You really can’t say you’ve been to Japan until you’ve been to Kyoto…
Japan is one of the friendliest, cleanest most respectful- and most advanced countries in the world. And we’re not just talking about their state of the art toilets. That’s a treat we’ll save until you arrive.
While Tokyo is the main draw for many on their first trip to Japan, a trip to Kyoto is absolutely essential for a more complete Japanese excursion, as is Osaka, Japan’s food capital.
Japan is currently closed to most outside visitors, but many are hopeful that thanks to strong vaccination rates, things will reopen by autumn of 2021, giving plenty of time to plan a special, long overdue trip.
The authenticity, charm and elegance of Kyoto is impossible to ignore, and if you have the time, you really should explore every timeless inch, not just the highlights. If you’ve got limited time, use this Kyoto travel guide as your intro cheat sheet to all the things you’ve gotta do, and the places you need to eat!
Kyoto: Getting There
Kyoto is easily accessible via the Shinkansen “Bullet Train” or by regular flights from Tokyo and other Japanese cities. For a truly one off, futuristic experience- you just cannot beat the Bullet Train though.
If you’re a planner, don’t fret about buying tickets in advance, because no one really does.Unless you’re buying a rail pass for multiple journeys, you can’t buy tickets online unless you’re in Japan physically.
You can just walk up at the station minutes before the train, grab a ticket and zip off. It’s all really, very easy. Traveling over 200mph, you’ll whiz along the countryside barely feeling a turn and before you know it, you’ll be in Kyoto. We could not love it more, though be warned: it will make you resent your transit options back at home.
Kyoto Hotels: Lots To Choose
Kyoto isn’t the cheapest city to stay in, but aspirational hotel chains with loyalty programs make it possible to use points to offset the costs. Marriott has a Ritz Carlton in Kyoto, Hyatt has a Park Hyatt and a Hyatt Regency. Hilton is also opening Roku Kyoto as part of the LXR collection, with reservations from September 19th, 2021.
For the top top end of luxury, Hoshinoya, Aman, the Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons are tough to beat. Park Hyatt is certainly a contender too.
For more traditional, local centric stays, charming guest houses provide options at a very different price point, averaging around $90-$120 USD per night. The Toshiharu Ryokan is always a traveler favorite. Sakanoue is another solid option as is Kikokuso.
Breakfast Options In Kyoto
Breakfast places are surprisingly not always so easy to find, with many cafes not opening until late morning. However, if you’re looking to venture out from the standard, over priced breakfast found in your hotel, there are a few local spots that are definitely worth a try.
Bake House Inoue is not too far from Kyoto train station and sells delectable fresh breads and pastries. Other excellent places to try: Cafe Rhinebeck. Believe it or not- we think Japan does better pastry than France!
As it seems with most things in Kyoto, the earlier you get there the better, so after scarfing down your kaiseki or croissant breakfast, get moving. If you do, there will be fewer tourists, and when we say it gets crowded, we mean it.
Found in the Arashiyama district, which is up to a 30 minute drive from many points in Kyoto, this is one of Kyoto’s most popular things to see, and rightly so. You’ll be so glad you did, even if it leaves you far away from most other things.
Walking among the soaring stalks of bamboo is absolutely breathtaking, and for those Instagram savvy travelers: try capturing the sunlight beaming through the vibrant green bamboo. It looks even better in real life.
We highly suggest exploring Nishiki Market and the surrounding streets to discover authentic Japanese food stalls and traditional culinary delights. And yes, some of them will be very, very strange- in a fun way. Almost everything that is sold at the market is locally produced, as opposed to the crappy markets in other parts of the world where it’s all made in China!
If you need proof, it’s popular with locals as well as tourists. Aside from famous food, the market doubles as a kitchen and clothing paradise, not to mention a great place for a few souvenirs.
Nijō Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace Gardens
Kyoto is pretty spread out- but these two are close together and you can easily walk from one to the other. If you happen to be in Japan in Spring for the legendary cherry blossom bloom, or in autumn as foliage turns vibrant shades of red, yellow and orange, you’ll be in for a real treat.
Even out of season, these places are seriously easy to love. Classic design, gorgeous gardens, less tourists- it’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering around, getting lost in the charm and tranquility of your surroundings.
Dinner: Sushi Iwa And Much More
If you’re looking for an outstanding, traditional sushi experience at the place which Steve Jobs proclaimed was the best sushi place on earth (more than once), you simply.must.try. Sushi Iwa.
Within walking distance of Kyoto station and many popular hotels, this off the map sushi spot is an omakase lovers dream. The owner and chef is the second generation to run this perfect spot, taking over the helm from his father who opened it over 50 years ago. Here are some tips on dining omakase, so you don’t look like an idiot!
Toshiya Ohnishi the owner and sushi master speaks English, which is a rare treat in top Japanese sushi spots. You can order a la carte, or as GSTP would suggest, go for a full omakase, the chef’s choice menu.
For a dreaming worthy sushi delight, you’ll be looking at 10,000-30,000 Japanese yen, roughly $100-$300 bucks per person. The more you spend the crazier the quality and rarity of the fish.
If sushi isn’t exactly your thing, there are quite a few other great options, like: Honke Owariya, Okakita or Yamamoto Menzou for some incredible noodles, Tosuiro if you want to know what vegetarian and tofo can really be at their best, or Torito for some of the best Yakitori.
The Fushimi-Inari Shrine is known for its famous bright red Torii Gates that form a path all the way up Mount Inari. When we say all the way up- we mean all the way up. The tranquil, if not exhausting hike takes about 3 hours, but is well worth it to see the view from the top, looking back at the thousands of mesmerizing red gates.
This is one of the most popular sites in Kyoto, so as you can imagine gets pretty packed with tourists, especially around the base and early part of the hike. To beat the crowds, we recommend getting there as early as possible and going as far as your legs will take you. Each step means fewer tourists. Just be sure to be respectful and not snap pictures of people without permission.
Oh and good tip: if jet lag is getting you up early, why not hike up to catch sunrise from the top – it’s spectacular and easily one of the coolest things you can do in Japan et al!
If you walk one street over from Kamo River you’ll find really sweet cafes, restaurants and pretty streets that just scream Japan. Quiet during the day and only slightly more lively in the evening, this is the perfect spot to pound the pavement (gently). You’ll really get a neighborhood feel, while getting to sample many of the regions best dishes, which you won’t often find in Tokyo.
Let’s be honest, Kyoto is full of temples – different kinds, different sizes, different ages, different meanings, you name it. If you only have a couple of days to explore it’s going to be tough to see them all. They are all beautiful and really you can’t go too wrong wherever you end up.
GSTP advice: do your research and plan based on locations. Find the temples you most want to see and figure out on a map what order makes most sense.
Taxis are very easy to use, but you don’t want to spend hours in transit going back and forth. There are great guides in Kyoto, so if you’re unsure, shell out to make things easy. They even have bike tours…
Everything is generally safe in Kyoto, so walk without fear. We highly recommend getting (comfortably) lost in the vast array of side streets, alley ways and mini markets laced around the town, which showcase what’s special and local about this area.
As we mentioned earlier, we think Japan may have better pastries than France and Kyoto is no exception. You’ll smell a good spot before you find it. All that moving around, we think you’ll deserve a chocolate croissant- or definitely some sake. Enjoy Kyoto.