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Kyoto, 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 sights 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 There
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
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