Exploring Japan: Venture off beaten path in beautiful Kyoto

Exploring Japan: Venture off beaten path in beautiful Kyoto

by Sarah Hodge
Stripes Japan

Kyoto, Japan’s imperial capital for more than a millennium, offers a wealth of picturesque temples, museums, and gardens, but with millions of international visitors a year, many of Kyoto’s “must-see” destinations like Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji, Gion, and Arashiyama are thronged with school groups and tour buses nearly year-round.

To experience a more tranquil side of Kyoto, venture off the beaten path and you’ll be rewarded with stunning Japanese gardens, a magical kimono “forest,” and the chance to try your hand at traditional stencil dyeing and tea ceremony sweets.


SHOSEI-EN: Kyoto Station area



One of Kyoto’s best-kept secrets is this beautiful 8-acre garden down the street from Kyoto Station. Shosei-en has belonged to nearby Higashi Honganji temple since 1641, when it was donated by Japan’s third shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu. This peaceful oasis features traditional villas and teahouses, several ponds and bridges, and best of all, relatively few visitors. The garden was destroyed by fire on several occasions, so the present structures are 19th century reconstructions. Notable features include a unique ceremonial gate and covered bridge. Shosei-en is surrounded by a high wall and the entrance is easy to miss. Admission: 500 yen, includes a beautifully-photographed full-color booklet of the gardens. 


Address: Higashitamamizucho Shimojuzuyamachidori Ainomachi Higashi Iru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi,  Kyoto Prefecture


March – Oct.: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (last entry at 4:30 p.m.)

Nov. – Feb.: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. (last entry at 3:30 p.m.)

URL: www.higashihonganji.or.jp/english/tour/shosei-en/   


FUREAIKAN (Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts): Higashiyama


This gem, tucked in the basement of Miyako Messe near Heian Shrine, features displays and demonstrations of some of Kyoto’s famed crafts like Kyo-yuzen dying, Nishijin-ori woven textiles, Kyoto ceramics, lacquerware and dolls. In addition to being a great place to pick up affordable and unique souvenirs, Fureaikan also has real maiko-san
(apprentice geishas) who give free dance performances, short talks about their traditional kimonos and accessories, and great up-close-and-personal photo opportunities. Normally it is quite expensive to book a private event with maiko-san, so the opportunity to meet and photograph them (for free, no less!) is extremely rare. For a current schedule of Fureaikan maiko performances, go to www.miyakomesse.jp/fureaika/event_eng.php#01=


Access: •By bus: City Bus 5, 100 from Kyoto Station, get off at “Higashiyama Nijo,Okazaki Koen-guchi” bus stop or “Okazaki Koen/Bijutsukan,Heian Jingu-mae” bus stop or “Okazaki Koen/ROHM Theatre,Miyakomesse” bus stop •By Subway: Higashiyama Station (Tozai Line) about 10minutes’ walk. 

Address: B1F Miyakomesse, 9-1, Okazaki Seishoji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto Prefecture 

Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Admission: Free

TEL: +81 75-762-2670 

English audio guide for smartphone: www.musenavi.jp/supports/fureaikan/index_en.html

URL: www.miyakomesse.jp/fureaika/index_eng.php





One of western Kyoto’s top attractions is Kokedera (Saihō-ji), famed for its beautiful moss gardens. However, visiting Kokedera requires making an advance reservation by special postcard; even then, a spot is not guaranteed, especially during peak seasons.


Sanzenin in nearby Ohara (about one hour north of Kyoto) offers a similarly gorgeous moss garden with no reservations required. Green tea and a seasonal sweet is available for 500 yen; it’s worth the price to sip and savor as you look out over magnificent Shuhekien Garden. Several nearby temples offer additional Japanese gardens and fantastic photo ops. Ohara is famous for the red shiso leaf used in Japanese pickling, and you can try akajiso soft serve at many roadside stands leading to Sanzenin.


To reach Sanzenin, from Kyoto Station take the Karasuma subway line to terminal station Kokusaikaikan Station (20 minutes, 290 yen), then catch Kyoto Bus number 19 to Ohara (20 minutes, 350 yen, every 40 minutes). From the Ohara bus station, the temple is about a 10-minute walk and is clearly marked.


Address: 540 Ohara Raikoin-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto Prefecture

Hours: March through Dec. 7 8:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. (Entry closes at 5 p.m.)

Dec. 8 through Feb. 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Entry closes at 4:30 p.m.)

Admission: 700 yen

TEL: +81 75-744-2531 

URL: sanzenin.or.jp/en/

FB: www.facebook.com/kyotooharasanzenin/





This sixth-generation confectionary shop offers hands-on classes on how to make the beautiful realistic sweets served during the Japanese tea ceremony. Using ingredients such as rice flour and bean paste, you’ll learn to make four different seasonal sweets that you can take home. Demonstration is in Japanese, but English-language recipes with photos are provided. Advance registration required. After class, be sure to visit nearby Jodo-sect temple Seiryoji for some fantastic photo ops around the temple grounds and gardens. 


Access: JR Saga Line, 10 minutes on foot from Arashiyama station

Address: 1-1 Sagashakadodaimoncho Ukyo-Ku, Kyoto-shi,  Kyoto Prefecture   

Admission: 2160 yen / 1 person, 3-4 days advance reservation required.   There are three classes a day, approximate length 1 hour 15 minutes:

① 11 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. 

② 1 p.m, - 2:15 p.m. 

③ 3 p.m. - 4:15 p.m.

TEL: +81 75-861-5488

URL: www.kanshundo.co.jp/museum/make/annai_e.htm

Online reservations: www.kanshundo.co.jp/museum/make/school-e.html





Private railway Keifuku renovated their Randen Arashiyama station in 2013 to include 600 Plexiglas pillars lined with Kyoto’s prized Kyo-yuzen kimono textiles. During the day, the colorful fabrics make for a pleasant stroll. At night, the pillars are illuminated and the details of the prints shine in the darkness, making for truly magical photos. An energy spot featuring a small pond with a dragon is said to grant wishes. There is also a fantastic hot spring footbath that allows you to soak away the day’s sightseeing for only 200 yen; purchase a ticket and receive a towel in the station’s tourist information office. Randen Arashiyama station also offe rs several coffee shops, restaurants, and souvenir shops as well as electrically-assisted bicycle rentals for only 1,500 yen a day, making it a convenient way to explore the Arashiyama / Sagano area.


Access: Take Karasuma Subway Line from Kyoto Station, transfer at Shijo Station to Hankyu Karasuma Station, transfer to Hankyu Omiya Station, then catch the tram at Randen Shijo-Omiya Station.

Hours: Randen Arashiyama station shop / restaurant hours: 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Arashiyama Station Onsen Footbath: 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. (6 p.m. in winter)

Ranbura Cycle Rental: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (reception open until 3 p.m.)

Kimono Forest lightup: evening – 9 p.m.

Admission: flat-rate 220 yen (adults) / 110 yen (children)

URL: randen.keifuku.co.jp/en/

Downloadable map: randen.keifuku.co.jp/common/image/train/pdf/randenmap_en.pdf




Kyo-yuzen, the technique of painting dye directly onto cloth, has been practiced in Kyoto since the 17th century and allows for incredibly detailed designs and color gradients.


To try your hand at Kyo-yuzen, you can sign up for a fun, informative hands-on workshop at Marumasu-Nishimuraya. You’re able to choose your design from many available stencils, then you apply the dye directly to the object of your choosing (tote bag, fabric fan, etc.) in layers to create beautiful three-dimensional images. This is a great activity for families or when the weather is less than cooperative.


Prices range from 1300 yen for a small handkerchief to 3000 yen for a colored fan. Same-day reservations available; duration is 1-3 hours. There is also a small café available onsite. 


Access: From Kyoto Station, board a subway bound for Kokusai-Kaikan. Get off at Karasuma Oike station, then walk west (takes about 7 min.)

Address: 457 Tsuboya-cho, Ogawa-dori, Oike-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto Prefecture

Hours: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. (last entry 5 p.m.) 

TEL: +81 75-211-3273

URL: marumasu.sakura.ne.jp/english/

Email: reservation@marumasu-nishimuraya.co.jp 

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