Mysterious bamboo forests, elusive geishas, narrow alleyways and some of the best street food in the world, can all be found in on old capital city: Kyoto, Japan.
A city like no other, Kyoto is the perfect painting of a historical place in a modern setting. Most travellers arrive here via the Kyoto train station, a contemporary building with over 14 stories full of shops, eateries and art displays. You might even be forgiven thinking you have arrived at the wrong destination. But worry not, although well hidden, the old Kyoto will soon reveal itself to those who seek it.
- 1 Kyoto Main Attractions
- 2 Kyoto Best Food and Drink Options
Kyoto Main Attractions
Kyoto has long been nicknamed the city of 10,000 shrines. Although the number itself is highly exaggerated, Kyoto is indeed the perfect place for temple hopping, being home to over 1,600 spiritual sites. Allocate at least a couple of days exploring some of the most exquisite and picture perfect Japanese temples.
Start the day by visiting Nijō Castle, a 1603 wooden castle with fantastic gardens. Nijō Castle was the residence of the first Shogun of the Edo Period. The castle is now a UNESCO heritage site and a fantastic place for Sakura lovers. The admission is 600 yen.
Continue your journey towards Nishiki Market, also known as Kyoto’s kitchen. This market is full of food, restaurants and gift shops. Explore at your own pace and indulge yourself in all matcha sweets, rice cakes and mochi. There are many options for vegetarians and vegans, with glazed tofu on a stick being one of the most delicious Japanese snacks. For adventurous seafood lovers, get a tako tamago which is a small octopus with an egg in its head. For some extra energy, don’t forget to order your matcha latte.
Rengeoin Sanjusangendo is a Buddhist temple well known for its 1,001 life-sized statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. No photos are allowed inside this temple, but the interior is rather impressive, so well worth your time.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
As you get closer to Fushimi Inari, old Kyoto starts unfolding. Narrow alleyways and wooden houses create the oriental ambience you’ve been waiting for. Grab a bite from the street vendors around Fushimi Inari, and indulge in sweet snacks before your hike. Fushimi Inari is a Shinto Shrine which goes up the mountain. Have plenty of water with you and take it easy. You can take either of the paths towards the top, they both lead the same way. It’s a circular trail, and if you stick to the path, you won’t get lost. The trail is usually incredibly busy, so don’t get stuck at the beginning for those perfect pictures. Keep on going, as the further up you get, the fewer people will be around. The whole walk is up the hill till you reach the top of the mountain, then descends back down. The whole trail can take more than 2 hours, or even longer depending on how many times you wish to stop. Along the trail, you will encounter some vending machines and a couple of restaurants. That’s where most people tend to stop and go back. You can continue further up to enjoy a quiet trail through the thick forests. This is a peaceful walk, where you can find many fox statues along the way and smaller torii bought by tourists and dedicated to God Inari.
It’s time to head West, towards the Arashiyama bamboo forest. A short train ride will lead you straight into Arashiyama, a traditional Japanese settlement with beautiful wooden houses, a statement of Japan’s olden days. The Arashiyama bamboo forest is an iconic tourist attraction, which means it’s almost always busy. You do need a lot of patience to get those great photos of the forest, but if you decide to put the camera away and just admire your surroundings, you might just be able to find your inner peace. Look up, as the bamboo stalks gently rock back and forth, a beautiful dance to the sound of the wind.
Arashiyama is more than just a zen bamboo forest, but a place for temple exploration too. Amongst the best are the Jōjakkō-ji Temple, Hogonin, Seiryō-ji and Daikaku-ji.
Ryōan-ji & Kinkaku-ji
Ryōan-ji is a famed temple for its zen rock garden. Ryōan-ji has an amazing garden, absolutely fantastic for photography lovers.
Kinkaku-ji is dressed in gold-leaf, an iconic Kyoto temple with landscape gardens and reflecting pond.
This is one of the most famed Buddhist temples in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This temple has a balcony from which you can get wonderful views of the seasonal forests.
Make your way to the Yasaka Shrine, a famed Shinto shrine where some of the most Japanese festivals take place. Pass the vermilion torii, and head over to the Maruyama Park, a beautiful park with green spaces, trees and a reflective pond. This is a great sakura spot, as well as fantastic during autumn, for colourful leaves.
It is in this Park where you can explore several other temples. Chion-in is a Buddhist temple and home to the Jodo Shu Buddhism. Shoren-in Monzeki Temple is a historic shrine with a bamboo grove and a dedicated tea ceremony room where you can learn more about the art of Japanese tea making. There are several shrines and small temples in the Maruyama Park, as well as a couple of Japanese restaurants and cafes.
Kyoto Best Food and Drink Options
The Kyoto train station is not just a modern statement, but one of the best places in Kyoto for shopping and eating, being home to an inexpensive and good sushi conveyor belt eatery as well as fancy katsu restaurant. In recent years, the sushi restaurant called Musashi got a bit of traction, which means there is usually a half an hour queue outside. The wait is worth your while, as the sushi is inexpensive, delicious and satisfying. You will also find a huge variety of shellfish for the sushi, which is almost uncanny.
The Katsu restaurant is called Katsukura and although the prices are quite high, the experience and the food are beyond amazing. This is a strong recommendation whilst in Kyoto.
For authentic food, head over to Shijo Dori, the long street right in front of the Yasaka Shrine. This is a great place for foodie travellers, as the street itself is lined with restaurants and food shops. Furthermore, most vendors tend to offer free food samples, so what better place to explore some of the local delicacies than on this very avenue.
Walk around the neighbourhood and promenade along the Kamo River. When you are ready, cross the bridge and continue exploring Shijo Dori on the either side of the river. This area has an intricate network of small alleyways, full of restaurants and Japanese shops. You are guaranteed to find some amazing food places here.
Places to stay in Kyoto, Japan
For the brave adventurous souls out there, stay in a capsule hotel right in the heart of Kyoto. Alternatively, make sure you position yourself close to the train station for your ease, or in the Gion district.
- Sauna & Capsule Hotel Rumor Plaza
- Hotel Grand Bach Kyoto Select
- Book and Bed Tokyo-Kyoto
Getting Around Kyoto
Kyoto has a great infrastructure, which will make it easy for you to get around. The Kyoto Station is the main transportation hub, where you can take the Shinkansen to any other city. For travelling within Kyoto, you can take various local and rapid trains which will take you to your destination. There is a comprehensive subway network in Kyoto as well.
Simply get an IC Card (a rechargeable card to use for the subway and train system) and plan your journey. There are places, however, where I strongly recommend walking in order to really enjoy the city. Nevertheless, should you decide to take the subway or the train, note that they all run on time, are very clear and easy to use. Upon arrival, take a subway map available at the information office within the Kyoto Station.
Don’t miss out on Kyoto’s…
Gion… Stay around the Gion for an evening, and keep your camera close, as this is the best entertainment quarter in Kyoto and the perfect place to spot a Geisha. For a guaranteed experience, purchase tickets to a tea ceremony and a cultural experience where these dedicated Japanese entertainments perform oriental dances.
Although Kyoto can be explored in as little as three days, this city has centuries of history awaiting to be uncovered. As Japan is ever changing, Kyoto too is like a shape shifter only offering the illusion that one could ever get to know it. Kyoto not only will take you on a cultural journey but will plant the seed of curiosity, which will bring you back to Japan, time and again.
Japanese Things to Know
The Japanese are peculiar, but it is their peculiarity which makes the country so incredible. The Japanese are clean, follow precise rules and manners and expect everyone else to do the same. For example, you should always take your shoes off when required, learn the art of bowing and pay your respects when entering a temple.
Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese don’t speak much English and are quite shy as a nation. Nevertheless, they will try to communicate with you, but having a few Japanese words ready go a long way.
Kon’nichiwa – Hello
Sayōnara – Good bye
Arigatō – Thank you
Dōmo – Thank you (informal)
Arigatōgozaimashita (Thank you very much)
Ocha – Tea
Hai – Yes
Īe – No
Sumimasen – Excuse me
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Cory is half of the happy British couple behind You Could Travel, a website geared towards inspiring others through information packed articles that revolve around travel guides, recommendations, and tips. They specialise in soft adventure travel, off the beaten path destinations and culinary affairs. We strongly believe that a nomadic lifestyle is possible regardless of background, cultural beliefs or financial means and we motivate and encourage these experiences through storytelling and photographic essay. Follow her on their site You Could Travel to learn about her travels. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter here.