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.
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.
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!
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.
While not a Kyoto-specific food, the omurice (omelet rice) at Kyoto restaurant Kichi Kichi became something of a viral sensation when people began uploading videos of chef Yukimura Motokichi’s signature cooking technique. Gently balancing a fluffy omelet on a mound of rice pilaf, Motokichi slices it open with his chef’s knife, spreading the omelet’s deliciously eggy contents over the rice and topping it with a rich demi-glace sauce. While omelet rice may be a humble dish that anyone can make at home, the omurice at Kichi Kichi is simply on another level.
Vegans and vegetarians rejoice! Not only is Kyoto a city with one of the highest numbers of Michelin-star restaurants in the world, it is also renowned for its vegan- and vegetarian-friendly venues. From the traditional Buddhist vegan cuisine shojin ryori to delicate yuba, made from the skin that forms at the top of soy milk as it is heated, and yudofu (tofu hotpot), there’s a never-ending list of things for non-meat and non-dairy eaters to enjoy. Be sure to also look out for dishes made with Kyoto speciality vegetables like the shogoin turnip and kamo nasu eggplant, all fresh and locally grown.
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.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with an Uji matcha parfait
The very finest green tea leaves from Uji City are finely ground into matcha powder, which is used for everything from the formal tea ceremony to making traditional Japanese sweets. Enjoy a popular modern matcha dessert and Kyoto favorite, the Uji matcha parfait, at cafés throughout the city. Honke Nishio Yatsuhashi Gion, located in the Gion area, serves up decadent matcha parfaits topped with macarons, freshly whipped cream, and more.
Be enchanted by the mixology at Kyoto's greatest cocktail bar
Bar, Fusion, $$$
Although not particularly Japanese, the cocktail bar L’Escamoteur is still an experience not to miss. Meaning “magician” in old French, L’Escamoteur is owned by an actual magician from France who infuses a magical touch into every mixed drink. With an interior based on an early 20th-century herbal pharmacy, the bar’s old-timey atmosphere is certainly not out of place in historical Kyoto.