5 Things to See in Kyoto (that aren’t temples)

Temples are like good books. They’re all basically the same thing: words in black ink on pages bound together within stiff boards. But each has its own charm and unique story to tell; each I can spend an entire day perusing.

But I’ve discovered that many people aren’t as keen with temples as I am or don’t have the time to appreciate a lot of them for stretch of hours like I do, which lead me to making this list as a guide for anyone who’s seen enough of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, but still itching to see more of the city.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama is a district on the western side of Kyoto. It is home to Tenryu-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site like the famous Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Despite the temple’s distinction, it’s a bamboo grove that attracts droves of tourists to Arashiyama.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Sagano, Kyoto, Japan by Daniel Peckham is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The grove is bisected by a path that takes wayfarers to a small shrine (most popular among women for its God for Matchmaking) and a small park. The grove itself is picturesque and calming – the conversation between the hollow giants and the wind silences inner conflicts. But this conversation gets muffled by loud voices and endless camera clicks so go at an early time (the grove is accessible 24 hours) if you want to enjoy the grove in silence and peace and, in summer, a more bearable temperature.

Other attractions: Togetsukyo Bridge || Monkey Park Iwatayama || Music Box Museum
Romantic Train and River Boat Ride
Beyond Arashiyama’s bamboo grove looks like nowhere, but don’t let the empty path fool you into thinking there’s nothing more because just a few meters from the end of the grove is Torokko Arashiyama Station, the last stop of the charming Sagano Romantic Train before it snakes its way between mountains and over a wide river.

Sagano Romantic Train
On the way (嵯峨野観光鉄道) by Alex Chen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the train’s fourth and last stop, passengers have two choices: return to Arashiyama on the same train or return to Arashiyama via the river. A bus outside the station goes to Hozugawa Ferry Terminal, the starting point of an approximately two-hour boat ride that takes its passengers back to Arashiyama.

The boat ride is occasionally bumpy with a few splashes if you’re seated at the sides of the boat, and it is mostly fun especially if you can understand Japanese because the boatmen have a lot of information about the river (and jokes) to share. Apart from being a fun way to return to Arashiyama, the boat ride is also a great way to enjoy the mountains from the bottom of a gorge. Just imagine seeing all that foliage in autumn.

Prices: Sagano Romantic Train = ¥620 one-way || Bus to Ferry Terminal = ¥310 || Hozugawa Boat Ride = ¥4100
Nijo Castle
If you expected not to find any traditional buildings on this list then you must be disappointed right now. So let me immediately reassure you that Japanese temples and castles are quite different from each other, and visiting one when you’ve seen enough of the other is not dissatisfying.

Nijo Castle
By Corpse Reviver (Own work) [GFDL], CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Nijo Castle was the residence of the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1868). The castle has beautiful gardens and cherry and plum orchards, but best of all is Ninomaru Palace, a complex of individual buildings connected together by corridors called nightingale floors because they squeak when stepped on as a security measure against intruders.

More impressive are the palace’s sliding doors and ceilings, which beautifully painted. The detailed geometric patterns on the ceilings especially struck me and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like them in even the best temples or shrines I’ve been to.

Admission: ¥600
Toei Studio Park
Toei Studio Park is a theme park-cum-film set modeled after the Edo period. If you feel like blending in, you can rent a kimono or ninja costume and go around the film set where some re-enactments are played by Toei actors.

If you want to be more involved in ninja training, there are attractions to choose from including Amazing Maze, Ninja Star Dojo, and Ninja Mystery House. Tacky? I was so embarrassed when my friend forced me to wear a kimono with her. Still, it is quite charming. I mean, I’ve been there twice already and I don’t mind going again.

TOEI Studio Park
Photo by 663highland [GFDL], [CC BY-SA 4.0 or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons
Admission: ¥2,200 || Additional Fee to Enter Attractions
Fushimi Sake District
The Fushimi district of Kyoto City is most famous for Fushimi Inari, the temple known for its thousands of orange torii gates. But six stops away on the Keihan railway line is the Fushimi Sake District, which aside from sake museums, also has underground springs (free to drink), sightseeing river cruises, charming, traditional buildings and much, much less tourists.

Fushimi Sake Museum
By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Attractions: Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum = ¥300 admission || Kizakura Kappa Country Museum = FREE || Cruise = ¥1000


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