1. Visit Kyomizu-Dera
Over the years, we've had the opportunity to visit many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but Kyoto definitely has one of the largest collections in the world. A trip here is incomplete without visiting a few of the most famous temples, shrines, and castles, so make sure you pack some comfortable shoes because we guarantee that you will be doing a ton of walking everywhere you go. For a complete list, check out this fabulous page for reference (a few other sites are included in this list as well!) One of our top picks is the Kyomizu-Dera Temple, despite it being under construction during our visit. This large temple overlooks the Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district and the skyline views are truly breathtaking. There are plenty of other temples to see in the area, so don't rush to leave too soon! We also recommend stopping by one of the many souvenir shops to pick up some gifts and snacks for home, and also taking a break from the sightseeing to eat some yummy food.
Take a look at our full Kiyomizu-Dera lookbook here!
2. Indulge in your Wildest Matcha Dreams
If you know us or have been following our blog and Instagram, you may very well know that we LOVE matcha, and were so happy that we didn’t have to go to great lengths to really indulge in our fave when we got to Japan. We consumed most of the matcha goodness in Kyoto, although you can find matcha sweets and even savory food in most of the country. From matcha ice cream, soba noodles, and lattes, to green tea jelly and candies, we pretty much ate matcha from morning until night on many of our days! One of our favorite memories from our trip was a spontaneous day trip to the small city of Uji on our way back from Nara Park to Kyoto Station. This small town is known for being the home to the famous Byodo-In Temple, which we were only able to catch a small glimpse of from behind the fence since we didn’t make it before closing time (since we decided to eat first, of course…). Uji is also famous for producing some of the highest quality of matcha in the world, and we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come and gobble up some matcha goodies before heading back to Kyoto for the evening.
We had a delicious snack and dessert at Nakamura Tokichi Honten, which is only a 10 minute walk from the Uji Station. We totally recommend the hot soba noodles and the green tea jelly dessert with red bean, served with matcha ice cream and glutinous rice balls! Seriously, it really hit the spot after a long day of frolicking with the deer at Nara.
3. Take a Day Trip to Nara Park
Our visit to Nara Park was easily one of our most anticipated days since we had planned to come and picked out our dresses months before our trip began. The city of Nara is easily accessible via the JR Line or via bus from major city hubs. We chose to depart straight from Kyoto station, but we strongly recommend double checking directions with someone working where you depart to make sure you get onto the correct train or bus. It won't always be obvious when you have to get off, so knowing the approximate times to get there and following along on Google Maps is a great way to keep track of where you are going.
Nowhere else in the world will you be able to frolic freely with wild sika dear, so plan to spend most of your day exploring the vast park, feed these beautiful creatures, eating at local restaurants, and visiting the numerous temples on the park's grounds. Take a deeper look into our Nara day trip here!
Tip: Whatever you do, do NOT miss out on the hilarious entertainment of fresh mocha made at the famous Nakatanido. These guys will pound have made waves on the net showing just what an art making mochi is! The best part is that you can try the fresh creations after you watch them made in front of your eyes for about $1 USD.
4. Walk Through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
While the majority of our time spent in Japan was temple hopping and stuffing our faces full with matcha ice cream and different flavors of mochi, we got in our nature fix by spending a couple of hours in the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest one morning during our Kyoto visit. This Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto's most photographed sights, with tall, overarching bamboo stalks planted along a narrow pathway. Located on the outskirts of the city, we used our Japan Rail Pass to take the JR Sagano line from Kyoto Station to Saga-Arashiyama Station. From there, it was only a quick 10-minute walk through the town to get to the entrance of the forest. Of course, we got a bit lost since there were no clearly marked signs from the station, but ended up following a crowd of school children that were on a field trip since we trusted their sense of direction more than Google Maps on that day.
The Bamboo Grove is open 24 hours, so we recommend coming before 8am to soak in a few moments of peace and quiet before the hoards of tourists arrive. The path of the grove itself was definitely smaller than we anticipated, as it only took us about 15-20 minutes to reach the end. We can only imagine how crowded this space must get during peak hours! It was honestly such a surreal and peaceful experience standing under these gigantic, tall stalks of bamboo, looking up and admiring its' strength and resiliency. However, to our disappointment, the bamboo stalks are fenced off, so we couldn't wander off the paved pathway and completely explore the area for ourselves. Nonetheless, we loved our time spent at Arashiyama, surrounding ourselves with the beautiful bamboo that we had anticipated seeing for months!
Although we went a bit early before shops and restaurants opened, we did pass by many places where you can grab a bite to eat for lunch, as well as small vendors selling fresh dango balls and our favorite, matcha ice cream for the perfect mid-afternoon snack. We recommend about 3-4 hours out of your day to see the Arashiyama Bamboo forest and an extra hour or so for a food break before or after your bamboo forest visit!
Take a look at our full Arashiyama Bamboo Forest lookbook here!
5. Visit Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Ever since watching the scene in Memoirs of a Geisha where young Chiyo is seen running through the bright orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha, we absolutely could not wait to visit the historical site one day for ourselves. Fushimi Inari-taisha is said to house over 10,000 torii gates, with each gate donated by a company in hopes of prosperity and good fortunes in the future. Aside from the noteworthy path of lined gates that draw thousands of visitors each week, the grounds of Fushimi Inari-taisha is also home to multiple shrines, graveyards, and little shops and food vendor booths. The path of the vermilion torii gates also leads to Mt. Inari and offers the most breathtaking views along the way to the summit. In case you were curious, Inari is the god of rice!
We actually were not very prepared with our attire for a 2-3 hour hike, so we turned around a little less than the halfway point to use the rest of our day exploring other parts of Kyoto we had not touched yet. If you do plan on spending a bit of time here, we definitely recommend spraying on some mosquito repellent, since we noticed there were a ton of mosquitoes in the dense, woodsy areas of the trail and suffered a bit toward the end of our visit. It definitely gets very busy here as you can imagine at one of Japan's most visited hotspots, so we recommend coming a bit early for some extra peace and quiet. We actually came to Fushimi Inari-taisha twice, once in the mid-afternoon, and then again early the next morning. Talk about night and day with the crowds (in case you were wondering how we were able to get such empty shots)! Luckily, this famous site is only a 15 minute rail ride away from the main Kyoto station and is extremely accessible, giving you lots of flexibility in your site-seeing schedule!
Take a look at our full Fushimi Inari-Taisha lookbook here!
6. Explore Kyoto Station
(photo courtesy of Google)
7. Spend a day in Gion
Gion is Kyoto's most famous geisha and entertainment district, and you can find the area filled with shops, famous restaurants, and traditional teahouses (ochaya), where geisha and geisha apprentices, entertain. To be completely honest, we didn't get to spend much time here since we had so much to do in other parts of town that we only had the opportunity to walk around, grab some food and visit a few temples along the way. After reading through this walking guide, we think you guys may find this inside scoop on Gion much more helpful for a full look on what to do in this famous district.
Left: We did have some fabulous shabu shabu at Shabuzen, and definitely recommend giving it a try, although there are many popular places in Gion that perfect the Japanese hot pot meal. If you've never had shabu shabu before, you basically cook your own meal (or have the server help) by dipping your raw veggies and meat into boiling broth and waiting for your food to cook. You can then dip the food into a variety of sauces to your liking! We thought this was really fun and reminded us of Chinese hot pot, which we have both had a lot before.
Right: Myoudai Omen Shijo Pontocho was easily one of the best udon noodles we have ever had, and the experience was extra fun given that the broth and noodles were served separately, so you have to add the vegetables to your broth to cook, dip the noodles into the broth, and then eat!
8. Eat Your Way Through Nishiki Market
Nishiki market is a foodie's paradise and a definite must-see in your visit to Kyoto. This huge marketplace is located between Teramachi and Shinmachi, one block north of Shijo, and sells everything from skewers of yakitori and sashimi to pungeant batches of tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and of course our favorite, ice cream of any variety and flavor. We recommend saving your stomach before checking the market out and eating small bites of food as you walk along the packed stalls and vendors. Sampling is the best way to really experience Nishiki Market, and we wish we hadn't eaten a full udon lunch right before (especially since we were wearing super tight kimonos, haha!). However, that didn't stop us from trying things we found intriguing! There are also full-service restaurants around in case you do want a bigger meal.
9. Try on a Kimono and Snaps Pics!
Kimonos have a very deep history rooted back as early as the late 700s during the Heian Period, and over the years have come to represent traditional Japanese clothing. The traditional, long garments that we recognize today actually stem back to the Edo period in the early 17th century, and have evolved throughout the years, changing in shape and silhouette based on Western influences. It was absolutely fascinating to read about the history of kimonos, and we definitely encourage you to read more in this article if you are interested!
We couldn't have been more excited for our own kimono experience in Kyoto, which is something that we had planned in our Japan itinerary very early on! There are dozens of kimono stores all over the city (not just in Kyoto, but in many cities throughout Japan) that sell and rent full kimonos. We had done some prior research online to get an idea of how much a full-day rental would cost us, which typically ranges anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 yen per day, depending on the type of fabric or package you choose. We spent our morning exploring Kiyomizu-Dera and walking around the different temples before we headed toward Gion to spend the rest of our afternoon and evening. We came across a few different kimono shops about 10 minutes outside of Gion, and decided to shop around to see if there were any prints and fabrics that we liked. Ultimately, we chose Kyokomachi since they had very reasonable prices, and we found a color combination that we both loved!
We were able to try on the kimonos loosely so we could get an idea of how our outfits coordinate, and then headed upstairs to the second floor parlor to get fitted and to get our hair done (additional 10,000 yen). It was such a fun experience since we were the only ones upstairs with two lovely ladies, one who was an expert at kimono wrapping, and the other who worked our hair into beautiful updos embellished with faux flowers. The whole session only took about 30 minutes, which is surprising considering how intricate it looked to wrap up the kimonos to perfection. The traditional drawstring bags were already pre-matched to our kimonos, but we were able to choose the pins for our hair as well as our special plastic flip-flops (that we wore with fun, big-toe socks!). And finally, we were off on our way into the Gion and to visit the famous Hokan-ji Temple.
The store we visited allowed us to keep the kimonos until 6pm, although some allow for later returns. The time constraint was not a problem for us though, since we had plenty of time in these beautiful outfits, and we were so ready to have them off by evening (they are wrapped super tight!). The rest of our day was spent eating and exploring Nishiki Market, which is street food mecca for all you foodies out there.
We had an absolute blast with our kimono experience and definitely recommend it to all the ladies (and gents!) who are interested in experiencing what it's like to wear an article of clothing that is so beautiful and rich in history. We failed to see any real Geisha in Kyoto that night, though we definitely think we could have if we stuck around for a few more hours to explore!
Take a look at our full Kimono Experience post and lookbook here!
And that's a wrap for our Kyoto itinerary! Thank you SO much for checking out this post and leave us any comments or tips you may have for traveling to Kyoto below :)
Jessica & Melissa