Kyoto: Beyond the Shrines
Kyoto is absolutely loaded with traditional Japanese sights to see, especially in the temples and shrines category. Most of us want to explore other things as well, however, and Kyoto definitely has a lot more to explore.
I've traveled to Kyoto several times, seeing it in 3 out of the 4 seasons, and it's been a beautiful experience each time. If you're looking for temples and shrines, check out some of my favorites here. If you're looking for other things in Kyoto, here are some sights that I'd recommend:
The bamboo grove in Arashiyama is an incredible experience. It's so tranquil (pray that there aren't too many tourists) to be surrounded by these enormous bamboo stalks reaching to the sky. It's a short walk from Saga Arashiyama train station, and after walking through the grove, you can follow the path back to the river and the main town of Arashiyama.
The town in Arashiyama has lots of different Japanese restaurants and craft stores that sell everything from handmade trinkets to umbrellas that display designs when wet. One of the main attractions is Arashiyama station where lanterns mimicking Japanese fabric design lead you on a path around the train platform. Wait for the sun to go down and take a walk through it.
Hozugawa-kudari Boat Ride
The Hozugawa-kudari boat ride is a 16 km boat ride that ends up in Arashiyama. This boat ride has been around for a long time where skilled boaters would navigate wooden boats down the river while avoiding the numerous rocks. The journey begins after a short walk from JR Kameoka station and lasts for roughly a couple of hours. I went with my parents in the fall, and the waters were quite calm the entire way down. Near the end, other boats come by selling traditional Japanese snacks such as dango (rice cake balls) and smoked squid. If you ride one of the morning boats, you can check out other parts of Arashiyama for the rest of the day.
Nijō-jō, or Nijō Castle, isn't what you'd expect a castle to look like. The castle itself resembles more of a building at a temple or shrine, and isn't outlandish or decorated any more than other sights around town. There's a nice garden to take a walk in but perhaps the most famous and well known attraction is inside. The "nightingale floors" make a chirpy sound when walked on, a form of security in the old times meant to protect from being creeped up on.
Cormorant fishing in Uji
Uji is a short train ride from Kyoto Station and is known to have good matcha. In the evening, fishermen head out in the river with a burning bucket and some comorant birds tied up. These birds dive for fish, and before they can swallow it, the fishermen squeeze it out of the bird's neck. While you can see it from the riverside, the boat tours bring you a lot closer to the experience.
Nishiki Market [J] is a covered alley that sells all sorts of Japanese food items. Pickles, candies, rice, fish, you name it. It's centrally located, parallel to Shijō-dōri Street and west of Teramachi street, and is a cool old-fashioned Japanese market type of experience.
Kitano Flea Market
This flea market is one of many in Kyoto, but it's huge. It happens only on the 25th of each month, however, and is at the Kitano Tenman-gu shrine. The walk around the shrine is pretty and the flea market spans the streets of the surrounding area. You can find everything from antiques to kimonos to old collectables, and there are stands selling yakitori meat skewers and other food items as well. Bargaining is normal here and you can really find good deals. If you're lucky, you can find the knife-maker selling Japanese pairs of knives for US$40 or less.
Ok, so Nanzen-ji actually a temple. There's actually a lot to see and definitely check it out, but one of my favorite things about Nanzen-ji is the Shirokaku Aqueduct which carries water from Lake Biwa. Its western-looking, red brick architecture seems out of place, but it's quite beautiful. Heading up to the top makes for a nice walk.
If you're stopping for food, make sure to eat tofu, yuba (tofu skin) and drink matcha, as Kyoto is known for both. There's many places to choose from but I do have a recommendation.
Yachiyo is a ryokan hotel, but they have a restaurant as well. It specializes in tofu, so the there's a lot of that along with the main course is yudofu (tofu hot pot). It's an excellent Japanese "washoku" meal experience, my family and I are repeat customers.