Discover woodblock ukiyo-e prints housed in a studio that rarely opens to the public, learn about the history of Japan’s second-largest liquor brewery or take part in a manga workshop at the best museums in Kyoto.
As the country’s imperial capital for over 1,000 years, Kyoto has played a significant role in the progress of Japanese culture. Best known for its shrines and temples, the city also has many museums dedicated to history, arts, crafts and much more.
If you’re planning to visit multiple museums during your stay, consider buying the Kansai Grutto Pass for ¥1,100 (£8), which provides free or heavily discounted admission to over 100 museums and galleries in the Kansai region. You can buy one every month except during February and March. The pass expires three months from its first use.
Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
Bar, Japanese, $$$
Take in the history of Japan’s second-largest liquor brewery. Only a stone’s throw from Fushimi Inari Shrine in the country’s liquor-brewing capital of Fushimi, the brewery was opened by the Gekkeikan Sake Company in 1909. Discover the history of traditional tools and methods of sake-making with 400 sake production materials displayed (limited information is available in English-language leaflets). Be transported back to the old brewery days, with the traditional chants of sake makers echoing throughout the museum. All visitors who have paid the ¥400 (£3) entry receive a free sake tasting or postcard at the end of the visit.
Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Fumihiko Maki, The National Museum of Modern Art is easily one of Kyoto’s top contemporary art venues. You can’t miss the 2,600-square-metre (28,000-square-foot) grey, box-like architecture in Kyoto’s Okazaki district, which is home to an extraordinary permanent collection of more than 10,000 artworks – nihonga(traditional Japanese painting), Western paintings, sculptures, ceramics and photography. Artists including André Breton, Pablo Picasso, Murakami Kagaku, Koide Narashige, Yasui Sotaro, Murayama Tomoyoshi and more have all displayed their works here. Admission ranges from ¥430-¥1,400 (£3-£10), and there is a night discount for ¥220 (£1.60) offered after 5pm.
If you happen to pass by resident artist Ichimura Mamoru’s studio when it’s open, you’re in luck. A humorous sign about the studio’s opening hours reads: “Open when I wake up and closed when I must go to sleep. When I’ve had enough the store is closed,” but the real gem is found behind the door. Have a peek at Mamoru’s traditional woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e, to uncover a world of Japanese folk tales, animals and landscapes. There are now only a handful of artists practising the art, common between the 17th and 19th centuries, making this a truly rare experience.
Cross the street from Sanjusangendo Temple and you’ll find the Neoclassical building of Kyoto National Museum. Constructed in the 1890s by Japanese architect Katayama Tokuma, the building is now an Important Cultural Property that holds more than 2,000 pre-modern Japanese and Asian artefacts. Don’t miss highlights including paintings by Sesshu, rare Buddhist images from Gandhara and the Heian period, metalwork (swords and armour), and calligraphy by Japanese and Chinese masters. Step outside to be greeted by the East Garden, which contains sculptures from Korea and a traditional Japanese teahouse. Soak in the serenity of the West Garden with stone Buddhas, The Thinker by Auguste Rodin and a water fountain. Admission costs ¥1,600 (£11.60) and a separate ticket is required for special exhibitions.
Formally the Kyoto branch of the Bank of Japan, The Museum of Kyoto is housed within a compelling red-brick building and details the city’s rich history. Wander the first section of the museum, home to reconstructed Edo-period cafés and shops. In the second section, admire paintings by Western and Japanese artists, beautiful Kyoto dolls known as kyo-ningyo and a hall for films about Kyoto with English subtitles. The museum hosts a range of fascinating exhibitions, covering both Japanese and international themes. Admission is ¥500 (£3.60).
Be charmed by this repurposed elementary school, which holds a collection of more than 300,000 mangas (Japanese comics or graphic novels), spanning across three floors and the basement. Let your imagination run wild as you browse the ‘Wall of Manga’ book shelves that trace the entire museum. And if your Japanese isn’t quite up to scratch, the ‘Manga Expo’ space is filled with more than 5,000 translated mangas. For those curious about the adoption and evolution of manga globally, attend one of the regular workshops, talks and performances. Or visit the ‘Portrait Corner’ (open 11am–5.30pm daily) to have your portrait drawn by a manga artist. Admission costs ¥800 (£5.80) but special exhibitions are not included.
Popularised during the Edo period, netsukes (miniature sculptures) were originally to prevent people’s personal belongings, including their inro (medicine box), yatate (writing set), tobacco and pouches, from being stolen. These small but exquisitely crafted artworks would hang from kimono belts and were made from an array of materials including animal bones, wood, ceramic and metals. As soon as Japan opened to the West during the Meiji era, netsukes became the ultimate fashion statement, with some collectors paying the price of a house in exchange for a rare one. Now you can gaze upon the collection of 400 antique and contemporary netsukes at the former home of the Kanzaki family, the only surviving samurai residence in Kyoto and a Tangible Cultural Property in Japan. Take a moment to appreciate the byobu folding screens, garden and polearms once used to defend the premise. Admission is ¥1,000 (£7.25).
Spanning across three floors in a 30,000-square-metre (322,900-square-foot) building, the Kyoto Railway Museum offers visitors the opportunity to experience Japan’s steps towards transport innovation, exhibiting 53 retired trains, from steam locomotives to more modern electric trains and the high-speed Shinkansen. This family-friendly museum showcases railway uniforms, offers interactive exhibitions where visitors can perform the duties of a train conductor and flaunts one of Japan’s largest dioramas – miniature trains controlled by a skilled operator. For an extra ¥300 (£2.20), visitors are invited on a one-kilometre (0.6-mile) journey on a steam train that lasts around 10 minutes. English explanations are limited, so opt for the English audio tour guide at the start. Admission is ¥1,200 (£8.70). All aboard!
Kyoto has been at the centre of traditional Japanese crafts for over 1,000 years. Learn about the time-honoured techniques and materials used in the museum’s permanent exhibition, which showcases 74 categories of industries that blossomed in Kyoto. From umbrella making, kyo-yaki (Kyoto pottery), nishijin-ori (silk weaving) and kyo-yuzen (silk dyeing) of kimonos and kyo-sensu (folding fans), to name a few. You can even watch how Japanese candles, lacquerware and family crest paintings are made by skilled artisans during the craft demonstrations. Or be captivated by the maiko (apprentice geisha) and geiko (geisha) performances. Admission is free.