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Talefeathers: The Latitude 35 Blog

Exploring Kyoto's Timeless Charm: 5 Unique Things to Do in the Former Capital of Japan

Updated: Mar 19

Revisiting where my insatiable wanderlust started.

Tall, illuminated pillars covered with colorful Japanese paper

Don't miss the Kimono Forest at Arashiyama Station. (©Shutterstock/Lee Yiu Tung)

Many years ago, with a freshly minted English literature and professional writing degree in hand, I hopped on a plane to Kyoto, where I would teach English conversation for the next 18 months. I remember my first full day, when a fellow teacher took me to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple) and I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt that said, "I love the smell of meat paste in the morning." That moment, and day, sealed the deal: Kyoto would always be first in my heart (ergo, this website's name, Latitude 35).

As the country's capital from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is the heart of traditional Japan, offering a captivating blend of historical richness and modern flair. It hasn't changed much since my first time there; it still astounds me with its beauty and well-preserved traditions. And that's why more and more tourists are going there.

There are so many things to do in Kyoto, but beyond the well-trodden path of temples and tea ceremonies, here are five unique activities to enrich your Kyoto experience:

1. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove Cycling  

Most people walk, but you should rent a bike to navigate this bamboo forest's enchanting paths. Cycling allows for a quicker and more intimate exploration of this mystical grove, far from the crowds and closer to nature. Spring's cherry blossoms and fall's maple leaves are breathtaking. At Arashiyama Station, be sure to check out the Kimono Forest and pray to the dragon for good luck and safe travels — especially this year, since 2024 is the Year of the Dragon!

A pink chrysanthemum, green strands, and orange pumpkin wagashi on a black laquer plate

Wagashi, made by yours truly. This was last October, so we made a chrysanthemum and jack-o-lantern, and the middle one incorporates a chestnut.

2. Wagashi Making Class

Dive into the delicate art of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). These sweets reflect the seasons in their shapes and ingredients, and are a feast for the eyes as much as the palate. Learning the intricate craft behind making wagashi offers a hands-on experience with Japan's unsurpassed culinary aesthetics and tradition. 3. Kyoto Railway Museum

For a break from the ancient, the Kyoto Railway Museum presents an extensive collection of trains, from steam locomotives to shinkansen (bullet trains). It's a fascinating journey through Japan's railway history and technological advancement, appealing to both train enthusiasts and families.

Eight sake samples and food pairings, including chicken, cheese, edamame, cucumber pickles, and daikon pickles.

We tried a few kinds of sake at the brewery, then went to a tasting room where we had pairings with eight more! I was glad to have a little food in my belly, but it was also really cool to taste how the flavors changed with different kinds of food — much like wine!

4. Kyoto Sake Brewery Tour

Think you don't like sake? Perhaps because you haven't had good sake! Sake (pronounced like sock-eh, not sock-ee!), Japan's iconic rice "wine," has a deep history in Kyoto, with the region's pure waters contributing to its distinct taste. A sake brewery tour not only educates you on the brewing process but also offers a chance to sample various grades and types of sake, providing a rich insight into Japanese culture and craftsmanship.

5. Philosopher's Path Night Walk

While the Philosopher's Path is a popular daytime stroll, experiencing it at night offers a serene and almost mystical atmosphere (with fewer people!). Illuminated by street lamps, the path invites a contemplative walk under the starry sky, offering a different perspective of Kyoto’s beauty. I love coming here in the summertime, when the cicadas' chorus is in full performance mode.

What do you think? Do any of these ideas appeal to you? Or, have you been to Kyoto? Are there any things to do in Kyoto that you'd add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

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