Free Things To Do in Kyoto
- #1View all Photos
As far as Shinto shrines go (there are about 400 in Kyoto), this one is pretty special. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is a 1,300-year-old temple dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake (Japanese rice wine). The shrine complex dates back to the eighth century, but it's not the star of the show. Most visitors come for the close to 10,000 red and orange lacquered torii gates that line the 2 ½-mile-long path up Mount Inari, where the shrine sits. Sometimes in dense rows and other times more staggered, the gates are all engraved with the names of Shinto devotees who donated them.
It takes about three hours to make the trek up the mountain, and some recent visitors say that the hike is mildly strenuous, but almost all agree this is a must-see spot in Kyoto, especially for first-time visitors. Plus, travelers report that there are plenty of places to stop and rest along the way. Peer at the dozens of stone and bronze foxes that line the paths along with the gates (foxes are thought to be Inari's sacred messengers). Or stop in to one of the tea houses or restaurants situated on the path, which serve udon noodle soup and sushi. Because crowds are drawn to their picturesque beauty, Fushimi Inari's trails can get quite congested during the day. To avoid the multitudes, opt for an evening stroll up the mountain – recent visitors say the pervading quiet coupled with the fading light filtering through the trees and torii gates makes for an eerie and spiritual experience. Early morning is another optimal time to experience the shrine sans the crowds.
- #3View all PhotosfreeGion#3 in Kyoto1.7 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND1.7 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Recent visitors to Gion were in awe of its quaintness (though some travelers note that hordes of camera-wielding tourists can detract from the scenery). This neighborhood is known for its charming historic features: historic tea houses, willow-lined roads, kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurants, wooden ryokan (Japanese guest houses) and shops selling local crafts and antiques. But all of those things are secondary to Gion's real source of fame – the geisha. Visitors to Gion may catch a glimpse of these extravagantly dressed women flitting between tea houses on wooden-sandaled feet.
Contrary to western belief, geisha are not prostitutes. A geisha's primary role is entertainment; she is hired to provide diversions at dinner parties and banquets in the form of singing, dancing, games and conversation. But they are more than mere performers: Geisha are living, breathing gatekeepers of ancient Japanese culture. They train from an early age in traditional Japanese art, dance and music, and perform at exclusive dinners in ochaya (tea houses), usually only for locals. While tourists can arrange geisha dinners as well, it will put quite a dent in a travel budget. Hiring one geisha for the evening with dinner for two can cost about 103,000 yen (about $900) or more. A less costly way to see Gion's geishas in action would be to check out the daily geisha performances at the Gion Corner theater, which cost 3,150 yen (about $28). Or, if you're visiting during April, you can catch the Miyako Odori dance festival – geisha dance performances, which are held four times daily during the festival at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater, cost between 4,000 and 5,500 yen (about $35 to $48) per person. You may also see geisha strolling through the neighborhood; keep a polite distance and refrain from photographing them without explicit permission.
- #4View all PhotosfreeArashiyama#4 in Kyoto4.5 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND4.5 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Arashiyama is a quaint neighborhood surrounded by trees and mountains on the western edge of Kyoto. The neighborhood's most iconic landmark is the wooden Togetsu-kyo Bridge, which has spanned the Katsura River since 1934. It makes a great spot for admiring cherry blossoms or changing fall foliage, depending on the season, though some visitors seem less than impressed with the bridge. If you want to avoid the tourist crowds that congregate on the bridge, consider renting a paddle boat to enjoy the scenery from the water. On either end of the bridge are a number of shops, restaurants, temples and gardens to explore. Some recent visitors enjoy walking around and taking in the sites, but others suggest renting a bike. You can get one for the day for around 1,000 yen (about $9) near train stations in Kyoto.
A visit to Arashiyama can be overwhelming, as there is so much to do and see here. It's best to arrive with a plan of action, and to not try to fit too many activities into one day. For example, you won't want to miss a stroll through the area's lush, peaceful bamboo groves, which recent visitors highly recommend. Once you're through the bamboo, you'll find yourself at Okochi Sanso Villa, a beautifully landscaped former residence of Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro. You can tour Denjiro's mossy, manicured gardens daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and the admission price of 1,000 yen (about $9) includes matcha green tea and cake (make sure you keep your admission ticket to enjoy this).
- #6View all PhotosfreeNishiki Market#6 in Kyoto1.3 miles to city centerShopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.3 miles to city centerShopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine, a trip to Nishiki Market can be an overwhelming experience. This bustling, five-block-long covered market is lined with more than 100 stalls, each one hawking Japanese foods and specialty items that are hard to come by in the United States. With barely any English signage for reference, it might be difficult to determine what to buy or where to start. But just because Nishiki Market is busy and confusing doesn't mean you should avoid it. In fact, recent visitors said that's exactly why you should go, saying it's an essential food tour. Others pointed out that this is a great way to sample many different local cuisines without having to buy a whole meal.
The key here is to start small. Sample some authentic green tea or nosh on some nigiri (rice balls). After you've acclimated yourself to the flavors, you can work your way up to the unfamiliar: roe-stuffed squid, dried kelp or silky yuba (tofu-milk skin). Of course, connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine can feel free to jump right in, but Nishiki Market can also offer new eating experiences to old pros. Alongside the more traditional Japanese fare, you'll find some trendier shops like Konnamonja, which sells doughnuts and soft-serve ice cream that are both made from tofu (and reportedly delicious). One thing to note: You'll have to sit (or stand) to eat your food. Walking and eating is not permitted, according to recent visitors.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Kyoto2.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Honoring Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who used to stroll here on his commute to Kyoto University in the early 20th century, the Philosopher's Walk is a roughly mile-long pathway along the Lake Biwa Canal in the Higashiyama district of northern Kyoto. In the spring, the cherry trees overhang the canal blossom, emitting a flurry of petals onto the path every time the wind blows. But recent visitors say that Philosopher's Walk is gorgeous no matter the season.
Past travelers suggested setting aside about an hour to enjoy the walk, noting that you'll probably want to stop along the way to admire the temples and shrines that can be found just outside the walking path. Others also caution that the area can get quite congested during cherry blossom season. Although there are no public restrooms along the walk, there are cafes and shops.
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