Worldwide notions of Japan’s graphic aesthetics can be attributed to ukiyo-e; the art of woodblock prints. Having influenced Japanese taste and popular culture for more than three centuries, ukiyo-e is now somewhat of a dying art. Of the remaining ukiyo-e artists, Ichimura Mamoru is one of the most well-renowned. Something between an artist’s studio and a museum, swing by the Ukiyo-e Small Museum to meet the man and see his work. As soon as you approach the door, you’ll get a sense of Mamoru’s fun and eccentric personality, with a sign in broken English explaining the museum’s erratic hours: basically, Mamoru opens whenever he feels like it. With an interesting collection of ukiyo-e prints on display and an artist that’s always willing to help out with a wood carving, you’ll love this quirky corner of Kyoto.
Find your zen at Ryoan-ji’s rock garden
The Ryoan-ji Temple is one of the most important temples in Kyoto, but its main attraction is its stunning zen garden. What was once a luxurious villa belonging to an aristocrat in the Heian Period, the site was converted to a temple in 1450 and now belongs to the Myoshinji School of Zen Buddhism. Unlike other traditional Japanese gardens, zen gardens don’t contain any water. Instead, gravel and sand are carefully raked into patterns that represent rippling water, which are then blown away by the wind and rain. Check out Ryoan-ji Garden’s unique design, which features 15 boulders. These rocks are arranged in such a way that it’s only possible to see 14 of them at any one time.
Make a wish at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
If you’re looking for one of the best things to do in Kyoto – and probably the most-instagrammed spot in in the city – visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine; it’s a non-negotiable for beauty-seeking travellers. With its 10,000 vermilion shrine gates lining the pilgrimage up Mount Inari, give yourself a few hours to walk the mountainous 2.5-kilometre path around the temple complex. Paying your respects to Inari, the god of rice and patron of business, take a moment to make a wish at the Omokaru Stones near the temple’s entrance. These two stone lanterns are each topped with a heavy ornament called a giboshi, which you must lift after making your wish. How light or heavy you find the giboshi to be is a prediction of how easy or difficult it will be for your wish to come true.
Discover Japanese ghosts and goblins Yokai Street
Nick-named ‘monster street’ for its dozens of handmade monster dolls, take a stroll own Kyoto’s famous Ichijo-dori street. These weird-and-wonderful dolls are based on yokai; ghosts and monsters that appear in Japanese folklore. Japan’s native Shinto religion is based on nature worship and animism – that is, the belief that objects, both animate and inanimate, are embodied with spirits. Due to this, Japanese folklore is full of some pretty interesting and unusual yokai. These supernatural creatures can be either good or bad, but mostly, they’re just plain wacky. Spot the one-eyed herrings and umbrella monsters that guard the entrance way of stores on Ichijo-dori street. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch one of the many ghost-themed events that happen here throughout the year.
Harvest your own green tea and then enjoy a freshly brewed cup
Lovers of matcha, get psyched: Kyoto is one of the world’s best producers of green tea. Known as a global leader of green tea leaves, Kyoto’s Uji City is full of lush tea plantations. With several plantations in the area offering leaf-picking tours for visitors, jump at the chance to source and brew your own cup of tea. Enjoy the beautiful scenery of the stunning tea fields, learn how to hand-pick the delicate tea leaves and make a fresh batch with the leaves you’ve harvested. Once you master temomi, the special way to hand-roll the tea leaves, you’ll find it hard to go back to your old tea-bag-and-hot-water ways.
Things to do in Kyoto
With most of Japan’s population being observers of Shinto or Buddhism, Hatsumode is one of the biggest festivals on the Japanese calendar. Beginning on New Year’s Eve and ending on January 3rd, the locals of Kyoto will visit different shrines around the city to pray for luck, success and health in the New Year.
Held at the Ebisu-jinja Shrine, Toka Ebisu is a festival celebrating Ebisu-san, the Japanese god of prosperity. From the 8 – 12 January, locals will visit the shrine to donate some cash, ring the bell and ask for Ebisu-san’s blessings in the New Year. As Ebisu-san is hard of hearing, make sure you bang on the walls of the prayer hall so that he can hear your prayer!
The beginning of February marks the beginning of spring on the old Japanese lunar calendar, which is ushered in with Setsubun. This festival sees locals cleansing their home of spirits by throwing roasted soybeans outside while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Devils out! Good luck in!). Look out for the colourful devils.
An annual light festival held at the start of March, Higashiyama Hanatoro illuminates the entire Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district. Lanterns are placed along roads and laneways, light sculptures and installations completely cover Maruyama-koen Park, and the atmosphere is a solid 10/10.
Kitano Odori Geisha Dance
Culture & Dance
Japanese culture bursts to life alongside the cherry blossoms every Spring. It’s also the season where four of Kyoto’s five geisha districts holds a major series of dance performances. Kitano Odori, put on by the geisha houses of the northern Kamishichiken Geisha District, is one of the best. Beautiful and intimate, you’ll be glad you caught one of these performances.
Top 5 Festivals in Kyoto
One of the ways Kyoto has preserved its unique culture is by continuing to practice and maintain age-old traditions. It’s easy to guess, then, that this city loves a festival. From New Year’s celebrations to Geisha dances, here are five of our favourite Kyoto festivals.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park
For lovers of martial arts films, head straight to Toei Kyoto Studio Park. Something like the Japanese equivalent of Universal Studios, this park is the home of Toei Studios, who are famous for their samurai films. The best part about the park? Visitors can walk around the sets freely – even during filming.
National Museum of Modern Art
The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto holds one of Japan’s most important modern art collections. Housed in a grey, minimalistic building on the waterfront, the museum changes the artworks on display every few months. This is a must-see for all art lovers.
Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art
Located across from the National Museum of Modern Art, the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art is one of the oldest museums in Japan. It was opened in the 1928 to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Hirohito. This large, yellow-brick building displays a wide variety of art, including traditional folk art from Kyoto.
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts
The Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, which is commonly known as the Fureaikan, showcases some of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts. Learn about the history of lacquerware, woodwork and basket weaving, alongside some of the finer silks, kimono and other textile work.
Top 4 Museums & Galleries in Kyoto
Known as Japan’s ancient city, Kyoto is packed with history and culture. From learning about traditional Japanese handicrafts to modern-day samurai films, unearth all the culture that this incredible city has to offer. Here are five of our favourite Kyoto museums that are worth checking out.
Soba is a popular type of Japanese noodle made using buckwheat flour. One of the most popular ways to eat soba in Kyoto is as Nishin soba. This dish sees the famous noodles drowned in a delicious soup and topped with migaki nishin, a dried Pacific herring. Try it at Matsuba Restaurant in Kyoto.
Best eaten at Matsuba, 600-8214 Shimogyo Ward, Higashishiokoji Takakuracho, 8-3
Obanzai Ryori is the traditional home-style cooking of Kyoto. This meal is made up multiple small dishes made using local, seasonal produce. Something like a cross between a bento box and a Korean BBQ spread, obanzai ryori is an awesome way to sample new and exciting dishes.
Best eaten at Menami, 604-8004 Kyoto Prefecture, Nakagyo Ward, Nakajimacho, 96
Saba is the Japanese word for mackerel, and you better believe Kyoto knows a million ways to prepare this salty fish. There are many different varieties of saba sushi. One of the most popular sees the fish cured for many hours in salt and vinegar before being served topping a mound of rice, like nigiri, while others serve it up as straight sashimi. Try them both – and more – at Chidoritei Restaurant in Kyoto.
Best eaten at Chidoritei, 605-0802 Kyoto Prefecture, Higashiyama Ward
Each region in Japan has its own unique style of ramen, an amazing Japanese noodle soup. A typical Kyoto ramen is made with a shoyu (soy sauce) broth, and features straight noodles in a thick and heavy soup, topped with pieces of pork and a boiled egg. Sometimes pork oil is poured into the soup for extra flavour.
Best eaten at Hataka Nagahama Miyoshi, 604-8002 Kyoto Prefecture
If you’re a vegetarian, you’re probably all-too familiar with tofu, but you’ve probably never experienced it like this. Literally translating into “hot water tofu,” yudofu is a dish that sees silky tofu being shimmered in a light broth. Try this Kyoto staple at Yudofu Sagano.
Best eaten at Yudofu Sagano, 45 Susukinobana-cho, SagaTenryu-ji, Ukyo-ku
Food in Kyoto
With hot ramen and sizzling tofu, ancient Kyoto is a great place to eat. Vegetarians rejoice: Kyoto food is famous for its Buddhist cuisine, and many locals and restaurants try to eliminate as many animal products as possible. Here are our picks for the top five Japanese foods to try in Kyoto.