Travelled in: July 2016
Kyoto is the heart of Japan for all things cultural… Smaller than Tokyo with only 11 wards to explore, this beautiful city has over 2000 temples and Shinto shrines to visit, incredible scenery to snap and mouth-watering food to eat. Kyoto has a lot of charm and so many beautiful things to see. Being the home of Geisha expect to see Kimonos everywhere, you can even join in on the Geisha fun by hiring a traditional outfit to wear for the day. The best thing about Kyoto is it’s super easy to get around and being a lot more compact than Tokyo you can even walk between most of its attractions. Kyoto was definitely a massive highlight for me on our Japan trip and I would love to go back and explore even more!
Arriving in Kyoto…
Kyoto was our 3rd city to explore in Japan and we traveled there by bullet train from Hakone via Odawara. There are frequent bullet trains from Tokyo that reach Kyoto within 2.5 hours and Osaka in less than 1 hr. Most of these trains will be included in the Japan Rail Pass. Once you arrive at Kyoto station there are numerous buses you can take to your accommodation.
Staying in Kyoto…
I had heard that Gion was the best area to stay in Kyoto in terms of ease of getting to attractions, as well as being very atmospheric and having great restaurants choices. We booked an Airbnb in nearby Higashiyama which was a perfect location for us, situated a 5 minute walk to a bus stop which took us to all of the sights of the city and only a 15 minute walk down the river to Gion which made it a great Kyoto base. Check out the airbnb where I stayed here.
Travelling in Kyoto…
Kyoto is a great and easy place to travel around as a lot of places you can get to on foot! To get to the attractions on the outskirts of the city the best way to travel is by public bus… you can buy a 24 hr bus pass at the bus/train station for 500 JPY. A one-way journey on a Kyoto bus is 230 JPY, so if you’re making a few journeys in 1 day it works out a lot cheaper to buy a 24 hr pass. There are also 2 subway lines in Kyoto, we did not use these as the bus is a lot easier to just hop on and off of.
Eating in Kyoto…
Kyoto I thought was one of the best cities for food in Japan as there was a lot of choice… Gion and the Pontocho areas are great places to wander around in the evening and chose from one of the many restaurants for a delicious Japanese meal. I had the best Ramen, Gyozas and Takoyaki I have ever eaten in Kyoto so I highly rate the food places below I am about to suggest…
Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi, Pontocho – Go here for some incredible award winning gyozas… there is a reason this place is always rammed with a constant queue out the door. The food is quick, fairly cheap and delicious! They have an extensive menu of gyozas and the staff are super cool guys. We queued for about 30 minutes to get inside at is quite small with only a few tables and some seats around the bar area where you can sit and watch your food being cooked. I recommend the cheese gyozas, washed down with a lychee sour. They are open late until 2 am most nights, so it’s a great place to head to for a midnight snack!
Ramen Sen No Kaze, Shinkyogoku – Hands down the best Ramen I have ever eaten, we stumbled upon this place purely by accident when we were in the shopping district looking for some lunch, its slightly hidden off of the main tourist path, but clearly everyone knows about it by the amount of fantastic reviews it has on trip advisor, so we were just lucky to just walk in without there being a queue. The menu has a good amount of options and there also combo meals consisting of Ramen and Gyozas. The portions are huge so for the price you pay it is a very reasonable meal. I went for the Kyo No Shio Ramen combo with gyoza – absolutely incredible! I never thought Ramen would be a food that I crave, but I constantly find myself dreaming of another bowl of this creamy, porky, noodley goodness.
Sherry, Higashiyama – We mainly chose this restaurant as it very close to our Airbnb and we couldn’t be bother to walk very far one evening after an intense day of being mega tourists, but we were pleasantly surprised with our experience here. The restaurant offers Japanese food with an international twist, they are generally small plates a bit like tapas of various tempuras, chickens, rice dishes and salads. Very tasty, but maybe slightly over priced given the size of the dish. Overall a nice place to come for a drink and a small bite to eat.
Shopping in Kyoto…
The main shopping area in Kyoto is situated around the Shinkyogoku and Nishiki market area… so many cute little boutiques, lots of trainer shops and a lot of Matcha green tea outlets. Make sure you go in to the Nishiki market and ask for some tasters in the food and drink stores.
2.5 Days & 3 Nights in Kyoto: My Itinerary…
Yasaka Shrine – One of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, located in between the Gion and Higashiyama districts it’s a very nice place to visit in the evening to avoid the tourist crowd that is a permanent feature if you visit during the day, it’s also very pretty when the lanterns are lit at night. In cherry blossom season the Shrine is even more popular due to the Maruyama Park (one of the top cherry blossom spots) being so close by.
Gion – Home of the Geisha, Gion is one of the prettiest places to get lost in whilst you wander the streets full of traditional wooden houses. There are some lovely high end restaurants to go to located along the canal, we didn’t visit these as they were a bit over our budget, but if you were there on a special occasion or unlimited budget I’m sure they are worth the money.
Pontocho – Such a nice area to enjoy an evening meal, most restaurants have a seating area on the river side, so on a nice night it is a great place to have dinner. A lot of them did not have English menus which was a bit confusing and most of them are fairly expensive. It’s a nice place to have a look around, but we chose restaurants a bit further in from the river to have a cheaper meal.
Kinkakuji, Golden Pavilion – Probably my favourite temple we visited in Japan, a grand golden pavilion set on a beautiful pond in a garden of green, the golden pavilion was the retirement villa of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who died in the 1400s. This place is a great photo opportunity, so obviously there are a lot of tourists and on the day we went it was seriously hot. You do have to pay a small entrance fee to get in but it is well worth it, the temple is very impressive. You can get there by bus from the city centre which takes about 25 minutes from Gion, then it is just a few minutes’ walk from the bus stop. It was also here I ate my first matcha green tea ice cream to cool me down after our incredibly sweaty visit.
Ryoanji Temple – We didn’t actually plan a visit here, but we missed the bus we were going to get from the golden pavilion to Arashiyama so we ended up walking for 15 minutes to the next bus stop to pass some time and came across this temple which we had also seen labelled on our tourist map. The grounds of the temple are really beautiful and it is a peaceful place to take a walk, the temple itself, famous for its rock garden, in all honesty was a bit of a disappointment. The temple is a beautiful building, but the rock garden itself was not so impressive compared to what we had read online. If you don’t have time for this on your trip to Kyoto you aren’t really missing out!
Arashiyama – We managed to get a bus from outside the Ryoanji Temple that stopped close by to the Arashiyama district. On the way to the Bamboo Groves we found a great hole in the wall Takoyaki store which was super cheap and delicious, I can’t remember the name, but it was close to the JR Saga station, I know that is very vague, but try and scout it out if you can as the Takoyaki was very good!
I loved everything about Arashiyama, the setting is beautiful, surrounded by country side, rivers and hills. The main tourist attraction is the Bamboo Groves, which are amazing, at the end of the Bamboo Grove if you turn left you will find yourself in the Kameyama-Koen Park. We took a walk around and found a view point which overlooked the hills and Hozu-Gawa river, it was very peaceful as there were hardly any tourists, if you’re lucky you might even spot a rogue monkey lurking around. We then walked down the river and visited the Togetsukyo bridge before getting the bus back to Kyoto centre. There is also the option of renting a boat or kayak and taking to the water or visiting the Iwatayama monkey park, unfortunately we didn’t quite have time to fit these in as well.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – After a bus ride back to the centre and then another bus journey down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine we had about an hour left of daylight to complete the climb to the top of the trail. We underestimated how many vermilion torii gates there actually were and we also didn’t quite realise how far up the hill the trail went. We made it half way up to the Yotsutsuji intersection which took about 35 minutes, to a view point with a great view of the sunset over the city. Here we met some Japanese students who were keen to speak English with us and told us that the top was still another 45 minutes uphill hike and that actually the view from the point we were currently at was a lot better. So we decided we’d hiked enough for today and that it would get too dark by the time we got to the top so ended up just chilling at the mid-way point for a while before heading back down. It is a very impressive shrine and well worth a visit. Try to go a bit earlier so you can make it all the way up to the top before sunset. If you are there at sunset make sure you are covered in insect repellent as there is a lot of bugs waiting to eat you as their evening meal! From the station opposite the shrine you can get a JR line train back to Kyoto station which only takes 5 minutes and is covered by Japanese Rail Pass.
Nishiki market & Shinkyogoku – Nishiki market is full of typical Japanese food vendors so it’s a great place to visit so try out some local delicacies and buy some matcha green tea to take home. Being the chocolate lover that I am I couldn’t resist when I saw a sign that said tempura chocolate, which tasted like Nutella covered in batter, pretty yummy but don’t think I’d eat it again. Next door to the market you have Shinkyogoku shopping district, a number of covered streets lined with shops and restaurants, a great place for shopping and a good lunch spot.
Imperial Palace – We decided to take a walk after lunch up to the Imperial Palace, we had heard that it had recently opened to the public as previously tourists were only able to access by appointment in a tour group. Unfortunately, we had been misinformed and actually the palace grounds were opening to the public from the week after out visit on 26th July 2016, but even still we still had a nice walk around the surrounding park area.
Nanzenji Temple – Next stop was Nanzenji Temple, we got here about 20 minutes before it was due to shut for the day so we didn’t pay to enter the temples, we just walked around the grounds, at this time it was nice as there were hardly any other tourists. It is a beautiful temple and behind you will find the aqueduct which is also a cool structure to check out. In cherry blossom season it would also be nice to visit the philosophers path which is only a short walk away.
Higashiyama – After a full day of walking we were pretty exhausted by the time we got to Higashiyama. A beautiful area located at the base of the mountains, it’s a great place to experience old town traditional Kyoto. At the top of the hill there is the Yasaka Pegoda it was shut by the time we got there, but it is an amazing sight to go and see. There are also many shops in the surrounding area which allow you to rent a traditional Kimono for the day to give tourists a real Geisha experience.