Kyoto is home to over 1000 temples and shrines, hundreds of unique museums, dozens of quiet Japanese gardens... and just strolling through the little lanes in the back somewhere can turn into a real adventure. If you have done all that, and you are ready to take your love for everything Japanese to the next level, you should definitely try one of Kyoto's many hands-on experiences.
Why don't you start your day by getting dressed in a real kimono and have your pictures taken at one of the iconic spots in Kyoto. You can also take part in a traditional tea ceremony while dressed like this. Have a go and make your own sushi for lunch, nothing will ever taste that good! In the afternoon, dive into the Nishijin district, where you can learn traditional techniques to make your own accessories. And in the evening, go for a sake tasting - the perfect finish for an exciting day!
There are many different ways and opportunities to delve into the real Japan and have a truly unique adventure here in Kyoto. Below, we list our favourite things to do in Kyoto.
The Japanese word for any kind of alcohol is o-sake, showing the importance of the drink for the culture here. Made from rice and deeply connected with the gods of Shinto, sake (or nihonshu in Japanese) is one of the things you must try when in Japan. And the best way not to get overwhelmed by the different types of sake made by literally hundreds (if not thousands) of different sake breweries in Japan is by going to a sake tasting. Learn how sake is made, experience different types of sake, and discover your personal favourite!
Kimono are fantastic, and it is really easy to feel like a princess - or a samurai - when wearing one! However, it is not easy to find a proper occasion to wear kimono outside of Japan, so you should make the most of it while you are here! Indulge yourself and visit one of the many kimono rentals all over Kyoto that offer a large variety of different packages: From the very simple packages of a few hours rental to a whole day's tour around Kyoto with your personal photographer. Highlights are getting styled as a geisha or samurai, wearing a white wedding kimono, or spending 45 minutes to get dressed in a fantastic junihitoe, a Heian-style 12-layered kimono.
The most popular drink in Japan is, by the amount that is consumed, green tea. It is served in restaurants when you sit down at your table and you can find it in bottles in every convenience store as a quick summer refreshment. The pinnacle of green tea culture, however, is a proper tea ceremony where a cup of matcha - powdered green tea - is prepared by a tea master in an elaborate ceremony. Watch carefully how your tea is made directly in the bowl - every movement is strictly prescribed and has a reason for it - and enjoy the calm surroundings of the room while sipping the tea.
There are a number of public events where matcha is served, you will find them in our event calendar. Alternatively, you can go for a private experience. If this is your first time, it might be best to bring along a Japanese friend who can help you with the proper etiquette even the guests have to observe.
Kodai-ji Temple: Almost every month, there is a special themed tea ceremony at Kodai-ji. Furthermore, private options are available for groups of more than 7 people or in a small tea room for 2 - 6 people. All tea ceremonies require a prior reservation under 075 - 561 -9966 (in Japanese only).
Since we're on the topic of calm surroundings, how about calming your mind too? Modern life can be tough, and sometimes even a vacation may not be enough to leave it all behind. Take an extra break within your break and take part in a meditation practice. Many of the Zen temples in Kyoto provide regular opportunities to spend some time doing zazen (sitting meditation). There are different types of offers, ranging from full-scale retreats to short individual lessons. There are many free lessons available, and don't worry: You will be welcome even as a beginner! Pro Tip: Wear loose clothing and bring shawls, water etc. as required.In our calendar, you can find a selection of free zazen experiences you don't need a reservation for. Here are a few other options, see the websites for details. (Information below as of March, 2023)
Chishakuin Temple holds an Ajikan Meditation Gathering, a special one-hour meditation practice of Shingon Buddhism, every 12th day of the month at 11:00 and 14:00. Reservations required through the page above; 500 yen per person, 15 people max.
Daisen-in Temple has Japanese zazen classes every Saturday and Sunday (March - November 17:00 - 18:00, December - February 16:30 - 17:30). Reservations required under 075 - 491 8346; 1000 yen per person.
Ryosoku-in Temple offers a Japanese zazen class of 90 min. at various dates and times. Reservations required (online); 2000 yen per person.
Shunko-in Temple offers an English zazen class with tea experience and temple tour (almost) daily. Reservations required (online); fees upon request.
With your mind relaxed from zazen, your body should follow! Nothing is better for that than taking a hot bath in a Kyoto onsen or sento. An onsen is (most often) a hotel with hot mineral baths, the healthy water coming directly out of the ground. Onsen are often very luxurious and offer bath amenities like soap, shampoo, towels and a yukata to wear on the premises. Although Kyoto is not a hot-spot for onsen (excuse the pun), it is still home to more than 15 onsen hotels, some of which expect an overnight stay, while others cater to day visitors as well or even exclusively. Have a look at the website of the Kyoto City Council for the Vitalization of Onsen Tourism, where Kyoto's onsen are listed according to location and type of healing water.
A sento is a traditional public bath, and they can still be found in many neighbourhoods. Sento are recognisable by their curtains which show a hiragana yu, meaning "hot water". Enter, strip, and take a thorough shower before getting into the hot tubs. Some sento have a variety of tubs with different temperatures or special ones like "electric tubs". You must bring your own body wash, shampoo and towels, but there is nothing more authentic than stepping in the tub with the locals. A sento how-to including a list of all sento in Kyoto city and Kyoto prefecture can be found on the website of the Kyoto Prefectural Cooperative of Public Bath-house Operators. Note: Small neighbourhood sento in particular may not allow people with tattoos to enter. Please ask beforehand.
Shakuhachi and other flutes, biwa (lute), shamisen (a three-stringed guitar), koto (zither) and wadaiko (drums of all sizes) are just a few of the music instruments unique to Japan. You can catch short performances as part of events in shrines and temples, and of course, there are full-scale solo recitals and concerts practically daily. Take the time for a relaxing evening or afternoon and experience music that will remind you of Japan forever.
Of course, the best experiences are hands-on, and many professional musicians in Kyoto offer classes for short-term visitors. Obviously, mastery of any instrument takes many years, but who knows, you might be back for more and end up studying traditional music in Japan. Stranger things have happened...
Just like with music, Japan boasts a wide range of unique arts and crafts, and especially Kyoto attracts many artisans who still work with traditional methods. Even if you don't consider yourself very artsy, there are many classes providing guidance for beginners and pros to produce a one-of-a-kind souvenir.
Kyoto is famous for the special weaving technique called Nishijin-ori, which is used to make the most exquisite (read: expensive) obi of Japan. Making a real Nishijin pattern with many colours requires long training and using intricate machines. But don't worry: you can try weaving a simple decorative piece yourself! Whether you are a beginner or an experienced weaver, you can take home a truly unique piece of Kyoto's traditions.
Beyond weaving, there are many other different methods for making beautiful textiles, like dyeing, painting or printing. In Kyoto, many different classes are available that cover a large range of techniques, time constraints, and budgets. Choose your favourite technique and your favourite type of souvenir (scarf, handkerchief, bag,...) and make unique accessories or gifts to remember Kyoto forever!
Another major traditional industry of Kyoto is its pottery and ceramics. A number of great ceramic artists have established themselves in Kyoto (for example the Raku Family or Kawai Kanjiro) and Kiyomizu ware with its colourful designs is known and loved by connoisseurs all over the world. What better place to make your own tea cup? Experienced artists will guide you every step of the way. (Firing your bowl may take time, but international shipment is often available. Please ask beforehand.)
Bamboo is everywhere in Japan and it has been used for centuries to create a variety of household goods and even the houses themselves. This versatile material lets you make baskets, chopsticks, and tea scoops for the Japanese tea ceremony and many other things. Bamboo is easy to work with and experienced artisans will help you to create a great and also eco-friendly souvenir.
Fans are a summer accessory nobody can do without in Japan. They are so popular that many famous painters have made designs specifically for fans. And so can you! Let your muse run wild and create your personal fan for summer in one of the many workshops offered. (The final assembly of the fan may take several weeks, but international shipment may be available. Please ask beforehand.)
Cormorant fishing is an ancient technique, dating back about 1300 years. Fishermen use black cormorants to catch river fish just after sunset. In Japan, there are only 13 places left where you can watch cormorant fishing, and there are two in Kyoto: Arashiyama and Uji. During the summer months you can go on a boat tour and watch local fishermen in traditional clothing catch fish with their birds. Special packages are available where the day's catch is prepared in a nearby restaurant afterwards so you can round off the experience by trying the fish for yourself.
A great way to relax and take in the scenery at the same time is a ride on the Sagano Romantic Train. It takes you from Arashiyama to Kameoka along the Hozugawa river, a stunning gorge that is especially beautiful in spring and autumn. Bring your partner or enjoy a solo ride in the lovingly restored old trains that evoke times long past. Train lovers shouldn't miss the diorama in the train museum at the Saga station.
See the English website of the Sagano Romantic Train for photos and other info, and to book tickets.
Once in Kameoka, you can return on the Hozugawa river that you just saw from the train. This waterway was used to transport wood and other goods to Kyoto, and is now the scene of the popular Hozugawa River Cruise. Traditional low boats that are steered with oars and bamboo poles bring you back to Arashiyama, passing along the rapids of the gorge and beautifully changing scenery. The best times for this family-friendly tour are in summer and autumn, where the boats operate once per hour.
Check out the English website of the Hozugawa River Cruise for more details and to get tickets.
Want more river rides? Then try the Lake Biwa Canal, an old commercial waterway that connects Kyoto and Otsu on Lake Biwa since 1890. Originally built to cheaply transport goods to Osaka, it quickly became an attraction for local tourists, especially during the seasons of cherry blossoms and autumn leaves. In 2018, the Lake Biwa Canal was reopened, and little boats take passengers from Kyoto to Otsu and back again. Take a unique trip through the most quiet parts of Kyoto and along fantastic natural sights in the most beautiful seasons of Japan.
Prior reservations are required. See the English website of the Lake Biwa Canal Cruise for details.
Overwhelmed by all the things you could do and see? No wonder, Kyoto is an amazing city with more than 1000 years of history and has even more ancient shrines, quiet temples and Japanese gardens to visit. Why don't you leave the planning to experts and join a guided tour? Whether on foot, on a bicycle or with a luxuriously airconditioned van; whether the most popular sights, tranquil gardens, or Kyoto's nightlife - there are many offerings out there tailored to your personal preferences and needs!
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