14 Best Things to Do in Kyoto, Japan

Beyond the bustling streets of Tokyo and Osaka lies the cultural jewel of Japan—Kyoto. Renowned for its ancient temples, traditional tea houses, and serene gardens, the city is a sanctuary for the modern traveler seeking a glimpse into Japan’s rich history. Echoes of the past resonate through Kyoto’s numerous landmarks, each telling a story of its bygone era. Wandering souls, cultural aficionados, and history buffs alike are sure to find much to love in Kyoto’s time-honored traditions. In this extensive guide, we’ll unveil the 14 best activities that make a visit to Kyoto an unforgettable experience.

Historical Landmarks

Kyoto is synonymous with Japan’s historic splendor, boasting a myriad of architectural marvels that stand as testaments to the city’s imperial past. Visiting these historical landmarks offers a profound insight into Kyoto’s role as the cultural heart of Japan.

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Kinkaku ji temple in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto

1. Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

A resplendent sight not to be missed. Kinkaku-ji—the Golden Pavilion—is a Zen Buddhist temple adorned in gold leaf that shimmers on the surface of the reflecting pond. Immerse yourself in the tranquility of the surrounding gardens and the meticulously cultivated landscape. The temple has stood through centuries, surviving both fire and war, and is a poignant symbol of resilience and serenity.

2. Fushimi Inari Taisha

A place of worship for Shintoism. Fushimi Inari Taisha is distinguished by its thousands of vermillion torii gates, which lead visitors on a maze of pathways up the forested Inari mountain. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and is an ethereal experience, particularly during the quieter hours when the paths are less trodden.

3. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Meaning “Pure Water Temple,” Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most celebrated temples and an architectural masterpiece perched on Mount Otowa. The sprawling veranda offers a panoramic view of the city, especially stunning during the cherry blossom season and the vibrancy of autumn. The temple complex also features the famous Otowa Waterfall, where visitors can drink for health, longevity, and success.

Cultural Experiences

To truly appreciate Kyoto is to engage with its living culture. Through cultural experiences, visitors can actively participate in age-old traditions that have shaped the city’s unique identity.

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4. Tea Ceremony

Partaking in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is a spiritual and calming experience that focuses on the ritual of preparing and presenting matcha, powdered green tea. Several tea houses throughout Kyoto offer this immersive cultural experience. Which is a testament to the Japanese philosophy of mindfulness and aesthetic appreciation.

5. Kimono Rental

The streets of Kyoto become a living museum when visitors don the quintessential Japanese garment, the kimono. Renting a kimono allows for a deeper immersion into Kyoto’s traditional atmosphere, and it’s not uncommon to see both locals and tourists alike strolling through historic districts in these elegant ensembles.

6. Gion District and Geisha

Gion is the most famous geisha district in Kyoto, renowned for its preservation of traditional architecture and the geiko (geisha) and maiko (apprentice geisha) who entertain in its ochaya (teahouses). Take a leisurely walk through the cobblestone alleys of Gion, and if you’re lucky. You might catch a glimpse of these elegant figures on their way to or from an engagement.

Sannen Zaka Street in Kyoto, Japan.

Nature and Scenic Spots

The balance between man and nature is delicately upheld in Kyoto’s landscape, where serene natural wonders provide a peaceful respite from the city.

7. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove is a place of ethereal beauty, with towering stalks of bamboo that surround and dwarf the visitor, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. The grove is accessible from the famous Togetsukyo Bridge and is part of a larger scenic area that includes several other temples and historical sites.

8. Philosopher’s Path

The Philosophers’ Path is a cherry-tree-lined canal that is especially popular during hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. It is so named because of Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most important philosophers, who is said to have walked the path daily in meditation. The walk is serene and offers a pleasant diversion from the crowds that often gather in more popular sites.

9. Kyoto Botanical Gardens

Kyoto’s Botanical Gardens are a tranquil oasis within the city, home to a vast collection of plant species. The gardens are particularly beautiful during the spring and fall, with cherry blossoms and autumn foliage providing a colorful backdrop to the sprawling greenery. The gardens also feature a conservatory with tropical and desert plants, making it a year-round destination for nature enthusiasts.

Culinary Delights

Japanese cuisine is celebrated worldwide. And Kyoto is a gastronomic destination filled with delectable delights that are a feast for the eyes and palate.

10. Nishiki Market

Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” Nishiki Market is a 400-year-old traditional market where the city’s culinary delights come alive. Wander through the narrow, covered alleyway and delight your senses with the array of street food, fresh seafood, and local produce. Don’t miss out on sampling the market’s famous tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and kai-sendon (fresh seafood rice bowl).

11. Kaiseki Dining

A quintessential Kyoto experience, kaiseki is a multi-course meal that represents the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine. Each dish in a kaiseki meal is painstakingly prepared to highlight seasonal ingredients and the chef’s skill. The experience is not just about the taste; it is also a visual and cultural delight, as every element, from the presentation to the tableware, is carefully selected.

12. Matcha Green Tea

Matcha, the powdered green tea, has deep roots in Kyoto and continues to be an integral part of the city’s culinary identity. From matcha lattes to matcha-flavored sweets to the traditional matcha served at tea ceremonies. Kyoto offers a myriad of ways to savor this earthy and vibrant ingredient. Stop by a local teahouse or one of the city’s many matcha cafes to enjoy a cup of this ceremonial tea.

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Off the Beaten Path

Venture off the tourist trail and discover hidden gems that reveal a different side of Kyoto, one that’s lesser-known but equally as delightful.

13. Kurama and Kibune

Nestled in the mountainous north of Kyoto. The villages of Kurama and Kibune offer respite from the city’s hustle and bustle. A hike from Kurama to Kibune takes you through serene forests and past several shrines and temples, perfect for a day of exploration. In Kibune, you can enjoy kawadoko dining, a traditional way of dining on platforms placed over the river during the summer months.

14. Ohara Village

Less than an hour’s drive from central Kyoto, Ohara is a rural village that offers a peaceful escape. Visit the Sanzen-in temple, known for its moss garden and autumn foliage, or the nearby Koyasan Jakko-in temple, where you can take part in meditation or sutra copying. Ohara also boasts hot springs, making it an ideal spot to relax and rejuvenate.

Conclusion

Kyoto’s allure is in its duality—the seamless blend of modernity with tradition, the vivacity of the city with the serenity of its natural and historical spaces. A visit to Kyoto is a multisensory experience that will leave an indelible mark on the soul of any traveler. Remember to plan your itinerary around the seasons, as Kyoto’s beauty changes dramatically with each turn of the calendar. From the elegance of a geisha’s dance to the arc of a soaring torii gate. Kyoto offers a richness of experience that is as diverse as it is deep. This list is just the beginning; Kyoto is a city where each visit unlocks new wonders, new insights, and new stories. Whether it’s your first time or a return trip, Kyoto’s timeless enchantment awaits.

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