Kyoto: A Local's Guide to Japan's Ancient Capital
Introduction to Kyoto
Kyoto, a city drenched in history and cultural richness, is positioned in the heartland of Honshu, Japan. It enjoyed a long stretch as the country's imperial capital, from 794 right through to 1868. The city is a treasure trove of historical and cultural artifacts with more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, a sight to behold with 400 Shinto shrines, splendid imperial residences, architecture evident in traditional wooden homes, and embellished gardens - all presenting a window into the true essence of Japanese heritage.
Geographically speaking, one would find Kyoto in the heart of the Yamashiro Basin, ensconced by lofty mountains to its north, east, and west sides. The central part of the city is divided by the free-flowing Kamo River that travels from the north to the south. The city's climate hovers in the humid subtropical zone and it experiences soaring, humid summers contrasted by mild winters. The sight of cherry blossoms in spring and colorful fall foliage make these times the most enticing to plan a visit to Kyoto.
Boasting a rich tapestry of historical happenings and culture spanning over 1,500 years, Kyoto offers a deep dive into the essence of both old and modern Japan. The city's offerings encompass UNESCO World Heritage Sites and pave the way to modern culinary delights, hence it caters to all kinds of travelers' desires. Check out more to pave your ideal journey to this intriguing metropolis.
Getting to Kyoto
Kyoto is served by several airports, with the closest being Kansai International Airport and Osaka Itami Airport. From Tokyo, the fastest way to reach Kyoto is by taking the Shinkansen bullet train. The fastest Nozomi trains take just over 2 hours to reach Kyoto from Tokyo and cost around 13,500 yen one-way. You can also take the slower Hikari or Kodama trains which take about 2.5 hours and cost around 8,000 yen. From Osaka, regular trains take about 30 minutes and cost 560 yen to reach Kyoto. Highway buses are another convenient option for getting to Kyoto from cities across Japan, with buses running from Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, and more.
If driving, Kyoto can be reached via several major highways including the Meishin Expressway from Nagoya, the Chugoku Expressway from Hiroshima, and the Shin-Meishin Expressway from Osaka. Parking in Kyoto's city center can be difficult, so public transportation is recommended for getting around.
Some key ways to reach Kyoto include:
- Bullet train from Tokyo Station - 2 hours
- Regular train from Osaka - 30 minutes
- Kansai International Airport - 1.5 hours by train
- Highway buses from cities across Japan
Getting Around Kyoto
Kyoto has an extensive and reliable public transportation network, making getting around the city easy for visitors. The main options for transportation in Kyoto are buses, trains, taxis, bicycles, and walking.
Buses are one of the most convenient and affordable ways to travel in Kyoto. The city has an extensive bus network that can take you to major sights and districts. Buses run frequently and are easy to use. Many buses now have digital signage and announcements in English. You can pay with cash when boarding or use an IC card for seamless transfers.
Kyoto is served by Japan Railways (JR) and the municipal subway operated by the Kyoto City Transportation Bureau. The Karasuma subway line runs north to south and connects Central Kyoto to Kyoto Station. The Tozai line runs east to west connecting major districts. Trains are fast, frequent, and reliable. IC cards can be used to ride trains and subways in Kyoto.
Taxis are plentiful in Kyoto and can be a convenient option for shorter trips, especially at night when buses and trains run less frequently. Fares start at ¥640 for the first 2 kilometers. Tipping is not expected or required.
Renting a bicycle is a great way to explore Kyoto at your own pace. Many rental shops are catering to tourists. Bicycles can be taken on trains and subways during certain hours. Kyoto is mostly flat and has dedicated bike lanes making it bike-friendly.
Lastly, walking is an enjoyable way to get around parts of Kyoto, especially compact districts like Higashiyama, Arashiyama, and Downtown. The city has an extensive network of pedestrian-only paths lined with traditional shops and restaurants.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Kyoto offers a wide variety of accommodation options, from luxurious ryokans to budget-friendly guesthouses. The neighborhood you choose to stay in can significantly impact your experience. Here are some of the best areas to stay in Kyoto:
Staying in downtown Kyoto puts you in the heart of the action. Neighborhoods like Kyoto Station, Karasuma, and Kawaramachi offer quick access to top attractions like Nijo Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace, and the Gion Geisha district. This area has a mix of modern hotels and ryokans. Recommended picks include Hotel Granvia Kyoto located right in Kyoto Station and the luxurious Ritz Carlton Kyoto.
Home to temples like Kiyomizudera and Kodaiji, Higashiyama's scenic streets allow you to experience old Kyoto. Stay along Hanamikoji Street for access to Gion's geisha district. Ryokans with traditional architecture and gardens like Yuzuya Ryokan offer a quintessential Kyoto experience.
Staying in Arashiyama, in northwest Kyoto, lets you wake up surrounded by nature. It's home to Zentemples and the iconic bamboo forest. Luxury ryokans like Hoshinoya Kyoto embody Japanese aesthetics. For budget stays, guesthouses like Kokotonoyado Musashino offer a comfortable experience.
Top Things to Do in Kyoto
Kyoto is filled with incredible temples, shrines, gardens, and museums showcasing the city's rich history and culture. Some of the top attractions and things to do include:
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion): This Zen temple is one of Kyoto's most iconic sites, with a golden pavilion reflecting off the pond's waters. It dates back to the 14th century and exemplifies traditional Japanese architecture.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple: This Buddhist temple has sweeping views of Kyoto from its wooden deck. Its main hall juts out over a hillside supported by towering pillars. It's especially beautiful during cherry blossom season.
Fushimi Inari Shrine: Walk under thousands of vermillion torii gates winding through the hills behind this iconic Shinto shrine. It offers an atmospheric and photo-worthy experience.
Nijo Castle: Built-in 1603, this UNESCO World Heritage site features ornate interiors, nightingale floors, and sprawling gardens in the heart of Kyoto. It exemplifies traditional castle architecture and design.
Kyoto Imperial Palace: Explore the expansive park-like grounds of the imperial palace, which served as the imperial capital for over 1,000 years. The palace offers a tranquil glimpse into historic Kyoto.
Day Trips from Kyoto
Kyoto makes an excellent base to take day trips to other popular destinations in the Kansai region. Here are some of the top day trips from Kyoto:
One of the most popular day trips from Kyoto is tranquil Nara, home to some of the country's most historic sites, like the Todaiji Temple and its Great Buddha statue. Nara was Japan's first permanent capital, and its historic temples and vast parklands with freely roaming deer make it a must-visit. It's just a 45-60 minute train ride from Kyoto.
Vibrant Osaka is known for its food scene, lively nightlife, and attractions like Osaka Castle and the neon-lit Dotonbori area. As two of the largest cities in the Kansai region, Kyoto and Osakapair together perfectly. The bullet train gets you between the cities in just 30 minutes.
Considered Japan's most magnificent castle, the UNESCO World Heritage SiteHimeji Castle is worth a day trip from Kyoto. Known as the "White Heron Castle" for its elegant white walls, explore the stunning castle complex and grounds. Himeji Castle is just under an hour from Kyoto by bullet train.
While farther away, Hiroshima makes for a meaningful day trip from Kyoto. Pay respects at the Peace Memorial Park and Museum at the site of 1945's atomic bombing. Take a ferry to visit the Fukushima Shrine on Miyajima island. The bullet train gets you to Hiroshima from Kyoto in just over 2 hours.
Kyoto's Geisha Culture
Kyoto is famous for its geisha, known locally as geiko or Gigi, who are professional entertainers highly trained in traditional Japanese arts. The geisha districts in Kyoto are some of the best places to get a glimpse of these elusive women.
The main geisha districts in Kyoto are Gion, Pontocho, and Kamishichiken. Gion is the most famous and historic district, dating back to the Edo period. Popular streets to spot geisha in Gion include Hanami-koji-dori and Shimbashi. Pontocho is a narrow alley running along the Kamo River, where you can dine while Geisha entertains. Kamishichiken in northwest Kyoto is the oldest geisha district and has many teahouses.
The best times to see geisha are in the early evenings when they are on their way to engagements at teahouses. Proper etiquette is to not stop or obstruct geisha, touch them, or take photos without permission. Geisha shows, called Ozashiki, can be arranged through your hotel or a guided tour to witness traditional dances, games, and conversations.
In addition to geisha, Gion is also home to maiko, apprentice geisha in their first few years of training. Maiko stands out with its elaborate kimono, ornate hair decorations, and white makeup. Catching a glimpse of maiko as they run between engagements is a magical Kyoto experience.
To fully immerse in geisha culture, attending a tea ceremony is highly recommended. You'll learn about the detailed rituals of preparing and serving matcha in a traditional tatami room. With its winding alleys, preserved architecture, and whispers of geisha, Kyoto offers an enchanting glimpse into historic Japanese culture.
Experiencing a Tea Ceremony
A tea ceremony is a quintessential part of Japanese culture and a highlight for many visitors to Kyoto. The rituals, etiquette, and tranquility surrounding the tea ceremony make for a unique and memorable experience.
There are several places in Kyoto where you can participate in an authentic tea ceremony. Some top options include:
- Camellia Tea Ceremony - Located in a traditional Machiya house in central Kyoto, this venue offers intimate 45-minute sessions with informative explanations in English.
- Maikoya Kimono Tea Ceremony - Combine wearing a kimono with the tea ceremony for a full cultural experience. Sessions last about 45 minutes.
When participating in a tea ceremony, there are some important etiquette rules to follow. Guests should dress respectfully, avoid strong perfumes, and turn cell phones off. Walking through the tea room door requires crouching, to show humility. Sit in seiza style on the tatami mats, and politely follow the host's cues throughout the ceremony. The tranquil setting and ceremonial pacing invite quiet contemplation as you enjoy the preparation and presentation of matcha tea.
Overall, joining a tea ceremony in Kyoto offers a peaceful setting to experience a core part of Japanese culture. Witnessing the care and artistry that goes into preparing and serving matches provides lasting insight into traditional Japanese values.
Shopping in Kyoto
Kyoto is a shopper's paradise, with a wide variety of stores selling traditional crafts, antiques, local specialty items, and more. The city's main shopping districts are located around Kawaramachi and Shijo streets, where you'll find large department stores, shopping arcades, and specialty shops.
The iconic Kyoto Takashimaya department store in downtown Kyoto should be on every shopper's itinerary. This elegant store has everything from kimono and ceramics to lacquerware and sweets. Another popular department store is Daimaru Kyoto, which carries a huge selection of quality souvenirs and local crafts.
For traditional Kyoto crafts, head to the Kyoto Handicraft Center. Located near Heian Shrine, this three-floor shop features works by local artisans specializing in silk textiles, kimonos, woodblock prints, fans, umbrellas, and more. It's a great place to find unique souvenirs and gifts.
Kyoto is also a hotspot for antiquing. Major antique fairs are held periodically at the PulsePlaza exhibition hall and the Toji Temple flea market. For a more curated selection, browse the high-end antiques at Kura Chic or the American Antiques Fair.
Other popular shopping areas in Kyoto include the Nishiki Market food arcade, the Teramachi temple district, and the traditional shops along Pontocho Alley. Whatever you're looking to buy, Kyoto certainly has no shortage of shopping opportunities.
Kyoto's Food Scene
Kyoto is renowned for its refined cuisine, known as kaiseki. Kaiseki is a multicourse meal that emphasizes seasonality, artful presentation, and local ingredients. It originated as part of the tea ceremony and embodies the Zen Buddhist principles of balance and harmony. A typical kaiseki dinner consists of 10-15 delicate dishes showcasing Kyoto’s finest seafood, meat, and produce.
In addition to kaiseki, Kyoto is famous for its delicious soba noodles. Handmade buckwheat noodles are served both hot and cold at traditional noodle shops throughout the city. Some popular soba dishes include zaru soba (cold noodles with dipping sauce) and tempura soba (noodles with shrimp tempura). Soba restaurants offer a casual counterpoint to the formality of kaiseki.
Tofu, known as yuba in Kyoto, is another local specialty. Kyoto's water and climate make it ideal for producing soft, delicate tofu that is central to both kaiseki and Buddhist temple cuisine. Yuba is often served simmered in broth or wrapped around vegetables. There are several specialty tofu restaurants where you can try authentic Kyoto-style tofu preparations.
In addition to savory fare, Kyoto is renowned for its traditional sweets called wagashi. These delicate confections are crafted from ingredients like sweet bean paste, rice flour, and agar. Popular sweets include matcha tea-flavored treats and flower-shaped yokan gelatin cakes. The best place to sample wagashi is a classic tea house.
Kyoto has a vibrant nightlife scene with plenty of options for enjoying the evenings out. The city's nightlife centers around izakayas (Japanese pubs), bars, live music venues, and karaoke spots.
Some popular izakaya areas include Pontocho Alley, which is lined with tiny izakayas and traditional wooden buildings along narrow alleyways. Gion is also home to many izakayas and bars in buildings with traditional exteriors but modern interiors. In the Kiyamachi and Sanjo areas along the Kamogawa River, you'll find a lively nightlife district full of bars and restaurants.
For live music, one of the top venues is Live Spot RAG in Central Kyoto, which hosts rock, jazz, acoustic, and other genres of live performances in an intimate setting. Jazz fans can head to BarBunkyu in Southern Higashiyama, which offers nightly live jazz as well as cocktails and whisky. Monk Jazz Club is a long-standing jazz institution with top local artists.
Karaoke is hugely popular in Japan, and Kyoto offers plenty of venues like Karaoke Kan for belting out tunes into the night. Big Echo Karaoke is famous for having Kyoto's longest-running running karaoke party.
Overall, Kyoto's nightlife offers something for everyone, from quaint local izakayas to lively music clubs and karaoke parties.
Spring in Kyoto
Spring is one of the most beautiful times of year to visit Kyoto. The highlight of spring in Kyotois seeing the beautiful cherry blossoms bloom across the city. From late March to early April, thousands of cherry trees burst into delicate pink and white flowers. Popular spots for cherry blossom viewing include the Philosopher's Path, Maruyama Park, and Arashiyama. Walking under the canopy of cherry blossoms is like something out of a fairy tale.
The weather in Kyoto during spring is mild, with average highs around 15°C (59°F) and lows around 5°C (41°F). It does still get chilly at night, so be sure to pack light layers. Spring is generally one of the driest times of year to visit.
In April, the Miyako Odori geisha dances are held, one of the best opportunities to see geisha perform. Other popular spring festivals include the Kamigamo Shrine Festival in May and the AoiMatsuri Festival in early June, which feature spectacular processions in Kyoto.
Make the most of the warmer weather by strolling through Kyoto's temples and gardens, which burst into color this time of year. Overall, spring is one of the most scenic and pleasant times to explore Kyoto.
Summer in Kyoto
Kyoto has a hot and humid summer because of its inland location. The summer months of June, July, and August are also the rainy season (梅雨 tsuyu), characterized by rains lasting several days or weeks in the early summer. The average summer temperatures range from 20°C to 33°C, with high humidity similar to a rainforest.
The rainy season usually ends by mid-July, bringing clearer skies and summer festivals like the Gion Matsuri, involving huge parade floats. Other popular summer events include the Aoi Matsuri at Kamo Shrine with a procession in Heian period costumes and the Mitarashi Festival with traditional dances at Shimogamo Shrine. The riverside dining decks open up, making it pleasant to enjoy the cool evenings out on the Kamo River's terraces.
Some top things to do in Kyoto during the hot summer months are enjoying shaved ice treats at the Nishiki Market, taking a boat ride down the Hozu River gorge, or exploring Kyoto's temples and shrines in the early morning hours before it gets too hot. The forests in the nearby Arashiyama area also provide a cooler escape from the city streets.
Fall in Kyoto
Fall is one of the most beautiful times to visit Kyoto, famous for its dazzling display of autumn leaves. The fall foliage season usually runs from late October to mid-November, with the colors peaking in mid-November. The autumn foliage transforms the city into a kaleidoscope of fiery reds, vibrant oranges, and sunny yellows.
Some of the top spots in Kyoto to view the changing maple leaves include the Philosopher's Pathlined with hundreds of maple trees overlooking a canal, as well as the grand temple complexes ofKiyomizu-dera, Eikando, Tofukuji, and Nanzenji Temple. The pagoda at Toji Temple standing amid a sea of red maples is an iconic scene. Arashiyama's bamboo groves turn a brilliant yellow and the Hozu River boat ride provides panoramic views over the blazing foliage.
In autumn, Kyoto enjoys cool, comfortable weather perfect for walking outside and leaf peeping, with average highs around 63°F (17°C) and lows of 50°F (10°C). The fall weather is generally sunny during the day and cool in the evenings so be sure to bring some layers.
Some popular autumn festivals held in Kyoto include the Jidai Matsuri Festival of Ages taking place on October 22nd which features a massive parade of costumed figures, and the Kurama FireFestival on October 22nd culminating in a dramatic fire burning ceremony. The Kyoto Takoyaki Festival from mid to late October offers lots of delicious fried snacks and family entertainment.
To fully experience the magic of Kyoto in autumn, be sure to plan your visit during the peak fall foliage weeks and see the city transform into a sea of crimson and gold.
Winter in Kyoto
Kyoto in winter can be bitterly cold, with temperatures frequently dropping below freezing and occasional snowfall. The winter months of December, January, and February are generally considered the coldest. Locals call this time of year the "deep freeze" (最中の寒さ sanchū no samusa).
However, the cold winter months can also be an enchanting time to visit Kyoto. Many temples, shrines, and gardens are illuminated at night, creating a magical atmosphere. Popular illumination spots include Kodai-ji Temple, Shoren-in Temple, and the Philosopher's Path.
The Arashiyama bamboo grove takes on an otherworldly beauty when frosted with snow and ice. Snow monkeys can also be spotted taking hot spring baths at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in the nearby city of Nagano.
Be sure to pack warm layers and winter boots if visiting Kyoto from December through February. Try local warming foods like nabe hot pot, oyaki buns, and amazake (sweet sake). End your day relaxing in an onsen hot spring bath.
Some key events in winter include the Kyoto Light-up on December 8th, when the city's illuminations are switched on, and hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the new year.
While Kyoto's winters are cold, the stunning winter scenery and magical illuminations make it an enchanting time to explore the ancient city. Just be prepared with warm clothes!