Japan is heralded as one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. On the other, the country is also the epicentre of a global cultural takeover which includes the likes of anime, manga, and classic Japanese films. Furthermore, J-pop and the not-to-be-missed cuisine of Japan then round off a truly rich and universally-beloved culture.
Yet, Japan is still somewhat able to maintain a tight grip on its cultural identity without conforming to modern expectations. There’s nowhere in Japan more evident of this than in the country’s cultural capital of Kyoto City.
Where other cities in Japan offer a more contemporary experience, Kyoto has numerous classical Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, gardens, imperial palaces, and idyllic neighbourhoods lined with traditional wooden houses. Oh, and not to forget Kyoto’s plentiful food spots!
Indeed, Kyoto is a wonderful destination to visit at any time of the year. Though, the best time to visit is in spring or fall to avoid the harsher weather and massive crowds. And if you’re lucky to have your travel date fall in line with the blooming season, you’ll get to experience Kyoto City with a backdrop of the always-pretty cherry blossoms. Likewise, the fall season brings with it warm hues of scarlet red, orange, and yellow from the maple trees, which meshes well with the warm-coloured facade of Kyoto’s famous temples.
For fans of the former capital city of Japan, here are the top 10 things to do in Kyoto.
10 Best Things To Do In Kyoto
1. Stroll Through Fushimi Inari Taisha’s Vermillion Torii Gates
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On the top of every first-time visitor’s list should be to pay a visit to arguably Kyoto’s most iconic treasure — Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Standing at the foot of the sacred Mount Inari, visitors will be greeted by thousands of vermillion-tinted gateways, known as Torii gates, which straddle a network of trails leading up the scenic mountain from behind the main shrine. These 10,000 Torii gates (donated by individuals and businesses, with their names inscribed behind the structures) found along the entire trail are the reason why Fushimi Inari is one of the most photogenic locales in Kyoto.
Massive crowds clamouring for that all-important Instagram photos will be inevitable. And photobombs are all but certain. But there will also be pockets of serene quietness along the way. It is only then, that you’ll be able to experience the exquisite allure Fushimi Inari Taisha has to offer — in addition to getting your own Instagram shots in, of course.
2. Visit The Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Sitting atop a beautiful wooded hill surrounded by cherry trees is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site which warrants a visit based on its longstanding historical significance alone.
The ancient temple was founded in the year 780 on the sacred site of the Otowa Waterfall — accessible via a separate shrine beneath the main hall. This shrine is where three streams of the waterfall converge into a pond. Visitors are allowed to drink the pure water for good fortune, with each stream corresponding to a different aspect of life including academic success, love, and longevity.
Otherwise, Kiyomizu-dera Temple is also well-known for its wooden stage which juts out from its main hall — affording visitors a picturesque view of the colourful sea of trees below.
Aside from its lovely views, the iconic stage is steeped in a rather sombre history. It was once the site of an Edo-period tradition which entails pilgrims taking a leap off the 13-metre high stage. Tradition dictates that if one were to survive the jump, their wish would then be granted. This act would eventually give rise to the Japanese expression of “jumping off the stage at Kiyomizu”, which is the equivalent of taking the plunge in English.
Unfortunately, not all survived the plunge but thankfully the practise was finally prohibited in 1872.
3. Explore The Gion District
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Sporting stone-paved streets and intertwining alleyways, Gion is the epitome of Kyoto’s entertainment district. Gion is known for being a popular hub of activity featuring performances from artists and local theatres. Moreover, it’s also filled with shops, teahouses, and expensive dining establishments where Geisha and Maiko entertain guests.
If you’re ever in this area, we’d recommend heading to the cherry-tree-fringed main street of Hanami-koji first. It is in this particularly crowded area that the streets are littered with preserved Machiya — many of which are now restaurants and eateries serving a variety of traditional Japanese cuisine.
But if you’re not one for braving the crowds of tourists, perhaps a stroll down to another scenic part of Gion would be the better choice for you. We’re referring to the Shirakawa Area, running along the Shirakawa Canal and situated parallel to Shijo Avenue.
Here you’ll find willow trees on the banks of the canal, along with high-class restaurants and plenty of Ochaya (teahouses) picks. Plus, many if not most of these establishments will have rooms overlooking the canal, offering guests a picture-perfect scenery as they wine and dine.
Best of all, the Shirakawa Area is somewhat quieter than Hanami-koji Street due to it being a little out of the way.
4. Take A Coffee Break At Starbucks Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya
Looking at this nondescript Machiya (wooden townhouse), you’d likely pass right by it without paying much attention. After all, its exterior belies its true face — until you spot a familiar mermaid logo adorning its Noren in front, that is.
Camouflaged between the centuries-old rows of wooden houses in Ninenzaka, this Starbucks coffee shop is a one-of-a-kind outlet, even when you take into account the dozens of other unique Starbucks around the world.
Meet Starbucks Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya.
We know, we know. You may be wondering, what’s so special about a Starbucks? Well for one, it’s the first Starbucks housed in a 200-year-old traditional Japanese townhouse. Secondly, it’s also the only Starbucks with Tatami mat floorings. Third and most importantly, it’s hella Instagrammable!
The next time you’re in the neighbourhood, stop by, pull back the Noren curtains and step into an oasis of caffeinated tranquillity. Grab a stool and take a sip of your cup of joe, enjoy the atmosphere. Or you could also sit and relax on a silk cushion in one of the three Tatami rooms upstairs. The choice is yours!
Note: You may not wait outside the coffee shop as the queues will get in the way of passersby in the already narrow street. If you want to wait for your turn, head inside Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya to consult any staff member.
5. Wander Around Sannenzaka
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Once you’re done with your coffee fix, it’s time to move on to Sannenzaka.
Coming from Ninenzaka and passing through Maruyama Park and Kodai-ji Temple, it’s imperative that one should take the time to wander around Sannenzaka’s cobblestone path when they’re visiting Kyoto. The peaceful path was built on a gentle slope which leads down to the famed Kiyomizu-dera Temple in the South.
These days the area is rife with tourists visiting the many traditional wooden storefronts, Kyoto specialty shops, tea houses, and local restaurants. But if you prefer peace and quiet, we’d suggest getting up bright and early to visit the street when there are fewer people out and about.
You’ll also find Sannenzaka to be a sweets lover’s paradise with a whole host of pastries, green tea ice-cream, mochi balls, etc. on offer in various stores. In particular, the matcha scene here is especially decadent, but we’ll get to that soon enough.
For culture enthusiasts, there are also some shops which offer the Geisha or Maiko makeover experience, if you’re into that.
As for the lore of the land, there’s a pervasive myth involving Sannenzaka. This follows the belief that if you slip and fall on the street, you will meet your end in three years. Incidentally, this folk tale was believed to be the origin of Sannenzaka’s name, which translates to “three-year slope” in Japanese.
Don’t worry, no need to take out your non-slip footwear yet. We’re here to disprove this heresy.
In actuality, Sannenzaka got its name from Hideyoshi Toyotomi — a mainstay figure in many of Japan’s historical battles during the Sengoku period. The “San” in Sannenzaka actually means giving birth and “Nen” relates to the proper name of Toyotomi’s wife. It so happens that she lived in Kodai-ji Temple up till 1624 and would always pray for a child in Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
There, feel safer now?
6. Indulge In Matcha Heaven At The Maccha House
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มาเกียวโตจะพลาดชาเขียวได้งายยย?ต่อคิวไม่นานด้วย 10 นาทีเองง สั่งเป็นเซท Uji Matcha Tiramisu คู่เครื่องดื่มหนึ่งอย่าง คุ้มๆกันไป ผงด้านบนดีมากกก เข้มข้น มีความขมและหอมชาเขียวสุดๆ? ที่ทำให้อร่อยไปอีกคือตัวครีมสด ที่สดอร่อยและข้นมั่ก (ต้องยอมเรื่องครีมและเมนูไข่ให็พี่ญี่เค้านะเด้อออ) กินด้วยกันอร่อยมาก✨ มีความแบบจ้วงได้เรื่อยๆไม่เลี่ยน ด้านใต้จะเป็นเค้กชุ่มชาเขียว คือทำเลียนแบบทิรามิสุเลยจ้า แต่อันนี้เราว่าเนื้อเค้กมันชุ่มจนเละๆไปหน่อยงือ แต่อร่อยอยู่ดี มาคู่กับ Morihan matcha สีเขียวชอุ่ม? รสหวานธรรมชาติพร้อมรสขมมาแทรก ดี! อีกเซทสั่งเป็น Roasted Greentea Tiramisu อร่อยหอมคนละแบบ สั่งคู่กับชา Sencha ที่ต้องต้มเองด้วยค่า . Uji Matcha Tiramisu paired with Morihan matcha (Tomo-no-mori) & Roasted Greentea Tiramisu paired with hot Sencha tea? . ? @maccha_house, Kyoto ?tiramisu & drink set 850 yen / tiramisu 550 yen per box / Morihan matcha (Tomo-no-mori) 600 yen / sencha 600 yen overall glutton rate: ???? . #dinewithpigs #DWPxJapan
Since you’re already in Sannenzaka, do make it a point to make your way to one of the most sought after matcha stores on the street, aptly named The Maccha House.
It is here that you’ll find a menu featuring any and all things matcha. The dessert shop offers finely crafted matcha drinks, as well as desserts made from the tea leaves of Uji, Kyoto.
Of note, Maccha House’s Uji Matcha Tiramisu is one of the most popular desserts in the store. This indulgent treat is made with delicate matcha powder, along with a generous serving of mascarpone cheese. Together, they make a luscious and decadent lip-smacking treat. The fragrant scent of grated hinoki cypress then complements and elevates the flavour profile of the matcha. Each portion of Uji Matcha Tiramisu is also served in a Japanese wooden box cup called masu — creating a truly Instagrammable affair.
Other than the Uji Matcha Tiramisu, there are of course plenty of other delectable matcha treats to pick from. Off the top of the list, you should try some of the Kakigori (shaved ice) or the Golden Drink, both perfect for a lazy summer afternoon.
7. Slurp Up Kyoto’s Ramen At Wajo Ryomen Sugari
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Absolutely amazing Tsukemen Ramen from Wajoryomen Sugari as per recommendation from a friend, waited in line for the longest I've ever waited in my life for food, 2 whole hours. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Should we have gone before lunch hour rush? Yes definitely. Not only was it outstanding! The price was great too. ¥850 for the base. Add only ¥100 for the egg and an extra ¥250 for extra Chashu. I'm really having trouble choosing a favourite eatery in Japan at this stage because everything I've had is beyond exceptional. I don't ever want to go home. #wajoryomensugari #和醸良麺すがり #tsukemen #tsukemenramen #dalesramenadventure #ramenofinstagram #ramenoftheday #ramenporn #ramennoodles #ramenlover #kyotofood #japanesefood #japanculture
No trip to Japan is complete without sampling its finest Ramen. And Kyoto is certainly not without its fair share of the traditional Japanese noodle dish.
Found on a side street near the Shijo Station, Wajo Ryomen Sugari is a classic Ramen joint found in a rather hidden wood-front building reminiscent of a Machiya. But make no mistake about it, come lunchtime you’ll easily discern this eatery by the long lines forming outside.
Going into the spacious interior, you’ll have to first take a pick from either Ramen, Tsukemen (dipping ramen), or curry Tsukemen from a touchscreen vending machine. Then you wait and wait, and wait some more.
Hey, we did say that this Ramen shop commands long queues during lunchtime. But trust us, it’ll be worth it to sample the finest bowl of Ramen at the end of this proverbial journey.
While there is a multitude of Ramen offerings that’ll satiate even the pickiest of eaters, a recommended order here is the Motsu Tsukemen — the fatty, rich, decadent, and delicious broth definitely makes this the perfect comfort food.
8. Revel In The Dining Options Of Pontocho Alley
Feeling a little hangry and tired after an entire day of exploring Kyoto? Head to Pontocho Alley near the Kamogawa River for an evening of dining, drinking, and being merry through the night.
From fine dining options to inexpensive Yakitori stalls, Pontocho’s narrow and atmospheric alley has an overwhelming selection of dining choices catering to all budget levels. And during the months of summer, many of these restaurants also build temporary terraces over the Kamogawa River, where patrons may dine out in the open air.
Known as Kawayuka, this dining experience was first developed as a way to beat the summer heat. Enjoying the cooling effects from the flowing water whilst taking in the lively summer atmosphere does sound like the makings of an excellent dining experience.
Local Tip: If you’re a fan of Yakitori, we’d suggest trying out Pontocho Yasohachi Yakitori — an establishment with over 20 years experience in serving a wide range of the traditional (charcoal-grilled) meat skewer dish.
9. Shopping At Kyoto’s Downtown District, Shijo Kawaramachi
If you’re looking for a spot of shopping, Shijō Kawaramachi is the place you need to visit for a mix of high-end shopping, traditional Kyoto crafts and specialty food, as well as hobbyist shops galore!
Most notably, the Takashimaya department store and Marui department store are found along this street. Elsewhere, a Daimaru department store and luxury branded stores like Louis Vuitton, Armani, etc. also stand nearby. And if you make your way across the Kamo River along Shijo Street, you’ll come face-to-face with a lineup of smaller shops selling fashion apparel and local products.
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If those weren’t enough shopping spots for you, there are the Teramachi and Shin Kyogoku Shopping Arcades located adjacent to Shijo Street. These two covered pedestrian streets offer a safe refuge from the sun and are packed with plenty of shopping options to boot.
To round off the Kyoto shopping experience, there’s also an extensive Porta underground shopping mall around the JR Kyoto Station. Also, a massive Aeon mall, an Isetan department store, and the CUBE shopping mall can be found there too. If you’re only looking for souvenirs, we’d suggest checking out the Kyoto Handicraft Center northwards from Heian Shrine.
Local Tip: Kyoto also has a couple of few flea markets that may interest you. One is held every month on the 21st at Toji Temple south of Kyoto Station, while the other is held on the 25th of every month at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. Both markets are filled with vendors selling clothes, tools, antiques, art, and plants.
10. Stuff Your Face At Nishiki Market
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Similarly found in the Kawaramachi area, it is apropos that Nishiki Market is the final entry on our list — for no one leaves Kyoto on an empty stomach.
Often referred to as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki Market is a vibrant and colourful albeit narrow food market street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. The lively retail market specializes in almost everything food-related, ranging from live seafood to fresh produce to knives and cookware to even seasonal offerings in the form of Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood, and sushi. Yep, foodies will definitely feel at home here.
While you’re there, do also keep an eye out for stalls that give out free samples to get a taste before purchasing anything. And if you’re an impatient eater, there are a few small restaurants and food stands serving ready-made food. Just be sure to refrain from eating while walking, yeah?
The article was originally published on 24 March 2020. Last updated by Discoverist Team on 5 October 2023.