So you’re traveling in Asia and wondering what to do in Kyoto, Japan…
My advice? Settle into this beautiful and historic Japanese city for a few days. Mr. H and I just returned from Japan, and Kyoto was the highlight of our entire Asian trip.
The people are warm and friendly. The food is diverse and delicious. Kyoto retains much of its pre-World War II architecture and character and makes a great home base for meaningful side trips.
Click Through for 5 Things You Must Do in Kyoto, Japan
1. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove + Rickshaw Tour
One of the most photographed destinations in all of Japan is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The bamboo is one of Kyoto’s top sites for good reason. It’s a beautiful place, although smaller than I imagined.
Here are some tips for visiting the bamboo forest:
a) Go early, before the crowds arrive. Arashiyama loses some of its magic when filled with people.
b) Consider arriving by train to Saga Arashimaya train station, then walking to the grove. Depending on where you are coming from, you may catch your first glimpse of bamboo from the train.
c) Book a rickshaw tour of the area. You can do this in advance through a site like viator.com, or simply choose a driver from the many lined up next to the sidewalks.
Book a Rickshaw Tour
And speaking of rickshaws – I highly recommend taking a rickshaw tour in Kyoto. You can book tours of a half hour – or up to half a day.
We splurged on a two-hour rickshaw tour – which was decadent – and the highlight of our trip to Japan.
Kyoto’s rickshaw drivers are well-trained, professional and friendly. Many speak perfect English. They will take you to out-of-the-way places and sides streets you might not find on your own. They also know all the best photo ops and will take professional-quality photos of you along the way. Their energy, strength and stamina is impressive.
Here’s a view from our rickshaw, on a side street in a hilly, residential area of Kyoto. This is a giant Daruma (or Dharma) doll, made to represent Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. This shrine is said to help you make a good love match, marry or have a longer life!
2. Meet a Geisha
Another must-do in Kyoto is a traditional geisha performance. The Gion district in Kyoto is one of the most authentic places to see this iconic Japanese tradition.
Today there are only about 200 actual geiko (the Kyoto term for geisha) left in Gion, and about 100 maiko, or apprentice geisha, who hope to become full-fledge geiko in time.
Maiko begin their training as early as 15, first applying to a particular geisha house and then working on menial tasks such as cleaning floors and cooking, to show their seriousness,. Then, if accepted, they spend up to five years learning the traditional Japanese arts of ikebana (flower arranging), tea ceremonies, music and dance. At the age of 20, if accepted, they can become a full-fledged geisha.
Gion Hatanaka is a very reputable place to enjoy a traditional kaiseki dinner and meet a geisha.
When I attended, both a geiko and a maiko performed dances, songs and playing party games. As we exited our taxi door, a lovely kimon-clad attendant greeted us and ushered us through a serene lobby to our table.
Don’t expect a gourmet dinner – and don’t let the first few moments of the evening turn you off. If you are in Kyoto, you should definitely meet a geiko – and here you will get to chat with one (or two), ask questions, enjoy a truly Japanese tradition and take some great photos.
Also: don’t be fooled by the colorful girls in kimonos on the streets of Kyoto. These are not geisha. Most of these are Malaysian, Chinese and other tourists who pay for a “Geisha Makeover Experience” at local tourist spot. If you spend a little time in the area, you’ll realize the kimonos are off-season and inexpensive. Not at all what a real geisha would wear. But they are vibrant and fun and make for great photos.
The dress, hair and makeup of a real geiko is another thing entirely. For more details on the history and traditions, as well as ways to see geiko and maiko, I recommend this article in Vogue.
3. Visit a Zen Garden
Kyoto is the spiritual center of Zen Buddhism, so our rickshaw tour included stops at more than one Zen garden.
Ryoan-Ji Temple has one of the most famous karesansui, or dry gardens in Japan. Again, visit early or late to avoid crowds, or – as we did – consider visiting a few weeks off-season. Ryoan-ji is the home of 15 carefully place stones that seem to float on a bed of gravel. Take a deep breath and focus on the peacefulness of the place.
Ryoan-ji is located at 13, Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyo-ku Kyoto-shi in Kyoto.
Not far from the bamboo grove, you’ll also find a traditionally-styled Japanese garden with a tofu specialty restaurant and tea house in the center – which is another great way to enjoy a moment of Zen.
Here the scenery is not the traditional waterless garden, but will still transport you to a place of relaxation and appreciation.
4. Eat a Traditional Meal
Kyoto is known for excellent food and your options are not limited to the Japanese food you may know from your local Asian restaurant back home. The locals will tell you not to order sushi in Kyoto, as it is too far from the sea.
Here, there are a number of specialty restaurants and menus that change with the season.
Below is the menu for the day we ate at Sagano, the tofu specialty restaurant in the Japanese garden.
This is a great place for vegetarians to eat in Kyoto, but the food is delicious and pleasantly presented, whether you are already a tofu lover or not. And the view is perfect.
The tempura vegetables were incredibly light and crispy, with no excessive oil.
We sat cross-legged on tatami mats on the floor — and each dish that was brought out to us was delicious.
Yudofu Sagano is located at 45 Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo-ku in Kyoto.
Another excellent restaurant is Katsukura, for the local specialty of katsudon or deep fried chicken or pork cutlets.
Don’t let the words “fried” and “chicken” fool you, though. This is a light, clean-tasting dish served with a sesame-seed paste that you grind yourself and a mound of cabbage salad that provides just the right fresh accent.
Katsukura is located at 16 Ishibashi-cho, Sanjo-dori Kawaramachi nishi-iru, Nakagyo-ku in Kyoto’s Sanjo shopping area.
5. Stay in a Ryokan
A ryokan (pronounced ‘YO-can’) is a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast, often with beds rolled out onto tatami mats and sometimes connected to a hot springs bath. We stayed at Hotel Yadoya Deja Vu, near the river – a pricey three-room hotel with amazing breakfasts. I’ll tell you more about that, later.
But ryokan come in all price ranges. Choose one in the historic part of town, near the Sanjo shopping area, Gion or the river, to really feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
BONUS: Take a Day Trip
A number of Japan’s must-see destinations are located near Kyoto. Take the train in the morning and return to Kyoto in the evening.
Plan on visiting Miyajima Island with its floating tori gates, temple, shopping, restaurants and more.
Mijajima is a World Heritage Site reached by a small ferry from the mainland. It can be combined with a Hiroshima trip, if you are pushed for time. Consider booking this tour in advance. We used Viator.
Hiroshima is a moving visit as well. Spend some time at the Peace Memorial Museum and see the only remaining structures located in proximity to the atomic bomb site.
Hiroshima is now a bustling, fully-rebuilt and modern city easily reached by train. If you go, spend a little time in the train station shopping areas and sample the local delicacies.
So, there we have it – 5 things you must do in Kyoto, Japan!
Tell me, have you ever traveled to Japan or is it on your travel bucket list?