Urbanist's guide to Kyoto

Kyoto Intro ・ Aug 25, 2019

Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash

This is a series profiling interesting urban projects, reading lists, initiatives, and places for urbanists to get the gist of what is happening in a city at a glance. Email me if you, or someone you know, want to introduce about your city!

The content of this post was curated and written by ourselves, who are based in Kyoto at the moment. This is not a tourist guide — rather, these are the off-the-beaten-path spots that make us wanna stay in this city.

Things to do, places to go

  • Located just next to Kyoto Station, Higashi Kujo area has been home to a Korean community in Kyoto, who had been harshly discriminated against as 'untouchables'. Their community on the eastern side of the Kamo river, and severe discrimination and ostracism in the 60s was famously portrayed in the Japanese movie Pachiggi. This area is currently facing a big transformation due to the relocation of a local art university, and it might be one of the highlights of the current urban development of Kyoto. As a temporary project, Neo sujin town open air beer garden opened in early 2018 on the location where a new university campus is going to be built, in respect for the local street food culture. However, local concerns for possible gentrification and identity preservation can not be ignored.

  • Just walking along the Kamo river is one of the best things you can do in Kyoto, especially if you like to see waterfront activities and environmental diversity in the city. The riverfront attracts both locals and tourists, day and night, for just taking a lazy afternoon walk or a picnic. The north part (up to around the imperial palace) is especially my favorite and has more nature.

  • As an urbanist, you would wanna experience Japanese traditional public bath (sento)! Hundreds of sento have closed their business in the past decades in Kyoto, but there have been people who are putting much effort into the conservation of Sento, and it's an important factor to understand the urban landscape of Kyoto. Umeyu is especially my favorite, as a young owner took over this place and he's been very experimental on the use of the space, converting it into a community hub. It's Tattoo friendly, too.

  • The Japanese art scene is not only in Tokyo. There are many art & cultural spaces in Kyoto, and KAGANHOTEL near Kyoto Central Wholesale Market is my favorite. It is a multipurpose art facility that has hotel, hostels, galleries, and artists in residences in one building, and the neighborhood is full of local businesses that support Kyoto's food culture. Compared to now hyper touristic Nishiki Market, this market and a whole neighborhood still holds a sense of authenticity and localness. Open to the public once in a month — and you should stroll around the neighborhood in EARLY MORNING when the market is still open.

  • The neighborhood of Shimabara is hidden and humble compared to the other touristic spots, but if you love to flâneur in a small neighborhood, this is the place to go. It used to be the designated courtesans' district (yūkaku) from 1640, and you can still see a hint of history. Sumiya Motenashi-no-Culture Museum is a surviving masterpiece of the ageya architectural style, and Kinse Ryokan is 200-year-old Kyoto-style ryokan that you can also visit for events and workshops. Highly recommended!

  • I like when old buildings are successfully reused for a purpose other than which it was originally built or designed for. Kyoto Shiritsu Junpu Elementary School was built in 1870 and unfortunately closed in 2017, but its antique building still serves to the public as art & cultural events and exhibitions. Kyoto Style Climbing Kilm also serves as an exhibition and educational space. There are a lot of great adaptive reuse projects in Kyoto.

  • If you are passionate about architecture, Katsura Imperial Villa is a must — one of the finest examples of Japanese architecture and garden design. Simple, linear lines and open-air framing of spaces somehow has a modern feeling to it (even though it's like 400 years old), and modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Bruno Taut visited here for inspiration.

  • Kyoto University Yoshida Dormitory is notoriously messy and immensely loved by the students and its community. Student activism has been fighting against the demolition of the dormitory, keeping it as one of the most interesting self-governing dormitories that foster anti-establishment communities in Japan.


  • Founded in 1987, Kyoto Journal is an independent English publication, covering cultural and historical insights from Kyoto.

  • Although it's avaiable only in Japanese, Antenna is a fun, young-locals driven media that introduces indie music, art, cinemas in Kyoto.

Organization, initiative

  • Rad (Research for Architectural Domain) is an interesting initiative for collaborative research-based practice in the field of architecture and urban design in Japan. Based in Kyoto, they aim to empower people to participate in architectural practices and re-imagining our living urban realities.

  • If you are generally looking for a design-focused, creative community in Kyoto, FabCafe Kyoto / MTRL KYOTO is a place to approach first. There are a maker space and a cafe inside which makes it easy to casually drop by to say hi. They often organize events and workshops focusing on co-creation and innovation with local creators, and many of them are international and have English speaking staffs avaiable. Highly recommended if you want to make a meaningful creative network in Kyoto.

  • Similar to MTRL KYOTO, Kyoto Makers Garage is a great maker space with various digital fabrication tools — 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC and more.

  • Although the city is full of art & cultural events and festival all along a year, International Photography Festival Kyotographie is my favorite as it makes you wonder around the hidden places in Kyoto rather than staying in a museum. It is held annually over four weeks and exhibitions are spread across the city, taking you to unexpected venues and experiences.

  • If you love maps, Stroly is an online map platform that has a large collection of maps in Kyoto, including many historical ones.