Check out things to do in Kyoto: Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, was my favorite city to visit on our trip. With its approximately 1,600 temples, small izakyas and cafes, surrounded by breathtaking mountains, Kyoto is filled with magic. This ancient city is definitely a must visit for any traveler looking to see a more traditional side of the country. Here is your guide to Kyoto!
Due to its historical value, Kyoto was not affected by World War II, which meant that the temples and shrines survived. Kyoto, which has about 1.5 million inhabitants, is one of the ten largest cities in Japan.
Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto has a smaller and more intimate feel. The city is built on tradition – maintaining arts and culture is a priority. You will find many Japanese traditions including kaiseki dinners (a traditional multi-course dinner) and tea ceremonies. If you’re lucky, you might spot a real geisha in the Gion district. You can easily reach Kyoto from Tokyo using the JR Pass. Find out how to use the JR Pass here.
How to get to and around Kyoto
The easiest way to get to Kyoto is to take the Shinkansen. The Shinkansen journey from Tokyo takes just over two hours and is fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). If you don’t have the JR Pass, the cost is around 13,080 yen or 120 US dollars. Kyoto Station is in the heart of the city and is close to public transportation. Check out my guide on how to use the JR Pass.
You don’t need a car in Kyoto. Everything is accessible on foot, by train or by bus. The bus is very reliable, unlike most US cities, so don’t be afraid to use it. Some trains also accept the JR Pass, but the Suica card is more useful in Kyoto for bus and train.
For a more eco-friendly option, you can rent a bicycle in Kyoto. The city itself is largely flat and there are bicycle parking lots throughout the city.
Kyoto is full of history and things to do, so finding good accommodation is important. We only had two nights in Kyoto and wanted to make sure we didn’t waste time getting to and from our hotel. We chose to stay in the Gion area due to my fascination with geisha culture – I figured that would be the best place to increase my chances of seeing a geisha (turns out I was right).
Glanz Kei Gion Shinomonzen was perfect for us and probably would be for most people. The apartment allowed late check-in with a locker in the lobby. There were security measures that helped us feel safe. The apartment was equipped with a washing machine, a kitchenette, a sofa with a coffee table, two double beds (we put them together to make a queen size bed) and a television. We were provided with a tide pod for each day we were there (3 days, 3 pods). Once the laundry was clean, there was a collapsible hanger so you could hang the clothes in the bathroom. The bathroom had a setting for drying clothes. I was a little skeptical but in the morning even our jeans were dry!
The apartment is a 7-minute walk from Maruyama Park and Chion-in Shrine and a 10-minute walk from the subway, making getting around the city super easy!
The other districts of Kyoto are:
- Higashiyama – the historic district where Yasaka Shrine is located.
- Downtown Kyoto – the best area for shopping streets
- Kyoto Station – easy access to Kyoto and other parts of the city.
- Central Kyoto – the largest choice of hotels
- North of Higashiyama – nature and shrines abound in this area.
- Arashiyama – near the bamboo grove.
- Kurama and Kibune – to escape from the city.
- Fushimi – near Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Where to eat :
Honke Daiichiasahi: Hole in the wall, only local ramen. You are almost sure to be the only tourist in this restaurant.
- Omen Noodle House : Stop to taste incredible udon!
- Chao Chao Sanjo Kimyamachi : They have delectable fresh gyoza (dumplings) in traditional pork, shrimp, crab and mozzarella!
- Rai Rei Tei : A ramen restaurant recommended by our front desk for local ramen!
Avoid: The Fire Ramen restaurant. They don’t take reservations, the line was out the door for this 10 person restaurant, and there wasn’t a single local in sight. Remember to eat where YOU want to eat – not where Instagram tells you to. Sure, it would be cool to see some ramen on fire, but for those 10 seconds of excitement, it wasn’t worth the hour wait of my trip.
Things to do in Kyoto:
Nishiki Market: This is my favorite thing about Kyoto. We took a cooking class with Cooking Sun and our instructor showed us around the market while she picked up the ingredients we needed. There are little bowls around a lot of stores where you can try foods. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve tasted food and didn’t know what it would taste like – crunchy, gooey, sweet, spicy, – no idea.
You can find so many different types of food here – including sashimi, mochi, donuts, sweets, and lots of fermented foods. It’s “only” 6 blocks long, but it feels a lot longer, especially when it’s in full swing around 10:30.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple : For a bird’s eye view of the city, this temple is the place to go. It also has beautiful gardens.
Gion Historic District : As our apartment was in Gion, we were able to explore this area several times. The best time to see a geisha is at sunset. There are many people who dress in kimono, but the geisha have their faces painted and their hair done in a traditional style. Many streets in the Gion district have been preserved to retain their historical appearance. If you don’t get the chance to see a geisha walking around, here are 8 ways to experience geisha culture when visiting Japan.
Fushimi Inari Temple : This temple is more than just a photo, it’s an experience. More than 10,000 tori gates wrap around Mount Fushimi, dedicated to the god of rice. Wear comfortable shoes – our Fitbit said we climbed over 45 floors (and didn’t even make it to the top). Walk past the crowds trying to get a good photo and enjoy the serenity of the temple.
Walk the Path of the Philosophers : This path is filled with shops offering handmade items, such as pottery and paper crafts, perfect for buying souvenirs. The other side of the path runs along a tree-lined canal. The path is also near the Honen-in temple, which is worth a visit!
Nijo-jo Castle : One of Kyoto’s best-known castles is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle has a moat, huge stone walls and ornate decor. The castle was the residence of the Tokugawa shoguns (military warlords) during the Edo period.
Walk in the bamboo grove
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Okochi Sanso Garden: Walk through the bamboo grove to the top of another mountain where the Okochi Sanso Garden is located. Most of the bamboo trees in the bamboo grove are 5-10m tall and it’s a nice escape from the city. However, I will not call it a forest. You will again struggle to find a photo without the crowds – even in the morning it is very busy. I advise you not to do this visit on the same day as the Inari temple, because you have to walk a lot.
However, the bamboo grove is only part of the impressive things to see in Arashiyma. If you visit the bamboo grove, be sure to explore the area!
Kinkakuji golden temple : We ran out of time to see the temple up close, unfortunately. There never seems to be enough time in the day for everything. The golden temple is an icon of the city. The shimmering gold reflects beautifully on the lake! I really wish we could see it in person.
Maruyama Park : This park has six shrines, a temple and a cemetery. One day we got up early (thanks jet lag) and decided to walk around this park before it opened. We could see birds, cats and fish in the ponds.
Ryoan-ji Zen Buddhist Temple : This temple is famous for its rock garden and is worth a look. Admission is 500 yen or 4.50 USD.
Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) : Not really silver, but I guess it’s the second most famous temple in Kyoto (after the Golden Pavilion). You cross a garden path that leads to a viewpoint on the temple.
Pontocho Alley : I’m not sure if I’d call this a driveway because part of it is by the river, but we’ll stick with that. The alley is filled with restaurants with outdoor dining. If you’re out at night, this is the place to go. However, don’t be offended if you are not allowed to enter a restaurant or club, some prohibit foreigners without the right connections – some of these connections go back several generations.
Geisha show : Unfortunately, our trip did not allow to see this show due to the schedule, so if you want to see it, be sure to plan accordingly. There are a number of shows whose prices range from affordable to exorbitant.
We absolutely LOVED our visit with Cooking Sun. Nyo was very friendly and knowledgeable. She taught us a few words of Japanese, showed us around the Nishiki market and taught us how to cook! There were three meals that we could choose from based on our preferences. There were only FOUR of us in the class (us and another couple) which was ideal. We learned about traditional kitchen utensils and what they were used for. I cannot recommend Cooking Sun highly enough.
What we missed in Kyoto:
I really wanted to see the snow monkeys in Japan. It’s something I’ve seen and they seem so at peace. However, as we traveled in October, I had to do some research on the snow monkeys to see if it was worth going. If you go in winter, there is usually no problem since monkeys like to be warm. Digging a little deeper, I read a number of disturbing articles about how the monkeys are being treated later today. The monkeys are wild and are “free” to come and go as they please. However, with increased tourism in this part of Kyoto, park workers were seen trying to keep the monkeys in the park for tourists later in the day. This is especially true during the winter months. A few people mentioned that the employees tried to scare the monkeys back into the hills so tourists could see them. Since I did not consider this treatment ethical, we decided not to go to the monkey park.