Experience traditional Japan in Kyoto
Kyoto is the former national capital and current cultural capital of Japan. Despite its size, this city of almost 1,5 million inhabitants has a small-town atmosphere. There are few skyscrapers, and the streets are quieter than Tokyo. Kyoto has retained its old glamour and much of its original architecture. The city feels elegant, and in some of the historic neighbourhoods, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Kyoto is also a city of shrines and temples, an astounding 2000 of them in fact.
Public transportation in Kyoto can be confusing at first, as there are different providers for busses, metros and trains. They are all exceptionally punctual, and once you know where you are going, it is reasonably easy to get there. Buses all cost 230 yen per ride, regardless of distance, to be paid in exact change upon leaving the bus. Due to its geographical location and location within Japan rail network, Kyoto is the perfect base for day trips to other cities or into the countryside. We’ve suggestions of where to stay in Kyoto and attractions to visit.
All in all, Kyoto is a much better example of Japanese culture than Tokyo, with its modern excess. In Kyoto, tradition still reigns supreme, from tea ceremonies to geishas.
Where to stay in Kyoto
To have a truly authentic Japanese experience, book yourself a stay at a Ryokan. These traditional Japanese inns are sparsely furnished with tatami mats, low tables and minimalist design. Many Ryokans have been transformed into private apartments which can be booked through Airbnb, such as Kinse in the historical neighbourhood Simabara.
Budget travellers will notice that accommodation in Japan is relatively expensive, even in hostels. The Downtown Inn Kyoto is affordable and welcoming, with capsule beds that provide comfort and privacy. The big question of where to stay in kyoto can be governed by your wallet and budget.
Kyoto 5 day itinerary – Day to day
Day 1: Temples & Shrines
Tokyo is known for its many shrines and temples, so start your trip with a visit to one of the most impressive religious sites. The Fushimi Inari shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Goddess of Rice. The shrine at the foot of the hill is stunning, but Fushimi Inari is most famous for the long path lined with red ‘torii’, Japanese wooden gates, leading up the hill. The road is longer and steeper than it seems, but there are plenty of stops along the way with little shops, cafés and restrooms where you can pause.
A 15-minute walk from the shrines lies the beautiful Tofukuji temple. On the way there, make a stop at one of the small restaurants for lunch, like Wanchansu Kyoto. The Tokfukji temple is a large zen temple with black and white buildings that are a beautiful contrast to the Japanese green garden. It is particularly spectacular in Autumn when all the Japanese maples turn bright orange and red.
Day 2: Kyoto Museums
There is no rest for your legs on the second day as you start with a walk down the Philosophers Path. On this stone path, the philosopher Nishida Kitaro practised his mediation while walking. In April the cherry trees lining the path bloom making it even more beautiful.
From the Philosophers Path make your way to the National Museum of Modern Art to indulge in their collection of Asian modern art as well as the excellent pasta dishes at their restaurant. Around the corner from the museum on Nijo-Dori street, there is a lovely little gift and bookshop next to the Starbucks. As you are walking back to the city centre, East on Nijo-Dori street, you will find some quaint thrift stores as well as an excellent bakery called Cheer up! If you prefer to sit down and have a coffee, walk a bit further to Café Bibliotic Hello.
After a short coffee break, head to the Museum of Kyoto where you can learn more about the fascinating history of the city. In front of the museum on Higashikatacho street, you will find a few traditional Japanese antique shops. There are also several excellent restaurants in the vicinity, such as vegetarian-friendly Biotei and Marugamen Seimen Kawaramachi Sanjo for authentic Japanese Udon noodles.
Day 3: Enjoythe Imperial Palace and Gardens
A visit to Kyoto is not complete without seeing the Imperial Palace and Gardens. The Palace lies a walled-off compound in the middle of the park, both of which are free of charge. The buildings have been beautifully reconstructed and give an impression of life in the Edo period in Japan. It is also possible to book a guided tour of the palace.
From the gardens, cross the river and walk to Demachiyanagi station. From there you can take a scenic train ride to Kurama mountain. This mountain, on the Northern edge of Kyoto, is home to the beautiful Kurama temple. Visitors can hike up to the temple or take a cable cart halfway up the hill. It is also possible to walk a full loop, which will take around 3-4 hours. For lunch, you can fuel up in any one of the lovely little restaurants next to Kurama station.
From the train station, a free shuttle bus takes you to the Kurama Onsen where you can relax your muscles in the warm water from a local hot spring.
After your bath, take the train back down to Demachiyanagi and walk to Goya. This restaurant in the University district is popular among students for the friendly atmosphere and delicious food from the Okinawa region of Japan.
Day 4: Experience the Shinkansen bullet train
Kyoto’s central location and Japans excellent train network make it very easy to take day trips to other parts of Japan. With the Shinkansen bullet train, it takes only 1,5 hours to Hiroshima. These trains which run at 300 km an hour are an experience all on their own. Hiroshima is a modern city with a dark past. It is the sight of the first nuclear bombing which signalled the end of the second world war. A visit to the Hiroshima memorial museum and park is equally impressive and jarring. Hiroshima is also known for a local variety of Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake, and Miyajima Island.
An alternative day trip for movie fans and families with small children is Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. This movie theme park lies an hour by train away from Kyoto and is immensely popular with Japanese and foreign tourists, especially the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area. It is best to visit on a Wednesday or Thursday when it is slightly less crowded and cue time is shorter.
Day 5: Shopping and riverside restaurants
For your last souvenir shopping in Kyoto go to Loft warehouse. It houses several different stores, including the popular Japanese clothing brand UNIQLO. The electronic gadgets and cute stationery make for perfect gifts to take back home. There is also a cat café on the third floor where you can have a coffee or tea and cuttle the friendly felines. Once you finish shopping, walk south-east to Nishiki market. This indoor market has become rather touristic, but it is endlessly entertaining to look at all the strange foods sold from the cosy stalls.
Arguably the most striking temple in Kyoto is the impressive Kinkakuji- or Golden Temple. Buses 101, 102, 204 and 205 stop right in front of the entrance. It is often crowded, but the sight of the glistening golden temple is worth it.
You can take the bus down to Pontocho for dinner at one of the riverside restaurants. After dinner, cross the river into Gion. Gion is the traditional entertainment district of Kyoto and famous for the theatre and geishas. It is most beautiful at night when lanterns light the picturesque streets, and you can occasionally see apprentice geishas on their way to appointments. It is also the hub of Kyoto nightlife and the perfect place to try Japanese sake and whiskey.
Kyoto castles and temples pictures