Six Highlights from six days in Kyoto

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If you travel to Kyoto for the first time, visit the must-sees by all means! Places like Kinkakuji, Kiyomizu, Sanjusangendo or Fushimi Inari Shrine are spectacular and worth seeing even if everybody else is visiting them, too. And yes, the top sightseeing highlights are always very crowded. But this post is about some off-the-beaten path highlights in Kyoto we discovered during six days we spent in Japan’s ancient capital earlier this spring.

The Gardens at the Taizo-in Tempel

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Several pleasant dry gardens with unusual round waves of gravel around stone and weeping cherry trees. Yet more gardens with moss and stone lanterns, small ponds and a pagoda as backdrop. We were surprised to find such an enjoyable temple with so few visitors not far from Kyoto’s main tourist highlights of Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji. Taizo-in, a sub-temple of the not-so often visited Myoshin-ji in the Northwest of Kyoto, even offers dinner events with light-up in the garden during the cherry blossom season.

Matcha Parfait at Eirakuya

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Between the tall modern buildings around the shopping district of Shijo-Kawaramachi, there is one old house with a sloping tiled roof. From the street it looks like many others, though; there is a shop inside selling traditional Kyoto sweets, pickles and salty miso paste. In the back, an unobtrusive sign announces a café on the second floor. Another sign mentions that the café is full – please register at the cash desk – but it is a moderate queue and it doesn’t take us long to get a table. A surprise, since Eirakuya is a long-established cafe specialising in matcha and matcha sweets.

Some of the Japanese guests have come wearing Kimonos, and not the cheap rental ones but proper high-class family heirlooms. We have a beautiful and tasty matcha latte, and the shop‘s speciality: a huge matcha parfait. It consists of lots of green tea ice-cream and green tea sauce, green tea jelly, plus shiratama (sticky rice balls), sweet bean paste, crunchy popped wheat and whipped cream. Eirakuya definitely made it onto our list of culinary highlights in Kyoto.

Stone fellows at the Sekihôji Temple

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When we passed the Fukakusa train station travelling in the South of Kyoto, we remembered a temple we had visited many years ago. That was during our first trip to Japan together, in 1991! So, we decided to revisit the Sekihôji Temple, a relatively minor Zen temple. The main hall is a reconstruction from the 1980s. But it was here that the eccentric painter Ito Jakuchu lived in a simple hut in the 1790s. In fact, he spent much of his time creating quite intriguing stone statues. The 500 Rakan, Buddhist holy men who are usually depicted highlighting their negative traits and imperfections (because nobody is perfect, but you can still try your best) are hidden in the forest behind the temple. A very atmospheric place.

At the Sekihôji Temple, you might still encounter one of the old fashioned Japanese squat toilets.

A modern stone garden at Tôfukuji Tempel

Somewhat south-east of Kyoto station (and thus outside the central sightseeing areas), Tôfukuji is one of Kyoto’s largest Zen temples. It is reasonably but not overly popular with tourists and especially famous for its autumn foliage. We are, however, particularly impressed by the spectacular gardens designed by Shigemori Mirei – the first important work by this innovative 20th century garden artist, which made him famous. Any traveller interested in Japanese gardens and/or modern Zen design should go and visit the Tôfukuji Abbot’s Garden (Hôjô Teien 方丈庭園). In addition, Tôfukuji boasts some fascinating historical details, such as Japan’s oldest Zen bath house, and Japan’s oldest toilet facilities in a Zen temple.

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Sake highlights in Kyoto: Sake Tasting in Fushimi

Fushimi ward in the South of Kyoto is the regional centre for Sake brewing, thanks to its clear water. If you travel to Kyoto you can visit a number of Sake breweries in this area. We had a look at the Gekkeikan museum (Gekkeikan Ôkura Kinenkan) and sampled a craft beer at Kizakura Kinenkan. This brewery is also originally a Sake brewery but now specialising more in craft beers.

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Finally, we went on to a Sake tasting at Fushimi Sake Village (Fushimi Sakagura Kouji). This pleasant bar in a yatai mura (a kind of traditional food court) also offers a full-scale Sake tasting. It consisted of 17 small glasses of high quality Sake, each from a different regional brewery. And the food was good too.

Hidden doors at the Nijô Jinya

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Nijô Jinya, hidden in a small alley not far from the much larger and touristy Nijô-jô Castle, used to be a VIP guesthouse during the Edo period (1600–1868). Tourists can only visit on a guided tour in Japanese, although they do have an English leaflet for foreign travellers. But even at the start of the tourist season we could make a reservation for the next day. The house is a sprawling, rather luxurious villa.

Interestingly, the special features designed for yesteryear’s luxury travellers don’t seem so far away from today’s needs. A comfortable interior with a built-in theatre stage (no cinema in those days); speedy food delivery facilities for room service; soundproof rooms for private talks; hidden chambers for the body guards; special emphasis on safety, fireproof materials, escape routes, safe storage for documents and valuables …No pictures inside though – this is the only picture we have.

Extra: Coffee at Walden Woods

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An inconspicuous white building behind Shosei-en Garden, without any sign or menu: Walden Woods is as minimalist as it gets; just a coffee counter and upstairs simple white steps to sit on. No decoration, no tables, no frills. The coffee was good, though.

On this trip we also went Whisky tasting at the Yamazaki distillery only 20 minutes by train away from Kyoto. And we visited the Mozu tombs near Osaka. The Mozu tombs have been inscribed as UNESCO site in 2019 and we enjoyed our walk between the unusual green mounts in the urban suburbs.

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We visited this off-the-beaten path highlights in Kyoto during the research for a new Kyoto guidebook published by the German publisher Trescher. However all expenses were paid by ourselves.

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  1. If you return try to see the Historic Crafts Museum. We spent an entire day there watching an assortment of ancient Japanese crafts. It was fantastic!

  2. Your post is making me nostalgic for my time in Kyoto! That matcha parfait looks amazing, I’ve had many a parfait in Japan but I can tell that one must have been incredible. Thank you for sharing the wonderful history and culture in Japan!

  3. I’ve never heard of Kyoto before. But Japan is somewhere I have dreamed of going, so when I do finally get to make this trip come true I will use the info you have given and make sure I maximise my time there. The Tôfukuji Tempel looks like somewhere I
    Would love to unwind.

    1. Kyoto is the old capital town of Japan and definitely a must-see for every Japan traveler. There are more well-known sites in Kyoto than the ones described in this post, but these are often quite croweded too.

  4. Japan has been on my list for a very long time now. I could only guess how many fun and interesting you can do there, but after reading your post I’m even more enticed to go. Kyoto looks amazing and exploring these off-the-beaten-path places was a great idea. I would live to go Whisky and Sake tasting!

  5. Wow! This is timely since we are traveling to Kyota early next year. We will definitely include these on our itinerary. The Walden Woods’ concept is so unique. Would love to see for myself how they manage without the furniture.

  6. I do not know when Japan will open up again, but when it does I would be headed there. It has been in my list for a couple of years now. Kyoto is so beautiful with all that I see one can do. Nice guide.

  7. Glad to read all the off-the-beaten path highlights in Kyoto. It would great to taste authentic Matcha dishes in Japan, where Matcha is very much a part of their culture. I’d be all the more fascinated to see people walking in traditional Kimonos. 500 sculptures scattered all over a forest? It would be fun to hunt for them!

    1. We have been to Kyoto numerous times, for work and private travel. This time we were on a research trip for a new Kyoto guidebook and of course we tried to find some gems for our readers!

  8. I have visited Kyoto only once and mostly spent my time visiting all the touristy things. I do hope to go back and stay there for a while experiencing the place. Kyoto is truly beautiful and it is one of my favourite places in Japan.

  9. The Tôfukuji Abbot’s Garden looks like such a great place to go. I feel like you can learn so much about a country at gardens. I’d love to try a matcha parfait – It was pretty, too!

  10. We had only one day in Kyoto and we knew it was not enough to get more than a taste test. But we plan to re-visit Japan and see more. Your post sure gives me some reasons to put Kyoto on the plan for a few more days. We did a Saki tasting on our first trip and were amazed. So we may want to try that again. And maybe even sample some Japanese whiskey too!

    1. Dear Linda, the Suntory whisky distillery, one of the oldes whisky places in Japan, is not far from Kyoto. I am sure you will enjoy a tasting there.

  11. I cannot believe it: For days, I was racing crisscross in Kyoto, visiting temples and toris and other landmarks – and yet I managed to skip these 6 highlights – whereby I think I have been to the first stone garden you are introducing. What’s even more tragic is that I missed out on a Matcha Parfait. Well, I guess there’s no way around going back and check these amazing sites off my list, too.

    1. Dear Renata, we did find these six highlights during our research work for a new German guidebook on Kyoto. They are not overrun at all like Kinkaku Temple or Kiyomizu-Temple. But then, if you are in Kyoto for the first time, you should definitely also visit the well-known sites.

  12. Now that my niece is going to a university in Japan, I’m thinking about visiting the country. Kyoto is one of the city I want to visit. The matcha parfait and stone sculptures will be a fun addition to the popular spots. And I think it will be nice to take a rest at the Walden Woods.

  13. It’s a very inspirational article! Kyoto offers great off-the-beaten-path highlights, a bit exotic. I would love to see those stone fellows at the Sekihôji Temple; they look so magical. I’m not a fan of strong alcohol, but I want to experience sake tasting in Fushimi. However, probably much better for me would be Coffee at Walden Woods. This place looks great!

  14. Loved the trends of stone, from the gravel, thecstatyes, and the modern stone. But especially liked the saké tastings, matcha parfait, and the simple coffee place.

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