No traveler’s stay in Japan is complete without a stop in Kyoto. World-famous for its many shrines and temples built during the 1,000 years it served as the nation’s capital, this is arguably the best place to discover Japan’s incredibly rich spiritual and cultural heritage.
There are tons of things to do in Kyoto. But the downside is that popular sites are inevitably overcrowded. Elbowing your way through the mob in the mystical bamboo groves of Arashiyama or queuing for a selfie with the gleaming Golden Pavilion can take away from the magic of the Kyoto experience.
So — where to go to find your inner Zen and discover the authentic beauty of Kyoto?
We’ve tapped into the local knowledge of the friendly guys at Mosaic Hostel to share with you 10 things to do in Kyoto that offer an insider’s look into a city filled with hidden gems.
1. Shop at Japan’s oldest flea market inside Toji Temple
Just south of Kyoto station, is Toji Temple (“East Temple”) that was established in 796. There was once a “West Temple” — Saiji Temple — to match it but it burned down soon after its construction. Together they guarded Kyoto and served as a gateway to the old capital. Toji Temple is one of the 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, while its five-storied pagoda is the tallest in Japan at 57 meters. Today Toji is best known for its large outdoor flea market, believed to be the oldest in the country. Held on the 21st of every month from the early morning until late afternoon, you’ll find everything and the kitchen sink here in an atmospheric bargain hunters paradise.
Closest station: Toji station on the Kintetsu-Kyoto line.
2. Spot the monsters on Yokai Street
Yokai Street along Ichijo-dori is a retro shopping lane filled with shops and restaurants whose owners have created yokai — supernatural monsters that appear in ancient Japanese fables — to guard their storefronts. Some are carefully crafted sculptures while others are made of bits of recycled materials and scraps of cloth, but each has a spirit of its own.
Many of the yokai represent the shop’s merchandise, the most popular of which is the white bread oji-san (uncle), who stands in front of a bakery. There are about 30 yokai lurking on the street — some in plain sight, others hiding — and it’s great fun to try to find them all. Legend has it that this area in northwest Kyoto sits on the border between real-life and the spiritual realm, which is why it’s the preferred hangout of many a spirit. A ghost parade and flea market are held here every summer.
Closest station: Take bus 50 or 101 to Kitano-Tenmangu-mae bus stop.
3. Witness bloody history at Fushimi Momoyama Castle
Between 20,000 and 30,000 workers helped build Fushimi Momoyama Castle in the late 16th century, of which a modern replica now stands in a posh neighborhood of southern Kyoto. No expense was spared — including a tea ceremony room entirely coated in gold leaf — but sadly, the castle was destroyed by an earthquake a mere two years after construction was finished.
It was later rebuilt by samurai warrior Torii Mototada, who, in 1600, was forced to defend the castle to his death during a bloody 11-day siege. When enemy forces won, they took it apart and moved its parts to other temples and castles throughout Japan. Multiple temples in Kyoto — including Genko-an in the northwest — have blood-stained ceilings built from the floors of the castle where Mototada and his men committed suicide after their defeat.
Closest station: Kintetsu-Tambabashi station on the Kintetsu-Kyoto line.
4. Get tipsy in the Fushimi sake district
A district in southern Kyoto that’s most known for Fushimi Inari Shrine and its endless red torii (gates), the area also has an abundance of underground water rich in potassium and calcium — perfect for making sake. As Fushimi developed into a castle town after Toyotomi Hideyoshi began constructing his own nearby, sake breweries opened to take advantage of the high-quality water and increasing population. By the mid-1600s, there were more than 80 breweries in the area.
Who wants to ride a boat through the Fushimi Sake District? 🌸 The Fushimi Sake District (伏見) is a charming, traditional sake brewing district along the willow-lined Horikawa River in southern Kyoto. Revered for the clean, soft water that flows in abundance from the river’s underground springs, the district is home to nearly 40 sake breweries. 🚣♀️ During the Edo period, there were flat-bottom, wooden boats piled along the river, moving goods to and from the castle town. Today, wooden boats can still be seen on the river, although these days they carry sightseeing cruise passengers rather than mercantile goods. Cruises depart from docks near the Gekkeikan Brewery and the Teradaya Inn. The cruises both go as far as the junction with the Uji River and runs for about 45 minutes. 📷: Feature photo by @kototea
Take a jukkokubune, or flat-bottomed boat, down the river that winds through the small town. These boats once transported nihonshu (sake) and rice to Osaka and now provide an ideal vantage point from which to see the old breweries. Visit the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum and stop by Fushimi Yume Hyakushu for tourist information, sake tasting and souvenirs. One of the original nihonshu brewers, Kizakura Kappa Country, is now a museum and restaurant specializing in craft beer and sake.
Closest station: Momoyamagoryo-Mae station on the Kintetsu-Kyoto line.
5. Drink beer with geisha at Kamishichiken Beer Garden
Entry to the exclusive world of the geisha can be pretty difficult to obtain for tourists. Usually, you need to be invited by somebody with the right contacts — tricky if you don’t speak Japanese — or pay for a tour, which doesn’t always feel authentic. The Kamishichiken district, one of five different hanamachi (neighborhoods) where geisha live and work, hosts a special beer garden in their Kaburenjo theater between July and September each year.
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For just ¥2,000, you can settle down in the atmospheric theater grounds where geiko (the Kyoto word for geisha) and maiko (geisha-in-training) will pour your beer and sit down for a chat, just as they would do for a high-paying client. It’s a wonderful chance to witness hundreds of years of tradition play out in a lively and oh-so-Japanese atmosphere. Reservations are recommended but not necessary.
Closest station: Take the bus to Kamishichiken bus stop from where it’s a three-minute walk.
6. Stroll along the banks of Kamogawa River
A regular haunt for tourists and locals alike, as well as the city’s animal residents, are the banks of Kyoto’s serene river, the Kamogawa. Once a source of drinking water for citizens of Kyoto, the Kamogawa stretches along the entire east part of the city. In the summer, restaurants along the riverside Pontocho district construct kawadoko, large decks that sit over the water on stilts and offer diners excellent views.
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The northern part of the river by Gion-Shijo and Sanjo stations is usually packed with people but venture just a bit further south and you’ll discover a more peaceful area where the flowers and weeds have been left to grow wild over the broad walkways. You can spot all kinds of interesting wildlife here, including Japanese catfish, cormorants and nutrias (a beaver-like animal with bright orange teeth).
Closest station: Tofukuji station on the Keihan or JR Nara line.
7. Smell the wisteria at the Kamitoba Sewage Treatment Plant (seriously)
Marking the transition from spring to summer, fuji (wisteria), is less known than the more famous cherry blossom but just as lovely. Fuji is often grown on trellises that form roof-like gates and can be found at temples, shrines, parks and gardens throughout Japan. One of the most impressive is hidden away at the Kamitoba Sewage Treatment Plant in the south of Kyoto.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Kyoto at the end of April to early May, you may be able to visit one of the five days it’s open to the public. Here you’ll find lush purple blooms and a warm atmosphere complete with classical music piped on loudspeakers and locals selling iced coffee and sake.
Closest station: There is a direct bus from Kyoto station or take bus 19 to Tobaohashikitazume bus stop and walk.
8. Rub the bulls at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
Built in 947, this shrine in the northwest of Kyoto is one of the city’s more intricate but it’s often overlooked due to its proximity to the Golden Pavilion. It’s guarded by the god of knowledge and calligraphy (the deified scholar Sugawara no Michizane) and is popular among Japanese school children who come to pray for academic success. The entrance to the shrine is guarded by twin cows on either side of the walkway, their heads and backs polished to a shine from being rubbed by those hoping to pass their exams.
Kitano Tenmangu is also one of the best places in all of Japan to view plum blossoms. It has a vast ume (plum tree) garden, open to the public for a fee when the flowers bloom and also hosts an ume festival on Feb. 25 continuing throughout March. On the 25th of every month, the popular Tenjin-san flea market is held on the outskirts of the shrine from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Closest station: Take bus 50 or 101 to Kitano-Tenmangu-mae bus stop.
9. Check out Kyoto station for the view, not just the trains
Many travel through Kyoto station — the area’s busiest transportation hub — on their way in or out of the city, but few stop to admire the building’s unique design. If you find yourself there, pause a minute and look up. Better yet, take the many escalators all the way to the top for a sweeping view of the city below from the Sky Garden terrace.
Although at first glance it appears in stark contrast to the traditional aesthetic Kyoto is known for, architect Hara Hiroshi (who also designed Osaka’s landmark Umeda Sky Building) was actually giving a nod to the ancient city with his modern creation. The main hall, known as The Matrix, is defined by exposed steel beams that reference the crisscrossing streets of old Kyoto. This notable structure opened in 1997 — 1,200 years after Kyoto was the nation’s capital — but the area on which it stands has held various iterations of the main railway station since the 1800s.
10. Make friends with the locals at Mosaic Hostel
While there are plenty of options for accommodation in Kyoto, the search for the perfect place can be overwhelming. Run by a group of super friendly staff, Mosaic Hostel offers the convenience and hip vibe of a hostel with the cleanliness and amenities of a hotel. With two locations in Kyoto (one just south of Kyoto station and one in Kamishichiken, a neighborhood in the northwest), the hostel’s rooms are designed an endearing Japanese aesthetic — especially those at Mosaic Machiya, which is actually a renovated machiya, or traditional wooden townhouse.
Both Mosaic Hostel Kyoto and Mosaic Machiya feature welcoming common areas ideal for meeting other travelers, and a stylish bar serving local craft brews until late. Plus, it’s a bargain with dorm rooms starting at ¥3,000 and private ones from ¥7,000.
Mosaic Hostel holds regular events open to guests and locals, such as its recent KBC Tap Takeover — a three-day craft beer event in partnership with Kyoto Brewing Co. — where it served up samplings of local craft brew in the downstairs lounge. The events are a fantastic opportunity to make friends with the local community and, to top off one to nine above, get to know the real Kyoto.
Got any recommendations for things to do in Kyoto different from the usual tourist traps? Let us know in the comments!