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Experience Japan in Kyoto

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 that all, 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 you are 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.

Sake Tasting

Eight cups of different Sake.

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) 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 find out what your personal favourite is!

WuiK Review: Kyoto Insider Sake Experience

Recently, we from What's up in Kyoto got the opportunity to have a (free) sake tasting with Kotaro, founder of Kyoto Insider Sake Experience. First we headed to the Gekkeikan Sake Museum located in one of the biggest sake breweries of Japan. There, we learned about sake rice and water, and how to get from those to the finished product in about 6 weeks. Afterwards we had a two-course sake tasting with several different types of sake. First, we enjoyed the sake pure, and we learned how the polishing rate affects the taste. Then we had the same types of sake paired up with different kinds of food, a truly eye-opening taste explosion.

Kotaro says: "I believe that a sake experience should be the very first thing you do on your very first trip to Japan. This way, you can find out early what kind of sake you like, you can enjoy it throughout your visit, and even buy the right bottle to take home."

WuiK Rating:
We went out of this three-hour experience with our heads buzzing not only from the alcohol, but also from all the information we were given. This is not just a sake experience, this is a true sake master class! Head over to Kotaro's homepage and learn all there is to know about Japanese sake!

Kotaro, founder of Kyoto Insider Sake Experience.

Mmhhhh, almost finished!

Kimono Rental

Kimono are fun to wear for men, women, and kids too.

Kimono are fantastic, it is really easy to feel like a princess - or a samurai - when wearing one! But honestly, 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 taking 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.

Tea Ceremony

Experience the calm of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

The most popular drink in Japan is, simply 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.

Zazen Meditation

Rebalance your life by spending time in zen meditation.

Since we're talking about calm surroundings already, how about calming your mind? 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:

Shunko-in Temple: English zazen class and temple tour, (almost) daily from 9:30 - 11:00, no reservation required, 3000 yen/person

Daisen-in Temple: Japanese zazen class, every Saturday and Sunday (March - November 17:00 - 18:00, December - February 16:30 - 17:30), reservations required under 075 - 491 8346, free

Ryosoku-in Temple: Japanese zazen class of 60 min., various dates and times, reservation required, 1000 yen/person

Onsen and Sento - Public Baths

Relax your body with a hot bath after a long day in Kyoto.

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. A sento is a traditional public bath, they can still be found in many neighborhoods. 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: Especially small neighborhood sento may not allow people with tattoos to enter. Please ask beforehand.

Art Classes

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-its-kind souvenir.

Weaving and other Textile Crafts

Make your very own textile accessories. Photo by Terri Bleeker on unsplash

Kyoto is famous for the special weaving technique called Nishijin-ori, which is used to make the most exquisite (and often: expensive) obi of Japan. Making a real Nishijin pattern with many colors requires the weaver to have long training and work with 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 experiences are available covering 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!

Making Ceramics

Make your very own tea bowl. Photo by Meggie Markel on unsplash

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) and Kiyomizu ware with its colorful designs is known and loved by connaisseurs 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 may be available. Please ask beforehand.)

Painting Fans

Paint your own fan for summer.

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.)

Kyoto Guided Tours

Go on a guided tour through Kyoto and find all the hidden power spots!

Kyoto is an amazing city with more than 1000 years of history. Between ancient shrines, quiet temples and Japanese gardens, there is so much to see and do that it can get a bit overwhelming. 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 catering to your personal preferences and needs!

Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama

From July through September

Cormorant fishing dates back some 1300 years.

Cormorant fishing is an ancient technique, dating back some 1300 years. Black cormorants are used by fishermen to catch river fish just after sunset. In Japan, there are only 13 places left where you can watch cormorant fishing, and Arashiyama in Kyoto is one of them. During the summer months you can go on a boat tour and watch local fishermen in traditional clothing and their birds catch fish. Special packages are available where the day's catch is prepared in a restaurant afterwards and you can try the fish for yourself.