If you are wondering what to do in Kyoto and how to have must-do experiences, here is my list. I am a tour guide from Kyoto and these things to do in Kyoto. I combined all the main attractions and unique activities. This is the list of experiences I usually recommend my guests based on what I personally like and enjoy doing as a resident.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
There is a secret date spot for Japanese lovers in Arashiyama. You can also visit temples, check out the bamboo grove and feed wild monkeys all at the same place.
Everyone knows the Arashiyama Sagano bamboo forest but not many know about the sandal ride. With an amazing view in the Spring and fall you will have an amazing Kyoto experience right next to the Sagano bridge. Additionally, the zen gardens in Okochi Sanso and Tenryuji temples in Arashiyama are the most tranquil Japanese gardens.
Tip: Must go very early or late in the afternoon otherwise the place gets packed. This place is outside the downtown area and consists of many temples and shrines, so spare a half day. There are many cafes and restaurants so don’t worry about the food. The bamboo grove you see in the pictures is only a small part but still nice area to visit.
Tip: After a 30-minute hike you will reach the Iwatayama Monkey Park where many cute monkeys are conserved in their natural habitat. You can feed tham and it is good family activity. If you want to spend the whole day in Arashiyama then you may also check the Otagi Nenbutsuji temple with thousands of Buddha statues. Also for honeymooners there is this famous romantic train ride
Fushimi Inari 10,000 Gates
In 2018 Fushimi Inari was the most visited spot in JAPAN and by some hiking you can reach the hidden bamboo forest. There are many things to do nearby such us the Tofukuji temple visit or the sake experiences.
The 10,000 gates of FUSHIMI INARI is the most visited tourist spot in JAPAN!!!
The 10,000 gates of FUSHIMI INARI became famous after an unforgettable scene in the movie “the Memoirs of Geisha.” Many people go there to see the mysterious vermillion gates without knowing the place is a part of a big hill where you can hike on. There is a hidden bamboo forest if you follow everyone else but make a right in the middle of the senbontorii gate tunnel and pass by this public bathroom. Everyone asks me if it is worth hiking to the top and how long it takes. You can climb to the top of the hill in 1 hour and there is a nice city view. In my opinion it may not be worth of climbing if you have a big group because the city view is not so clear and after 30 minutes you get used to seeing many gates here and there.
Tip: It gets crowded!!!You must go there earlier in the day to beat the crowds. The higher you go the fewer people you will see. Even in the high altitude there are cafes, tea shops, and noodle shops. Fushimi Inari has many attractions and spots of interest besides the 10,000 torii gates. The famous Tofukuji Temple and Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum which used to be a sake factory are a walking distance from the main shrine.
Kyoto Tea Ceremony
According to the Time magazine, CNN Travel and Lonely Planet, traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto is a must-do bucket list item. This place allows you to wear a kimono and walk on the streets of Kyoto after the tea ceremony. Reserve for tea ceremony or kimono experience HERE.
A must do in Kyoto, the combination of meditation and zen. The freshest tea leaves grow in Uji, Kyoto and and in Kyoto we are are proud of our tea ceremony culture. We consider tea ceremony as an art form and a perfect way to learn the values of Japan. I usually take my guests to MAIKOYA, the best rated tea ceremony experience where you can wear a kimono and try Japanese sweets in a traditional tatami room. This matcha tasting experience and the green tea ceremony is a must do while visiting Kyoto to have the moment of zen.
Tip: If you are on the honeymoon, Maikoya staff may surprise you. The staff will teach you where to get the fresh matcha tea, or purchase antique tea bowls in Kyoto. They can also tell you neighboring attractions and spots of interest. Tip: You can rent a kimono from MAIKOYA and walk in the Gion geisha district.
Kinkakuji, the Golden Palace – UNESCO Site
Kinkakuji Temple is by far the most famous and the most picturesque temple in Japan. To look at it on a nice day is like a surreal experience. But it is not a must-do in Kyoto because you cannot enter inside the temple and the only way to get there is by jam-packed public bus or taxi.
You will be mesmerized by one of the most iconic and stunning symbols of Kyoto: the Kinkakuji Temple. Whether it’s set against a verdant green background in summer or capped by snow in winter, there’s nothing that can detract its undoubted splendor. Tip: arrive 10 minutes before its gates open at 09:00 AM to avoid the crowds. You may also go there at 4 PM and stay until 5 PM. I sometimes skip this spot because it is outside the city and you cannot enter inside. You can only go there by jam-packed buses or taxi. ***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
Kyoto Samurai & Ninja Interactive Museum
The interactive Samurai & Ninja Museum with Experience is one of the most popular spots in Kyoto!!!You can see the samurai armor collection, train like a ninja and watch a samurai show. This museum allows you to wear metal armors and use a REAL sword. SKIP THE LINE TICKETS.
This interactive museum offers samurai sword lessons and allows you to try armors .
The best part is the museum has many artifacts from the Edo period belonging to samurai and ninja families. The place is a jackpot for martial arts fans, history buffs and families with kids. If you are not into Japanese history, the museum also has exhibitions explaining the famous spots of Kyoto city. The best part is you can use a REAL SAMURAI SWORD to chop tatami mats.
Tip: the samurai museum has free English tours every hour and free samurai shows every day. This place is right next to the Teramachi shopping street, so it is a good break when you are shopping for kimonos and souvenirs in the area. It is good to go there at the beginning of your trip so you know the history of each Kyoto landmark.
Geisha District, Gion Kyoto
Discover the mysterious lives and lifestyles of geisha in Gion. You can join the geisha dinner show, participate in a walking tour or simply stroll the streets of Gion by yourself. The SECRET GEISHA SHOW in GION.
The geisha culture was born in Kyoto and today this old profession has only been practiced in Kyoto.The number of “geiko” (geisha in the Kyoto dialect) and maiko is down to fewer than 200 and most places do not allow visitors to meet a geisha without a reference. If you are lucky, you may be able to see a real geisha or maiko anywhere on the Hanamikoji Street between 6 and 8 pm when the geishas are on their way to work. Please respect their privacy and remember, they are not objects. If you can afford, you can join a geisha dinner show with a kaiseki meal or watch a geisha show here (link). Also the recently opened Gion Kyoto Geisha Culture Centre gives tours on the hstory of geisha and provides traditional Japanese koto concerts every hour. If you want to experience being a geisha, then you can try the Geisha transformation here.
Tip: Everyone goes to Gion but if you go to Miyagawa-Cho which is less than 10 minute walk from Gion, you can see many old historic geisha houses and also spot many geishas without being surrounded by tourists. Tip: The Kenninji temple in the Gion Geisha area has one of the oldest and most famous rock gardens in Japan.
Kiyomizu Temple – UNESCO Site
This is the most visited tourist spot in central Kyoto. If you can find the two secret stones and walk from one to another your eyes closed your wish for love will come true. There is also a water fountain where you can drink water for health and longevity.
Kiyomizu Temple is the most visited spot in Kyoto but it gets crowded easily and often there are constructions. What makes the temple unique is its main hall that is completely wooden even without one piece of metal or nail. Kiyomizu temple is believed to have the sacred water fountain and the word Kiyomizu means the clear water. Behind the main temple hall, there is a shrine which is dedicated to the god of matchmaking and the god of love. There are 2 stones that are about 15 meters apart from each other. If you can walk straightly from one stone to another with your eyes closed, the legend says that your wish for love will come true.
Tip: Kiyomizu temple is right next to the historic Yasaka shrine and only about a 10-minute walk from the Gion Geisha District. Kiyomizu temple has an amazing night view and night illuminations during most of the year. Do not forget to check the historic streets and teahouses in the ninen zaka and sannen zaka areas which are right next to the temple. Recently Starbucks and Hard Rock cafe opened branches in traditional buildings, not far from the vicinity.
Nishiki Market is called the Kitchen of Kyoto with more than 100 types of foods to try. A unique food tasting experience and the best thing to do if it is raining. The place is also next to the Kyoto Samurai & Ninja Museum.
This is where the chefs of local izakayas and renowned sushi restaurants come early in the morning to pick up the best catch. You can find many things to try from fried tofu dumplings to black sesame ice cream. With more than 600 different types of fresh food to try and countless food stall type of stores, Nishiki market is a heaven for food lovers.
Tip: My most favorite is the baby octopus comes with the fried egg as you can see in the photo. Even if you don’t like the taste, your friends would envy the photo. There are may other types of food to try including but not limited to
- Marinated maguro sashimi on stick
- Soy milk donuts
- Grilled shrimp and mackerel on stick
- Green tea ice cream
- Pickled eggplants
- Dried seafood snacks
Tip: Nishiki market closes at 6 PM sharp. If you are not into Asian food, there are many places that serve red meat including Kobe beef. Tip there are many free samples but still it is good to bring some cash since the stalls don’t accept credit cards.
Kyoto Onsen (Hot Spring)
Onsen means Japanese hot spring. Public bath (sento) is similar to onsen but the water does not have enough levels of minerals. NO TATTOOS allowed because of the Yakuza association and you have to be naked to enter. There is NO onsen in downtown Kyoto but there are many public baths.
It is a unique cultural experience to enter a public bath in Japan. A few things to keep in mind: no tattoos are allowed and you have to be naked. Tattoos are not allowed because they are associated with gang members and you cannot wear swimsuit as it may dirty the bath water. If you want a hot spring with mineral waters, then you need to go outside of Kyoto City such as Kurama onsen or Arima Hot Spring. If you are OK with any public bath, I recommend Nishiki-yu in the downtown area or Goko-yu near the Gojo area.
Tip: In Japan hot springs are called “onsen” and it is illegal to call a public bath “onsen” if it does not have natural hot springs with certain minerals.
For most foreigners though, it does not matter if it is public bath (a.k.a sento bath) or onsen. After all, the traditional set up and the experience is pretty much the same. Tip: Many ryokans and hotels have a traditional style public bath. Tip: Kinosaki and Arima are the two historic onsen towns that are about 2 hours away from Kyoto. Tip: Osaka has a good public spa with different kinds of spas and indoor pools.
Yasaka Pagoda near Kiyomuzu Dera
This is where the locals take wedding photos. If you can crawl under the huge stone you will dispel bad spells forever.
In Kyoto, almost all couples take their wedding pictures near the Yasaka Pagoda. Right next to Ninenzaka you will find the Yasaka Pagoda. You can also visit the historic Yasui Kompiragu shrine nearby. People often purchase the colorful balls to make a wish or crawl under the huge round rock to dispel bad luck. Whenever I have guests, I always take them to this area and it is always a hit. Luckily the place is not far from the Kiyomizu temple area and the Gion area, so you can easily add the Yasaka Pagoda to your itinerary.
#11 Get Lost on the Bars and Restaurants Street of PONTOCHO
Pontocho district at night
This is Kyoto’s liveliest bars & restaurants street which is also the 2nd largest geisha district in Kyoto. Best spot for things to do at night.
No matter where you go in Kyoto, you will notice the beautiful Kamo River nicely dividing the city. Right by the Kamo river there is a little canal on the middle part of the city where merchants used to sell goods they transported from Osaka. by the canal many restaurants and geisha teahouses were set up which were later called Pontocho. This is the story of Kyoto’s liveliest bars& restaurants street which is also the 2nd largest geisha area where you may spot some apprentice maiko.
Tip: If you are not comfortable with Japanese food, you can find Italian, Chinese and many other types of mainstream and upscale restaurants here. For those who are into the nightlife of Kyoto there are bars and clubs that open late at night. Most restaurants can serve you in English but you may also want to try the sports bar type of pub called HUB where you can also meet with friendly locals.
Kenninji Temple Garden
Each Japanese garden element has special meanings (e.g. pine trees: strength; circle shaped pebbles: waves in the ocean and the transience of life; turtle stones: longevity) Top 10 gardens listed below.
Many people come to Kyoto to escape from the hustle and bustle of big cities but then face the hordes of tourists at main sites. Luckily Kyoto is home to a number of tranquil Japanese gardens some of which are just a walking distance from the downtown area. The meanings wary but both rock gardens and tea ceremony gardens meant to bring a miniature version of the nature in your backyard. Big rocks represent mountains, small rock represent hills, pebbles shaped as circles represent waves in the oceans.
Tip: As a Kyoto resident, these are my most favorite Japanese gardens and ideal to visit if you are short on time.
- Kenninji near the Gion area
- Kodaiji near Kiyomizu temple
- Shosei-en near the Kyoto station.
If you have more than 3 days in Kyoto, then I recommend 4- Katsura Villa, 5- Zuihoin and 6- Daitokuji on the northern side of the city. If you have a week in Kyoto then I recommend checking out 7- Saiho-ji the UNESCO world heritage site, 8- Enkoji the moss garden and 9- Isuien the old imperial tea garden in Nara.
KYOTO FAST FACTS
- What does Kyoto mean? It means “capital.”
- What is the population of Kyoto? 1.5 million (foreigners are 2% of the population)
- How many Geisha (Geiko or Maiko) are there in Kyoto? Fewer than 200
- What is Kyoto’s original name? Heian City (became capital in 794 AD)
- Where is the Kyoto Airport? There is no “Kyoto Airport.” The closest airport in “Kansai airport” which is in Osaka. The Kansai airport is 45 KM away from Kyoto.
- How many UNESCO world heritage sites are in Kyoto? 17
- How many temples are there in Kyoto? 1600
- How many shrines are there in Kyoto? 800
- Best sushi in Kyoto: Musashi sushi. Not the best or cheapest but a decent place with decent price and fresh sushi.
- Best ramen in Kyoto: Ippudo ramen. Not the best ramen but decent place with an easy to understand menu with decent price.
- Best steak restaurant in Kyoto: Gion Karoku. Not the best steak restaurant but a decent yakiniku place in the historic geisha district where I take my guests. It is a bit pricey.
- Best izakaya in Kyoto: Ganko Sanjo Honten near the Sanjo bridge. There are also many good izakayas on the Kiyamachi Street.
- Best Vegetarian restaurant in Kyoto: Ain Soph with unique vegan burgers.
- Best Halal food / restaurant in Kyoto: Istanbul Restaurant with good selection of Mediterranean dishes.
- Best Italian Restaurant in Kyoto: Pizza Salvatore Cuomo Pizza & Grill. Definitely not the best but a decent place with decent price located by the river.
- Best Rooftop bar in Kyoto: In the Moon by the Kamogawa River.
- What is the climate of Kyoto like? Cold in the winter, hot in the summer. It snows in December and January. It rains in half of July.
- What is the terrain of Kyoto like? There is no sea or ocean in Kyoto. Kyoto is surrounded by tall mountains.
- What are the local sweets of Kyoto? Yatsuhashi (sweet beans paste in rice flour)
- What is the local dish of Kyoto? Obanzai (combination of small dishes mostly made out vegetables grown in Kyoto)
- How far is Kyoto from other cities? Kyoto is 15 mins from Osaka, 30 minutes from Kobe, 45 minutes from Nagoya and 2.5 hours from Tokyo (by bullet train).
- What are the famous companies in Kyoto? Nintendo, Kyocera (Kyoto Ceramic), Wacoal
- What are Kyoto local dialect phrases? Ookini: thank you ; Oideyasu: Welcome…
- What is Kyoto known for? 1- Cultural capital of Japan. There are fewer earthquakes in Kyoto and Kyoto was the only major city that was not bombed during the WW2 since the war minister in the US had spent his honeymoon in Kyoto and really liked the city. 2- Kyoto has the highest number of national treasures in Japan. 3- Kyoto has the highest number of bakery shops per capita in Japan. 4- Kyoto was modeled after the Tang dynasty capital in China. 5- Kyoto has many old town houses with gardens in the middle which are called “kyo machiya.” 6- Kyoto is where the kabuki culture, geisha culture, kimono tradition and the noh theater were born. 7- In Kansai, Kyoto is known to be the place for education (there are many high ranked universities). 8- Japanese people consider Kyotoites a bit snobbish and conservative. 9- Kyotoites are also known for their indirect communication style (it is believed that they never show their true face). 10- People of Kyoto think the capital should be Kyoto not Tokyo.
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