Kyoto is probably the prettiest city in all of Japan and, it is also used to be the capital up until 1868. The city is nestled in the mountains in Western Honshu and really made its name under the then Emperor who made Kyoto (Japanese for ‘capital city’) his base to rule over the land. Luckily enough, the city missed out on the appalling World War 2 barrage of bombing attacks which left its temples, shrines and landmarks pretty much intact.
Having noted that, some Japanese today say that modern buildings in glass and steel have actually detracted from its obvious beauty.Bordered on three sides by mountains, Higashiyama, Kitayama and Nishiyama, it also has three rivers running along the basin.
The city is quite large and takes up approximately eighteen percent of the total land in this prefecture.
Kyōto (京都) was the former capital of Japan for over a millennium, and carries a reputation as its most beautiful city. However, visitors may be surprised by how much work they will have to do to see Kyoto’s beautiful side. Most first impressions of the city will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station, which is itself an example of a city steeped in tradition colliding with the modern world.
Nonetheless, the persistent visitor will soon discover Kyoto’s hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city center, and find that the city has much more to offer than immediately meets the eye.
Though dwarfed in size by other major Japanese cities, Kyoto is vast in terms of its rich cultural heritage – the material endowment of over a thousand years as the country’s imperial capital. The city’s numerous palaces, shrines, temples and other landmarks are spread out over the following districts:
- Central – Site of Nijō Castle (a former residence of the Tokugawa shōguns) and the stately grounds of the Imperial Palace. The district’s southern end is anchored by the massive glass-and-steel building of the city’s main gateway, Kyoto Station.
- Arashiyama (Western Kyoto) – Set against the beautiful tree-covered hills of Arashiyama, this district is rich in both historic and natural wonders.
- Higashiyama (Eastern Kyoto) – Nestled between the Kamo River and the temple-studded mountains of Higashiyama, this area’s many attractions include the famed geisha district of Gion and the historic sites strung alongside the well-known Philosopher’s Path.
- North – Graced with scores of centuries-old shrines and temples, including several World Heritage Sites. One of Kyoto’s most famous attractions – the magnificent gilded pavilion of Kinkaku-ji – can be found here.
- South – This district covers a large part of Japan’s former capital, stretching from the Ōharano area in the west to Fushimi-ku, Daigo, and the southern tip of Higashiyama-ku in the east.
Nestled among the mountains of Western Honshu, Kyoto was the former capital of Japan and the residence of the Emperor from 794 until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. During its millennium at the center of Japanese power, culture, tradition, and religion, it accumulated an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines, built for emperors, shoguns, and monks. Kyoto was among the few Japanese cities that escaped the allied bombings of World War II and as a result, Kyoto still has an abundance of prewar buildings, such as the traditional townhouses known as machiya. However the city is continuously undergoing modernization with some of the traditional Kyoto buildings being replaced by newer architecture, such as the Kyoto Station complex. Kyoto is also home to Japan’s second most prestigious university, Kyoto University.
Kyoto’s city planners way back in 794 decided to copy the Chinese capital Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) and adopt a grid pattern, which persists to this day in the city core. West-east streets are numbered, with Ichijō-dōri (一条通, “First Street”) up north and Jūjō-dōri (十条通, “Tenth Street”) down south, but there is no obvious pattern to the names of north-south streets.
Like the rest of the country, Kyoto exhibits four seasons — spring, summer, fall and winter — with many flowers in the spring and changing leaves in the fall attracting hordes of tourists. Kyoto is particularly humid in the summer as the city is flanked by mountains. From about mid-June to the end of July is the rainy season, so most travelers try to avoid this time. The type of rain ranges from drizzles to off-and-on showers to downpours. There is another typhoon season in late August and September. Winters are generally cold but without snowfall. They usually don’t start until the end of December and last until March when the plum blossoms followed by cherry blossoms begin to open.
Kyoto does not have its own airport, but rather is served by Osaka’s two airports. There is an excellent road and railway network between the two cities.
You can fly into Kansai International Airport and then get a train to Kyoto. Kansai Airport Station is located opposite the arrival lobby where the Haruka limited express train, operated by West Japan Railway (JR West), can be caught. The Haruka runs to Kyoto in 75-80 minutes and the one-way cost normally starts from around ¥2,850 for an open (non-reserved) seat.
There are a few ways that foreign tourists can use the Haruka at a discount. One way is to buy a one-day Kansai Area Pass. At a cost of only ¥2,300 (¥2,200 if you book online), this pass costs ¥550 less than a regular ticket. You will need to show a passport issued by a foreign country with Japanese temporary visitor visa on it when purchasing a ticket. Note that you are limited to purchasing one pass per trip, so if you return to Kansai Airport on the Haruka you will have to pay the regular fare.
Another option that JR West offers is the ICOCA and HARUKA discount ticket which includes travel in unreserved seating on the Haruka to Kyoto and any JR station within a designated “Free Zone”, and a rechargeable ICOCA transit card containing ¥2000 (includes ¥500 deposit) that can be used on JR, private railways, buses and stores in the Kansai region. A one-way discount ticket costs ¥3030 and a round-trip costs ¥4060. For Kyoto, the mentioned “Free Zone” includes the Sagano Line on the part from Kyoto Station to Saga-Arashiyama. Make sure not to exit through the turnstiles at Kyoto Station if you plan to transfer.
Both of the above tickets can be purchased online or at the Kansai Airport train station. Some other, more expensive JR West passes that include trips on the Haruka and are valid to Kyoto include the Kansai WIDE Area Pass and the Sanyo Area Pass.
The other train company operating out of Kansai Airport is the Nankai Railway. They offer a discounted ticket if you are interested in traveling to Central Kyoto, called the Kyoto Access Ticket. For ¥1230 this ticket includes a journey on the Nankai Railway Airport service to Tengachaya station in Osaka, followed by a trip on the Osaka Sakaisuji Subway Line. With a second transfer at Awaji station you can travel to Kyoto on the Hankyu Main Line. Under this plan you can reach Central Kyoto in approximately 1 3/4 hours. You have the option to upgrade to the fastest Nankai train service, the Rapi:t, for an additional 300 yen.
Comfortable limousine buses run from the airport to Kyoto Station, twice an hour, stopping at some of the major hotels along the way. The ticket costs ¥2,550 (children ¥1,280) one-way or ¥4,180 for round-trip. Bus tickets can be purchased outside of the airport’s arrival lobby on the first floor. (just go straight when you leave customs through the “North gate”). The buses leave the airport from bus stop #8, which is located directly opposite the ticket vending machine. Buses discharge at the south end of Kyoto Station; return tickets are sold from a vending machine on the first floor of the Hotel Keihan Kyoto. The ride takes 88 minutes but can take longer when there is traffic (about 90 – 135 minutes).
Located near Osaka, Itami Airport is Kansai’s largest domestic airport. Travelers flying into Kyoto from other areas in Japan will most likely arrive here. The easiest way to get to Kyoto from Itami Airport is by limousine bus No. 15. The trip takes about an hour and costs ¥1,310. The buses run three times an hour. Alternatively, you can take a combination of monorail and train, which requires at least two changes (monorail to Hotarugaike, Hankyu Takarazuka Line to Juso, Hankyu Kyoto Line to Kyoto) but costs just ¥670 and can be completed in an hour. Whereas the Limousine Bus will leave you at Kyoto Station in the southern part of Kyoto, the Hankyu Railway runs to Shijō Street in central Kyoto.
Most visitors arrive at JR Kyoto Station by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. Nozomi trains take approximately 2.15 hours. to Kyoto and cost ¥13520 one-way. Travel agencies in Tokyo and Kyoto sell nozomi tickets with ¥700-1,000 discount. If you buy a ticket in an agency, it is “open date” – you can board any train as long as it is not full. All you have to do is show up at the train station, register your agency ticket and then you will be reserved a seat.
Hikari trains, which run less frequently and make a few more stops, cover the trip in around 2.45 hours, but only the Hikari and the Kodama trains can be used by Japan Railway Pass holders at no charge.
Discounted tickets can be purchased in advance through Japan Railways’ official SmartEX App, available in English and other languages – look for Hayatoku fares.
Travelers can also take advantage of the Puratto (Platt) Kodama Ticket, which offers a discount for Kodama services if you purchase at least one day in advance. You get a reserved seat and a coupon for a free drink (including beer) which can be redeemed at a “Kiosk” convenience counter inside the station. With this ticket a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto costs ¥10,100 and takes 3.45 hours. Note that there is only one Kodama service per hour from Tokyo, and a few early-morning Kodama trains cannot be used with this ticket. Travel from Nagoya with this ticket costs ¥4200.
During travel periods when the Seishun 18 Ticket is valid, you can go from Tokyo to Kyoto during the day in about 8.30 hours using all-local trains. Traveling in a group is the best way to get discounts. The usual fare is ¥8000 however a party of three costs ¥3800 per person, and a group of five traveling together drops the price down to ¥2300 per person.
For travel in the Kansai region, a cheaper and almost as fast alternative is the JR shinkaisoku (新快速) rapid service, which connects to Osaka, Kobe and Himeji at the price of a local train. For a slightly cheaper price you can use the private Hankyu or Keihan lines to Osaka and Kobe, or the Kintetsu line to Nara. The Kansai Thru Pass includes travel on the private lines through to Kyoto, and this may prove cheaper that a JR Pass if you are staying a few days in the area.
Those travelling from the Chubu region can use Thunderbird (サンダーバード) limited express trains from Kanazawa (2 hours, ¥6900). Kanazawa is the present terminal of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, connecting to Toyama, Nagano and Tokyo. Eventually the Hokuriku Shinkansen will extend west towards Osaka, though it is not yet known if the route will go through Kyoto.
Hokuriku Arch Pass
The Hokuriku Arch Pass allows unlimited travel between Tokyo and the Kansai area via the Hokuriku region, using the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kanazawa and the Thunderbird from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka. At a cost of ¥24000 for seven consecutive days of travel (¥25000 if purchased inside Japan), the Arch Pass is ¥5000 cheaper than the national Japan Railway Pass. On the other hand, a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto is twice as long via Kanazawa compared to the more popular Tokaido Shinkansen.
Direct overnight train service between Tokyo and Kyoto were plentiful in the past decades, but as time went on services were pretty much eliminated. As a result, taking the bus is now the easiest way to travel between these two cities at night.
Overnight travel between Tokyo and Kyoto is still possible with a stopover in another city along the way, which is easy to do with a Japan Railway Pass or a basic long-distance ticket that is valid over a period of several days.
During the peak travel seasons, JR runs an overnight service called the Moonlight Nagara between Tokyo and Ōgaki in Gifu (prefecture), from which you must continue on to Kyoto by regular trains. The Nagara can be used by holders of the Seishun 18 Ticket, and as a result, is in very high demand when it runs; seat reservations are compulsory.
Kyoto is easily reached by car via the Meishin Expressway between Nagoya and Osaka, but you’ll definitely want to park your car on the outskirts of the city and use public transport to get around. Most attractions are in places built well before the existence of automobiles, and the availability of parking varies between extremely limited and non-existent. Furthermore, what little parking is available might be outrageously expensive.
As Kyoto is a major city, there are many day and overnight buses which run between Kyoto and other locations throughout Japan, which can be a cheaper alternative than shinkansen fares. As the cultural center of Japan, Kyoto’s bus connections are almost as numerous as Tokyo’s. There are bus operators with night buses from Yamagata, Sendai, Koriyama, Fukushima, Tochigi, Utsunomiya, Saitama (Omiya), Yokohama, Niigata, Karuizawa, Toyama, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, Numazu, Mishima, Matsue, Izumo, Shunan, Yamaguchi, Imabari, Matsuyama, Kochi, Fukuoka (Hakata), Takeo, Sasebo (Huis Ten Bosch). Same-day highway buses depart from Tsu, Yokkaichi, Nagoya, Toyokawa, Toyohashi, Takayama, Okayama, Kurashiki, Tsuyama, Fukuyama, Onomichi, and Hiroshima.
Most highway buses will pick up and drop off passengers at Kyoto Station. JR Buses congregate at the Karasuma Exit (烏丸口) at the north side of the station. Other companies will use the Hachijo Exit (八条口) on the south side, either at the station itself or at one of the nearby hotels.
Another bus stop is called Kyoto Fukakusa (京都深草). This stop is nowhere close to Kyoto station, but rather is 4.5 km to the south on the Meishin Expressway. Some JR Buses heading to and from Osaka will use this stop instead of calling at Kyoto Station. The closest train stations are Fujinomori on the Keihan Line (5-10 min walk) and Takeda on the Kintetsu Line and Kyoto Subway (10-15 min walk); all can be used to reach central Kyoto. Local city buses also runs to Kyoto station from the nearby Youth Science Center a few times per hour.
The run between Tokyo and the Kansai region is the busiest in Japan. Buses use the Tomei or Chuo Expressway from Tokyo to Nagoya, then the Meishin Expressway to Kyoto. Trips take between 7 and 9 hours depending on the route and stops.
Fierce competition between operators in recent years has led to buses offering better amenities and lower prices. Part of this strategy is the adoption of dynamic pricing on many bus routes. This generally means that daytime trips, weekday trips, tickets bought in advance and buses carrying more passengers are cheaper, while night trips, weekend/holiday trips, walk-up fares and buses with fewer (and more comfortable) seats will be more expensive.
As a rule of thumb, fares for a weekday trip between Tokyo and Kyoto go for around ¥4000-6000 per person during the daytime, and around ¥5000-8000 per person for overnight trips. Children usually pay half the adult fare.
Two of the major bus operators between Tokyo and Kyoto are Willer Express and JR Bus. Tickets for all carriers can generally be purchased at major departure points, and can also be purchased (with some Japanese language help) at kiosks inside convenience stores.
Willer Express runs daytime and overnight trips with a variety of seating options ranging from standard seats to luxurious shell seats. Bus journeys can be booked online in English, and Willer’s Japan Bus Pass is valid on all of their routes with some exceptions. Willer’s buses in Tokyo leave from the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal (Busta Shinjuku), above the JR tracks at Shinjuku Station, which is served by many of Japan’s highway bus operators. Note that Willer also sells tickets for other bus operators on their website, but these trips are not valid with Willer’s Japan Bus Pass.
JR Bus reservations can be made in English through their Kousoku Bus Net web site. You can also make reservations in train stations at the same “Midori-no-Madoguchi” ticket windows used to reserve seats on trains. Buses depart from Tokyo Station – Yaesu Exit (八重洲口) and from Busta Shinjuku.
Best time to go to Kyoto
Kyoto enjoys very hot and humid summers and cooler winters. July to September can see temperatures reaching the high thirties and other months drop quite significantly during winter. With lows going down to around 1.2C in January, only those that like crisp and chilly days should venture here at that time. June and July sees the heaviest rainfall which explains why it is so humid here in these months. Typhoons tend to make their presence felt during September and October.
Getting Around Kyoto
Station is the centre that visitors should aim for if they want to explore the city and beyond. Conventional rail lines all culminate here as well as the high speed Tokaido Shinkansen Line. People who have some hours to spare will have fifteen floors of cinemas, hotels, designer stores and many other shops to browse around.
Kyoto Municipal Subway (KMS) has just two lines. The Karasuma Line is green in color with stations clearly marked by numbers after the letter ‘K’. The other line is Tozai Line (TL), colored vermillion for ease of use, and they both connect to the mainline station as mentioned earlier. KMS runs north to south while Tozai Line runs across the city from east to west. Stations serviced by TL are numbered after the letter ‘T’. This should make it extremely simple for strangers to get to where they want to go.
At this main station, also find the high speed train that Japan is famous for which links Kyoto to Yokohama and Tokyo among other places. Expect the trip to or from Tokyo to take around two and a half hours.
Kyoto does not boast an airport of its own, but travelers can fly into Kansai International Airport, or Itami Airport, and get to Kyoto by train in around one hour and twenty minutes. Osaka Airport has buses which carry visitors into Kyoto Station in around an hour. Some will actually go on further to drop passengers at pre-booked hotels beyond the station.
Bus services are in plentiful supply and there are tour buses with many different itineraries. The great thing about this service is that announcements are made in English as well as Japanese, which tends to give tourists a little more confidence when traveling without escorts.
For tourists, it may be a good idea to get a day pass, perhaps with a rail pass included, to allow for easy movement around the city. Tickets and passes are available right outside Kyoto Station. Get hold of one of the Bus Navi leaflets, available from the same venue, to plan the day’s visits.
We have all seen the scores of bicycles that the Japanese seem to favor and these are also a good option to get around for the tourist as well. However, finding bike parks may be a little difficult and those that are parked in the wrong place will be taken away!
Taxis are available and, as in all cities around the world, check out charges before agreeing to step inside for the journey. Hire cars are also there but since there are not many great roads in Kyoto, it may be better to pay someone else to navigate the city.
The sheer size of the city of Kyoto, and the distribution of tourist attractions around the periphery of the city, make the city’s public transport system invaluable.
One of the easiest ways to plan a route is through Hyperdia. This website contains station-to-station route plans, which reference public and private trains and subways as well as buses throughout Japan.
If you are planning to travel beyond city limits you might consider using the tickets from Surutto Kansai. For use in west Japan, including Kyoto, there are some other useful tickets: a rechargeable smart card, ICOCA, can be used on rail, subway and bus networks in the Kansai area and also Okayama, Hiroshima, Nagoya (Kintetsu trains) and Tokyo (JR East trains). These cards are available at vending machines at these rail stations, and cost ¥2000, which includes a ¥500 deposit that will be refunded when the card is returned at JR West Station. For use in Kyoto only there are some other useful tickets:
- The Kyoto Sightseeing Card can be purchased as a one-day (Adults ¥900/Children ¥450) or two-day pass (¥1700/¥850). It can be used for unlimited travel on the subway and city buses as well as a part of the Kyoto bus route. The two-day pass has to be used on two consecutive days.
- The Traffica Kyo Card is a stored-value card in denominations of ¥1000 or ¥3000. It can be conveniently used up to face value on all subways and buses by simply sliding it through the ticket gate. They offer a 10% bonus value.
Kyoto is criss-crossed by several train lines, all of which are clearly sign-posted in English. Although the lines are run independently and prices vary slightly between them, transfers can be purchased at most of the ticket machines. The Keihan train line can be useful for traveling in eastern Kyoto, while the two Keifuku (aka Randen) tram lines are an attractive way of traveling in the northwest. Across the street from the northern terminus of the Keihan Line is the Eiden line, which runs to Mount Hiei and Kurama. The Hankyu Line starts at Shijo-Kawaramachi downtown, and connects to the Karasuma Line one stop later at Karasuma. It’s useful for reaching Arashiyama and the Katsura Rikyu; it runs all the way to Osaka and Kobe. JR lines run from Kyoto station to the northwest (JR Sagano line), to the southwest (JR Kyoto line) and to the southeast (JR Nara line). There are local and express trains so check if they stop at your station before you get on.
There are two subway lines which only serve a rather small part of the city. The north-south running Karasuma Line runs under Kyoto Station, and the west-east running Tozai Line links up with it near the city center. Both are useful for travel in the city center but not really suitable for temple-hopping. The Tozai Line does connect with the Keihan Line, however, which runs parallel to the Kamo-gawa, and is convenient for reaching Gion and southern Kyoto; it also gets you within a short walk of many of the sights in eastern Kyoto.
A one-day pass for the subway costs ¥600.
The bus network is the only practical way of reaching some attractions, particularly those in north-western Kyoto. Fortunately the system is geared toward tourists, with destinations electronically displayed/announced in English as well as Japanese. Unlike other Japanese cities, a tourist probably is advised to use the buses here.
Confusingly however, there are two different bus companies in Kyoto, which occasionally even have overlapping line numbers. Green-and-white Kyoto City Buses (市バス shi-basu) travel within the city, and are the most useful for visitors; unless otherwise noted, all buses listed in this guide are city buses. Red-and-white Kyoto Buses travel to the suburbs and are generally much less useful.
Many buses depart from Kyoto Station, but there are well-served bus stations closer to the city center at Sanjō-Kawabata just outside the Sanjō Keihan subway line, and in the northern part of the city at the Kitaōji subway station. Most city buses and some Kyoto Buses have a fixed fare of ¥230, but you can also purchase a one day pass (¥600 for adults and ¥300 for children under 12) with which you can ride an unlimited number of times within a one day period. The day passes can be bought from the bus drivers or from the bus information center just outside Kyoto Station. This is especially useful if you plan on visiting many different points of interest within Kyoto. You can also buy a combined unlimited subway and bus pass for ¥900.
The municipal transport company publishes a very useful leaflet called Bus Navi. It contains a route map for the bus lines to most sights and information. You can pick it up at the information center in front of the main station.
- Raku Bus – The city has three routes (100, 101, and 102) which are specifically designed for foreign tourists wishing to hit the tourist spots quickly. The buses skip many of the non-tourist stops and are thus a faster way to get from one sight to the next. The Raku Bus #100 and #101 leave from platform D1 and B2 at Kyoto Station. The cost is ¥230 per ride, but the day passes are accepted as well.
Travel by bicycle in Kyoto
Particularly in spring and fall, but at any time of year, getting around by bicycle is an excellent option. Cycling forms a major form of personal transport year-round for locals. The city’s grid layout makes navigation easy. The city is essentially flat, excepting a few places in the lower parts of the surrounding hills where you may have to climb a bit or park you bike to visit on foot. You can rent bicycles in many places in Japan for a reasonable price. During the peak tourist seasons, when roads are busy and buses tend to be crammed beyond capacity, bicycles are probably the best way to navigate Kyoto.
Kyoto’s wide, straight roads make for heavy traffic in many parts of the city, but it is possible to find back alleys that are quieter and offer better chances to happen upon all sorts of sightseeing/cultural gems. Riding on major roads is OK, especially if you are confident and used to riding with traffic on the road, rather than on the sidewalk and especially again if you are used to riding/driving on the LEFT-HAND side of the road.
Be aware that it is forbidden to park your bike where it is not explicitly authorized, in which case it could get towed and you would have to pay a fine to get it back. So you will have to find a legal bike park near the place you want to visit and pay for it. It will not be the preferred transportation mean if you have planned to go to a district and visit it by foot along a non-circular route (like the Philosopher’s Path in Higashiyama).
- Kyoto Cycling Tour Project(KCTP). A five-minute walk from the North Exit (the side with the buses and Kyoto Tower) of Kyoto Station. Bikes range from ¥1000 to ¥2000 for an actual 27-speed mountain bike with city-tires on it; perfect for the average foreigner who is used to a ‘real’ bike in their home country. The following options can be added: bilingual cycling/walking map of Kyoto ¥100; light FREE; helmet ¥200; back pack; ¥100; rain poncho ¥100. They can hold on to your luggage while you are riding. There are four other locations of KCTP and you can return your bike to any location, however you will incur a ¥400 charge if you return the bike to a location other than the one you rented from. Guided bike tours are also available ranging from ¥3900 (three hours) to ¥12000 (7.5 hours) that include guide, bike rental, lunch/snacks, accident insurance and admission to some attractions on the tour. Minimum of two people to guarantee departure/maximum of 10. Needs to be reserved three days in advance if you want a tour. Don’t worry if the mountain bikes sell out – Kyoto (like Tokyo) is a city with perfect kerb transitions so a 8 speed with basket and bell is fine, if a little bumpy on the river path.
- There is a friendly bicycle rental shop across the street from the Keihan Demachiyanagi station, behind the taxi rank. ¥500 for a day, ¥750 for a day and night, and ¥3000 for a month. ¥3000 deposit (¥2000 when showing ID). Has 22″ children’s bikes which come with a free helmet. Opens early (<9AM) – 7PM.
- There is a small rental shop just north of Sanjo Keihan station on Kawabata Dori that rents bicycles, which doesn’t have “tourist signs” attached. On the downside, they do not speak English. ¥1000 per day.
- For those staying more than a week or so, purchasing a used bicycle may be economical. Most bicycle shops in Kyoto offer used town bicycles with lights, bell, basket, and lock for around ¥5000 — ¥10,000 (plus a ¥500 registration fee). At least some of this cost can be made back by re-selling the bicycle just prior to departure. Cycle Eirin, a chain found throughout the city, is a good place to start.
Major Attractions and Sights in Kyoto
Kyoto has become a World Heritage Site so it attracts upwards of thirty million people every year. It has more than two thousand temples and shrines to view, and the city was built according to traditional feng shui principles.
Some of the more popular sights to see, and there are too many to see in just one vacation for sure, are listed below:
Daitokuji Temple – a delightful gathering of beautiful temples with an amazing Zen garden included. No one quite understands what the garden means, but be prepared to take lots of photographs of the garden set against the autumn foliage and sub temples scattered around the complex.
Jingogi Temple – this is a beautiful old temple that conjures up images of the Willow Pattern on old crockery. Walk from Yamashiro Takao station along a set of winding stairs, take pictures of the quaint bridge and end up at the temple.
yoto offers an incredible number of attractions for tourists, and visitors will probably need to plan an itinerary in advance in order to visit as many as possible.
Japan National Tourist Organization’s self-guided “Kyoto Walks” pamphlet enables first time visitors to tour the city with ease and with minimum fuss by providing bus numbers, names of bus stops and clearly marked walking routes. There are a variety of self-guided walks in different districts to sample Kyoto’s various sites. If you see the browser’s dialog box popping up, just click on it till the entire PDF document opens.
World Heritage Sites
In 1994, 17 historic sites were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List under the group designation Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Fourteen of the listed sites are in Kyoto itself, two are in the neighbouring city of Uji and one is in Ōtsu.
Listed by location, the fourteen World Heritage Sites in the city of Kyoto are:
- Northern Kyoto: Kinkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji, Ninna-ji, Kōzan-ji, Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine
- Central Kyoto: Nijō Castle, Nishi Hongan-ji, Tō-ji
- Eastern Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkaku-ji
- Western Kyoto: Tenryū-ji, Koke-dera
- Southern Kyoto: Daigo-ji
Imperial Palaces and Villas
Stroll through the regal retreats of the Imperial Palace or one of the two Imperial villas with gardens and teahouses managed by the Imperial Household Agency. These are the Imperial Palace (京都御所 Kyōto-gosho) and Sentō Imperial Palace (仙洞御所 Sentō-gosho) in Central Kyoto, Katsura Imperial Villa (桂離宮 Katsura-rikyū) in Western Kyoto, and Shūgakuin Imperial Villa (修学院離宮 Shugaku-in-rikyū) in Northern Kyoto. All four of these sites are open to the public by reservation through the Imperial Household Agency. The gardens located within the precincts of each palace and villa are at their most scenic during spring cherry blossom season and autumn where a riot of colors enchant visitors. Each property is still used from time to time for official state functions or for private visits by the current royal family members.
The Imperial Household Agency maintains a quota on the number of visitors to each site per tour. Admission is free. English guides are available at the Imperial Palace; however, tours of the Sento Imperial Palace, Katsura Villa, and Shūgakuin Villa are conducted in Japanese only (English pamphlets are given at each destination upon entry and books are available for purchase if you’d like to know more). Overseas visitors can apply online to the Imperial Household Agency in English here. On its website are write ups and videos in English for interested visitors to gauge which ones they would like to visit before making an online application. Please note that advanced applications first become available on the first day of the month, three months in advance of the applicant’s preferred touring month. For example, if your preferred date of visit falls in the month of April, you can begin applying on January 1. As these visits are over subscribed by the Japanese and overseas visitors, the Imperial Household Agency has to draw lots to pick the successful applicants. All applicants are notified on the status of their applications whether they are successful or otherwise within a week after closing date. Most applicants to the Imperial Palace are accepted, and early reservation is not usually necessary; however, those planning to visit the Sentō Imperial Palace, or either of the Imperial Villas should apply on the first available day of application as they are highly competitive and entire months of tours often become full within the first few days. Winter tours are typically much less competitive, but be aware that the gardens will not be as beautiful as other times of the year.
If an applicant is not successful, they can still go direct in person to the Imperial Household Agency Kyoto Office to enquire whether there are vacancies, as they typically save a few spots for walk-ins. Many people are able to do this successfully for the Imperial Palace, but it can be more of a risk for the others, so go early. Address: Imperial household Agency Kyoto Office, 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, 602-8611, Phone: +81-75-211-1215.
What to do
Public baths have been a cornerstone of the society for centuries in Kyoto. The first public baths, or sentō (銭湯), were documented in the 13th century. Soon they became one of the few places in society where social status was irrelevant. Noblemen shared baths with commoners and warriors. Today over 140 bath houses remain in Kyoto. Funaoka Onsen is the oldest of these and dubbed “king of sentō”, but newer bath houses and super sentō are just as much part of the Japanese bathing culture. If you have the time, make your way to one of the many public bath houses Kyoto has to offer.
- Funaoka Onsen (船岡温泉), Kyoto, Kita Ward, Murasakino Minamifunaokacho 82-1 京都市右京区太秦東蜂岡町10 (take bus line 206 from Kyoto station). 15:00 – 01:00. Funaoka Onsen is one of the oldest public bath houses in Kyoto still in operation. Its classic building is an excellent example of bath house architecture of the beginning of the 20th century. Funaoka Onsen is popular with both locals and visitors and is a must if you have an hour to spare. ¥430.
Kyoto is the traditional home of the Japanese film industry and while it has declined since its heyday in the 1950s, to this day, the majority of Japanese period dramas (時代劇 jidaigeki) continue to be produced in Kyoto.
- Toei Kyoto Studio Park (東映太秦映画村 tōei uzumasa eigamura), Kyoto, Ukyo Ward, Uzumasa Higashihachiokacho 10 (take bus line 75 from Kyoto station). 09:30 – 16:30. Toei Kyoto Studio Park is an active film studio which continues to be used for the filming of period dramas. Visitors may visit the outdoor sets used in many samurai movies, and if they are lucky, could potentially observe the filming of a period drama. ¥2,200.
Well known for its abundance of historical sites, Kyoto often draws visitors eager to experience traditional Japanese culture. Buddhist meditation sessions are one of the most popular of these activities, and multiple options are available. In Northern Kyoto, Taizo-in and Shunko-in (both sub-temples of Myoshin-ji) offer authentic Zen meditation sessions, complete with explanations of the meaning and significance of such meditation. Reservations are necessary.
Kyoto is arguably the most well known place in the country to view cherry blossoms, and there are certainly no lack of options. On the Official Top 100 cherry blossom spots list, three are in Kyoto (Arashiyama, Daigoji, Ninnaji).
Eastern Kyoto is particularly popular during the cherry blossom season. A walk from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji along the Philosopher’s Path, lined with cherry trees, is enjoyable, as there are a variety of temples and shrines to stop at along the way. The garden of the Heian Shrine, not far from the Philosopher’s Path, features colorful pink blossoms, which is a nice contrast to the white blossoms you’ll see on the Philosopher’s Path. The famous cherry tree in Maruyama Park is often the center of attention in the evenings when it is lit up. Vendors line the pathway leading up to it, creating a festive atmosphere. Kiyomizu-dera and Kodai-ji have extended hours during the first few days of this season offering visitors the opportunity to view them at night, lit up against the blossoms. Blossoms can also be seen along the Kamogawa River. The entire area literally blossoms in the spring!
In Central Kyoto the northern section of the Imperial Park is home to a variety of different types of cherry blossoms. Nijo Castle hosts its own Nijo Light-Up, in which visitors can walk the grounds of the castle at night among the cherry blossoms (typically for 10–14 days). You cannot enter the castle during the light-up, so those who want to enter should visit during the day to see the castle and the blossoms. Just south of Kyoto station, the grounds of Toji Temple bloom beautifully below the towering pagoda.
In Arashiyama, a large portion of the mountainside is bright with cherry blossoms, along with the area around Hankyu Arashiyama Station. During the day, many people enjoy viewing the blossoms on the mountainside from the “Romantic Train” that travels through Arashiyama. At night, the area is lit up and food stalls are set up with a variety of delicious snacks.
Northern Kyoto offers cherry-blossom scouts worthwhile experiences at Hirano Shrine and Kyoto Botanical Gardens, and a walk inside the large grounds of Daigo-ji in Southern Kyoto is certainly made memorable when all the blossoms are in full bloom.
Although they are less well-known to foreign tourists, who tend only to focus their attentions on seeing cherry blosssoms, for those with plans to visit Kyoto from mid-February through mid-March, plum blossom viewing makes for a great alternative. Kyoto has two popular plum blossom locations; Kitano Tenmangu and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, both in northern Kyoto. Kitano Tenmangu has a large grove of plum trees just outside the shrine entrance that, with a ¥600 fee, you can stroll about. Within the shrine grounds, there are many more trees (viewable for free). The shrine even hosts annual performances by geisha amidst the plum blossoms. Plum blossoms have a very pleasantly distinct fragrance. These Japanese ume trees are actually more closely related to apricot trees. However an early mistranslation by the Japanese resulted in these trees being called “plum” trees instead.
Festivals and events
- Setsubun (February 3 or 4) A large bonfire and Shinto ceremony is held at Yoshida Shrine.
- Cherry Blossom Season (April 1–15; days vary depending upon the weather) Although viewing the blossoms is enough for many, special events are often held throughout the city. (See “Cherry Blossoms” above)
- Aoi Matsuri (May 15) Beginning at Kyoto Imperial palace, a large procession dressed in Heian Period garbs walks to Shimogamo Shrine and finishes at Kamigamo Shrine.
- Gion Matsuri (July 17) Many Mikoshi are paraded through the streets. It is considered to be one of the top three festivals in Japan.
- Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (August 16) The hillside in Northwestern Kyoto is lit aflame in this festival honoring one’s ancestors. Candle lanterns are floated out in Hirosawa Pond.
- Jidai Matsuri (October 22) People dressed in traditional garbs parade to Heian Shrine.
- Kyoto University (京都大学 Kyōto daigaku). One of Japan’s most prestigious universities, second only to the University of Tokyo. Admissions are extremely competitive, though it may be easier for foreigners on exchange programmes.
There is a nice selection of reassuringly non-tacky traditional souvenir shops around Arashiyama station in Western Kyoto, selling fans and traditional sweets. More tacky stores can be found in Gion and the approach to Kiyomizu Temple, selling keyrings, cuddly toys, and garish ornaments. Other traditional souvenirs from Kyoto include parasols and carved wooden dolls.
More unconventional but colorful (and relatively cheap) souvenirs are the wooden votive tablets produced by Shinto shrines, which bear an image relevant to the shrine on the reverse. Visitors write their prayers on the tablets and hang them up, but there’s no rule that says you can’t take it with you.
Manga and anime enthusiasts should visit Teramachi Street, a covered shopping street off the main Shijo-dori, which boasts a large manga store on two floors, as well as a two-story branch of Gamers (a chain of anime stores), and a small two-story anime and collectables store.
Many ATMs in Kyoto do not allow non-domestic credit cards to be used, but ATMs in postal offices and Seven-Eleven usually do. So if you find your card rejected or invalid in an ATM then try and get to a post office (郵便局 / yuubinkyoku or JP (in orange letters)) to use their ATMs instead. Look for the PLUS or Cirrus logos, whichever you find printed on the back of your ATM card. Another option is Citibank, which should work, too. There is an old standby international ATM at the top floor of Takashimaya Department Store at Shijo/Kawaramachi in the “Cash Corner.” The bank of ATMs in the basement of the Kyoto Tower shopping center (across the street from JR Kyoto Station) also includes one machine where international cards may be used.
Muslim Friendly Hotels in Kyoto
- ANA Hotel Kyoto
- Aranvert Hotel Kyoto
- Best Western Hotel Kyoto
- Brighton Hotel Kyoto
- Citadines Kyoto Karasuma Gojo
- Daiwa Roynet Hotel Kyoto-Hachijoguchi
- Garden Hotel Kyoto
- Gimmond Hotel Kyoto
- Gion Hatanaka Kyoto
- Gion Shinmonso Kyoto
- Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto
- Hearton Hotel Kyoto
- Hotel Alpha Kyoto
- Hotel Chatelet Inn Kyoto
- Hotel Granvia Kyoto
- Hotel Honnoji Kyoto
- Hotel Mystays Kyoto-Shijo
- Hotel Nikko Princess Kyoto
- Hotel Oaks Kyoto Shijo
- Hotel Village Kyoto
- Hyatt Regency Kyoto Hotel
- Ishicho Shogikuen Hotel Kyoto
- Karasuma Kyoto Hotel
- Kohakuan Machiya Ryokan Townhouse Kyoto
- Kyoto Century Hotel
- Kyoto Hotel Okura
- Kyoto Kokusai Hotel
- Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa
- L’Hotel De Hiei Kyoto
- Lake Forest Resort Kyoto
- Monterey Hotel Kyoto
- New Miyako Hotel Kyoto
- Oyado Ishicho Hotel Kyoto
- Rihga Royal Hotel Kyoto
- Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto
- Ryokan Hirashin Kyoto
- Ryokan Rakucho Kyoto
- Shorenkan Yoshinoya Ryokan Kyoto
- Suoan Machiya Residence Inn Kyoto
- The Westin Miyako Hotel Kyoto
- Tokiwa-An Machiya Residence Inn Kyoto
In the shopping areas adjacent to Kiyomizudera (on the other side of the Kamo River), it is possible to purchase samurai swords and top of the line kimonos. Do not be surprised if the prices for either item exceed ¥3,000,000.
Kyoto incense is also famous. It usually has a very delicate yet fragrant bouquet. Incense is relatively agreeable in price (¥400-2020). You will be able to find it between Nishi and Higashi Hongwanji.
Damascene, a special metal created by imbedding other metals, originated in Damascus, Syria over 2000 years ago and was first introduced to Japan in the 8th century. Since then, it has ceased production worldwide with the exception of Kyoto city, which continues producing it even today. The technique used to create Kyoto’s damascene is quite complex, as it must be corroded, rusted, and boiled in tea, along with inlaying many layers of metal to produce the final product. Today, visitors can purchase a variety of jewelry, as well as vases, tea utensils, lighters, and other accessories made using this technique.
No one could ever visit Japan without witnessing a festival of some kind. Festivals are entrenched in Japanese culture so events are going on most of the time. Since Kyoto used to be the capital, expect to find some rather unique festivals in progress and watch the colorful events as they unfold. Every month has something on offer so it doesn’t really matter when visitors arrive. Find some examples here:
April – Japan is famous for its cherry blossoms so, no surprise here, they have a festival to celebrate this beautiful tree. The Cherry Viewing Tea Ceremony literally celebrates the cherry blossoms appearing and is held every year at the Heian Jingu shrine in Kyoto – again, great photo opportunities to be had here. Also, look out for the Kyoto Spring Geiko Dances in the same month and marvel at the performances of the locals. Sometimes visitors are invited to take part.
May brings another festival. This one is the Hollyhock Festival (Aoi Matsuri) and visitors get a chance to see history unfolding in the form of displays of court life during ancient times. Expect to find this flower adorning every float and shop etc along the route.
In August, the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (bonfire) takes place. This wonderful Buddhist ceremony has fire and ancient Chinese characters filling the sky as it commemorates the end of Obon – the festival of the dead.
This city has an abundance of amusement parks which is great for a family holiday. Indeed, some of them have been places in premier position in all of Japan. Kids will always want to get away from just sightseeing so this is a great way to let them let off steam. There are some cool historical vehicles available for tourists to see the city at a quieter pace, and this gives the family a chance to ‘feel’ the vibe of the city from a different aspect.
Kyoto itself is also a lovely place to explore. When tired of traveling too far, tourists can get on a bus tour and let the scenery pass by the window. This is a very beautiful city so hopping on and off a bus is probably the best way to experience local life.
There are superb buildings to marvel at, monuments and, of course, yet more religious venues seemingly on every corner. For quieter days, take a picnic to one of the many parks and just people watch or stroll among the botanical gardens to see some beautiful floral displays. In fact, with the mountains as a backdrop, the rivers flowing through the basin and the sea not so far away, Kyoto sightseeing is a pleasure no matter where the tourist finds himself. Try going at different times of year to get the full beauty of the ever changing foliage of the lush plants and trees.
Kyoto has its fair share of souvenir shops, designer outlets and boutiques for shopaholics. Many tourists love to hunt for a little piece of traditional Japanese pottery or artifacts and each piece is a permanent reminder of a great holiday. To get off the beaten track, so to speak, try out the local market at Musugata Shotengai – north east of the Imperial Palace. Shop for dried foods or just take a pastry or two, and go eat it on the banks of the Kamo River about two minutes away. This is real local shopping so expect to see some wondrous sights here!
Anything of local interest
There are certain things peculiar to Kyoto and Japan in general which are very interesting to visitors- for example, the Ryokan. This is a form of accommodation that doubles up as a living room, bedroom and even dining room all in one. The whole thing is made of wood, visitors must remove shoes before entering and, depending on the time of day, the furniture will be arranged to suit. For example, in the evening an attendant will enter and lay out a futon for sleeping on. Food is also served in this room so expect a visitor several times a day depending on what has been booked.
One thing that must not be missed while in Japan is the chance to visit a Public Baths for a deep, hot and luxurious soak. There are rules here and they go something like this:-
When walking into the bathing area, go naked! Before entering the public bath, shampoo and wash off any grime of the day. Enter the bath and soak until relaxation is achieved. Exit the bath, dry off and put on the robe provided – this is called the yugata. Or, for those who are nervous, just follow what the locals do to avoid embarrassment.
Another ritual which must be observed when visiting a Buddhist temple is as follows: Worshippers must wash in a ritual way before entering the temple. There should be a temple well or basin that has water and the correct way to wash the hands is to first hold the scoop (a bamboo cup on a long bamboo cane) in the right hand, scoop water and wash the left hand. Do the same for the right hand and, when finished, return the scoop handle to the starting position for the next person. Again, if in doubt, follow the locals so that a faux pas does not accidentally occur.
Telecommunications in Kyoto
Free public Wi-Fi is available in many parts of Kyoto.
- Uji – the best tea in Japan and the Byodo-in temple.
- Kurama – less than an hour’s journey by a local train from Kyoto Demachi-Yanagi station, the small village of Kurama has real onsen (Japanese natural hot springs).
- Lake Biwa – if the summer humidity has drained your will to sightsee, take a day swimming at the underrated beaches of western Lake Biwa. Popular choices include Omi Maiko and Shiga Beach, each about 40 minutes from Kyoto on the JR Kosei Line.
- Mount Hiei – an ancient hilltop temple complex that traditionally guarded (and occasionally raided) Kyoto.
- Otsu – home to some great historical temples, Mount Hiei, and one of Lake Biwa’s ports.
- Koka – home of ninjas, and there is the Miho Museum.
- Nara – less than an hour’s journey by train on the JR Nara line from Kyoto station, Nara is an even older capital than Kyoto and has a stunning collection of temples in a giant landscaped park.
- Osaka – about half an hour from Kyoto by JR rapid train, this bustling city offers more retail opportunities and a central castle.
- Amanohashidate – literally “the bridge to heaven”, it is considered one of Japan’s top three scenic views (along with Matsushima in Miyagi and Miyajima in Hiroshima (prefecture)). It forms a thin strip of land straddling the Miyazu Bay in northern Kyoto Prefecture, hence the name. Visitors are asked to turn their backs toward the view, bend over, and look at it between their legs.
- Himeji – about an hour by Shinkansen west of Kyoto, Himeji boasts a spectacular traditional castle.