Free things to do in Kyoto – Considering Japan’s expensive reputation, it’s surprising how many fun free things there are to do. It’s even more surprising that Kyoto, one of the most popular areas to visit, has a wider variety of free options. With famously stunning temples and shrines, historically rich neighborhoods, delightful markets and magnificent landscapes, you may actually struggle to spend money. Here are 10 free things to do in Kyoto.
1. Get lost in the bamboo forest
From the moment you exit Arashiyama station, you will know you’re in a special part of Kyoto. The surrounding area itself could be considered a fun thing to do with the togetsukyo bridge, the central landmark offering some ideal photo opportunities and a wide variety of small shops and restaurants selling traditional goods and foods nearby.
The bamboo grove is probably the most unique free experience to be found. Feel immersed in the natural beauty as you adventure through the maze of tall bamboo trees while admiring the friendly artists’ stalls set up throughout and the rickshaw carriages running by.
2. Admire the fabrics in the Kimono Forest
The bamboo grove is not your only opportunity to explore a unique forest as not too far away, in the magical area that is Arashiyama, you will find the ‘Kimono Forest’.
The forest displays a collection of creatively designed kimonos housed in cylinder shaped pillars. There are about 600 pillars and they frame the walk to the Randen tram station. During sunset, the pillars are illuminated providing a little bit more magic to the stroll. It’s a truly unique, free Japanese experience, only to be found in Kyoto.
3. Soak in the views at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Probably one of the most visited shrines in Japan and free? That’s right, Fushimi Inari Shrine, home to the iconic 10,000 red gates, is completely free to visit. The shrine is not only popular for getting the ideal, “I’ve been to Japan” photo but actually offers a lot of other free things to do.
The gates have been donated by many companies and individuals so you can enjoy finding the different brands written on the gates as you pass through. There are smaller shrines and tiny gate displays dotted throughout, provided by those with slightly smaller budgets. The 3 hour hike has many breathtaking views along the way where people can sit, rest and stare at the wonderful city of Kyoto.
Before coming to the gates, you get to explore the shrine’s main hall. This is where people pray and make donations to ‘Inari’, the shinto God of rice. It’s a large, architecturally delightful building. Around this area you will see many other prayer spots and get to enjoy the colourful crane origami created by many visitors under the popular belief that 1000 cranes leads to good health and a long life.
4. Point to a ten yen coin and say I’ve been there
Kyoto is famous for being home to many magnificent temples. It may be difficult to decide which one to visit but if you’re looking for free and odd bragging rights, then Byodoin is the perfect place to go.
As pictured on the back of the 10 yen coin, Byodoin’s ‘Phoenix Hall’ is one of the few surviving original wooden structures from the Heian period. Along with the striking architecture and the surrounding scenic garden, Byodoin hosts guests with a perfect example of Buddhist Pure Land.
Address: Renge-116 Uji, Kyoto 611-0021
5. Wonder the picturesque streets of Higashiyama
The calming atmosphere, the history soaked buildings and houses, the elegant kimono wearers, the clean brick streets, the simple and traditional souvenir shops, the peace and the awe striking five story Yasaka pagoda, it’s easy to spend the entire day strolling the streets of Higashiyama in utter bliss, completely free of charge.
This perfectly preserved historical district is a wonderful place to visit any time of year with each season offering its own unique views. Many people visit during cherry blossom season and the added beauty is well worth it. You’ll also notice many pottery stores and tea ceremony opportunities. It’s a wonderful place to visit to feel culturally rich without spending a penny.
6. Relax in Maruyama Park
After spending the day exploring Higashi Yama, you may need some rest and luckily Maruyama park is only 5 minutes away. This is Kyoto’s oldest park and is cherished by locals. It has many seating areas, carefully maintained gardens, ponds, rest houses, Japanese restaurants and stalls and much more.
It’s most famous during cherry blossom season with it’s main attraction being a large weeping cherry tree. There are many more forests of cherry trees around the park providing ideal free picnic areas.
It’s also a wonderful place for people watching, elderly couples having their afternoon snack, young kimono wearers getting the perfect photo and people everywhere enjoying a few drinks and sometimes even a spot of public karaoke.
7. Enjoy a breathtaking hike; Takao to Hozukyo trail
If you want to feel immersed in nature, see beautiful views, experience culture, while getting some light exercise, then the Takao to Hosukyo trail is the best way to spend your time and not your money.
This enchanting trail begins in Takao, a small village found in the northwest Kyoto mountains. The village is home to two stunning temples that are free to visit before you begin your trail. Following the pleasant banks of the Kiyotaki-gawa river, you will eventually come to the spellbinding waterfall, Kuya-no-taki. Eventually finishing up at the JR Hozukyo station.
This trail is one of the most beautiful hikes available in Japan. It takes about 6 hours but make sure to spend time at the resting points to appreciate the undeniable beauty the hike offers.
Address: Umegahata Nishinohatacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8289
8. Watch a Kimono fashion parade
Nestled between Nijo castle and the Imperial castle, you will find the Nishijin Textile Centre. Easy to miss as you wander the Kyoto streets, but absolutely worth the visit. The centre offers traditionally worn and styled kimonos with a variety of appealing patterns. There are many fashion shows hosted throughout the day, completely free of charge where you can see these wonderful fabrics worn correctly with elegance.
You can also watch free silk weaving demonstrations upstairs with no pressure to buy any of the beautiful fabrics displayed throughout the building.
9. Check out some of the more unusual foods at the Nishiki Market
If you’re trying not to spend, then perhaps suggesting a stroll through stall after stall of deliciously enticing food sounds like a bad idea but I guarantee you can still enjoy this market.
With more than 100 shops and restaurants, Nishiki market gives passers-by a glimpse at traditional, slightly unusual foods you may not get the chance to see anywhere else in the world. For those of us, hoping to remain careful with our money but wanting to try some of the foods, you’ll be happy to know most stalls offer free samples with zero pressure to purchase.
During my wander through the market, I tried new blends of teas, special herbs to accompany rice, sake, sakura desserts and some black bean biscuits with many more available testers.
10. Embrace the views at Kyoto’s tallest peak, Mt. Atago
Standing at 924meters, Mt. Atago has the tallest peak in Kyoto and is home to the Atago shrine which can be admired once you reach the top. The temple is believed to protect people from fire disasters. Hikers like to pick up a strip of paper from the shrine and leave it in their home as extra fire protection. Along with this parents often bring children under the age of 4 to the top as it’s believed to provide them with a lifetime of fire protection too.
The trail takes about 5 hours round trip and is moderately difficult, it is open all year round and usually hosts a lot of snow in Winter, adding to the difficulty of the hike but also adding to its natural beauty. With stunning views, an unusually placed shrine, being free, traditional structures throughout and fire protection for life, there’s really no reason not to enjoy a day at Mt. Atago.
If you happen to find yourself in Kyoto on a tight budget, it seems like you might just be in luck as it’s easy to achieve a fun, culturally educational, unique and frugal trip to this beautiful Japanese city.