Best Activities to do in Kyoto
From temples to outlying area's, Kyoto has some incredible things to see and do. Its a big city but its incredibly laid back. Everything is very busy but there is no pushy shovey. Well – outside of Gion that is.
There is so much to see and do in Kyoto and if you add in Osaka (a fairly quick train ride away) you can easily spend a week in Kyoto. I loved it. It is so easy to get around, there is heaps to see and do and it's pretty laid back really all things considered.
I spent a week in Kyoto (which you would know reading my previous posts). I could have added maybe one or two more days but I did make the trip to Osaka and Kobe independent of my time here at Kyoto so that would have probably been the difference in days spent here.
Gion The Geisha District
Gion is known as “The Geisha District” and while I wasn't fixated on the perfect Geisha photo, I did try very hard to get a behind the scenes look at the preparation process. I really tried to get some kind of inside experience but sadly not to be. I wanted to see the process that was involved in these women coming into the area as their natural selves and leaving the building on their way to a tea service, fully transformed. Unbeknown to me this is a fiercely protected process so unable to secure a behind the scenes look, I ended up just wandering the area along with thousands of other tourists.
If you know me at all, you know I'm not great with crowds so I wandered off into the more internal area's of the suburb. I was sitting on a stoop, trying to get my camera settings sorted when this gorgeous woman tottered down the street, smiled the most brilliant smile to me, slowed right down for me to take a photo before she ducked into a tea house. I had a quick “snap” and thought nothing of it until a few days later when I was sorting images and found this. While less than perfect from a photography stand point, I love it and she was so gracious to allow me to take a photo.
Unfortunately my experience was dulled slightly by the walk home when no less than 20-30 people harassed one particular Geisha walking down the main street.
While I know they must be used to it – NOT ACCEPTABLE PEOPLE!
Their patience is admirable but they must just want to yell “F Off!” at the top of their voice.
If you visit Gion, get off the main street and into the back alleys of the neighbourhood. Be prepared to just sit in a doorway and wait for the perfect Geisha photo. Be sure to ask if you can take it and smile and bow very politely once you have your shot.
After a few days in Kyoto, you do very much feel like you are dangerously close to temple overload by the end of the week it is worth it. It's a beautiful city and even in February in the depth of winter when its raining and cold, its still stunning. There is so much to see and do, however what you absolutely can't miss is the trip out to Arashiyama.
I stayed at Len Kyoto (which was one of my favourite hostels in my entire trip!) which is in Kawaramachi so very central in Kyoto. There are of course a multitude of ways to get out to Arashiyama but my recommended route would be to get yourself to Katsura Station and then get on the very sweet little old train carriage for the last leg of the journey.
Once you arrive at the station it is very easy from there. While its a huge tourist destination you can easily avoid the crowds by (you guess it) going early. I was out there by 7:30 am and for most of my morning it was just me. Its very popular with the domestic tourists but they don't tend to walk too far so, mostly because I headed out to the farthermost temple, I spent a lot of the morning walking on my own and got some amazing pics because of that. When I got back to the station area late morning I was actually stunned at the amount of people around. I just hadn't seen them outside the main Arashiyama station
There are temples, the scenic railway and of course the famous Bamboo Grove to visit in Arashiyama and you can quite easily spend at least half a day, or even a full day if you take in a hike. Check out my top things to see and do in Arashiyama post for more info.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
I know I'm harping on about this but if you want a reasonably chilled experience of anything, go early!
The Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto is the best possible example of this, however its always open – so get up early and go before the crowds. I went on one of my first days in Kyoto and after that I went every morning as my exercise. Its a hard haul up to the top and back down and it took me around an hour and forty every day. Some days I paced it out and some I dawdled more but its a good walk and really worth it to go right up to the top.
The Shrine is world famous for its thousands and thousands of Vermilion gates which lead up and behind the main temple buildings. The thousands of shrines in the park are dedicated to Inari the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are important to the story as they are though to be Inari's messengers and you can't go too far without seeing some kind of fox representation.
Starting up the mountain is a more difficult decision than you think. Left or right path?? I wasn't sure if there was any significance to either so I just kept right the entire way up the mountain.
The gates are donated by individuals and business and can range up to over one million yen for a larger gate. The donators details are inscribed on the gate and as you head up the gates get sparcer toward the top of the mountain. There are multiple shrines and temples dotted around the hike and if you get lucky you can see priests using the temples for offerings and praying.
The Philosopher's Path
Lined with cherry trees, the Philosophers path follows a canal between from Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and Nanzenji. The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto is a place of peace and meditation. Along the path you’ll find some smaller temples and shrines as well as some restaurants and cafes. The route gets it's name because it is thought to be the daily walk the influential 20th-century Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro walked for the purpose of his daily meditation. It's a really nice walk and I would love to see it in Cherry Blossom season. Even in the cold of winter it was still a lovely stroll.
Overlooking the city of Kyoto, Kiyomizudera Temple is one of the most visited sites in Kytot. The view from the deck changes with the seasons and what you see in Summer varies greatly from the view in the winter. It is a steep walk up the local hills to the temple from the bus stop, however it is worth it. The streets leading up to the temple (Ninenzaka dn Sannenzaka Streets) are for pedestrians and are lined with souveneir and small food shops.
Kyoto Day Tours That Include Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Sample Sake In Fushimi Sake District
While most visitors to Kyoto do visit the Fishimi Inari Shrine, a lot don't realise that Fishimi is one of the most famous sake producing areas in the whole of Japan. The spring water around Fushimi has a great balance of both potassium and calcium which are both required for making flavoursome sake. If you aren't a sake conisour maybe consider joining a tour to learn all about this traditional Japanese drink while sampling options along the way.
Fushimi Sake Tours
Wander Through Nishiki Market
Unlike a lot of markets in Japan, Nishiki Market is best visited mid to late morning when you are starting to get a little hungry and will be keen to sample all the delicious offerings. The market runs about 500 meters (Google maps location) and has more food stuffs than you would ever have thought possible. The market also has some great naff Japanese product shops like a shop that only sells Snoopy items and one that sells only the ceramic soup spoons in all different styles and colors. It is a feast for all the senses, but I would recommend going hungry – you won't regret it.
Take Part In A Tea Ceremony
A tea ceremony is something that every visitor to Japan should partake in. I do feel I have to warn you though, if you are an older traveller like myself, or just very inflexible, most of these tea ceremonies do involve sitting on your haunches or cross legged for at least 45 mins. I did kind of manage it however if it is a reputable operator they will get you a little stool.
Kyoto Tea Ceremony Tours
Are You Visiting Japan Soon?
Consider a JR Rail Pass. Available in 7, 14 or 21 day options, you can save up to 50% on your train tickets. They do have to be ordered prior to your trip and delivered to your home country, however you can activate them on your arrival in Japan starting from a set date so if you are going to be in and around Tokyo for the first 5 days you can set your JR Rail Pass to start on day 5 when you will start traveling.