Things to do in Kyoto

25 Things to Do in Kyoto

Looking for things to see and do in Kyoto? The Japanese city of Kyoto has held a special place in Japanese hearts for centuries but Kyoto became a global household name in 1997 when the United Nations climate change treaty was started there and named the Kyoto Protocol.

Thousands of years ago Kyoto was Japan’s capital and the city remains a cultural center today with plenty of things to do including visiting over 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, 17 World Heritage sites and five traditional geisha districts.

So what is there to see and do in Kyoto and, above all, how do you decide what to do first?

I spent four days touring Kyoto learning about the city’s past while soaking up the charm and atmosphere it offers visitors today. The unique blend of ancient tradition and modern life I found there is what travel in Japan is really all about.

Kyoto has something for everyone and, while I experienced only a small taste of Kyoto, the happy memories and lessons I learnt there will linger on. There are plenty of things to do in Kyoto and these are my favourites.

25 Things to Do in Kyoto

1. People watch at the train station

I arrived at Kyoto train station during rush hour but you can’t really appreciate Kyoto’s futuristic train station known as “the cube” until you see it from the outside.

The huge station is much more than a transport hub and includes a massive department store, many restaurants and an observation lounge on the 15th floor.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

2. Check into the Hotel Okura

My room, for a two night stay, looked out over the city to the mountains and the big Buddha (see 13). The Hotel Okura Kyoto rooms are so lovely you’ll never want to leave, but make sure you venture upstairs for a phenomenal spread at the buffet breakfast.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

3. Wander in and wonder at the bamboo forest

You can hop on a train to the bamboo forest in Arashiyama. It’s beautiful, romantic and highly sustainable. One of my favourite things to do in Kyoto.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

4. Drink green tea

You have to go to a tea ceremony and experience the traditional culture surrounding green tea while you’re in Kyoto but I’ll never forget the cup of tea I had at the Okochi Sanso Villa gardens.

Right by the bamboo forest these gardens have gorgeous views back over the city and a beautifully laid out traditional Japanese garden. The entry fee includes a lovely Japanese biscuit and a cup of green tea – drink it outside, relax and enjoy the scenery.

Drinking green tea is one of the things you must do while you’re in Kyoto.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

5. Consider climate change

If your feet get weary remember the Kyoto Protocol, avoid taxis, hop in a two wheel buggy and do your sightseeing from that. A Japanese student clad in traditional garb will earn a bit of cash and get fit by pulling you along so it’s a win for you, the student and the environment.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto
6. Feed the snow monkeys

While you’re in Arashiyama climb up to the monkey park to watch the monkeys and check out fantastic views over Kyoto. The monkeys are wild and should be treated as such but they’re used to being fed by humans.

You can feed them by hand from inside a large cage. Just buy a bag of peanuts, apple or chestnuts and let the monkeys, who are outside the cage come to you. I love monkeys and these are fine specimens – I could have hung out all day with them – and this is a totally unique experience, something you can only do in Kyoto.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

7. Meditate at the Ryoan-ji Temple

The Ryoan-ji Temple is a  world heritage site famed for its simple raked gravel rock garden. If that’s too crowded take a walk round and find a quiet bench in the garden by the Kyoyo-chi pond. It’s picture postcard perfect so you hardly need to meditate to feel relaxed, serene and at one with the world.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

8. Go  zen at the Myoshinji Temple

Extend that zen feeling at the Myoshinji Temple, Japan’s largest Zen temple which will take you from OMG to om.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

9.Walk up to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera Temple was established even before Kyoto became the capital of Japan and is another of Kyoto’s UNESCO world heritage treasures. I was honored to be shown around by the head monk Egin Onishi who deserves a blog post dedicated to him. Don’t miss the mini Buddha statues outside, the cliff 276 people have jumped off hoping it will make their wishes come true, and the clear water spring the temple is named after.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

10. Choose the right footwear

You’ll be doing a lot of walking and taking your shoes off constantly to go inside Kyoto’s temples so wear shoes that are quick and easy to get on and off. Flip flops or jandals (as we call them in Australia) are great but it gets cool in winter so pick up some traditional Japanese sandals and socks with split toes to keep your feet toasty warm. It’s a hard look to pull off but the local monks manage it

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do11. Eat  like a Zen monk

One of the things I was looking forward to most on our Kyoto itinerary was a vegetarian feast at the Kanga-an Temple Zen temple but when I mentioned it to another fellow travel writer they rolled their eyes and said it wouldn’t exactly be a feast. Wrong! This was a feast of epic proportions.

The fucha ryori or Chinese-style vegetarian feast exceeded all expectations. One of the best meals I’ve ever eaten it was certainly the most interesting. I’m what the Mucho Man calls a “recovering vegetarian” which means I prefer not to eat much meat so this meal suited me perfectly.

Many Zen monks, who were forbidden to eat fish and meat, missed eating them. So this style of cuisine was developed to create dishes which looked like raw fish or cooked seafood and offered a wide variety of flavors to satisfy their eyes and taste-buds while allowing the monks to stick to their vows.

Every one of the 12 courses was carefully designed to be healthy, colorful and tasty and it was all washed down with sake and a brand new sparkling sake drink called Mio .

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

12. Spot Hello Kitty

If you’re getting templed out then Hello Kitty is here to help. One of Japan’s most famous exports, Hello Kitty was born in 1974 and I’ve loved her since the day I first slapped my eyes on her.

You can spot her everywhere and buy a plethora of Hello Kitty toys, clothes and sweets for your kids. They say you can’t buy happiness but I think you can, as long as you buy something that’s got Hello Kitty on it.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto13. See the big Buddha

Hello Kitty might be big in Japan but Buddha’s bigger. Visit the 24-metre high statue of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (the Bodhisattva of Mercy) which was created in 1955 to honor the Japanese dead of World War II. There’s a wishing ball too so if your one worldly wish is for world peace this is your chance to make that wish.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

14. Stay at the Righa Royal Hotel

You’ll find Righa Royal Hotels all over Japan. The Kyoto Righa Royal is near the train station so it’s easy to get to and close to great shopping including the electronic store Bic.

Once again a lovely comfy room and bed awaited me. Once again I didn’t want to leave. The best part is the traditional Japanese dressing gown the Righa Royal supplies so you can waft around your room looking and feeling a little bit Japanese. Well, that’s what I did anyway.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto15. Admire the Hina dolls

Hina dolls are specially made to celebrate girl’s day on March 3rd and since I was there in February every hotel and shop had a beautiful selection of dolls on display.

We visited the Ando Japanese Doll Shop which has been making handmade dolls for 400 years. The owner is utterly charming as is his gorgeous wife who looks like a doll herself.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto16. Play dress ups

You can get dressed up like a doll too and have yourself transformed into a geisha girl (or the male equivalent) for the day. Get ready to find out what it feels like to be famous and star in a lot of people’s photos. These Japanese girls posed obligingly and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying touring Kyoto in geisha garb.

Things to Do in Kyoto

17. Watch a maiko show

If you don’t fancy dressing up watch someone else dressed in the utmost finery.

We went to a maiko show, a maiko being a geisha girl in training. It costs around $220 for the show including a supper of traditional Kyoto cuisine and it’s worth the price. There are thought to be less than 1,000 geisha and maiko girls in Japan so it’s a true privilege to see some real maiko girls, watch their gorgeous dancing and hear their music.

You can see a show at Gion Hatanaka which is also a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) with accommodation and an onsen (spa bath).

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

18. Chat with a maiko girl

After performing the maiko girls circulate to chat with the guests. They don’t speak english so our guide translated my question:

“What’s your favorite music?”

The question was met with a flurry of giggles but the reply needed no translation;

“Lady Gaga.”

I can further report that, after much more giggling and obvious inner turmoil, this maiko girl says her favourite Gaga song is Papparazi. Maybe she can relate to people taking your photo all the time.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

19. Play games with a maiko girl

The maiko girls taught us some fun games and we all had a good laugh. But the maiko girl is laughing most because she won!

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

20. Read The Teaching of Buddha

If you can’t get to sleep after all that excitement reading The Teaching of Buddha will sort you out. Look for a copy in the bedside table in your Righa Royal or Okura Hotel room.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

21. Shop at Nishiki Market

This traditional Japanese food market also has non food items like the “sushi” in this photo which is actually tiny toys made from silk. I got some sake for the Mucho Man which earned me a few brownie points and you can pick up your split toe socks here too.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

22. Feast at Hoshinoya

Hoshinoya Kyoto is a luxury ryokan (traditonal inn) accessed by boat from Arashiyama. It’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of Kyoto and the food is exquisite. Once again we ate our way through a 12 course feast.

Our seasonal amuse bouches (pictured below) included: simmered sardine decorated with a holly leaf, strawberry stuffed with salmon pate and three striped roll with needle fish, prawn and lettuce stem. I’ll leave you to try to work out what’s what; that’s part of the fun of eating in Japan.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

23. Visit a supermarket

Don’t miss the wonderful Japanese branding or interesting sweets, biscuit and teas. I bought some green tea hot chocolate, gen mai tea bags (a type of green tea made with roasted rice kernel) and lots of candy for the Candy kids including Hello Kitty sweets and my favorite Japanese treat – Mini Bit chocolates.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do in kyoto

24. Whizz up the Kyoto Tower

Here’s a view of Kyoto city from Kiyomizu-dera Temple with Kyoto Tower clearly visible in the city center. It looks like a lighthouse. You can take a lift to the the observation deck 100 meters above the city for 360° views of Kyoto and as far away as Osaka on a clear day.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do

25. Cuddle a sumo wrestler

In case you’re wondering this isn’t someone dressed up as a sumo wrestler. It’s a real life sumo wrestler who we happened to bump into and who, like all Japanese people was happy to indulge me by posing for photos. What a lovely man.

Kyoto travel - Things to see and do I can’t guarantee that you’ll bump into a sumo wrestler while you’re in Kyoto but I can guarantee that you’ll be in for a lot of laughs and surprises. You certainly won’t be short of things to see and do while you’re in Kyoto.

It’s easy to see why Kyoto is dear to Japanese hearts. Travelers to Kyoto will find it stakes a claim on your heart too.

I was a guest of  The Kyoto Tourism Council and Kyoto City. Check out their Kyoto travel guide website to find out more about Kyoto and plan your visit or ‘like’ their Facebook page for the latest news and photos.

What would you most like to see and do in Kyoto?

Author: Annabel Candy

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

se7en March 19, 2012 at 9:18 am

This looks like the most amazing place to visit!!! Wow – so many new and interesting thing to try – I love it!!! It looks like you had the most fantastic trip!!!

Reply

Annabel Candy March 19, 2012 at 9:29 am

Hi Se7en,

Thank you! So many great things to do in Kyoto. It was an epic trip hence in need of an epic blog post:)

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Linda ~ Journey Jottings March 19, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Being a visual person I love all the photos accompanying the tips –
Its so often the little things that define a place (rather than the iconic) so I love your inclusion of the bedside literature and local packaging –

Its why I always recommend people don’t buy generic journals before their trip but rather enjoy the interaction with locals to buy their first souvenir, a local journal with its local eccentricities of feel, smell and sound to the turning pages :)

Reply

Annabel Candy March 19, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Hi Linda,

That’s a great travel tip. I can’t wait to do a bit tour of Australia with one of your maps to chart it all in:)

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Mirella March 19, 2012 at 8:38 pm

This post came into a wonderful time, as my hubby and I are heading to Japan in May.
How long do you think we should spend in Kyoto. We are planning 2 full days exploring the city, one day Nara and one day Hiroshima. Any suggestion?
Thanks you so much for the tips… I booked already de Citadines hotel, but I will take a pick on your suggestions also :)
Cheers,

Reply

Annabel Candy March 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Perfect timing Mirella and the perfect time of year to visit too. I hope you get to enjoy the beautiful cherry blossoms and all the festivities that go with that.

I didn’t visit Nara or Hiroshima so can’t comment on those but there is more than enough to keep you busy in Kyoto for two days. I was there four days and would have loved to stay longer because there are countless things to do! After all, I only saw a handful of the 2,000 temples and shrines;)

You will have a great time. Come back and tell us all about it!

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Julia March 19, 2012 at 11:54 pm

I have always wanted to see Kyoto — I fell in love with Tokyo and am determined to explore more of Japan! This list is really great — thank you for the specificity; I don’t like really vague “must-see” lists!

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Annabel Candy March 20, 2012 at 9:14 am

Hi Julia,

Hope you make it. Lol, yes you’re right about the must see lists. Everything is worth seeing in Kyoto though and often it’s the little things like chance encouters with sumo wrestlers that make a trip:)

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Cate March 20, 2012 at 5:56 am

Hi Annabel,
how did you fit all that into 4 days?! Kyoto sounds amazing. The more I hear about Japan the more I’m determined to spend more time there when I get the chance to visit. It used to be a ‘stop-over’ on the way somewhere else – now it is a destination in its own right!
C x

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Annabel Candy March 20, 2012 at 9:15 am

Hi Cate,

I was on a press trip. It’s the first time I’ve ever been on a tour and the advantage is you do see more! Love what you say about how Japan used to be a ‘stop-over’ on the way somewhere else and now is a destination in its own right! So true. How things change in the travel world:)

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Sandra / Always Well Within March 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

What a feast of experience! I enjoyed every delightful moment. The snow monkey is delightful. Naturally, I love the Buddhist temples too. You really have a way with travel tales.

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Annabel Candy March 20, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Hi Sandra,

The monkeys have their own temple at the bottom of their hill! That was definitely a highlight of my visit to Kyoto. Thanks for reading as always:)

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J.D. Meier March 22, 2012 at 12:57 am

That was a fantastic visual tour.

My only experience with Japan was Shogun and I Love Lucy.

Your pictures really light it up and make it real.

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Annabel Candy June 22, 2012 at 9:05 am

Hi JD,

I Love Lucy went to Japan?! That’s one of those TV shows I always read about but have never seen!

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Lori Henry March 23, 2012 at 7:40 am

What a great spread of memories! My favourite part is the sumo wrestler, as I missed out on him. I’m glad you got a photo of yourself with him. :-)

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Annabel Candy February 16, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Hi Lori,

Oh that was a lucky one :)

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Vivian S March 26, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Thanks for these great places to visit! I’m going in two weeks to Kyoto and can’t wait to see some of these places myself!! :)

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Annabel Candy February 16, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Hi Vivian,

Enjoy it – I know you will with all those things to do in Kyoto you won’t be bored, that’s for sure :)

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Francesca De Leon November 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Hi there,

How did you reserve the 12 course feast at Hoshinya? From their website, it looks as though you need to be staying there in order to make a booking!

Can you advise please? We really want to experience this when there!

Francesca

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Mike Hunt October 7, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Good info but we call them thongs in Australia not jandals

Reply

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