Your quick guide on the best things to do in Kyoto
Kyoto is a fascinating Japanese city on the island of Honshu, which for over 1,000 years was also the capital of the Land of the Rising Sun. It is a city which perfectly embraces traditional and modern life, and is a must visit on your trip to Japan.
If you stay in Tokyo you could visit Kyoto on a day trip. You would have to depart Tokyo very early and return late at night. If you have time, I would highly recommend spending longer in Kyoto.
The best time to visit Kyoto is either in the spring for the cherry blossoms, or in the autumn to see the fiery colors of the trees losing their leaves.
With so many things to do in Kyoto, finding a starting point can be confusing. To help you out Ryan from Mr Abroad has put together a list of the Top 10 things to enjoy while traveling to this city.
Explore the Temples and Shrines of Kyoto
There are 1,600 Buddhist Temples and 400 shrines in Kyoto. It is evidently going to be difficult to see them all. I suggest focusing on the 17 UNESCO world heritage sites and then just drop in to visit some others as you make your way around the city. Some of my favorite temples in Kyoto are:
- The Kinkaku- Ji temple (the Golden Pavillion). The best time to see this is in the autumn when the fiery maples around the temple light up.
- The Koke Dera Saiho Ji Temple with its beautiful moss gardens. Visitors have to apply in advance to visit which makes the whole experience all the more exciting somehow.
- The huge Shimogao- jinja Shrine with the tree-lined walkway to reach the shrine.
Wander through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Take a walk through the mysterious and towering Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. The best time to go can be early morning before the crowds.
The beautiful and tall wide green stems of bamboo reaching to the sky, through which the cobbled pathway winds is a wonderful experience of carefully placed nature. This forest is one of Kyoto’s (and perhaps Japan’s) most photographed sites.
Watch Traditional Japanese Performances
An experience not to be missed in Kyoto is a traditional Japanese performance. The music, dancing, and clothing will transport you to another time, place and immerse you into the unique aesthetic of Japan culture.
Traditional performances can involve dancing, a special instrument called the “Koto”, flower arranging and even theatre.
Check out this video of the Koto being played:
Try the Kyo Yasai Vegetables of Kyoto
As an inland city, the people of Kyoto have been growing and eating special vegetables which are specific to the region. Kyoto has many vegetables, which you will not find in other areas of Japan. Many restaurants in the city will use them in their dishes. One popular restaurant that serves them is the Nanahei restaurant near Saiin Station in Western Kyoto.
Visit the Hosomi Museum
A visit to the Hosomi Museum is an excellent way to view traditional Japanese art and artifacts and to learn more about Japanese history. As a side note, this museum building also won the 40th Building Contractors Architecture Prize, which makes it an attraction itself!
The museum also has a lively program of events that aim to promote traditional Japanese Culture. Opening hours are from 10am – 6pm daily but closed on Mondays. If Monday is a Public Holiday the Hosomi Museum will also be closed on Tuesday (check your calendar).
Learn about Kimono Weaving at Nishijin Textile Center
Kimono wearing and weaving is a fast disappearing skill and trade, and with it disappears a beautiful tradition of Japan. Kyoto has long been a cultural hub of Japan so all the best most specialist weavers are found in Kyoto.
A visit to the Nishijin Textile Center, with one of the tours run by weavers, is a good way to contribute to keeping this industry alive. The Textile Center also has daily and hourly Kimono fashion show which is a wonderful way to see many marvelous and beautiful Kimono’s.
The Museum at the Nishijin Textile Center is open every day from 9am to 5pm (except 29th Dec – 3rd Jan) and entrance is FREE. They also arrange other cultural experiences, which should be booked in advance. These cultural experiences also have a fee.
Rent a bicycle and discover unexpected gems
Cycling around a city is a wonderful way to discover a place from a local perspective and to discover unexpected sites and as you get around.
Taste Kyo Wagashi Sweets
Food in Japan is never “just food” it is distinct and an experience. Now, when it comes to sweets, of course, there is no difference.
Kyo Wagashi sweets are like no other you will have ever eaten, and you will feel sorry to have eaten it once it is gone. These Kyo Wagashi sweets are little artworks in themselves, intricately designed with bright colors and condiments. They commonly contain a sweet red bean paste and are served with a thick matcha green tea in many of Kyoto’s tea rooms.
If you are going to Kyoto then do not miss out! Check out these top locations to get Kyo Wagashi in Kyoto.
Walk through the Gion Area
The Gion area is a small but beautiful part of Kyoto City where there are lots of interesting small stores and teahouses. Many local artisans have their shops in this area so a great place to pick up a beautiful tea set, or just to browse. The area is a designated area for Geisha, the mysterious entertainment girls of Japan.
There is a famous street called Shinmonzen-dori Street with great wonderful local produce stores. Nearby, there is another famous street called Shirakawa Street. Here you will find cobbled streets, wooden teahouses, willow trees, and a river nearby.
It is best to visit in the early morning before it gets too busy. Have some tea and breakfast at one of the restaurants in the area. Alternatively, you could visit at night when the small street lanterns are lit, giving it a traditional small-town vibe.
While you are sitting enjoying your tea the Shirakawa street is a lovely location to simply spend some time relaxing, watching the world go by.
Read Comics at Kyoto International Manga Museum
Manga is an art form in itself and while it retains a distinct Japanese culture, it has spread its reach across the world. Even if you have never picked up a Manga comic before, the Manga Museum is well worth visiting for a morning, or an afternoon – or a full day in my case!
The Museum is reached easily on public transport or by rental bicycle. Watch out though, the Museum is always closed on Wednesdays and commonly closed on Public Holidays. Remember to check the opening hours before you visit.
Now you have your list of 10 top things to do in Kyoto, now all that remains is to get your tickets.
Japan is truly a place to be transported and you will be hard-pressed to find another culture and travel destination that feels more exotic to the outsider.
Personally, I think this city could well be a place to spend weeks or even months exploring, but if you don’t have time, it can be done in a day too.
How about you? Have you been to Kyoto? Where was your favorite place? What is your favorite Japanese sweet? Would you like to try on a Kimono? Let us know in the comments!
Ryan Smith is a full-time traveler and founder of MrAbroad.com, where he turns his passion into interesting information for travel lovers. MrAbroad focuses on travel destinations, helpful tips&tricks. It is built to inspire you to live a life full of adventure, joy, and experience. Follow him on Twitter.