Kyoto Travel Guide
Who hasn’t heard that Kyoto is the most beautiful city in Japan? What was the capital of the country for a whole millennium was by far the city we liked the most on our trip because of its tranquility and relaxed atmosphere, the amount of things to see, its beauty and its cultural richness. It has a long list of World Heritage Sites, hundreds of temples, sanctuaries and Zen gardens, so it will not surprise you that we recommend you to spend at least three days there.
Along with Tokyo, Kyoto is one of the most visited destinations by tourists, and nobody wants to miss the famous Fushimi Inari or walk through the so photographed bamboo forest. But it is also the perfect place to learn about its culture, its traditions and its varied and delicious gastronomy: Kyoto is and will always be remembered as the place where we discovered the okonomiyaki…
- Planning your trip
- Kyoto highlights
- More interesting places to visit in Kyoto
- Getting around Kyoto
- Where to eat in Kyoto
- Where to sleep in Kyoto
- How to get to Kyoto
Planning your trip
Kyoto is a big city with several areas and moving around it, although it is easy, takes time. It will be more fun if you plan your route based on the things you want to see. The most touristy areas with the most points of interest are the following:
Higashiyama is the eastern part and has a large number of temples. The guides usually divide it in two: in the north is the philosopher’s walk and Eikan-do and Ginkaku-ji temples, and in the south is Kiyomizu-dera.
Both parts are easy to walk around on, but each of these areas can take more than half a day to visit, since there are many temples there and you will want to stop for lunch or a break, of course.
The famous Fushimi-Inari is located in southeast Kyoto.
Arashiyama, the bamboo forest area, is to the west, and it can take about an hour by train and subway to get there if you are staying in the east.
In Dowtown Kyoto you can find Pont Street-chō and the shopping avenues, where all the shops are.
These are the areas that concentrate more points of interest and thus tourists, but remember that the whole city of Kyoto is dotted with temples and museums. On the positive side, it is extremely easy to reach all places by public transport.
This is a list of what you can’t miss during your stay in the city. If you are short on time, make sure you visit at-least these 6 places.
Fushimi Inari-taisha is probably one of the most popular and photographed places in Kyoto. Many of those who have seen these images are probably not aware that this four kilometer long corridor through which you can reach various points on Mount Inari is actually dedicated to the deity of the same name and that these toriis have been donated by people in gratitude for their prosperity.
It is advisable to visit the sanctuary in a season when there are not too many people, because in seasons like spring holidays and at rush hour it is practically impossible. Luckily the interior can be accessed 24 hours a day. Don’t forget to wear comfortable shoes.
In Higashiyama is the headquarters of the rinzai zen Nanzen-ji school. Although it is one of the most important Zen temples in the country, when it was built in 126 it was only a residence of Emperor Kameyama. Obviously, it has had to be rebuilt several times, so it is still in good condition today.
The interior of this important temple is always full of believers, tourists and many times newly married couples who take advantage of the beauty of the place to have their wedding pictures taken. The complex is made up of several structures, including the enormous 22-meter Sanmon gate and the hojo. Perhaps the most curious thing about this temple, at least what caught our attention, is that it is located next to a large aqueduct that served to bring water to the city from Lake Biwa.
North of Higashiyama is Ginkaku-ji Temple (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) or Jishō-ji, built in 1482 as the village of Ashikaga Yoshimasa and inspired by the Temple of the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji. In this beautiful setting of natural beauty is the Shokoku Buddhist school of the Rinzai Zen sect.
It consists of several buildings, including the Kannonden, but if there is one thing that attracts the attention of its visitors it is the Ginshadan (sea of silver sand) garden with the rake marks and a mountain of sand in the center. Following the path that guides the visit to the temple you also pass by the moss garden, a pond with several islands and bridges.
Entering this temple is usually the beginning of the visit to the northern part of Higashiyama, which will be followed by a tour of the philosopher’s walk and other points of interest.
The Philosopher’s Walk or Tetsugaku no michi is a beautiful, colourful and lively path parallel to the Shishigatani Canal. The name of this picturesque place is in honor of Kitarō Nishida, a philosophy professor who walked it while meditating. Several well-known temples, such as Ginkaku-ji and Eikan-do, are located along the path, and in addition to gardens and shrines along the walkway you will find several restaurants and cafes.
Spring is the best season to visit Philosopher’s Walk, when almond trees bloom and dye the landscape pink. At the beginning of May, which is when we were there, there were still some flowers on the trees, but nothing like what we had seen in pictures… With or without flowers the place is really worth a visit.
The Kiyomizudera temple was built in 778 in an enclave from which the views of the city are unbeatable. Also known as the temple of water because it is right on the site of the Ottawa waterfall, this temple complex is so well known that visitors come by the hundreds.
Among the most outstanding buildings and structures of the complex are the main hall or Hondo (with the huge wooden terrace with the viewpoint), the Jishu shrine, the Niōmon gate or the waterfall itself. On the pedestrian street leading to the complex there are dozens of souvenir shops and restaurants and there are almost as many people as in the temples.
This bamboo forest in Arashiyama, west of Kyoto, has a trick to it: in the photos that fill the social networks of those who visit Japan, it always looks much bigger than it really is, and judging by the images, one would say that there is no one else there. But the reality is that this forest looks more like a plantation and the road is usually full of people.
And once in Arashiyama, you can take advantage of the opportunity to visit many other things in the area, including Kameyama Park, Okochi Sanso Village, Tenryu-ji Temple, Jōjakkō-ji, Nison-in, and Nanomiya Shrine. But at least during the Japanese holiday season, it’s usually packed with tourists.
EIKAN-DO ZENRIN-JI TEMPLE
Founded in 853, Eikando Zenrin-ji Temple houses the Mikaeri Amid, a distinctive wooden Buddha who turns his head facing backwards. Another peculiarity of this temple is that, unlike other places in Japan that are more beautiful in spring when the almond trees are in bloom, here the ideal season is autumn, when maple trees beautify the garden with shades of brown and yellow.
HIGASHI HONGAN-JI TEMPLE
About a ten-minute walk from Kyoto Station is Higashi Hongan-ji Temple (Eastern Temple of the Original Vow). Its main hall, the Goeido, is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto (and second largest in Japan) and is dedicated to Shinran, the founder of the sect. Once here you can consider visiting Nishi Hongan-ji Temple, a few streets away from the former.
Kennin-ji is a historic Zen Buddhist temple considered one of the so-called Kyoto Gozan or “the five most important Zen temples in Kyoto. Among the buildings in the complex are the Abbot’s Rooms, a teahouse, and the Imperial Messenger Gate. But most impressive is the ceiling mural in one of the rooms, with two giant dragons painted in 2002 by Koizumi Junsaku to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the temple.
Honen-in is a small temple located very close to the Philosopher’s Walk, in a parallel street. The best thing about this place is that when it is a little hidden, fewer people come to it than to some of its neighbouring temples, giving it an atmosphere and tranquillity that are appreciated. It is dedicated to the monk Honen, founder of the place and of the Jodo-shu Buddhist school.
Ponto-chō is a geisha district full of tea houses and restaurants. It is actually a small pedestrian street where many tourists walk, especially beautiful at night when it is lit by lanterns.
THE KAMO RIVER
The Katsura and Kamo rivers run through Kyoto from north to south, bringing fresh air to the city and a place to get away from it all. Its banks are the ideal place to take a walk, have a picnic or clear your head between visits.
Yasui Konpira-gu is a curious sanctuary Shintō located in Gion in which there is a stone full of papers and with a hole in the bottom. If you want to end a bad relationship and start a new one you have to crawl through it as if it were a tunnel.
If you’re traveling in Japan, sooner or later you’ll pass by Kyoto Station, a place to catch a train or a bus, always on the move and full of restaurants with all kinds of food, so if you’re hungry don’t hesitate to take a walk there.
Getting around Kyoto
Public transport in Japan is generally comprehensive and efficient, and Kyoto is no exception. To see the most important tourist spots in the city you have to travel a lot, but the good news is that it is easy and there are many options, here are some:
Subway and train: An extensive network of train and subway lines covers most of Kyoto. It’s a little hard to get the hang of the ticket machines and how to calculate the price per journey, but there are maps in English at all stations and very friendly people with more or less English but with all the willingness to help you at all times.
Bus: If you are one of those who prefers to move around on the surface, don’t miss any details of Kyoto city by traveling by bus.
Bicycle: Renting a bicycle is a good option to tour a particular area.
Taxi, Uber or Grab: Unless you’ve been out for dinner and are returning to your accommodation late, it’s difficult to find a bus or the subway stations are already closed, it’s unlikely you’ll need to use these applications here. As you’ve seen, public transport covers most of the city, so take advantage of it!
Where to eat in Kyoto
Here is our detailed guide about where to eat in Kyoto. Below is a list of our top choices.
It’s one of my favorite restaurants in Kyoto. It’s in Pontocho, in the geisha district, so it’s perfect for both lunch and dinner.
The restaurant is specific to sushi. And the sushi here is so fresh and so good! It’s a typical restaurant where you sit at a bar while your mouth is watering watching sushi dishes pass in front of you. I’m warning you, your eyes are going to pop out! You can control yourself a bit or you’ll end up with all the sushi in the bar.
It’s one of the most famous sushi restaurants in Kyoto. It’s also in the same style as the Nigiri Chojiro, with a rotating bar, only I liked this one a lot less. The sushi was good, but it was more normal than other Japanese food restaurants we had gone to.
As in all revolving restaurants, you take the dishes you like the most and then, when you’ve eaten them all, you pay according to the number of dishes you’ve eaten and the colour of the dish.
I recommend this restaurant because it is very famous, it is in the center of Kyoto and it is quite cheap.
If one of your favorite dishes in Japan is tonkatsu or katsudon you have to go to this restaurant. It is very close to Kyoto Station and there you will be able to eat what they say is the best katsudon in all of Kyoto.
I admit this restaurant was a bit of a whim. On the last day we wanted to say goodbye to Japan in style and decided to go for a romantic dinner in a nice and pretty restaurant, but in this case it wasn’t cheap.
The main reason was to try the delicious kobe meat, the most famous meat in the whole country. You will rarely find this meat outside Japan, and if you do (it also depends on the type of restaurant) I would doubt the authenticity of it.
Kobe beef is only exported to certain countries and in small quantities. What is more common is to find wagyu meat, a “low cost” part of kobe meat.
Tasting kobe meat is one of the gastronomic experiences you have to live in Japan. So, after looking at the opinions on TripAdvisor we decided to treat ourselves to a treat at the Itoh Dining (the menu design was specially made in collaboration with the famous head chef of the NOBU restaurants).
Where to sleep in Kyoto
It is one of the first areas that comes to mind when you think about staying in Kyoto in a central location. In this area, specifically on the Gion side, is the Geisha area, so it’s the perfect place to take a walk at night and immerse yourself in this Japanese tradition.
This area is like travelling to the past, but without leaving aside the areas where we can eat and drink something without problems. It is a perfect combination between traditional Japanese architecture and the most innovative atmosphere.
Recommended Hotels in Higashiyama
Neighborhood of Gion
Although Gion and Higashiyama can be put together because they are so close to each other, the truth is that they are different districts. For that reason, if you want to enjoy the fuller traditional experience that Kyoto offers, the most famous area is Gion.
Within this neighborhood we can find two other areas:
The Gion Higashi area
Gion Kobu area
In both we can enjoy good restaurants, hotels and apartments recommended very comfortable and pleasant and all the traditional Japanese atmosphere that is breathed in the neighborhood of Gion, especially at night.
This area is full of tea houses or Ochaya, one of the most famous tourist attractions of Gion. Sleeping here can cost more than 100 euros a night, especially in high season, and that’s why many people usually stay in other areas of the Higashiyama district.
The area of Gion also stands out for its shops, where you can buy make-up and traditional and handmade sweets. You can also find lanterns and traditional clothes, since the typical Japanese kimonos are sold here. One of the best areas of Kyoto to stay without a doubt.
You will be able to experience the country to the fullest, as these restaurants usually have their own tea and entertainment rooms where you can watch traditional shows. One of the best neighborhoods to stay in downtown Kyoto
Another thing that stands out in this area is all the shows, especially at night, that you can find. In Gion there are many traditional theaters where you can see typical shows of the country. The Kyoto Minami-za theatre stands out from all of them, where you will be able to enjoy different shows of all kinds and which you should not miss.
Cheap hotels in Gion
This district is not one of the cheapest, but it’s cheaper than the last one. For about 80 or 90 euros we can find good quality accommodation. It is a good zone to lodge, as much by the situation where it is as by the price.
This area is also around the city center, so you will be very close to Kyoto’s most famous sites. It is also a very touristy area, so you can find many things to do, both day and night.
The Nakagyo district is especially famous for Nishiki Market and Nijo Castle, so there’s plenty to see if you’ll be staying in this area. Kyoto is also well served, so you can get to any other part of the city quickly using public transportation.
Moreover, as it is a central area we also have the option of walking to visit other districts, such as the famous district of Gion. Undoubtedly, a very interesting area if we want to stay in the center, be in a place of the most entertaining and get a room at a price a little cheaper.
Recommended accommodation in Nakagyo
If you want a cheaper option that allows you to see Kyoto in comfort, it is certainly the option we should think of first. Above all it is such a simple and comfortable option because here is the train station, so we can move anywhere without any problem.
It is a quiet area that is close to the main tourist attractions of Kyoto, has near the train to move to other cities in Japan and on top of that its price is cheaper than the previous one, so it is an option that we should not discard!
To show you the price difference, it’s not hard to find rooms in the Shimogyo district for 50 euros or less, a double room, and in the middle of the high season! It’s quite a difference compared to the previous area, where the price can go up to double.
However, we have to look for offers and bargains to get such a good price, because normally this district is around 70 euros. Even so, it is still one of the areas with the best quality in relation to its price! If you want to be in a more relaxed and economic area, it’s one of the best options!
Where to stay cheaply in Shimogyo
If you are looking for an interesting option when it comes to staying in Kyoto, Kamigyo will certainly catch your attention. This area used to be the home of Japanese royalty and nobility, but nowadays it is a place where you can find various offers for sleeping at all prices.
Besides, in Kamigyo we can find many activities to have a good time, since it is a very young university area. This makes its nightlife very complete, so it is a good option if we are looking for a young and entertaining atmosphere.
It is also worth noting that this area is adjacent to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Therefore, you can not only enjoy the nightlife here, but also the whole tourist atmosphere here! The best thing about this area is that there are many hostels where you can stay. Hostels are a cheaper option, so you can find a traditional Japanese room for about 40 euros.
Without a doubt, one of the most interesting options if we want to have a cheap accommodation without having to go far away, you will be able to enjoy the best of Kyoto at the best price!
Where to stay in Kamigyo (Kyoto)
If you want to be in a more relaxed area and you don’t mind not staying in the centre, Minami is a good option. It is very close to the central station, but that does not mean that it is an economic option… rather the price of a room in Minami is usually around 80 euros a double room per night.
This area is mainly residential, but is well connected to the center. For that reason it is a good choice if we want to spend a relaxed vacation away from the hustle and bustle but still allow us to go and visit Kyoto’s tourist and most visited areas.
It is certainly not one of the most popular choices when it comes to finding a place to sleep in Kyoto. The Minami district is a quiet place away from the crowds, but it’s certainly not as cheap as it could be to be in an area away from the tourist spots.
Staying at Minami is a good option if we have to move to another city in Japan, such as Nara, Osaka or Kobe, because we are going to spend very little time in Kyoto. However, if we want to enjoy this city completely is better to stay in an area that is closer to the city and not so far south.
Where is it better to stay in Minami
How to get to Kyoto
There are trains and buses in all directions to and from Kyoto, most of which stop at the central station. Remember, if you plan to travel many miles by train, it may be worth your while to take out the Japan Rail Pass.
If you are planning to arrive by plane, you should look for flight offers to Osaka, the city with the closest airport to Kyoto.
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