What to Do in Kyoto for Christmas: Unforgettable Holiday Experiences

Explore Kyoto’s Christmas Markets

Kyoto's Christmas market: stalls selling festive treats, twinkling lights, and traditional crafts. Crowds enjoy seasonal music and decorations

During the joyful season, I like to immerse myself in the holiday spirit at Kyoto’s Christmas markets. Sakyo Ward often hosts these markets, inspired by European winter traditions.

You can wander among stalls with unique Christmas trees, other wares, and gifts.

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  • Dates: Typically from late November to mid-December
  • Location: Various venues in Sakyo Ward

Shopping
I find a plethora of handcrafted items sold at the markets. Each purchase, from intricate ornaments to hand-knitted scarves, carries a piece of the city’s charm.

Food and Beverages
Sampling traditional Christmas treats and sipping hot drinks is a highlight for me. Stands selling hot cocoa, mulled wine, or spiced cider provide warmth against the December chill.

Workshops and Activities
Interactive workshops are frequently available. I delight in engaging in wreath-making or ornament-decorating activities—perfect for families and couples alike.

Atmosphere
The overall ambiance is cheerful, with twinkling lights and festive decorations that enhance the joyful mood. Street musicians play seasonal tunes, which adds to the magical experience.

Visiting these markets offers a blend of Kyoto’s culture with European holiday traditions, making for a memorable Christmas experience.

Enjoy Traditional Japanese Winter Cuisine

A table set with traditional Japanese winter dishes, surrounded by festive decorations, in a cozy Kyoto restaurant

In Kyoto, winter allows visitors to explore Japan’s culinary heritage. An array of traditional dishes resonate with the season’s charm.

Savor Kaiseki Ryori

One of the most popular dishes in Kyoto during the Christmas season is the Kaiseki Ryori.

Kaiseki Ryori is the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine, embodying seasonal delicacies. A typical Kaiseki meal features multiple courses, each prepared to enhance the ingredient’s natural flavors. 

In winter, chefs may include items like crab, root vegetables, and citrus fruits, often presented on tableware that complements the seasonal theme of the dish.

Try Kyoto-Style Sushi

While Sushi is a year-round favorite, winter heightens the experience, offering some of the freshest catch.

Kyoto-style sushi, known as Kyoto sushi, often consists of mackerel pressed onto vinegared rice and wrapped in kelp. Served in bite-sized pieces, this sushi is a local delight I always recommend.

Indulge in Yudofu

Yudofu, or hot tofu, is a simple, comforting dish perfect for cold days. It’s a Kyoto specialty involving tofu simmered in a light kombu broth.

Typically garnished with negi (green onions) and enjoyed with a soy sauce dip, this warm dish is comforting and healthy.

Visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple

People walking through the illuminated Kiyomizu-dera Temple at night, with festive Christmas decorations and a serene atmosphere

During Christmas in Kyoto, I highly recommend visiting Kiyomizu-dera. Nestled in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, this temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and exemplifies the harmonious blend of nature and history.

  • Address: 1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan
  • Hours: 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, may vary during special events

To reach the temple

Board bus number 206 from Kyoto Station. The journey takes about 15 minutes and costs 230 yen one-way.

Remember to carry exact change. Alight at Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka bus stops; from there, it’s a leisurely 10-minute walk uphill.

Key Highlights

  • Main Hall: Much of the temple’s fame comes from the main hall’s wooden stage, which juts out, offering unforgettable views of cherry and maple trees, which might be lightly powdered with snow during winter.

  • Otowa Waterfall: Found at the base of the main hall, visitors can catch and drink the water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers.

  • Jishu Shrine: Dedicated to Okuninushi, a deity of love and matchmaking, this is a spot for those seeking romantic fortunes.

Visiting Tips

  • Wear comfortable walking shoes, as there’s plenty of ground to cover.
  • Early mornings offer a serene experience before the crowds set in.
  • Don’t miss the temple illumination events, which are especially breathtaking during the holiday season.

Kiyomizu-dera’s beauty and serenity make it a perfect addition to any Kyoto Christmas itinerary. Its timeless architecture, spiritual significance, and natural surroundings create a profound experience.

Experience Christmas at Kyoto’s Shrines

I embrace the cheerful atmosphere during Christmas in Kyoto by visiting some of the city’s iconic shrines. Although Japan does not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, the season still brings a touch of magic to these spiritual sites.

To-ji Temple comes to life in December, with its five-storied pagoda—a recognized national treasure—illuminated against the night sky. The sight is both majestic and serene.

The illumination event here is not specifically for Christmas, but the timing coincides wonderfully, providing a backdrop for reflection during the holiday season.

  • Location: To-ji Temple, Kyoto
  • Best Time to Visit: December

Kifune-Jinja Shrine possesses a unique charm during the Christmas period. Although no explicit Christmas celebrations exist, the lantern-lit path offers a silent nod to the festivity of lights commonly associated with Christmas worldwide.

  • Location: Kifune-Jinja Shrine, Kyoto
  • Best Time to Visit: Evening for lantern lights

I enjoy the experience of absorbing the tranquil atmosphere at shrines like The Golden Pavilion, which glimmers in the winter light while not decorated for Christmas.

The pavilion’s reflection in the adjacent pond seems particularly poignant during the Christmas season when monks engage in their rituals nearby.

  • Featured: Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)
  • Admire: The Winter Reflection

Even when Christmas in Kyoto takes a backseat to tradition and the non-religious character of the city’s celebrations, I enjoy the ambiance of the softly lit sanctums.

They remind me that beauty and peace are universal holiday season themes shared across cultures and faiths.

Kyoto Station: A Spectacular Display of Lights

During the lively season, Kyoto Station becomes a beacon of holiday cheer, captivating visitors with its spectacular light show. 

Already an architectural marvel, the station building transforms into a canvas for dazzling illuminations that dance across its facade, creating a mesmerizing spectacle that enchants all who behold it.

As dusk descends, the lights come to life, painting the night sky with vibrant colors and patterns. The illumination show at Kyoto Station is a must-see for anyone visiting the city during Christmas.

Whether you’re passing through to explore other attractions or simply taking in the joyous atmosphere, witnessing this spectacle is an unforgettable experience.

Umeda Sky Building in Osaka: A Journey into Light

For those seeking to venture beyond Kyoto and immerse themselves in more luminous delights, Osaka’s Umeda Sky Building offers an enchanting alternative.

Just a short train ride from Kyoto, this architectural marvel hosts its stunning display of cheerful lights that captivate visitors from near and far.

Admire Illuminations at Arashiyama

During the Christmas season, I always recommend a visit to Arashiyama to experience the enchanting winter illuminations.

As evening falls, the Bamboo Forest and surrounding area transform into a mesmerizing display of lights. 

The subtle, artfully placed lights accentuate the natural beauty of the towering bamboo, providing a serene and almost magical atmosphere.

Arashiyama Illumination Highlights:

  • Sagano Romantic Train Light-Up: Witness the scenic railway adorned with seasonal lights.

  • Kyoto Arashiyama Hanatouro: A festival involving lantern-lit paths and illuminated temples.

Key Details:

FeatureInformation
Best Viewing TimesDusk until 9:00 PM
CostVaries by event
AccessibilityPublic transport routes

I find that these illuminations reflect the refined elegance of Kyoto.

It’s a joy to stroll through the Bamboo Grove. Each step reveals a new perspective and a wonderful blend of tradition and modern light technology, creating a unique experience. 

The display is a visual treat and a testament to the craftsmanship and attention to detail that Kyoto is so well known for.

Visiting the Arashiyama illuminations should be on your to-do list when you’re in Kyoto for Christmas. It’s a peaceful yet spectacular event that resonates with the season’s spirit.

Shop for Unique Gifts in Gion

A quaint shop in Gion adorned with traditional Japanese lanterns and colorful decorations. A display of unique gifts, from delicate ceramics to intricate textiles, fills the window, inviting passersby to explore inside

In the joyous season, Gion—a historic geisha district in Kyoto—transforms into a wonderland of unique gifts and traditional Japanese experiences. 

I recommend starting at Tsujiri Tea House, Gion Main Shop, for authentic Matcha green tea products, which are perfect for fans of Japanese culture.

Traditional Crafts & Souvenirs

  • Kyo-machiya Shops: These traditional townhouses offer exquisite Kyoto handicrafts.

  • Handmade Pottery: Find one-of-a-kind ceramics demonstrating the city’s craftsmanship.

  • Artisanal Sweets: Delight in sweets that are as beautiful as they are tasty.

Notable Stores in Gion:

Shop NameSpecialty ItemLocation
KintakedoHandcrafted CombsLocated in the heart of Gion
UmezonoCafé & GalleryFamous for wagashi (Japanese sweets)
Omiyage KaidoConvenient Souvenir StopInside JR Kyoto Station

Hours to Remember:

  • Shops typically open: 10:30 AM
  • Closing times vary: Often around 7 PM

Remember to look out for maiko, as you might come across one in the evenings. The streets of Gion offer an enchanting shopping experience, where you can find gifts imbued with the spirit of Kyoto.

Attend a Japanese Tea Ceremony

Guests sit on tatami mats, facing a serene garden. A host performs precise, graceful movements as they prepare and serve matcha tea

While in Kyoto for Christmas, I made it a point to experience the serene art of the Japanese tea ceremony. 

Kyoto, with its serene beauty and cultural richness, provides the perfect backdrop for this traditional practice, which celebrates the aesthetics of simplicity and mindfulness.

Venues for Tea Ceremonies:

  • Taihoan Teahouse in Uji, just outside Kyoto
  • Camellia Tea Ceremony in Downtown Kyoto
  • Various traditional tea houses throughout the city

Why Participate:

  • To immerse myself in Japanese culture
  • To learn about the intricate details and symbolism of the ceremony
  • To taste authentic Uji matcha, renowned for its quality

What to Expect:
I am greeted by the calm environment of the teahouse and am often invited to take part in the ceremonial preparation of matcha green tea.

The ceremony is not just about drinking tea but also involves appreciating the tea utensils, the movements of the host, and the tranquil atmosphere.

Tips Before You Go:

  • Reserve your spot, as ceremonies can be busy, especially during the holiday season.
  • Pay attention to the etiquette guidelines provided by the host.
  • Wear modest clothing and be prepared to sit on tatami mats for the duration of the ceremony.

By attending a Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto, I not only tasted the rich flavors of matcha but also gained deeper insights into the spiritual and aesthetic components of this ancient Japanese tradition.

Relax at an Onsen

Steam rises from the tranquil onsen surrounded by snow-covered trees. A traditional Japanese building sits in the background, with a festive Christmas wreath hanging on the door

During Christmas, one of the most rewarding ways I unwind is by visiting an onsen or Japanese hot spring. Kyoto, with its serene atmosphere and scenic beauty, offers some of the best onsen experiences in Japan.

My Top Onsen Picks in Kyoto:

  • Ryoan-ji’s Onsen
    • Address: 13 Ryoan-ji Goryonoshita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi
    • Hours: 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
    • Access: 7 min walk from Ryoanji Station, Randen Kitano Line

  • Funaoka Onsen
    • Loved for its old-world charm and variety of baths. Tattoo-friendly options are available here.

  • KURAMA ONSEN
    • Perfect for a day trip with its outdoor baths surrounded by nature. It’s a beautiful place to soak surrounded by snow, should it be falling at the time.

I cherish the serenity of these baths, which offer indoor and outdoor soaking experiences. The water is typically pristine, and many onsens also offer medicinal herb baths that are said to have health benefits. 

Visiting an onsen is not just about the warm waters but also about the cultural experience and the tranquility it brings. It is a perfect activity for a peaceful Christmas in Kyoto.

Participate in Local Christmas Events

Although Christmas isn’t widely celebrated in Kyoto in the traditional Western sense, the city still offers unique festivities that reflect its charm. 

One event not to be missed is the Christmas illumination display in the city’s streets and temples. Walking through these luminous decorations offers a blend of Japanese aesthetics and cheerful spirit.

Kyoto Station often becomes a hub for lively activities, featuring an impressive light display. Local shopping districts are adorned with holiday decor, providing a delightful shopping and strolling experience.

For a memorable Christmas Eve, you might consider attending a concert or event at a local venue. Kyoto Concert Hall, for example, often hosts holiday-themed performances.

Furthermore, dining in Kyoto during Christmas usually involves a special menu at many restaurants. Enjoying a Christmas dinner at places like the Hyatt Regency or Kyoto Hotel Okura adds a touch of luxury to the celebration.

  • Event Highlights:
    • Illumination displays around the city
    • Concerts and performances at Kyoto Concert Hall
    • Luxury dinner experiences at top hotels

Please remember that the traditional Japanese Christmas celebration may differ from what you’re accustomed to, but the unique blend of cultures can create a novel and enjoyable experience.

Venture to the Fushimi Inari Shrine

A path winds through the iconic red torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine, with lanterns glowing in the twilight. The atmosphere is serene, with a hint of festive anticipation in the air

During the Christmas season in Kyoto, I recommend visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which seamlessly blends spiritual tradition with natural beauty.

Although Christmas isn’t traditionally celebrated in Japan, the shrine offers a serene and positive experience.

Getting There:

  • Train: Take the JR Nara Line for two stops from Kyoto Station to Inari Station. It’s a quick five-minute ride and quite affordable.

  • Bus: Opt for the Kyoto City Bus to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which takes about 13 minutes.

What to Expect:
My stroll typically begins at the shrine’s main gate, the Romon Gate, donated by a famous samurai in 1589. Then, I step into the world of vibrant vermillion torii gates, marking the paths through the grounds and into the Mount Inari forest.

  • Torii Gates: Thousands of gates were donated by individuals and businesses, whose names are inscribed on the back of each gate.

  • Fox Statues: Known as ‘Inari’s messengers,’ these fox statues can be spotted along the path, often holding symbolic objects in their mouths or beneath their paws.

The Experience:
I like to embrace the peaceful ambiance as I hike up Mount Inari’s pathways. Although many other visitors surround me, there’s always a sense of personal tranquility. 

The trails twist and turn, leading to smaller sub-shrines where I pause to take in the scene or offer a quiet prayer.

Tips for Enjoyment:

  • Start early to avoid crowds.
  • Wear comfortable shoes suitable for hiking.
  • Carry a bottle of water and a camera – every turn presents a new photo opportunity.

A visit to the Fushimi Inari Shrine is not just a tour; it’s an enriching cultural immersion into the spirit of Kyoto.

View the Winter Scenery from Kinkaku-ji

The snow-covered grounds of Kinkaku-ji temple, with the iconic golden pavilion standing against a backdrop of winter trees and a serene lake

When I visit Kyoto during Christmas, I always see the winter scenery at Kinkaku-ji, known as the Golden Pavilion. 

The temple’s reflection on the frozen pond and the surrounding snow-draped garden offers a serene, picturesque view unlike any other season.

  • Location: Situated in northern Kyoto.
  • Historical Significance: It’s a historical Zen Buddhist temple.
  • Winter Appeal: Snow enhances its golden exterior.

The garden’s tranquility, with the temple’s gold leaf-covered facade glimmering against the pure white backdrop, is particularly striking. There are often fewer visitors in winter, allowing for a more personal experience.

Travel Tips:

  • Arrive early to avoid the crowds.
  • Dress warmly to enjoy the gardens comfortably.

I recommend bringing a camera because the contrast between the brilliant gold of Kinkaku-ji and the crisp white snow creates a splendid photo opportunity.

Although photography is not allowed inside the pavilion, the external views are enough to capture the magic of a Kyoto Christmas.

Join a Kyoto Photography Tour

A serene Kyoto street at Christmas, adorned with traditional decorations and softly glowing lanterns, as visitors explore with cameras in hand

While exploring Kyoto over Christmas, I highly recommend joining one of the various photography tours offered in the city.

These tours provide a unique opportunity to capture the stunning winter beauty of Kyoto, especially as lights and decorations add a special touch to the picturesque settings.

Kyoto Private Tour with Professional Photography: This tour is excellent if you’re looking for an exclusive experience. I can explore the cultural heart of Kyoto and receive professionally taken photos as keepsakes.

Kimono Photo Shoot: Wearing a traditional kimono against the backdrop of historical sites like Bishamon-do Temple or Arashiyama during Christmas time adds a marvelous layer to the photographs.

  • Locations to Consider:
    • Bishamon-do Temple
    • Higashiyama District
    • Arashiyama

Benefits of a Photography Tour:

  • Guided Sightseeing: Discover hidden gems and iconic landmarks.
  • Professional Shots: A skilled photographer captures high-quality images.
  • Cultural Experience: Some tours include wearing a kimono.

For those who cherish memories through photos, these tours promise a collection of stunning holiday-themed images of Kyoto to bring home. Remember, slots for these tours could fill up quickly due to the festive season, so it’s wise to book in advance.

Frequently Asked Questions

A festive Kyoto street lined with traditional lanterns and decorated with colorful Christmas lights, with snow gently falling from the sky

In this section, I’ll address some common questions travelers have about spending Christmas in Kyoto.

I will highlight where you can partake in festive illuminations and enjoy a Christmas dinner. I will also include the unique events you can experience during the holiday season.

Where can I view Christmas illuminations in Kyoto?

I can confirm that Kyoto dazzles with Christmas lights during the festive season. Specifically, the Arashiyama Hanatouro illumination event. Streets are decorated with thousands of lanterns, which is a breathtaking sight.

The Kyoto Station building also puts on a spectacular light show that is a must-see.

Can you recommend a place for Christmas dinner in Kyoto?

For a memorable Christmas dinner, I suggest restaurants in luxury hotels like Kyoto Hotel Okura or the Hyatt Regency. They both offer special holiday menus.

Some restaurants serve seasonal fare that can create a cozy and delightful dining experience.

What are the special events happening in Kyoto during December?

The Joya No Kane New Year Bell Ringing Ceremony on December 31st is a deeply traditional event where temple bells are rung 108 times. Although it’s closer to New Year’s Eve, it creates a resonant and unforgettable atmosphere as part of the holiday festivities.

How is Christmas celebrated in Kyoto?

It is a secular celebration with illuminations, decorations, and gift-giving. It is also less about religious observance and more about spreading cheer and enjoying the holiday atmosphere.

Santa-san, the Japanese version of Santa Claus, is popular among children.

Are there any unique Kyoto traditions for Christmas?

Traditional Christmas customs in Kyoto are less prevalent. Be it as it is, locals have embraced the festive spirit through decorations and lights, especially in shopping districts.

The city doesn’t have its own unique Christmas traditions. However, blending Japanese culture with Western festive elements creates a unique holiday experience.

What’s the likelihood of experiencing a white Christmas in Kyoto?

Snow in Kyoto around Christmas is quite rare. If you’re hoping for a white Christmas, the chances are low, as winters in Kyoto tend to be cold but without heavy snowfall.

However, occasional light snow might grace the city, offering a serene, winter backdrop to the celebrations.