Once the Imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is now a popular destination for world travelers who have their eyes set on Japan. Most people who visit usually plan a detailed itinerary, making sure they see all the famous sights in Kyoto. The city is one of the few left in Japan that has carefully preserved many of their prewar traditional buildings. However, the rise of modernization has unquestionably paved way for newer and modern buildings. Despite this transformation, Kyoto continues to remain an important cultural and religious center for the Japanese. The enigmatic city embraces new and old traditions, carrying the past into the present and future.
No doubt, Kyoto is high on your list of places to explore in Japan. With so many things to see and do, it is easy to spend more than a month exploring all that Kyoto has to offer. However, most visitors only have a few days before they leave for other great destinations around Japan. Here is a list of the four most popular destinations in Kyoto. Surely in your own research, you have seen these recommendations over and over again.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its impressive sight of over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind through the wooded mountain behind the shrine. Be sure to write your wishes on an ema, or prayer plaque, when you reach the first stop. Traditionally, they are hung with the others on temple grounds, but some tourists like to bring them home as souvenirs.
Tenryuji Temple and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is known to be one of the most important Zen temples in all of Kyoto. Spend some time walking around its beautifully landscaped garden. Be sure to take a stroll through the iconic bamboo grove when you exit the temple.
Kinkakuji Temple, also called the “Golden Pavilion”, is another important Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Many people visit to take pictures of the iconic temple and its golden reflection in the surrounding pond. There will definitely be many people waiting to take pictures! The guards will urge tourists to keep moving forward, so I suggest you find a spot away from the path and patiently wait to snap your photos!
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is famous for its old, wooden stage because it gives visitors a beautiful view of the trees below. The ideal time to visit is during spring or fall, as those are the best seasons with the most stunning views. Its name, Kiyomizu-dera, literally translates to “Pure Water Temple” due to the purity of its waters. Be sure to drink from the Otowa Waterfall. While there may be a long line, a sip of its pure waters may bless you with longevity, academic success, or a prosperous love life. (Don’t be greedy and drink from all three streams!)
If you have limited time to explore Kyoto, these are the definite must-sees in the prefecture. However, if you are more flexible with your itinerary, I highly recommend these top four unique things to do in and out of the city during your time in Kyoto Prefecture.
When in Kyoto, become a maiko! You might see one or two geisha walking the streets of Kyoto, but why not go further and actually become one? There are many shops in Kyoto that offer maiko and geisha makeovers. Prices vary depending on what kind of plan you ultimately decide. The cheapest plans will be around $45 USD, but the average price of a good plan is typically around $80 USD. From there, it can get much more expensive with extra requests.
First, you will be asked to change out of your clothes and into a gown. Then, you will head to the make-up room where they put on the white make-up. (You can opt out of this step!) After make-up is done, you choose your favorite kimono. Good studios should have a couple hundred kimono for you to choose from. After choosing the kimono, you are then moved to the wig corner and then the kimono dressing room. (Keep in mind that natural-looking wigs could cost extra.) After all this, your maiko look is complete! A professional photographer will then take some pictures of you in and out of the studio. You may also request to take a stroll outside after photos are taken, but this will likely cost extra as well.
Men, if you want in on the action, you are in luck! Most studios also offer a samurai shoot plan. While the process is not as intense as the ladies’, it is still a pretty neat experience.
If you are traveling as a family, they also have plans for children! This is a great activity for a family to do together, albeit a little costly. It would be a one-of-a-kind family portrait for you all to cherish.
I’m not talking about the stamps you buy at the post office. (Though, they do have some pretty cool stamps.) In Japan, where there are thousands of temples and shrines, you can collect a special stamp from each one you visit. These are called goshuin stamps.
Here is what you do:
When you go to your very first temple, you can buy one of the goshuin notebooks. If you go to a bigger, well-known temple, you can usually find many cool cover designs. Smaller temples might only have one or two designs. After purchasing the notebook, you then hand it to the monk. He will use black ink to write the date and name of the temple using Japanese calligraphy. Finally, he will stamp the official red seals of the temple onto the paper. Each goshuin page typically cost $2~$5 USD. The notebook itself will cost around $20~$30 USD.
It is definitely something unique to do as you visit all the popular temples and shrines in Japan. If you add up the total cost, you could end up spending a pretty penny. Especially if you are a hard-core collector like my friend. But, it makes for a really cool souvenir by the end of your trip!
Leave The City Behind and Travel North
While most people go to Kyoto Prefecture for its famous city, the prefecture itself is actually quite large. If you have the time for a day trip or an overnight trip, I highly recommend you escape the bustling city of Kyoto and head north towards Amanohashidate. It is still part of Kyoto Prefecture, despite being a little more than two hours north. Facing the Sea of Japan, this legendary sandbar is deemed one of Japan’s Three Scenic Views.
Take the cable car up the mountain and soak in the view from above. You will see many people bending over and trying to look at the sandbar through their legs. According to the Japanese, the sandbar will look like a bridge to the heavens.
Other activities you can do here include biking, walking the sandbar, relaxing at the sand beaches, and bathing at the local hot springs.
If you are a vegetarian, this would be something I highly recommend for you to do. Even if you are a fervent meat-lover like me, you might also enjoy this very healthy dining experience. With its temples and strong Buddhist traditions, Kyoto is the center of Japanese Buddhism. Combined with their local specialties of tofu and vegetables, Kyoto is an ideal destination for vegetarian travelers.
Buddhist dining here is called shojin ryori. It’s a traditional vegetarian Buddhist meal prepared by the monks and nuns. You might find that the food looks very plain, but in actuality, they are quite beautifully designed and rich in flavor.
Courses can range from $30~$70 USD, but it is quite a unique experience. If you are interested, you should definitely check what time these restaurants are open! Be sure to finish all the food you are given!