By Mike Sullivan
Kyoto is a must-see destination in Japan, but after you have visited the temples and shrines which the guidebooks told you to see – what do you do next? The truth is that so many tourists go to Kyoto and then miss out on all the other fun things that you can do! We have done the groundwork so that you can make your stay extra special and really get to know Kyoto points of interest with our top ten recommendations.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park is the only theme park in Japan where you can see the actual filming of period dramas. There are also many attractions, pop into the Ninja Mystery House and try to escape its traps, or enter the Haunted House if you are brave enough. If you want to be a true samurai or geisha then you can dress up as one with the help of make-up artists! You can find it about a five minute walk from JR Uzumasa station on the Sagano Line.
Talking of the Sagano Line, you might not know that there is a Sagano Romantic Train. Don’t be fooled by the name, you don’t need to be on a date to enjoy this train ride! It is a 25 minute journey through beautiful scenery, and it doesn’t matter which season you go, it is always gorgeous. In addition, at Hozukyo Torokko Station you can cross a suspension footbridge over the Hozugawa River and enjoy a real natural atmosphere.
If seeing an old train has made you think “I need to see more trains” then you should check out the Kyoto Railway Museum. Here you will find 53 trains ranging from those in service in the 1930s to the very first shinkansen (bullet train) in the 1960s. At this museum you can ride an actual steam locomotive, and if you are really lucky you might win the daily lottery to try out a simulator. The museum is about a 20 minute walk from Kyoto Station.
The Hozugawa Cruise might put you in mind of a giant cruise ship, but in fact it is a traditional style boat that is guided through the water by boatmen using a mixture of oars and bamboo poles. It is really popular in late autumn when the leaves are changing color, but at any time of the year it is a fun method of seeing the natural side of Japan.
Did you know that there is an International Manga Museum in Kyoto? The museum has a collection of over 300,000 books, magazines and woodblock prints that cover over 400 years of manga. There are frequent exhibitions alongside a gift shop, a tea room, and there is even a children’s library. If you are true manga lover then this is your mecca! From Karasuma Oike station (Karasuma Line) it is just a two minute walk.
Walking along the Kamo River combines beautiful views of cherry blossoms in the spring with the delight of eating on restaurant balconies overlooking the river in the summer. It is a really popular walking route for locals and you can also try out crossing the water via stepping stones, just don’t fall in! There aren’t many stations near the river, so it’s best to plan your walk carefully.
Walking can be thirsty work so why not follow your walk up with a proper traditional tea ceremony. You are spoilt for choice in where you can do this, but personally we went to the Zen dedicated Chashitsu (tea room) in Kyoto called Ju-An which is right by Kyoto station. Comprising a garden, koi pond, traditional tea room and tea attendants in beautiful kimonos, it is hard to think of what more you could want from a tea experience.
In terms of Japanese culture nothing is quite like eating while being entertained by kyoto geishas. At the Gion Hatanaka Ryokan you can sit down and eat some local cuisine while maiko (trainee geishas) dance. You can try speaking with them afterwards and are free to take photos in order to make it a real geisha experience. This Ryokan is a ten minute walk from (Keihan) Shijo Station or alternatively (Hankyu) Kawaramachi Station
It isn’t quite a visit to anywhere without trying the local food, in establishments like the 100-year-old Minokou restaurant you can try a special Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) experience. More than 130 Michelin stars have been awarded to restaurants in Kyoto, as for the dishes themselves they are presented with consideration to natural beauty along with a dedication for using local ingredients.
Last but not least, the best time to visit is during the Gion Festival, an annual event that lasts for the whole month of July, and includes massive parades. You will find many people walking around in traditional clothes, such as yukatas, and browsing the many food stalls. In addition some of the old houses are opened up to visitors. It is a truly magical experience!