The city of Kyoto embodies the history and culture of Japan’s old capital, and seventeen World Heritage sites have been designated among temples, shrines, and castles. It is a tourist destination that draws in visitors from across Japan and around the world.
In this article, we feature areas that are usually closed to the public, stepping deeper into Kyoto’s to discover its hidden treasures. Our journey takes us further into the city while also revealing its secret spaces.
These magical hidden spaces are tucked away everywhere in a city whose history stretches back more than a thousand years.
Savor the hidden Kyoto, see for yourself places not usually open to the public.
We’ll start with a hotel that specializes in showing visitors the hidden depths of the city. The Thousand Kyoto offers simple, refined spaces that are inspired by a love for Zen1 philosophy and aesthetics. It celebrated its grand opening in January 2019, and is just a two-minute walk from the central exit at JR Kyoto Station.
The hotel offers a package called Okutrip Kyoto. Choose from a variety of activities, such as zazen meditation in a temple with an 800-year-old garden that is normally closed to the public or a visit to a kimono fabric wholesaler in the high-end textile district of Nishijin, where you can select rolls of fabric or even have a kimono custom made. These special experiences are only available to guests staying at The Thousand Kyoto.
One of their packages even lets you take a helicopter ride across the city. Seeing classic Kyoto landmarks like Kiyomizu-dera or Kinkaku-ji from the air certainly makes for an uncommon and exciting experience.
1Zen is a sect of Buddhism which teaches that enlightenment can be found by sitting in zazen meditation
Gain access to the inner sanctuary of the city with an all-day unlimited transportation pass
Once you’ve spent a day enjoying the private and unexpected sides of Kyoto, head to the Rakuhoku neighborhood—often called the “inner sanctuary” of the city. The area is dotted with dignified, longstanding temples tucked away in the natural beauty of the mountains. It has a particularly mysterious feel in a city that already seems to be steeped in magic.
If you want to get to Rakuhoku from the Kyoto Station area, your best bet is to pick up a Kurama/Kibune Day Trip Ticket for the Bus and Eiden Train. The pass gives you unlimited rides on the Keihan Railway (between Tofukuji Station and Demachiyanagi Station), the Eizan Railway, the Kyoto City Bus, and most routes on the Kyoto Bus for one day. It’s a perfect way to enjoy the inner sanctuaries of Kyoto to the fullest.
There’s another great way to get around, and that’s the Hiei sightseeing train. The Eizen Railway has two final stops—Mt. Hiei and Mt. Kurama—and both are known for their mystical air as well as a dynamic energy that transcends time and space. The design of the train attempts to capture this spirit with the use of oval themes, which earned it the Good Design Award from the Japan Institute of Design Promotion in 2018. The train, which features elaborate design elements both inside and out, has become a favorite with locals and tourists alike.
A magical spot in Rakuhoku where you can experience nature and the universe
For the first stop on your journey into the depths Kyoto at Rakuhoku, head to Ruriko-in Temple. The closest station is Yase-Hieizan-guchi on the Eizen Main Line (the line on which the Hiei tourist train runs). It is only open for special viewing sessions twice a year—when the Japanese maples are brilliant green and when their leaves turn colors in the fall. The temple is known for gardens that use Mt. Hiei as a natural backdrop and the sukiya-zukuri architectural style of its buildings, and the gorgeous Ruri-no-niwa garden with its vast moss carpets is a must-see.
There are two more magical destinations waiting for you if you get off the Eizen Main Line at Takaragaike Station and switch to the Kurama Line. At Kurama Station (the last stop on the line), you’ll find Kurama-dera Temple, which enshrines the god of Mt. Kurama, home of the tengu goblin legends. The principal Buddhist image at Kurama-dera is a trinity of gods called Sonten, which are said to have descended to Earth from Venus some 6.5 million years ago. It’s also said that you’ll experience a sense of oneness with the universe if you stand in the center of the metal plate on the ground in front of the Main Golden Hall.
Kifune-jinja Shrine is famous for answering prayers for marriage. It is also dedicated to the god of water, in connection with the Kifune River that serves as an important source of water for the city. There is a riverbed festival called Kawayuka2 held at the Kifune River in early summer, where restaurants set up sitting areas over the river and serve traditional Kyoto dishes. At the height of summer, the area is constantly bustling with tourists enjoying the cool water breezes.
Take a step deeper into Kyoto and experience its hidden delights. This article focused on the Rakuhoku area in the northern part of the city, but if you’d like to head south of The Thousand Kyoto at JR Kyoto Station to the Rakunan area, the Kyoto-Osaka Sightseeing Pass (available only to foreign travelers) is a great way to get there.
The hidden world of Kyoto is so enchanting that every step into its magical spaces only draws you deeper—until you find that it’s nearly impossible to break its spell.
2A summer event in Kyoto where restaurants set up outdoor sitting areas on or overlooking the river and serve food there.
THE THOUSAND KYOTO（English）
Ride Keihan,discover Kyoto