With 2000 temples and shrines in Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto it’s quite possible that you’ll get templed out at some point in your stay. Luckily there are plenty of other interesting attractions in and around the city. These are our picks.
Uzuki Cooking Class
Japanese cuisine is fascinating and a cooking class is a great way to learn more about it and get beyond sushi and tempura. The classes at Uzuki are small and held in Emi Hirayama’s kitchen in her home, so they can be tailored to your needs. Emi was happy to teach us to cook vegetarian dishes as Kyoto has a long tradition of shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine.
Cost: 4000 yen (US$ 52) per person.
Once you’ve learnt miso from mirin you can delve into Kyoto’s foodie culture some more with a visit to the Nishiki Market. Here you’ll find all the ingredients essential for Japanese cooking including an array of pickled vegetables, fish, tofu, giant miso smothered aubergine, sweets, and other snacks. There are plenty of opportunities to try free samples or to buy a snack to take with you. We liked the sweet black beans and the chilli coated rice cakes.
Cost: Browsing is free.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
For monkey fans this park high up in the hills of Arashiyama is a must. You can enjoy expansive views of the city while getting up close to the 130 Japanese monkeys, including many very cute babies. Watching them play is fascinating enough but you can also feed the monkeys from within the “rest room”. It’s a wonderful role reversal where the monkeys roam free and the humans are behind bars holding out food for the monkeys. We got here just after opening and had the monkeys all to ourselves for half an hour.
Cost: 550 yen (US$ 7) plus an extra 100 yen (US$1.30) for monkey food.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
We couldn’t leave Japan without exploring manga (comics) culture. This manga museum has a small exhibition looking at the role manga has played in Japanese culture, but mostly there are just lots and lots of manga books. The collection houses 300,000 in fact and although they are mostly in Japanese they have translations into many other languages too. Throughout the museum you’ll find towering bookshelves and geeky kids quietly reading. If you are interesed in manga it would be the ideal place on a rainy day.
Cost: 800 yen (US$10.40).
Nishijin Textile Centre
The Nishijin textile centre is worth a look if you are interested in textiles. It’s mostly just a huge shop but you can also watch the crafts people at work weaving and hand painting the kimono. You can learn about the process of making silk and even see live silk worms. The main attraction is the kimono fashion show that takes place at set times throughout the day. It’s kind of cheesy (accompanied by a muzak version of Smells Like Teen Spirit – what on earth?!) but a good opportunity to see beautiful kimono up close.
Wander Around Gion
Most people think of geisha when they think of Kyoto so a visit to the old geisha quarter is an essential stop. Although many of Gion’s streets are busy and modernised now it’s still possible to find quiet, traditional lanes lined with teahouses – try Hanami-koji and Shirakawa-Minami dori. The highlight of our atmospheric night time stroll in the neighbourhood was seeing a geisha slip into a teahouse. These elusive women are hard to see these days, and your experience could be ruined by crowds of insensitive tourists desperate to get a photo, so we felt very lucky for our fleeting glimpse on a quiet street.
Kyoto Botanical Gardens
A pleasant place for a stroll, these gardens are extensive, featuring a range of trees and flowers, a turtle and carp filled pond and a huge greenhouse with plants from different climatic zones. We were there in summer but it must be particularly lovely with the cherry blossoms and flowers in bloom during the spring and the red leaves of autumn.
Cost: 200 yen (US$ 2.60)
Kyoto Train Station
It’s worth taking the time to have a good look around Kyoto’s futuristic train station. The modern, bold design of steel and glass with wide open spaces is very striking, and the patterns and reflections are ideal for photographers. Take a trip up the long escalators for a different perspective and to walk along the aerial skywalk. Carry on up to the observation deck for views of the city and a calming, plant filled space to relax while waiting for a train.
Kibune to Kurama Walk
A lovely half day trip from Kyoto is to the villages of Kibune and Kurama up in the mountains a 30 minute train ride north of the city. We started at Kibune and walked through the forest up a steep path up and over the mountain to Kurama-dera (I know, a temple, but it’s a great one with fantastic views). It only took 35 minutes but it felt like longer as it’s uphill most of the way. It’s a peaceful walk over root covered trails surrounded by tall trees with a number of small shrines along the way. The only sounds are the lawnmower like cicadas in the trees. It feels very far away from the traffic and crowds of central Kyoto.
The village of Kurama is about 15 minutes further on (downhill!) where we had a tasty vegetarian lunch at Yoshuji. In the winter you could have a soak in the onsen, but with 30 C temperatures we skipped that.
Cost: Free (Kurama-dera entrance 200 yen (US$ 2.60), if you are honest and pay on the way out).
Relax on the Kamo River
We stayed a few minutes away from the Kamo River that cuts through the city. It’s a great spot for a walk or bike ride, especially in spring when the banks are lined with cherry blossom trees. In the evenings head to the Sanjo bridge where you’ll often find bands playing and young people hanging out and drinking – a much cheaper night out than paying bar prices.
One of the best ways to deal with temple burnout is immerse yourself in Japan’s fascinating food culture and work your way around the city’s many restaurants – from cheap noodle shops to gourmet kaiseki multi-dish meals. It’s a particularly great place to eat for vegetarians with many vegetarian restaurants and temples serving up delicious meat-free meals. See our favourite places to eat in Kyoto: Part 1 and Part 2.
Cost: From 1000 yen (US$ 13) for a budget meal up to 3000 -10,000 yen (US$ 39 -130) for kaiseki.
What are your favourite non-temple things to do in Kyoto? Leave a comment and share your tips.