We stumbled out of the airport, bleary eyed from our sleepless flight, and hobbled straight onto a train bound for Kyoto. The train was different to the Melbourne public transport I am used to. In Japan the trains are clean, the seats are a splendid velour, and the seats are heated for the winter. Safe to say it was a comfortable introduction to Japan and was our first taste of how perfectly things operate here.
As the capital for over one thousand years, we gathered that Kyoto would be an incredibly historical city to visit. But nothing could prepare us for the sheer number of temples, shrines, teahouses, ryokans, and meandering alleyways that make up this city. It was quite the introduction to Japan. Although a lot of the city is modern, many parts remain steadfastly traditional. As the geisha capital of Japan means there are plenty of ladies in traditional dress walking through the streets, adding a touch of vibrancy to the wooden surrounds.
The traditional buildings of Kyoto are described as “Eels’ Nests” because they look small on the outside but open up into huge, warm, and perfectly designed homes/restaurants/guesthouses behind. If you get the chance, staying in a traditional ryokan in Kyoto is a unique experience. Ryokans are well-presented guest houses complete with tatami mats, manicured gardens, futons, and traditional Japanese meals.
As you can imagine, alongside the attractions and historical buildings, there is plenty of food to be explored in Kyoto. Even though I’ve never eaten so much in my life, I have zero regrets. Walking down the narrow streets, particularly at night, you stumble upon narrow eateries with wooden interiors. Each eatery has at least one chef working diligently behind the bar counter to prepare an immaculate meal. These eateries are affordable, welcoming, and have delicious food. With everything being served in small portions it means you can comfortably sample many different types of Japanese cuisine.
There is a surprise hidden around every corner of Kyoto and enough to keep anyone occupied for days. Whether you are in Japan for the food, the history, or the culture, Kyoto should be your key destination. It was pleasantly surprising just how much we learned and saw in our few days in Kyoto.
BEST SEASON TO VISIT KYOTO
Sorry to be so non-specific, but this all depends on what you like. Japan is an incredibly seasonal country with landscapes and cities changing dramatically with the weather. Generally there are three seasons which are considered to be the “best” to travel in Kyoto for various reasons.
Spring: plain and simple, this is cherry-blossom season. It is the busiest time to visit Kyoto but the blossom must look incredibly stunning. Many attractions, such as Philosopher’s Walk, are most enjoyable and particularly designed for this time.
Autumn: the deciduous trees turn a fiery red in Autumn making it a gorgeous time to visit Kyoto.
Winter: although winter does not have beautiful-coloured trees, the snow and frost can be enchanting in itself. The biggest bonus of winter travel? Fewer people. This means you have a lot more space to enjoy exploring Kyoto. Plus nothing beats coming back into a cozy ryokan after a long day of exploring in the crisp air.
WHERE TO EAT IN KYOTO
There is no shortage of food in Kyoto which will satisfy all budgets and appetites. Japan is foodie heaven and there is so much more to the cuisine than the sushi rolls and ramen we see at home in Australia. The streets are positively teeming with eateries and restaurants so you can sample to your heart’s content.
THE CHEAP WAYS
If you are wanting to eat on a budget in Kyoto then convenience stores like 7-Eleven and FamilyMart are your best, best friends. Convenience stores often come with seating areas, microwaves, and hot water so you can eat a variety of foods comfortably. There is often hot food and drinks available for purchase on the counter, as well as salads, sushi, bento, and more, in the surrounding fridges. Sushi rolls for $1? Yes, please.
Okonomyaki and Ramen
If you are wanting to eat at restaurants on a budget, I would recommend looking for Okonomyaki (Japanese pancake) and Ramen eateries. These foods are absolutely delicious and come at less than 700 yen per meal — not bad to eat at such atmospheric places.
The Nishiki Markets are bustling and positively overflowing with different foods to try. Despite being such a popular destination, the foods here are well-priced and the small portions mean you can sample many types. There were salmon fillets being freshly cooked for 400 yen and soooo many sweets. Don’t forget to try a matcha latte from the completely green matcha store (you won’t miss it) because it is the best one we had in Japan.
THE MORE EXPENSIVE WAYS
There are plenty of expensive foods and places to eat in Kyoto if you want to splash out a bit more. The food in Japan is unique and mouthwatering making it money well-spent (and, as a budget traveller, I don’t often say that about food). The more you spend, the more types of Japanese cuisine you are able to sample, including sashimi and the world-famous wagyu beef.
There are innumerable restaurants throughout the city specialising in different forms of Japanese food. Most restaurants come with impeccable hospitality and relaxing atmospheres, making it a complete experience. Although pricy, trying a sashimi selection is something I would highly recommend! Yata Restaurant in the Gion District was a beautiful restaurant we sampled in the Gion District, the sashimi plate pictured below is from here.
Eat At Your Ryokan
If you are staying at a ryokan or guesthouse, there may be an option for a home-cooked meal. These meals are all made with love from local delicacies. We decided to try the dinner at Shiraume Ryokan and it ended up being 10 courses (10 COURSES!!). Each course was beautifully presented and utterly delicious. The benefit of eating at a ryokan is that your food will be carefully explained to you so you can understand the immense amount of history and technique involved in every piece.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN KYOTO
If you are looking for a Japanese city with plenty to see and do, Kyoto is your place. Kyoto escaped the bombings of World War II so most of the historical buildings remain intact. Lace up your walking boots because there is seriously a lot to get through. Many of Japan’s iconic attractions are in Kyoto and, as a steadfastly traditional city, it is the perfect place to learn about Japanese history and culture.
BE STILL AT RYOAN-JI TEMPLE (ROCK GARDEN)
The Rock Garden at Ryoanji is Japan’s most famous — if you have seen pictures of rock gardens before, it was probably this one. Originally an aristocratic home, Ryoanji was converted into a Zen Temple in the 1400s. The actual date of construction and meaning behind the Rock Garden is unclear, though. The garden contains 15 main rocks all immaculately encircled by raked stone.
Although the Rock Garden is understandably the main attraction at Ryoanji, there is more to see. The temple’s main buildings are stunning and well-kept, and there is a beautifully manicured garden with a pond to see as well. Ryoanji is a very peaceful place to sit and reflect.
Cost: 500 yen
Opening Hours: 8:00-17:00 (Mar-Nov), 8:30-16:30 (Dec-Feb)
Time Needed: 30mins
GAWK AT KINKAKU-JI (GOLDEN PAVILION)
This Zen Temple is one of the most iconic places in Japan and it’s not hard to see why! Constructed before the 1400s, Kinkaku-Ji, more commonly known as the Golden Pavilion, has its top two layers covered completely in gold leaf. This makes the temple look unique and glittery in the light. The reflections onto the pond are also spectacular, so make sure you are seeing Kinkaku-Ji on a sunny day. Unfortunately, the Golden Pavilion has burnt down several times in its history and what you see today is the 1950s reconstruction.
Cost: 400 yen
Opening Hours: 9:00-17:00
Time Needed: 30mins
ADMIRE FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE
Fushimi Inari Shrine is made up of over 10,000 vibrant orange Torii gates which wind up the side of Mount Inari. It is easily Japan’s most iconic shrine. Inari, whom the shrine is dedicated to, is the Shinto God of Rice. The first gates appeared here around 711AD, and are still popping up to this day. Each of the Torii gates has been donated by a Japanese business. The black writing on the sides of the Torii gates state who the gate has been donated by. Because gates are being added as businesses and society changes, Fushimi-Inari has a unique, ever-evolving story etched into its gates.
If you are in a rush, you can stay down the bottom of the mountain, but I would highly recommend doing the walk. The crowds all bulge down the bottom of the mountain but dissipate with every step further upwards. The whole walk takes around 2 hours including time for stopping to take in the view. You will walk past shrines, teahouses, and through forests, all the way up to the top of Mount Inari. It really is a beautiful walk.
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Time Needed: 2 hours
WANDER THROUGH THE GION DISTRICT
Gion is Kyoto’s old geisha district and is full of traditional wooden buildings making it a popular place to explore. Within some teahouses, geiko and maiko still entertain. Gion is bursting with restaurants, teahouses, and small shops, so you could spend a lot of time wandering through these streets. There are two main areas to check out in Gion: Shirakawa (following the river), and Hanami-Koji (the most popular area).
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Time Needed: 1-2 hours
SEE GREATNESS AT NIJO CASTLE
Nijo Castle, also known as Nijo-Jo, was constructed in 1603 and has been a place for both emperors and shoguns before being opened to the public. The walls of the castle are surrounded by some pretty impressive gates and moats. There are two main areas: Honmaru and Ninomaru. In addition to the buildings, there are beautiful surrounding gardens and orchards.
The Ninomaru Palace is a series of interconnected rooms and is where the shogun stayed during his visits to Kyoto. The floors here are the famous Nightingale Floors which, for security, make bird-like noises when you step on them. This is still the original building and is beautifully constructed. A visit to Nijo-Ji is perfect for learning about the complex history between shogunate and imperial rule, which is especially relevant.
Cost: 600 yen
Opening Hours: 8:45 – 17:00
Time Needed: 1-2 hours
WALK THROUGH ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO FOREST AND THIS SECRET (BETTER) BAMBOO GROVE
The main forest is Arashiyama Bamboo Grove which is to the West of Kyoto. Alongside the bamboo grove at Arashiyama are many famed temples and shrines. Wandering through the towering green bamboo is a surreal experience and equally stunning in any season. The path winds between the almost impossibly tall and skinny bamboo plants. Whenever there is a gust of wind, the bamboo moves rather poetically.
The downside of Arashiyama? The beauty means it makes for great photos so it is teeming with selfie sticks.
We were lucky to be given a local tip to head further up the hill, starting our daily stroll at Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, a temple with 1,200 stone statues. We wandered down the hill through empty traditional streets stopping at other temples like moss-covered Gio-Ji along the way. Now, this may not sound particularly useful but it will have to do because I don’t remember the name… somewhere between Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji and Gio-Ji there was a small temple which would’ve been easily walked past. However, for some reason, we did decide to go inside and we were so glad we did. The beautiful, almost 1200-year-old, temple was breathtaking. And guess what was out the back? A completely private bamboo grove! As tall and picturesque as Arashiyama and not a soul to be seen. The photos above are actually from this grove rather than Arashiyama.
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Time Needed: 20-30mins
EXPLORE BEAUTIFUL GINKAKU-JI TEMPLE (SILVER PAVILION)
Ginkaku-Ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion, marks the start of Philosopher’s Walk. The pavilion isn’t actually silver and it seems as though it never was, but was probably named in contrast to the Golden Pavilion. The temple is made from beautiful rich wood and is surrounded by a perfect sand garden. Ponds and perfectly manicured Japanese gardens provide a peaceful backdrop for the historical buildings. The gardens are so perfectly maintained that there are even people employed to brush dirt off the moss! Ginkaku-ji is a truly special part of Kyoto and well worth visiting, especially if you are planning on doing Philosopher’s Walk.
Cost: 500 yen
Opening Hours: 8:30-17:00
Time Needed: 30mins-1hr
TAKE A STROLL AT PHILOSOPHER'S WALK
Philsopher’s Walk is a pedestrian walkway following a canal in the north of Kyoto. The path stretches for two kilometres starting at Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) and is lined by cherry blossom trees. Philsopher’s Walk is famous for the dipping cherry blossom trees in their beautiful spring colour, however it is unequivocally stunning at any time of the year. The walk is removed from city traffic and noticeably peaceful — it is a great opportunity to take some time out from sight-seeing and enjoy your thoughts.
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Time Needed: 1 hour
SEE HISTORY IN THE HIGASHIYAMA DISTRICT
The Higashiyama District is a well-preserved suburb of Kyoto with traditional shop-lined buildings and pagodas. It is bustling with people, including many wearing colourful rented kimonos. Although now busy with modern life, a visit to the Higashiyama District will still transport you back in time.
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Time Needed: 1 hour
TRANSPORT IN KYOTO
Taxis are everywhere in Japan and Kyoto is no exception. The unbelievably shiny black cars are an experience you must try. The drivers are knowledgeable and entertaining, and drive you safely around in their crisp white driving gloves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen taxis where the doors open and close automatically either (it was a bit of a shock the first time). Taxi prices are reasonable in Kyoto and it is a quick and simple way to get from A to B.
As in other cities around Japan there are many different train lines. Some are covered by the JR Pass and some are not. We decided against having a JR pass for Kyoto and used the subway instead. The trains are frequent and incredibly clean. Be aware that there is often more than one station for each stop (one for JR, one for the subway, etc.) so it can be easy to get lost. Google Maps now includes Japanese public transport on its app with all the details you need (name of the line, connections, direction, and how many stops) which is a real lifesaver.
There are many walkable areas in Kyoto. Attractions often come in clusters so you can catch transport to the cluster and then spend designated time walking around. Walking in parts of Kyoto is highly recommended because I lot of the city’s beauty comes from looking in small shop windows and enjoying the old, narrow alleyways.
We did not try cycling but saw plenty of people giving it a go. There are cycle lanes throughout the city and drivers are respectful.
We were fortunate enough to stay in a beautiful ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) in the old Gion District of Kyoto. If you can find a ryokan to suit your budget, I would highly recommend staying in one. Staying in a traditional guesthouse means you will experience warm welcomes (with customary tea) upon your arrival home every day, and be immersed in the beauty of the old wooden houses. Although there are ryokans in every city in Japan, experiencing one in Kyoto is particularly historic and special.
If you can, make sure your accommodation comes with a traditional Japanese breakfast — it is quite the experience and fuels you for the rest of the day. The meal is comprised of many small plates (with things like pickled vegetables, tofu, miso, and rice) and some big ticket items (like fish and/or hot pot). The meals are lovingly prepared, cooked, and presented by the ryokan. Everything is presented and decorated beautifully so it really is an experience worth having.
Ryokan Shiraume is where we stayed and we could not recommend it highly enough. The picturesque ryokan is in the old Gion District overlooking a gentle river. The owner was entertaining and full of intriguing stories and advice about Kyoto and Japanese traditions. The rooms are made of beautiful, warm-coloured wood and overlook the river and a small, manicured garden.
Each day would begin with a traditional Japanese breakfast before a long day of sight-seeing. Upon our return in the afternoons there would be a selection of hot teas and snacks prepared, which was much-welcomed by our tired legs. Evenings were started with a quick sake in the library and then off to a recommended restaurant. Our sleeps here were fantastic with the futons feeling like clouds. If you are interested in staying in a *perfect* ryokan then look no further than Ryokan Shiraume.
ALTERNATIVE ACCOMMODATION IN KYOTO
As always, there are plenty of accommodation options. You can search for your ideal Kyoto accommodation using booking.com below or through airbnb.com. If you sign up for Airbnb you will get $76 AUD credit for your upcoming stay.