Japan is a country that should be high on every traveler’s list. And while the country offers a great deal to see – from small towns and islands to massive cities – there’s an argument to be made that Kyoto can give you the most comprehensive feel of the country. Once the capital, it’s now the seventh biggest city in Japan, and is known for a blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. These are five of the coolest things you can see and do there.
If there’s a defining feature of Kyoto, it’s probably the Kiyomizu Temple. In fact, it may be one of the most impressive sights in all of Japan. Originally built in 780 AD (by a general looking to atone for the sin of hunting deer in the area), the temple has since burned down and been reconstructed on numerous occasions. Now, however, it’s a sturdy, renowned temple perched high in the land around the Otowa Waterfall. It’s particularly well-known for its “main stage,” which is basically a vast balcony overlooking the surrounding forest and supported by crisscrossed beams – and not a single nail. Frankly, it’s hard to say which is the more impressive sight of the two: looking at the temple itself as you approach, or looking out from it via this main stage.
The Sagano Bamboo Forest doesn’t require much of a pitch. That is to say, once you look at it, you can’t help but want to go there. It’s a natural bamboo forest in the Kyoto area, which has been left largely untouched but for some simple, winding pathways that allow visitors to walk through at their leisure. Looking up and around in the middle of the forest, you could easily be convinced you’re lost in a storybook fantasy, or else no longer on Earth.
As mentioned, Kyoto was once the capital of Japan, and had about 1200 years of history in that role. Much of it has since been developed differently, and many of the top sights are remote and/or natural areas. But the Higashiyama District is considered one of the best-preserved areas, located on the eastern edge of the city. Combining old streets, temples, and shrines with some busy little shopping spots, it makes for an excellent place to go for a walk. You can get a feel for what Kyoto might have felt like in ancient times, as well as enjoy some of its present day culture up close.
Geisha culture is something a lot of people misunderstand, but it’s really come to be one of the defining elements of Japanese society to the world at large. Shown off in literature, in films and on TV, and in games as well, it’s unique to this country, and fascinating to tourists. An online game called Geisha Wonders actually has some of the better descriptions of the culture, defining geishas as traditional hostesses trained in dance, music, and poetry, and correctly pointing out that the modern geisha dates back to the 18th century. It’s a nice primer for the actual geishas you can see in the Gion district in Kyoto. While visitors are encouraged not to bother or inconvenience geishas on their way to bookings, you can see them in practice and even take photographs – though an invitation to a geisha party is more exclusive.
It’s only right to point to at least one more modern attraction in Kyoto. This is effectively a cocktail lounge at the top of Kyoto Tower, and naturally offers wonderful views of the city below. That’s about all there is to it, though we’ll also note quickly that the signature cocktail – the Tower Cocktail – is a sight in and of itself, made to resemble the tower itself!