Kyoto is the city most people familiar with Japan will recommend to the first time visitor. Having been the former capital of Japan for a span of over 1000 years and being spared the devastation of bombing raids in WWII, Kyoto is one of the cities in Japan where a wealth of historical architecture is still intact.
This is a city you should spend at least a few days in to even begin to appreciate the wealth of culture it contains. Here are five must-do activities for when you’re exploring Kyoto.
One of the most iconic structures in the city, Kinkaku-ji is a stunning, shimmering, garish affair–bound to be swarmed by tourists, but absolutely worth visiting for a quick look.
The upper two levels of the former villa turned temple are covered in a gold foil which–together with the meticulously laid out natural beauty around it–firmly imprint this scene in the memories of visitors. It’s well worth the price of admission to stroll the grounds and admire the beauty for a spell.
Explore Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a massive Shinto complex sprawling around the base and up the side of Mt. Inari. A key shrine in Japan, Fushimi Inari is most famous for the extensive number of torii tunnels throughout the complex. Torii are the orange and black arches prevalent at shrines throughout the country; Fushimi Inari has them in spades.
There are thousands upon thousands of torii lining the paths, creating mesmerizing tunnels of brilliant orange to walk through. Inari–the deity for whom the shrine and mountain are named–is a patron of business and commerce, so many of the torii were donated by local businesses.
I got lucky and stumbled onto Fushimi Inari after wandering through a labyrinth of posh residential streets. One minute I was walking through a Japanese suburbia, the next I found myself emerging from an alley and stepping into the middle of Fushimi Inari-taisha.
While in the area, I’d recommend checking out Tofuku-ji Temple nearby. This Buddhist facility has some pretty impressive buildings on the grounds; the dark, natural browns of the wood make for a refreshing change from the brilliant orange hues of Fushimi Inari.
Wander through a bamboo grove
A popular destination in Kyoto is the picturesque neighborhood of Arashiyama. Not only is the town a beautiful showcase for old buildings, exquisitely manicured parks, and a lovely river walk; but it also is home to one of the larger bamboo groves in the city.
Wide paths make their way through the grove, the towering stalks of bamboo arching overhead. Soft and mottled fallen leaves carpet the ground and shafts of sunlight pierce the shaded interior through gaps in the heavy foliage. Even when walking the path with the inevitable accompaniment of other tourists, the place is wonderful.
If walking in the company of others doesn’t appeal or if you’d rather not make the trip out to Arashiyama, there’s another great bamboo grove in Kyoto which doesn’t get nearly as much tourist attention. Hidden behind Fushimi Inari-taisha is a wonderful network of trails which wind through a bamboo forest and a literal maze of household Shinto shrines.
While the stalks of bamboo here aren’t as impressive as those in Arashiyama, the absence of other tourists made this my favorite bamboo grove. I spent a few minutes sitting on the side of the path listening to the wind rustle and rattle its way through the bamboo; the stalks clanked hollowly as they swayed back and forth.
Walking further revealed another nice surprise: a path which snaked between farms and through tangled corridors of household Shinto shrines.
Stroll along a river
There are several rivers coursing through the heart of Kyoto. I walked along two and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The more central is the Kamogawa River, flowing past the Imperial Palace, Gion, and Fushimi Inari-taisha, as well as many other key sights. Along the river are boardwalks populated by cyclists, walkers, and picnickers.
Another lovely river for a stroll meanders through the outskirts of the city, including the Arashiyama area. The Oi River flows through the village, cascading over a series of barriers and under several bridges.
Upriver, the river’s name changes to the Hozu, and boatmen wait to take visitors a short ways up the gorge. They do the hard work while customers relax in the shade of an awning. Not a bad way to spend part of an afternoon.
Passing the boatmen will lead you to the trail-head for a small temple near the top of the hill. The kindly monk at the top will take a small (required) donation and leave you to soak in the view of the hills and the city behind them. A word to the wise: don’t pet the dog! While the monk didn’t try to bite me, his pooch certainly did…
Meet a geisha
Finally, if you can, try and find a geisha (or geiko in the local Kyoto dialect). Wandering aimlessly around Gion might do the trick or, if you’re like me, you might meet one by chance!
I was crossing a bridge in Arashiyama when I passed a geisha (or possibly an apprentice, known as a maiko). It took a moment for my brain to register what I was seeing, then I just kind of stopped and stared like an idiot. Within seconds, an elderly Japanese couple approached her and asked for a picture. She nodded her head and obliged, the couple bowing their heads in appreciation.
I stepped towards her and, as politely (awkwardly) as I could, asked for a picture as well. Once again, she nodded graciously and I turned to ask the elderly couple to take a picture for me–only to find them walking away. I turned back and, after a moment’s hesitation, improvised a bit:
After taking one of the most memorable selfies of my life, I showed her the picture; thankfully, she seemed amused. Afterwards, I thanked her and we each walked away. Travel really is all about those chance happenings! Memories 🙂
There you have it, a list of five awesome things to do in Kyoto. Have you been to Kyoto before? If so, let me know what recommendations you have for fully experiencing the city. I look forward to hearing from you!