The Best Kyoto Guide in Japan
Latest posts by Yuichi Nagai (see all)
- Must visit recommended places in Kyoto - 2019/05/17
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- Secrets of Gion - 2019/05/14
- The Best Kyoto Guide in Japan - 2019/05/12
From exploring the wonders of the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest to seeing the sunlight glimmer off the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, our extensive Kyoto guide will offer you everything you need to make you trip to Japan an unforgettable one!
Not only will you get the inside scoop on the very best attractions and sights that Kyoto has to offer, but this guide will also provide you with all the most useful tips and tricks to make your trip as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
Everything from temple hopping to rickshaw riding is covered for your convenience, so let’s make your Kyoto trip a one in a life experience that you will never want to end!
- 1 What kind of place is Kyoto?
- 2 Getting to Kyoto
- 3 Things You Should Definitely do in Kyoto
- 4 Top 5 Places to Visit in Kyoto
- 5 Top 4 Places to Stay in Kyoto
- 6 Tips to Help You Enjoy Kyoto
What kind of place is Kyoto?
The History of Kyoto
Kyoto (lit. Capital City), located in the Kansai region of Japan, owes much of its wonder and charm to its former position as Japan’s capital city from 794 AD to 1868 AD. When it served as the emperor’s residence, the city’s economy flourished and gave birth to countless beautiful palaces, temples and shrines that are the envy of the world. Fortunately, many of these historically important sights and buildings are still standing today, as Kyoto was spared the ravages of Allied bombing during WWII. Exploring the Gion District or Ninenzaka area almost makes you feel as though you have travelled back in time!
Kyoto Today and Why it is Popular
Today, Kyoto has a population of almost 1.5 million people, making it the 9th most populous city in Japan. According to the Japan Times, the city attracted 53.6 million tourists (foreign and domestic) who spent a whopping 1.2 trillion yen in 2017. People travel from all over the world to marvel at the beauty and amazingly preserved culture of Kyoto. But why is it so popular? The mayor of Kyoto, Mr. Kadokawa, said it was because the city was not just a tourist city: Kyoto has both material and spiritual culture deeply built into it that has influenced Japan and the world. Without traditional Kyoto dance, there would be no Nishijin-ori, and without tea ceremony, there would be no Senke Jushoku. It is a city bursting with historical importance, and the inhabitants are all too ready to share it with you. Once more, the city is renowned for its cleanliness and diligent care towards its streets. A questionnaire given to foreign tourists found that they were greatly pleased by the tidiness of not only public facilities, but also business and restaurants alike.
Kyoto is located slap-bang in a valley, causing hot summers and cold winters. The temperature change between seasons, particularly winter and spring, is sudden and drastic. If you are traveling during this time, make sure you bring clothes for both seasons. Below is a graph of the temperatures for each month to give you an idea of what to expect.
Getting Around Kyoto
Kyoto has a great system of public and private transportation systems. Getting around on bus is easy with the 600 yen day bus pass. With this ticket, you can ride on any city or Kyoto bus (not JR buses) and travel as many times as you like for a day! Taxis are also quite cheap and easy to come by: just wave one down like you do back home. They know where the best attractions are, but make sure you have an address if you are going to your hotel. Suica cards (prepaid travel cards) are very convenient for traveling on buses and trains. You can purchase one of these from ticket machines at most train stations!
Getting to Kyoto
From Tokyo to Kyoto
The best way to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto is to use the bullet train, or shinkansen. You can board a bullet train from Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station, and then it is a straight shot to Kyoto Station on the Tokaido Shinkansen line. If you are traveling with a Japan Rail Pass, you cannot use the Nozomi train! You will be charged a fee if you try to use the Nozomi trains. Instead, you should use the Hikari trains, as they are no additional fees. The journey from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station should take 2 hours and 40 minutes, so sit back and relax.
From Osaka to Kyoto
Fortunately Osaka is very close to Kyoto. You can ride on a shinkansen from Osaka Station to Kyoto Station in only 15 minutes, which is what I recommend if you have a Japan Rail Pass as it is the quickest and most comfortable way. However, if you are heading for the Shijo-Kawaramachi area for some shopping and food, I suggest you take the Hankyu Kyoto Main Line from Umeda Station (about 5 minutes on foot from Osaka Station) to Kawaramachi Station in Kyoto. This will take you directly to the downtown shopping and restaurant areas.
Kansai International Airport to Kyoto
Navigating Kansai international Airport is fortunately very smooth, as a direct train line to Kyoto begins at a train station located at the airport itself! For 3,370 yen, you can ride on the Haruka limited express all the way to Kyoto Station in just over 1 hour and 10 minutes. There are special racks in the train carts for your big suitcases too, making for a more comfortable ride. You can purchase train tickets at the Kansai-Airport Station ticket machines with cash.
Japan Rail Pass
Whether you are traveling to Kyoto from Tokyo or Osaka, getting a Japan Rail Pass before arriving in Japan is essential, especially if you intend to use the bullet train or stay in Japan for a while. Not only will you save a bit of money, you will also avoiding having to wait in line to buy train tickets over and over again. You can purchase a Japan Rail Pass online from outside of Japan, and receive it at ticket offices in Japan. Do not forget to bring your passport when you pick it up, as you need to show it for proof of identification!
Things You Should Definitely do in Kyoto
Scattered all over Kyoto are countless temples and shrines that bring life to the deep history of Japan, and Kyoto’s significance in religion. Many of these temples, such as Ryoan-ji and Kinkaku-ji, are surrounded by beautiful Zen and green gardens, making for ideal photo shoots. I suggest you make your way up to Kiyomizu Temple early in the morning to appreciate the beautiful views and pagodas without all the hustle and bustle of crowds of tourists before making your way down the steps of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka (the old Kyoto) to explore the grand Chion-in, a temple with the largest wooden gate in all of Japan! The stairs in front of this temple are perfect for a big family shoot!
Gion at Night
Ever pictured feudal Japanese streets full of kimono girls and geisha, just like those old samurai movies? Well, Gion’s the place where that is a reality! Gion is part of old Kyoto: it’s winding, traditional streets are full of quaint restaurants and shops. But its beauty really comes out at night. Dotted all over the Gion streets are traditional Japanese lanterns that shine red, yellow and white all throughout the area, making for some truly breath-taking scenes. A personal tip of mine is to go there on a rainy night: the water on the stone-cobbled ground reflects the light, giving a truly unforgettable image. Gion is located conveniently close to Ninenzaka and Kiyomizu-dera (about a 10 minute walk), so I recommend you visit Gion after traveling there!
Rickshaws are a cool and relaxing way of seeing the beautiful sights of Kyoto. Hop on a rickshaw by the famous Togetsu-kyo Bridge in Arashiyama (10 minute walk from Arashiyama Station) and be taken on an adventure through the beautiful bamboo forest, all the while being told the local history by the friendly pullers. Courses go for as short as 12 minutes to as long and 120 minutes, and prices begin at 3,000 yen. Just wander over a rickshaw puller and ask for a ride!
Eating Out in Ponto-Cho
Like Gion, Ponto-Cho has preserved much of its traditional architecture and history. The area is particularly great for unwinding in the evenings. Why not chill out after a day of traveling by eating out at one of the many yakiniku or okonomiyaki restaurants, some of the best foods Japan has to offer! It can be a little pricy compared to other restaurants in Shijo, but I highly recommend it at least once for an authentic Japanese experience.
Nishiki Market Fun
Nishiki Market is a great place to go if you want to try many types of traditional Japanese foods on the cheap. You can buy lots of Japanese snacks like takoyaki, or simply see immerse yourself in the sights and smells of Japanese markets. It can be a little crowded during the afternoon, so best to avoid bringing a backpack or other luggage with you.
Top 5 Places to Visit in Kyoto
Arashiyama is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto. Not only is there the world-famous bamboo grove, but you can also visit the magnificent Togetsu-kyo Bridge. If you come in spring or fall, you can witness some great views of cherry blossoms and autumn leaves covering the slopes of Arashiyama in the backdrop of the bridge. Speaking of the slopes, there is a really fun monkey park with over 170 monkeys located there! A great place to visit if you are traveling with kids, and only 550 yen per person! You can catch a train directly from Kyoto Station on the San-in Line for 240 yen.
Higashiyama District (Kiyomizu Temple, Ninenzaka, Sannenzaka)
The Higashiyama District of Kyoto is just oozing with Japanese history and culture. The remarkably preserved shops and restaurants that line the stone-cobbled streets make it an essential place to visit for those who wish to experience traditional ‘old Kyoto’. Climbing the steps of Ninenzaka will make you think you are back in feudal Japan! I suggest you begin your day by visiting Kiyomizu Temple very early in the morning (opens from 6am) to avoid the crowds and get those great morning shots. This beauty temple is only 300 yen to enter, and is located within walking distance from other great temples.
Situated in the northern hills of Kyoto lies the stunning Kifune Shrine: a remarkable Shinto shrine. Ride the train up from Demachiyanagi Station through lush forested slopes and hop on a city bus to reach the stairs flanked by traditional Japanese lanterns. Open from 6am to 8pm, it’s great at any time, but if you are lucky, you may see the lanterns light up at night. Highly recommended for nature lovers, as the forested hills and rivers are a sight to behold.
This unique World Heritage site is popular all year round with foreign and Japanese tourists alike. Known as the “Golden Pavilion” in English, this beautiful golden temple, open from 9am, is just a bus away from Kyoto Station and 400 yen to enter. If you visit Kyoto, it’s almost mandatory to get a photo of this temple! Don’t forget to walk around the garden and sample the delicious golden leaf ice cream!
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Perhaps the most famous shrine in all of Japan, Fushimi Inari is known for its 1,000 shrine gates (tori). A must-see location, it is said that your desires will come true if you pass through the gates. As it is open 24/7 and free, you can enjoy the shrine anytime! Catch a local train on the Nara Line from Kyoto Station for just 140 yen and have the experience of a lifetime! Don’t forget your walking boots!
Top 4 Places to Stay in Kyoto
Around Kyoto Station
It sounds like a given, but Kyoto Station really is the best location to stay due to its convenience. From here, you can get direct trains to Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama and Tofukuji, and catch city buses to Kiyomizu Temple or Kinkaku-ji. There is also an underground mall called Porta that offers great places to eat out or buy souvenirs, and an excellent tourist information center within the station, where you can pick up maps and other leaflets. Once your Kyoto trip unfortunately comes to an end, staying here also makes it easy to leave the city.
As previously stated, Higashiyama is a great place to stay if history and tradition is your thing. Yasaka Shrine, Ninenzaka and Kiyomizu Temple are all located within walking distance or each other, making for some truly enjoyable sights. Subway stations and buses to places like Kamigamo Shrine are also plentiful in this area. I suggest staying in a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn), if you have the chance, for a true Kyoto experience!
Arashiyama is a great place to stay because it is conveniently located where the famous bamboo forest is, as well as other stunning nature such as the Katsura River, making for some fun walks. In fact, with all the traditional shops and temples such as Tenryu-ji, you can spend a day just walking around here! And with all that walking, there is nothing better than a relaxing stop at an Arashiyama onsen (hot bath) in the evening before bed. Just do not forget your towels!
Like Higashiyama, Gion is an area drenched in Japanese history and culture. It’s the perfect place to stay if you want to truly immerse yourself in “old Kyoto”, and will be one of the best areas for you to have the chance to see a geisha or other kimono-clad girls. If you plan on staying in this area, I suggest you stay in a ryokan, and don a kimono yourself! The area is conveniently located near downtown Shijo, meaning you can easily do lots of shopping and souvenir purchasing here.
Tips to Help You Enjoy Kyoto
You should always have a map at hand when you are traveling around Kyoto. Wi-Fi can be hard to come by in Kyoto, especially if you are traveling to more rural areas like Arashiyama. In Kyoto Station, there is a tourist information center where you can pick up maps, brochures and other pieces of information for free! The maps are very detailed, contain some great walking courses, and tell you what trains to take to get around. There are also English-speaking staff members there ready to help you and answer your questions. At the exit of every train/subway station is also a local map of the surrounding area. I recommend you take a picture of these maps with your smartphone or camera, so you can refer to it if you get lost.
Seasons and What to Wear
Heatstroke is a constant problem in the humid Kyoto summers, so make sure you always carry some water with you. Those who are not used to such a climate can be caught off-guard, so lather on the sunscreen, and fill your suitcase with shorts and t-shirts beforehand.
The winter can also be surprisingly cold, even if you are used to the brutal winters of Europe and North America. If you are coming in winter, make sure to pack some coats and extra layers. In the cold months, Japanese convenience stores sell hand warmers called Kairo, which are essential if you plan to explore the city on a wintery night.
You should try to avoid coming to Kyoto during the rainy season in June-July and the typhoon season in September, as there will be lots of rain and frequent closures of attractions. You should also do your best to avoid the big Japanese holiday: Golden Week. In Golden Week (April 29th to early May), most of the country is on holiday, so both Japanese and foreign tourists descend on Kyoto. The temples, shrines, trains, buses and just about everything is very crowded, and hotels become more expensive. You will have a much more comfortable visit if you come to Kyoto in March or early April.
Kyoto has many buses and trains, but often they are crowded, hard to navigate and tiresome. With beautiful temples and shrines so close together, why not just rent a bicycle? In Kyoto, you can even rent bicycles for as little as a day for a reasonable price! Even some hotels offer them to guests! Kyoto has few hills and large cycling lanes, making for a very enjoyable location for cyclers. So enjoy the sights and burn some calories!
Money in Japan
Japan is mostly a cash society, and therefore having lots of cash with you is better and more convenient than carrying credit or debit cards, especially if you wish to purchase things such as train tickets or souvenirs from local shops in Higashiyama. Japan is very safe, so don’t worry about carry lots of cash on your persons.
- I am Nagai Yuichi ,CEO of S-fleage a company in Kyoto. We are spreading the charms of Kyoto to the world. I hope this article is helpful for your experience in Kyoto!