Beyond the temples and shrines, the city of Kyoto offers so much more. Located in the heart of Honshu Island, Japan, Kyoto (also known as the thousand-year capital) boasts approximately 2,000 temples and shrines. One can never run out of reputable and informative tours in Kyoto, whether you are on a bike, a bus or on foot. However, if you would like to go off the beaten path and indulge in the quirky (as well as avoid hordes of tourists), this cultural hotspot has a lot more in store for the alternative traveler. Here are the best alternative tours in Kyoto!
1. Nijo Jinya
If you have ever dreamed of becoming a ninja, Nijo Jinya should be a definite stop on your visit to Kyoto. Enter a late Edo Era building that was used as an inn by feudal lords (daimyo) and discover secret passages, hidden doorways, unusual escape routes and other safeguards. It has earned the nickname “ninja house” because of its unique implements. It is a private residence and visitors need to secure reservations at least a day prior on their website. The one-hour tours are conducted by one of the owners or a guide. Non-Japanese speakers should arrange for interpreters to go along with them on tour or they can contact volunteer interpreters listed on Nijo Jinya’s website.
Address: 137 Sanbo Omiya-cho, 2 blocks south of Nijo Castle, Kyoto, 604-8316, Japan
Website: Nijo Jinya
2. Nishijin Textile Center
While visiting a textile center in historic Kyoto might seem like an odd destination choice, the Nishijin Textile Center offers so much more than the usual. Located in the center of Kyoto in the Nishijin weaving area, it is a celebration of tradition, craftsmanship and beauty culminating in its most famous creation: the kimono. Tourists can immerse themselves in the process of making the textiles used in creating kimonos via a handweaving demonstration by traditional craftsmen on the second floor of the center.
On the first floor, one can watch a kimono fashion show almost every hour, with the kimonos on catwalk ranging from the traditional to the contemporary. A gallery on the third floor showcases the most fabulous and exquisite fabrics and textiles throughout Nishijin history. To add more value to your trip, you can also dress up in their beautiful on-hand kimonos and become a real maiko (apprentice geisha).
Nishijin Textile Center
Address: Horikawa-dori Imadegawa Minami iru, Kamigyo-ku
Opening Hours: 10:00 am - 6:00 pm (Closed Dec. 29 - Jan. 3)
Website: Nishijin Textile Center
3. Ando Doll Shop
The Ando Doll Shop is world-renowned for their hina dolls, headed by third-generation master Ando Tadahiko. Each hina doll at the shop is lovingly and immaculately hand-crafted, all wearing 12-layer kimonos and can be valued as much as over 100,000 USD. These dolls have been presented to royalty in and out of Japan, as well as various international leaders. The Ando family upholds their traditions of craftsmanship that each doll can take up to 1 year to finish. Just looking at the dolls in the shop would be enough to leave you mesmerized for hours. Take part in the “Ichimatsu Doll Fitting Experience” which includes a tour of the shop and a personal doll fitting.
Ando Doll Shop
Address: Marutamachi-agaru, Aburanokoji-dori, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8034
Website: Ando Doll Shop
4. Nishiki Market
If you want to immerse yourself in the culture and food of a region, then there’s no better place to do that in Kyoto than in Nishiki Market. Located in downtown Kyoto, Nishiki Market is Kyoto’s largest traditional market and is also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen.” The modern sits alongside the traditional in this five block long shopping street, with wares ranging from cookware, knives, seafood and other Kyoto culinary delights. Some stores give out free samples and there are a few stalls and restaurants selling ready-made food. There’s also something to be said about wandering around in an iconic 400-year-old market as you visualize it as it originally was.
Address: Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
Opening Hours: 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Website: Nishiki Market
5. Iwatayama Monkey Park
When you think of Japan, one doesn’t automatically think of monkeys. But a trip to Iwatayama Monkey Park will be a memorable, if not odd, experience. Located on Mt Arashiyama, the park is home to 200 Japanese macaque monkeys and tourists can take part in feeding them. The hike up the mountain to get to the park takes around 30-45 minutes and the views overlooking Kyoto are spectacular. The monkeys are wild, and it’s best to follow the “don’t stare” and “don’t touch” rules that the park implements. Tourists can purchase food to give to the monkeys and hand-feed them through a wire screen in a cabin.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Address: 8 Arashiyama Genrokuyama-cho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 616-0007, Japan
Opening Hours: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm everyday
Website: Iwatayama Monkey Park (in Japanese)
6. Gion-Shinbashi District
Arguably the most picturesque district in Kyoto, Gion and Shinbashi Dori are full of Instagram-worthy spots for the most avid photography enthusiast. Gion is touted as “the soul of Kyoto,” and Shinbashi Dori lies to its north. Take a tour through time with 17th-century architecture, warmly glowing paper lanterns and ornately dressed geisha. Stroll through Gion’s Historic Preservation District and be enchanted by the buildings and interact with geisha and maiko. Catch the spring performance of the Miyako Odori at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater, where geisha and maiko deliver a colorful performance. Head to the Tatsumi-bashi Bridge where a lot of tourists, couples and maiko have their photographs taken, eager to capture the stunning beauty of the bridge.
Address: Shinbashi-dori, Gion, Kyoto
Access: Karasuma Line, Gion Shijo Station
Website: Gion-Shinbashi (in Japanese)
7. Maruyama Park
If you’re in Kyoto during the cherry blossom season, don’t forget to visit Maruyama Park. Although the park has a lot of cherry blossom trees, visitors flock to the iconic weeping cherry tree which is lit up in the evening. The park is in full bloom in early April so expect to see a lot of tourists in the park at that time.
Address: 473 Maruyama-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Opening Hours: Open all year
Website: Maruyama Park (in Japanese)
8. Kyoto International Manga Museum
Opened in November 2006, the Kyoto International Manga Museum is a paradise for manga lovers worldwide. While away the minutes (or hours) reading your favorites or discover new titles alongside the classics. Visitors can also enjoy exhibits and some workshops in the museum.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
Address: Oike agaru, Karasuma-dori, Chukyo-ku, Kyoto
Opening Hours: 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Price: 800 JPY (approximately 7.26 USD)
Website: Kyoto International Manga Museum
Enjoy this unique nightlife bar hopping experience in Kyoto, where a local guide will take you around the backstreets of Kyoto, Gion and Ponto-cho to authentic Japanese izakayas. The highlight of the tour is trying out local Kyoto food while having cold sake, so if you’re a foodie, be sure to book this tour and add it to your itinerary!
Kyoto Bar Hopping Food Tour
Price: 55 USD
You can make your journey to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari more memorable by taking the road less traveled. In this hiking tour, your local guide will take you to trails where you will discover lesser-known shrines and a bamboo forest that’s a secret to only the locals and a few travelers. You will then proceed to the more popular attraction of the shrine made of 10,000 tori gates. During all these activities, your guide will provide you with ample information. Finish your alternative trip with a local food trip at the base of the mountain.
Fushimi Inari hidden hiking tour
Duration: 3 hours
Price: 65 USD
Kyoto is a cultural paradise and one of the best ways to explore this ancient city at your own pace is by cycling it. In this Magical Trip excursion, you will bike to three main historical locations. They include the Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine, and Nanzen-ji Temple. And although those are the definite highlights of this trip, your journey towards reaching each destination will provide more insights into the local culture and daily lives of the community: passing by hidden areas not common to tourists and just watching how the Japanese people go by their day. While bicycling is a healthy and fun way to explore the city, of course, you need some time to rest. The best thing to do during break time? Savor authentic Kyoto flavors all included in this five-hour excursion!
Kyoto City highlights bike tour
Duration: 5 hours
Price: 80 USD
Dare to be different in Kyoto
As with any other travel destination, Kyoto offers a little bit of something for all travelers. With its rich culture, heritage and history, it’s no small wonder that surprises like these destinations enrich the whole experience. When in Kyoto, take a break from the normal and explore these hidden travel gems.
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