While Tokyo is on most people’s list as the crazy city you should visit, the one that will always surprise you, Kyoto is the centre of Japanese culture. It somehow still feels like you’re going back in Edo times when strolling the streets of Gion… so if you are looking to experience Japanese culture, get a glimpse of the past, here is a sampler for you of a few activities you might want to try out when in the old Japanese capital.
I would like to say though that, in all honesty, Kyoto was not my favourite part of Japan. It could have been because of the expectations I had after so many years of dreaming to visit this city, but I would probably be one of those that would take Tokyo over Kyoto anytime. Still the city is clearly worth a visit for a few days and here are a few pointers on what you could do.
1. Visit some of the many temples and shrines around the city.
It’s no secret: people who visit Kyoto will stop at some of the many temples that inhabit the city and so should you. Problem is: how do you pick which one you should visit? With more than a thousand of them, the choice might be a little tough. We’re not here to tell you what to do or how many is a good number: no one will be mad at you even if you decide to skip it all together! But if you have a chance then do pick a few to add to your plans.
The best part is: most of the temples you might want to visit are very conveniently located on the bus routes. Purchase a bus card for the day and off you go, you’re ready for an adventure.
Some of the most iconic ones are the Fushimi Inari shrine with it’s many tori gates, Kinkaku-ji temple also known as the Golden Pavilion and the Ginkaku-ji temple or Silver Pavilion. If you want to visit those be ready for some crowds. While it is not a massive problem in Kinkaku-ji, you’ll have to be patient or come in early (or late, whatever works best for you!) to enjoy a bit of peace at the Fushimi Inari shrine.
2. Experience a Japanese tea ceremony.
In Japan there is no chance you’ll complete your trip without trying matcha at least once. Now served with milk or as a cake, this green tea has been the centre of an old tradition in Japan, as it is in China.
Whatever takes your fancy, matcha, sencha, make sure to get it as part of a proper ceremony to understand all that this drink holds. Observe your host pouring your tea and try to catch all the particular movements she might have had to rehearse for many years. You can find a few schools that do specialise in tea ceremonies around Japan but with limited time, join one of them in Kyoto and try out the bitter and strong matcha that your host might prepare for you. We’d recommend trying out the candlelit ceremony at night to experience something a little different.
3. Japanese culture in Kyoto: Stay in a traditional ryokan.
If you are planning a trip to Japan you most likely heard of ryokans, traditional Japanese hotels where you can sleep on a tatami and take a bath in the communal onsen. If that’s an experience you do want to try then Kyoto might be the place for it. While prices are maybe a bit steeper than in other areas of Japan, you will get a lot of choice and will get a very high end service whatever you decide to pick.
From budget (with ryokans like the Luck You a bit outside of the city centre) to luxury (with the famous Gion Hatanaka that offers location and pure luxury – pictured here ), you’ll most likely find the one just for you. And guess what? Sleeping on the floor is not that bad! The only thing that Robb did find a little inconvenient was the lack of chairs.
4. Share an evening with geikos and maikos in Gion.
Geishas (as we call them) or geikos and maikos are probably one of the most glamorous and charming images of Japan, and who wouldn’t want to get a chance to spend some time with those ladies that seem to disappear in the corners of Gion.
If you want to witness this tradition first-hand, there are a number of options available, and prices vary enormously, but if money is not an issue during your trip then you can book yourselves a tea time with one of them of, better yet, an entire evening around a meal. Otherwise opt for one of the many walks around Gion where you might get a chance to spot one of them heading to work. There is something exhilarating when you finally do spot one of them in the street. Try not to get lost though as Gion is something of a maze.
5. Visit a zen garden.
This was high on my to-do list: visiting a zen garden. Made famous around the world, those gardens bring simplicity and nature together in one very lovely manner that will bring you peace. One of the gardens you can visit is the Tofoku-ji Temple. Not too far from the Fushimi Inari shrine, this temple is a great spot to visit and is very quiet outside of the Autumn foliage time where it becomes a crowd favourite.
Take your shoes off and walk around for a little while to observe the full symmetry of this place.
6. Japanese Culture in Kyoto: Eat a traditional kaiseki meal.
A kaiseki is a very traditional Japanese meal that includes a lot of different courses. It’s now considered as an art form and each course will work on the taste, texture, colour and form very carefully.
Because of this be aware that a kaiseki can be quite expensive, so why not enjoy it as a breakfast to avoid too much of a steep price?
As the old imperial city, Kyoto is the place to give this a try so much so that the city itself has created Kyo-ryori, a high cuisine particular to the town. Kaiseki in Kyoto will most likely include tofu as it is one of the best you can find in Japan.
7. Indulge in local cuisine at the Nishiki market.
As mentioned in the point before, Kyoto is well known for its imperial food and some of the nicest tofu in Japan, but the food trail doesn’t stop there and if you are on a budget worry not, you could also visit the famous Nishiki market for a bite of some of the best street food the city can offer. After all Kyoto is also famous for its sweets and you’ll get plenty of those there, as will you some lovely fish and seafood, pickles and all sort of fried vegetables. Sure it’s not “refined” but it doesn’t make it less tasty!
Get yourself some time to visit in the morning to avoid the big crowds and still get access to open shops.
Of course, as you would expect, there is a lot more you could do to get a full cultural experience of Kyoto, with a bit of time you might be able to get a cooking class or learn one of the many local traditions, we’d certainly recommend a stay in one of the temples if you get a chance, we were too short on time to do so.
Kyoto truly is Japan’s cultural capital and should be on anyone’s itinerary if visiting Japan for the first time. Be aware though that the city is very expensive.
What about you? Have you been to Kyoto and what were your favourite experiences? Let us know in the comments!
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