Without a doubt, Kyoto is the cultural center of Japan. That’s not to say you can’t get culture and history elsewhere in Japan, but within the ring of the small city center, there’s hidden beauty abound with its temples, parks, and walkways straight out of Memoirs of a Geisha.
With 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and home to 20 percent of Japan’s National Treasures, Kyoto is a step back in time where you’ll get a taste for what Japan was like during the Edo period, when the city served as the capital and emperor’s residence.
Things You Have to See
Temples are in abundance in Kyoto but what you’ll come to love in Kyoto is how different each of them are. Perched on the side of the mountain, Kiyomizu Temple offers amazing views of the city below.
Then there’s Kinkakuji. It doesn’t get more zen than this golden pavilion, which majestically reflects in the pond in front and is surrounded by the lush green gardens and a teahouse.
Lastly there’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Words can’t describe how magical it is to walk through this tunnel made of a domino of red painted torii gates. There’s really nothing else like this in the world, let alone Japan.
Nijo Castle is another landmark that impresses with its fully intact castle walls, gates, and nightingale floors that purposely squeak to guard against ninjas.
What you’ll find most fascinating about every site you explore in Kyoto is that each is steeped with incredible history and filled with stories of an era gone by. If you’re looking to see everything in a short amount of time, it might make sense to catch a highlight tour of Kyoto by bus.
Places to Stay
One of the unique aspects about staying in Kyoto is the opportunity to stay in traditional lodgings – called a ryokan – that date from the time of the samurai and were used by weary travelers when they needed to relax and recharge. Trade away that regular hotel room for a futon overtop tatami (woven-straw) floors, sliding doors, Japanese style spas, and traditional meals.
Cheap hotels in Kyoto can also be found in the city, but what I’d recommend is to stay near the train station, since that means you can save on a cab ride by walking to your hotel. This location also provides convenient access to the excellent public transportation.
Food to Delight
There are a ton of restaurants to satisfy any palette of tastes. Most restaurants are located in the city center, and when I made my trip to Japan, we stumbled upon a great chirashi (seafood on a bowl of rice) restaurant. If raw fish isn’t your thing, there are plentiful ramen options. One restaurant that I didn’t get to go to but is highly recommended is Hafuu Honten. As TripAdvisor’s Traveller’s Choice for 2014, this restaurant known for the melt-in-your-mouth Waygu steak. The restaurant gets packed early, so plan on going early. To save a bit of money, go for the lunch menu.
There’ll be a lot of walking in Kyoto, especially when exploring the streets from Kiyomizu Temple to Maruyama Park. That being said, you’ll most likely be grabbing public transportation to get to where you need to go. For example, to get to Kiyomizu Temple, you’ll need to catch bus 100 or 208 from Kyoto station. For Kinkakuji, it’s bus 101 or 205. Nijo Castle requires hopping on the local subway to Nijojo-mae station along the Tozai line. Lastly, Fushimi Inari is a little further out, so the smartest way to get there is by taking a JR train down to JR Inari Station.
Public transportation is excellent in the city, but if you’re in a rush or just plain tired, catch a cab. Cabs are easy to take as long as you have an address or name to show in Japanese. Also keep in mind that cabs aren’t cheap, so use them wisely.
If you’re looking to take a trip to Japan, make sure you add Kyoto to your itinerary. To see a sample of what my recent trip to the country looked like, make sure you check out my perfect 12 days in Japan.
Check out my writeup I did for Hipmunk that gives an overview of the city and how to find cheap hotels in Kyoto.
If you’re looking to do any travelling around Japan, I highly recommend picking up a JRailPass. Keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase it before your trip and ship it to your home.