Kinkakuji - Golden Pavillion- Kyoto, Japan

Kinkakuji – Golden Pavillion- Kyoto – Japan


Kyoto, Japan held the esteemed position as Japan’s capital for 1100 years, from late 700s AD to late 1800s. That was a glorious period in Japan’s history, filled with regal temples, lush landscaped gardens, opulent silk kimonos, coy geisha, delectable cuisines, exquisite arts and crafts, and literary riches.

Today Kyoto is a modern cement city, but is still highly esteemed as Japan’s cultural center. Nestled at the foot of two mountain ranges, with two rivers flowing through the center, and over 2000 temples and shrines, Kyoto holds uncountable numbers of traditional cultural treasures tucked amidst its modern facade.

In fact, all of Japan’s historic riches are still alive, just under the surface of modern life. This makes Kyoto a unique destination for world travelers.

One unfortunate difficulty of visiting Kyoto is cost. Japan is very expensive… for everything: accommodation, food, transportation, admission fees, merchandise, tours, and all.
Luckily, there are many great ‘freebies’ to offset expenses.


I was fortunate enough to live in Kyoto for 6 years.

While there, I took advantage of Kyoto’s cultural treasures by studying tea ceremony, kimono wearing, flower arrangement, massage, koto, and Aikido. I incessantly explored Kyoto’s arts, alleyways, shops, festivals, temples, hidden traditional eating establishments and theatrical performances.

So today I’m here to share with you some insider’s tips on simply amazing FREE things to do in Kyoto. In fact, I came up with so many tips that I’m presenting Kyoto in two parts. This is pt. 1. For more ideas check out part 2 here. Happy explorations!

Kyoto visitor's Guide

Kyoto visitor’s Guide

1. Scoop up a stunning souvenir: Kyoto Visitor’s Guide  magazine

Kyoto Guide

After arriving in Kyoto, one of the first things to do is make your way to the Kyoto Visitor’s Center, just across the street from Kyoto Station, to get updates on current festivals, events, shows and information on temples, neighborhoods, and sites.

Besides all the great information served up by very polite staff, a major reason to visit is to get your free copy of the gorgeous Kyoto Visitor’s Guide. It’s a super large-size, full color magazine, chocked full of stunning photos, exploration ideas, neighborhood maps, and event write-ups.

The guide is so beautiful, it makes a perfect souvenir. I collected as many as possible while living there and still treasure my collection to this day. (p.s. Get a free city map, too)

2. Check out Kyoto Station’s amazing modern architecture

Just across the road from Kyoto’s Visitor Center, you can’t help but notice Kyoto’s stunning glass wall train station. Go inside and wander around for the full architectural experience.

There’s a large staircase-like, amphitheater-like granite sitting and viewing arena, glass-encased hallways on the top floors, an open roof, and a massive shopping mall. It’s a great place to watch people, enjoy modern Kyoto, and catch panoramic views of Kyoto and mountains from the top deck.  Kyoto Station

inside Kyoto Station

inside Kyoto Station

3. Marvel at lavish time-honored festivals

As Japan’s cultural heartland, nearly every month Kyoto presents an extravagant traditional festival.  In July there’s Kyoto’s spectacular Gion Matsuri (festival) during which revelers dressed in summer kimono carry massive wood floats through Kyoto’s narrow streets.

In August there’s Giozan Matsuri ( fire festival) when temples on Kyoto’s mountainsides light massive bonfires which can be seen from any point in Kyoto.


October brings the Jidai Matsuri,(Festival of Ages), where parade-goers dress up in lavish traditional costumes of royalty, artisans, soldiers, geisha, musicians and parade through the streets.

Then there are the unforgettable New Year’s Eve ceremony, Archery Festival in January, Plum Blossoms in February, Hina Matsuri (doll festival) in March, Cherry Blossoms in April, Aoi Matsuri (Blue Festival) in May…

You’re bound to catch one of these unforgettable festivals while visiting Kyoto. (another good reason to make a bee-line to the visitor’s center on arrival, so you don’t miss out!)

Maiko- apprentice Geisha- in one of Kyoto's Geisha Districts

Maiko- apprentice Geisha- in one of Kyoto’s Geisha Districts

4. See real live Geisha

You heard me right. Kyoto still has 3 small Geisha quarters where Geisha entertain wealthy patrons with witty banter, music recitals, elegant dance and tea ceremonies. Apprentice Geisha ‘Maiko’ are trained there as well.

Simply by walking through these neighborhoods in evenings, and sometimes in mornings and afternoons as well, you are likely to watch some real Geisha sashay down the street, nip into a shop, or pass from one hall to another. Another unforgettable experience.

Japanese pickles on sale in department store

variety of Japanese pickles on sale, with free samples, in department store

5. Sample Japan’s tasty delicacies

You’ve got to visit a Japanese department store! The ground floor (underground / basement) is devoted to prepared foods. You’ll find almost every kind of Japanese cuisine there from traditional sweets to okonomiyaki to sushi and sashimi to soups, rice dishes…

As if looking at all the beautifully prepared and presented exotic foods wasn’t enough, you even get to taste free samples. Of almost everything. The food departments are so large, the foods so plentiful and variable, that you can literal get full sampling everything, if you’d like. It’s the equivalent of a full meal.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

6. Tour Kyoto’s 2 Imperial Palaces and 2 Imperial Villas, entirely for free
Imperial Household Agency

Take advantage of this distinguished opportunity while you’re in Kyoto.

Japanese nationals are also allowed to tour these Imperial compounds, but usually have to wait several months then scramble around to alter their schedules when their Imperial ‘ticket’ day is announced.

Tourists have a huge, and arguably unfair, advantage. You’ll be granted a tour pass within a few days of application, on the grounds that you won’t be in Kyoto long. The only thing you have to do is visit the Kyoto Imperial Household Agency  Office to fill out an application form.

Since you must apply in advance, this should be your second line of business upon arriving in Kyoto. You can apply for any of the 4 Imperial Sites, or all, as you desire. You’ll need your passport of course, but you’ll be issued a tour pass for a particular date and time. Nowadays, you can also apply online at the above website.

Show up promptly for your tour or you’ll miss it. Japanese are extremely punctual.

Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace grounds, smack in the center of Kyoto, are a sprawling park full of romantic pathways, century’s old pine trees and landscaped gardens. It’s a perfect place to stroll and escape modern Kyoto’s traffic and cement fascade.

Nishijin Kimono Fashion Show

Nishijin Kimono Fashion Show

7. Learn how Japan’s exquisite and lavish silk kimono and obis are made and watch a kimono fashion show

Nishijin Center showcases large obi weaving looms, with weavers making the amazing brocade ‘waistbands’ for Kimono.

On display are kimono and an astounding array of kimono accessories, including specialized shoes, socks, sashes, scarves, kimono jackets, purses, wallets and other necessities for anyone wearing kimono.

Nishijin presents kimono fashion shows upstairs in their small concert hall several times per day, also for free.

Kyoto's Historical Districts

one of Kyoto’s Historical Districts with narrow stone streets and wood houses

8. Step back in time strolling through Japan’s historic district…

full of narrow stone alleyways and immaculate wood houses in Eastern Kyoto, near Kiyomizu Dera Temple. The houses are called ‘eel houses’ because they are very narrow but long, an architectural style developed to minimize land taxes that were based on the houses’ width. Two famous streets are Sannen-zake and Ninen-zaka, but the whole neighborhood is full of narrow stone roads.

Japanese Temple in Kyoto

one of Kyoto’s many stunning temples

9. Visit many days’ worth of  gorgeous temples

While several of Kyoto’s most famous temples have pretty hefty entry fees, dozens and dozens of temples are free. They range from huge, important temples like Kitano Tenmagu to long, rambling monasteries like Daitokuji,  to tiny temples hidden down back alleys.

Although Japanese temples do have a decided style, you’ll be surprised how very different each one is from the others. If you love exploring temples, you can easily fill a week or a month discovering all of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, sans entry fees.

Ask the Visitor’s Information Center to point out free temples on your map.

bamboo forest in Arashiyama - western Kyoto

tranquil bamboo forest in Arashiyama, western Kyoto

10. Listen to wind blowing through a bamboo forest

It will blow your mind!

Standing in the middle of a bamboo forest, swaying in wind, is a sensory experience you’ll never forget. I won’t attempt to explain it here. Just take my word for it.Go stand in a bamboo forest, preferably on a windy day.

Three charming forests I can recommend in Kyoto are the forest on the hills of Fushimi Inari Shrine, in Fushimi, just south of Kyoto (accessed by train), the small forest at the sprawling Daitokuji Temple in north west Kyoto, and the forest on the back roads of Arashiyama in far west Kyoto.


You might also like other destinations in this ’10 free things to do in…’ series:

(* photo credits for Flickr Creative Commons: Mr Jo / scarletgreen  / JunkworkNekonomaniaGlobalism picturesowenfinn 16 *) other photos by Lash / LashWorldTour


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100 Free Things to do in Asia eBook

If you found this post useful, you’ll love my FREE eBook:

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  1. Erin

    Great tips! We are going to try to do as many of these as possible. We got lucky and saw a glimpse of a geisha on our first night wandering around Gion. Hope we see one again.

  2. LASH

    Thanks for stopping by Erin and Simon! That was really cool to see a Geisha. especiallyon your first night! one of the only places in the world to do so.
    As I mentioned in the article, I have so many tips that I'm writing a second article. week after next with 10- more. Please let me know if you have any questions! cheers, Lash

  3. Suzy

    I love when train stations are so achitecturally interesting. It sounds and looks like Kyoto is no different.

  4. icoSnap

    Awesome! Thanks for the info about free things to do in Kyoto, I love going to Japan but I have not gone to kyoto yet. By the way I have added you on my favorite links :)

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hey Ico,

      Glad you found the Kyoto tips useful! Hope you can get there one day. It’s an amazing city!
      cheers, Lash

  5. Ben

    Wow, great tips, we’ll be in Kyoto during the ‘Blue Festival’ in May – thanks to you we know about it and we’ll get to observe it in all of it’s undoubted glory. We’ll be staying across the road from an imperial palace as well and now we know to apply for a visit as soon as we arrive. The bamboo forrest experience is right up my alley as well. Needless to say – thank you so much, very helpful advice :)

    1. Lash WorldTour

      hi Ben,

      Wow, great! Very cool you get to visit Kyoto. And May is a great time.
      Very happy to hear my tips are helpuful. Be sure to visit the KYoto Information Center nare Kyoto Station when you arrive!

      And I hope you also read pt 2 for 10 more free things to do in KYoto?

      Have an awesome trip! Let me know what you think afterward…

      cheers, Lash

  6. soumo

    Thank you so much! Your tips were indispensable and I will look forward to visiting the rest of your site.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Soumo,

      Oh, great. Glad they were helpful.

      And you’re most welcome here to check out the other tips, stories & photos… and ask any questions you might have about traveling the world.

      cheers, Lash

  7. Buku chan

    Be careful with “geishas”. During daytime there are a lots of henshin-maikos in Kyoto, who are not professional, just dressed in by a studio. Anyone can try it, even if you are a foreigner. People who don’t know the differences between maiko and henshin-maiko, often show pictures like: “look, I saw a geisha”. But they were just henshin-maiko. I can tell it from the dress, the kanzashi, hair, make-up and age.

    Henshin-maikos usually wear unusual colours for the kimono compared to real ones. They don’t wear the kanzashi of the season, and they wear hanging tsumami kanzashi, while both of the lips are red. Real maikos wear that kind of kanzashi only in the first year, when only the lower lip is red. The henshin-maikos use wigs, while real maikos use their own hair. Real maikos are about 16-20 years old, while henshin maiko are usually older, because studios don’t have age limits, and young girls usually can’t afford to try to be a henshin maiko.

    In the picture seen in the text you can see henshin maiko, not real ones.

    By the way there are 5 hanamachis in Kyoto (not 3). Gion is the most famous, where you can have a high chance to find geisha and maiko after 6 o’clock, when they start work. Before that, during daytime they wear casual kimono, and casual makeup, so it’s hard for a tourist to tell, who is a real geisha. But in the evening if you are patient and walk in Gion for about 30-40 minutes, you can meet a real one. I was in Gion between 9 o’ clock and 11 o’clock in the evening, and I met 3 maikos and 2 geikos.

    If you want to see them, good luck, but please, be polite with them. Lots of tourists think they are there for posing, and they have nothing to do, but they are always in a hurry. If they don’t stop for a photo, please don’t force them!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hello Buku Chan!

      Konnichiwa! Irashiamase! mo Arigato gozaimasu!

      VEry interesting info about the henshin-maiko! So why do girls dress up like Maiko? ARe they earning money somehow?

      Thanks for letting me know KYoto has 5 hanmachi instead of 3. I’ll go change that in my post. :))

      Arigato gozaimasu.

      cheers, Lash

  1. Where to go in Japan » LashWorldTour

    […] a handy way to cut down on your expenses. Check out my two posts on Free Things to do in Kyoto: part 1 here / part 2 […]


    […] 10 Free Things to do in Kyoto […]

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    […] 10 Free Things to do in Kyoto […]

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