There are some cities around the world that you have to see at least once in your life. Paris, London, Rome, Istanbul and New York instantly come to mind. Kyoto is one of those cities. With over 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, 1600 Buddhist temples and countless Shinto shrines, Kyoto is the cultural gem of Japan.
There are loads of things to do in Kyoto. Think of bamboo forests, Geisha, traditional restaurants and golden temples and you will be thinking of Kyoto. However, at first sight, Kyoto seems like any other modern city, especially if you arrive by train. Once you start exploring though you will soon find the Kyoto (and Japan) of your imagination. Enjoy the journey.
Things to do in Kyoto:
Gion is a great place to start discovering Kyoto. With many of its streets unchanged in over 300 years, this is the area where you will see Geisha walking around in traditional costume and ancient tea houses serving you delicious teas in the old style. It is also a great place for restaurants but then again where isn’t in Japan?
Nishiki Market Kyoto
Nishiki market is the place to come on a rainy day (it has a roof) and people watch. Japanese market traders are so polite. They shout out Irasshaimase (welcome) to every person that passes by their stall. Karen and I played a game as we walked around the market trying to guess all the weird and wonderful food that was on display. I lost! There are wonderful food stalls scattered all around the market, perfect if it’s a rainy day. Kyoto is not a foodie mecca like Osaka but like all over Japan you will taste amazing cuisine.
Visit Osaka and Nara
If you are using Kyoto as a base and would like to see other areas, Osaka and Nara are roughly just over an hour away by train. We actually stayed in both places as we had plenty of time to travel but if you are short on time we highly recommend that you do at least a day trip to both of them. For more info on Osaka and Nara please click the posts below:
Watch a Tea Ceremony in Kyoto
The Japanese tea ceremony is a ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea with traditional Japanese sweets. Watching the ceremony is like watching a dance performance. The host of the ceremony considers the guests in every movement she makes. Even down to how she places the utensils! To the host, it is not about drinking tea but preparing tea from her heart. Think of that next time you put your teabag in your mug!
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove Kyoto
Arashiyama is one of Kyoto’s most important sightseeing districts with mountain trails, temples, gardens and parks all in the area. The highlight for us was the bamboo grove. Entering the grove was like entering another dimension. The bamboo seems to stretch on forever. We suggest that you take your photos straight away, then to put away your camera and just soak in your surroundings. You will not be disappointed.
Visit Kyoto Train Station
From nature to ultra-modern architecture. Kyoto’s train station is the modern side of Japan and for me as equally as impressive as its ancient side. Head up to the 15th-floor observation level for great views.
Have a nap in a Capsule Hotel in Kyoto
This activity is not exclusive to Kyoto but the hotel in question is. Entering the 9hr Capsule Hotel was like walking on a set from Star Wars. On one afternoon we slept a few hours here even though we had a perfectly good sleep the night before. With the soft lighting, soundproof pods and comfy bed it was pretty hard not to doze off.
Walk down Shimbashi in the Gion District Kyoto
This street has been called the most beautiful in Asia and it’s not hard to see why. We visited at different times in the day to appreciate it to the max but the best time to visit is early evening. Apparently, during Cherry Blossom season, the street becomes beautiful beyond words. Describing it in Autumn is hard enough.
The far side of the canal is lined with expensive restaurants, ryokans and hostess clubs all with huge windows overlooking the canal and street.
Watch a Geisha Show in Kyoto
We were lucky enough to be in Kyoto at the same time as the Gion Higashi festival (Oct/Nov). For over an hour we watched a mesmerising performance by the Geisha who looked stunning in their traditional costumes. The dance originated in Kyoto so if you catch a show you are witnessing the authentic show.
Nishi Honganji Temple Kyoto
This stunning temple dates from 1591 and is the home of Jōdo Shinshū (Pure Buddhism). The temple also displays some surviving masterpieces of architecture from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and early Edo Period, including the celebrated Hinkaku Pavilion. Nishi Honganji is designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
Kyoto Imperial Palace Park Kyoto
This is a stunning park in the centre of Kyoto. It’s the perfect place to rest your tired feet from all that walking and maybe have a picnic if the weather is kind. Before you leave, make sure you head to the southern part of the park to see the beautiful carp.
Daitoku-ji is a world within a world in Kyoto. It’s a place to seek tranquillity with tons of Zen temples, quiet lanes and picture-perfect gardens. Confusingly the name Daitoku-Ji is the same name for the main temple but don’t just come to see that. Have a wander around and find your inner zen.
Kinkaku-Ji Kyoto(The one not to miss and we did)
Image by: Joe deSousa
Can you believe that we missed this place? What were we thinking? This temple and its surrounding garden are the perfect examples of ancient Japanese design. The building and surroundings perfectly match to create a tranquil, peaceful place for people to enjoy. I still kick myself for missing this. Oh well, it’s an excuse for us to return to this magical city.
Where to stay in Kyoto
Choosing where to stay in Kyoto can be tricky as there are so many great places to choose from. Read our post below to help you decide.
Have you been to Kyoto? Did we miss anything out? Let us know in the comments below.
Heading to Japan? Check out our other Japan posts before you go!
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Check out our responsible volunteering opportunities in Japan!
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