You’re probably here because you’re planning a trip to Japan – I’m really excited for you my dear! If you’re still debating whether you should visit Kyoto during your trip, the answer to that is a big fat YES! It is Japan’s ancient hub that houses countless shrines, temples, gardens and World Heritage sites! Thus, making room in your schedule to see the city is absolutely essential! Let me present to you 8 must do experiences that will make your trip a really meaningful and special one! Here you go!
1. Gaze at The Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji Temple or most popularly called as the Golden Pavilion is Kyoto’s most iconic sight! The temple is situated at the centre of a pond in the midst of a serene greenery! It’s like stepping into a picture as you arrive! The building is draped in gold leaf that shines and shimmers in broad daylight! Come early in the morning and watch the sun rays make the golden temple reflect beautifully in the water! Nothing will prepare you for the moment you turn at the lake and see the Temple for the first time! Such a magnificent view! Follow your way around the temple and you’ll see multiple shrines along the hillsides! Towards the end of the walk you’ll find vending machines, souvenir stalls and a lovely tea house to spend some time in the beautiful gardens!
2. Rickshaw ride at the Bamboo Forest
Go as early in the morning as you possibly can. Watch the bamboo stalks as they rock back and forth. Close your eyes, stand still and listen to the wind rustling in the bamboo leaves. Such a very calming experience when it’s quiet. Although the actual stretch of bamboo forest path is quite short, it is absolutely dreamy! Make this moment extra special by hopping aboard a rickshaw, a traditional transportation means in Japan. It is a two-wheeled passenger cart pulled by a human runner. So, sit back and relax as you discover historic streets and fascinating sites of Kyoto!
3. Private dining with a Maiko at Gion District
Having a private dinner with a maiko (apprentice geisha) is one of Japan’s most exclusive and unforgettable experiences. You’ll be served booze like you’re a royalty! She will entertain you with dances and a few traditional games wearing her extravagant silk kimono. Her intricate hairstyle and white painted doll face will leave you dumbfounded! That night, I went home with a deep discernment of the interesting world of geishas. Indeed, it was such a great eve to celebrate the art, history and beauty of the Japanese culture!
4. Wander around Kiyomizu-dera Temple
When I read online about this temple with a large wooden balcony where you can see Kyoto from above, I knew right there and then that I needed to check it out! I was so shocked to find out that this building was constructed without the use of a single nail! Seriously, how can it withstand the weight of thousands of visitors every day, right? It’s really amazing how the old structures are so well preserved in Kyoto! Anyway, while you’re in the temple grounds, don’t miss the experience to sip water from Otowa waterfall which is believed to be the purest of all waters! And after a visit to the hall, the gardens and the pagodas, wander downhill and fill your belly with the most delicious Japanese treats!
5. Be mesmerised by the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine
This place needs no introduction! Since it is arguably the most famous shrine in Japan, I’ve seen hundreds of photos of it and I knew I had to see it in real life! There was something about this place that made me feel like I was travelling to a different era! I came late in the afternoon and still had a peaceful experience even though camera shutters were endlessly snapping! The tunnel consisting of 10,000 torii gates is really something one must see! And just in case you’re curious, the orange torii gates and white foxes are the symbols of Fushimi Inari Shrine. Inari is the God of rice and agriculture, prosperity and success! And if you want to know what the writings are in the torii gates… On the left side, you will see the name of the person or company who donated the torii. On the right side, you will see the date that it was donated! AAAAAhhhhh! I really had the best time at the shrine and will definitely go back here!
6. Enjoy a Geisha Cuppa at Kyoto Train Station
Housing the shinkansen and a dizzying array of multiple train lines, Kyoto station is the center for all transport in Kyoto. And like the Changi airport in Singapore, Kyoto train station is also a hot tourist destination on its own! If you’re catching a train from here, arrive a little early and wander around the shopping centres, sky gardens and elevated walkways! It’s the most modern and futuristic train station I have ever stepped on! Also, there were mouth-watering and delicious Japanese food in every single corner! For food-obsessed travellers like me, don’t you worry, we are spoiled with endless choices in this part of the world! And my favourite part? Drinking these Geisha coffees partnered with Kyoto’s unmatched pastries! Such a perfect match!
7. Stay a night or two in a Ryokan
First off, a Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that takes you back in time. It is an authentic cultural experience that you would not find anywhere else in the world! The room is minimally furnished, and you will be sleeping in futon beds laid directly on tatami floors. There are complimentary kimonos you could wear at your own leisure and a low table is a staple where you can eat or drink tea! It is a golden rule not to wear or bring your shoes in the room, so please remember that! And don’t fret about spending your night on the floor, the futon beds are very soft and complete with fluffy duvets for a great night sleep! If you came to the country to have a taste of Japan’s traditional hospitality and rich culture, staying in a Ryokan would give you that! Trust me!
8. Experience an authentic Tea Ceremony with a Tea Master
It was truly such an honour to join a tea master as she performed a traditional tea ceremony right in front of us! I kid you not when I say that I felt like I was a tea convert when I left the place! During the ceremony, she will teach you the art of tea, the proper way of handling teacups and will even dress you up in a kimono! The best part? You will learn how to make your own tea from the matcha! This for sure is another cultural experience that you will remember forever!
Of all my travels in Asia, Japan remains to be the country that I’ve been looking forward to seeing again! My visit to Kyoto has made me fall in love with the country even more! Now I know why it carries a reputation as the nation’s most beautiful city!
I truly hope I have helped you plan your trip to Kyoto. It doesn’t matter what season you visit, it’s timeless beauty, rich history and unique architecture will surely amaze and fascinate you anytime of the year! And that’s a promise!
I also made a Tokyo Guide for you just in case you need one:
15 Top Things to do in TOKYO on your first visit!
P.S. Follow me on Instagram for more travel tips and guides!
Love from Kyoto,
The Travel Belle