Alternative Kyoto: Top Three Highlights Beyond the Famous Shrines

Welcome back! This second entry in my Japan series will focus on my time in Kyoto. Travellers to the city usually focus on the famous shrines, but if you are looking for something a bit different, this post is for you! Here are three top highlights from around and about the city you can consider.

1. Mount Koya

Located in the Wakayama prefecture, Mount Koya (or Kōyasan 高野山) is considered the center of Shingon Buddhism and is now one of the best places to stay in a temple and experience a monk’s lifestyle. There are more than fifty temples throughout the area. Some of the bigger ones don’t offer temple stay experiences, but the smaller ones do. I really wanted to try it, but due to time (and money) constraint, I decided to just do a day trip. But I’ve heard rave reviews, so if you have a chance, go for the temple stay!

Entrance to Okunoin Temple, Koyasan. There are also cemeteries on temple grounds and monuments to honour the dead.
A group of pilgrims visiting the sacred place. Weather wasn’t too good that day so I didn’t take too many photos!
Lantern hall with more than 10,000 lanterns containing “lights of thousand years”

Koyasan is located high in the mountains and it is quite secluded. It takes 3 hours to get there from Kyoto. Take the Japan Railways (JR) train to Osaka, where you can purchase a Koyasan World Heritage ticket and transfer to the Nankai Rail. The ticket pass, which costs JPY 2,860 (~SGD 33), includes a two-way cable car ride to and from Koyasan, as well as allows you to take all the buses in the area.

2. Arashiyama’s Hanatoro

Hanatoro is a light festival that happens in the Higashiyama and Arashiyama Districts of Kyoto during March and December respectively. Coincidentally, in 2014, Arashiyama Hanatoro started on the 12th of December, a day before my flight back to Singapore. Talk about my luck!

It would be such a shame to miss this awesome light festival. Plus, it’s free! During Hanatoro, many temples and shrines are illuminated at night and their opening hours are extended. The whole city comes alive and you get to see the famous Arashiyama bamboo groves all lit up.

The best part of the festival was the bamboo groves, all lit up.
Lanterns around the grounds. You should totally check out Hanatoro when in Kyoto during the season!
So gorgeous, and also surreal at the same time.

If you happen to be in Kyoto not during the Hanatoro season, Arashiyama is still an excellent district for a day trip. Visit the famous Tenryuji Temple, have a relaxing stroll through its bamboo groves, walk across Togetsukyo Bridge, or go for a traditional Hozu River boat cruise.

To get to Arashiyama from Kyoto, take the JR line to Sagaarashiyama station. The ride costs only JPY 240 (~SGD 3) without a JR Pass.

3. Geisha Culture in Gion

Gion is a district in Kyoto, most famous for its geisha culture. It is one of those places you should visit to immerse yourself in and learn more about Japanese culture. In this case, the Geisha culture.

Geisha, or geiko in Kyoto dialect, are female professionals who act as hostesses, attending to guests during meals and banquets. Trained in a lot of Japanese arts, their job is to make guests feel at ease by conducting drinking games and dance performances. The geisha culture is a part of Japanese culture still surviving today, as it receives plenty of financial support from the Japanese government.

The easiest way to spot a geisha will be to visit Gion. During my trip, I was extra lucky because my last day in Japan, 13th December, was the day when the geishas would come out and visit their Mamasan (master). The geishas would give biscuits to their Mamasan and thank her for her guidance through the years.

A lot of the locals were already camping in the area when I reached. All were there just to take some photos of the geishas. Most of us were respectful towards the geishas, however, some were a bit rude and took photos right in front of them. Some even asked for a photo together.

A lot of red lanterns like this can be seen around Gion, the home of geisha culture in Kyoto
I spotted a few of them, and see how young the one at the back was.
Before I left I also saw some already with their makeup on.

If you do see a geisha in the future, just remember to be respectful because they are just like any other normal person. During your visit to Kyoto, try talking to the locals to understand more what the geisha culture is really about. An extra note, there seems to be a hike in tourists who paid to be dressed up as geishas and people usually get confused because of that. Just be careful!

So these are the three things you can consider when you visit Kyoto, as an alternative to all the usual shrine- and temple-hopping. There’s so much culture and nature that Kyoto offers, and it’s all there for you to discover!

Up next, stay tuned for my next post on the top 10 tips that you have to know before you fly to Japan 😀

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    1. OMG! Yes! One of my best experiences when I was in Kyoto 🙂 Hopefully your next visit to Japan will fall within the period of Hanatoro at either Arashiyama (December) or Higashiyama (March)! Or else, the bamboo groves are still as beautiful during the day!

  1. I wish I would have known about Mount Koya before I went on my Honeymoon. Absolutely loved Kyoto, though. And your pictures are beyond perfect. 😀