What to do and see in Kyoto

If you think that a trip to Kyoto is just about visiting historical monuments and temples, then think again. While the city has more than its fair share of historical monuments – being the birthplace of ancient Japanese civilisation – it’s also home to a host of modern attractions too. 

The purpose of this article is to serve as a guide for your next trip to the city. Not only will it tell you about the places that you’ll want to visit, but also when they’re open, how much you’ll expect to pay, and other helpful tidbits so that you don’t arrive unprepared. 

Kyoto is firmly within the Japan rail network and well-served by rail services, making it a great place to stop off and have a look around, whether as a tourist or business traveller. 

The Temples

Kyoto is brimming with temples. For the sake of brevity, we’ll run through them in list form. However, that doesn’t mean that each does not have substantial charm and character. 

Nijo-jo Castle. This castle was once a shogun residence and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex is unique in the sense that it looks medieval, thanks to the shimmering white wall that surrounds it. Opening times vary throughout the year with the castle opens between 8:00 and 8:45 and closes between 17:00 and 18:00 depending on when you visit. Entry prices are 600 yen for adults and an extra 400 yen if you want to step inside the Nimomaru Palace. To get there from Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Subway Line To Karasuma-Oike Station and then get on the Toazai Line To Nijo-jo Station. Expect to pay 260 yen for the trip. 

Higashiyama Temples. The Higashiyama Temples are a group of ancient monuments, shrines, and parks along Kyoto’s eastern mountains. It’s one of the best-preserved districts in the country, full of narrow lanes and wooden buildings. The Higashiyama temples are part of a much large area so you may or may not pay entry fees depending on where you go. Getting to the district by train is possible. From Kyoto Station, make your way to Higashiyama Station on the Tozai Subway Line. Alternatively, pick up the 100 or 206 bus from Kyoto Station, advertising Kiyomizudera as the destination. You’ll find yourself in the district within about ten minutes. 

Kyoto Temples. The great thing about Kyoto is that you don’t have to venture out of the center to see temples. They’re everywhere. If you’re the sort of person who loves temples, then you can find a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto temples right from the train station itself. 

Other things to do, besides temples

Yes, Kyoto is famous for its temples, but there are so many other things to do in the city too. 

See the monkeys in Arashiyama

The bamboo groves of Arashiyama might be “touristy,” but there’s a reason for that: they’re stunning. If you’ve never been to a bamboo grove before, you have to check it out. Seeing giant grasses rise like trees and form a canopy is something to behold. You can wander around the place in a state of awe and bemusement. 

The monkeys of Arashiyama are a popular attraction too. They are native to Japan and surprisingly friendly, despite the warnings not to stare at them. They are wild, but you’re free to feed them as you please, so long as you give them food that they can eat. 

Getting to the park is easy once you have your JR pass. Take the train to Hankyu Arashiyama Station and then follow the signs. It’s a five-minute walk. The park opens from 9:00 until 16:00 at off-peak times of the year, and 17:00 at peak times. 

Take a trip to the Nishiki Market

The Nishiki Market, also sometimes lovingly called “The Kitchen of Kyoto,” is a seriously old venue for buying food. There’s been a market on the site for at least seven hundred years, with some historians believing that it dates back even further. 

You can pick up all kinds of traditional and modern delicacies here, including soy donuts, sashimi on sticks, and baby octopus stuffed with quail eggs. If you’re a little squeamish about the kind of food you’re willing to eat, then this probably isn’t the place for you. But if you’re more adventurous in your food choices, then you’ll love what’s on offer at this incredible venue. 

So how do you get there? The Nishiki Market runs alongside Shijo Avenue, one block to the north. You can get there on foot in five minutes from Shijo Sation on the Karasuma Subway Line. 

Visit the Muko Town for spicy food

Although southern Asia is famous for its spicy food, there’s no denying that the Japanese love it too, and nowhere more so than in the Muko Town district of Kyoto. Muko Town, in the west of the city, has a street (a bit like Brick Lane in London) which is famous for its spicy food. The local word for it is Gekikara Shotengai, which literally translates as the “intense spice shopping street.” Here you’ll find all kinds of weird and wonderful foods that will make your eyes run and your mouth burn. 

Go on a Kyoto bike tour

One of the best ways to get around Kyoto is on one of the city’s many bike tours. Bike tours allow you to see this historic city while also enjoying a spot of sightseeing along the way. It’s the perfect way to visit all the temples without having to get on and off the train continually. 

Local guides run many of the cycling tours, providing exciting insights into the city as you tour. Cycling tours take you past popular locations, such as Higashiyama and Arashiyama. 

Tours start at the Togetsu-Kyo Bridge and go out to different parts of the city in all directions. You can also hire bikes directly from Kyoto Station and go on a variety of tours, including back street tours, Kyoto east and west, Kinkakuji Arashiuyama, and Ginkakuji.