When you’re strolling through Kyoto’s must-see places, you’ll realize that the city’s name is almost synonymous with traditional Japanese culture. It is one of those iconic, unrepeatable cities that would justify a journey to the other end of the world just by walking for a few days among some of its hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Historically it has been a fundamental city for Japan, as it was the capital of the country of the rising sun for more than a thousand years. This long-lived period has filled the city (and its surroundings) with an invaluable set of heritage, which fortunately was saved from the bombardments that devastated other Japanese capitals during the Second World War.
It’s been more than a decade since we fell in love with the former Japanese imperial capital. It was the first of our four trips to Japan, although in 2015 we returned with our children in full hanami and were a little disappointed by the huge number of tourists that filled the streets and traditional neighborhoods of the city. Still, it remains an indispensable place, just what one imagines from the stories of almost invisible geishas and samurai protecting the emperor and fighting for the order of the shogun. If you’re thinking of including this city in your itinerary through Japan we’ll do a review and recommend what to see and do in Kyoto.
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What to see and do in Kyoto?
With more than 2,000 temples and sanctuaries or around twenty UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is difficult to organise a route to discover Kyoto’s tourist sites, although it is advisable to do so by neighbourhood. You’ll have to be very patient and improvise, because you’ll probably see something that attracts your attention and that you didn’t plan to visit.
It is an adorable capital that retains in many areas the essence of traditional Japan, but can become desperate if visits in high season. Let us hope that the same does not happen to it as to many European cities that are losing their charm because of mass tourism. Here are our recommendations on what to see and do in Kyoto, but if you have little time you can always book a guided tour of Kyoto in Spanish here:
Kiyomizu-dera is probably the most famous temple complex in Kyoto and its pagoda is one of the most sought-after images. It is located south of Higashiyama and is always full of people. It is a joy to stroll through its gardens and temples or drink at the Otowa-no tai spring. To get there you have to take bus 206 and stop at the station with the same name as the temple. But then you’ll have to walk uphill for a while through the delicious Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka.
Advice for your trip to Japan:
Do you want to travel by train through Japan? We recommend that you buy the JR Pass, a pass to move freely through Japan using its extensive network of trains and that will allow you to reach Kyoto easily: Book here your JR Pass
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The Sanjūsangen-dō is one of the Buddhist temples we liked the most on our first trip to Japan. The images of the 1,001 Kannon are moving, each with a different effigy. Too bad you can’t take pictures inside. You can take bus 206 and 208 and stop at the stop named after the temple.
When night falls it is almost an obligation to walk through Pontocho which is the traditional district of nightlife. With a little patience you will be able to see the face of a geisha illuminated by the lanterns that illuminate the wooden buildings. In this peculiar restaurant in the photo was where we first tried the okonomiyaki.
Gion is the most touristic district of Kyoto and one of the most picturesque in the world. It owes its fame to the geishas and maikos who occasionally leave their tea houses. We only managed to see two, but they quickly hid from the glances and flashes of the tourists. We recommend walking aimlessly through this maze of old houses and alleys. It is on the east bank of the Kamo-gawa, very close to the Keihan station Shijō. It is essential to visit it by day and night and get close to the Yasaka Jinja Sanctuary. In this barium we enjoy a show at the Gion Corner Theatre.
One of the Shinto shrine complexes we liked best was the Heian Jingu. It is very easy to recognize by its large torii or red door. In addition to the colourful buildings, this sanctuary stands out for its enormous garden with pond and bridge included. It is located north of Higashiyama and can be reached by bus 5.
The Nijō-jō is located northwest of Kyoto, where the ancient castle of the Tokugawa Ieyasu shogun is located. Lovers of samurai films will enjoy themselves as dwarfs inside and gardening lovers in their impressive Ninomaru garden. The Kara-mon door is superb. It can be reached by bus 9 or by metro Tōzai.
Philosopher’s Walk or Philosophy Walk
The Philosopher’s Walk or Way of Philosophy is a magical journey along a cherry-fringed canal that ends at the Ginkaku-ji. We visited it when the sun had already fallen and being so far away from the traffic we could hardly enjoy it. We’ll have to be back before dark.
Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion
The famous Golden Pavilion immortalized by Yukio Mishima in his novel is one of our favorite Kyoto attractions. The perfection made building is surrounded by beautiful gardens where you can contemplate this wonder. It is usually up to the flag of people, but still the visit is more than advisable. To get to Kinkaku-ji you can take bus 205 or 59.
Another of the most mythical Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto, especially for its famous garden that represents a dry landscape and have been made a thousand and one replicas across the globe. It is one of those essential places in Kyoto worth visiting very soon before the marabunta arrives. You can get there by bus 59 and get off at the stop named after the temple.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha is probably the best-known Shinto place of prayer outside of Japan. Its famous torii or red doors were engraved in the collective memory thanks to Rob Marshall’s 2005 film adaptation of the novel Memories of a Geisha. The easiest way to get to Kyoto is to take the JR Nara Line Local on platforms 9 and 10, which takes only 5 minutes. Keep in mind that it’s always open and entrance is free, so you can try to play with unusual times and dates to try to be a little more relaxed during the visit.
How to get to Kyoto?
The closest international airport to Kyoto is Kansai, located one hour and twenty minutes away by train. You can get there directly on the Limited Express Haruka for 3,170 yen per person (about 26 euros), although this route is included in the JR Pass that you can validate at the airport.
However, most people traveling to Japan usually land at Narita International Airport, closer to Tokyo. It is normal to spend a few days near the Japanese capital and then catch a bullet train to the beautiful Kyoto station. The fastest way to cover this journey is on board the shinkansen nozomi which takes about two and a quarter hours for about 13,710 yen per person (about 112 euros). This type of train does not enter the JR Pass, but the Hikari or the Kodama whose journey takes about three hours.
How many days do you recommend I stay in Kyoto?
We always say that the length of stay in a city depends on how long you extend your trip to Japan. If you plan to travel between 10 and 15 days to the country of the rising sun the ideal would be to spend five days in Kyoto and its surroundings, although if you have less time, the reasonable minimum would be about 72 hours.
Logically in this period of time you will only get a glimpse of what this Japanese city means, as there are so many interesting tourist sites in Kyoto that you will always leave with the feeling that you are too short. It’s always good to leave a visit for the next trip.
Is life expensive in Kyoto?
We will not fool you, Kyoto prices are significantly higher than those in Europe and with the current strength of the yen against the euro, trips to Japan become even more complicated for our pockets. In addition, the former imperial capital is one of the most visited cities in the country of the rising sun so it is probably one of the most expensive when it comes to finding accommodation and buying you souvenirs.
When it comes to shopping, Kyoto is famous for its handicrafts, although you can always buy some calligraphy or one of the colourful amulets sold in the temples. On the 21st of each month, the famous Kobo-San market is held, on the 25th that of Tenjin-san, and on the first Sunday of each month, a curious fair of all kinds of antiques and gadgets in To-ji, which is quite close to the central station.
What to eat in Kyoto?
More than a decade ago we made our first trip to Japan and it was then that we definitively reinforced our passion for Japanese gastronomy. It was here that we first tasted the refined kaiseki cuisine, which is a very elaborate menu based on many traditional dishes. It was also in Kyoto where we tasted our first okonomiyaki, a delicious potpourri (a little pig) that some define as “Japanese pizza” but has nothing to do with this Italian dish.
It will be very difficult for you to leave Kyoto without trying something delicious, as the variety and number of restaurants in the city make it one of the gastronomic capitals of Asia.
Where to sleep in Kyoto?
Kyoto has a good supply of accommodation of all kinds and at various prices, although our main recommendation is that you do not rest on your laurels, especially if you are going to visit the city during the hanami. In fact, on our 2015 trip we started looking for options more than two months in advance and finally we had to stay in Osaka as we did not find anything to suit our needs at a reasonable price.
In any case, we like the area near the central station to catch the local buses or if you have to travel to another city by train. Ten years ago we stayed in the right New Miyako, ideal for its location. However, here you can find the best hotels for your stay in Kyoto.
What places did you want to see in Kyoto?
Even though we’ve been to Kyoto twice, there’s been a lot left in the inkwell. When the trips are over, there is always someone who recommends a place you didn’t see, although you will always have an excuse to come back. Perhaps two of the places of interest in Kyoto that we most regret not having visited are the famous Ginkaku-ji or silver pavilion or the area of Arashiyama and its famous bamboo forest.
We would also like to climb the Kyoto Tower, visit the Imperial Palace (for which a reservation is needed) or the International Manga Museum. In the surrounding area we would love to see the city of Uji.
How to move around Kyoto?
A traveler who arrives in Kyoto after being in the Japanese capital may miss Tokyo’s chaotic subway. The points of interest are quite scattered and often the best way to get around is by bus. The lines linking the main monuments are usually marked in English.
The metro is a good option to move from north to south of the city, but it is not very useful for tourism. Another possibility is to rent a bicycle or to throw from time to time of taxis, although the traffic is chaotic. Once you are in the neighborhood you want to visit, the best thing is to move on foot and get lost in the alleys and slopes. Whether on foot, by bicycle or bus, Kyoto is an unforgettable city.
We never travel without travel insurance
We never travel without travel insurance… and least of all when the little ones come. It is always convenient to be protected by what may happen and more in a destination where medical care is so expensive. We recommend that you travel to Japan with a policy that covers possible accidents, hospitalizations due to illness or setbacks that could lead to an extra cost in your travel budget (keep in mind that hospitalization or medical care in Japan is extremely expensive). We use IATI Seguros travel insurance because it has above-average coverage and always offers a personalised and fast service. You can take out the IATI Seguros Travel Insurance here and just for being a reader of the Pachinko they directly apply you a 5% discount.
Did you like our recommendations on what to see and do in Kyoto? What are the places you liked most about the former imperial capital of Japan? Tell us in the comments.