There are so many things to do in Kyoto as it’s world-renowned for its heritage-listed temples, mesmerizing traditional culture and of course geishas! The big question is how do you experience a unique side of Kyoto without the busload of tourists? My experience and tips will help you to discover a different side of Kyoto.
51 million tourists visit Kyoto every year
[Source: The Japan Times]
These 51 million tourists are most likely going to visit these big sights:
- Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Pavillion)
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
- Fushimi Inari
If you can’t miss out on these iconic destinations than you need to be mentally prepared that you will be sharing these sights with thousands upon thousands of tourists. There’s not much zen or serenity when you have a group of Japanese high schoolers in every one of your shots. I would say pick a couple of the famous sites and choose these lesser-known spots for the rest of your trip.
Tip: Kiyomizu-Dera is currently completely covered in scaffolding due to renovations in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. I would recommend not visiting as all you will see is construction.
Let’s begin my 8 Tips to Discover a Different Side of Kyoto
1. Stay at a Ryokan
To experience a truly authentic Kyoto I would look no further than staying at a Ryokan. Ryokans lets you experience Kyoto’s famous hospitality. These traditional inns are usually run by the owner who will make it their mission to make you feel as at home as possible.
We stayed at Ryokan Tori, a beautiful small inn with the swiftest, most welcoming host I had ever met. Her attention to detail was impeccable; preparing our slippers before entering and exiting rooms, serving tea in our room, witnessing how exhausted we were from travelling and setting our bed up early. We were re-energised for the rest of our trip after staying here, especially after using the huge traditional bath. Though Ryokans can be quite costly, we chose to stay for one night which cost us around $250AUD. It was a 100% worth it.
Cost: Around $200AUD (smaller inn) – $1000AUD (for very high-end Ryokan) for one night
2. Zen Perfection at Daitoku-Ji Temple
Daitoku-ji is located about 16 minutes on bus from Kinkaju-Ji (Golden Pavillion) and will provide you with the zen relief that you are after. It’s a huge complex comprising of many sub-temples and is home to a Zen Buddhist school. One of the first things you will notice when arriving is NO TOURISTS. Maybe one or two… but still it’s pure freedom. This temple was filled with a serene silence. You can walk slowly and appreciate the architecture and the landscape design. We chose to sit for half an hour inside the temple and just soak it all in.
Cost: 400 yen entry into the complex and 500 yen entry into the smaller temples.
3. UNESCO World Heritage at Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon full of history and architectural splendour. It is listed as a UNESCO site as it’s one the remaining, preserved feudal era castles in Japan. The castle was built for the first shogun (military leader) and was the capital of Japan for many years. Many shoguns ruled out of Nijo Castle until the final shogun in 1867 handed it over to the Imperial family. The inside of the castle was designed in such a way to reflect power and opulence. It features tiered flooring, gold encrusted finishings and huge tapestries of tigers and hawks. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of the inside as it is banned in order to keep preservation.
However, you can take photos to your hearts content in the sprawling zen garden outside. We were fortunate to catch cherry blossoms in the castle grounds during late April.
Cost: 600 yen
5. Pray for the $$$ bills at Mikane-Jinja Shrine
Address: 614 Oshinishinotoin-Cho, Nakagyo-Ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto
Mikane-Jinja Shrine is covered in a garish gold, beckoning all those who want to be rolling in the dough. It is located down an alley between restaurants and apartments in midtown Kyoto. We decided to check this place out as it was a short walk from Nijo Castle and was famous for bringing you good fortune and wealth (something we definitely need!).
The tiny shrine was packed with thousands of prayer tablets inscribed with everyone’s wishes to win the lottery, have a successful business or get that big promotion. For a couple of dollars, we bought our own and wrote our wish. Alternatively, put some money in a basket and wash it with the ‘purifying’ water which will make the coins lucky!
Cost: Free, Around 500 – 800 yen to buy a prayer tablet.
6. Iwatayama Monkey Park in Arayshiyama
Address: 16-0004 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nishikyo Ward, Arashiyama Nakaoshitacho
Let’s be honest, you are most likely going to visit the Bamboo Forest to take an iconic selfie. We purposefully did everything in reverse…Most people get off at the river and walk up to the Forest but we got off the bus at the top of the bamboo forest and worked our way down. The reason being was we wanted to end our afternoon at the Iwatayama Monkey Park!
In Japan, there are many animal attractions to visit (Snow Monkeys, Owl Cafes, Hedgehog cafes etc) but it’s difficult to navigate which of these are genuine and have the best interest of the animal. I would recommend doing research before checking them out to see what other visitors have to say about the well-being of the animals (many owls are chained up and made to stay awake during the day). The Monkey Park had sound reviews, along with a strict no touching policy which I find essential for wild animals.
It is a long, steep 30-minute hike up to the park (wear comfortable shoes!!!) and is totally worth it. As soon as we spotted the first monkey we were taking photos like crazy. The monkeys can wander where they please and many were relaxing under the sun. You can pay a small fee to buy a bag of fruit to feed to them in a special fenced off area. I would ask that people are gentle with the monkeys, don’t taunt them with the food or make them jump around.
This was definitely a unique experience and is great for animal lovers or kids.
Cost: 550 yen
7. Rent a Kimono
Location: Kyoto-fu Kyoto-shi Shimogyo-Ku Higashishiokohji-Cho 721-1 Kyoto Tower Building 3F
This was on the top of my to-do list for Kyoto and also for Japan. I wanted to experience the traditional beauty of wearing a kimono and see if I could balance on those wooden slippers. I rented my partner and I the ‘Couples Package’ through Wargo, an online kimono rental website. The reason I decided to go with Wargo was that their website had multiple languages, they had many locations across Kyoto (and more specifically right across from the main train station) and offered affordable deals. I was able to select my kimono online in advance. It does get a little pricey when you pay for extras, like an obi and hair pieces but I found it totally worth it.
After being dressed by the ninjas of Kyoto, my partner and I spent the day exploring Fushimi Inari and took some of the best photos of the whole trip. I would recommend this experience to anyone wanting a truly memorable holiday.
Cost: From 2500 yen (basic package) to 14,500 yen (extreme deluxe package)
8. Slurp up a fiery bowl of noodles AT Fire Ramen
Fire Ramen Menbakaichida is a true eccentric Japanese restaurant, complete with a stage of selfie sticks, hugs with the chef and of course liquid hot flames of fire! The slogan of the restaurant is ‘NO RAMEN, NO LIFE‘ and is in full swing here. It was an absolutely crazy experience that I couldn’t miss out on, you have to see it believe it:
There are no reservations for this tiny 10 seater restaurant, and there is always a line of people sitting waiting for their turn. I would recommend getting there before peak hour (5 pm) or after peak hour (9 pm).
Cost: 800 yen for one bowl or 1150 yen for a set