Although a fraction of the size of Tokyo, Kyoto was the capital city of Japan for more than one thousand years! Located in a valley, Kyoto is a hidden gem rich in culture and Japanese history. If you’re visiting Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup or just for a holiday, add Kyoto to your itinerary, a six hour drive or an hour’s flight west of Tokyo.
To get a taste of Kyoto attractions, here is a list of the top things to do and places to visit in Kyoto:
Shrines and Temples
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a world-renowned Shinto shrine dedicated to the god Inari, at the foot of the Inari mountain. Inari is the god of rice but has been worshipped as the patron of business, which is why each of the torii pillars leading to the shrine is donated by a Japanese business. You might notice multiple fox statues in the grounds of the shrine as these are thought to be Inari’s messengers. For more Japanese symbolic animals and their meanings, check out our blog post. Visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha makes for a beautiful day out as visitors are welcome to hike up to the mountain’s summit, stopping at smaller shrines along the way, or at one of the restaurants which serve local dishes. Here, you can try some unmissable delicacies, such as udon noodles or inari sushi!
Tip: If you go as far at the shrine’s main hall you will be expected to make a small offering out of respect for the resident deity
Another one of the top Kyoto attractions is the Kinkaku-ji temple whose walls are covered in pure gold. Surrounded by water and trees, the temple looks breathtaking in all seasons, especially with its impressive reflection!
Japan is famed for its matcha tea and it is possible to immerse yourself in the fascinating world of tea picking and tasting. There are a number of tea picking excursions to enjoy, including rural hikes to tea fields and farms where you can hand pick green tea, taste cold brew tea, and learn to whisk your own matcha.
Kyoto is known as the centre of the Japanese tea and there plenty of tea houses where you can take part in a traditional tea ceremony.
It is even possible to sample green tea ice cream in parts of Kyoto – a matcha made in heaven if you ask us!
Meander down the Philosopher’s Path in Arashiyama
The Philosopher’s Path is named after well-known Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro who used to meditate while walking this path along the canal to Kyoto university. The canal is surrounded by hundreds of cherry trees which look stunning in the spring. There are also several pretty shrines and temples along the route which are only a short deviation from the canal, including the Zen temple, Ginkaku-ji, officially named Jishō-ji. Ginkaku-ji is deemed a national treasure that represents the Muromachi Period, an age said to blend the aristocratic culture of samurai, monks and nobility.
Climb Mount Kurama and enjoy the hot springs
Kurama is a rural town nestled in the northern mountains of Kyoto, and is known as the birthplace of the eastern healing practice, Reiki. Although it was damaged in a typhoon in late 2018, the hiking trail between Kurama and Kibune has reopened to the public and allows for some beautiful views. There are several relaxing hot springs that can be enjoyed by residents and visitors of Kurama, but the main attraction is Kurama-dera, a Buddhist temple found on the mountainside.
Mingle with monkeys
Japanese snow monkeys are native to Japan and can be seen and fed in the famous monkey park of Iwatayama. These are the same monkeys usually seen taking a bath in hot springs. Located thirty minutes’ walk up the mountainside, 120 snow monkeys roam free in the grass and trees. It is inexpensive to buy monkey food from the shop and the monkeys will come and take the food from your hand. But be careful, the monkeys will have no qualms about rummaging through your bags, so make sure they are zipped tight!
Visit the Gion district
Gion is the picturesque geisha district of Kyoto, known for its quaint wooden structures. Wooden merchant houses were built with very narrow facades to avoid high property taxes, as buildings were formally taxed on their frontages, giving the architecture a distinctive and unique look. However, while the shopfronts may only be six metres wide, the depth can be as far as 20 metres!
Gion is one of the few remaining parts of Japan that preserves the authenticity of geisha alive, making it a truly amazing place to visit. Geisha in Gion are known as geiko or maiko, depending on the seniority of their training – Maiko are apprentice geisha while geiko are fully trained. Geisha (translated as ‘arts person’) are trained in traditional Japanese arts and provide dance, music, and calligraphy entertainment at dinners. They can sometimes be spotted on their way to or from engagements, but if you are lucky enough to see one on their travels, remember to show respect as geisha have been distressed by the level of attention from tourists in recent years. While it may be too expensive and exclusive to experience a geisha’s services at an ochaya (tea house), it is possible to watch a more affordable performance at a theatre or as part of a tourist group experience – definitely worth seeing! We recommend the annual Miyako Odori, which translates as Capital City Dances. These dances normally take place in April when the cherry blossom is blooming, which is why they are sometimes referred to as the Spring Dances. These dances take place four times a day every day throughout April and there are a variety of tickets available including a limited number of on-the-day tickets.
Kyoto captures the spirit of Japan like nowhere else with its architecture and culture harking back to ancient days, warranting it a top spot on every avid traveller’s bucket list. But if you are staying in Japan for the Rugby World Cup, there are plenty of unmissable spots in Tokyo and Yokohama too.