If you are wondering what to do in Kyoto and discover unique Kyoto attractions, here is my list. I am a tour guide from Kyoto who guided thousands of guests from all around the world. Since everybody is different, best things to do and see obviously changes from person to person. The following is the list of what every visitor must do based on the choices of my guests over the years.
1. A unique Sandal ride in the ARASHIYAMA bamboo Forest
With the picturesque bamboo grove, UNESCO-recognized temples, historic bridges and the romantic sandal ride this is the most visited spot in Kyoto. Additionally, the zen gardens in Okochi Sanso and Tenryuji temples in Arashiyama are the most tranquil Japanese gardens where you can relax. With a 20-minute hike you can reach the wild monkey conservatory the Iwatayama Park. You can also try the Sagano scenic train ride. Open area, no closing time.***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
2. Count 10,000 Tori Gates in FUSHIMI INARI
The 10,000 gates of FUSHIMI INARI became famous after an unforgettable scene in the movie “the Memoirs of Geisha.” Many people go there to see the mysterious vermillion gates without knowing the place is a part of a big hill where you can hike on. 300 years ago there were only few red gates but today there are approx. 10,000 of them, because of the belief that donating gates improves business. Open area, no closing time***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
3. Experience the famous KYOTO TEA CEREMONY in a KIMONO
CNN, Lonely Planet, The TIME magazine all called tea ceremony a must-do bucket list activity. Tea ceremony’s purpose is to create friendships and find the moment of zen in a perfectly made cup of tea. I usually take my guests to MAIKOYA, the best rated tea ceremony experience where you can wear a kimono and try Japanese sweets in a traditional tatami room. Plus, it also has a host of other cultural activities. ***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
4. See the most picturesque temple in the world: KINKAKUJI TEMPLE
You will be mesmerized by one of the most iconic and stunning symbols of Kyoto: the Kinkakuji Temple. Whether it’s set against a verdant green background in summer or capped by snow in winter, there’s nothing that can detract its undoubted splendor. Tip: arrive 10 minutes before its gates open at 09:00 AM to avoid the crowds. You may also go there at 4 PM and stay until 5 PM. I sometimes skip this spot because it is outside the city and you cannot enter inside. ***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
5. Visit the MOST INTERACTIVE museum in Japan: KYOTO SAMURAI & NINJA MUSEUM
This interactive museum offers samurai sword lessons and allows you to try armors. The best part is the museum has many artifacts from the Edo period belonging to samurai and ninja families. The place is a jackpot for martial arts fans, history buffs and families with kids. This museum is also the only place where you can take free English tours every 10 minutes and also use a real samurai sword to chop things.Operates from 10:30 AM ~ 8:00 PM***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
6. Drink the Sacred Water and Wish for love at KIYOMIZU temple
Kiyomizu temple is believed to have the sacred water fountain that brings health and longevity. There was no metal or nail used in the whole construction. Behind the main temple hall, there is a shrine which is dedicated to the god of matchmaking and the god of love. Legend says that your wish for love will come true if you pay homage to the god love here. Closes at 6PM. Fantastic Seasonal Night Illuminations.***See more Instagram photos.*** Location and reviews.
7. Dispel Bad Spells near the YASAKA PAGODA
Almost all couples take their wedding pictures near the Yasaka Pagoda. It is near the Kiyomizu Temple and Ninenzaka and a short walking distance from the Gion Geisha Dsitrict and Yasaka Shrine. There is also Yasaka Koshindo Shrine where people often purchase colorful balls write their wishes on them and hang them for good luck. Open area, no closing time.Empty historic streets at night.***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
8. Try Octopus Tamago in NISHIKI Market
This is where the chefs of local izakayas and renowned sushi restaurants come early in the morning to pick up the best catch. You can find many things to try from fried tofu dumplings to black sesame ice-cream. My favorite is the baby octopus comes with the fried egg as you can see in the photo. Tip: Don’t go there after 5 pm, all the shops close by 6pm!!! ***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
9. Revisit the “Memoirs of GEISHA” in GION
It is “elite” to be able to see a REAL geisha as most places do not allow visitors to meet a geisha without a reference.This is an ancient profession only practiced in Kyot. It is very difficult to become a geisha as you have to train in a lodging house for 5 years seeing your parents once a year and more importantly without a cell phone:) This place offers geisha shows everyday you can reserve online. Open area, no closing time.***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews
Right by the Kamo river there is a little canal on the middle part of the city where merchants used to sell goods they transported from Osaka. Along the canal, many restaurants and geisha teahouses were set up which were later called Pontocho. This is the story of Kyoto’s liveliest bars & restaurants street which is also the 2nd largest geisha area. Entering into a random izakaya in Pontocho is a must. Open area, no closing time. Many shops are closed during the day time.***See more Instagram photos. ***Location and reviews.
11. Try Japanese Hot Springs or Public Bath (SENTO) Kyoto Onsen
Your trip to Japan is incomplete with the experience of Japanese traditional bath. Many foreigners confuse onsen (hot spring) with sento (public bath). Hot spring has minerals in the water, public bath does not have minerals in the water. There is no hot spring (onsen) inside Kyoto city.The closest onsens are Kurama onsen and Arima Hot Springs. Inside Kyoto city popular public baths are Nishiki-yu in the downtown area or Goko-yu near the Gojo area. You must be all naked and no tattoos allowed.
Tourists come to Kyoto to escape from the hustle and bustle of big cities but then face the hordes of other tourists at the major temples and shrines. Luckily Kyoto is home to a number of tranquil Japanese gardens some of which are just a walking distance from the downtown area, such as Kenninji , Kodaiji and Shosei-en. Many Japanese gardens have a small entrance fee (300~500 JPY) and close at 5 pm so you have to enter before 4 pm.
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