Beyond the Temples: Kyoto’s Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine
Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Immerse Yourself in Gion's Geisha Culture
Step back in time amongst the ochaya teahouses and winding lanes of Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district. This historic neighborhood offers visitors a glimpse into a fascinating world that remains shrouded in mystery.
As you stroll along Hanami-koji Street, keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of geisha as they flutter between appointments entertaining wealthy patrons. You’re more likely to spot them in the early evenings before their work begins in earnest. Catching sight of their elaborate kimono, stylized white makeup and ornate hairpieces is a magical experience.
For an up-close look, book tickets to watch a geisha performance at Gion Corner. This theater offers seven different arts to showcase traditional Japanese culture. Watch in awe as geisha gracefully perform the koto (a stringed instrument), dance and play games. It may feel a touch touristy, but it's a respectful insight nonetheless.
Alternatively, arrange a geisha tea ceremony for the ultimate cultural encounter. Men and women alike don ornate kimono while learning about the ritualistic preparation of matcha green tea under the tutelage of a geisha. It's an intimate experience in a private teahouse that provides a real understanding of their elusive world.
If you’re eager to discover more about geisha culture, visit the Geisha Costume Museum near Kennin-ji Temple. Peruse a collection of stunning kimono, hair ornaments and theatrical tools of the trade. Lifelike models wearing full geisha attire provide close-up views of the intricate details.
While some critics believe geisha tourism exploits these women, respectful engagement can support keeping their traditions alive. There’s much debate around whether foreigners should attend geisha performances at all. If you opt to, do so with an open and appreciative mind.
The geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) belong to highly-selective artist guilds that train for years in traditional arts. Far from the sexualized stereotypes, real geisha are hugely respected for their skill, sophistication and role as custodians of heritage.
What else is in this post?
- Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Immerse Yourself in Gion's Geisha Culture
- Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Authentic Ramen and Izakaya in Kawaramachi
- Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Explore Kyoto's Vibrant Art Scene in Okazaki
- Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Fushimi Inari Shrine: More Than Just Torii Gates
- Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Arashiyama's Bamboo Forest and Mountain Views
- Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Escape the Crowds at Kiyomizu-dera Temple
- Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Shop 'til You Drop on Nishiki Market's Foodie Streets
Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Authentic Ramen and Izakaya in Kawaramachi
Kyoto is renowned for its traditional cuisine, but for a tasty twist, head to Kawaramachi. This vibrant district Overflowing with hip izakaya taverns and ramen joints, it offers modern takes on comfort food staples. Slurping noodles at a tiny counter or drinking hoppy craft brews at a standing bar provides a lively local experience.
Kawaramachi is inevitably buzzing. Young creatives and university students flock here to socialize over food and drinks that don’t break the bank. The area's laid-back energy and passion for noodles lures everyone from thrifty backpackers to hip young families. For first-time ramen addicts, Imahan Ramen and Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen are local legends.
Imahan Ramen, founded in 1965, dishes up hearty Kyoto-style broth packed with umami. Their signature Shoyu Chashu Ramen features a dark, salty and slightly sweet soy sauce base. It's topped with melt-in-your-mouth slices of chashu braised pork plus pickled bamboo shoots for zing. A boiled egg and crispy kikurage wood ear mushrooms add extra richness. For a spicier kick, devour the intensely-flavored Miso Chashu Ramen ladled with red miso, garlic and chili oil.
At Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen, prepare your tastebuds for an inspired (and potentially scorching) twist on tonkotsu pork bone broth ramen from Kyushu. Customize your preferred level of spiciness from mild to challenging to 'I need an ambulance!' For full pyrotechnic effect, order their signature Fire Ramen - an incendiary bowllocals affectionately call “Hell Ramen”. This devilish dish fuses creamy tonkotsu with fiery sesame oil, house-made chili paste and crunchy peppers. It's expertly balanced, but you'll still need a cold beer close by. Masochists can request extra hot sauce.
Beyond ramen, atmospheric izakaya taverns serve handmade gyoza dumplings, yakitori skewers and refreshing beer. At Kappou Ganryu, snag a spot at the counter to watch the chefs frying golden gyoza to order. Their delicate skins encase juicy pork and cabbage fillings. Yakitori Bincho specializes insucculent chicken cooked over real charcoal. Highlights include momo (chicken thigh), tsukune (chicken meatballs) and chicken skin crisped to perfection.
After dinner, continue exploring Kawaramachi's maze of alleys lined with bars. At cozy Tomiz Bar, you can try over 100 varieties of craft beer from eager local brewers. Or visit Bar Tantei for inventive cocktails shaken with Japanese ingredients like green tea, yuzu and cherry blossom. Don't miss their Sakura Martini made with house-infused gin. Wherever you go, Kanpai! (Cheers!)
Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Explore Kyoto's Vibrant Art Scene in Okazaki
Set your sights on Okazaki, a neighborhood just east of Kyoto’s palatial grounds, for a glimpse at the city’s thriving art scene. Once a refuge for Kyoto's creative community, Okazaki has blossomed into a hub for contemporary galleries, studios, and public art. Let your curiosity guide you through its tree-lined streets to uncover an artistic side of Japan’s cultural capital.
Many creatives have called Okazaki home through the centuries, from masterful potters and wood sculptors to innovative painters and poets of the early 20th century. This enduring artistic heritage lives on in venues like the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. Here, airy galleries showcase modern works in a range of mediums alongside rotating exhibits of traditional Japanese artistry. Don't miss the outdoor sculpture garden dotted with abstract pieces. Down the road, Gallery Encounter hosts temporary exhibitions focused on contemporary Japanese artists, many based right in Kyoto.
But Okazaki's present-day art scene springs to life most vibrantly on its streets. As you amble along, spectacular murals jump out—massive koi fish swim across an apartment complex wall, cherry blossom tree branches dance up a building's side, and fantastical creatures watch from above. The Chaos Lounge Gallery curates this explosion of public art, inviting artists from around the world to showcase their talents. They believe art belongs not confined in frames but woven throughout the fabric of everyday life.
Local initiative likewise powers intimate galleries sprinkled throughout Okazaki's neighborhoods. At Gallery Orizuka, discover owner Akiko Orizuka's collection of whimsical paintings, textiles, and objets d'art from Japanese artisans. Down a quiet lane, find Taratogawa Studio: printmaker Asao Taratogawa creates intricate woodblock prints reminiscent of works by Hokusai and Hiroshige, upholding a traditional Japanese craft.
For hands-on artistic experiences, book a workshop with one of the many creatives working in Okazaki. At his studio, wood sculptor Shouya Yoshida passes on his passion, guiding visitors to carve their own chopstick rests to take home. Try your hand at brush calligraphy or gold leaf painting, make natural dyes from garden plants, or craft your own ceramics at neighborhood workshops. Connect more deeply with Japan's artistic culture through your own creativity.
Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Fushimi Inari Shrine: More Than Just Torii Gates
Of course everyone wants to snap a selfie with the iconic rows of vermilion torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine, located just south of Kyoto. But beyond the gates lies a fascinating Shinto shrine complex with much more to discover. Wandering the network of trails across wooded Mount Inari, you’ll gain a deeper insight into centuries-old worship traditions tied to rice, sake, prosperity and foxes.
The atmospheric hiking trails lined with thousands of torii gates donate by businesses and individuals have understandably become the star attraction. Walk under the bright red columns and appreciate how the long corridors seem to draw you ever deeper into quiet contemplation. But continuing past the gates leads to additional treasures tucked into the forest.
Venture up and around the back of the mountain to find small shrines and mini fox statues scarcely visited by tourists. According to Shinto beliefs, foxes serve as messengers of the rice god Inari. Locals still make offerings here hoping for abundant harvests and prosperity.
For a glimpse into spiritual practices, time your visit with one of the many ceremonies held daily by Shinto priests. Watch purification rituals or join locals to give offerings and prayers. Attending a ceremony lets you immerse yourself in traditional worship rather than just observing as an outsider.
While incense smoke wafts, take in the stunning views across Kyoto from various lookout points. The most famous, located just above the iconic gates, can get crowded. Instead, head to the small hilltop Yotsutsuji intersection, where the view feels more intimate yet equally breathtaking.
Before descending, follow your nose to the sweet-savory scent of grilling foods around the small restaurants and vendors near the shrine’s entrance. Sample some mitarashi dango, savory grilled mochi basted in a delectable soy-based glaze. It's the perfect treat after all that walking.
Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Arashiyama's Bamboo Forest and Mountain Views
Lose yourself amongst the swaying stalks of Arashiyama's magical bamboo forest. As you meander along the paved pathway cutting through dense groves, the tall bamboo seems to enclose you in your own hidden world. Looking up at the feathery canopy high overhead feels humbling and spiritual. Some stalks stand well over 50 feet tall yet maintain an elegant, weightless appearance. As the gentle breezes blow, the hollow wood creaks and knocks in a soothing susurrus all around you. No photograph can truly capture the atmosphere.
Despite its tourist popularity today, a meditative tranquility still permeates the bamboo forest. The Japanese have long revered bamboo for its strength, resilience and versatility. Monks cultivated the first groves here in the 8th century for crafting baskets, mats and other tools. Now Kyoto's residents come to escape the urban bustle, walking mindfully to reflect and re-center. Even on busy days, you can usually find pockets of peaceful solitude down lesser-trodden side paths.
Early morning visits also promise minimal crowds and golden morning light filtering down through the treetops. Hire a guide to enhance your experience. A local expert will reveal hidden groves and lead you down the trail less travelled for more intimate encounters with Arashiyama's bamboo kingdom. They'll also share fascinating insights into the cultural importance of this versatile plant in Japanese arts, crafts, cuisine and spiritual traditions.
Just outside the north edge of the bamboo forest, gaze upon the Togetsukyo Bridge, an Arashiyama icon since the Heian Period. Meaning "Moon Crossing Bridge", this graceful wooden walkway arcs over a languid section of the Katsura River. Stroll across for picture-perfect views of the forest on one side and mountainscapes on the other.
On the south end, immerse yourself in thickets of moss-blanketed maple trees in Arashiyama's Kimono Forest. In spring, stroll under canopies of pink blossoms and then vibrant emerald leaves in summer. Come autumn, this magical corridor lights up in vivid vermillion and orange hues - a photographer's dream.
Nearby, admire the Oi River's spring-fed waters from a rowboat, watching bamboo thickets and temples drift by. Amble uphill through Arashiyama's central neighborhood to uncover Buddhist temples like Tenryu-ji, with its stunning zen garden, and bamboo craft shops tucked along back lanes.
Then ride the Randen Tram two stops to Arashiyama Station for arguably the best views in western Kyoto. Ascend Mt Arashiyama, also called Monkey Mountain, and be rewarded with panoramic vistas across the city. The easy hike follows paved paths shaded by cherry trees and cedars up to the summit's small shrines in around 15 minutes.
Spread out before you lies all of Arashiyama, its Togetsukyo Bridge so iconic from here, with Kyoto's urban sprawl stretching to the horizon. Pause to appreciate the juxtaposition of dense forest against the urban cityscape. Turn and face west to watch the sun sink down over the mountains, setting the lush peaks aglow. The hiking trails continue beyond the peak, but the views only get better on the way down.
Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Escape the Crowds at Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Perched on Mt Otowa high above central Kyoto, the sprawling temple complex of Kiyomizu-dera offers panoramic city views that make it an unmissable stop. But its popularity comes at a price - during peak seasons, you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with a sea of selfie sticks. Beat the crowds and have the temple nearly to yourself by visiting early, late or in low season.
Rise before dawn and arrive just as the gates open at 6am. Without the noisy hordes, you’ll gain a new appreciation for this spiritual site and its ornate architecture. Watch the sun slowly light up pathways lined with small shrines and pagodas, accompanied only by the calls of birds and monks chanting sutras. Pause atop steep stone staircases that typically bottleneck with human traffic for empty vistas of Kyoto stretching below.
In early morning solitude, you can fully take in the majesty of Kiyomizu-dera’s famous veranda and stage, built daringly without nails on wooden scaffolding jutting over the hillside. Contemplate the valley from its precipice, as Buddhist monks have done for centuries, while inhaling the fresh forest air. If you’re facing vertigo, the handrail usually packed with selfie takers provides welcome reassurance.
Descend into the three-storied pagoda and main hall undisturbed by lively student groups thanks to the meditative morning energy. Admire the temple’s ancient architecture and ornate details without constantly being nudged aside. Ponder the saying “Buddha is within all things” engraved above the pagoda entrance, resonating in the stillness.
In off-season from December to February, thin crowds grant you breathing room even during daylight hours. Crisp, cool air enhances the tranquility as you stroll the temple paths alone with your thoughts. Leafless trees open up sweeping city panoramas not visible once spring foliage returns. You’ll practically have photo ops at Kiyomizu-dera’s most picturesque spots all to yourself rather than having to negotiate past other cameras.
And in the early evening in spring, summer or fall, lingering at Kiyomizu-dera as the last tour groups depart can be magical. Sit alone on the grand veranda in near silence as sunset’s golden light softens the valley views. When the temple is bathed in warm lantern light but free of crowds, its sanctity radiates. You may get to chat with monks or watch visiting devotees offer incense at altars in intimate privacy.
Beyond the Temples: Kyoto's Hippest Hoods for History, Culture and Cuisine - Shop 'til You Drop on Nishiki Market's Foodie Streets
Nishiki Market deserves its reputation as Kyoto's kitchen. This lively covered street food market overflowing with speciality shops lies in the heart of downtown, making it easy to incorporate a visit into any sightseeing agenda. Even if you're not shopping for ingredients to take back home, it's a delicious detour to acquaint yourself with Japan's incredible culinary diversity. Edible treasures from traditional sweets to fresh sashimi await down its narrow lanes.
As you dive into the bustling market mayhem, get swept up in a feast for the senses. Vibrantly-hued towers of fruits and vegetables beckon with exotic shapes and scents at produce stalls. Peer at the mindboggling diversity of mushrooms, from delicate maitake frills to plump king trumpet stems. Japanese eggplants strike an elegant pose next to pyramids of tiny cucumbers and bundles of fresh burdock root. Even the everyday vegetables like daikon radishes astound with their flawless quality.
At shops specializing in tea and rice, take time to appreciate how seriously the Japanese revere their staple crops. Inhale the earthy aroma of green matcha powder, prized for its antioxidant properties. Marvel at the rainbow of rice varieties filling burlap sacks, from plump Hokkaido grains to beloved Koshihikari that grows exclusively near Kyoto. Bring home unique Japanese kitchen essentials like dried shiitake mushrooms, seaweed flakes and pickled ginger for elevating your own cooking back home.
Of course, food souvenirs galore also tempt travelers strolling Nishiki Market. Stop by one of the toy shops selling replica models of everything from sushi to gyoza dumplings - they actually make amusingly cute gifts. At dried food shops, sample bits of freeze-dried natto beans and potato chips flavored tantalizingly in curry, seaweed or miso. Pick up some roasted soybeans for a protein-packed guilt-free snack.
If you've got a sweet tooth, mochi (chewy pounded rice cakes) shops offer irresistible flavors from sweet azuki bean paste to matcha to custard. Watch staff rhythmically pound the sticky rice using traditional wooden mallets to knead the mochi before shaping it into cute flowers or animals. Nearby wagashi (Japanese confectionary) stalls dazzle with artistically-crafted treats often inspired by seasonal motifs. Their ephemeral beauty makes them wonderful gifts, like springtime sakura mochi with cherry blossom leaves.