As the old Japanese capital and home to over 1600 temples, Kyoto is one of the country’s most famous cities. Popular for its enchanting geisha, streets which transport you back to another time and endless cultural hotspots, Kyoto continues to be a must-see city for visitors to Japan. During spring and summer the city can be packed, which may put off travellers who prefer a more off-the-beaten-path experience. But there’s so much more to Kyoto than the Gingakuij Temple and the Fushimi Inari Shrine! Here are 10 unknown spots and local activities to do in Kyoto.
Catch some quiet time at Saimyo-ji Temple
Kyoto’s most famous temples and shrines are swamped with people all year round but surprisingly, there are often places that are just as spectacular only a stone’s throw away from the crowds. Saimyo-ji Temple is one of them. Small, charming and relatively void of people, this temple will make you feel like you’ve really entered the ‘real’ Japan. With the nearby Shigetsukyo Bridge and its grotto and waterfall, this temple is not to be missed if you are looking for a quiet place where you can escape the crowds.
Saimyo-ji Temple is open all year round between 9:00am to 5:00pm (4:00pm last entry) and costs 500 yen to enter. Children of elementary school age and younger can enter for free.
You can reach Saimyo-ji Temple via a five-minute walk from Makino-o bus stop. Take the Takao Keihoku line from Kyoto Station.
Try unusual food at Nishiki Market
This place is heaven for foodies and those looking for traditional Japanese cuisine! Here you’ll find everything from pickles and fresh tofu to traditional sweets and green tea, making it perfect for those looking to munch as they walk and explore new flavours, as well as for those looking to take some fascinating and colourful pictures. Nishiki Market is well loved by tourists and locals alike, and is well worth a visit during your stay in Kyoto.
Entry to the market is free. It is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm though times vary between stalls.
Nishiki Market can be accessed either from Shijo Station on the Karasuma subway line or from Kawaramachi Station on the Hankyu line.
Experience local life at the Sanjo-kai Shotengai Shopping Arcade
Great if you're looking for alternative things to do on a rainy day, and for a taste of local life, Sanjo-kai Shotengai is full of family run establishments and speciality stores that will keep you busy for hours! Less known than the more famous shopping streets in Kyoto, there is a real sense of community here that you might not find in more touristy shopping spaces. Generally shops on this street are open daily, although many close on Sundays and Mondays so try to visit outside these days to avoid disappointment.
You can reach Sanjo-kai Shotengai by train from Nijo Station on the San-In Line.
Explore Arashiyama beyond the tourist sites (Ukyo-ku Ward)
Arashiyama is a breathtakingly gorgeous area of Kyoto famous for its bamboo forest and Monkey Park. There is more to do in this very ‘Japanese’ area than just follow the tourist trail however. Arashiyama’s Ukyo-ku Ward is full of backstreets that really make you feel as if you’ve finally arrived in the real Japan. Discovering small, local cafes and basking in the authenticity of this lovely area shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Kyoto.
Try Green Tea in Uji
One thing that locals love is green tea! The city has been exporting the country’s favourite beverage for centuries. Uji is the home of Japanese green tea and is a great place to visit for fans of this drink. Sample roasted green tea, sencha, powdered matcha treats and even try green tea noodles if you’re curious! There are so many local things to do in this charming town, such as visiting various temples and cruising down Uji River, so spend a whole day here if you can! There’s a subtle cultural quirk in Kyoto that not many people know about. If you're in a restaurant and you are given free tea after your meal, you are politely being asked to leave! Of course, you may stay as long as you wish as long as you are eating and drinking, but it is still an interesting piece of protocol to keep in mind.
Uji is a town located between Kyoto and Nara. To get there from Kyoto Station, take the Nara Line to Uji Station.
See Gion after Dark
Gion is a famous district in Kyoto because of its geisha and maiko; there are many of these entertainers training today. But if you would like some truly special views of Gion without the crowds, go at night! You can either visit in the evening or, if you’re up for it, go early in the morning for that gorgeous dawn landscape view with none of the people.
Please be aware that if you do see a geisha or maiko any time of day or night in Gion it is frowned upon to disturb them. You’re welcome to take pictures as long as you don’t impede their progress. Most of them are on their way to appointments and don’t appreciate being interrupted.
Gion can be accessed from Kawaramachi Station and Sanjo Station, though keep in mind that public transport doesn’t run late at night.
The Gion Festival takes place between July 17th and 24th, so it is a lot more crowded. It is also full of energy and activities.
Find Serenity at Murin-an Garden
One of Kyoto’s many underrated spots is Murin-an Garden, another place where you can admire the traditional scenery around you. Often overlooked by those visiting guidebook hotspots, this garden is a place to escape the crowds and enjoy a relaxing stroll. You can also visit the Murin-an Café for some Japanese sweets and a bowl of matcha tea. In summer it’s better to visit in the early morning to avoid getting too hot. Entry is 430 yen per person and children aged six or under can go for free.
The garden is a seven-minute walk from Keage Station, reachable on the Tozai Subway Line. Alternatively, it is a one-minute walk from Nanzenji bus station on the Kyoto Okazaki Loop Bus.
Enjoy a drink at Bar Rocking Chair
Another thing that Kyoto locals love to do - similarly to the rest of the country - is drink! There are many quirky bars and local eateries in Kyoto, and Bar Rocking Chair is a great place to spend an evening for cocktail lovers. This bar is great because of its relaxed and classy atmosphere as well as its bar food and specially mixed cocktails. They are known to be quite strong! For a perfect end to your day in Kyoto, give this swanky bar a try.
Please be aware that the drinking age in Japan is 20 years old. Tipping is not done in Japan; what is on your bill is what you owe.
You can reach Bar Rocking Chair on the Karasuma Line. The bar is open from 5:00am to 2:00pm and is closed on Tuesdays.
Relax in an Onsen
Onsen, or hot spring, is a great way to relax and is adored by Japanese people all year round. Being such a volcanic country, there have been natural hot springs here for centuries. To the locals, the perfect way to unwind is to relax in some hot water with serene surroundings! Why not give it a try? In Kyoto, onsen range from budget man-made baths to gorgeous hot springs in the mountains. These onsen are public, so if you are feeling shy, there is also the option of staying in a traditional hotel called a ryokan that offers a private hot spring.
Tenzan-no-yu is a small yet elegant public hot spring where you can try one of Japan’s favourite passtimes. For a ryokan in Kyoto prefecture where you can enjoy serene surroundings while soaking your worries away, try Kyoto Lake Biwa Onsen which, as the name suggests, has a fantastic view of Lake Biwa and offers rooms with private baths.
You may be denied entry to a public onsen if you have a lot of tattoos. Small or inconspicuous ones can be covered up. Tattoos in general have a negative reputation in Japan.
Pregnant women are discouraged from entering baths because the water can be very hot.
Higashiyama Hanatoro Festival in March
Kyoto is a city of festivals! These events can get crowded but always promise great street food, lots of people wearing kimonos or yukatas and lots of local activity. One great festival in March is the Higashiyama Hanatoro Festival. Spring in Kyoto is wonderful in general because of its cherry blossoms, so add this festival to the agenda and you have yourself a truly unforgettable time. During this festival hundreds of lanterns decorate the foothills of Higashiyama mountain, giving the area a mystical and magical feel. You will also see local flower displays and perhaps catch a show of local schoolchildren singing songs. It’s one of Kyoto’s quieter yet enchanting festivals that the locals adore.
This festival’s days vary each year but in 2019, it will take place from 8th to the 17th March.
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