Updated: Jun 17, 2020
Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Kansai region. With a centuries-old history as the island nation’s former capital, as well as being one of the major religious hubs in Japan, Kyoto has a great number of cultural sites. Here are the most unforgettable things to do and see in the city.
Dances by Kyoto’s geiko & maiko
Lots of Kyoto travel websites talk about being able to spot geisha around Kyoto, especially in the Gion area, but often these are just tourists dressed in traditional clothing. The Spring Dances—Kitano Odori in March, Kyo Odori and Miyako Odori in April, and Kamogawa Odori in May—are your best chance at catching the rare sight of an actual performance by geiko and maiko (Kyoto geisha and their apprentices) in the city.
A cross between an artist’s studio and museum, the Ukiyo-e Small Museum is run by Ichimura Mamoru, one of only a small number of remaining ukiyo-e artists in Japan. A super quirky personality, Mamoru doesn’t speak much English and keeps erratic museum hours, but is extremely friendly and will show you how to make your own woodblock print.
RYŌAN-JI'S ROCK GARDEN
Ryoanji Temple is the site of Japan's most famous rock garden, which attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Unlike other traditional Japanese gardens, zen-rock gardens are dry-landscape gardens that do not contain any bodies of water. Instead, gravel and sand are carefully raked into patterns that represent rippling water. Ryōan-ji is perhaps the most famous of Kyoto’s Zen Buddhist gardens. It contains 15 boulders grouped in such a way that it is only possible to see 14 of them at any one time while standing on the garden’s veranda—very zen!
MAKE A WISH AT FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA SHRINE
With its 10,000 vermilion shrine gates, Fushimi Inari is one of the most popular sites in Kyoto. However, before you make the pilgrimage up Mount Inari’s trail, take a moment to stop by the Omokaru Stones near the entrance. The two stone lanterns are each topped with a heavy ornament called a giboshi. Make a wish and try to lift one of the giboshi. If you find the stone to be lighter than expected, then it’s said that your wish will be granted. However, if you find the stone to be very heavy, you may face hardship and trials in reaching your goal.
Japan’s native Shinto religion is based on nature worship and animism, the belief that objects—both animate and inanimate—are embodied with spirits. As a result, Japanese folklore is full of some pretty interesting and unusual yokai, or supernatural creatures, including an umbrella monster. If you’re interested in ghouls and ghosties, be sure to take a stroll down Kyoto’s Yokai Street, a shopping district populated with handmade yokai monsters created by local shops. The area even hosts yokai-themed events throughout the year.
Harvest your own green tea and then enjoy a freshly brewed cup
Kyoto’s Uji City is one of the most renowned green-tea-producing areas in all of Japan, and several plantations in the area offer tea-picking tours for visitors. Enjoy the beautiful scenery of the lush tea fields, learn how to pick the delicate tea leaves by hand from an expert, and then make fresh tea with the batch you harvested using a special hand-rolling technique called temomi. Those so inclined can even don traditional tea-picking clothing for the occasion.