Experience the ancient and modern charms of Kyoto, Japan’s historic capital. Whether it’s sipping matcha at a tea ceremony, wearing an elegant kimono around town, enjoying an enchanting dinner with an apprentice geisha, or discovering stunning bamboo forests and traditional gardens, your dream adventure awaits!
BY Sarah B. Hodge
As your bullet train pulls into Kyoto, you’ll feel yourself slipping into the past. The first sight to greet you is the five-story pagoda of Toji Temple, the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan. As Japan’s capital for more than 1000 years, Kyoto was the center of political power. It was also home to some of Japan’s most important temples and became the center of traditional arts and culture.
Your first stop on arriving at Kyoto Station should be the Kyoto Tourist Information Center / Kyo Navi, located next to Isetan Department Store. The information center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily and offers brochures and information in English, Chinese, and other languages. They also sell one-day and two-day bus and subway passes, which are an economical way to see Kyoto since JR passes are not valid on Kyoto subways and private train lines like Hankyu and Keihan.
Kyoto’s longtime association with kimono manufacturing, fabric dyeing, and weaving unsurprisingly make it the kimono capital of Japan. During your visit to Kyoto, why not wear an elegant kimono or yukata while you explore Kyoto’s ancient temples and picturesque lanes? There are many kimono rental companies to choose from, like Kyoto Kimono Rental Wargo, Vasara, and Yumeyakata with convenient locations like Kyoto Station, Higashiyama / Gion, Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari. Expect to spend around JPY 3000 to 5000 for an all-day rental. Many shops also have English- and Chinese-speaking staff and webpages, making it easy to find the perfect rental plan.
If you are looking for a truly special kimono for a tea ceremony, formal dinner, night at the theater, or other special event, then you will definitely want to visit Rental Kimono Misayama
. With over 300 years of history, Kimono Misayama offers around 200 houmongi, komon, iromuji and men’s kimono in top-quality silk and polyester, along with silk obi and all necessary accessories. You can even try on the kimono in the store for free, and there is no extra charge for returning the kimono the next day before 13:00. The experienced staff will help you choose the perfect coordinates to complement your chosen kimono and take care of all the dressing details, leaving you free to enjoy your special event in a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind Kyoto kimono.
According to the staff of Rental Kimono Misayama, “We really hope that people visiting Japan will experience true kimono culture with our real kimonos. We would like to make your special experience even more special.”
The store also sells a wide range of Kyoto ceramics, linen noren, fans, and other gifts on the ground floor.
Perhaps no symbol better represents Japan than the elegant geiko (geisha) and maiko (apprentice geiko) of Kyoto. For hundreds of years, Kyoto’s five geisha districts have trained maiko in the classical arts of dance, flower arranging, tea ceremony, and traditional songs. Their graceful gestures, dances, and artful conversation are the result of years of intensive study.
Traditionally, it was impossible for outsiders to book a dinner with a geisha or maiko — introductions from an established patron were required.
Now, it is possible to experience your own magical encounter with a maiko for an evening, including an all-you-can-drink Kyoto course dinner, a traditional dance, interactive games, and one-on-one conversation and photographs with a maiko, at several locations around Kyoto. Yasakadori Enraku offers dinner with a maiko for approximately JPY 18,000 to 19,000 per person. Special menus like allergy-friendly, vegetarian, vegan, and halal are possible with advance notice.
After a warm welcome by the hosts / interpreters at Enchanted Time with Maiko, you are led to your table. As you begin eating dinner, your maiko for the evening gracefully enters the room and introduces herself before performing a traditional dance, followed by sitting and chatting with each table for about 5 to 10 minutes. Afterwards, she plays interactive games with the audience and poses for photographs. Our maiko Fukuya of Miyagawacho also gave each guest a small souvenir. Spending time with a maiko is something most visitors to Kyoto never experience, so Enchanted Time with Maiko will be a very special memory of your trip to Kyoto.
Uji has been home to some of Japan’s most prized tea fields for 800 years. The perfect growing conditions and advanced techniques earned Uji tea growers the patronage of some of feudal Japan’s most powerful warlords. Green tea, tea utensils, and the tea ceremony were imported from China along with the arrival of Zen Buddhism, but it took several more centuries for the Japanese tea ceremony to gain popularity and to resemble the one we know today.
Known as chanoyu or sado, the Japanese tea ceremony is shaped in great part by Japanese Zen philosophy. There are dozens of schools of tea ceremony in Japan, but the main ones that most visitors will encounter, Urasenke and Omotesenke, are based upon the teachings of 16th–century tea master Sen no Rikyu.
The etiquette and philosophy of the tea ceremony has had a profound impact on Japanese culture, including cuisine, Japanese gardens, architecture, flower arrangement, ceramics and calligraphy.
On your visit to Uji and Kyoto, you can watch and even participate in your own tea ceremony at many locations, including Uji municipal teahouse Taihoan, Tea Ceremony En and Tea Ceremony Ju-An with advance reservations. You can even make or decorate your own tea bowl at the historical Asahi Pottery kiln in Uji at a one-day workshop for JPY 3850.
The unmistakable scent of roasting tea leaves will draw you in to Uji’s many tea shops and restaurants, where a sophisticated tea cuisine has developed using tea leaves and powder in new and surprising ways. In addition to green tea soba, ice cream, and cake, you’ll also find green tea gyoza, matcha-infused draft beer, and matcha tofu.
Besides Uji’s breathtaking Byodoin Temple, which is featured on the 10-yen coin, another worthy excursion in Uji is Obakusan Mampukuji. Mampukuji is the head temple of Obaku Zen Buddhism, which is heavily influenced by Chinese language, architecture, and cuisine and offers fucha ryori, Chinese-style Zen vegetarian cuisine, by reservation.
Kyoto is home to some of Japan’s most important temples. Many Zen temples feature stunning gardens that were created as the physical manifestation of years of mental training and Zen philosophy. Each element in the Zen garden has a purpose and deeper meaning.
To learn more about Zen and its role in Japanese gardens, book a tour with landscape designer / builder Andrew William of An Design Kyoto. The only foreigner to have graduated from the Kyoto Japanese Garden Association Cooperative Training Program, he has maintained top Japanese gardens including the Imperial Palace, Fushimi Inari Shrine and many private Kyoto residences.
Andrew’s deep knowledge of Japanese flora, construction techniques, and Zen philosophy makes him the perfect guide to gain a deeper appreciation for Kyoto’s magnificent gardens.
Arashiyama in Western Kyoto is home to a high concentration of temples and gardens. There are several ways to reach Arashiyama from Kyoto, including Arashiyama Randen tram, JR or Hankyu train lines, or bus. Some recommended temples and gardens are Tenryuji, Saihoji, or “Moss Temple” which requires advance reservations at Saihoji, Gioji, and Okochi Sanso Villa. The former home of silent film star Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962), Okochi Sanso Villa offers panoramic views of downtown Kyoto. Your admission includes a bowl of green tea and a Japanese sweet and a view overlooking Sagano’s bamboo forest.
Murin-an, located in Higashiyama nearby Nanzenji Temple, was created as the private villa of Meiji-era statesman Yamagata Aritomo.
Created by master gardener Ogawa Jihei VII, Yamagata personally directed the garden’s design, which was groundbreaking in a number of ways. It was the first to use water from Lake Biwa Canal to feed the garden stream and pond. Designated a National Place of Scenic Beauty in 1951, Murin-an offers free explanation of its garden in English every Monday and Friday from 13:00 to 17:00.
Check the Murin-an official Facebook page for more information.
As Japan’s culture capital, omiyage, souvenirs from Kyoto, are highly prized. Traditional crafts like kyo-sensu, painted paper folding fans, incense, handmade paper, and kimono fabric and Nishijin ori textiles can be found in many gift shops, including in Kyoto Station. Like the rest of Japan, Kyoto has a rich tradition of food souvenirs. Sweets made with Uji matcha are particularly popular, as are yatsuhashi, a sweet rice flour dessert which comes in both baked and unbaked varieties.
Because of Kyoto’s numerous temples, it is also famous for many types of tofu-based cuisine like yudofu (tofu hotpot), yuba (fresh or dried soymilk “skin”), and shojin ryori, Buddhist temple cuisine that does not use animal products or strong flavors like onions or garlic. You can also buy decorative raw wheat gluten, called fu, that is used to garnish soups and dishes in temples and high-end restaurants.
Kyoto’s other famous food product is pickles. Every type of vegetable imaginable is pickled using one of several preservation methods, including salting, rice bran, and pickling in rice vinegar. One of the best-known Kyoto pickles is shibazuke, pickled eggplant and ginger that gets its bright magenta color from red shiso leaves. A great place to sample many kinds of Kyoto pickles is Nishiki Market, popularly known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen.” Dozens of pickle vendors have artfully arranged samples for guests to try, and you can buy vacuum-packed pickles at numerous shops throughout Kyoto for your trip home.
Whichever way you choose to enjoy Kyoto’s charms, you’ll be sure to enjoy your visit to Japan’s ancient capital!
A freelance writer for Tokyo Weekender magazine and Stars and Stripes Japan newspaper, Sarah has also contributed to a number of websites including Spiritual Travels, BentoYa Cooking and Thanks for The Meal.