Once Japan’s capital, Kyoto still retains that old-world air as a place of culture and diversity. Here are 9 must-do things when you are visiting the city.
Kyoto, Japan, is the perfect fusion of a well-preserved culture co-existing with modernity. Boasting over 12 centuries of history and progress, the city’s diversity has both evolved and retained itself through hundreds of temples, shrines, and cherry blossoms, all for the adventurous traveller to explore and admire. If you are planning an itinerary and Kyoto hotels to stay, here are the 9 things to do in the ancient capital city of Japan.
1. Take Pictures in the Iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine
This tour destination gets its reputation after being featured in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005, and unsurprisingly one of Japan’s popular destinations in 2007. The Fushimi Inari is located in the Southern area of Kyoto and stands as the most important Shinto temple honoring Inari, the God of Rice.
The iconic area of the temple would be the rows of vermillion gates that trail up the hill behind the main temple . Along the trail, visitors will find intersections where they can rest and enjoy the view from the heights. Though it may take more than 1.5 hours to get to the end of the trail, visitors can reroute at the intersection and return to the main temple grounds should you change your mind.
The JR Inari Station functions as the closest subway stop to the temple, where you can reach Kyoto Station just two stops away along the JR Nara Line. Alternatively, the area around the temple boasts several restaurants serving up local cuisine such as Kitsune Udon and Inari Sushi. If you plan to lodge in this whimsically historical area, try Kyoto hotels such as COTO Fushimi Inari 1, Gentle Fox, and Kyomachiya Inari.
2. Spot a Geisha in Gion
Home to the legendary Geisha, the Gion district was a former entertainment district for ancient Kyoto, which was where the geisha culture arose as well. Popularly misconceived to be a courtesan, a geisha is actually defined as a woman covered in traditional clothes (kimono) and special makeup (oshiroi) to perform various arts such as singing, dancing, writing calligraphy, and reading poems.
Along the streets of Gion, Kyoto, you can find restaurants, shops, and tea shops that all offer geisha performance. Particularly in Kyoto, geisha are also known in the local dialect as geiko. If you are interested in watching it, the area of Hanami-koji Street is the one to visit.
One of the most popular activities in the district is a geisha makeover where female travellers can experience what it feels like to be a maiko, or geisha’s young apprentice.
3. Enjoy the Kamogawa River
During summer, the restaurants and cafes along the Kamogawa River practice a unique tradition known as the kawadoko. This is when the restaurant’s terrace is expanded over the river, and some tables might be placed over the river: an ancient method of beating the summer heat in Kyoto.
Taste Kyoto cuisines and teas while enjoying the refreshing breeze coming from the river. Apart from the kawadoko tradition in summer, the streets around Kamogawa River are worth exploring. Besides the culinary experience, consider residing in one of the best Kyoto hotels near the Kamogawa River such as Hotel Alza Kyoto, Nisshokan Soshintei, and Kamogawa-kan Inn.
4. Find Your Zen at Tenryuji Temple
The hundreds of temples and shrines in Kyoto are home to various branches of Buddhism. The Tenryuji Temple is the head temple of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, with many visitors coming to see its amazing Zen garden.
The minimalist-inspired landscape on the temple’s garden welcomes the visitor with a sense of tranquillity, as it always had throughout history ever since it was built in the 13th century and is now ranked as one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.
To get to the Tenryuji Temple, take a stop at Arashiyama Station, which is located about a short 7-minutes (1.3km) walk away from the temple. It opens every day from 8:30am to 5:30pm. The entry pass is S$60 to enter the garden, and another S$3.78 if you want to look at the temple’s interior.
5. Visit the Floating Houses at Ine No Funaya
Widely touted as “The Venice of Japan”, Ine No Funaya is a village consisting of at least 200 houses that float above the water on the northern coast of Kyoto. Most of the residents are Kyoto fishermen who built their houses on the water with a makeshift garage below their abode for their boats, while the residence takes up the upper floor.
Also widely-agreed to be one of Japan’s most beautiful villages, it is no wonder most who visit come for the many photo opportunities and even visiting some of the boathouses. Some boathouses even double as guesthouses for visitors, where you can reside in for free and really immerse yourself in the lives of Japanese fishermen.
To get to the area, you need to take a bus from the Amanohashidate station or Miyazu station to the Yoza District. The trip is a 1-hour drive (25km) and costs around S$5 per person.
6. A Tour at the Scenic Tea Plantation
Kyoto produces a decent amount of Japan’s green tea, and nearly half of it comes from Wazuka town. The history of tea-producing in the area started over 800 years ago, and it is evident till today with tea plantations stretching across the landscape of Wazuka as far as the eye can see, creating a calming and humbling scenery for first-timers to admire.
If you wish to get up close and personal with the history of the plantations and the people who work in them, consider enrolling for a tea plantation tour consisting of a tea-picking experience, a cooking class, tea festival, and to participate in a tea ceremony. Some tea plantations to visit include Isitera Tea Plantation, Erihara Tea Plantation, and Harayama Tea Plantation.
The best time to do the tour is around April to August. To get there, take the Nara Transportation Bus to Osugi, and stop at Wazuka Yama No Ie. If you are coming from the JR Kamo Station, it will be a 40-minute ride (41.9km).
7. Learn the Samurai’s Bushido
After the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the residents of Kyoto found their streets are filled with wandering samurai. Today, the Samurai Museum Kyoto preserves the tradition and legacy of the samurai. Inside, you will find the elaborate designs of armours and various models of weapon that the ancient samurai used.
The museum offers a tour package for visitors, where an experienced tour guide will tell you about the nobel and tragic history of the samurai, the weapons they bore, and their way of life. For more immersion, you can learn how to wield the katana—the samurai’s iconic weapon—and learn more about the samurai’s code of conduct: Bushido.
Some of the Kyoto hotels that you can book near this Samurai Museum is the Tokyu Stay Kyoto Shin-Kyogoku-Dori, Hotel Grand Bach Kyoto, and Kyoto Central Inn.
8. Get a Taste of Kyoto’s Culinary Delights
As Japan’s ancient capital city, Kyoto still retains its rich culinary culture. One of the die die must try places for a fantastic culinary experience is the Nishiki Market in Central Kyoto. With a history going back centuries, the Nishiki Market is situated in across a five-block long street dotted with hundreds of restaurants and shops.
You will find the products sold here to be unlike our modern supermarket’s produce; groceries, ready-to-eat food, and utensils. Due to the nature of space constraint, expect the restaurants here to be only a few seating on a bar. If you are buying food to take away, refrain from eating and walking as it is frowned upon in Japanese culture.
Another famous culinary destination of Kyoto is the Kaiseki Ryori: A traditional course-based dining style. it begins with an appetiser, main course, shokuji, and dessert. Historically, this grand style of dining was reserved only for the Japanese aristocracy, though now in modern times, it can be experienced in a ryokan (Japanese style hotel) and restaurants.
One more aspect about Kyoto is the numerous options for food, due to the high frequency of Buddhists and monks in the region. Apart from that, you can still easily find the staple Japanese dishes such as sushi, ramen, and udon.
9. Experience the Tea Ceremony Ritual
The Japanese tea ceremony ritual is something that you shouldn’t miss when you visit Kyoto. The beauty of this ceremony is not needing any prior knowledge or preparation of it, only needing your presence and the ones conducting the ceremony can take you through it, step by step. There are venues aplenty in Kyoto that offer this ceremony, each one spearheaded by their own tea masters. The ceremony also gives you an opportunity to dress up in traditional Japanese clothing, truly immersing you into the entire experience.
Some of these tea ceremony venues include Camellia, En, Kyugetsu, and KOTO. The ceremony normally lasts around 45 minutes. Prices start at S$25 for adults and S$12.5 for kids. Take note most venues would require a booking, so remember to make one if you intend to take part in this elegant tradition.
If you are thinking of visiting Japan, Kyoto is a strong contender to be the first city you visit with its deep and authentic taste of Japan still very much present today. The best time to visit the city is between March and May where the cherry blossom bloom. Indeed, Kyoto is the perfect place to find many historical, culinary, and cultural experiences unique to the Land of the Rising Sun.