Before Tokyo reached the monumental heights to which it has today, the centre of Japan lay somewhere else. The ancient capital was right here in the city of Kyoto, serving as the Imperial family’s residence under Shogunate rule from 794 to 1868. The city is thought to be the spiritual centre of the country with over 2000 separate temples and shrines found throughout its expanses. Kyoto achieves a perfect balance between tasteful modern development while keeping to its ancient roots and undeniably strong cultural influence.
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Table of Contents
The Geography of Kyoto
Kyoto is not only a sprawling city but also represents an entire prefecture. It’s located roughly in the centre of the main island of Honshu in an area known as the Kansai region.
The Kansai region is split into 7 separate prefectures, of which Kyoto is right in the centre. Its surrounding prefectures are also popular amongst tourists, including those of Nara and Osaka. With its location, Kyoto becomes the perfect launching point to explore the surrounding region.
How to Get To Kyoto
Being a major city and centrally located, it’s incredibly well connected to the rest of the country by several forms of transport. However, being an island nation, access to Kyoto internationally is sadly limited to flights.
Getting to Kyoto by Flights
If you wish to enter Kyoto internationally, flights are your only option. Unfortunately, Kyoto itself doesn’t have an airport. To get there from abroad, first, you must fly to Kansai International Airport which is to the south of Osaka.
From there you’ll have to take either a bus or train the rest of the way to Kyoto.
|Dubai||20:35 hrs |
The city is also well connected with the vast number of internal flights that travel in from all across Japan.
Getting to Kyoto by Trains
Kyoto is also well connected to the rest of Japan by the country’s extensive railway network. You could travel between major cities just by local trains, though there would be several transfers and a hell of a long time. The only direct long-distance trains available are the Shinkashens (bullet trains), thus the prices are pretty high.
(Time / Price)
(Time / Price)
|Tokyo||2:15 hrs – ¥19,526||8:12 hrs – ¥9,940|
|Sapporo||9:41 hrs – ¥51,046|
|Nagoya||0:34 hrs – ¥7,907||2:19 hrs – ¥3,840|
|Osaka||0:13 hrs – ¥4,196||0:27 hrs – ¥1,230|
|Hiroshima||1:41 hrs – ¥15,976||6:16 hrs – ¥10,000|
However, as Kyoto’s surrounded on all sides by popular tourist destinations such as Nagoya, Osaka and Nara, using local trains between these neighbouring prefectures is a better option (see below for more details).
Getting to Kyoto by Buses
Easily the cheaper option and more comfortable when compared to buses in other countries, it provides a perfect alternative to the budget traveller. There are a few companies that run routes to Kyoto, including JR Buses, Keihan Buses and Willer Express. The latter of which is the all-around cheapest and best option.
You can buy tickets headed to any large city in the country at major bus stations, no booking needed. However, some long-distance routes will require a booking, especially during peak travel seasons. You can travel using one of the many different bus passes on offer.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re sacrificing comfort or quality when spending less on a bus. Each one has its own personal socket as well as each bus has free Wi-Fi. Often the seats recline to near horizontal and some even come with a pram-like hood cover to give an added level of privacy.
How To Get Around Kyoto
Just like any other major Japanese city, Kyoto has a well-established public transport system. The variety and network of transportation are extensive, though they may be unnecessary, as Kyoto is not that big of a city. Other than one or two attractions a little out of the city’s centre, everything else is within a comfortable walking distance from each other. In reality, you don’t really need to utilise public transport for most attractions.
Getting Around Kyoto By Trains
Kyoto has a total of six train lines divided between JR (Japan Railways) and private lines. All can be used to get around the city and some lines connect with other nearby cities such as Osaka, Kobe and Nara.
The JR lines include the Tokaido Line, which also includes the express train (Shinkansen) connected to Osaka, Kobe and Otsu. The others are the Nara Line, Sagano (Sanin) Line (connects to Arashiyama) and the Hokuriku Line connected to northeastern cities such as Kanazawa and Toyama.
The private lines include the Keihan Line and the Hankyu Line which runs between Kyoto and Osaka via some major attractions. The Kintetsu Line connects Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. For those who don’t have JR Rail Pass, this is the best line to use. Additionally, the Keifuku Line, which is the city’s only tram line, connects to Arashiyama. Lastly, the Eizan Line heads northwards to the mountains outside of the city.
Getting Around Kyoto By Subway
The Kyoto Municipal Subway system consists of two lines; Karasuma Subway Line (north to south) and Tozai Subway Line (east to west). Though the system is quite limited, it passes by a number of attractions within the city.
These lines stay within the city centre and are more convenient than the local trains. Fares range from 210-340 yen depending on the distance. Those making multiple runs a day should invest in a one-day subway pass for 600 yen.
Getting Around Kyoto By Buses
Buses are a good choice for those areas not easily accessible by train or subway. There are two leading companies which are recognised by their different coloured buses; Kyoto City Bus (green) and Kyoto Bus (cream and red). They operate in other areas, the former within the centre of the city and the latter further outside.
There is also a sightseeing bus run by Raku Bus that charges a flat 230 yen. They are brightly coloured and specifically for use by tourists, each coming with English announcements and only pass by attractions. There are three Raku Bus services; 100, 101 and 102:
Raku Bus 100 – From Kyoto Station, 7:40 am – 5 pm every 10 minutes
Kyoto Station – National Museum & Sanjusangendo Temple – Kiyomizudera Temple – Gion – Heian-jingu Shrine – Ginkakuji Temple
Raku Bus 101 – From Kyoto Station, 8 am – 4:30 pm every 15 minutes.
Kyoto Station – Nijo-jo Castle – Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – Kinkakuji Temple – Daitokuji Temple – Kitaoji Bus Terminal
Raku Bus 102 – From Ginkakuji-michi Bus Stop, 8:04 am – 4:34 pm every 30 minutes.
Ginkakuji Temple – Kyoto Imperial Palace – Kitano Tenmangu Shrine – Kinkakuji Temple – Daitokuji Temple – Kitaoji Bus Terminal
What To See In Kyoto
With the exception of Tokyo, Kyoto has the biggest number and undoubtedly some of the most famous attractions found throughout the country. For many travellers, Kyoto actually provides a better all-around sightseeing experience, keeping true to its ancient roots.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Without a doubt, this is the number one attraction in Kyoto, and possibly one of the most famous in the entire country. The image of a thousand crimson-red torii gates winding up through the forest-covered trails leading up to the sacred Mount Inari is famous throughout the world. Fushimi-Inari is a Shinto shrine which in fact paved the way for every other shrine throughout the country, becoming the head shrine for over 40,000 Inari shrines.
The entire complex of torii gates and shrines was originally built in 794 as a dedication to Inari; the Shinto god of rice and sake. Throughout the trails are stone foxes; the animal is thought to be the messenger of Inari. The main shrine stands at the peak of the mountain, along with a number of smaller sub-shrines scattered throughout the various trails.
Each torii gate has been donated and inscribed with the individual’s/company’s name and date of donation. Not that it’s cheap, with prices starting from 400,000 yen for a smaller one. Visitors often leave behind much smaller gates which are sold along the trails.
The trails begin at Romon Gate, behind which is the shrine’s main hall, Honden. Here visitors pay respect to the resident deity before making a small offering. If you are fortunate enough you might be able to catch a glimpse of a ceremony taking place within.
The hike to the summit takes between 2-3 hours. The beginning of the trail is easily the most crowded and often becomes congested. Luckily, halfway up the trail, there’s an intersection and a clearing that allows for a look back at Kyoto. This is where the trail splits into a circular route around the peak of the mountain and the crowds spread thin.
Arashiyama is an entire region on the western outskirts of Kyoto which is worthy of an entire guide itself. Though still within the city limits, it’s a perfect escape from the sprawl of the streets and the perfect opportunity to get back to nature. It’s the same reason the area was so popular with the nobilities of the Heian Period (794-1185), becoming a place to escape for some relaxation.
Across the area’s central landmark; the Togetsukyo Bridge, is the region known as Sagano, which holds the biggest treats. Not only do they include a Monkey Park and Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, but also several temples, such as Daikakuji Temple, Jojakkoji Temple and Nisonin Temple. Another temple of note would be the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryuji Temple and the gardens that surround it, thought to be one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto.
Additionally, along with Fushimi-Inari, the top contender for the number 1 photo-op in all of Kyoto is here in Arashiyama. The Bamboo Groves is an iconic site which since its conception has been the focus of countless artists, photographers and poets alike. An angelic pathway carves through the thick emerald groves of upward-stretching bamboo. It’s easy to feel insignificant walking amongst them, like a little bug walking amongst blades of grass. The forest is at its finest on a breezy day when the bamboo waves to the will of the wind, releasing a gentle chorus of creaks.
Arashiyama is also home to a number of seasonal attractions. Cherry blossoms bloom during the spring and the river hosts traditional cormorant fishing during the summer along the Hozu River. As winter sets, the streets are lined with lantern-lined streets during Hanatoro celebrations.
Beginning as nothing more than a handful of teahouses, the streets of Gion have been the home of pleasure and entertainment for centuries. The district is home to one of the most recognisable pieces of Japanese culture, the mysterious geishas. The authentic 17th-century-style streets and narrow alleyways are filled from one side to the other with lantern-lit restaurants and ochayas (teahouses) where the geishas and apprentice maikos gather to entertain paying guests.
The beautifully authentic streets of Gion aren’t the main attraction. Kyoto is both the birthplace of the geisha and to this day still has the greatest number of these performers. Many tourists gather along the streets in the hopes of catching a glimpse of an authentic geisha scuttering their way to their next appointments. For those hoping to spot one, your best hours are between 5:30-6 pm. If you want a private show, be ready to pay a fortune. As the adornment of the streets might suggest, dining and being in the company of a Geisha is not a cheap experience.
Visitors must be wary of taking photographs, as it’s technically banned, which could result in heavy fines. Though of course, this doesn’t stop people from doing so regularly. The reasons are many of the pushier tourists get in the way and generally ensure that the geishas are late for their appointments, a big no no in Japanese culture.
Kiyomizu-dera is possibly the most significant temple in the city of Kyoto as well as one of the most significant throughout Japan. The UNESCO World Heritage site on the eastern side of the city was founded in 780 beside Otowa Waterfall, for which it derived its name from the fall’s pure waters. It was originally founded under the Hosso sect, known to be one of the oldest schools of Buddhism in the country.
The best-known detail of the temple is a wooden stage that extends outwards from the main hall above the hillside. From here the visitors can observe the colours of spring and fall. Within the main hall is the temple’s main object of worship, an eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon.
There are a number of separate little attractions found within the temple grounds. A popular one for couples is a dedication to the deity of love; the Jinshu Shrine. Here prospective lovers can bring luck to their relationship by attempting to walk from one stone to the other 18 meters apart with their eyes closed.
The waterfall beside the temple’s main hall is an attraction in of itself. The water flows into 3 separate streams, where visitors can collect the water by using extended cups. Each stream apparently comes with its own benefit, including longevity, a successful love life and success at school. However, drinking from all three is thought to be greedy.
The streets that wind through the Higashiyama District are some examples of the best-preserved historic streets in the entire city. Situated right before Kiyomizu-dera, it’s a collection of narrow lanes and traditional wooden buildings filled with machiyas, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Along with the many visitors walking through wearing their rented kimonos, it certainly gives an authentically ancient feel to the area.
The streets are one of the few throughout the country that has made efforts to retain a more authentic appearance, completely free of power lines and telephone polls. The establishments are there for both visiting tourists and preserving the culture of locals.
Built in 1603, this castle was the former residence of the Edo Period’s first shogun and became the official residence of the shoganate rulers until 1867. The UNESCO World Heritage Site then became the imperial palace before being donated to the city as a historic site. The grounds of which are split into 3 sections; Honmaru (main defence circle), the ninomaru (secondary defence circle) and the gardens which surround them.
The castle’s main attraction is the Ninomaru Palace, which has remained in its original form ever since it served as the residence and workplace of the shogun when he would visit Kyoto. You can observe areas of the palace only a select few would have had the privilege. This includes the shogun’s main audience room where he would command his subordinates and the living chambers of the shogun himself and his female “companions”. Visitors will also experience the “nightingale floors” which squeak while walking across them. This would function as a security measure to alert the inhabitants of approaching intruders.
The grounds also include the secondary palace complex as well as the former site of a five-storied castle once stood. However, these structures were destroyed in the 18th century and were never rebuilt. The gardens however remain open as well as the stone foundations of where the palace once stood.
Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple constructed in 1202 is found just south of the famous district of Gion. The Buddhist monk founded the temple that introduced Zen Buddhism and tea cultivation to Japan after returning from China. It still serves as one of the main temples of the Rinzai Sect of Japanese Buddhism and is considered one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto. Visitors are able to explore the interior main buildings as well as the immaculate Zen gardens that surround them.
Some terrific examples of artwork are on display, such as the beautifully designed interior sliding doors, decorated with images of multiple dragons as well as the gods of wind and thunder. Equally as striking is the artwork which adorns the roof of Dharma Hall, a spectacular mural of twin dragons commemorating the temple’s 800th anniversary.
Though you might not find it on many must-do lists, it’s a unique and noteworthy experience. The temple complex is a dedication to the fallen soldiers of the Pacific War. The notable centrepiece of the temple is the 24-meter-high figure of the Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy) which commands the area and overlooks the temple’s complex. After entering, visitors are handed a thick stick of incense which they can place in the large cauldron before the temple’s main hall. Visitors can venture inside the structure of the statue, where there is a collection of eleven different images of Kannon and the chanting of the faithful in the temple beneath resonates throughout.
Throughout the grounds are other smaller Buddhist statues as well as a memorial footprint of Buddha. However, one of the most unique features of the temple stands beside its main hall. It’s a small chapel-type structure with a central altar to the fallen of the war. Within are also filing cabinets full of documents detailing each victim (both Japanese and otherwise) that died on Japanese territory. Beside it is a display that contains samples of soil from each allied cemetery that partook in the Pacific War.
Situated right next to Ryozen Kannon, Kodai-ji was built in 1606 in the memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his faithful wife Nene. The temple that would become their final resting place now belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Visitors can visit the once gold covered main hall which these days has been replaced with a more modest construction following its burning in 1912.
The temple prides itself in its gardens, the best of which would be the Tsukiyama style garden. It features a tranquil pond, man-made hills and scattering of pines and maple trees that come autumn bring a whole new light to the garden. Within this garden is the memorial hall Kaizando, where Nene would pray for her late husband. Further up the temple grounds stands the mausoleum for both Hideyoshi and Nene, the inside of which has a rich powdered gold and silver design, a unique feature to Kodai-ji. Nearby is also where you’ll find a miniature bamboo grove, for those unable to visit Arashiyama.
Getting There: As it is directly next to Ryozen Kannon, follow the same instructions. Head to Shijo Keihan Station on the Tozai Line before walking about 10 minutes to the temple. Alternatively, you can take bus numbers 206 or 207 to Gion Bus Stop before taking a short walk.
Price: 600 yen (Kodaiji and Sho Museum), 900 yen (Kodaiji, Sho Museum and Entokuin)
The Kyoto Imperial Palace became the official residence of Japan’s Imperial Family up until the capital was moved to Tokyo. It played host to the enthronement of a number of the country’s Emperors held in the palace’s main hall. Located centrally in the Kyoto Imperial Park, it’s amongst a scattering of smaller temples and even a teahouse on the edge of a koi-filled pond.
At the centre of this particular pond stands a miniature shrine in dedication to Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine. The surrounding park includes a collection of cherry trees which naturally blossom during spring. For many years the Imperial Palace was only accessible through joining a tour group, however, these days the palace’s doors are open for anyone to enter. However, you will be unable to enter any of the buildings on site.
Getting There: Head to Marutamachi or Imadegawa Station (closer to the entrance) on the Karasuma Line.
Open: 9am-5pm (Apr-Aug)
The 46-meter high pagoda built in 589 by an Imperial Prince is a destination known under a few names; Yasaka-no-to, Yasaka Pagoda, but mostly commonly Hokan-ji. Though pagodas aren’t in short supply in the country, and not there’s too much to see within it, it’s the location which makes it quite special. Slotted directly in the middle of the busy authentic Higashiyama District, it provides some beautiful scenery in an already beautiful neighbourhood. Perhaps not a surprise to find out that its construction came by a dream’s inspiration.
Getting There: Head to Higashiyama-Yasui or Kiyomizu-michi Bus Stops.
Price: 400 yen
The stone path leading away from the authentic streets of the Higashiyama district follows a canal lined from one end to the other with cherry trees. The area gets its name from one of the country’s most famous philosophers; Nishida Kitaro. Along this route is where he would practice his daily meditation on the way to Kyoto University.
The 2km long path begins at Ginkakuji and leads to the district of Nanzen-ji. Throughout are successions of restaurants, cafes and a number of temples and shrines, the most important temple of which is Honen-in. The canal itself was purpose-built to revitalise the local economy and used to power the country’s first hydroelectric power plant. Naturally, the best time of year to visit the attraction is during the spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Getting There: Take the Karasuma Line to Marutamachi Station. From there walk to the nearby bus stop before taking one of bus numbers 93 to 204 to Kinrinshakomae Bus Stop.
Known locally as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, the marketplace is known for its specialised foods and cookware. Nishiki Market is a narrow shopping street containing hundreds of tiny stores and restaurants. This is where hordes of shoppers and observers alike come to explore the culinary side of Kyoto. It’s undoubtedly the best place to find a number of Kyoto delicacies such as dried seafood, pickles and sweet treats.
The history of the market spans generations of store owners as far back as 1310 when it originally began as a humble fish market. Over time the variety of products expanded as did the market itself. Today it remains an important attraction to both tourists and a source for locals.
Some stores might be kind enough to provide samples to entice passing potential customers. The restaurants found throughout will have limited space to work in, so don’t expect too many free seats, or perhaps none at all. Each restaurant will specialise in one particular sort of food. Helpful note; as hard as it may be, try refraining from eating while walking. In Japan, it’s actually thought to be bad manners.
Getting There: Head to Shijo Station on the Karasuma Line or Karasuma or Kawaramachi Stations on the Hankyu Line.
Known as the “Golden Pavilion”, Kinkaku-ji is yet another nationally famous Zen temple and one of Kyoto’s biggest highlights. A central gold leaf-covered main hall surrounded by a tranquil pond bringing with it a stunning serene view. Dating back to 1397, it functioned as the retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, where it was converted into a temple by his son following his death.
Built to represent the extravagant aristocratic cultures that surrounded Kyoto at the time, each floor represents a different architectural style. Though visitors unfortunately are unable to walk within the pavilion itself, they’re able to view from a distance. It’s possible to catch glimpses of the statues which are kept within including a seating Kannon and a golden phoenix. The original temple structure was destroyed by a fire started by a fanatic monk with a strong obsession, before being reconstructed to its original standards.
Getting There: Take the Karasuma Line to Kitaoji Station before taking bus numbers 101, 102, 204 or 205 to Kinkakuji Bus Stop. Alternatively, just take bus numbers 101 or 205 from the centre of Kyoto.
Price: 400 yen
Hints of deja vu comes with Ginkaku-ji, as its inspiration came following Kinkaku-ji’s construction. Yet another villa built for the express purpose of a retirement villa for the very same shogun. Rather than being covered in gold, this one was originally planned to be covered in silver. Despite the imagined decor never came to fruition, it gave the villa it’s name; the“Silver Pavilion”. Just like Kinkaku-ji, the villa then became a Zen temple following his death.
These days the temple remains in the centre of an elegant garden, a pond, a covering of pines and cones of raked white sands (symbolising mountains and a lake). This temple became the centre of the Higashiyama Culture, including the likes of art, flower arrangement, garden designing and development of the tea ceremony. All of which had a wider influence on the entire country.
Getting There: To get there you can take bus numbers 5, 17 or 100. Otherwise you can head to Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan and Eizan local train lines and take a 30 minute walk.
Price: 500 yen
Open: 8.30am-5pm (Mar-Nov)
Situated directly next to the National Museum, the temple built in 1164, the temple’s main hall houses 1001 statues of Kannon; the goddess of mercy. At the centre of the hall stands a 1000-arm Kannon with another 500 smaller life-like structures of the very same god on either side. The statue comes with 11 faces to better observe the suffering of man, and such numbers of arms to help fight against it. Unfortunately (like many Japanese temples) photography is forbidden within the temple itself.
Getting There: The temple can be reached by bus numbers 100, 206 or 208 towards Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop. Otherwise, you can head to Shichijo Station on the Keihan Line.
Price: 600 yen
Kyoto National Museum
Kyoto National Museum is not only one of the oldest throughout the country, it’s one of the top 4 museums throughout the country. Opened in 1897, the museum is home a number of permanent and rotating special exhibitions such as archaeological relics, statues and paintings.
Getting There: Head to Shichijo Station along the Keihan Line. Alternatively take bus numbers 100, 206 or 208 to Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae Bus Stop.
Price: permanent exhibitions – 700 yen
Special exhibitions – 1500 yen
Where To Say In Kyoto
The city comes with plenty of varying types of accommodating and equally varying prices. An important consideration for Japan, in general, is that prices for accommodations aren’t cheap when compared to other countries. Even prices for bargain-rate hostels aren’t that much cheaper than the equivalent hotel.
Another very important consideration is that Kyoto has a city-wide accommodation tax. This means that each individual needs to pay 200 yen per night for any form of accommodation. This will often be on top of whatever you’ve already paid. Keep that in mind.
Hostels in Kyoto
For a relatively small city, it has an extraordinary number of hostel options. Being as it is Japan, they might not be cheap compared to other countries, but they are relatively speaking for Japan. Prices for hostels start at as little as £6 with a number of options up to the £17 mark and some more expensive options from there. Mostly they’re concentrated on the southern end of the city.
For my personal recommendation, I would suggest Downtown Inn Kyoto, it’s where I spent a long happy month. It also happens to be the cheapest hostel in Kyoto!
Hotels in Kyoto
If you’re after a bit of added luxury then you can easily find a decent single room in a hotel for between £13-18, about the same as you would pay for a hostel. The cheapest I could find in the city is a bed and breakfast at £6 a day. There are also a greater number of options available.
What To Eat in Kyoto
Being the ancient capital and home to some of Japan’s most influential leaders, the city of Kyoto holds a rich culinary tradition with its diverse range of dining options from the more sophisticated multiple-course cuisines to the simplest and most humble dishes.
First with have kaiseki ryori, a dish which originated from traditional tea ceremonies amongst aristocrats. A dish which focuses on the subtle flavours of local and seasonal ingredients. The easiest way to experience it is by staying in a local ryokan. Though the experience isn’t necessarily a cheap one, ranging from 6,000 to 30,000 yen.
On the other end of the scale, shojin ryori stems from the culture of Buddhist monks. Following Buddhist traditions, the meals refrain from taking the life of a living creature and therefore strictly vegetarian. The dishes commonly include tofu (a Kyoto speciality). This can be seen in another unique dish called Yudofu; soft tofu served with vegetables. Despite its humble beginnings, you’ll be spending between 1500 to 2000 yen for the privilege.
For a more traditional home-cooked meal look for Obanzai Ryori, a meal of several small simple prepared dishes. A form of cuisine that focuses on getting the most out of the seasonal harvests and flavours. Yet again, however, not exactly cheap at between 2000 to 3000 yen per meal, depending on what you order.
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