May is one of the best – if not the best – times to visit Kyoto. It’s less crowded than April (when everyone comes to see the cherry blossoms), the weather is usually warm (but not hot) and lots of plants are in bloom.
Important: Many Events Cancelled Due To COVID-19
Please note that many of Kyoto’s May 2020 events are now cancelled to due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are currently in Kyoto, please ask the staff at your accommodation to check ahead on your behalf before attending any of these events. Please also follow recommended safety protocols and stay safe!
Yabusame Shinji (horseback archery) – image © Jeffrey Friedl
1-6 May 2020
Ginkaku-ji Temple is beautiful at any time of year, especially if you can visit right after opening or just before closing (ie, before the crowds descend on the place). But if you can visit during the first week of May, you’ll be able to view the Togu-do and Dojin-sai, both of which are Japanese National Treasures. The Togu-do is the hall of the temple in which Buddha images and mortuary tablets are stored, and this hall contains a special room and garden called the Dojin-sai, which is thought to be the first dedicated tea room in Japan, and, in some ways, the spot where the tea ceremony started.
1-6 May 2020
Kodai-ji Temple is one of the loveliest temples in the Southern Higashiyama district. During the first week of May, several temples hold special night time illuminations, including the one here. This temple is magical when illuminated at night and you can easily pair a visit here with one to the nearby Shoren-in Temple (see following).
1-6 May 2020
Shoren-in Temple is one of the gems of Southern Higashiyama: It’s compact, beautiful and often avoided by the tourist hoards. When the garden of the temple is illuminated in the evening, it becomes a fantasy world of the imagination. The bamboo grove here is particularly mysterious here at night.
1-14 May 2020
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 in the first 10 days of 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. See also our detailed Exploring Daitoku-ji article which guides you around the highlights of the complex.
1-24 May 2020
Event: Kamogawa Odori
Location: Pontocho Kaburenjo
Time: starts at 12:30pm, 2:20pm and 4:10pm
Admission: JPY2,500, 4,900 or 5,500
During most of the month of May, the girls of the Pontocho geisha district perform the lovely and quaint Kamogawa Odori dance in the Pontocho Kaburenjo hall, overlooking the eponymous Kamo-gawa River. While not as grand as the famed Miyako Odori (held in Gion), this dance is superb and you should make every effort to see it. Private tour companies and hotel concierges can help you secure tickets. Check out our Kyoto Geisha page for more details on Kyoto’s geisha.
1-25 May 2020
Down south below Kyoto Station, To-ji Temple is one of the oldest and most interesting temples in the city. It’s a Shingon (Esoteric Buddhist) stronghold and contains some fantastic Buddhist images and treasures. For most of this month, the Homotsu-kan, or Treasure House, is open to the public. If you’re particularly interested in Buddhism, this is well worth catching.
Daitoku-ji Temple, Kyoto – image © Damien Douxchamps
1-31 May 2020
This is another lovely small garden in the Daitoku-ji complex (see the Daitoku-ji entry above for more details). It would make a great addition to a visit to Obai-in.
1-31 May 2020
Event: Special Exhibition: Kannon Worship: The Thirty-three Pilgrimage Sites of Western Japan
Location: Kyoto National Museum, Heisei Chishinkan Wing
Time: Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday: 9:30am-6:00pm (Enter by 5:30pm), Friday, Saturday: 9:30am-8:00pm (Enter by 7:30pm)
This exhibition celebrates the 33 temples in Western Japan that form a 1300-year-old pilgrimage trail which venerates the Bodhisattva of mercy, Kannon. It is said that completing the pilgrimage is sufficient to rid oneself of bad karma and ensure rebirth in the “pure land.” The exhibition comprises a variety of treasures from the 33 temples along the route.
3 May 2020
Yabusame, or horseback archery, is Japan’s most thrilling sport and this is your best chance to see it. Held in the long arcade that runs through the middle of the beautiful Tadasu-no-mori forest at Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, this event allows you to get really close to the horses and riders as they thunder past the targets, unleashing arrows as they go. I cannot stress this enough: If you can possibly get yourself to Kyoto on 3 May, do NOT miss it!
3 May 2020
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.
Aoi Matsuri – image © Chris Rowthorn
15 May 2020
The Aoi Matsuri is one of Kyoto’s three most important festivals. The festival commemorates the time when a sixth-century emperor sent a retinue from the Imperial Palace to Shimogamo-jinja and Kamigamo-jinja shrines in hopes of appeasing the deities and ending a series of disastrous crop failures and epidemics.
On 15 May, the festival starts with a procession from the Gosho (Imperial Palace) starting at 10.30am and continuing to Shimogamo-jinja Shrine and finishing at Kamigamo-jinja Shrine (arriving there around 3.30pm). The best places to watch the procession are in the Kyoto Gyoen (Imperial Palace Park) and the Tadasu-no-mori at Shimogamo-jinja Shrine.
15 May 2020
Chion-ji Temple hosts a fabulous handicraft market on the 15th of every month. It’s a great place to pick up unique, locally made souvenirs during your travels to Kyoto. It’s also a good chance to see Japan’s alternative community and local expats.
21 May 2020
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.
Stone Bull at Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine – image © Jeffrey Friedl
25 May 2020
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.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- Get travel insurance for Japan - World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)