I have visited Kyoto many times since I moved to Japan, yet it will never stop to amaze me. This former Japanese imperial capital is full of mysterious temples, majestic palaces, beautiful Zen gardens, and picturesque back alleys with traditional wooden town houses. It is a big city with small town charm and immense cultural heritage. However, it can be quite overwhelming for a first time visitor, because there are so many places to see. I prepared this article to help you plan your stay, it includes not only my favourite places to visit, but I added some extra activities to make your trip more memorable.
Best Places to See
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most impressive and popular sights in Kyoto. This mountainside Shinto shrine is dating back to 711 AD and its main feature is a path made of thousands of traditional torii gates in vermilion colour. The area is truly picture-perfect and therefore very touristy. If you wish to get a photo without people, you have to come here very early in the morning, or you can try to come late at night as the shrine is open 24/7. In the evening the lanterns light up the way. Another option is to hike all the way up to top of the hill, where not many people go and the views are spectacular.
Fushimi Inari shrine is located on the south of Kyoto and you can get there by Nara Line from Kyoto station. The journey lasts only 5 minutes. The entrance to the shrine is free.
Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion was named, together with Mt. Fuji, as one of the greatest sights in Japan and it is easy to understand why. Surrounded by stunning Zen Garden with its reflection in the pond, shining in the sun, this sight can honestly leave you speechless. The pavilion was built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for a military commander, but after his death his son turned it into a temple.
Golden Pavilion is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm and the price is 600 yen per adult. To get there, you need to take the bus 205 which leaves from Kyoto Station from the B3 platform. Even though Kinkaku-ji is very popular and usually very busy, it is a must-see place in Kyoto and totally worth the longer bus ride!
The Path of Philosophy
The Path of Philosophy (also called the Philosopher’s Path) offers a quiet retreat from the city and it will lead you to many historic sites along the way. The stroll lasts approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on your pace. It starts at the Eikan-do Temple, a lovely temple with famous Buddha statue looking over his shoulder and finishes at Ginkaku-ji Silver Pavilion. The path goes along a stream and it is lined with cherry trees, so this place is especially beautiful in spring when all the flowers are in bloom.
Gion is very traditional neighborhood in Kyoto that has developed in Middle Ages as one of the most exclusive geisha districts in Japan. The chances that you will meet a geisha today are very small, but Gion is a lively and picturesque area to visit. The streetscape is very well preserved with high concentration of typical ochaya (teahouses) and machiya (merchant houses). Be aware though that many of these houses are private and their inhabitants do not wish people to take photos of them, so be respectful (you wouldn’t want to have masses of tourists in front of your house every day either).
The two most popular streets where you can take beautiful pictures are Ninenzaka and Sanenzaka.
Nishiki market, also called the “Pantry of Kyoto” is a lively place located in the city centre, where you can find hundred stalls with street food, fresh produce, sweets or handmade souvenirs. It is a perfect place to sample some unique dishes and enjoy the atmosphere. If street food is not directly your cup of tea, there are also many restaurants nearby.
Kiyomizu Dera Temple
Kiyomizu Dera Temple is one of Kyoto’s most famous and enjoyable temples. It was founded in 778 AD, and it’s a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main hall, situated on the hillside of Mt. Otowa, has a large wooden veranda from where you can enjoy epic views over the city. The entrance fee is 300 yen per adult and it is open daily from 6 am to 6 pm. It is walking distance from Gion, or you can take one of the city buses from Kyoto station (numbers: 106, 110, or 206).
Heian Shrine was modelled after the ancient Imperial Palace and it is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors who reigned in Kyoto. It belongs to the newer shrines in Kyoto, with its history dating back only about hundred years, but it has very impressive spacious grounds featuring a gorgeous garden full of weeping cherry trees that bloom around mid-April. There are a couple of museums in walking distance from the shrine, where you can hide in case of rain, and at its entrance you will also find some food trucks with Japanese and international dishes so you can take a nice break here when sightseeing all day.
Heian Shrine can be reached by Kyoto city bus number 5 or 100. The entrance to the temple is free, but if you want to visit the gardens you have to pay 500 yen per person. The shrine is open daily from 6 am to 5 pm (hours can differ during public holidays).
Top Things to Do
Stay in a Traditional Ryokan
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that can be found all over the country. They offer you more than just a place to sleep, you will get here the opportunity to experience the real Japanese lifestyle and hospitality. In a classic ryokan, you will sleep on futon beds in tatami rooms, you can soak in famous Japanese bath and sample the local cuisine. Staying at least one night in ryokan is a must when visiting Japan.
Relax in an Onsen
Onsens are Japanese natural hot springs containing distinctive minerals. Soaking in an onsen after a busy day of sightseeing is one the essential experiences to have in Japan. Onsens can be public, or private as a part of ryokans. Kyoto is not very rich in onsen, but there are still a few to found around the city. Before visiting an onsen it is important to mention that there is an etiquette to follow – you have to take a shower first and you go inside without a bathing suit. Some more traditional onsens can forbid people with tattoos to enter.
Try a Kimono on for a Day
Nowadays, kimonos in Japan are used mostly for special occasions like weddings or official holidays. It is very rare to see young people wearing this formal attire daily. However, Kyoto is one of the cities where this tradition hasn’t quite disappear and people use kimonos frequently. There are many shops and kimono rentals so it’s easy to pick one and get the real kimono experience in the streets of Kyoto’s historical old town. The kimonos are beautiful and you usually get the full “make-over” including hairdo like geisha, make-up, wooden slipper shoes and little pouch for your necessities while browsing the city.
Kaiseki is a celebration of Japanese tradition, fresh seasonal and local produce and haute cuisine. It is traditional Japanese multi-course high dining with a long history that originated centuries ago in tea ceremonies and later it evolved into exclusive cuisine popular among aristocratic circles.
Kaiseki can be quite pricey and intimidating, if you haven’t got this experience before. The elegantly presented dishes often look like a piece of art and some restaurants don’t appreciate if you take photos of them. That is why I would recommend booking a food tour that takes you to kaiseki, where an experienced tour guide will lead you through each dish and tells you more about its cultural context.
Join a Food Tour
Japanese cuisine is very complex, it goes way beyond sushi, miso soup and ramen that are popular all over the world. Each Japanese city and each region have their own local cuisine and they take a great pride in using locally sourced seasonal ingredients. If you are a foodie and you would love to know more about Japanese food, I am sure you will appreciate a good food tour, where you will discover the whole philosophy behind each dish and its cultural and historical background.
There are plenty of food tours or cooking classes to choose from in Kyoto that suit all the budgets.
Getting Around Kyoto
The city centre of Kyoto is compact and easily walkable, however, if you want to get to further destinations such as Fushimi Inari Taisha or Bamboo Forest, you will have to use the public transport. Metro, trains and city buses are the most convenient way to get around. Taxis are very expensive in Japan so if you are traveling on budget, I wouldn’t recommend using them.
For international travellers the most convenient mean of transport are the city buses that have commentary in English and they take you to all the important sites. One journey costs 230 yen for an adult and you pay directly to the driver at the end of your journey, or you can buy a daily ticket in the office at the Kyoto station for 600 yen. Kyoto city buses are green and easily recognizable. They operate with numbers 5, 17, 100, 204 and 205.
Best Time to Visit
Kyoto can be visited and enjoyed in any season, but the best time to visit is spring and autumn. At the end of March and beginning of April, the cherry blossoms are in bloom and everything is covered in light pink. It is simply spectacular! Beginning of November is just as magical when all the leaves turn red, orange and yellow. Also the temperatures are moderate with little rainfall. However, keep in mind that these seasons are also the busiest.
Summers in Kyoto can be very hot and humid. The rainy season starts in June and continues until the end of July. Winters are relatively mild with January and February being the coldest months of the year.
Unique Souvenirs to Buy
Green tea – Japan, and Kyoto especially, takes pride in its green tea – matcha in Japanese. You can find matcha and matcha-related products anywhere in Kyoto, from convenience stores to high quality green tea leaves sold in big department stores.
Kimono or Yukata – Kimono and yukata (lighter kimono worn in summer) are also great souvenirs to buy in Kyoto, as there are many shops that sell them. Kimonos can be pretty expensive but yukata is usually a cheaper alternative.
Hand-made hand fan – summers in Japan can get very hot and you will see many people using hand-fans. They are colourful, cute and beautiful, and apart from being useful during hot summer months, they also make a beautiful souvenir to remind you of your trip to Japan.
Umbrella – I don’t mean the Japanese paper umbrella to protect you from the sun, but proper umbrella for the rain. In Japan you can buy high quality umbrellas in specialty shops that will protect you even during a typhoon. They usually have twelve collapsible ribs for extra protections against the wind and many of them have also UV protection against the strong sun.
Unique Kit-Kat chocolates – famous Kit Kat is one of the most popular sweets in Japan because its name is pronounced similarly to ‘kitto katsu’ which means good luck. You can find here many different flavours that you cannot find anywhere else in the world – from green tea, to sake, to soy bean paste, to apple pie, you name it! You won’t know which one to choose!
Kanzashi – kanzashi are traditional hair ornaments often worn with a kimono. They are very fine and usually hand-made. It can be difficult to attach them at first, so make you sure you ask for instructions in the shop how to use them. They are a very unique special gift.
I hope this guide to Kyoto will help you to plan your visit! Kyoto is very popular and beloved tourist destination for a good reason. I love to come back every time I get a chance! If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. Have you ever visited Kyoto? Or would you like to go there?
*This post is for the inspiration for your future travels. As per 10th August 2020, Japan remains closed for international visitors until the end of this year.