pinterest
  • see & do
  • art & culture

10 Hidden Gems in Kyoto

By Saki Iwata A Kyoto local and university student who returned to Japan after living abroad for a few years to re-immerse in her own culture.
06 February 2020
10 Hidden Gems in Kyoto

Edited by Elodi Troskie

The beautiful city of Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is marked by its Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, inner city gardens, traditional Japanese cuisine and the famous geishas, who are characterized by their traditional costumes and makeup. Kyoto is a cultural melting pot where tradition and modern living comes together. If you want to explore Kyoto off the beaten path, there are many non-touristy things to do where you’ll feel as though you have a tiny part of the city just to yourself! Here are a few of my favourite hidden gems in Kyoto.


Rurikoin Temple


Rurikoin is a temple located in the quiet and peaceful area of Yase at the foot of Mount Hiei. When you’re taking in the breathtakingly beautiful views of the river and the greenery surrounding the temple, it’s difficult to believe you’re still in the midst of the metropolitan city of Kyoto. If you’re in dire need of fresh air or you want to break away from the city for a few hours, you won’t find a more serene spot to find some peace and quiet. My favourite part about visiting Rurikoin is seeing the reflection of the autumn leaves in the water – a sight you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The temple is only open for visitors for about two months during spring and autumn and admission is 2000 yen. To reach Rurikoin, take the train to Yase Hieizanguchi station, from where the temple is a short 5-minute walk away.

Omokaruishi Stone Lanterns


Omokaruishi, meaning “heavy-light rocks”, refer to two rocks that are believed to be able to predict whether or not your dreams will come true.  This Kyoto landmark is located inside Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine complex that is situated at the foot of Mt Inari and dates back as far as the 8th century. To reach Omokaruishi, you have to go through the vermilion torii gates that line the entrance of Fushimi Inari. The custom is to make a wish, imagine how heavy you think the rock would be, and then pick one up. If it is lighter than you anticipated, your wish is said to come true, but if it is heavier than you thought it would be, your wish is unlikely to realize. This wishing ceremony is one of the most unique things to do in Kyoto!

Hanamikoji Geisha Street


Gion is the most famous geisha district in Kyoto, attracting visitors by the masses who try to catch a glimpse of the Japanese women trained in the ancient performance arts of singing and dancing while dressed in traditional costumes and makeup. In this neighbourhood, you’ll find many shops and restaurants where geishas entertain, mostly on the higher end. If you want to see the famous geishas, your best bet would be to take a walk down Hanamikoji Street at night. Over the past few years, there have been some complaints about tourists acting disrespectfully towards these women, so refrain from taking photos or making a big scene.

Kamo Riverside


The Kamo River that runs throughout Kyoto Prefecture was once a place where public executions took place, but today, ironically, it’s a popular date location for couples. The riverside is a peaceful area, perfect for a picnic or camping out to watch the sunset. This is also a great sakura viewing spot during spring, when Japan’s famous cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Although something as big as a river can hardly be called a hidden gem, not many tourists know about these serene hangout spots on the riverbank, so you can bargain on experiencing offbeat Kyoto! From the riverside, you can cross the Shijo Bridge that connects Gion with the popular shopping area, Kawaramachi.

Efish


While you’re in the Kamo River area, be sure to pay a visit to Efish, a Kyoto secret spot from where you’ll have beautiful views of the river. The Instagram-foodie will feel right at home in this trendy little cafe and will be quick to photograph the enormous glass window complimenting the cafe’s minimalist interior design. For the art lovers, there is even a small art gallery on the second floor! Efish is a great quiet working spot because it doesn’t get trampled by tourists. The food here is more Westernized than you’ll find at most restaurants in Kyoto, so it’s perfect if you’re craving a BLT or a bowl of pasta! Other items on the menu include curries, salads and rice dishes as well as a wide selection of desserts and sweet treats. Opening hours are from 10:00 until 22:00.

Kyoto Tower Sando


Kyoto Tower Sando is a food court complex where you’ll find an enormous cluster of restaurants, cafes and street food style market stalls. This centre is really convenient if you want to explore Kyoto’s diverse food scene because you can try all these different foods without having to travel between locations. Located in the Kyoto Tower building, the food court is within close reach of other cool things to do in Kyoto. As the tallest construction in Kyoto, the tower’s Observation Deck offers a panoramic view of the city from 100 meters above the ground. You can also visit the beer and BBQ garden on the 10th floor or relax at the public bathhouse on the 3rd floor.

Kyoto Ramen Street


Located on the 10th floor of Kyoto Station is one of Kyoto’s best hidden gems: an alleyway entirely dedicated to different styles of ramen, probably the most famous Japanese dish. This is one of the best places to eat in Kyoto if you’re looking for something quick, affordable and local. The shops in Kyoto Ramen Street feature eight different variations of ramen unique to different regions of the city. To order food, you need to buy a ticket from the vending machine in front of the specific restaurant and then show the ticket inside. Like many local restaurants in Kyoto, the menus here are in Japanese, but you’ll get by looking at the accompanying pictures! Kyoto Ramen Street is open every day from 11:00 until 22:00.

Gion Matsuri


Attending one of Kyoto’s annual festivals is a really cool way to immerse yourself in local culture since they’re generally not very well known among tourists. Gion Matsuri is Kyoto’s biggest festival and one of the biggest events taking place in Japan every year. Also known as the Festival of Yasaka Shrine, Gion Matsuri originated as a gathering to pray for healing from the plague. Today, however, it’s one big summer party and celebration of local culture in Kyoto. Taking place in late July, Gion Matsuri features two traditional parade float processions. In addition to the processions of floats, there are events and parties taking place all over the city for the entire month of July. If you’re visiting Japan during July, be sure to plan your itinerary around the festival dates! It’s a cultural experience not to be missed.

Jidai Matsuri


Jidai Matsuri is another traditional Japanese festival held in Kyoto annually, considered to be one of the top 3 best festivals in the city. Jidai Matsuri, or the Festival of the Ages, takes place on 22 October every year. An enormous parade, with participants dressed in traditional costumes representing different period of the Japanese history, moves from the Imperial Palace to Heian Shrine. The festival started in 1868, along with the establishment of Heian Shrine in celebration of the cultural history of Kyoto. About 2000 volunteers take part in the parade and spectators are invited to watch the procession at the Imperial Palace in the morning or at Heian Shrine around 14:00. The atmosphere in the city during Jidai Matsuri is incredible – something you have to experience yourself!

Nishiki Market


Nishiki Market, one of the best secret places in Kyoto, is the go-to destination if you want to try traditional Japanese street food. Nishiki Market is a vibrant street consisting of more than a hundred small shops and hidden Kyoto restaurants. Eating here is a cultural experience all on its own! You’re bound to find some interesting dishes here, like takoyaki, which are cooked wheat flour balls filled with diced octopus. A few other must try street food dishes are okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake filled with a variety of ingredients of your preference), melonpan (freshly baked bread filled with ice cream), shaved ice and, of course, the most popular refreshment in Asia, bubble tea. Nishiki Market is a short 5-minute walk from Shijo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line. Different shops have different opening hours, but most places are open from 09:00 until 18:00.