Kyoto definitely has something special. I would describe it as some sort of retrò atmosphere. You will feel it while getting lost among the flavors of Nishiki food market, in the narrow streets of Gion district, or while walking in the gardens of the Imperial Palace. The ancient capital is also the home of spirituality, with more than 2.000 temples and shrines, and will offer you the perfect scenario for some unique experiences.
Here are my tips on what to see in Kyoto, and on things you should absolutely do while visiting this fascinating city. I recommend you to spend at least 4 days in this city, as many attractions are far from each other and a balanced pace would make your stay more enjoyable and allow you the time to spoil yourself a little with the pleasures that the city has to offer (food, theater shows, etc).
Visit the Golden and Silver Pavilion. The Kinkaku-ji (better known as Golden Pavilion) as seen through the lake is probably one of the most iconic symbols of Kyoto: this Zen Buddhist temple is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. The Ginkaku-ji, Silver Pavilion, is less striking in terms of view, but its garden is particularly well known and features wooded grounds covered with a variety of mosses and a sand garden. The piles of sand are said to represent Mount Fuji.
Take an evening stroll in Gion. Gion is the most famous entertaining district in Kyoto. Here you will find the famous Minamiza Theater, home of Kabuki, but also interesting little places like Café Opal, that defines itself as «the most soulful café in the world», and the Patisserie Gion Sakai, where you can purchase an infinite variety of treats. What really makes Gion famous, though, is its nightlife: the district is full of bars and restaurants, and they come alive at dusk, as the famous lanterns are lit on the teahouses and maiko, or apprentice geisha, can be seen in the streets. If you are lucky enough, you will see one of them!
Experience the authentic Tea Ceremony. Drinking matcha tea is not just a different way of having an afternoon break, it is a proper ritual that deserves its own ceremony. You can get to learn the gestures and meaning of the Japanese Tea Ceremony if you take part to one of the ceremonies organized by places such as Okitsu Club, Camellia, or En. I personally went to En, but in all of these places an English-speaking charming lady will introduce you to the tea ceremony rules and etiquette, and of course you will get to prepare your own cup of green tea. An inspiring experience that you should try, and Kyoto is the right place to do it as the tradition was born exactly in this city.
Head up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This is a temple complex situated on the Eastern part of the city, and was also one of the finalists for the New 7 Wonders of the World. Beneath the main hall of the temple, you will find Otowa waterfall: if you catch and drink the water you may be lucky, as it is said to have wish-granting powers.
Have dinner at Ippudo. A friend suggested me this ramen restaurant, which is actually part of a chain that started in Fukoka, Kyushu, in 1995, and rapidly spread across Japan (and in the rest of the world, Paris and London included!). I had gyoza as starter and then tried the spicy noodles and they were super-tasty! The right reward after a very intense day! If you choose Ippudo for your dinner, make sure you get there early (before 19.30) or be prepared to queue. It is a very popular restaurant!
Get lost in the Nikishi food market. Situated in the city center, Nikishi food market is a labyrinth of narrow streets where you can buy and try a surprising variety of food, from fish to matcha-flavoured biscuits. I love food and lively, colorful places; I could not help falling in love with this market and ended up coming here more than once during my stay in the city. You should do the same and taste anything that inspires you! I personally suggest the little biscuits that look more or less like this:
It is basically a cracker that is made of rice flour, sugar, cinnamon and water, which is mixed, then rolled out into a thin sheet before being baked. When the dough is steamed instead of being baked and filled with red bean paste, it turns into a confectionery called nama yatsuhashi. The company Bijuu Co. registered its own version of this biscuit and called it Otabe. Try it and bring a box back with you!
Admire the modern architecture of Kyoto station. Japanese love trains and stations are almost a sacred location for them. Even if you are not taking any train from here, Kyoto station deserves a visit: rebuilt in 1997, it is 70 meters high and 470 meters from east to west. One of the most modern buildings in a city that is mostly famous for its heritage, it also has interesting viewpoints on the 4th and 5th floor, and is the home of many interesting restaurants and stores. I had an okonomiyaki here, and then was lucky enough to see a youth orchestra performing in the station!
Climb up the shrine hill at Fushimi-Inari. Climbing up the hill looks like an infinite walk in a red tunnel, as you move through the 32.000 shrines (torii) of Fushimi-Inari hike. Watch out for the fox statues (kitsune) that you’ll meet near the shrines, sometimes they will hold a key in their mouths, which represented the key to the rice storehouse in ancient times. The higher you climb, the more you’ll make sure you’ll leave the crowd of tourists behind you, but be prepared as this is an almost 5km hike. Totally worth it!
Buy a vintage kimono or yukata. You are traveling to Japan and you absolutely want to bring back a kimono; buying a second-hand one can be a good option, for two reasons: it has a vintage look, and your wallet will surely appreciate. Near the Nikishi market and in the Gion area, watch out for the little kimono shops where, for about 2.000 Yen, you will be able to buy a decent kimono and yukata that would make a good souvenir or present without compromising your travel budget. Plus, trying them on is a lot of fun!
Look up to the amazing bamboo forest of Arashiyama. Fascinating is not enough. Arashiyama has a mystic energy, and you will get mesmerized by it. The bamboo forest is one of the most popular landmarks in the whole country, so don’t get upset if taking a picture with no tourist photobombers will be impossible. Try to get there as early as possible and don’t let the selfie sticks ruin the atmosphere. The secret is simple: just look up at the plants.
Go to the theater for a Geisha dance show. You have to be lucky and be in town during the right weeks in order to be able to attend a geisha dance. The main shows are Miyako Odori (held daily in April), Kyo Odori (held daily first to third Sunday in April), Kitano Odori (held daily between 15 and 25 April), Kamogawa Odori (held daily between 1 and 24 May), Gion Odori (held daily between 1 and 10 November). I had the chance to participate to a Kamogawa Odori show, and was surprised by the colors, the costumes, and the grace of the dancers. Very peculiar but a must-see attraction if you are in Kyoto at the right time of the year.
I moved around Kyoto with local buses: you can purchase a multi-day pass at the main stations ticket offices. I really suggest buses because they are comfortable and allow you to take a look at the city life while going around.
I hope you’ll find these tips useful! Please comment below if you have other suggestions: they can be helpful if I get the occasion to travel to Kyoto again!
Eat the Road!