Kyoto is one of those must see places in Japan. It’s very traditional and pretty much the complete opposite of Tokyo. It is what you imagine japan to be – Japanese in Kimino, Zen gardens, traditional little houses with tiny cars and bikes along narrow streets.
When we were booking our trip, the time frame we had allowed us to either go to Osaka or Kyoto and after speaking to friends who had already been, we chose Kyoto for a different experience (we were told Osaka, although worth a visit, is very similar to Tokyo).
What to do in Kyoto
Kyoto is a city which has a lot of amazing attractions and things to do however they are kind of spread out around the place. I would suggest making a rough itinerary of what you would like to do, find out where they are in relation to each other and book each day in a certain area.
Also, GET UP EARLY. I can not suggest this enough. Kyoto attractions are rammed with people by about 10am so if you are wanting to see a few of the main things such as the Fushimi Inari Shrine and the Bamboo Forest, you need to be there as early as possible.
Kinkaku – Ji Temple (The Golden Pavilion) – This pavilion was a must see on my list mainly because when you do a google of Kyoto, this iconic temple is one of the first thing that comes up. It really was beautiful! However, because of how popular this is, I would recommend going as early as possible or risk going around in what feels like a factory line from the entrance to the exit.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – This shrine and area in general was one of our favourite places in Kyoto. We left our hotel at around 7am to make sure we got the first jump on the walk up the mountain before the hundreds of other people and it was worth it. A lot of people don’t realise you can actually walk up to the top of the mountain (a few different ways) and it only takes a few hours to get up and down. Amazing views and temples on the way up and down (even when it is raining!).
Yasaka Pagoda – One of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. This place is known as the Gion Shrine which was founded something like 1350 years ago and is quite spectacular. It is a good place to stop if you are walking from the Gion District to the Higashiyama District.
Gion District & Kamogawa River – The Gion District is famous in Kyoto because it is known as the place to spot a Geisha, if you are lucky! It is buzzing with shops, restaurants, tea houses and is very much a tourist attraction. We were lucky that because of the horrendous weather in Kyoto at the time we went, it was so quiet and we manged to look around without the crowds. For things to do around here you can book in a Geisha Show or Maiko Makeover.
The Kamo river is really close by, I would suggest going for a stroll down the river, especially if you go in summer as it is a popular place for people to hang out, play games and just chill.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – This is potentially the MOST popular place to go in Kyoto. Once again, we left our hotel around 6.30am to get to the bamboo grove so that we were able to wander and explore before the crowds. This is something I would really recommend because even by 8.30 – 9am, the crowds had already come through and it was busy. One thing no one seemed to do here was climb to the top of the mountain in the forest. We were the only ones doing it and considering how good the views are from the top!
Arashiyama Monkey Forest – I think it is worth mentioning that I am not a person for animal attractions in general. Animal exploitation and abuse is not up my street so originally I was not going to head to this monkey forest however after doing some research we decided to go. If you are willing to make the 15 minute hike up a pretty steep hill, the opening at the top with all the monkeys and incredible view is worth it.
Be very careful of the wild monkeys. We did see someone get jumped by a monkey when they were just sitting down and although there are parks people around, the monkeys are very cheeky especially when there are babies. Make sure not to feed them outside of the dedicated feeding area, don’t crouch down and make yourself look smaller, don’t touch them.
Other things I would recommend to do in Kyoto if you have the time and funds are tea ceremonies, samurai experience, bar hopping, cooking classes & food tours. Seasonal festivals are a really great idea if you happen to be in town when one is on. Do a quick google when you get somewhere to see what is on! No doubt you will find amazing food, cultural experiences and meet a lot of cool locals.
Where to stay
The local subway lines in Kyoto are not as extensive as somewhere like Tokyo or Osaka so I would recommend staying somewhere pretty central to the subways or buses. We stayed at a hotel very close to the Omiya Train Station however we did have to use buses as well which is not super recommended unless you enjoy being squashed into strangers.
Central & Downtown Kyoto – These are your best option in terms of location. There are lots of local restaurants, the Subway is close by and there is so much to see on foot. It is also a very close walk to the Gion District, shopping & food places (as well as Nishiki Market) and is right by the Kamogawa river.
Kyoto Station – Great for getting to different parts of Kyoto, especially if you are wanting to go North, South,East and West all within a few days. There is also great food options around here. If you are after ‘Traditional Kyoto’ this probably isn’t for you as it is very much like a city rather than the Kyoto you see in photos.
Gion. – If you want to stay int he heart of tradition, Gion is for you. Stay smack bang in the Geisha district and you might have a pretty good chance of seeing one. The streets and atmosphere around this area is beautiful and if you are one for photography you can’t get better than here. Be warned, this is an expensive area to stay.
There are of course other places to stay in Kyoto, it depends on what you are after and how long you are staying for. Do your research before booking!
What to Eat
The food in Japan in general is just amazing and there are so many good options everywhere you look. If you have seen my Tokyo Guide, all of the same food recommendations apply here so here are just a few more specific places.
Goichi Pizza – On our first night in Kyoto, after spending a week in Tokyo eating a lot of curry we were craving something different. We found this pizza place as it was pretty close to where we were staying and we were blown away. It was delicious!
Nishiki Market – Have you ever seen a cooked sparrow on a stick? Well if you want to, look no further than Nishiki Market. This market was mind blowing, it had so much choice of things to eat and places to explore. Many traditional ingredients, street foods and nik nak shops to tickle everyones fancy.
Traditional Tea House/ Cafe – We went to a really cool little cafe/ tea house whilst in Kyoto when we were trying to avoid the rain and needed a break from all the walking! It was run by probably the oldest people I have ever seen running a cafe and the person making the iced coffee must have been in his late 80s. It was a great experience! Be mindful with places like this that smoking inside is very normal.
Spicebar Plus – This was a curry place very close to where we stayed. It sat maybe 10 people and had a great atmosphere and good food. The owners were really friendly and we managed to sit and chat to some people for a good few hours on our last night.
Drip & Drop Coffee – We didn’t check out a lot of coffee places in Kyoto as to be honest, it was SO HOT that we mainly were drinking iced coffee from 7/11 (great option btw) however when we walked past Drip Drop for a break from the heat and crowds we weren’t disappointed. The coffee was great and the location made for great people watching.
Kyoto Travel Tips
Language – As with Tokyo, learn at least the basic Japanese phrases before going to Japan. Hello, Thank you, Goodbye, where is the bathroom etc…
Wifi – Get a pocket wifi. We ordered one to our first hotel when we arrive in Japan and it was 100% necessary for our whole trip.
Etiquettes – Learn some of the Japanese manners and customs. People in Japan are very polite and proper manners and consideration towards others is highly valued.
JR Pass & Public Transport – To get to Kyoto from Tokyo, we used our JR pass. We chose a 7 day pass meaning that we had to book our whole trip around this pass in terms of timing. Read more about the Japan Rail Pass here.
Kyoto is a little different in that the transport system isn’t as extensive and takes a bit more planning however once you get used to the subway system it is very easy to use.
Cash & Cards – Always carry cash on you as most places such as markets, local restaurants and Inn’s prefer cash. Your best option to get out cash is 7-Eleven. We recommend getting a Citibank bank card before you go to Japan (or anywhere overseas).
Convenience Stores – 7-Eleven is your best friend in Japan. For on the go hot and cold snacks, getting cash out, finding coffee or other random but necessary products ( umbrella’s if you go in summer like us). It is so cheap that you will wish that they would bring them to Australia like they are in Japan.
Get up early – As I have mentioned a few times above. Being an early worm as a tourist in Japan and especially Kyoto is KEY. If you want to see places without the crowds or you want those amazing photos in the Bamboo Forest. Be up early.
Go to Gion at night – You’ll have the best chance of seeing a Geisha if you visit the neighbourhood at night. This is the time when they will be running around to and from appointments. First, you’ll hear the clomping of wood shoes on cobblestone, then you’ll see one run past.
Take good walking shoes – Kyoto is best seen on foot. There is so much to see and so much you will miss if you don’t walk around. Good walking shoes will be essential.
Eat & drink in the laneways – The laneways, especially around the Gion district are so beautiful. The range of different places to eat and drink is huge and you will be disappointed if you don’t go and try a few.
Drink Sake – You can not go to Japan without drinking Sake. Have it with a meal, in a bar or just on a night out.
Buy or bring an umbrella – The weather is so unpredictable. We went in the middle of summer and let me tell you we went no where without an umbrella. It was my favourite accessory.
Take a day trip – There are so so many different day trips from Kyoto. We chose to go to Nara & stay overnight (post coming soon) however there are plenty of other places to go such as Osaka, Nagoya, Kanazawa or Kobe. All good options.
Kyoto is a place I can’t wait to go back to. preferably not in Summer. I would love to visit in Spring or Autumn or even in Winter! However, Summer, never again.
Have you been to Kyoto? What are things you would suggest doing or tips you would give to fellow travellers?