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I loved Kyoto. I had no idea I was going to visit Japan when I left home for Taiwan. When I first got there, I was not enjoying it. I had planned five weeks in Taiwan and decided to cut it short and spend a week in Japan before heading to the Philippines. I found a cheap flight and one of my friends that I met in Taiwan decided to meet up with me again in Japan! We spent a couple days in Tokyo then headed down to Kyoto for one last day before she left.
I had a little extra time in Kyoto and got to do a little more exploring. One thing I didn’t think about was what it would be like weather-wise in Japan in February. Of course, some places (like Sapporo) are going to be a lot colder and snowier than others.
Kyoto in February was the perfect taste of winter. It was cold, but I wasn’t buried in snow, which is really good, because I was not prepared for that. At all. I mean, I was packed for fall weather and beach. I didn’t plan my packing all that well. Turns out, Japan is awesome in the winter. It’s not all that busy and it’s still super easy to get around. Kyoto does get snow, we just didn’t when we were there. Either way, these are some of the best things to do in Kyoto in the winter.
There are SO MANY temples in Kyoto, it’s nuts. You could easily spend weeks temple hopping, for reals, there are like 1600 temples in Kyoto, but for the sake of this, we’re going to pretend you have one day just for temples. Some are free, some have entrance fees, some are open to the public, and some aren’t. I would say for temple hopping, plan based on your budget and which ones you really want to see. Location will also be important, but don’t skip one you really want to see just because it’s not close to others. You can either rent a bike to get to some of the closer ones or get around by train, taxi, bus, or subway, or a combination of those.
Some of the best temples in Kyoto are Chion-in, Kinkaku-ji (this is probably the most well-known one in Kyoto, even if you don’t know what its called), Myoshin-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Honen, Nanzen-ji, Ninna-ji, Saiho-ji Kiyomizu-dera, Sanjusangen-do, Tenryu-ji, Gio-ji, Tofuku-ji, and Nembutsu-ji. I loved just wandering around and pooping into some of the smaller ones I passed along the way.
Relax in the springs of an Onsen
While there may not be tons of onsen in Kyoto, there are some that are still worth visiting. Onsen are natural hot spring baths that can be found across Japan and a must-do when visiting Japan that I, admittedly, didn’t do. There are two great ones in Kyoto: Kurama Onsen about a 30-minute train ride from Kyoto and Tenzan-no-yu Onsen near Arashiyama. Kyoto Yunohana Onsen Syoenso Hozugawatei is another great option near Kyoto.
You can also stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese Hotel, with onsen in them, but they can be pretty pricey, so if you’re on a budget, I wouldn’t recommend them. Here are some other onsens near Kyoto to check out if you have time.
Wander around Gion and Higashiyama
Gion and Higashiyama are the historic districts fo Kyoto. Higashiyama District is along the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. The best area in Higashiyama to experience traditional Kyoto is between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine. This is where you’ll see the narrow walkways and wooden buildings. The streets are lined with small shops, cafes, and restaurants making it the perfect place to spend an afternoon walking around.
Gion is the area that you’ll find the Geisha, known as Gaiko in Kyoto. Gion is the traditional entertainment district. This is where you’ll find a lot of bars, restaurants, and tea houses. The best time to visit Gion is in the early evening. You’ll most likely see geisha around on their way to appointments, but you’ll also get to see the streets lit up by the lanterns. But don’t worry, it’s still really cool to be in this area during the day. Pop into some temples and check out the Minamiza Kabuki Theater while you’re here.
No matter when you visit Kyoto, you should go see the Arashiyama bamboo forest. But, if you’re there at the right time, you should go during the day to see the forest, explore the area, and come back to the forest once it’s dark so you can see the festival of lights. This actually happens twice a year: once in December in Arashiyama and once in March in Higashiyama. You can find exact dates for the festival of lights here. For about ten days every December in Arashiyama you’ll find a 5km route through the area lit by open-air lanterns and flower arrangements. You’ll be able to see the bamboo forest, temples, and other historical areas in ARashiyama lit up.
You can get a map showing all of the lit areas or you can just wander around and follow the crowds. I would highly recommend visiting the Arashiyama bamboo forest during the day too. It can get pretty busy, but when we were there, the crowd was really just in one spot, but we walked a little further and didn’t see anyone. Like the picture above, it was just empty, I didn’t photoshop the people out. Plus, I just don’t know how to do that. So if you see the crowd, walk through it and past them. This is extremely easy to see as a day trip from Kyoto.
Admire the plum (ume) blossoms
While the plum blossom season may not be as well known as the cherry blossom season, it’s still worth seeing. It may technically be in spring, but it starts in February, so it counts as winter, too. You can find them blooming from early February to late March. There aren’t many best specific places to see the plum blossoms, but Kyoto and Tokyo will be the most popular.
Some of the best places to see the plum blossoms near Kyoto are the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Umenomiya Taisha, Zuishin-in Temple, Nijo Castle, and Kyoto Imperial Park. If you want to go a little further to see some, you could head towards Osaka to see them at the Osaka Castle Park or the Osaka Expo ’70 Park.
Spend an afternoon at Nara Deer Park
I won’t lie, Nara Deer Park was one of my favorite things I did in Japan. Visiting Nara Deer Park in winter is super easy, just make sure you dress appropriately. And by appropriately I mean in layers, but without lots of loose or dangling things. The deer will pul on and nip at any loose things, like sweaters, purses, sleeves, you get the idea. They want the biscuits and they’ll make sure you know that. For around 500 Yen you can get a little pack of the biscuits I’ve mentioned, to give to the deer.
Nara Deer Park, or Nara in general, is a great day trip from Kyoto. Just a train or bus ride away is a park full of deer waiting to spend the day with you. Not only do you get to feed the deer and hang out with them (they will follow you if they know you have biscuits you don’t give them, they’ll also bow to you if you hold them up in front of them) you can explore temples in the park, too. We spent an afternoon here and could have easily spent an entire day wandering around. There is no fee to enter Nara Deer Park.
Visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine
This is one of those things in Kyoto that you just have to see (that I did not, pretend there’s a facepalm emoji here). In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s the Shinto Shrine made up of thousands (10,000!) of orange torii gates leading 4KM up Mount Inari. Each gate was donated by a business. Along the way, you’ll see quite a few fox statues, more shrines, kiosks, and vending machines. There are a few restaurants along the way, too.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is free to visit and is open all day and night. If you plan to walk all the way to the top of Mount Inari, it will take two to three hours. The gates will be busy at the bottom, but the higher you go, the fewer people you’ll see. Consider combining a trip to the shrine with a visit to the Tofujuki Temple, which is one stop away on the Keihan Line. It’s farther away from most of the other things to see in Kyoto.
Head up Monkey Mountain in Arashiyama
I would do this when you visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Not too far from the bamboo forest is Monkey Mountain, or Monkey Park Iwatayama. In the park, you’ll find 120 snow monkeys. These are the same monkeys you’ve probably seen pictures of relaxing in the hot springs. The best part of this is that the monkeys are free to roam and not kept in cages. If you want to feed the monkeys, you actually have to go into a building to do it and the monkeys stay outside. To get to the main area, you’ll have to walk up a bit from Iwata Mountains base. The views from the top are also worth going up to see.
If you want to visit, set aside one to two hours. Tickets can be purchased at the park entrance for 550 Yen. You can additionally purchase snacks for the monkeys at the top. However, there are a few rules if you visit. Don’t stare into the monkeys’ eyes. They can take this as a threat and get aggressive. Don’t touch the monkeys because they’re wild monkeys. Finally, don’t feed them outside of the building at the top.
Take a day trip to Osaka to eat
Osaka is the food capital of Japan. I don’t know if that’s official, but we’ll pretend it is for the sake of this. After all, Osaka is home to 212 Michelin starred restaurants. How’s that for impressive? If you want to experience some of these, head to the Dotonbori neighborhood. The best time to visit and explore Dotonbori is in the evening to see it all lit up, but if you want to eat all the things, I’d go all day. There are restaurants galore, but you can also find street ramen: open-air ramen stalls.
Some of the best things to eat in Osaka are ramen, sushi and sashimi, Japanese beef, Okonomiyaki, takoyaki, Udon, Japanese Curry, Kani Douraku (a restaurant wit ha giant crab above it), sesame mochi, tempura, donburi, oden, matcha goodies, and yakitori. I don’t even know where to start on food in Osaka, so here is another post that might help you more.
Chances are pretty good there will be a festival going on near Kyoto. Of course, that’s not guaranteed, but keep an eye out if you like going to festivals. And if there is one you really want to go to, maybe consider planning a trip around it. Toshiya and Setsubun are the most famous. Toshiya is an archery competition for young women officially becoming adults when they turn 20. They practice archery in Kimonos and it is held around January 15th. Setsubun is held at the Yasaka Shrine in Gion to celebrate the end of winter around February 3rd. Maiko and Geisha chase away bad spirits by throwing dried beans into the crowd.
Some other awesome winter festivals in Kyoto to check out are Hatsumode to Fushimi Inari Shrine (January 1-3), Kemari Hejime (January 4), Hyakumanben Tedukuri Flea Market (December 15), Joya no Kane (December 31, this is the bell ringing at Chionin on New Years Eve), Enmusubi Hatsu Taikoku Festival at the Jishu Shrine (January 1-3), Toka Ebisu Festival at the Ebisu Shrine (January 8-12), Kyoto Marathon (February 17), Kyoto Restaurant Winter Special (February 1-28), Godai Rikison Ninno-e Festival at the Daigoji Temple (February 23, if you like mochi, check this one out!) and Baikasai at the Kitano Shrine (February 25, this is all about the plum blossoms). The festivals may not be on these specific dates every year, just around these times, so check before you go just to make sure you know when it’s happening.
Overall, I would highly recommend visiting Kyoto in winter. It’s not as busy, which is probably my number one reason to go then, but I also just really like traveling in the offseason.
Tips for visiting Kyoto in winter:
- It does get pretty cold here, so be prepared for that. I was in Kyoto in January and had to buy a hat and gloves. They were a game changer. I would definitely bring a warm jacket, hat, scarf, gloves, and warm boots/socks.
- It does snow in Kyoto, but only a few times a winter and doesn’t last long.
- While it may get really cold outside, it is SO HOT inside businesses. Like, plan to take all your layers off once you step inside any building for more than two minutes. One good thing about this is that you can pop into a 7-11 to warm up a bit if you’re freezing when you’re walking around.
- Contrary to what you usually read about buses around the world (I’m looking at you Mexico) being really cold, the night bus from Tokyo to Kyoto that we took was like, 85 degrees. So I can’t stress layers enough for a trip to Japan in the winter.
- Consider bringing an umbrella. It was pretty rainy when I was there. But don’t worry if you don’t have one, a lot of hostels have umbrellas you can borrow.
- If you don’t have a SIM card and need wifi, you can use free wifi at all 7-11’s! So stop in for spaghetti in a hot dog bun, some Calpis, warmth, and wifi.