Kyoto. When you say Tokyo, you also say Kyoto. These are the main two places in Japan that people visiting this country end up. And whilst Tokyo is modern Japan, Kyoto is firmly traditional, known as the home of the geisha, the birthplace of the Japanese tea ceremony and a whole load of temples and shrines.
But… is that it? Sure, cultural stuff is great, but is it really all temples and museums? Old buildings and tour groups?
No! There is loads to do in and around Kyoto, from sampling the great outdoors to wandering around markets. There’s so much that we’ve created this list of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto to help you choose some cool stuff to do!
So let’s see what we can get up to in Japan’s ancient capital!
30 Awesome Things to Do in Kyoto
These are the absolute best activities that Kyoto has to offer! Make sure you packed the right bags for Japan because there are about to photo ops and big-grams galore!
Kyoto is the home of the geisha, so your trip to the ancient Japanese capital wouldn’t be complete without a tour of Gion, the geisha district. Better yet you can do it at night, and get the real feeling of old, traditional Japan as you wander around the streets.
You can also go with a guide who’ll keep you primed with info as you discover this cool area. Even in the daytime, the wooden houses of this district are pretty dang dreamy. It’s very photogenic, so your Insta followers will be happy.
We’ve all seen it, Instagram posts and pics on Twitter and various other visual platforms of cute Japanese lunchboxes. These are known as bento. Food shaped like pandas, hearts, bunnies – anything cute basically. And it’s all in the form of sushi, or rice balls, or thin omelettes, carrots, tomatoes…
So how about the chance to learn how to make this cute cuisine yourself? We’re definitely in. Ok so maybe you won’t be getting into all the sculpting and kawaii-ness, but at Cooking Sun you’ll learn how to make your very own sushi, miso soup and other tasty things.
If we said walking tour with a samurai… does that sound good to you? Yes, yes of course it does. Kyoto is literally packed to the brim with historic sights and other curiosities that you’d never know about without a guide.
And when your guide is an expert swordsman, that’s even cooler. He’ll even give an ah-mazing demonstration of his skills with a katana (that’s a Japanese sword) and slice through some bamboo and other objects before your very eyes. Definitely down with this one.
4. Dine on vegetarian food and get boozy at a zen Buddhist temple
Are you a vegetarian? Great, then you’ll love this place. Fucha is a Japanese take on Chinese vegetarian cuisine and the zen monks at Kanga-an cook up a tasty storm with non-meat, non-fishy ingredients. E.g. you can dine on mock eel, which is actually taro and tofu mashed together.
It’s extremely tasty. AND they have one last trick up their sleeve at Kanga-an: a bar. Yes, A BAR. It’s open to the public and popular with female office workers. The garden is relaxing, they say, but we reckon it’s the whisky.
Kembu, what? Well, it is a martial art that’s basically swordplay mixed with dancing. Sounds good, right? So, yeah, the best way to really experience kembu is to go watch a show. It’s sick to see. Everyone loves a samurai sword (aka katana) don’t they?
And at the Samurai Kembu Theatre you’ll also hear tales of old narrated in English, get a chance for a photo op with a sword, which could possibly be your next Facebook profile picture… but then maybe a bit too swordy. Great fun though.
6. Try to gain entry to an exclusive hidden cafe
Japan sure has its fair share of exclusive places to eat, drink and stay, but this one is literally like something from a manga, so we love it even more. So it’s called ANGEL LIBRARY (yes, in capitals) and it’s located under a shop called Cacao Market.
The downside is you need a code to get in. How do you get a code? Nobody knows. Once you’re in though it’s a hidden coffee spot like no other, a real exclusive place to sip on a cup of Joe and pretend to read a book in Japanese.
7. Steal a selfie with a ghoul on Yokai Street
Yokai are not exactly ghosts, they’re more a collection of spirits, demons, monsters AND ghosts that make up a huge roster of familiar shapes and faces in Japanese folklore and you can see ’em all on the aptly named Yokai Street.
They’re all homemade standing outside shops on the otherwise normal street of Ichijo-dori – this isn’t a proper tourist attraction (yet). It’s fun. Some of them are genuinely good, sculpted and everything, some are… well there’s a dinosaur in a dressing gown, so…
8. Hop over to L’Escamoteur for some unique alcoholic beverages
Time for some drinks. Now, what are you in the mood for…? What about somewhere that looks half-steampunk, half-wild west, half-Victorian London – wait that’s too many halves… But yeah, how about somewhere like that? Alright. Then get yourself along to L’Escamoteur Bar
This bar is run by a guy called Christophe. He serves up drinks you rarely see in Japan and whips up a mean medley of cocktails. L’escamoteur is actually French for ‘magician’ so it definitely makes sense. And then when it’s all done you can stumble home through the super safe Kyoto streets.
There’s no better way to see charming Kyoto than on the vehicle of charm and whimsy itself – yes, the bicycle. Humble, carefree, bicycles are fun and if you don’t think so then whatever. Touring around Kyoto and its 1,200 years of history is like something from an anime, we swear.
You get to ride along the Kamo River, then to downtown and its cute network of canals, past old Buddhist temples, down the famous Path of Philosophy, through narrow lanes, under cherry trees. You get the idea: it’s a happy blur of 100% traditional Japan.
10. Ponder the meaning of life and marvel at cherry blossoms on the Path of Philosophy
Speaking of the Path of Philosophy, strolling along it is definitely something that’s more suitable for something named after a 20th-century philosopher (Nishida Kitaro) who used this walk for daily meditation. So follow in his footsteps and think about… stuff… whilst walking along this path.
It takes about 30 mins to walk it but there are so many sights along the way that you’ll be stopping every few steps anyway. When it’s cherry blossom season your mind will literally explode at how stunning this path is.
Kyoto is great to walk around. I think we’ve established that much. But how about wandering around in a kimono to really, um, blend in with the geisha and maiko (that’s a trainee geisha) and all the other traditional goodness of this city?
Yep, you can rent a kimono for a day and really get the best photo ops going. We reckon this would make for a great talking point, so for all you extroverts, this is a great shout. The only thing is that you have to return it at the end of the day. Boo.
12. Chow down on spicy food at Spicy Street
So Japan isn’t exactly famed for its spicy food, but there is in existence a street in Kyoto totally dedicated to spicy food. Truly. It’s located in Muko town, which is in the west of Kyoto, and it’s known as Gekikara Shotengai. That translates roughly to ‘Intense Spice Shopping Street’.
That’s basically it. It’s a great little oddball curio that’s just the kind of only-in-Japan thing we love about this country. The cafes and restaurants look normal, but then you’re sideswiped by habanero ice cream or a ‘sudden death dog’ (a really spicy crepe). A must if you love spicy food.
Ok, it’s pretty touristy but this place is seriously cool. Can you guess where it is? If you were thinking the bamboo grove, you’d be right of course. Arashiyama (one of the coolest neighborhoods in Kyoto) is a big draw all over the world for its beautiful thickets of towering green bamboo.
Arashiyama is that stunning that it’s enough just to wander around this place, but there are nice little temples and a great river walk. Basically, if you like nature, this is definitely a place you should be adding to your itinerary.
14. Get foxy at the shrine
This is totally one of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto. The ‘fox shrine’ is famous for its hundreds of red gates that edge the path all the way up the hill to the shrine at the top. A popular place to visit in the city – it’s not hard to see why – we recommend heading up just before sunset.
The hike up the many steps winds its way up the hillside but the view from the top of the sun setting over the old city is pretty special. Just don’t get too freaked out on the way back down in the dark like we did and you can hear weird noises.
The tea ceremony. It’s the sort of thing that is really cool to see because we don’t have much of a culture of ceremony in the West. For us, tea is just… a teabag. But in Japan, the tea ceremony is a massive part of the country’s culture and of zen Buddhism in particular.
So if you’re in Japan for a ‘cultural experience’ then the tea ceremony is a must-do thing for you. It was basically invented in Kyoto. You can pop along to the chashitsu (that’s a purpose-built tea house) at Ju-an temple to see it and lap it all up for yourself.
16. Take some time out away from the crowds
There’s a whole lot of temples to keep you busy during your visit to Kyoto, but this one makes our list of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto for its peaceful setting. Turn up here and be greeted by a truly serene, scenic approach to the moss-covered temple gate.
The best time to turn up here is in autumn when the trees have turned into all sorts of pretty colours, a very chilled out place to escape from the sometimes quite touristy downtown Kyoto.
Another one for people who like a bit of nature, taking the short – and let’s face it, completely picturesque – train ride north of Kyoto to the small village of Kibune. This place is basically wedged in a valley and you get all the dramatic scenery you’d expect in a place like that.
You can hike around here, to places including Kibune Shrine with its old stairway. The trails around here are just… stunning. It’s a slice of less touristed Kyoto (and its surrounding areas) that you’ll literally love. Spoiler alert: there’s a hot spring involved.
18. Check out a building from 1266
You can’t take any pictures inside the temple, but that just adds to the reflective atmosphere. The game here is to find the statue that looks most like your mate.
19. See how sake is made (and taste some, of course)
What’s more Japan than sake? Ok, a lot of different things are quite Japanese, but sake is like, THE definitive Japanese alcohol. So as with all good alcohols across the world, a good way to experience them is to see how they’re made
Yes, you can witness the brewing process of the sake they make at Gekkeikan Okura, which has virtually not changed in 400 years. A tour of this place includes tastings of various sake which is always something we’re on board with to be honest.
20. Enjoy a plate of tasty tempura
Tempura is the tasty battered food that has become popular all over the world, but, there is no better place to try it than in Japan. Yoshikawa Tempura is housed in an old tea room that brings a touch old world style to the dining experience.
The whole place is beautifully decorated, it’s like eating dinner in Kyoto of the past. The tempura here is the ultimate in tasty. It’s heavenly. And if you wish you can try out their sushi too.
If you’re in Japan to witness and experience the pretty much incredibly different culture of this unique country, then doing a spot of something specifically Japanese is gonna be great for you. So that’s where flower arranging comes in.
Nope, this isn’t like western flower arranging. This is – in typically Japanese form – an art. It’s called ikebana. Learning about the history and meaning behind it is cool, but having a go is even cooler. Then you can take this skill back home and make your own home Instagram-friendly.
22. Get on the beers at the pub
This cool urban-style pub is the ideal place for grabbing a beer after a long day. BEFORE9 Brewpub serves up the best beer and town and their sake is pretty good as well. It’s pretty hipster here and yes, we love it.
Sample some of their various craft beers and enjoy a bit of tasty sushi for your dinner. You’ll love it so much you will want to come back again the next night. Just sitting in here makes you feel cooler.
Exploring Nishiki Market is a totally awesome thing to do in Kyoto for a number of reasons. Firstly it’s 700 years old. Yes, really. It first opened in 1310 as a fish market. Secondly, there is a whole host of things to buy here now – the range is literally amazing. Soy donuts? Nice. Sashimi on a stick? Ok. Baby octopus stuffed with quail egg? Alright.
Thirdly it’s always poppin’ here. The crowds, although maybe not that fun for locals is great for a buzzy atmosphere. Fourthly everybody knows that the marketplace is where it’s at when it comes to soaking up a new culture. Definitely go.
24. Visit one of the curios of Higashi Hongan-ji
Higashi Hongan-ji is a huge temple. It’s all made of wood as well, which makes it extra impressive. But what we’re talking about right now is not the size of this religious building or what it’s made of, but instead, something that’s kept there.
To cut a long story short, it’s a rope made of human hair – a really big, really thick, sort of gross rope. During the building of two of the halls they needed extra strong rope, some nuns offered up their hair, and the rest is history. It’s one of those oddities that it’s cool to say you’ve seen.
There’s cycling around Kyoto, walking around Kyoto – but how about walking around Kyoto with someone who isn’t just a tour guide but a local to the city itself? Pretty cool! What better way to discover the hidden gems, hear personal stories, wander down lanes you’d never go down otherwise.
You can generally learn a load of new stuff about Kyoto that a regular tour guide probably wouldn’t think you’d be interested in. Exploring a city with a local is always a great idea, but the best part is getting to go somewhere proper local for lunch.
26. Crawl through a rock at Yasui-kompira-gu Shrine
This is one for those of you who are unlucky in love. The shrine grounds are home to a huge stone which has a hole in the middle of it. The stone is covered in thousands of slips of white paper which have been tied to the stone.
The idea is that, if you’re having trouble in your love life or want a stronger relationship, you should tie your piece of paper (with a written wish) onto the stone and then crawl through the hole. Yeah, we know it all sounds a bit strange but this really is an awesome thing to do in Kyoto.
Wow. Wow, wow, wow. This is possibly the most famous sight in Kyoto. So even though it’s mentally touristed this place is definitely a must-see. Why? Because it’s a Buddhist temple that’s literally covered in gold, that’s why. THAT’S WHY.
Kinkaku-ji is the place to go in Kyoto for an iconic photo, but that’s what basically every tourist who comes here thinks, so you’ll have to come here very (VERY) early to beat the crowds, snap a pic, then run to 7-11 for a 100 yen coffee.
28. Check out one of Kyoto’s largest Buddhist temples
Kyoto is all about temples. There are literally so many temples in this city – some of them are big, some of them are small. One of the bigger ones is the very large Chion-in. Though originally built in 1234 (that’s well old) it burned down in the 1600s
So what you see today is only about 400 years old. One of the main things here is the huge Sanman, the gate to the temple that’s so big it’ll make your eyes pop out your head. It’s really like a gate for giants.
Do you have money to splurge? If no, uh, don’t worry about it… If you do, then please keep reading. Because this is a helicopter tour over Kyoto. You thought it looked good from the ground? That’s for worms!
Getting up into the sky and seeing the scale of the temple complexes nestled between neat rows of houses, all tucked between forested mountains… seriously it’s quite a spectacle and one of the most awesome things to do in Kyoto. Well, if you have the budget for it, of course!
30. Pay your respects at Mimizuka
This one is a… little bit morbid but bear with us. It has some historical merit, so especially if you’re interested in history you should check this place out. The name in Japanese means ‘Mound of Ears’ and it’s pretty much what it is.
Back when Japan invaded Korea in the 17th century, bringing back the traditional ‘trophy’ (a head) was a bit impractical, so ears – and mainly noses – were taken back instead. An estimated 100-200,000 noses are buried at Mimizuka, a grisly reminder of the brutality of war.
So there you have it, 30 awesome things to do in Kyoto.
Ok, so there are a lot of temples on this list… But believe us when we say that you’ll be wowed at the scale and charm of these sometimes literally ancient structures.
But of course, it’s not all temples – like we said! You can take a chilled bike ride around the countryside, learn about geisha, take in a tea ceremony, watch a sword display, find some hidden restaurants… There’s plenty to do!
All that’s left is to book your trip and note some of your favourites down from our list!
Need more inspiration?