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Kyoto, which was once the ancient capital of Japan, is now considered the country’s cultural capital. It has become a top tourist destination and for good reason. Its rich history helped spare it from the bombings of WWII and today, it is one of Japan’s most well-preserved cities. Kyoto is a beautiful mix of old and new. It showcases traditional Japanese culture amongst great shopping and fantastic restaurants. Kyoto is full of Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, beautiful gardens, and traditional architecture. In my Kyoto travel guide, you will find tips on getting to and traveling within the city, as well as the best places to visit.
Why Visit Kyoto?
Kyoto is a place that has something for everyone. One can explore the many things the city has to offer, or if you want to be surrounded by nature, then you can do that too. Kyoto lies in a valley, in the Yamashiro Basin, surrounded by mountains. By traveling to the city’s outskirts, you will get to see a different Kyoto and be able to experience its gorgeous landscapes. Kyoto is a fairly large city and is broken down into several districts, or neighborhoods, each with its own unique characteristics. It is home to roughly 2,000 religious sites, which include about 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. Many of these are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
How to Get Kyoto
Kyoto is located in the Kansai region on Honshu, the main island of Japan. The closest international airport is Kansai (KIX), which is located about 97 km from Kyoto. Kansai International is located on a man-made island in Osaka Bay, just outside of central Osaka. The best way to reach Kyoto from KIX is the railway. The station is located adjacent to Terminal 1 and a shuttle is available from Terminal 2. The only train that runs from KIX to Kyoto, which doesn’t require transfers, is the JR Limited Express Haruka. The Haruka makes two stops before reaching Kyoto and takes about 75 minutes.
Another option is the limousine bus; these buses connect the airport with destinations around Osaka, as well as Kyoto and a few other places. The travel time to Kyoto is about 90 minutes and the bus costs 2600 yen. The busses are comfortable and offer free wiFi. For additional limo bus information, click here. Please check the train and bus timetables in advance and keep in mind that they do not operate overnight. If arriving late, your best bet would be to stay near the airport and depart for Kyoto in the morning. Taxis are very expensive in Japan and really should only be used as a last resort when public transport is unavailable.
Depending on how long you will be in Japan and where you are traveling, a JR Rail Pass may be a good idea. If you plan on taking at least two bullet trains, then it will likely be worth the cost. However, there are other train operators and a JR station may not always be the most convenient. A JR pass will need to be purchased online prior to your arrival in Japan. If you will be traveling to Kyoto from Tokyo or anywhere else on Honshu, the railway is going to be your best bet. Take advantage of the Shinkansen, or bullet train. They’re incredibly fast and are a fun experience!
Where to Stay in Kyoto
As mentioned before, Kyoto is a large city with multiple districts. No matter what area you choose to stay in, you will want to be within walking distance of a rail or subway station. This will make travel within the city much more convenient and will save both time and money. Downtown and central Kyoto are both great areas to stay in.
Downtown Kyoto provides an escape from the crowded temples and has great hotels, shopping, and nightlife. Central Kyoto is quite modern but has a handful of historic sights. A third option is the Kyoto Station area, although not central, you can’t beat the convenience of having the main rail station easily accessible.
Kyoto has plenty of options when it comes to accommodation. There is everything from hostels to luxury hotels. For a one-of-a-kind experience, stay a night or two in a Ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn. A Ryokan is a great way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. In a typical ryokan, you will have a futon on tatami floors, be served local cuisine in your room, and have access to a Japanese bath.
Hearton Hotel Kyoto
Hearton Hotel Kyoto is a simple no-frills hotel. The rooms are on the smaller side but it is affordable, clean, and located just minutes from the subway and bus station.
Hotel Kanra Kyoto
Hotel Kanra Kyoto is a modern take on the traditional wooden townhouse. The high-end hotel offers guests a guided tour of the city upon arrival. The rooms are spacious and the hotel is only a 12-minute walk from the Kyoto Station.
Gion Hatanaka is a traditional Japanese Ryokan located in the heart of Gion. The location is very walkable and the Ryokan is surrounded by great restaurants, shopping, and temples. It has a large public bath on site that overlooks a Zen garden and offers an in-room multi-course dinner.
How to Get Around Kyoto
The city of Kyoto was originally laid out according to traditional Chinese fung-shei and still uses that grid system today. It is fairly easy to navigate, once you get an understanding of the rail system. I recommend downloading the HyperDia app on your phone. It provides train timetables, best routes, and platform numbers. The city bus system is also easy to use and covers most of the city, although it’s not quite as convenient.
When is the Best Time to Visit?
Kyoto’s location, in a valley surrounded by mountains, makes for cold winters and hot/humid summers. The best time to visit is during the spring months of March, April, and May and during the fall months of October and November. You’ll have milder weather during these times, but they are also the busiest times of the year, with cherry blossoms in the spring being a major draw. Cherry blossoms usually bloom from late March to mid-April. The fall foliage is also beautiful, but it doesn’t draw the same huge crowds that the cherry blossoms do. The cherry blossoms are gorgeous, but the large crowds will definitely slow you down. Allow more time for everything you have planned and book far in advance if visiting during this time. Early March and late October and are less crowded and more ideal times to visit.
Things to Do in Kyoto:
Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist temple, located in northern Kyoto. It’s one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and is an impressive sight. The temple is three stories high with the top two stories covered in pure gold leaf. The gold leaf and the reflection of the temple in the pond below make for a stunning photo. Kinkaku-ji is always packed with tourists, but the best time to visit is at opening or right before closing during the week. Admission is 400 yen.
Gion is one of Kyoto’s most traditional neighborhoods. The area is always bustling, specifically the main street of Hanami-koji. The popular street extends from Shijo Avenue and continues down to the zen temple of Kennin-ji. It’s lined with traditional wooden structures that are packed with shops, restaurants, and tea houses. Make sure to explore the alleys on either side of the main road. There are some amazing sushi spots and sake bars tucked away. Just don’t expect to find cheap eats here. Everything is priced quite high, but in my opinion, it is worth the cost. I had terrific sushi and a really special dining experience.
Gion is commonly called the geisha district. Geishas are hostesses that are highly trained in the ancient traditions of art, singing, and dancing. They entertain at restaurants and tea houses in the evening hours. These venues are extremely difficult to get into, but if you’re lucky and know where to look, you may be able to see a geisha en route.
They wear a very distinctive kimono and makeup, but can still be difficult to spot among the crowds. They will start to appear around the main road at dusk. Stand near the first couple of alleyways at the beginning of Hanami-koji street and if you’re patient, you should see at least one. If you have limited time and have to pick and choose from this Kyoto guide, I suggest making Gion a must-do.
Ryoan-ji Temple is a Zen temple in northwest Kyoto that dates back to the 15th century. It’s also Japan’s most famous rock garden. A rock garden is just what it sounds like. There is no vegetation within the garden, only rocks and sand. Groups of large rocks are methodically placed within the garden and monks rake linear patterns in the sand around the rocks.
The practice is meant to facilitate meditation and serenity. The simplicity and lack of elements, combined with the raking, is said to help clear the mind. The raking can be observed from a viewing platform within the temple throughout the day. Admission is 500 yen.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a Shinto Shrine in southern Kyoto. It is the most important of the Shinto shrines that are dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. It sits at the base of the sacred Mount Inari and is famous for its bright orange torii gates. There are over 1000 torii, or arches, covering a winding trail that takes visitors up the mountainside.
The main structures of Fushimi Inari-taisha were built in 1499 and the torii were donated by Japanese individuals and businesses throughout the years. The minimum donation being 400,000 yen. The trail takes about two hours to walk up, but you can turn around at any point. I recommend continuing all the way to the top for some magnificent views. Admission is free and the shrine is just a short walk from the JR Inari Station.
Maruyama Park is a beautiful little park located near the end of Shijo Street in the Gion district. It is the oldest park in Kyoto and is also the city’s main locale for cherry blossom viewing (April). It’s extremely popular in the springtime and people flock to it for its famous weeping cherry tree, which is lit up at night. Vendors selling souvenirs and street food can be found throughout the park. It does get extremely crowded during the day, so I suggest visiting in the early morning or late evening.
Day Trips from Kyoto
Arashiyama is actually located within Kyoto, but a whole day should be dedicated to visiting the area. Arashiyama is one of Kyoto’s most popular sight-seeing districts and is located on the western outskirts of the city. You most likely have seen photos of its famous bamboo forest. The forest is incredible and the surrounding areas are gorgeous. Arashiyama is a must-do and is my top pick in this Kyoto travel guide.
Arashiyama is a small town on the Oi River that is surrounded by mountains. It has plenty of sights to see and activities to partake in. Some things to do include:
- Togetsu-kyo: Walk across the beautiful wooden bridge that spans the river.
- Rent bikes: Explore the town by bike. Make sure to stop in town for some shopping and great food. There are a handful of cute bakeries and some great street food.
- Bamboo forest: The famous forest is a must. Go early in the morning to beat the crowds and take a relaxing walk.
- Tenryu-ji: A temple located directly next to the entrance of the bamboo forest. The temple is surrounded by beautiful gardens and is a great place to visit, especially during the spring.
- Monkey Park: Wild monkeys call the mountains of Arashiyama home. A short hike up the mountain will take you to a great viewpoint, where you can observe and even feed the monkeys.
- River Boat Trip: Hire a guide to take you down the river on a boat. The trip takes about two hours and costs 4,100 yen/person. It a great way to see all the gorgeous scenery.
If you’re coming to Kyoto from Tokyo and haven’t been through Osaka yet, I recommend taking the rail and spending a day there. A bullet train from Kyoto to Osaka only takes about fifteen minutes. There are more affordable train routes as well. Osaka Castle is a beautiful place to spend the morning.
The five-story castle has a history that dates back over 450 years. It’s one of Japan’s most popular castles and is a favorite destination during the cherry blossom season. Cherry blossoms can be found throughout the castle grounds and there are great park-like areas to picnic.
Use the afternoon to explore Osaka’s Namba area. Make sure to stop at Kuromon Ichiba Market. It’s about a ten-minute walk from the Namba station and has over 150 vendors selling a variety of items. Kuromon Ichiba Market is famous for its fresh seafood. There are lots of stalls selling sushi, tempura, and more. I had some of the best sushi of my trip here for under 1000 yen.
Nara is about fifty minutes on the express train from Kyoto. It is definitely worth the trip and I even recommend spending two full days here. Nara was once the ancient capital of Japan and remains rich in history. There are many beautiful gardens, temples, and shrines to explore.
Nara is also home to the world-famous deer. In Nara Park, you will find hundreds of wild deer that roam around among the public. You can purchase “deer crackers” to feed them and they have even been taught to bow in exchange for food.
More Kyoto Travel Tips
- Currency: You will need to exchange your currency for yen upon arrival in Japan. I’ve found the best place to do this is at an airport ATM. It’s often cheaper than a money exchange, but make sure to inquire with your bank regarding any fees before departure.
- Rail pass: If you are planning on purchasing a JR rail pass, this needs to be done prior to your arrival in Japan. The pass needs to be ordered through a site, such as JR Pass, and will be shipped to your home address.
- Comfortable shoes: Comfortable walking shoes are a must. You will be doing a lot of walking around Kyoto and you will want proper footwear, especially if you are hiking either Monkey Mountain or Fushimi Inari Shrine.
- How many days in Kyoto? I recommend spending no less than 2 full days in Kyoto. Two days is the bare minimum; there is so much to do and see. Four days would be ideal.
- Make sure you are allowed to enter. Many restaurants and tea houses require reservations or are for locals only. This is especially true with some of the top sushi spots. If there is somewhere you’re interested in going, look it up in advance.
- Temples: Make sure you are giving yourself breaks between temples. Going from one temple to another can be exhausting. “Temple fatigue” is real, especially during busy times when you are fighting your way through crowded sites. Space them apart so you can truly appreciate them.
Have you visited Kyoto? Is there something I should add to this Kyoto travel guide? If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Looking for more fun things to do in Japan? You won’t want to miss Rabbit Island. Continue to my post, “Rabbit Island, Japan: A Guide to Okunoshima” to learn more.
Planning a trip? Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance. I recommend World Nomads. For more of my travel favorites, click here.