At one time, Kyoto was in fact the capital city of Japan, and is now known for its beautiful old streets, shrines and temples.
On our recent trip to Japan, after our stay in Tokyo and then Hakone, we made our way down the coastline on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto to stay for three nights – two full days. There is SO much to do and see in Kyoto, but I think we had the perfect amount of time there to see all of the highlights – there is such a thing as ‘out-temple-ing’ yourself in Japan!
Where to Stay in Kyoto
The best way to experience Kyoto is to stay in a traditional self catered townhouse – called a ‘machiya’ – where you can truly live like a local in a timber frame, tatami-mat-floored dwelling. This is what we did and it made our stay feel really authentic, with our Japanese style dining room and futon bed.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
This shinto shrine has been made particularly famous due to its huge amount of orange ‘tori’ gates. There are over 10,000 here in total, all donated by companies or individuals, with each one displaying the names and dates of the when it was donated on the back. The shrine is also full of fox statues too; seen as a lucky messenger that keeps rats away from good rice harvests.
Just across the street is Tofukuji Temple, one of Kyoto’s oldest zen buddhist temples, known for its maple leaves in autumn. We visited in February, so didn’t quite get to see it in its colourful glory, but we did head inside to see around the zen garden instead.
Lunch: Cheap Sushi at Kyoto Station
You’ll find a lot of recommended restaurants in Kyoto are in ‘Kyoto Station’, which may seem odd, but Kyoto Station definitely isn’t like your normal train station! It’s a huge complex made up of several shopping malls, overground and underground stations, and LOTS of amazing places to eat.
And if you’re looking for sushi – you’re in luck! Sushi no Musashi is based in Kyoto Station and not only has some of the best quality sushi in Kyoto, the prices are some of the best in Japan. Highly recommend a visit (we went twice during our stay!).
This buddhist temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site at the top of a hill (it’s walkable, don’t worry) in East Kyoto. The temple structures themselves are stunning, but the views across the city and back into the forest are breathtaking, and worth a bit of a hill climb!
Tea ceremony experience
Whilst in Japan, I made my way through the book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, which is hugely famous and gives a lot of insight into Japan’s (and specifically Kyoto’s) Geisha culture, including the art of ‘tea ceremony’ which is most often performed by a Geisha or apprentice Geisha. It’s almost like a kind of dance or ritual, and takes years and years to train for.
If you are at all interested in Geisha culture, you can book a ‘tea ceremony experience’ at a tea house (we went to En Tea House) where they will show you a typical tea ceremony and then talk you through a bit of history about it too.
Sadly you’re not usually allowed to take pictures or videos of the tea ceremony itself, which is why I’d recommend booking one as it’s very hard to explain and appreciate it as an art without seeing it!
Geisha Spotting in Gion
Gion is well known as the ‘Geisha district’ of Kyoto, with beautiful traditional cobbled streets lined with bars, restaurants and traditional teahouses where the Geisha and apprentice Geisha will be entertaining clients for the evening.
We had a private guide take us around the area for 90 minutes or so in the evening, which was fascinating and we got to ask all the burning questions we had about this secretive side of Japanese culture. We did see a few Geisha walking around too, but it is prohibited to take photos on many of the streets here to protect their privacy.
Yakitori is basically skewered chicken, often marinated in delicious sauces and grilled over a charcoal fire. You can buy it from plenty of streetfood places, or find a restaurant for a more upmarket variation. It’s a must-try in Japan!
Based in the Arashiyama district, the ‘Bamboo Forest’ is one of Kyoto’s iconic landmarks. The grove of incredible bamboo is very beautiful to walk through, and it really is incredible how thick and tall they grow – but I’d recommend getting there early in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds.
As you walk through the Bamboo Forest, you’ll find the entrance to Tenryuji Temple, another zen temple with beautiful landscaped gardens that are extremely peaceful to walk through. Definitely recommended if you want to escape the bustle of the bamboo grove for a moment.
Walk or cycle along Katsura River
The Katsura river runs along from behind the edge of the Bamboo Grove and carries on through the city. It’s very beautiful to walk along, but if you’ve got a little more time you could also hire bikes to ride along beside the water and explore more of the city.
Katsu is one of my favourite Japanese dishes, and you’re really spoilt for choice of places that serve delicious katsu dishes wherever you go – including Kyoto! In the UK it’s funny, because we often associate ‘katsu’ with ‘katsu curry’, but actually the two are totally separate. The curry sauce that you get with ‘katsu curry’ in the UK is just called ‘curry’ in Japan, and ‘katsu’ actually refers to the meat or fish that has been fried in the panko breadcrumb batter and has nothing to do with a curry sauce…
Near to the Bamboo Grove in the Arashiyama, you can easily stumble across the ‘kimono’ forest without realising. There are around 600 of these pillars located in along an old tram station/food court, and all have cuttings of beautiful kimono designs from a local textile manufacturer.
Nijo Castle or Kyoto Imperial Palace
These castles have closing times at around 4pm, so don’t do what we did and miss out on looking around the inside of them! However, the outsides are very beautiful to walk around too.
Nishiki market is a huge indoor shopping street that goes on for blocks, and eventually connects to the downtown shopping (high street) district of Kyoto. It’s fascinating to have a look around at all the different Japanese wares and food stalls, and it’s a great place to buy gifts and souvenirs too!
You’ve got to try ramen at least a couple of times if you’re visiting Japan, and we chose to go to the popular Ippudo Nishiki-Koji restaurant to get our fix. This particular bowl was their spicy special ramen, which had a spice scale from 1 to 5 that you could choose from. I love spice, but my sensible self chose ‘2’ on the scale and thank GOD I didn’t go higher… let’s just say I have no idea how you’d survive the ‘5th’ option, with a total of 10 chilli spices compared to just 2 in mine!
Is Kyoto on your bucket list yet?