If you’ve seen the energetic city vibes of Tokyo and Yokohama, why not consider the zen-like serenity of Kyoto. As the ancient capital of the country, it’s a destination steeped in culture and history: the local arts and crafts scene flourished, and temples and shrines were erected all over the city. That’s not all – there’s also the city’s picturesque landscape, its local cuisines and vibrant markets. Here are some of the best sights and sounds of Kyoto to discover for yourself:
Uncover Kyoto’s historical and cultural gems
Your Kyoto sojourn won’t be complete without a stroll through Gion, the city’s famous geisha district. While the chances of encountering a geisha or maiko during your stroll are rather slim, a walk through this part of the town is well worth your time for its traditional architecture and atmospheric setting.
Tucked away along a street in eastern Kyoto, the Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum may not be the easiest of attractions to locate. And while its exterior appears indescript, visitors will be wowed by the charming set up within – there’s open fireplaces, the scent of incense wafts in the air and an exquisite collection of sculptures, carvings and calligraphy works fill the space, offering a personal and insightful look into the life and work of the renowned artist who occupied the home decades ago.
The next stop on the list for culture buffs is the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts. The displays and explanations here are wonderfully detailed, so you’ll gain an understanding of the step-by-step processes that are required to create traditional crafts like tatami mats and Japanese paper fans. Demonstrations by craftsmen at work are available daily (except on Mondays) and maiko dance performances are held on Sunday afternoons. After your visit, check out surrounding attractions like the Heian Shrine, Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and Shoren-in Temple.
The city may be peppered with shrines and temples, but Sanjusangendo Temple is unlike any other. The highlight here is its capacious main hall. Filled with 1,001 statues of the Goddess of Mercy, it promises to be an impressive sight. Keep your eyes peeled for details like the temple’s intricate architecture (spanning 120 metres, the temple hall is the longest wooden structure in the country) and its extensive grounds, which doubles up as the official venue for an annual archery competition.
Bask in the beauty of Mother Nature
With its sprawling bamboo forests, meandering rivers and well-manicured parks, Kyoto’s postcard-worthy landscapes are a nature lover’s dream come true.
Waking up in the wee hours of the morning for a tour of Arashiyama’s star attraction – a lush bamboo grove that exudes an indescribable tranquility and otherworldly vibe – is a must. For a different kind of scenery, visit the Uji River, and try out popular summer activities like river cruises, fishing and relaxed riverside strolls.
The easily accessible Maruyama Park – a 20-minute bus ride from Kyoto Station – is ideal for days where you’d like to unwind in nature, but aren’t keen on venturing out too far. It’s quiet and tranquil for most parts of the year with the exception of early April, where the park turns into Kyoto’s most popular hangout for cherry blossom viewing.
Experience the bustling local markets
Exploring the markets of Kyoto is more than an act of discovery, it’s an immersive experience that lets you get a feel and taste for the local culture and cuisine.
Even if you’re tight on time, Nishiki Market is a must-visit in the city. A lively energy fills the air, and you’ll be surrounded by vendors, eager shoppers and myriad local produce, as there are more than a hundred stalls and restaurants spread out over the strip. The market is also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, thanks to its diversity of food-related products, which ranges from fresh seafood and seasonal produce, to traditional sweets and cookware.
If you’re in Kyoto close to the month end, make a stop by at Tenjin-san flea market. Held monthly on the 25th at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, the venue comes alive with over 1,000 stalls taking up the space the shrine. With numerous stalls selling clothing, antiques, handicrafts and knick knacks, the venue also doubles up as a worthy souvenir shopping haunt.
Savour local cuisine
What’s not to love about munching on crunchy pieces of senbei (rice crackers), pillowy soy milk donuts, crispy chocolate croquettes or smoky, char-grilled mochi?
And when you’ve finally pried yourself away from the street food stalls, you’ll be just in time for kaiseki – a traditional multi-course dinner. Eaten in a ryōtei (upscale Japanese restaurant), kaiseki is more than just a dining experience; it’s also an art form that lets diners experience a diversity of textures, colours and flavours. Careful attention is paid to the food presentation, so you’re served dish after dish that looks almost too pretty to eat.
Practice the art of tea appreciation
Expressed in various phrases in Japanese – like ‘chanoyu’, ‘sadō’ and ‘chadō’ – the Japanese tea ceremony, or Way of Tea is a cultural activity that involves the preparation and presentation of matcha. It’s unsurprising that Zen Buddhism is an influential factor in this ritual, as the entire ceremony – from preparing the tea, to drinking it and cleaning up – is done mindfully and feels meditative.
There are few places better for tea appreciation than Camellia. Set in a beautiful Japanese house off Ninen-zaka, a seemingly simple tea ceremony here is made all the more enjoyable with the hosts’ clear explanations and impeccable service. The same can be said of Tea Ceremony Room Juan, a teahouse set within an immaculate garden located just a skip away from Kyoto Station.
Header image from YouInJapan.