Kyoto was the capital city for over 1,000 years. It still remains the most culturally important city in Japan. Whilst walking down back streets and narrow alleys, it is not uncommon to see men and women wearing Kimonos – almost like stepping back in time into a Japan of yesteryear. So, we decided, while in Kyoto, wear a Kimono! So we did!
The city houses about 1,700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines, as well as palaces, castles, canals and beautiful gardens. Historic buildings are nestled between modern architecture and on occasion you will stumble upon locations used for famous movie scenes. There is no shortage in top class restaurants, shopping and a number of amusing and cultural shows.
No visit to Japan is complete without seeing Kyoto and in this post, we have compiled a comprehensive travel guide that will take you to the best sights to visit and how to get there!
Here is a quick guide of the different types of transportation used for this guide to Kyoto.
Transportation in Kyoto:
Kyoto is laid out on a grid system and very easy to navigate. Most attractions are grouped together, especially in Gion and temples along the Higashiyama hills. We, simply strolled from one to the next, comfortably.
JR Kyoto train station: is enormous! This is the base to everywhere in Kyoto. The large, modern, glass structure houses the Hotel Granvia, shops, restaurants, access to the subway station, and also the city bus station, outside. Taxi ranks can be found on either side of the station.
Subway: quite simple, with just a few lines, costing around JPY200 per journey. City maps and bus route maps are available at the information office on the 2nd floor. Staff speak good English, and are very friendly.Your Pasmo card works here too.
Raku Sightseeing Bus: brightly coloured, tourist friendly and loops around all the main attractions within the city. It’s the easiest way to travel and see the city for a flat fare of JPY230 and a day pass for JPY500. It is definitely worthwhile, travelling on all 3 buss routes:
- 100 Raku Bus route: Departs every 10 minutes from Kyoto Station, Higashiyama district, Sanjusangen-do Temple, Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka-jinja Shrine, Okazaki district- Heian-jingu Shrine, Eikan-do Temple and Nanzen-ji Temple, and then up to the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuku-ji).
- 101 Raku Bus route: Kyoto Station, Nijo Castle, Nishijin Textile Centre and the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji). Departs every 30 minutes.
- 102 Raku Bus route: Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji michi), Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nishijin Textile Centre, Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji). Departs every 30 minutes.
The Kyoto City Bus: identifiable by the white destination lettering on the front and side of the bus. The pricing is the same as the Raku Bus.
Top sightseeing – A location guide:
The best way to experience Kyoto is to head out to the iconic sights, starting from the furthest part (northwest or northeast) of the city. We have put together the following guide to give you the best value for time on your exploration.
Begin with a visit to the most exquisite, 3 – story gold leaf Pavilion, called Kinkakuji (or Golden Pavilion in western culture). The pavilion has an interesting history of being burned down several times. Located northwest of the city, we recommend a bright and early start. It is exceptionally crowded here.
To get to the Golden Pavilion, take the Raku Bus 101 from outside Kyoto Station or ‘Shijo Horikawa’ (street) stop and get off at Kinkakuji-mae. The bus ride will take about 30 minutes. The entrance to the temple is across the road to your right.
A Silver Pavilion is located northeast of the city as an alternative option and worth a visit, too. We did not visit the Silver Pavilion, but word on the street claims that crowds are significantly less.
Tip: Rent a Kimono at Kyoto Kimono Rental Wargo and submerge yourself in the experience of being traditionally Japanese. The ladies and gents who work here are absolutely wonderful and will dress you from top-to-toe.
Ryoanji and Ninnaji Temples:
After some time at the Golden Pavilion, pay a visit to nearby Ryoanji Temple. The dry raked gravel of the Zen Garden has a collection of 15 rocks, only 14 of which are visible at any one time. There is no explanation why, but gazing on it may bring some enlightenment!
To get to Ryoanji Temple from the Golden Pavilion, walk down the street in the direction the bus was going for 20-25 minutes, until you get to Ryoanji on the right.
Tip: the admission fee is JPY500 from 8am – 5pm. We did not think it was worth the fee. There are far better and bigger temples/gardens to visit in Kyoto, such as the Ninnaji Temple, down the road from here.
From Ryoanji, head to nearby Ninnaji Temple by walking westwards down the street for 10 minutes. The temple was found in 888, this temple is a World Heritage Site and is home to one of Kyoto’s most beautiful gardens and Buddhist treasures. Photos during Spring and Autumn will be exceptionally beautiful, here.
Tip: There is no admission to the garden outside of the cherry blossom season. In-season, there is a small fee, used to preserve the Omura Sakuran. To visit the Goten and Reiho-kan museum: JPY500 admission from 9am – 5pm (April to May and October to November, only).
Off the beaten track – Kyoto by bicycle
There is nothing that thrills us more than discovering the road less traveled in a new location. What better way to explore the magical alleys and backstreets of Kyoto than on a half-day guided bike tour!
The Kyoto Cycling Tour Project is the best choice for this experience. Perfectly located near Kyoto Station, we met with our guide for the tour briefing before pedaling our way, together, through the historical city.
The tour took us through the infamous Geisha entertainment district: the Gion District and through small, narrow alleys with traditional houses called machiya. We stopped for photos in Miyagawa-cho and the tour guide gave us a glimpse of what life is like in the world of the Maiko and Geiko girls.
We paddled along the picturesque Shirakawa Canal lined with weeping willow trees, passing tea-houses (ochaya) where Geisha and Maiko live and work. The Hanami-koji (“flower-viewing street”) alley is most famous in this area and stunning during peak cherry blossom season.
We caught a glimpse of a Geiko as she left a building and the guide mentioned that the girls were breaking for lunch. We visited the Heian Shinto Shrine (Heian-jingū) with one of the largest Torii gates in Japan. The next stop was at the Imperial Palace Park before paddling along the outskirts of the Kamogawa River, passing the Higashi Honganji Temple back to the bike depot.
The experience was the highlight of our time in Kyoto. Our tour guide was very informative, funny and we never felt unsafe. We got to experience areas where most tourist don’t go and we learned so much about Japanese life in Kyoto. Absolutely priceless and unforgettable.
We highly recommend this experience with the team at Kyoto Cycling Tour Project!
Fushimi town has been an area rich in good-quality spring water, for decades. It is, therefor, well-known for Japanese sake brewing. The streets with bars and restaurants as whole, is a unique attraction and worth strolling through or sample good quality Sake. The 40 sake cellars are still along the moat, retaining a 17th Century Edo Period atmosphere.
Inari Shinto Shrine / Fushimi Inari-taisha
In Fushimi town, visit the Inari Shinto Shrine. This is the main Shrine in Kyoto and open 24 hours, every day of the year. It is also the head Shrine over all Shrines in Japan and the number one place to pray for good fortune and good luck.
We visited the Shrine at mid-day on a weekday and it was very busy with tourists. As a couple who try to avoid crowds, we did not mind the crowds, here, so much. The entrance was the only area that was overcrowded with people, taking photos. As soon as we started the winding 4km Torii gate tunnel to the top of Mt. Inaris, the crowds fizzled out. This path is called the Oyama-meguri (Oyama tour).
Evenings, here, are very atmospheric, too. There are fewer visitors and the gates are beautifully lit. If the crowds of Japan have overwhelmed you at this stage, we recommend a night visit. It’s the perfect time and spot for contemplative solitude.
How to get to Fushimi-Inari:
Take a JR train to Inari station from Kyoto Station on the JR Nara Line.
Tip: Most restaurants and bars around the shrine close early. Opt for a late lunch or return to Kyoto for dinner if you are visiting the Shrine during daytime.
Take the first train at 6am from Kyoto Station to Arashiyama (San-in line to Saga-Arashiyama station). The journey only takes 15 minutes and there is plenty to do in the area other than visiting the famous bamboo forest.
We recommend dedicating a whole day, in Arashiyama or, at least the morning. The bamboo forest, however, is a must! Be warned, it can get overcrowded with tourists and locals. The earlier, the better and to be honest, it is less impressive than the photos on Instagram. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic spot to visit with the sun glinting through the trees with not a soul in sight.
Other suggestions in the area:
Tenryuji, a leading Zen temple and it’s abbot garden. The garden is considered one of the oldest of its kind and just a stone’s throw away from the Keifuku Arashiyama terminal station.
Visit the photogenic bamboo groves which are close to the entrance to Tenryuji, and the residential district with several small temples along the wooded mountain.
We highly recommend visiting Okochi Sanso Villa on foot or by bicycle. This is a very impressive residential Japanese building. It is one of the finest examples of traditional architecture in Arashiyama. The entrance fee is approx. JPY 1000 and includes a cup of green tea and a Japanese sweet – a very traditional combination of drinking tea, in Japan, which we adored.
Last, but not least, is the Monkey Park – Iwatayama. The monkeys roam freely here. Be careful, they are wild animals.
If you still have time, take a boat trip (2 hours) along the Hozu-gawa River to Kameoka or vice versa. Views along the way are very serene and beautiful – perfect for the soul. Kameoka is the next town on and to get there, take the JR Sagano/Sanin line train to Kameoka station. We exited the station and turned left to follow the main road down, crossing the rail tracks. We saw a small street of shops leading to the riverboat office.
At the end of our boat trip, we walked down the riverside to the bridge into town; until we saw signs to Saga-Arashiyama Station, where we got the train back to Kyoto.
Accommodation – Top pick
In Kyoto, we made the most of a submersive experience. Staying in a traditional Japanese Ryokan (ree-oh-kan) was another highlight of the trip.
It was so eye-opening to experience an authentic Japanese way of life and we recommend this to everyone. Our travel agent sourced all our accommodation stays in Japan and it was faultless. All credit goes to Audley Travel for this top pick!
Sakura Ryokan Honganji, Kyoto – Bright, cosy, an excellent location and great value for money!
Sakura Ryokan is a 20 minute walk from Kyoto Station in the heart of Kyoto. They offer a number of rooms and a memorable stay at a fraction of the price. All the rooms are en-suite. It is worth upgrading to the tea-ceremony or Sukiya rooms which have a tiny garden and a little larger. Personally, we thought that the garden is not much of a functional selling-point but rather a decorative attribute to look out on. All the rooms, however, are perfectly functional and finished to a high standard with complimentary WiFi. The staff is exceptionally friendly and mannerly.
Tip: The front door is locked at 23:00 and a code is required to unlock the door. The receptionist will guide you in a short orientation of the property at check-in.
Last, but very necessary: Foodie Options to dazzle your taste buds. Here is a list of 6 tried and ‘tasted’ restaurants if food is one of your main reasons for travel. You, absolutely, cannot go wrong with these in a city with an abundance of options. Kyoto has some of the world’s best restaurants.
Highly Recommended Restaurants:
- Musoshin Gion – expect a long queue, but worth the best black ramen in the city. A speciality! Ask your hotel concierge to make a reservation.
- Sushi Kappo Nakaichi – the best, freshest sushi you will ever have!
- Ogawa Coffee – delicious coffee on a tight travel schedule and you will find a few of these all over the city.
- Aux Bons Morceaux – if you are feeling a little fished out, this recommendation might come as a surprise. It and was recommended by our travel agent and the food is just like an authentic Parisian bistro, if not better. You’ll thank us for this (or our travel agent)
- Kinbe Sushi – inexpensive and does excellent sets / platter plates.
- Suiran Kansan – restored in 1899 and set in the gardens of Suiran Arashiyama, perfect for a smart-casual romantic affair.
Download these Apps:
- Arukumachi Kyoto App – an easy to use and free application, offering information on routes, timetables and fares for city buses and rail services.
- MapsMe – Perfect for off-line navigation through the city.
Make my day: Visit L’Escamoteur Cocktail bar on Saitocho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto for signature pieces of art!
We rate this city: 4.5 out of 5 Irish harps