Japan’s ancient imperial capital, Kyoto, is one of the best places in the country to experience Japan’s ageless traditions and explore its long-held heritage, which survives largely intact despite wars and natural disasters. A major tourist attraction, there are a great many things to do in Kyoto at night, and we bring the very best to your attention right here!
The best things to do in Kyoto at night
Admire the city’s night time panoramas
The needle-like structure of the Kyoto Tower, itself elegantly lit up come nightfall, is a wonderful place to take in the city from above at night. Close to Kyoto station and standing 130 meters high, the tower is the highest structure in the city, meaning it offers some of the best and most unique views of Kyoto from its dedicated observation deck. This stands 100 metres up, and provides 360-degree views of the city from its central location. Closer to the ground, the tower also incorporates a commercial centre with a nice mix of stores and restaurants, and even public baths!
Check out the traditions of Gion
Kyoto’s Gion district is often described as the city’s geisha district. Here the pedestrianised streets are typified by low wooden-built structures where geishas have entertained in their traditional manner for centuries. One of the best things to do in Kyoto at night, the district takes on an even more charming air after dark, with soft light seeping from lanterns. Its doorways lead to authentic and traditional ochaya teahouses, and restaurants serving regional kaiseki ryori (high-end Japanese cuisine) in addition to international favourites.
Enjoy a geisha performance
Geishas have a unique role in Japanese culture. Part hostess, part musician, and part dancer, geishas are still a mysterious and exclusive form of Japanese entertainment which has been historically closed off to outsiders. More recently, this stance has been relaxed, but for the moment it remains true that as a visitor to the city, the best way to enjoy a geisha performance is as part of a tourist-orientated cultural show. Unarguably one of the best things to do in Kyoto at night, these shows act as a gateway to the intricacies of Japanese culture, from its tea ceremonies, to its traditional fan dances, and even its ikebana form of flower arranging.
Stretch your legs with a riverside walk
One of our top free things to do in Kyoto at night, a stroll along the Kamogawa River is a fantastic way to experience Kyoto’s more natural environments. The river’s grassy banks, dotted with cherry trees to one side and with hills rising in the near distance, are great at any time of day. But the atmosphere becomes extra special when the lamps are lit in the evening, and street performers sing and play. It’s a popular spot for locals and visitors to the city to walk without the traffic or crowds of some of the other areas in the city centre, with many stopping for a nighttime spontaneous picnic or just a drink on the riverbank. What’s more, the riverside has a range of restaurants should you fancy a more substantial meal then a picnic can provide, while a cool breeze often drifts along the river even during Kyoto’s humid summer months.
Enjoy a drink in Pontocho Alley
The narrow, cobblestones of Pontocho Alley have hosted Kyoto’s best night time drinking spots for somewhere in the region of 500 years, so it must be doing something right! It’s mostly an area of small and traditional bars, rather than large drinking establishments or all-night dance clubs. While the area is typically very welcoming to foreign visitors, some of its bars are basically private-members clubs for longstanding local clientele so you may be turned away. Even so, the bars of Pontocho Alley are an intriguing place to visit for anyone interested in Japanese culture, while sampling some locally-made whiskey, sake, and the local snacks on offer!
Investigate a Kyoto market
Nishiki market is a Kyoto institution. Sometimes referred to as ‘Kyoto’s kitchen’ the market is a thriving enterprise busy with people throughout the day. The market’s stalls sell all types of Kyoto specialities and delicacies, from foodstuffs to souvenirs. There are plenty of free samples when it comes to food, with one of the city’s largest arrays of foodstuffs, including sweets, snacks such as spring rolls, and meals from ramen to sushi. The market’s covered spaces make it an ideal thing to do in Kyoto in the early evening whatever the weather might be doing, and whether your interest lies in its food or souvenir stalls.
Take in Kyoto’s shrines by night
One of the best places in Japan to check out the country’s ancient shrines and temples, Kyoto’s historic religious structures take on a whole new appearance after night has fallen, when paper lanterns decorated with Japanese characters line the paths and the temple gardens. The towering Hokanji Temple, also known as the Yasaka Pagoda (but not to be confused with Yasaka shrine a short distance away) is a wooden pagoda of 46-metres in height that is more than 1,000 years old and makes for a create contrast to Kyoto’s more modern towers.
Sample the local delicacies
It’s not hard to find where or what to eat in Kyoto. Rivalling Nishiki market when it comes to the variety of foodstuffs on offer, Shijo Dori (Shijo Street) is also definitely worth a stop when seeking out the top things to do in Kyoto at night. One of the city’s main thoroughfares, there are plenty of flavoursome jelly-like mochi sweets, a range of matcha-flavoured delights from cakes to ice creams, as well as pickles, chutneys, and dango sweet skewered dumplings.
Wander beneath the cherry trees of Kyomizu Temple
The Kyomizu Temple in the hills to the east of Kyoto hosts night time illuminations from spring right through to the autumn. Part of Kyoto’s UNESCO-listed Heritage Site, not only is the temple’s main hall lit up with a soft lighting that enhances the atmosphere of serenity that can be found here, but its avenue of cherry trees is given a similar treatment. In the spring, visitors are able to enjoy the pastel pinks of the blossom, in summer the bright green of their leaves, and in the autumn the yellows, oranges and reds of the leaves as they begin to turn.
Walk the Higashiyama Hanatouro
While the official Higashiyama Hantouro walk runs for a short period in March of each year, its perfectly possible to follow the five-kilometre route from the centre of Kyoto to the foothills at the base of Higashiyama mountain at any time of year. During the official festival celebrations, the pathway is lined with lighting designed to highlight the city’s ancient stonework and trees. However, passing through the thirteenth-century Shoren-in Temple and Maruyama Park – centre of the cherry blossom season and New Year events – on route, this short walk is a fantastic thing to do in Kyoto at night whenever you visit the city.
One of Japan’s best centres of heritage, Kyoto’s wonders don’t stop when the sun goes down. On the contrary, there are a huge number of great things to do in Kyoto at night, as we’ve hopefully demonstrated with this article!