Kyoto, often nicknamed the world’s most photogenic city, is the ancient capital of Japan, home to many sacred spots. Today, it’s a place which guards secrets and traditions of a bygone era and a place where beauty never seems to end. From mastering the ancient rituals of tea making to wandering in its stunning Golden Pavilion, here are Amir Dakkak and I’s 2 fils on How to Kyoto.
Kansai International Airport (KIX) is the closest international airport to Kyoto. From the airport, you can take the JR Haruka Express to Kyoto Station, and then a train or bus onwards from there to your hotel. The trip takes about 80 minutes.
HOW TO GET AROUND
If you’re coming from Tokyo, then you can take the awesome Shinkansen ‘Hikari’ bullet train (eligible with the Japan Rail Pass) from either Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station, and arrive at Kyoto Station. The trip takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes which fly by as you get to admire the scenic route along the way.
Travel Tips: If arriving from Tokyo, you can make a seat reservation at the JR ticket office right before the entry gates for free to guarantee a seat. It may take some time to make the seat reservation if service counters are busy. Make sure to leave enough time to make the reservation. Also, for more info about the Japan Rail Pass, please visit the How to Tokyo Travel Guide.
Buses: The underground train system is very limited so the main mode of transport is buses. Unfortunately on Google Maps, the bus stop names are not displayed in English (mainly in Japanese) but the bus and stop numbers are displayed so you’ll be able to figure it out eventually. If using the buses often (likely), it is recommended to buy all-day bus passes either from tourist info centers or from the buses directly. The price for the one-day pass was ¥ 600. Riders will usually hop on the buses from the back doors, and then tap their cards on the machines next to the driver on the way out. To validate the one-day pass, insert the card into the card reader when getting off, and then later for other rides, simply show the date printed on the back of the card to the driver.
Travel Tips: There are JR buses as well as trains which you may find yourself taking. In this case, you can use the same JR Rail Pass card and show it to the driver on your way out.
Walking: This is pretty easy in Kyoto as there are plenty of pedestrian paths, but some of the temples are in the outskirts of the city so walking is impractical if traveling far or if short on time.
Travel Tips: Wherever you’re going, make sure to look up the route on Google Maps in advance and screen-shot which trains and buses to take if you don’t have internet access when out and about.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Recommended districts: Nakagyo Ward (a.k.a Karasuma Central Kyoto) and Shimogyo Ward.
Hotel Mystays Kyoto Shijo is perfectly located in downtown Kyoto close to the Nishiki Market. This modern hotel is a nice, comfortable, and affordable place to stay in. Room was slightly bigger than usual Japan size standards and clean. There’s also a convenient bus stop located just meters away from the hotel so it was super easy to get around from here. It’s also a short walking distance from nearby shopping streets.
Hotel Granvia is the most convenient hotel to stay in if arriving to Kyoto by train and not looking to drag your luggage around as its location is quite literally atop Kyoto Station. It’s a big hotel with modern decor, nice rooms, elaborate breakfast buffet, and great views of the city from its upper floor suites (upon request).
Airbnb is a great affordable option in many of the city’s different districts. It’s worth exploring as you’re pretty much guaranteed good quality and clean accommodation.
Travel Tips: It’s always advisable to book with a superhost.
Although we personally haven’t tried and tested any, Ryokans are said to be quite an authentic Kyoto experience. This article here is of great help about what to expect and offers plenty of recommendations for different budgets.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Kinkaku - The Golden Pavilion was for both of us, our absolute favorite place in all of Kyoto and the one place you shouldn’t miss visiting during your time there. It is breathtaking. The Zen Buddhist Temple, formally known as Rokuon-ji, was originally a villa acquired in 1397 by shogun (military leader) Yoshimitsu. The villa also served as an official guesthouse and has welcomed guests, emperors, and members of nobility over the years. After Yoshimitsu died, according to his will, the villa was to be converted into a temple named after Yoshimitsu’s given name for the next world, Rokuon-in-den. The building suffered a series of fires over the years, most recently in 1950 by a fanatic monk. In 1955, it was rebuilt and unveiled to reveal gold foil which covers its upper 2 levels and a shining phoenix which stands on its roof. There’s no better view than the sight of its golden reflection on the surrounding pond and garden.
Explore the rituals behind the Japanese Tea Ceremony at Camellia Garden in Kyoto. Guests are welcomed into a room where a host explains and follows a ritual of preparing & serving green matcha tea. Rooted in Zen philosophy, it is a spiritual process and is intended for participants to forget the worries of the world. The drink is also consumed for its many health benefits as 1 cup of matcha contains 1 day’s worth of Vitamin C. Its caffeine content also supposedly does a better job than coffee does so if sleepy, this should do the trick! After the host’s demonstration, guests get to make their very own bowl of foam topped green matcha tea which they can enjoy drinking along with a sweet.
Travel Tips: You can opt to dress up in a kimono during the ceremony which you can rent from a nearby store that Camellia Garden is partnered with. Discounts are available for Camellia Garden guests. More info on their website here.
The ancient Fushimi Inari Shrine was constructed in the 8th century as a dedication to the Shinto deity Inari, the god of rice. It is considered to be the mother of all shrines in Japan and sits at the base of Mt. Inari, a sacred mountain which many hike to the top. You can follow the magical path to the top (or at least the beginning of it) along the thousands of vermilion torii gates which have been donated by individuals and business people praying for fortune and prosperity.
Travel Tips: This is one of the most visited sites in Japan. It’s more often busy than not so the earlier you go in the morning the better!
Nijo Castle is one of the best sights for a cultural experience in Kyoto. The castle is a glimpse into Japan’s longest era of peace and stability overseen by the last shogunate, the Tokugawa. Built in 1603 as a residence, the castle houses 2 palaces, Ninomaru and Honmaru, and gardens. Moats and stone walls protected its inhabitants from unwanted guests, but the castle’s incredible nightingale floors were what rang the alarm bells by singing a warning when an intruder slipped past security. The different rooms also showcase wall paintings of historical importance to the castle, with tigers often used as a scary backdrop to intimidate lower ranking guests and officers. Audio guides are available for rent and are recommended to get a detailed description of the exhibits as you walk through.
Travel Tips: Make sure to check opening hours as they vary throughout the year. When walking inside the palaces, one has to remove their shoes and follow a path. It is also not allowed to take pictures and videos inside the palace.
Wander in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. If you think you’re going to be hiking through the forest appreciating earth’s serene calm and seeing all the colors of the wind, then think again! This is probably one of the most visited spots in Kyoto. It is yes, as stunning as you’ve probably seen in pictures (including Amir’s which is my absolute favorite photo ever!). However, I’m not quite sure how so many photographers have managed to capture its ethereal beauty without the throngs of people doing the same. Hence why it’s recommended to visit super early in the morning to beat the crowds. The grove is roughly an hour’s drive from Kyoto Station so make the most of your precious time in the area. The Monkey Park is a fun and interactive experience that comes with some exercise as one has to hike up the hill to see the monkeys in their natural habitat. The view from the top is postcard perfect. You can also enjoy breathtaking views of the Hozugawa River aboard the Sagano Romantic Train which you can hop on the way to the grove or afterwards.
Travel Tips: Sagano Romantic Train will be out of service from December 30, 2018 to February 28, 2019. Services resume March 1, 2019 onwards.
Gion is said to be the birthplace of the Geisha culture. Although harder to spot considering so many residents and tourists alike are either wearing their own or rented kimonos, geishas are professional entertainers who are often hired to perform during occasions. They, as popularized by the book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, go through rigorous training where they learn various traditional Japanese arts and excel at the art of hospitality. You can certainly opt to follow the masses and wander in the area with camera in hidden sight until you spot a geisha or a maiko (a.k.a geisha in training). However, a less stalkerish option would be to simply sign up for a geiko experience. If everything on your to-do and to-eat list in Japan hasn’t emptied your wallet just yet, then signing up for a one-on-one geisha encounter will. Luxury hotels and tour operators can basically hook you up for a mere 100,000+ yen including dinner. An affordable alternative would be to sign up for one of Gion Corner’s programs which cater to curious tourists through live Kyo-mai performances, flower arrangement ceremonies and much more.
Ponto-chō Alley comes alive at night with its many lanterns lighting up its wooden buildings today home to many bars and restaurants. Here you have a wealth of dining options, some of which are highly exclusive and only allow entry to guests who have been nominated by their ‘inner circle’. The alley is located west of the Kamo River, so a venue with a terrace overlooking the waters is recommended. This area is also known to be prime for spotting geishas or maikos en route to their appointments.
Kyoto Station offers much more than just a train stop. It’s a 15 storey building which houses shops, restaurants, a museum, a hotel, and an outdoor terrace. There are 2 popular shopping destinations: The Isetan Department Store (which occupies 13 floors!) and The Cube Mall. Both have an incredible array of products dedicated to fashion, souvenirs, and just about anything matcha. Check out the Birthday Bar store which will literally solve all your birthday gift problems. They also have food halls which offer a variety of restaurants ranging from Japanese cuisine to other Asian delicacies. Most importantly, there’s an entire floor on the 10th called the Kyoto Ramen Koji which is best described as a noodle theme park. From the Cube Mall, you can also enter a maze of bridges that run at the top of the station where you can get an obstructed view of Kyoto Tower. Once you get your fill, you can enjoy a relaxing time in the Sky Garden located on the 15th floor of the station.
Travel Tips: Pick up a map of the station so you can figure out your way around it.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park (a.k.a The Samurai Village): This park is often used in movie sets when shooting an old “timey” movie where the story is set in the shogunate era of Japan. However when it’s not in use for filming, visitors can enter and walk through the streets of ‘The Samurai Village’ for a fee. This place has plenty of attractions from love shows to a laser mission, escape rooms, and much more plus restaurants and cafes to dine in. Some attractions charge additional fees to enter.
Travel Tips: Visitors can dress up for free in a kimono and stroll through the park or opt to pay for a full makeover and Samurai costume rental and get a professional photoshoot done!
WHERE TO EAT
Omen Ginkaku-ji branch was where I had hands down one of the most delicious noodle experiences I’ve slurped yet! I was super lucky to be served almost immediately as there was a long line of people waiting. Opted for the hot udon noodles which arrived with a number of condiments including a bowl of soup to dip the noodles in, sesame seeds, and vegetables. Noodlelicious!
Nishiki Market is a fantastic street food market also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen which you should definitely wander through. It’s in a narrow street which houses over 100 different stalls, some of which are over 4 centuries old and have been run by different generations. Nishiki is a one-stop shop where you can experience many local delicacies made fresh that you perhaps wouldn’t normally think of ordering off a menu. Once ordered, you can either eat the food right there and then, or take it to go as the market has a strict ‘don’t walk and eat’ policy. The market is also home to a number of stores where you can buy many kitchen items, souvenirs, and sake. Open 7 days a week from 9AM to 6PM. Most vendors accept cash only.
Smart Coffee is a hidden gem. The family business, founded in 1932, is vintage themed and is great for both breakfast and a delicious cup of coffee to get you started for a busy day ahead. Their French toast is cooked to perfection with a crispy outer crust and a gloriously custardy interior. It is served with sugar syrup which you’ll probably want seconds of. A recommended drink to go with your French toast would be their iced cafe au lait. The cafe is also surrounded by a plethora of shops that sell items that range from teas, to clothes, to artifacts, and is located a mere 8 minute walk from the Nishiki Market.
Café Bibliotec Hello! is located in a relatively quiet street, and is a fantastic escape for some quiet and excellent coffee. It is beautifully decorated with plants, dark wood, and houses a small library of design books. Although they do offer a menu with various options of French/International meal options, I was still digesting lunch and opted instead for coffee and dessert. I can’t remember the name of the dessert I picked up (did however capture it), but it was divine. I vaguely recall vanilla, lemon, and cheesecake. They also have a bakery adjacent to the cafe with dangerously good aromas that will lure you in to pick up freshly made pastries to go.
Located in Kyoto Station, Pie Face is an Australian brand that specializes in - you guessed it - pies! Baked with love, the savory and sweet pies will melt in your mouth and make a great bite to eat as you people-watch at the station, or enjoy as a snack-on-the-go. A recommended duo would be their signature chunky steak pie as a savory option, and the strawberry with mascarpone pie as a sweet treat.
When visiting Kyoto, we suggest you take a day (or two) trip to Osaka, which is super close, and is easily accessible by train. The Shinkansen ‘Hikari’ bullet train (eligible with the Japan Rail Pass) from Kyoto is the best way to get there and is a quick 15 minutes trip to Shin-Osaka Station. Among many things to do in Osaka, here are each of Amir and I’s favorites:
Dotonbori: Crazy, overwhelming, eye opening, and just down right incredible. Lit up with huge neon signs and bustling with people, Dotonbori is the most quintessentially Japanese place in all of Japan. Osaka is also known for its street food so if you’re feeling adventurous try their Takoyaki which is octopus in fried dough and also the Taayaki, a Japanese pastry filled with custard or red bean paste.
Universal Studios Japan: Take a journey through The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a theme park where fans get to walk in the footsteps of Harry, explore the mysteries of Hogwarts, chug on one too many butterbeers, and cast as many spells as possible. Fun fact: #Didyouknow that 1 in 15 ppl in the world own a HP book? #TeamGryffindor.
Travel Tips: Make sure to check the train schedule for the last train back to Kyoto!