha can be found in several Japanese cities, apprentice Geisha (called Maiko) can only be trained in Kyoto. Geisha wear subdued colors and short obi (kimono sash), and Maiko sport brightly-colored kimono with long obi. In addition, Maiko are trained in traditional Japanese arts such as dancing, tea ceremony, playing shamisen, and more! You’re unlikely to have an impromptu interaction with a Geisha or a Maiko on any old street in Kyoto, but you may be lucky enough to spot a Maiko on Hanamikoji-dori street in the Gion District as she dashes from her home to work. Unfortunately, seeing a Geisha is more challenging. A trusted third party will have to vouch for you and arrange a meeting. Thankfully, our well-connected All Japan Tours staff can do this for you!
If you’re passionate about Japanese food, check out Nishiki Market—the perfect place to satisfy your Japanese culinary cravings. Nishiki Market runs parallel to Shijo Avenue, located near the Gion District. Each store opens and closes at different times, but most of the shops are open from 9:00 to 18:00. The market has been around for several hundred years, and amazingly, the original owners’ descendants run some of the shops! Most stores specialize in Japanese delicacies such as sweets, pickles, seafood, and seasonal items. In addition, almost all of the food comes from local sources. Come here to shop, eat, learn, and see history in action!
You can’t leave Japan without trying on a kimono, and there is no better place than Kyoto to do this! Choose between getting dolled up like a Geisha and wearing an expensive kimono, or trying a simple rental that you can wear all day. Many Japanese people rent kimonos when they visit Kyoto’s shrines and temples, so they can fully immerse themselves in history and nostalgia. In addition, plenty of rental shops offer everything from undergarments to accessories, and the staff can also style your hair. Best of all, the shops will safeguard your street clothes while you strut around Kyoto in your stunning kimono!
Few performing arts traditions can compare to Kabuki—a uniquely beautiful spectacle. Actors slowly move in stylized poses, linger over every word of their lines, and suddenly burst into wild choreography. Costume and makeup changes happen right before your eyes, while hidden singers and musicians play music that lulls you into a fantastical world. Kyoto’s esteemed Minamiza Kabuki Theatre is located on Shijo Avenue, near the Gion District. Minamiza first opened in the 1600s, and it is the only Kabuki theater in Kyoto that survived until modern times. An entire Kabuki performance usually lasts about four hours, but if you’re pressed for time you can purchase a single act ticket and watch part of the full performance.
Monkey Park Iwatayama, home to approximately 130 wild snow monkeys, is located in the Arashiyama District on Iwatayama Mountain. Unlike other parks, you can feed the monkeys here. The friendlier ones might even run right up to you if they know you’re holding apple chunks! However, be careful to avoid looking directly into the monkeys’ eyes, and don’t try to pet them. While you’re this high up, take time to experience the breathtaking view of Kyoto below.
If you’re traveling to Kyoto in May, July, or October, you won’t want to miss some of Japan’s most popular events: the Aoi, Gion, and Jidai Festivals! In fact, these festivals are so famous that Japanese people travel to Kyoto to take part in the celebrations. Dating back to the 6th century, Aoi is one of Japan’s oldest festivals and takes place each year on May 15th. The Gion Festival is the largest of the three and lasts for the entire month of July. The most exciting events take place on the 17th and 24th when giant floats (up to 25 meters tall) are pulled from Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Heian Shrine. Last but not least, the Jidai Festival, which began in 1895, celebrates Kyoto’s founding date: October 22nd, 794 AD. Don’t miss these festivals and unforgettable opportunities to immerse yourself in Kyoto’s rich cultural heritage.
Kyoto’s kimonos are widely regarded as the very best in Japan. For top-shelf quality, visit the renowned Nishi-jin Textile Center, located in Kyoto’s textile district. Here, you can rent or purchase kimonos, or you can even check out one of the fashion shows. You’ll see the latest kimono designs as you learn more about traditional Japanese clothing. Can’t find a kimono from the collection that suits your tastes? You can order custom-made kimonos at Nishi-jin!
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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