In the Spring, Kyoto is cloaked in the pale pinks of sakura, the Japanese cherry blossom. The blooms fringe the historic canals and blush amongst the temple reds... it's a season which frames Kyoto's mix of nature and design perfectly. Out of flower season, this East Asian gem is needless to say, still a cultural, culinary and architectural promised land. So, wake up, smell the sakura and let's be on our way: here are the best things to experience in Kyoto.
1. A morning at the Fushimi Inari Shrine
Begin your Kyoto quest at the torii gates of Fushimi Inari. You've seen the shrine's rich vermilions in pictures, and the rest of the world has too. As such, Fushimi Inari receives a wave of tourists throughout the day. So to savour the serenity and get that photo, arrive before 8am.
After you've completed the long walk through the ethereal torii gates - or part of it - feast at the lively street food market at the base of Fushimi. Here, you can enjoy icy matcha drinks and freshly grilled okonomiyaki.
2. Wander through Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
While you're up and at it, head to Arashyiama before the crowds settle in. One option is to hire a bike in town and then explore Arashiyama's railway, bamboo groves, ponds, and temples. If you like what you see, there are boats operating on the Hozu-gawa river which can zip you through tranquil springs and raging rapids.
3. Contemplate life at the Gio-ji Temple
One of the stand-out Arashiyama temples is Gio-ji. Around the corner from the bamboo grove is this understated temple within a mossy forest. If you'd like to continue the wild ride that is a temple run, some other beautiful Kyoto sites are Kinkaku-ji, Myoshin-ji, Eikando, To-ji and Chion-in.
4. Spot the little monsters of Yokai Street
The shopfronts of Kyoto’s Ichijo-dori Street are a wonderland for lovers of the quirky and supernatural. The street, which has unofficially been named after "Yokai", Japanese folklore monsters, features homemade creatures like tribal ghouls and cats in traditional garb. There are around 30 of these to salute you on your merry way.
5. Feast at Nishiki Market
All templed out? Given that Kyoto has more than 1,600 of them, it’s understandable. Head to the central part of town, which boasts Kyoto's best food fare. Nishiki market is packed with fresh Japanese ingredients like matcha, herbs, chilli, pickled vegetables, tofu and miso. They also sell specialities like sesame ice cream, matcha warabimochi - jelly-like cubes - and juicy miso-roasted eggplant. Almost every dish comes on a stick, so you know you're in for a treat.
Nishiki is also fantastic with its rainy-day friendly roof and cheeky food samples. So crunch on savoury rice snacks, sample sake and hunt down the man who sells rum-infused grapefruit. Indulgences aside, Nishiki is also a learning experience. After a walk through the bustling markets you'll know your mirin from your soy sauce in no time.
6. Explore the International Manga Museum
Near Nishiki is this former school building devoted to showcasing manga’s influence on Japanese culture. The Manga Museum is home to a collection of 300,000 manga which the public is welcome to read. Several translations are available. The museum is truly a book-lovers paradise.
7. Experience a traditional tea ceremony
Across many Asian countries, tea is a vital element of culture and ritual, and Japan is no different. So, for afternoon tea, have tea. Head to the atmospheric Ninenzaka teahouse of Camellia to make matcha green tea, learn the art of the tea ceremony and discover how it’s woven into the lustrous, silky fabric of Japanese culture and history. Don't fret, tea masters run the ceremonies in English, too.
8. Stroll through the Gion district
As the sun gets hotter, take to the shady streets of Gion. This historical district is one where you can eat deliciously, explore extensively and if you return at night, catch a glimpse of the elusive geisha.
9. Marvel at the Memoirs of a Geisha bridge
The city is undeniably cinematic with its opulent temples, clouds of sakura and photo-perfect light. One film site to visit is the Tatsumi-bashi bridge. Featured in Memoirs of a Geisha, the bridge stretches over the charming Shirakawa canal in the heart of Gion. It comes to life at twilight with the moody reds of the akachōchin lanterns just starting to shine.
10. Walk the Philosopher's Path
At sunset, head to the Ginkaku-ji Temple and stroll the canal-hugging path to Nanzen-ji Temple. The Philosopher's Path is one of the most scenic places to experience the sakura season.
11. Stay in a traditional Japanese home
Classic Japanese homes are other-worldly. With their low ceilings, tatami matted floors, minimalist furniture and sliding paper doors, they are one way to embrace tradition in Kyoto.
Visit Kyoto and the cities of Nara and Tokyo on an escorted tour with Newmarket Holidays. Browse our Japan adventures today.