Kyoto: The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Cultural Capital
If you’re looking for a destination that combines the best of tradition and innovation, nature and culture, elegance and simplicity, look no further than Kyoto. Kyoto is Japan’s former capital and the heart of its cultural heritage. It’s a city where you can admire stunning temples and shrines, stroll through charming streets and gardens, savor delicious food and drinks, and experience the hospitality and grace of the locals. It’s also a city where you can enjoy modern amenities and attractions, such as museums, galleries, shopping malls, and entertainment venues.
In this article, I’ll share with you some of the best tips and tricks on how to plan your trip to Kyoto, what to see and do in this amazing city, and how to uncover its secrets and surprises. Whether you have a few days or a few weeks to explore Kyoto, you’ll find something that will captivate your senses and make you fall in love with this city.
Getting to and around Kyoto
Kyoto is easy to reach by train from other major cities in Japan, such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. The fastest and most convenient way is to take the Shinkansen (bullet train). It can get you to Kyoto in about 2-3 hours from Tokyo or 15 minutes from Osaka. Besides that, you can take regular trains or buses, which are cheaper but slower.
Getting around Kyoto
Once you’re in Kyoto, you have several options for getting around the city. The most popular and economical way is to use the city buses. The buses cover most of the attractions and districts in Kyoto. You can buy a one-day bus pass for 600 JPY, which allows you unlimited rides on the buses within the city. You can also use Google Maps to plan your routes and know which bus to take.
Another option is to use the subway system. It has two lines that run through the downtown area and connect with some of the train stations. The subway is faster and more comfortable than the buses. However, it doesn’t reach as many places as the buses do. The subway fares vary depending on the distance. You can buy a one-day subway pass for 900 JPY or a combined bus and subway pass for 1,200 JPY.
If you want more flexibility and convenience, you can also rent a bicycle, a car, or a taxi. Bicycles are a great way to explore Kyoto’s flat terrain and scenic streets. You can find many bike rental shops around the city. On the other hand, cars are useful if you want to visit places outside of Kyoto, such as Nara or Arashiyama. Yet, it can be expensive and difficult to park in the city center. Finally, taxis are convenient for short distances or late-night rides, but they can be pricey and slow during peak hours.
Kyoto’s Best Districts
Kyoto is a city that has many different districts, each with its own character and charm. Depending on your interests and preferences, you can choose to stay or visit different districts and experience the diverse aspects of Kyoto’s culture and history. Here are some of the best districts in Kyoto that you should check out:
This is the most scenic and historic district in Kyoto, where you can find many of the city’s famous temples, shrines, gardens, and museums. You can also stroll through the preserved lanes and streets, such as Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, and admire the traditional wooden houses and shops. Some of the highlights of this district include Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, Gion District, Yasaka Shrine, Kodai-ji Temple, and Sanjusangen-do Temple.
This is the most convenient and lively district in Kyoto, where you can enjoy the shopping, dining, and nightlife of the city. You can find many hotels, hostels, guesthouses, and machiya here. Additionally, there are some attractions and sights, such as Nishiki Market, Pontocho Alley, Teramachi Street, and Nijo Castle. This district is also well-connected to other parts of the city by public transportation.
This is a beautiful and tranquil district in the western outskirts of Kyoto, where you can enjoy the natural scenery and greenery of the surrounding mountains and rivers. You can also visit some of the most stunning temples and shrines in Kyoto, such as the Tenryu-ji Temple, Daikaku-ji Temple, Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple, and Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple. The star attraction of this district is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a magical forest of towering bamboo stalks that sway in the wind.
This is a good district to stay in or visit if you want to be close to the main train station and have easy access to other parts of the city and beyond. You can find many mid-range and budget hotels here, as well as some Ryokan and hostels. You can also visit some of the important sights and attractions in this district, such as the Kyoto Station Building, Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, To-ji Temple, and Kyoto Tower.
This is another scenic and historic district in Kyoto, where you can find some of the most impressive temples and shrines in the city. You can also enjoy the views of the mountains and valleys from various vantage points. Some of the attractions in this district include Ginkaku-ji Temple (the Silver Pavilion), Nanzen-ji Temple, Eikan-do Temple, Heian Shrine, and Philosopher’s Path.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Kyoto has a wide range of accommodation options for every budget and preference. You can choose from traditional ryokan (Japanese inns), modern hotels, cozy guesthouses, stylish hostels, or even machiya (old wooden townhouses) that you can rent as vacation rentals.
Some of the best areas to stay in Kyoto are:
This is the most convenient and lively area to stay in Kyoto, with easy access to public transportation, shopping, dining, and nightlife. You can find many hotels, hostels, guesthouses, and machiya here, catering to different budgets and tastes. Some of the best accommodations in Downtown Kyoto are:
Hotel Unizo Kyoto Shijo Karasuma
This is a modern and comfortable hotel that offers spotless and cozy rooms with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TV, fridge, and electric kettle. The hotel also has a 24-hour front desk, laundry facilities, and a restaurant.
The location is great, close to Shijo Subway Station and Karasuma Hankyu Station, as well as many shops and restaurants.
The rates start from $51 per night.
Gion Misen Furumonzen
This is a stylish and elegant hotel that features spacious and well-designed rooms. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TV, fridge, microwave, and electric kettle. Some rooms also have a balcony or a terrace. The hotel also has a 24-hour front desk, luggage storage, and a garden.
The location is superb. It’s right in the heart of the Gion district, near many attractions and sights, such as Yasaka Shrine, Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, and Nishiki Market.
The rates start from $178 per night.
Hotel Okura Kyoto
This is a luxurious and sophisticated hotel that offers state-of-the-art service and amenities. The rooms are elegant and spacious, with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TV, fridge, minibar, and electric kettle. Some rooms also have a seating area or a city view. The hotel also has a 24-hour front desk, concierge service, fitness center, spa, indoor pool, sauna, and five restaurants.
The location is excellent, near the Okazaki Canal and Heian Shrine, as well as many other attractions and sights.
The rates start from $116 per night.
This is the most scenic and historic area to stay in Kyoto. There are many temples, shrines, gardens, and museums within walking distance. You can find some of the most luxurious ryokan here, as well as some affordable guesthouses and hostels. Some of the best accommodations in Southern Higashiyama are:
Guest House Ga-Jyun
This is a cozy and charming guesthouse that offers clean and comfortable dormitory rooms. You will have free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, lockers, and shared bathrooms. The guesthouse also has a 24-hour front desk, luggage storage, laundry facilities, and a common lounge.
The location is great. It’s close to Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, Gion District, and Sanjusangen-do Temple.
The rates start from $21 per night.
Saka Hotel Kyoto
This is a stylish and modern hotel that features spacious and well-equipped rooms with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TV, fridge, electric kettle, and private bathroom. Some rooms also have a balcony or a terrace. The hotel also has a 24-hour front desk, concierge service, bicycle rental, and a restaurant.
The location is superb, in the heart of the Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district, near Kodai-ji Temple, Yasaka Shrine, and Maruyama Park.
The rates start from $160 per night.
Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto
This is a luxurious and sophisticated hotel that offers state-of-the-art service and amenities. The rooms are elegant and spacious, with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TV, fridge, minibar, coffee machine, and private bathroom. Some rooms also have a seating area or a garden view. The hotel also has a 24-hour front desk, concierge service, fitness center, spa, indoor pool, sauna, and four restaurants.
The location is excellent, near the Okazaki Canal and Heian Shrine, as well as many other attractions and sights.
The rates start from $1090 per night.
This is a good area to stay in Kyoto if you want to be close to the main train station and have easy access to other parts of the city and beyond. The area has good hotels that are not too far from downtown and the subway lines. Nevertheless, you may have to travel to the main sightseeing districts and the restaurants and nightlife of downtown. Some of the best accommodations in Central Kyoto are:
Citadines Kyoto Karasuma-Gojo
This is a serviced apartment hotel that offers spacious and well-furnished rooms with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TV, fridge, microwave, electric kettle, and private bathroom. Some rooms also have a kitchenette or a living room. The hotel also has a 24-hour front desk, concierge service, a fitness center, laundry facilities, and a breakfast lounge.
The location is convenient, right next to Gojo Subway Station and a short walk from Karasuma Hankyu Station and Shijo-dori Street.
The rates start from $73 per night.
It’s an excellent choice for both business and leisure travelers. The hotel offers free Wi-Fi in all rooms, daily housekeeping, a laundromat, luggage storage, and more. The rooms are equipped with air conditioning, heating, a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, and more. You can also enjoy the garden view from some of the rooms.
The hotel’s location is in Shimogyo Ward, a 10-minute walk from Gojo Station and a 15-minute walk from Kyoto Station.
The rates start from $126 per night.
This is a luxurious and sophisticated hotel that offers state-of-the-art service and amenities. The rooms are elegant and spacious, with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, flat-screen TV, fridge, minibar, coffee machine, and private bathroom. Some rooms also have a seating area or a river view. The hotel also has a 24-hour front desk, concierge service, fitness center, spa, indoor pool, sauna, and four restaurants.
The location is excellent, on the banks of the Kamo-gawa River and near many attractions and sights, such as Gion District, Nishiki Market, and Yasaka Shrine.
The rates start from $1085 per night.
Best Food in Kyoto
Kyoto is not only a feast for the eyes, but also for the palate. The city offers a variety of dishes that reflect its rich and sophisticated culinary tradition. Whether you’re looking for elegant kaiseki cuisine, hearty ramen noodles, or delicious sweets, you’ll find something to suit your taste in Kyoto. Some of the foods you should try include:
This is a dish of grilled eel on a bed of rice, served with a sweet and salty soy sauce.
You can find it at Hanakoma, a cozy restaurant near Kiyomizu-Dera temple.
This is a savory pancake made with cabbage, eggs, flour, and various toppings such as pork, seafood, cheese, or noodles.
You can enjoy it at Okonomiyaki Katsu, a small and friendly restaurant near Shijo Kawaramachi.
This is a simple but satisfying dish of tofu simmered in hot water with kombu (seaweed) and served with various condiments.
You can try it at Omen, a traditional restaurant near Ginkaku-ji temple.
This is a popular souvenir from Kyoto, a thin and soft confectionery made from rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon.
You can buy it at various shops around the city. Or, make your own at Izutsu Yatsuhashi Honpo, a workshop near Nijo Castle.
Kyoto’s Seasonal Delights
Kyoto is a city that changes its colors and moods with the seasons, offering different delights and experiences throughout the year. No matter when you visit Kyoto, you’ll find something to enjoy and celebrate in this beautiful city. Here are some of the seasonal delights that Kyoto has to offer:
Spring is one of the most popular and enchanting seasons in Kyoto when the city is adorned with delicate pink plum blossoms and exquisite cherry blossoms. You can join the locals and visitors in hanami (flower viewing) parties, where you can picnic under the blooming trees and admire the scenery. Some of the best places to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto include Maruyama Park, Philosopher’s Path, Arashiyama, and Ninnaji Temple.
Moreover, Spring is also a time to enjoy seasonal sweets, such as Sakura-mochi (rice cakes wrapped in cherry leaves) and Warabi-mochi (jelly-like confections dusted with roasted soybean flour).
Summer is a hot and humid season in Kyoto. Yet, it’s also a festive and lively one. Kyoto hosts some of the most spectacular and exciting festivals in Japan. They are Gion Matsuri, which features street parties and parades of giant wooden floats; Daimonji Gozan Okuribi, which involves lighting huge bonfires on the mountains surrounding Kyoto; and Mitarashi Matsuri, which involves walking through a shallow pool of water at Shimogamo Shrine to purify yourself.
Summer is also a time to enjoy refreshing foods and drinks. For example, Kyo-kaiseki (multi-course Japanese cuisine) with seasonal ingredients, shaved ice with various toppings, and cold noodles like somen and soba.
Fall is another peak season in Kyoto when the city is ablaze with brilliant autumn colors. The changing leaves of maple, ginkgo, and other trees create a stunning contrast with the temples and shrines, creating a feast for the eyes. You can hike through the mountains and forests to enjoy the fall foliage, or take a scenic train ride along the Hozugawa River or Sagano Romantic Train.
Fall is also a time to enjoy hearty foods and drinks, such as Yudofu (tofu simmered in broth), Oden (stew with various ingredients), persimmons, chestnuts, and sake.
Winter is a quiet and serene season in Kyoto when the city is covered with a layer of snow or frost. The cold weather makes the temples and shrines even more majestic and elegant, especially when illuminated at night. You can visit some of the winter wonders of Kyoto, such as Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), which glitters in the sun; Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, which hosts a flea market on the 25th of every month; or Arashiyama Hanatouro, which features lanterns along the bamboo grove and bridges.
Winter is also a time to enjoy warm foods and drinks, such as nabe (hot pot), Oshiruko (sweet red bean soup), yuzu (citrus fruit), and amazake (sweet fermented rice drink).
Must-see Kyoto Attractions
Kyoto is a city that boasts over 1,000 years of history and culture, with countless sights and experiences that will amaze you. It’s impossible to see everything in one trip, but here are some of the must-see attractions that you shouldn’t miss:
Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Pavilion
This is one of the most iconic sights in Kyoto and Japan, a Zen Buddhist temple that has its top two floors covered in gold leaf. The temple was originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for a shogun (military ruler). Unfortunately, it was burned down several times by wars and arsonists. The current version dates back to the 1950s and reflects beautifully on the pond that surrounds it. Admission is 400 JPY per person.
Fushimi Inari Taisha – The Shrine of Thousand Torii Gates
This is another stunning sight in Kyoto and Japan, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and prosperity. The shrine is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates that form a tunnel-like path up the sacred mountain. Along the way, you can also see many stone fox statues. They are believed to be the messengers of Inari. On top of that, admission is free.
Gion – The Geisha District
This is the most historic and atmospheric district in Kyoto, where you can find many traditional wooden houses and teahouses, as well as glimpse the elegant geisha (known locally as geiko) and their apprentices (maiko) in their exquisite kimonos and makeup. You can also enjoy various cultural activities and experiences here, such as watching a geisha performance, taking a walking tour, or dressing up in a kimono.
Nishiki Market – The Food Street
This is the best place to sample the diverse and delicious cuisine of Kyoto, a narrow street lined with hundreds of stalls and shops selling all kinds of food and ingredients. You can find everything from fresh seafood and produce, to pickles and sweets, to sushi and skewers. Additionally, you can buy some souvenirs or gifts here, such as knives, pottery, or tea. The market is open from 9 am to 6 pm daily.
Kiyomizu-Dera Temple – The Pure Water Temple
This is one of the most impressive and popular temples in Kyoto. Indeed, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 8th century. The temple is famous for its wooden stage that juts out over a cliff, offering a panoramic view of the city and the mountains. In addition, the temple is known for its Otowa Waterfall, where you can drink from one of three streams that are said to grant different wishes: longevity, success, or love. Admission is 400 JPY per person.
Enjoy Your Trip to Kyoto!
You’ve just learned about some of the best things to do and see in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural capital. Kyoto is a city that will captivate you with its ancient charm, modern flair, and natural beauty. Whether you’re interested in history, culture, cuisine, or romance, Kyoto has something for everyone. In this article, I’ve shared with you some of the best tips and tricks on how to plan your trip to Kyoto, what to see and do in this amazing city, and how to uncover its secrets and surprises. Whether you have a few days or a few weeks to explore Kyoto, you’ll find something that will enchant your senses and make you fall in love with this city. Have a great trip to Kyoto!
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