A visit to serene, preserved Kyoto is an obvious followup—and a perfect complement—to your futuristic, often overstimulating stay in Tokyo. Whereas the big city demands you keep pace and build up up up, Kyoto wants you to slow down, stay grounded, and savor it all. (Though Kyoto is itself a big city, at 1.5 million, though much smaller than Tokyo’s 9.5)
It’s a much more straightforward visit than one to Tokyo, too. The main attractions and engagements remain, since they’re anchored in Buddhist tradition or geisha customs. Instead of bright lights, you have 1,300-year-old shrines and 800-year-old Zen temples.
While four days in Kyoto might be more than you need to encapsulate things (as opposed to the months you could spend in Tokyo), I do think that four days is a good time to be based in Kyoto, with an easy day trip to Osaka on the itinerary, as well as a night or two at a retreat. Or, immerse yourself in interactive experiences à la the trip-planning services below.
Read on for a guide on how to spend your days in Kyoto.
Quick note: You can’t use Google Maps’ Offline Mode in Japan. So either get a Japanese SIM card, or designate someone with the best international plan as your navigator for the weekend.
The Best Kyoto Trip-Planning Services to Book
There are two approaches you can take when planning your trip. The first is to prioritize access, and the second is to prioritize efficiency.
For Access: InsideJapan Tours
For guided activities and unparalleled immersion, use InsideJapan Tours. They give you day, weekend, and/or week-long itineraries when you book their trips. It’s all tailored to your tastes. In Kyoto, we got to visit with geishas and spend an evening with a trainee, called a maiko. Our tour guide was an expat who has lived in Kyoto for two decades, and is networked and intertwined with the entire geisha community (having married a geisha!). He was able to explain the education and training process, clear up all the misconceptions we have on the culture (they’re entertainers, and there is nothing romantic about their profession), and he introduced us to numerous geishas throughout the evening. One was in her 80s, and she greeted us and made some light banter as she passed.
The maiko gave us a traditional tea ceremony, poured sake for drinking games, and even went on a fun tangent about her obsession with the band Queen—which led to a four-person cross-cultural reenactment of “We Will Rock You”. I don’t think I could have had an experience anywhere close to this by booking anything on TripAdvisor, particularly since the preciousness of the geisha culture is so closely monitored and preserved. While that’s just one of InsideJapan Tours’ offerings, it’s a good example of the access they offer across the board, be it cooking classes, private tours, or watching a sumo wrestling practice (which we got to do in Tokyo too, as the recent Yokozuna coached his fellow wrestlers).
For Ease and Efficiency: Noken
For an expandable self-guided itinerary (and to save hours planning), book with Noken. It’s a travel service that curates your entire itinerary, from hotel to activity to transportation. They learn how many days you’re spending in each city, as well as your budget, and they charge nothing off the top of any reservations. Despite this precise customization, your itinerary is entirely free. The only fee to Noken is $5 per day, per person. (They know your headcount since they book everything accordingly.)
This includes in-app customer support for any hurdles you might encounter along the way. (Imagine if you only paid a travel planner $90 for two people for one week of travel, including customer support.) Because Google Maps doesn’t work offline in Japan, either, Noken is perfect because it works like a travel guide, to direct you to the best restaurants, bars, museums, and shops. As for sightseeing, it offers history and context every step of the way, too. Their regional experts continually refresh the picks, so their recommendations are always up to date. In fact, we followed their suggestions for our own itinerary, so as to make our days in Kyoto efficient; it’s a sprawling city that often requires transport by car if you want to be economical. They gave us the right framework to do that, and the service more than paid for itself by saving us added cab fees. Noken is available for travel to Japan, Portugal, Iceland, Italy, Ireland, and Australia. They’re soon expanding their offering to include Spain, France, Thailand, Peru, and more.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Hotel Kanra: Kanra is a ryokan-inspired boutique hotel. Its rooms are built in the Kyoto-classic Machiya style, with tatami floor mats and cypress soaking tubs. Each room has a front “garden” where you can remove your shoes and feel the stressors of the world melt away as you cozy into your space. You can satisfy any hankerings, too, since they’ve got Eastern and Western dining options on site (pizza, anyone?)—and their central location is within walking distance to practically everything. Case in point, it’s a short walk to the main train station; since you’re likely arriving by rail, why not save yourself the hassle and stay here?
Like all HOSHINOYA properties, Kyoto’s adapts to its surroundings. Its design recalls ryokan inns of the past, with tatami rugs (and couches), kyo-karakami paper lamps, riverfront views, plus quiet flower-and-water gardens, all exemplary of a pass through Kyoto. And like all HOSHINOYA properties, this one is also a retreat, requiring a quiet 15-minute boat ride down the Katsura River. You’ll be tucked into the verdant, colorful, and fragrant woods of Arashiyama—near the bamboo forests and just downhill from the monkey park. (Don’t worry, you won’t get any curious, unwanted visitors on this retreat—humans nor monkeys.) Dine at the Japanese kaiseki cuisine kitchen (see “What to Eat” below to learn more about kaiseki). It’s overseen by French-trained chef Ichiro Kubota, who fuses the two styles together for a colorful, flavorful, and extravagant feast. The immersion is an all-day affair, and you’ll want to stay onsite to experience it all: Reserve time in the Zen temple, learn how to make tea and incense, sip Japanese whiskey (with 10 brands stocked up), or unwind with a book in the Library Lounge (it overlooks the Water Garden). Sure, at some point you have to go out and see the sites, but you’ll want to spend some time relaxing. In the very least, book one full day here to savor and slow down your vacation, and book your more tour-dense days at a traditional hotel.
What to Do in Kyoto
There are loads of temples and shrines, but here are the main attractions. Star them on your map along with everything else, and you’ll be able to see them each efficiently. (Consult with an expert service provider, like the two mentioned above, to color in the days’ immersive experiences.)
The Main Temples to See
Kinkaku-ji:The famed gilded temple, isolated on the water and seen from afar. This one is your postcard from Kyoto (or your most-liked Instagram, aside from the Fushimi Inari shrine).
Kiyomizu-dera: A 1,300-year old temple whose name means “Pure Water Temple”, this one is built adjacent to a trickling waterfall; its stream is broken into three steady pours, and you can drink from them for a trio of benefits: longevity in life, academic success, and a prosperous love life. You can also walk out onto its wooden balcony, a couple stories above the ground, as well as above the cherry and maple tree tops.
Higashi Honganji: Its largest hall is Kyoto’s largest wooden structure; the massive grounds of this temple feels like true-blue imperial times.
Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji: One of the most colorful grounds in the fall, and photogenic year round thanks to a rock garden, pond, and grove-like privacy. Be sure to climb uphill to see the Tahoto Pagoda.
Tenryū-ji: A 12th-century Zen temple hidden by foliage in Arashiyama. It has been rebuilt numerous times due to fires. The lush garden remains in its original state, however.
Ryōan-ji: The”temple of the dragon at peace”, Ryōan-ji has Kyoto’s most famous masterpiece of a rock garden, and a large pond to boot.
Nanzen-ji: A 13th-century Zen temple at the base of the east-side mountains, and with a curious 19th-century brick aqueduct.
Ginkaku-ji:The “Silver Pavilion” counter to the Kinkaku-ji’s gold, located in the mountains to the east of the city. Also known for its rock and moss gardens.
The Main Shrines to See
Fushimi Inari Taisha: You’ve seen this in a million Instagrams—but not the shrine itself. The main attraction here is the hillside hike enclosed by the thousands of orange-painted Torii gates, leading some 200 meters up. Keep climbing to get away from the foot traffic, though there’s no expansive view at the end—the journey is the climb! It’s awesome.
Heian Shrine: Just over 100 years old, this imperialistic icon was built to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto’s establishment as the (no-longer) capital of Japan. The grounds are modeled after the Heian-era Imperial Palace grounds. (Kyoto used to be named Heian.)
Yasaka Shrine: Find this in the heart of Gion, and come at night to see its lanterns lit and bobbing amongst one another. The square in which it sits is often used for festivals and gatherings.
Kitano Tenmangū: A shrine erected for Sugawara Michizane, a scholar and politician, often visited by students at times of exams and applications. Its 2,000-tree grove blooms brightest in February and March.
More Popular Attractions
Bamboo Forest: Try to arrive early, around sunrise, to avoid obnoxious crowds—and to get that beautiful, body-less shot of the towering bamboo. The actual stretch you see in photos is fairly short, so don’t plan an afternoon hike around this one—for both its shortness and the throngs of people.
Gion geisha district: The lamp-lined, teahouse district is home to geishas and their trainees, the maiko. It’s packed with tourists (many of which incorrectly think it’s posh to dress up as geishas), but it’s still a great late-night stroll thanks to this bustle. You’ll see a few geishas meandering, too.
Higashiyama: Kyoto’s best-preserved historic district is characterized by narrow streets, cozy cafes, and traditional merchants—perfect for an authentic souvenir if you stray off the main roads.
Monkey Park Iwatayama: Pay your entry, hike uphill, and get ready for an hour of chuckling. These monkeys aren’t shy, though they also won’t bother you unless you’re interested in feeding them. (You’ve got to go into the grate-protected house to do it, shoving little bananas and nuts through the grates as they happily beg for a bite.) You can stroll out in the open with them, too; just mind the rules outlined by local staff to avoid any fiascos.
Arashiyama: Take a pleasure boat down the river after you visit the bamboo forest and monkey park, or bike around the sidestreets once occupied by nobles.
Nishiki Market: This market is over 700 years old, and is nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, boasting five blocks of fresh fish, sweet treats, savory skewers, and souvenirs.
Imperial Palace: This was the long-time residence of Japan’s royal family, until the mid-19th century. It’s located on 900,000-square-meter grounds that locals flock to for recreational use.
Philosopher’s Walk: Take a stroll after visiting the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) along this picturesque canal lined with cherry trees. It’s named after philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who used to walk this 2km route on his commute.
Nijō Castle: The castle’s a relic of Japan’s feudal days, and the residence of the shogun during their final 2.5 centuries in power. (Roughly 1603-1867)
Kyoto Tower: A modern marvel amongst ancient structures, head to Kyoto Tower’s viewing deck. It juts 100 meters in the air for a panoramic view of an otherwise grounded city—unlike Tokyo.
Kyoto Handicraft Center: Browse the numerous shops for locally made origami, ironware, lacquerware, pottery, paper, and souvenirs—from marvelous to kitsch.
What to Eat in Kyoto
Kyoto is highly regarded for its food, but not for most of the ones we associate with Japan, like sushi, udon, and ramen. Here are three local specialties.
- Kaiseki ryori: This multi-course meal born of aristocrats features appetizers, seasonal mains (soup, sashimi, boiled, fried, grilled dishes, etc.), and shokuji to end (rice, pickles, and miso), plus a sweet, seasonal fruit or sorbet for dessert. Try Ishibekoji Kamikura and Gion Owatari.
- Shojin ryori: This came from a less lavish community—the monks. It’s less of a feast and centered around main dishes that incorporate vegetarian ingredients, primarily tofu. Try Shigetsu at Tenryu-ji Temple and Biotei.
- Obanzai ryori: It’s a homemade take on the multi-course menu with simpler (but flavorful) dishes of equal filling. Try Pontocho Ichihana and Nakashimaya
The Perfect Day Trip From Kyoto: Osaka
Japan’s third-largest city (after Tokyo and Yokohama), Osaka, offers something different than the rest. For one, its people are notoriously relaxed and convivial—a stark contrast to the quiet Tokyo subway and hushed side streets of Kyoto. It’s just an hour’s train from Kyoto center, and is a commercial powerhouse—with Universal Studios, the bright and boisterous Dōtonbori entertainment district, the Tenma shopping arcade, and many high-end department stores. (Point yourself to Hankyu-Men’s for all tailoring, grooming, accessories, and handmade leather goods.) A few other landmarks for your visit: Osaka Castle Park, Osaka Aquarium, and Nipponbashi anime and manga shops.
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