In 2018 I was fortunate enough to visit Japan twice and, on the first trip, we spent three nights in Kyoto. This old city was once the capital of Japan and is well known for its traditional temples, tea houses and geisha. For these reasons, Kyoto can feel like a journey back in time to the Edo period and is therefore a must see for anyone visiting Japan. The juxtaposition of Kyoto against cities such as Tokyo or Osaka is fascinating and there really is something for everyone here.
Kyoto is soaked in culture and history, and you can see glimpses into ‘old’ Japan everywhere you go in this beautiful city. Of its 1600+ temples, Kyoto boasts several of Japan’s most famous religious sites (including Kiyomizu-dera, Tofuku-ji Temple, Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kinkaku-ji Temple and the nearby Fushimi Inari Shrine). Temple hopping is a must here, and thankfully there are hundreds of guided tours available to help you. We booked a walking tour which lasted the whole day – around 9am to 6pm – including an hour’s rest for lunch. After we exchanged messages with our tour guide, Shun, about where we wanted to go, he met us outside our hotel and the next 8 hours were fantastically informative and enjoyable. Other ideas for activities include a Samurai experience, a day trip to Nara and visiting the Arashiyama bamboo grove and surrounding area. There’s so much to do in this city, you could easily fill 3 days.
On our second day we visited Kinkaku-ji Temple (pictured above) and participated in a tea ceremony with a local tea master. We were able to wear traditional Japanese kimono and learned about the historical significance of the tea ceremony. This was a really relaxed afternoon after walking around Kinkaku-ji Temple in the sun and I would definitely recommend trying the ceremony for yourself, particularly if you’re a lover of matcha tea!
In Kyoto there is an abundance of restaurants and cafes to visit for food – over 200 ramen shops alone! Kyoto’s regional ramen consists of a shoyu (soy sauce) based, heavy broth with thick noodles and, in some cases, pork oil is used to dress the ramen to thicken it up. This blog post from Travel Caffeine is super helpful for ramen hotspots in Kyoto – be sure to check at least one of them out! We found many restaurants offer set meals too – check the prices though. It shouldn’t be more than around 1000 yen per person per meal. On day one we visited a restaurant in Ponto-chō on the side of the Kamo River which (I didn’t know) specialised in fish. The portions were minuscule and I couldn’t eat anything because I hate fish. I was left super hungry and 4,500 yen (£30+) worse off!
One of the most magical draws to this city are the geisha. Kyoto is one of the few places in Japan where these beautiful, mysterious women can be seen, but you have to be lucky to spot a real geisha nowadays. If you see a woman in a brightly coloured kimono without the traditional makeup or shoes, it’s unlikely that she’s a true geisha and is likely instead a tourist dressed up for photos. Maiko and geiko hurry about the streets of Gion each evening, going from teahouse to teahouse, entertaining guests and spending time with clients. It’s important to remember that geisha are not, and never have been, prostitutes, contrary to popular beliefs about them. They have trained for years perfecting traditional Japanese arts to entertain a party, often starting in early childhood. Unfortunately while we were in Kyoto, a number of tourists would chase and even grab these women while they walked around Kyoto. This had made the town somewhat unsafe for geisha, who nowadays tend to favour private transport to get to their destinations without being bothered by tourists. The best time to see geisha is at dusk or shortly after midnight around the Gion and Ponto-chō areas. If you see one, be sure to keep your distance and treat them with respect. If you’d like to see one up close and take photos, consider a Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening!
We were extremely fortunate on our last night in Kyoto to be sat on the step of our hotel waiting for our laundry to dry when a maiko and geiko fully clad in their beautiful kimono and makeup walked right by with a client and wished us a good evening. It was a truly awesome experience seeing them so close and is something I will never forget. Inside Kyoto has a fantastic geisha guide on their website here – be sure to check it out!
My recommendations for top sites in Kyoto are probably the same as everyone else’s, but we only had two days and so had to limit our exploration of this amazing area to the key ‘tourist’ areas:
- Kinkaku-ji Temple
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
- Gion area at dusk or after midnight to see geisha
- Rent a row boat on the Katsura River (the monkey park is nearby also)
- Nara – we actually spent a night there between Kyoto and Osaka and stayed in the Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring hotel which was really cheap but was amazing. I can highly recommend it, and it’s next to the JR train station
- Fushimi Inari shrine – recommend going very early in the morning or late afternoon due to the heavy crowds. It’s quite a climb to the top, so definitely avoid visiting midday during the summer months!
If you’re considering a stay in Kyoto, be sure to plan ahead as there’s so much to cram in. I would recommend 2-3 full days of intense sightseeing, or 4-5 days with a more relaxed approach. We stayed in the Hana-Touro Stay Kyoto Residence in the centre of the Gion district which was awesome. The hotel overlooked the Kamo River and was one of the cheapest available. It was small but extremely clean and well equipped with our own kitchenette and an en-suite bathroom. It also benefits from a roof terrace on which we once or twice ate a Family Mart dinner looking over the city at dusk – it was a beautiful location.
I hope this post helps you decide what to do during your time in Kyoto. If you have any questions about Kyoto or our time there, please let me know!