Things To Do In Kyoto

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Top things to do in Kyoto, one of Japan’s most historical cities.

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Kyoto is the former imperial capital of Japan and steeped in Japanese history. A visit to Kyoto will transport you through Japan’s past via the old houses of Nara, tasting Japanese cuisine in the Nishiki market, up the steps of the 1600 temples in the city and into the faintly lit alleyways of Gion corner for a glimpse of the rare and mysterious disappearing geisha’s. Giving you a chance to glance into Japan’s majestic past.

The city is a must visit destination when in Japan and was my favourite city on my recent trip to Japan. But don’t take my word for it, below is a list of things to do in Kyoto.

Things To Do In Kyoto Japan

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1. Visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Rise early and catch the first rays of sun peek through the bamboos at Arashyiama bamboo grove before the tour buses arrive. You’ll be so happy you did.

The bamboo forest is one of the most photographed sights in Kyoto and for good reason. Standing in the midst of the evergreen towering stalks of bamboos and watching them dance as the wind blows will fill you with a sense of peace.

The grove consists of one path which runs through it, leading into Okochi-Sanso Villa. You can hire a bike to explore the town, taking in the temples, bamboo groves and Arashimama railway.

The bamboo grove is open 24 hours and is located 10 minutes walk from Saga Arashiyama Station.

Admission: Free

Directions of how to get to Arashiyama bamboo grove

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2. Expolre the Fushimi Inari Shrine

A visit to Kyoto isn’t complete without a visiting the iconic 10,000 torii gates of Fushimi Inari.

I’ve seen photos of the Fushimi Inari shrines vibrate orange hues and ‘thought is it real or a filter?’ Yes, it’s real and even grander in person.

Don’t ONLY go through the small shrines going into the torii gates, like most tourists and then leave.

This section of the torii is where everyone tries to get that token photo and is the busiest section. Most tourists turn around and leave the torii gates before they even hit station 1.

Do hike up through the larger gates where you’ll walk undisturbed and have a chance to view the larger shrines. There’s a rest spot at station 6 where you have a panoramic view of the city, that can’t be beaten and there will be fewer people going all the way up to station 17.  

You’ll get to enjoy the vermilions splendour of the torii gates as they glow in the light of the sun. The torii gates are each donated by Japanese businesses.

And after you’ve completed the 4k hike and feel a bit hungry. No need to worry there is an astounding food market at the base of Fushimi.

Where, you can enjoy anything from matcha drinks, grilled beef skewers, fried chicken, corn and freshly grilled okonomiyaki.

Admission Free

3. Traditional tea ceremony

For afternoon why not head to the Fukujuen Kyoto, flagship store to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Don’t be fooled by the appearance of this is store not being a traditional teahouse. The store has six floors, with each floor offering a different dining experience using Japanese tea.

Whether trying their, iced matcha, houjicha cappuccino, collecting tea utensils or trying French homemade cuisine and Japanese sweets using traditional Ujicha, there is something for everyone.

On the fourth floor you’ll learn the art of Japanese tea ceremony and discover how every action from crawling into the tea room through the small entrance (Nijiriguchi); watching the alcove (Tokonima) to making and drinking Matcha with sweets (Matcha) performed in the ceremony is intricately woven into the Japanese culture and history.

The tea served with sweets to balance the bitter taste of the tea. Having taken part in a Japanese tea ceremony, I’ve learnt that in Japan serving tea is an art form and a discipline.

Preparing the tea means the host pours all their attention into the predefined movements and that the host always considers the guest from every gesture to the placement of tea utensils.

The tea ceremony is performed in English, so there is no need to worry whether you will understand what’s going on.

If you are planning on exploring more of the country then read this Japan three week itinerary to find out where to visit next.

Admission : Fee for one person :  ¥2,500 (tax included ¥ 2,700) 

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4. Gion District

The best place to see Geisha in Kyoto is Shijo-dori, the south side of Hanami-koji. The best time to take to the softly light streets of Gion for some Geisha spotting from 8 pm on.

This historic district was where the first houses served tea to people who had visited Yasaka shrine in the old days and later included attractions to entertain them.

This is said to be the origin of Geisha in Gion and this is the most famous place in Kyoto to spot geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) dashing between appointments at ochaya (tea houses). You can read this post if you want to know more about what a dinner with a Maiko entails.

Spending an evening in the company of a Geisha is no easy task. To enjoy such a rare pleasure requires a introduction from an existing customer and is expensive.

But, if your budget can’t extend to such exclusive heights then you may want to check-out the following options:

  • There are a few travel agencies and hotels offering packages of lunch and dinners with maiko.

  • Performances held at the Gion Corner theatre. There you’ll be able to see short demonstrations of Japanese traditional arts performed by maikos and professional artists, playing the Japanese harp, puppetry and Kyoto-style dance. Performances occur daily at 7 pm and 8 pm from March to November (except August 16).

Admission: Free

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Best Temples in Kyoto

If you liked visiting the Gion District then you’ll want to visit some of the most historic and beautiful temples in Kyoto.

Kyoto is renowned for some of it’s temples such as the Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Temple), with its zen garden and the UNESCO- World Heritage Ryoanji temple.

5. Nishiki Market

You’ll soon find that along with the many temples that the retail gods are also in full force in Kyoto with large department stores lining Shijo Avenue.

Running parallel to Shijo Avenue for five blocks is the impressive Nishiki market. What started out as a fish wholesale district is now a retail mecca for all things food related in Kyoto.

Arriving at the market, I found it bustling with locals and tourist alike. With most people eating various Kyoto delights as they moved along the narrow market.

One of the best traditional food markets in the city, Nishiki market is a great place to find seasonal foods and traditional Kyoto cooking ingredients, such Japanese pickles, sushi, fresh tofu, walnuts, dried seafood and sweets.

I did not go hungry walking through the market as most of the stores have small trays where you can sample food, so you are able to try unfamiliar foods for free. This market is definitely worth a visit if you are a foodie and want to see a traditional Japanese market.

Of course, this is not an inclusive list of things to do in Kyoto. If you have more time you could experience staying in a temple, which I have heard is the polar opposite of visiting them during the day, do a day trip to Nara or take in a cooking class.

Kyoto is called the cultural capital of Japan for a reason and no visit to Japan is complete without it, you’ll learn and taste Japan’s past and present in the former imperial capital.

Admission: Free

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