image © Jeffrey Friedl
The spring illumination (light up) at Kiyomizu-dera Temple, in the Southern Higashiyama District, is a great time to visit the temple. The evening atmosphere is magical. Just follow the beam of light to the temple.
One of the best strolls in Northern Higashiyama runs along the Shirakawa Canal. It’s a great shortcut from Higashiyama Subway Station on the Tozai Subway Line to the Okazaki Museum District.
I’ve written about some of my other favorite Kyoto walks if you want to explore the city on foot.
April is the most popular month to visit Kyoto, thanks to the blooming of the world famous cherry blossoms. There’s a whole raft of events to celebrate their arrival, plus special openings of the both the Imperial Palace and a stunning subtemple at the Daitoku-ji temple complex.
Event: Shoren-in Night Time Illumination
Location: Shoren-in Temple
Shoren-in Temple is one of the lesser-known gems of the Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district and it takes on a truly magical air when the garden is illuminated by night. Don’t miss the bamboo forest here when you go – the illumination makes it truly otherworldly. Hopefully, they’ll be some cherry trees in bloom during this period and this makes a nice combination with other illuminations in the area, including the Gion Shirakawa Illumination (see following) and the Cherry Blossom Illumination at Maruyama-koen Park (see further below).
Event: Gion Shirakawa Night Time Illumination
Location: Gion Shirakawa area
The most beautiful part of the Gion traditional entertainment district is the small section commonly known as Gion Shimbashi or Gion Shirakawa, running between Hanami-koji and Kawabata-dori. This beautifully preserved district of old wooden houses and flagstone streets is magical during cherry blossom season. There are several stunning cherry trees along the canal here, and there’s an arcade of cherry trees at the far west end of this section, just before you reach Kawabata-dori Street. This is all illuminated during cherry blossom season and the whole place takes on an otherworldly air. Sure, it will be packed, but this is one crowd we’re more than willing to deal with.
Event: Kitano Odori Geisha Dance
Location: Kamishichiken Kaburenjo
Time: starts at 1:30pm and 4:30pm
Admission: JPY4,000 or 4,500
Each of Kyoto’s five geisha districts holds a major series of dance performances once a year. Four of these happen in the spring. This one, held by the geisha houses of the northern Kamishichiken Geisha District, is very special. The scale is rather intimate and the dance is always superb. It doesn’t necessarily feel like stepping back in time, it feels more like stepping out of time. Some of Kyoto’s specialist tour companies and concierges at high-end hotels and ryokan may be able to source you tickets for these and the other geisha dances.
Event: Cherry Blossom Night Time Illumination
Location: Maruyama-koen Park
Time: After sunset – 1:00am
Maruyama-koen Park is cherry blossom central in Kyoto. Here is where you go to find the biggest crowds, the wildest hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties and some of the best trees in the city. It gets pretty rowdy here on weekend evenings when the blossoms are in full bloom, but it’s a pretty tame crowd. If the crowd gets to be too much, you can see refuge at the higher eastern end of the park, overlooking the madness below. If you can’t be bothered to fix up your own hanami party, just grab a seat on one of the tables in the center of the park – you just have to buy some drinks and snacks from the nearby vendors to claim a place.
Event: Miyako Odori Geisha Dance
Location: Gionkobu Kaburenjo
Time: starts at 12:30pm, 2:00pm, 3:30pm and 4:50pm
Admission: JPY2,000, 4,000 or 4,500
This is the mother of all geisha dances. Put on by the girls of the main Gion geisha district in a huge hall, this is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The number of geisha, the constantly changing sets, the outright bizarre sounds from the musicians and singers, it will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. If you can go, by all means, GO! You will not regret it. Private tour operators and concierges may be able to source you tickets.
Event: Kyo Odori Geisha Dance
Location: Miyagawa-cho Kaburenjo
Time: starts at 12:30pm, 2:30pm and 4:30pm
Admission: JPY2,000, 4,000 or 4,500
The second largest and grandest geisha dance in Kyoto, this is put on by the Miyagawa-cho Geisha District. It’s a first-rate performance in every way and you should do everything in your power to catch a performance – it will be unforgettable. As mentioned above, some private tour operators and concierges can help you get tickets to the performances.
Event: To-ji Temple Flea Market
Location: To-ji Temple
If you can’t be in town for Kyoto’s two famous flea markets (Kobo-san Market and Tenjin-san Market), this is a good choice. Like the Kobo-san Market, it’s held on the grounds of To-ji Temple. You’ll usually find a good selection of antiques at this market.
Event: The Kyoto Imperial Palace Spring Opening
Location: Kyoto Imperial Palace
Remark: Closed on April 8th and April 14th
For most of the year, you have to make reservations at the Imperial Household Agency or via their website to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace (Gosho). But, twice a year (spring and fall), you can just show up and visit. Note that you should be properly attired; you don’t have to dress formally at all, but cut-off shorts and flip-flops/thongs won’t cut it. You can expect lines, especially on weekend days.
Event: Kobo-san Market
Location: To-ji Temple
Named for Japan’s most revered Buddhist Saint, Kobo Daishi, this market is one of the two best markets in town (the other being the Tenjin-san Market, held on the 25th). You’ll find all manner of goods on sale here including used kimono, antiques, ceramics, food, bric-a-brac, old postcards and books, and assorted Japanalia. In addition to being a great market, this is also a chance to see Kyoto’s foreign community, which turns out in full, along with hoards of locals.
Event: Daitoku-ji Spring Special Opening
Daitoku-ji Temple is actually a collection of subtemples, a walled-in world of miniature Zen paradises. The eponymous Daitoku-ji itself is very fine and is open all year round. But, if you’re here between 23 March to 11 May, the make tracks for the Daitoku-ji complex because this is your chance to see what is perhaps the most spectacular subtemple there: Obai-in (sometimes written as Oubai-in in English). It’s only opened briefly in the spring and fall each year. It’s a collection of fine halls, superb karesansui (Zen gardens) and beautiful vistas from each room and window. Don’t miss it.
Event: Tenjin-san Market
Location: Kitano Tenmangu
Like the Kobo-san market (see previous), this is one of the two best markets in town. It’s named for Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th century poet and scholar who is the patron saint of academic pursuits in Japan. Known colloquially as Tenjin-san, the market is a great excuse to visit this shrine and see people, especially school children, rubbing the two stone bulls in front of the main hall of the shrine (doing so is said to make one more intelligent). Like the Kobo-san market, this is a great chance to buy used kimono, ceramics, antiques and bric-a-brac, along with food and drink. You’ll also rub shoulders with an interesting assortment of expats and locals.
The cherry trees at the north end of the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park (Kyoto Gyoen) are among the best in the city. This is one of the best places to enjoy the blossoms without crushing crowds.