The Best Cultural Classes in Kyoto

Hand painted linen and bamboo wall hangings on display.

Hand painted linen and bamboo wall hangings on display.

I believe that taking classes of any kind when you travel can be one of the most rewarding ways to see the world; Kyoto is a fantastic city for this because you have the opportunity to learn so many different ancient skills from painting, to pottery, calligraphy, flower arranging, and much more.

Kyoto was originally founded in the year 794 and for one thousand years, it was the imperial capital of Japan. The city is home to countless historic structures and cultural sites, having been spared much of the destruction of World War II specifically because it was (and is) the center of Japanese art and culture. The Japanese have done an amazing job of preserving their art and ancient traditions. Exploring their city, it was clear to me that Japanese artisans are incredibly skilled, patient, precise and frankly, anyone could learn something from them, artist or not.

I believe that it is important to continually learn and evolve. You may know this quote, which sums it up well:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
– George Bernard Shaw

Painting on Fabric (Yuzen Dyeing)

This art form known as Kyo-Yuzen was used in the 17th century and was popular with hand painted creations on silk fans and kimono. There is actually a shop established by one of the oldest yuzen dyeing companies in Kyoto, who once specialized in kimono dyeing and now has transitioned to dyeing modern silk accessories with timeless designs you can see here.

I wanted to learn how Kyo-Yuzen is done so I took a class at Marumasu-Nishimuraya. It was a large room with a dozen seats, though only five other students were there. The teacher was a young Japanese man who spoke excellent English. The cost of the class varies according to the item you choose to paint on; you can browse their selection of pre-made articles including wall hangings, purses, wallets, bags, japanese fans, and more. Prices range from $15-65.

The class provided dozens of binders filled with artwork and the stencils which created them. I chose a few different stencils for my wall hanging; a bird on a branch of cherry blossoms, wild flowers, a dragonfly and butterfly. Learning the technique was fun and easy, but totally different from any style of painting I was familiar with. There are no brush ‘strokes’, it is more like dabbing if that makes any sense. It turned out great and I definitely would recommend this class!

kyo yuzen fabric painting class kyoto workspace

Workspace at the Marumasu-Nishimuraya workshop.

kyo yuzen stencils for flower design

Four different laminated stencils make up this one floral design. Each stencil reveals new pieces of the flower and is painted with different colors.

kyo yuzen painting class kyoto

There is no tray for mixing new colors; it is about how much paint is on your brush, how hard or light you press and which colors you add on top of it.

Our completed works of art! (wall hanging and sunglass case)

Our completed works of art! (wall hanging and sunglass case)

The Best Pottery Classes in Kyoto

Pottery has a deep rooted history in Kyoto and has been in continuous production there for over four hundred years. I did a lot of research to find some great pottery classes in Kyoto that are intimate, well reviewed and fun for both adults and kids. I thought it might be helpful if I shared this information here:

Kashogama: With four generations of pottery expertise, he teaches pottery molding and various ideas for textures and glazes unique to the area. He has an ancient wood fired kiln, and you can see examples of his work here.

Asahiyaki: Taught by a 15th generation Kyoto potter, this shop has provided items to Japanese nobility and tea masters for ages. Classes average about 1.5 hours and are suitable for anyone over 5 years old. One unique thing about their classes is the decorating of your items with carving techniques and impressions. They offer three different classes; building your item, using a potters wheel, and drawing or painting on your item.

Uzuki: They offer longer classes than most, from 3 hours to multiple days. They teach traditional pottery specific to Kyoto and the organic glazes. The pottery master comes with much praise, and if you’d like (for a $20 cost) he will also perform a traditional Japanese tea ceremony for you.

Asahido Biko Workshop: Classes take place in a local chinaware shop and generally take up to an hour. You have the option of handcrafting your item or learning to use a potters wheel. Like most classes, the kiln firing, glazing and decorating will be done after your class and your item shipped to you.

Other Classes for Japanese Culture

One very popular way to experience Japanese culture in Kyoto is to rent a kimono or ‘yukata’ for a day. Yukata is similar to a kimono but made of cotton instead of silk and worn for more casual occasions and in summertime. I didn’t believe it until I saw it — visitors from various countries were shopping, eating, taking photos dressed in full kimonos. Many places around Kyoto will provide this service for you (both men and women) including helping you dress, for costs starting at 5000¥. This guide of kimono and yukata rental shops might help you plan. I found one studio where they will dress you in a traditional kimono and then you proceed with a Japanese origami class. People seem to really have fun with this one.

You might consider cooking classes in Kyoto, most of which take place in a small home kitchen. It is nice that some classes will cater to dietary restrictions such as vegetarians or those who don’t eat seafood. Other classes you can find in Kyoto include calligraphy, flower arranging, origami and paper crafts, textile making, sweets making (includes cooking and decoration), geisha or maiko wear, or history of Japanese tea making. By the way, if you’re interested in Japanese calligraphy (sumi) Amazon sells a popular sumi brush set and Japanese sumi rice paper.

I found a lovely intimate calligraphy class at Kazuki Yamane for a low price of 2500¥ for 1.5 hours. You’ll be painting your calligraphy on a choice of colorful Japanese fabric, which is kind of cool because it could look great framed on a wall or as a gift. Located near Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, a short train ride will get you there.

If you are a resident of Kyoto, there are a inexpensive educational classes by the Kyoto International Center including calligraphy, origami, kimono dress and Japanese dance. The classes are typically held twice a month and cost less than $10 (100-800¥). Reservations are required.

Tips for Booking Classes in Kyoto

No matter the season, you need a reservation for almost any class you take, and it can be done via email. It is polite to book it at least one or two weeks in advance of the class and stating any special needs. On the day of your class, it is very important to be on time; even 15 minutes early is polite. Either way, set out early because finding places in Kyoto always takes longer than expected!

Where to Stay When Visiting Kyoto

There are many accommodation choices in Kyoto from western style luxury hotels to traditional Japanese Inns (Ryokan). I personally recommend the Almont Hotel, located just a couple blocks from the Kyoto Station and was a very comfortable mix of Japanese and western cultures. For first time visitors, having a base near the Kyoto Station is essential. Shop Kyoto hotels on who typically have the best rates on hotels in Japan.

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suzetteHoly crap, you found me. That’s fantastic. I’m Suzette and I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve built a successful career as a travel photographer where I have the opportunity to work from anywhere in the world, and run this blog where I share inspiration for YOUR travel photography. This website is specifically for those of us who love to wander with our cameras. We take it slow. We are curious. We love nature and the outdoors. Most of all, we love taking great photographs.

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