Ten of the best free activities in Kyoto

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Higashiyama

Higashiyama

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Arashiyama

Katsura River, Arashiyama

The stroll along the Kamo River in Kyoto can be done on foot or by bicycle.

Stroll along the Kamo River in Kyoto, on foot or by bike

Japan on a budget: Visit Kyoto for free

Like many other cities, it's possible to enjoy Kyoto through various free tours and activities. Discover which shrines, parks, side streets and famous sites are free to explore in Kyoto...

Districts in Kyoto to visit

1. Gion Historic District

This isn't much of a secret: the old geisha district of Gion is a must on a visit to Kyoto. Fortunately, it's always free to walk the quaint cobblestone streets of this traditional neighborhood in the east of the city. To admire the machiya (traditional wooden houses), walk the preserved street of Hanamikoji (beware: it's very touristy!), which is still home to some okiya (geisha houses) but mostly ochaya, kind of tea rooms where the geisha hold court.

Be sure to cross the overcrowded Shijodori Avenue to reach the northern part of the neighborhood. You'll find Shirakawa Lane, with its small canal, bridges, and beautiful restaurants that can be seen from the street.

2. Higashiyama district and the view from Kiyomizu-dera

Not far from Gion is the district of Higashiyama, with a similar atmosphere and backed by the surrounding hills. The traditional Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka streets are unavoidable. Restaurants, souvenir shops and traditional sweet shops line these steep, paved, pedestrian streets. A very photogenic and picturesque stroll, which leads to the famous Kiyomizu-dera temple.

It's possible to climb the temple steps and go through the first set of doors without having to pay an entrance fee. You can enjoy the beauty of the pagoda, as well as a sublime view of the city, highly recommended at sunset (be aware however that the temple closes at around 6pm).

Higashiyama

Higashiyama

View of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera

View of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera

Gion

Gion

3. A bike ride along the Kamogawa

The city of Kyoto is crossed by the Kamogawa River (the name means "Duck River", and once you see the river it's clear why). Particularly pleasant thanks to its banks dedicated to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, this shallow river is very popular with locals. We recommend cycling along the edge from south to north, between Shijo-Kawaramachi Bridge and the fork in the river at Demachiyanagi in the north.

This is a beautiful way to discover the charm of the city in a quiet way, while admiring the wooden terraces of restaurants (kawadoko) in the summer. A tip: stop off at one of the many konbini to grab a coffee or a cold drink, and sit at the water's edge, the time of a ray of sunshine. With a little luck, you will see one of the many herons or nutria ...

4. Stroll through Nishiki Market

Still in the city center, after checking out the various department stores (with or without spending anything!) around the Shijo-Kawaramachi junction, you can take a walk to Nishiki indoor market. It's parallel to Shijo-Dori Avenue. This narrow 400-meter-long arcade is very popular with Japanese foodies. You'll find plenty of fish stalls, but also vegetables, tea, spices, sweets, as well as local groceries and cooking utensils. The walk allows you to soak up the atmosphere of a real Japanese market.

Nishiki Market

Vegetable stalls Nishiki Market.

The stroll along the Kamo River in Kyoto can be done on foot or by bicycle.

Stroll along the Kamo River in Kyoto, on foot or by bike

Tourist, cultural and religious sites

5. Fushimi Inari Taisha

An unmissable Japanese shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha and its haunting tunnels of red torii gates attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The image of these vermilion "tunnels" created by the arrangement of one torii after another is a classic image of Japan.

The shrine is free to access and is found on the flanks of the small mountain of Inari. To discover the whole shrine, you'll have to undertake a hike taking approximately 2 to 2.5 hours, following a pretty steep slope and a large number of stairs. The walk is a unique experience, and walking through the countless torii in the middle of the forest is an incredible experience.

6. Nanzen-ji Park

While access to the interior of Nanzen-ji Temple itself isn't free, a walk around the large park surrounding the various small temples costs you nothing. You can access the park via the impressive Sanmon Gate, to discover a very pleasant park dotted with Buddha statues. The large brick aqueduct, built in the nineteenth century is also worth a look.

Fushimi Inari

A tunnel of torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Nanzen-ji

Nanzen-ji aquaduct

7. The Imperial Palace and park

A green sanctuary in the middle of the city, the huge park of the former imperial palace of Kyoto draws tourists and Kyoto locals alike. Impressive white gravel paths run through the park, and large Japanese pines cover the lawns, offering welcome shade in the summer.

It's now possible to visit the outside of the imperial palace for free, without prior reservation, by going directly to Seishomon Gate (in the north of the park).

The Imperial Palace, Kyoto-Gosho, secondary residence of the emperor.

The Imperial Palace, Kyoto-Gosho, secondary residence of the emperor.

The cherry blossoms along the Philosophers Path in spring

The cherry blossoms along the Philosophers Path in spring

8. Philosopher's Path

The Philosopher's Path, along with Fushimi Inari shrine, is a very well-known place in the city. Enjoy a stroll along this small channel of Lake Biwa, where the seasons mark their passage, and the changing light give different views of the landscape. The path is especially popular during the hanami, when many cherry trees scatter their petals in the water, and it's a popular spot during the koyo too. The banks of the canal are lined with small shops, cafes, craft stalls and tea rooms, making it possible to stop for a snack anytime.

9. Arashiyama and its bamboo forest

Who would go to Kyoto and not visit Arashiyama? This small area to the west of the city is an unmissable (and free) part of any visit. The walk along the river is totally exotic, and brings a welcome dose of nature. If you're there during the koyo in November, it's even better: it's an incredible spot to admire the red maple trees that cover the surrounding hills.

Don't miss the famous bamboo forest, which is completely free to visit and remains a must-see.

Arashiyama, Kyoto

Arashiyama bamboo forest

10. Kyoto matsuri

Finally, participating in a matsuri (traditional festival) is a great way to discover Kyoto and Japanese traditions in general. This kind of event is always free because it's held in the street, often with parades of floats and people in costumes.

In Kyoto, the most famous and best-known matsuri are Gion Matsuri in July, Aoi Matsuri in May, Setsubun (Spring Festival) in February, and the Jidai Matsuri, a costume parade held in October.

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