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Aside from Temples, Shrines and other religious historical sites, there are other fun cultural things to do during the day in Kyoto. From bustling antique markets where you can find fascinating historical artefacts, to strolling around the Geisha district - there is so much to explore! This is the Kansai Local ultimate off-the-beaten-path guide on what to do in Kyoto as if you were being shown around by a local. Away from all the tourists, you can get the real feel of Japanese, and indeed, Kyoto culture.
Getting around is much easier and cheaper with a Japan Rail Pass. Tap here or on the ad below to buy one from the official vendor.
►Location: Central Kyoto
Nishiki Market is a great activity for a rainy day, spare day, or any day! Located in the centre of Kyoto yet hidden away nicely is a large roofed street market/arcade. You can find anything from BB guns and vintage letterman jackets to amazing seafood and street food. It’s great fun, and a great place to find souvenirs to bring home. I would start by walking up the ‘Teramachi’ which is located on Shijo Dori near Gion and the River Kamogawa. You can walk up Teramachi and find cool shops, eateries, cafes, then enter Nishiki Market which is Joined at the back. The Teramachi is similar to Nishiki market. It’s basically a long sheltered ‘indoor’ street with loads of shops restaurants and cafes. Teramachi and Nishiki Market are also both really good places to get stuff that is hard to find but you may really need. Things like leather cleaning kits, various little DIY things, sewing kits, chargers and adapters etc can all be found here.
Take a stroll around Gion. You’ll find many nice little Cafes and restaurants, back streets and you may even spot the odd Geisha or two. Geisha are traditional entertainers and hostesses. However, their services do not include anything sexual. In fact, they are seen, especially in modern days, as something of a sacred tradition, and therefore efforts are kept to keep it maintained. They start training from a very early age (usually 14) when their parents send them to a tea house. The tea house becomes their house where they train in the arts of dance, singing, conversation, drinks pouring, and everything in between, it's kind of like a boarding school. Customers will then hire or book them for events and dinner etc. It is very hard to actually book them as you need to have contacts at a tea house. There are other ways you can enjoy watching Geiko and Maiko perform their arts.
Ever wondered what koto stringed instruments sound like, how Geisha perform dances or want to sample the beautiful and mysterious ways of Japanese performing arts?
Look no further, because Gion Corner has it all. The performance takes place every day at either 18:00 or 19:00 and is located right in the heart of the Geisha District of Gion. In one hour, you will get a sample performance of seven different traditional arts, from the famous tea ceremony to an authentic puppet show, to musical and theatrical displays. Each performance lasts approximately 10-15 minutes, and with explanations offered in both Japanese and English (with more information in multiple other languages available on a free programme), Gion Corner strikes the perfect and affordable balance for those looking to sample some of Kyoto’s ancient delights.
Although Gion Corner is quite large, seating approximately 150 people, be sure to make your way down at least half an hour before the show starts to secure a ticket. Ticket sales for the 18:00 show open at 17:30; for the 19:00 show at 18:45. If you go between July 1st and February 28th and show a non-Japanese ID, you can also get a reduced ticket price! Original price for adults: 3,150 yen → reduced to 2,500 yen.
If you'd like to experience a traditional tea ceremony followed by a traditional Geisha musical performance, then you must check out Gion Kaihan. This is one of the best ways to actually experience the Geisha culture without having to book actual Geisha through a tea house, which is almost impossible, especially for tourists. Similar to a west end show, they run these performances regularly. Located very near to the Yasaka shrine, at the end of Shijo, it is very easy to get on foot if you are in central Kyoto. To check availability and book, visit https://www.miyako-odori.jp/.
Gion Corner, the entrance. Don't be fooled by the picture, there is usually a queue to get there quick!
One of the most beautiful and iconic walks through Kyoto, it is a must do, Especially in spring as the path way is lined with hundreds upon hundreds of Cherry trees. However, Autumn is very pretty here too as the Cherry trees display beautiful autumn colours in mid-November. The walk starts by Ginkakuji (Silver Temple) and cuts across the northern neighbourhood of Higashiyama following a canal, and ends up by Nanzenji. There are some nice little temples on the way which are worth taking 15 minutes to look at.
The Philosopher’s walk got its name as it was thought that the famous Kyoto university professor Nishida Kitaro used to meditate on the path and indeed walked it on a daily basis.
If you are a lover of antique, historic and modern Japanese wares, including fun and local handicraft, then you'll want to check out some of the markets that occur in Kyoto.
A fun flea market is held on the grounds of the Kitano-Tenmangu shrine. The actual shrine is very beautiful itself and is worth a visit, and the flea market that falls on the 25th of every month is certainly worth a visit. You can find many local handicrafts and fun traditional souvenirs and ornaments etc.
Toji is a large Buddhist temple in central Kyoto, but it is probably more famous for the markets held here twice monthly. The first Sunday of the month is an antique market where you can find anything from Traditional Katana swords to old Kakejiku (scroll paintings) and hand carved ornaments. If you like Japanese antiques, you should check this place out. Every 21st of the month, there is a flea market held at Toji - fewer antiques, more second-hand stuff and handicrafts. Equally, as fun, I recommend you check out either of these if you get the chance.
A couple of kilometres north-west of Kyoto city centre (Shijo / Karasuma crossing) is a pretty little temple called Chion-ji. On the 15th of every month, there is a nice handicraft market on the temple grounds. Mostly handmade by locals, you can get handkerchiefs and chopsticks to wooden kitchen utensils and garments. A great place to come get some souvenirs to take home.
Two gentlemen barter and negotiate over some Katana (samurai swords). Looks like the man is about to draw his sword!
Like Samurai stuff? Who doesn't...
If you’re in the Okazaki area, which neighbours the famous Higashiyama area which has all the famous and beautiful spots like the Heian shrine, Kiyomozudera, Nanzen-ji etc, you’ll find a really cool little store called Tozando Shogoin store. One of the few stores in Kyoto that sells actual real Katana, both ancient and real live practice weapons, it's a great place to visit. As well as Katana, they sell suits of Samurai armour as well as Budo and martial arts clothes, shoes and other traditional martial arts stuff. Well worth a little visit if you’re in the area.
Arashiyama is a fun day out, especially during the spring and autumn season owing to beautiful cherry blossom and autumnal leaves respectively. It is easy to get to Arashiyama. Take the Hankyu Arashiyama metro line. It's about a 20 mins ride from central Kyoto. Arashiyama area is located a few clicks north-west of Kyoto city central. Here you can find many beautiful scenery sights, pleasant walks, and the famous monkey park where lots of Japanese Macaques hang out - and you can feed them! The famous Bamboo forest is also located here. My advice is to take the train here and check out the monkey park, the bamboo park, and walk around the town. It is also very nice to take a bicycle and cycle up the Katsura River.
Taking a bicycle trip around the area is really nice. Here are two great bicycle rentals in Kyoto.
The Kamogawa River (literally ‘duck river’) runs through central Kyoto, in particular through the popular and lively Shijo/Sanjo area. It has large grassy banks where locals and tourists alike come for picnics, drinks or to cool down in the hot summer months by dipping their feet in the shallow water or crossing the river via skipping stones. Unlike rivers in other large cities, the Kamogawa River is very clean and forms an important part of the social scene.
The Kamogawa River is also a well-known place for couples to come and sit. In the summer, they often wear cotton yukatas, and it is a Kyoto tradition for couples to sit here slightly apart from each other out of respect. You might notice this as you walk along the banks, so if you’re there with a special someone, why not try and blend in by doing the same?
In the summertime, it is also traditional for people to dine above running water. This is called Noryo Yuka, where large wooden platforms are set up above the water, and Kamogawa River boasts some of the best of these in the city (Kamo Yuka).
This area can get pretty crowded, especially when the weather is nice, but if you walk a few minutes up or down in either direction, crowds start to thin and you can often spot small fish and herons as well. Grab some drinks and snacks at one of the nearby ‘combini’ (convenience stores) and settle down! The whole area lights up at dusk and in the evening, giving it an extra sparkle, and once you’re done, Gion is only a few minutes’ walks away.
Access: A few minutes walk from Sanjo Keihan Station.
There is a secret passage up through the hills to the Seiryu-den observation deck, which boasts incredible views over Kyoto. First, walk through the Yasaka Shrine (click here for google maps) and walk to the back of Maruyama park, go to Chion-in temple which is in the park. You’ll need to find the famous Chion-in temple bell (there are signs). This bell is the largest in Japan and weighs a whopping 74 tons, and requires a 25 man team to operate it. Behind the bell, there is a fence/gate which is usually open but will close at 4 pm. If you follow the path through and up the hill, you'll get to Seiryu-den Temple and observation deck (click here to see google maps). The walk is only 15/20 mins if you’re fairly fit. Alternatively, you can take a cab from Higashiyama station (click here for google maps) - it’ll cost around 1000 yen. The temple entry fee is around 500 yen, but the view is well worth it.
Disclaimer: I won't accept liability if you get lost of hurt walking up the hill - this only serves as an advisory on one way to get there. If you think you are not able or fit enough, take a taxi!
The fence/gate behind the bell is the start of the foot path up the hill. But beware it closes at 4pm!
The Seiryu-den temple and observation deck view from another neighbouring observation deck with Kyoto in the background
Ippodo tea shop is very famous, and one of the most renowned and respected tea companies in Japan. Located in north central Kyoto, you should definitely visit here. You’re in Japan, in Kyoto, the cultural capital… would be weird if you didn't check out the best tea shop in Kyoto!
Steeped in history and tradition, the tea here is fantastic and varied. Tea is a complete art, and you can go experience a tea experience, rather than just sit there and sip. A waitress will come over and explain how to pour, drink, and brew the tea with a little timer too. The tea will change flavour as you go!
You can book some master classes on tea to, check out their website for more info.
Murin-an is one of Kyoto's prettiest and famous gardens. Located in the historic and beautiful district of Higashiyama, it was built in 1898 by Yamagata Aritomo, who was an important political and military figure. The garden is stunning, and a typical example of a classical Japanese promenade garden from the Meiji period.
►Admission fee: 410 yen