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7 best things to do in Kyoto, the spiritual heart of Japan

As a country, Japan is one that’s managed to keep the most part of its culture intact from modernity. As a city, Kyoto is perhaps the poster child of this very spirituality, a rare glimpse into the past where prayer chants still resonate through pristine zen gardens, geishas hurry discreetly to secret liaisons, and artisans brew tea the same way as they did centuries ago.

The ancient capital is also home to almost 2,000 temples and shrines, most of which still house robed monks and traditional torii gates. It’s a stark contrast to Tokyo, but Kyoto has just as much energy as any city would.

Few, for, example, boast a culinary cred as remarkable as Kyoto’s. At its centre lies the buzzy, 700-year-old Nishiki Market (which has made every other itinerary list and is therefore left out of this one) — the anchor for the legion of Michelin-starred restaurants, cool cafes, craft sake bars, and izakayas. 

It is also here that the arts and crafts are kept alive by dedicated artisans over generations. Instead of slipping on a kimono for endless photo-ops, take time to wander through the historic machiyas (traditional townhouses); you’ll see specialty shops selling everything from washi paper and lacquerware to indigo-dyed textiles.

Kyoto is truly the spiritual heart of Japan. Here are the best things to do in Kyoto the next time you visit. 

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1. Get boozy at Fushimi Sake District

Located strategically along the willow-lined Horikawa River is Southern Kyoto’s Fushimi Sake District, one of the country’s leading sake brewing districts. Here, the charming area is home to nearly 40 sake breweries, all of which credit the river’s clean, soft underground spring water for the quality of its revered spirits. 

Tasting sessions and museum tours aside, many of the buildings still retain their traditional appearance with wood and white-plaster walls despite being established centuries ago, so expect plenty of pretty photos, even if you’re not in the boozy spirit. 

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Get boozy at Fushimi Sake District
Address
Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Website
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2. Hang out with macaques at the Iwatayama Monkey Park

We know that primates have an especially bad rep when tourists are added to the mix, but before you pass on this, know that this will be one of the fascinating experiences you’ll have there. Located right across the Hozu River and marked with red torii gates at the forest’s edge, the park features a hike up that would later reveal the most spectacular views of the city. 

The land is inhabited by a troop of over 170 fluffy Japanese macaque monkeys, which roam freely and can be fed with food purchased from the site.

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Hang out with macaques at the Iwatayama Monkey Park
Address
61 Arashiyama Nakaoshitacho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-0004, Japan
Phone
+81 75-872-0950
3. Skinny dip at Kurama Onsen

You’ll inevitably need a respite from all that sightseeing and shopping, so do as the Japanese do and head straight for one of the many natural onsens in the city. Kurama Onsen ranks high for not only being tucked away from the bustle in a mountain village, but for the dramatic views it also offers of the valley below.

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Skinny dip at Kurama Onsen
Address
520 Kuramahonmachi, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan
Phone
+81 75-741-2131
4. Dine at Kikunoi Honten

Better described as a “living museum” of traditional Japanese haute cuisine, Kikunoi sits high on the echelons in the rarified world of kyo kaiseki (or Kyoto Kaiseki). The century-old ryotei is now run by Yoshihiro Murata, the oldest son of the family and the third generation to take the helm. 

At the three Michelin-starred restaurant, Chef Murata’s three keys to Japanese cuisine — perfume, texture, and element of surprise — shine through in every aspect, from the cutlery used to the dish itself. The menu changes at the end of every month, and he famously visits the source of every seasonal ingredient he uses to ensure its quality. 

It is also here where you’ll revel in his tableware collection, which ranges from precious 18th-century Baccarats to specially-commissioned Kikunoi originals. 

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Dine at Kikunoi Honten
Address
459 Shimokawara-cho, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Shimokawara-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 605-0825
Phone
+81 75-561-0015
5. Get denim at 45R

Japanese denim might not have had as long a history as its American counterpart, but the country has managed to take the artisanal craft to the next level in a few short decades. In Kyoto, 45R is one such establishment, famous for its aizome (indigo) dyed clothes since its launch in 1977. This flagship store offers more styles than its New York, Honolulu, or London locations, including a selection of airy tunics, accessories, and distressed denim.

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Get denim at 45R
Address
61 Masuyacho, Nakagyo-ward, Kyoto
Phone
+81 75-252-0045
6. Get coffee at % Arabica

Yes, it’s just opened in Singapore but the cult coffeeshop that is % Arabica is really best experienced at its home grounds in Kyoto. Using beans sourced from founder Kenneth Shoji’s coffee farm in Hawaii, the cafe’s flagship store in Higashiyama offers a curated coffee menu that are realised by some of the country’s most talented baristas. 

Because it’s situated in one of the city’s best preserved historic districts, expect to spot geishas and rickshaws passing through the stone-cobbled streets while you warm up at this contrastingly contemporary locale.

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Get coffee at % Arabica
Address
87-5 Hoshino-cho, Higashiyama-ku Kyoto, 605-0853 Japan
Phone
075-746-3669
7. Stop by the world’s smallest ukiyo-e museum

As a genre of Japanese woodblock prints that flourished from the 17th through 19th century, Ukiyo-e has had a profound influence in culture and fashion in more ways than one. Ichimura Mamoru is one of the few remaining artists in Japan who still extols the art, most notably with the Ukiyo-e Small Museum. 

Armed with an extremely quirky personality, Mamoru charms visitors with his knowledge about the forgotten art, often giving demonstrations on how to make their own woodblock prints. The artist’s studio-meets-museum opens at erratic hours depending on his mood, so you’ll need to be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him.

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Stop by the world’s smallest ukiyo-e museum
Address
Komatsucho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0811, Japan
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