Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kansai, Japan, outside of Osaka. With a centuries-old history as the island nation’s capital, as well as one of the major religious hubs in Japan, Kyoto has a plethora of cultural sights, from ancient palaces to hidden temples. At the same time, Kyoto also offers fun activities as alternatives to visiting shrines. Here we explore the most unmissable things to do and see in the city.
One of Kyoto’s most iconic tourist attractions, Gion, is an area of Kyoto preserved in the style of the Edo period. This is the district where geishas were trained, and today tourists can get a geisha makeover and explore the historical streets dressed how its inhabitants would have looked. Even if you prefer not to dress up, Gion is a fantastic place to experience Kyoto’s history and culture, as it is filled with temples and other traditional architecture.
This Buddhist temple, one of the most famous in Kyoto, if not Japan, is located on a hill in Gion. Kiyomizu-dera is seated on a mountain and is almost one with nature, as it is half-shrouded by trees that turn pink with Sakura blossoms in the spring and fiery with fall foliage in the autumn. The vivid colors of Japan’s distinct four seasons can clearly be seen from the temple, which offers a spectacular view of the valley below.
One of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, Saiho-ji is famed for its moss-covered garden, which feels like a hidden, magical oasis. At the center of this garden is a pond shaped like the Kanji character for a heart. The pond is surrounded by moss-covered trees and other greenery, giving a peaceful and zen hush to the place. Saudi-ji is also colloquially known as Koke-Dera, which means moss temple. You must make a reservation in advance before entering, so be sure to check out their website to book a visit.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
Located in downtown Kyoto, this museum is a must-visit destination for manga lovers. Kyoto International Manga Museum houses a collection of over three hundred thousand items, one of the largest in Japan. The museum features a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions and events, but a feature that may be more attractive to manga fans is the Wall of Manga. This 200m long wall holds fifty thousand volumes of manga from the last fifty years, and visitors are free to take and read them. You can spend an afternoon reading manga on the museum grounds, including old or rare series that are difficult to find commercially.
Kyoto has no shortage of expensive and extravagant dining options, but for a taste of local Kyoto on a smaller budget, Nishiki Market is a perfect choice. This food market contains over a hundred food stalls, selling products that range from snacks like takoyaki to filling meals like ramen. Most stalls only have a few seats available at most, so an alternative would be to try a variety of snacks on the go. With all the delicious choices available, as well as all the other shops and things to see, you are sure to have an authentic taste of local Kyoto.
One of the smaller and lesser known temples in Kyoto, Honen-in, is located right next to the sakura-lined Philosopher’s Walk. You enter through the moss-covered gate and into the humble temple grounds. While it is not as impressive as many of the other temples in Kyoto by its size, Honen-in gives a sense of quietude and tranquility that is lacking in the more popular temples. This secluded area is surrounded by nature and is especially beautiful during the sakura season in spring, and the fall foliage season in autumn when the trees are painted pale pink or bright orange in turn.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace had been the seat of Japan’s Imperial family for eleven centuries, before the nation’s capital was moved to Tokyo in 1868. The walled palace is part of the Kyoto Imperial Park. While the park is open to the public, you must join a guided tour, offered by the Imperial Household Agency, to enter the palace. The knowledgeable tour guides, who speak in Japanese or English depending on the tour, offer information about the history and culture behind this former royal residence. Even if you can’t make the time for the tours, the picturesque park grounds contain ponds and shrines.
This modernistic tower is a far cry from Kyoto as a hub of culture and history, as it is constructed with the contemporary materials of glass and steel. This 131m tall tower is built on top of a nine story building and faces the Kyoto railway station. The observation deck at the top of the Kyoto Tower overlooks the downtown, as well as the mountains Higashiyama and Arashiyama to the east and west of the city.
Kyoto Cycling Tour Project
If you’re not staying long in Kyoto but still want to see all these wonderful attractions the city has to offer, why not visit them all in a day? Kyoto Cycling Tour Project offers bikes for rent, as well as private guided tours if you want a tour guide. You can choose one of the tours they have to offer, which range from 3 to 8 hours in length. Kyoto is very flat and spacious, making it perfect for exploring on bicycle.
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