25 Unique Activities To Add To Your Kyoto Bucketlist

Many visitors to Kyoto often find themselves caught up in the hustle of visiting famous attractions like Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kinkaku-ji, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, and the numerous temples scattered throughout the city.

While these sites are undoubtedly rich in history and worth a visit for first-timers, focusing solely on these popular spots means missing out on some of the authentic and truly fun experiences Kyoto has to offer!

In this post, I’ll share a handful of less-touristy activities that allow you to see a different side of Kyoto—one that goes beyond temples and shrines. From enjoying a peaceful picnic along the Kamo River to dressing up as a samurai or ninja, these experiences will help you connect with the city’s unique culture and charm in a more personal and memorable way.

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Stroll through Miyagawa-chō

Miyagawa-chō is one of the hanamachi or geisha districts in Kyoto. This large entertainment district on the banks of the Kamo River is almost as large as Gion.

For first-time visitors, the Miyagawa-cho district is a great place to begin. This charming neighborhood is located just east of Kyoto Station, and it is known for its traditional shops and restaurants.

Visitors can stroll down cobbled streets lined with traditional Japanese houses, or browse the wares of local artisans. There are also several temples in the area, including the picturesque Sanjusangen-do temple, which is home to 1,001 statues of Buddhist deities.

There are several ochaya (teahouses) and oikya (geisha houses) here. If you are here between the hours of 5:30 and 6:00pm, you might catch a glimpse of the maiko (geisha in-training) and the geiko (geishas) walking from their homes to their place of work!

Enjoy traditional matcha confectionaries

What To Eat Kyoto - Free Walking Tour Kyoto - Best Of Japan: The Ultimate Two Week Itinerary

Kyoto is practically the land of matcha.

The Uji region, located near Kyoto, is particularly famous for its high-quality matcha. The area sees moderate temperatures and misty conditions, and along with its fertile soil, is ideal for growing tea plants.

Also, because Kyoto has long been the cultural capital of Japan, many traditional arts (including the tea ceremony), have been preserved and refined here. This deep cultural heritage makes matcha a big deal here.

While you’re in Kyoto, definitely make time to try out some of the amazing matcha desserts in town. Here are some of my favorite confectionary stores, teahouses, and dessert shops:

YUGEN – An approachable alternative to the traditional tea house. The staff can advise you on the best teas to order as well as the right bamboo whisk for your at-home matcha kit.

Seien – Famous for their Kohaku Nagashi (agar jelly with seasonal fruit syrup which changes flavors on a monthly basis). These treats are often made into brightly colored seasonal and symbolic shapes. They’re used for events, tea ceremonies, and shrine offerings. They also have amazing kakigori (shaved ice) here!

Gion Tokuya – Compact sweet shop serving shaved ice, mochi, and typical Japanese desserts in an intimate setting.

Nishinotoin – This shop is one of the finest establishments in Japan and their motto is “making teas with quality as the highest priority”. Enjoy a truly elegant experience with your tea drinks and matcha desserts overlooking a serene courtyard garden. This motto is reflected in every part of the store — and the merchandise! If you’re looking to bring home something really nice, consider buying some ceremonial-grade matcha and cooking-grade matcha for that design-obsessed friend. Or for yourself!

Hozugawa River Boat Ride

Hozugawa River Boat Ride - Unique Things To Do In Kyoto Japan

If a day out among lush forests, rocky gorges, and picturesque landscapes along the Hozu River sounds like your idea of a good time, you’re going to love this one.

A lot of visitors to Kyoto get swept up and preoccupied with visiting all the temples and shrines in the city. With the neverending number of historical landmarks to explore, they end up overlooking all the natural beauty that exists on the outskirts of town!

The Hozugawa Kudari Boat Ride is one of the most fun things I’ve done in Japan. It’s not as exhilarating as whitewater rafting, but it’s equally as scenic!

This popular river route has a rich history dating back more than 400 years (when goods used to be transported along the river). Today, visitors can enjoy the same river route on an entertaining boat ride through one of Kyoto’s most beautiful areas.

Along the ride in a historic rafting boat, you’ll encounter all sorts of epic views and wildlife (including turtles and cranes). There will be a few fun rapids you’ll slide through as well as calm stretches of the river, all with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

If your trip happens to take place during cherry blossom season in the spring or during the autumn when the foliage becomes a sea of colors, the boat ride will be THAT much more scenic!

The Hozugawa Kudari boat excursion starts in the town of Kameoka and ends in Arashiyama. Once you disembark in Arashiyama, you can explore the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Iwatayama Monkey Park, Togetsukyo Bridge, and peruse the plethora of local businesses and gift shops in the area before heading back to Kyoto proper.

Kokedera Temple

Kokedera Temple (Moss Temple), also known as Saihoji, offers an actual tranquil escape from the bustling and often too-crowded tourist spots in Kyoto.

The temple is famous for its exquisite moss garden, which features over 120 varieties of moss, creating a lush, green carpet that exudes peace and natural beauty. To maintain this serene environment, the temple limits the number of visitors per day, requiring reservations in advance, which means that you can actually enjoy the garden without the distractions of large crowds.

This is one of the reasons we love Kokedera — it’s still a hidden gem that contrasts sharply with the overtourism affecting other parts of Kyoto.

Stay at a ryokan

Nazuna Kyoto Gosho - Best Ryokans in Kyoto Japan
Nazuna Kyoto Gosho | Courtesy of Booking.com

For those looking to immerse themselves even more in the Kansai region’s traditional culture and history, a stay at one of the many ryokans in Kyoto is an absolute must.

Ryokans are traditional-style Japanese inns that typically offer traditional tatami mat rooms, beautiful gardens, and delicious half-board (dinner/breakfast) meals included with your stay. Nowadays, there are all types of ryokans, from those adhering to tradition to more modern and luxurious properties.

If you’re looking to understand the entire ryokan experience a little better, check out this post where I outline one of my very first ryokan experiences in Japan.

My top ryokan pick in Kyoto is Nazuna Kyoto Gosho, but there are actually a bunch of other ryokans within the city to choose from.

You can find all my top picks for ryokans in Kyoto here.

Splurge on a kaiseki meal

Kaiseki Meal

Kaiseki is essentially what pre-fixe fine dining looks like in Japan. This type of cuisine is popular in Kyoto due to the city’s emphasis on refined, seasonal cuisine.

This traditional multi-course meal highlights the artistry and balance of Japanese culinary techniques, with each dish meticulously prepared to showcase seasonal ingredients, the skills of the chefs, and aesthetic presentation.

While it can be expensive, it can be worth the money if you love fine dining and want to experience Kyoto’s culinary sophistication and tradition. The chef is working the entire time, preparing things fresh right in front of your eyes. The entire meal is like a multi-course show!

You’ll be spoiled with choice in Kyoto, but two of the restaurants we particularly love are Gion Moriwaki and Kikunoi Honten. Reservations are 100% required!

Feed all your senses at Nishiki Market

Nishiki Fish Market Japan

Nishiki Market is where you go for all things food-related, spanning from knives and cookware to fresh produce and seafood.

This market is housed in a narrow, five-block-long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. If you’re looking to discover Kyoto’s gastronomic specialties and culinary delights, definitely don’t miss this market!

It’s a great place to pick up some sweets, dried seafood, picked goods, and even sushi. Some of the shops will give out samples and some of the food stands will sell small dishes and skewers meant to be eaten right then and there.

There are also a few small restaurants within the market if you’re looking for a larger meal.

Learn new skills at the Samurai Ninja Museum

Samurai and Ninja Museum

The kids (and wannabe samurai/ninja adults) will love the experiences offered at Kyoto’s Samurai Ninja Museum.

This immersive “museum” offers an engaging and interactive experience that both kids and adults will thoroughly enjoy. You can actually step into the shoes of iconic historical figures by dressing up in samurai armor or ninja outfits!

The museum also features live demonstrations of samurai swordsmanship and ninja skills, showcasing the techniques and artistry of these ancient warriors. You can curate your experience by participating in hands-on activities such as sword handling, shuriken (ninja star) throwing, and even trying out stealthy ninja moves.

Book your admission tickets in advance here.

Looking for more cool ninja experiences? This small-group beginners ninja class in a Kyoto dojo introduces you to the basics of ninja training. You’ll learn how to breathe, walk, and meditate like a ninja!

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine - Best Of Japan: The Ultimate Two Week Itinerary

Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. It is famous for its ornate architecture, and for being one of the most popular sites for hosting traditional Japanese festivals.

This shrine is well known for its summer festival, the Gion Matsuri, which is celebrated every July and is quite possibly the most famous festival in all of Japan.

In front of the shrine sits a stage decorated with hundreds of lanterns that get lit up in the evenings. Admission is free so be sure to stop by to appreciate the tranquil atmosphere here!

You can explore the shrine grounds while marveling at the intricate architecture, or take part in traditional activities like writing wishes on ema prayer boards. During the day you’ll also find some food vendors and locals selling other crafts on the temple grounds.

Have dinner at Pontocho Alley

Pontocho Alley - Kyoto Japan

Next up, head over to Pontocho Alley, one of my favorite spots to eat in Kyoto!

Pontocho is a narrow alleyway packed with restaurants, bars, hostess clubs, karaoke establishments, and traditional teahouses.

Many of the buildings in Pontocho date back to the Edo period, and the alley has a distinctly traditional feel–it’s got all the old-timey Kyoto vibes.

Pontocho Alley is the perfect place to experience Kyoto’s traditional atmosphere, and it should definitely be visited at least once during your time in Kyoto.

The restaurants range from affordable yakitori-style dining to traditional and upscale kaiseki cuisine. Most of the restaurants on the east side of the alleyway have a view of the Kamogawa River — some even offer a dining platform over the river!

Just be sure to head here during dinner time (as opposed to the afternoon). Many of the restaurants are closed during the day and open up shop around 5-6 pm.

Enjoy freshly grilled unagi

Unagi Restaurant in Kyoto Japan

If you love unagi like I do, one thing you’ll quickly notice while in Kyoto is that there sure are lots of restaurants specializing in eel dishes.

Eel is considered a delicacy that is often enjoyed during special occasions and seasons, particularly in the summer to combat fatigue due to its high nutritional value. Kyoto’s longstanding appreciation for refined and seasonal cuisine has led to the high number of specialty eel restaurants, offering everything from unagi-don (grilled eel over rice) to kabayaki (grilled eel with soy-based sauce).

These restaurants are certainly not cheap, but if you’re looking to splurge on some truly delicious and freshly grilled eel, Kyoto is the place to do it!

Here are three of my top recommendations:

Unagi Sora – has three kinds of “brand name” eels (similar to how there are fancy beefs like Kobe, Tajima, etc). These are the Tsukushi golden eel, Tosa’s Igossou, and Tenku Eel. They also have a more “typical” eel from Kagoshima Prefecture, with quality that’s comparable to branded eel, so if you’re not up for spending the big bucks on eel, this is the one to choose.

Doi Katsuman – We had an amazing unagi dinner meal here. They give you the option of choosing how many pieces of eel you want for your meal, but no matter what you get, the eel will be grilled fresh. The fresh-off-the-grill taste is unbelievably delicious! You can enjoy as little or as much of their housemade unagi sauce as you’d like too.

Kyo Unawa – Another highly rated spot that I bookmarked for a future trip! This traditional Japanese restaurant spotlights eel dishes, and has private dining rooms for you to enjoy too.

Sunset and picnic along the Kamo River

Kamo River Kyoto Japan

If it happens to be a nice and warm day in Kyoto, head to the banks of the Kamo River to soak in the local vibes! During the warmer seasons, the banks of the Kamo River become a popular spot for locals to unwind and enjoy the picturesque scenery.

People gather with friends and family, setting up picnics along the riverbank to enjoy the outdoor atmosphere. The area near Pontocho Alley (by Gion Shijo Station) is especially popular for its pretty sunset views, creating a perfect backdrop for a relaxed evening before dinner!

Kiyomizudera Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple - Best Of Japan: The Ultimate Two Week Itinerary

Kiyomizudera, or the “Pure Water Temple”, is one of the most celebrated and beloved temples in Japan. It also boasts absolutely gorgeous views in the spring and fall!

I don’t love recommending places that are overly crowded and touristy, but this one is just too darn pretty not to mention.

In the spring, Kiyomizudera a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms. In the fall, you’ll find it bursting with colorful fall foliage. I saw this place during the fall on my very first trip to Japan and I’ll never forget the scenery there. The eruption of seasonal colors I witnessed among the trees was absolutely breathtaking!

Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall. This stage will give you stellar views of the surrounding trees as well as the cityscape of Kyoto.

While you’re here, don’t miss the Otowa Waterfall, located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams you can drink from, each said to have a different benefit (success, love, and longevity).

If you partake in this tradition, you’re going to want to drink from just ONE stream, because drinking from all three is considered greedy!

While strolling through the temple grounds, you’ll also find the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda and the Jishu Shrine (dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking).

Explore The Higashiyama District

Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan

Around the entrance of Kiyomizudera, you’ll find busy streets lining the Higashiyama District, perfect for strolling and exploring!

Make sure to visit some shops in the area, selling products ranging from pottery and ceramics to local sweets to souvenirs.

If you’re interested in bringing home a little lucky cat, or maneki-neko, this is a great place to get one!

Higashiyama District - Best Of Japan: The Ultimate Two Week Itinerary

Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka Preserved Streets

Steps away from Kiyomizudera, you’ll find a set of traditionally preserved streets that are both charming and relaxing to stroll through. They are by far Kyoto’s most attractive streets, in my opinion!

These pedestrian-only streets are lined with beautifully restored wooden-facade cafes, teahouses, and shops selling locally made crafts and souvenirs. The traditional atmosphere makes for one of the most peaceful strolls in the entire city.

The shops and restaurants tend to open around 10:00 and close around 5:00pm or 6:00pm.

Pro Tip: If you’re not interested in shopping or eating, it would be a much less-crowded experience to go early in the morning. You’ll be able to get that perfect shot of the empty, tranquil streets without crowds of tourists everywhere.

Walk along Philosopher’s Path

If you enjoy being among nature, one Kyoto itinerary must-do is taking a walk along Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku No Michi). This pedestrian path is lined with cherry trees and leads to one of Kyoto’s most iconic temples, Nanzen-ji.

The path got its name from the philosopher Nishida Kitaro who was known to take walks along this very path to think and reflect on life.

The best time to visit is during cherry blossom season when the trees are in full bloom.

Go back in time at the Toei Kyoto Studio Park

Step back in time to the Edo period in Japan at Toei Kyoto Studio Park (Toei Uzumasa Eigamura), the only theme park in Japan that’s also an open-air film set for period drama (jidaigeki) films!

You can watch exciting performances, dress up in period costumes, learn fun skills like sword fighting, and enjoy a number of other entertaining attractions.

The Cinema Culture Museum is also a movie buff favorite, where the personal belongings of director Akira Kurosawa and others are displayed.

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Iwatayama Monkey Park Best Of Japan: The Ultimate Two Week Itinerary

Disclaimer: I have an obsession with monkeys, so this just had to be on my Japan itinerary (any chance I get to be steps away from monkeys, I’m in!).

The Iwatayama Monkey Park is home to over 120 Japanese Macaque monkeys. This is not a sad zoo, as the monkeys are free to roam in their natural habitat in the countryside. It’s truly a sight to see and be among their presence, especially if you love monkeys!

Not to mention the dozens of baby macaques hanging out happily with their mothers… the sight of them is too cute not to see for yourself. There is a feeding hut, where you can buy food to feed the monkeys from inside the fenced hut. It is such a fun experience!

Allocate about 2 hours for your visit. Do note that you’ll have to briefly hike up to the top to where the monkeys are, so dress appropriately.

Togetsukyo Bridge and Shopping

After visiting the Arashiyama landmarks, stroll along the Katsura River and enjoy the view of this historic wooden bridge. Walk across the bridge, where you can enjoy amazing views of the river, mountains, and hills surrounding you.

When you’re across, you’ll find a ton of various restaurants, shops, and ice cream booths selling matcha soft-serve. Spend an hour or two perusing and eating up all the soft serve you can fit in your belly.

Matcha in Kyoto - Best Of Japan: The Ultimate Two Week Itinerary

Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street

If you still have energy after all the walking you’ve done in the Arashiyama area, I’ve got more for you. Walk north to the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street.

You guessed it, it’s a preserved street (from the Meiji period), lined with traditional townhouses that have since been converted into souvenir shops and restaurants.

This charming street offers a historic glimpse of what a merchant town would have looked like in the Meiji period. Most of the thatched-roof buildings here are now restaurants serving kaiseki cuisine.

Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple

- The Ultimate 2 Week Japan Itinerary

Adashino Nenbutsuji is located at the end of the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street. The temple was founded in the early 9th century and was meant to be a temple dedicated to the repose of souls who have died without families to remember them.

Today, the temple grounds are covered by hundreds of stone statues to commemorate these souls. In the back of the temple, a short path leads through a bamboo forest.

There is a small entrance fee to the temple. If you don’t want to pay it, you can still visit and enjoy the peaceful and lush grounds. Just look at all that moss lining the walking paths! It’s such a tranquil place to explore (and way less crowded than some of the other major landmarks in Kyoto).

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple

Best Of Japan: The Ultimate Two Week Itinerary

A ten-minute walk north of the Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple (noted above) will bring you to the Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple, famous for its 1,200 stone statues of rakan, devoted followers of Buddhism, each with a different facial expression!

In addition to its beautiful statues, the temple also features a stunning garden with a pond and a waterfall. The garden is particularly lovely in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

There is a small entrance fee to the temple, but it’s well worth a visit.

Shop for local handicrafts

Kyoto is an awesome place to pick up expertly crafted home goods and design products. Some of my favorite shops to browse, buy goods, or even just window shop are:

  • D&DEPARTMENT – Great place for well-made Kyoto souvenirs. Everything here is so well curated with authentic and local products like glassware, ceramics, lifestyle goods, etc. There’s also a cafe here with really good food.
  • Graphpaper Kyoto – local designer clothing; pricey but so my vibe.
  • For even more shopping, head to the Shijo Kawaramachi area. You’ll find international brands, vintage stores, souvenir shops, and so much more there.

Go all-you-can-eat strawberry picking

My jaw dropped when I first discovered that Japan offers all-you-can-eat strawberry-picking sessions. This is a dream come true for a strawberry lover like myself!

Osazen Farm in Yawata City is one of the largest strawberry-picking farms in Kansai, with 21 greenhouses filled with berries. In each of these large houses, every aspect is controlled to create the optimum growing environment for strawberries based on years of study.

You can enjoy all-you-can-eat strawberries for 50 minutes which includes two varieties, “Akihime” and “Beni (red) Hoppe”. You can even bring in toppings or purchase some there, allowing you to enjoy the strawberries just the way you like them (condensed milk, whipped cream, and ice milk are available).

Osazen Farm also sells various strawberry products, such as jams, sauces, and sweets and offers a café with treats such as mini parfaits specially made with the farm’s own strawberries.

In addition, the farm holds unique workshops where you can learn more about strawberries and “night strawberry picking,” only available in Kyoto, where you can pick strawberries in a unique atmosphere.

Kyoto International Manga Museum

Okay, manga is not everyone’s cup of tea (it’s not mine), but where else could you sit down and browse through thousands of old manga books and experience the history of how manga has evolved?

The Kyoto International Manga Museum is more like a library where you can sit down and read any manga you choose from the shelves. It’s super cool to find manga from decades ago and compare it to how manga is nowadays.

There is a small selection of manga in different languages, but the majority are in Japanese.

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Elle Leung

My name is Elle and I'm a travel blogger and adventurer based in California. I love helping people plan trips and create unique itineraries based on their interests and their budgets. I'm a huge fan of outdoor adventures and doing off-the-beaten-path things in my state (and all around the world too)!

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