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.
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.
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.
Hang out with macaques at the Iwatayama Monkey Park
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.
Skinny dip at Kurama Onsen
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.
Dine at Kikunoi Honten
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.
Get denim at 45R
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.
Get coffee at % Arabica
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.