Japan’s Ancient Capital
Kyoto is over 1200 years old and for 1000 years was the capital of Japan. Today Kyoto is Japan’s cultural epicentre with many of the buildings and temples dating back several hundred years. Due to the cultural significance of the city, Kyoto was spared during air raids during World War II.
There are 14 world heritage sites, over 2000 Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples within the city. Any trip to Japan is not complete without a visit to the ancient capital to view the beautiful architecture, enjoy a traditional tea ceremony or catch a glimpse of the elegant Geisha.
The below listings are just a small selection of what is on offer in Kyoto…
How long should I spend in Kyoto?
That’s a hard question, there is so much to see and do in Kyoto and the surrounding areas (Nara, Osaka, Kobe, Himeji) that you could easily spend a week + there. However, be aware that temple fatigue is real and you might want to limit your time there and mix it up with some day trips to the surrounding areas to mix up your activities.
See a few different itineraries and ideas below to help you start your planning. Be sure to ask your consultant what they’d suggest for the time you’ve got and they can help you further plan.
Should I stay in Kyoto and Osaka or just one?
You can, however, they are only 30 minutes apart on the train. Therefore unless you have lots of time we suggest picking one and visiting the other on the train for a day trip (or a few). This means you can avoid having to pack up and move your luggage an extra time. How to pick where to stay you might ask? See below:
Staying in Kyoto: stay here if you’re after more of a cultural experience and don’t mind a quiet evening.
Staying in Osaka: stay here if you want to be in a modern city with lots of lively night time bar and restaurant options.
3 nights should be about right:
We suggest at least 3 nights, this will give you 2 full days and perhaps some half-days. A great start in the area and if you like it you’ll have to return on your next visit to explore further! See our ‘Suggested Itinerary’ tab for further information.
Got more time!? Great, spend 4, 5, 6, 7 nights and discover the whole of Kansai. It’s a fantastic area with a mix of ancient history and modern Japanese culture. For those with kids Osaka’s Universal Studios is a fun break from temple and shrine hopping.
Kyoto Station has a great multi-lingual information centre, visit there on arrival to get more information including maps and travel advice.
Day 1: Northern & Eastern Kyoto
Start your day in the north at Kinkaku-ji (the famous Golden Pavilion). From there take the bus to the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), whilst nowhere near as flashy as the Golden Pavilion there’s something serine and special about the Silver Pavilion and its immaculate gardens.
From the Silver Pavilion head south on the Philosopher’s Path, this is a beautiful winding path along a small river. If you’re here is spring you might be lucky enough to catch the cherry blossoms! There are a lot of artisan shops and cafes along here so would be a perfect place to stop for a coffee & cake break or lunch. There’s lots of small temple complexes along here so take your time and visit as many as you like! Some you might like to visit are: Honen-in & Nanzen-ji Temples.
Next jump in a taxi (or continue to walk if you have the energy) and head south to Gion and Kiyomizu-dera (water temple and this beautiful temple incorporates flowing water to imbue a sense of calm to those that visit). Depending on the time of year you’re there Kiyomizu-dera may have evening light ups. The street leading up to Kiyomizu-dera is a great place to do your souvenir shopping, and the views from the temple are spectacular over the city. Gion is a great place to be and wander at any time of day, a great place to shop and eat traditional Japanese food. Make sure to visit the historical Shirakawa Area. If you’re keen to see a Geisha or Maiko early evening is the best time as they head out for work.
Day 2: Southern & Western Kyoto
Start your day by getting the train to Fushimi Inari-Taisha in southern Kyoto, a beautiful mountainside Shinto Shine walk which is made up of hundreds of traditional red gates (torii). The full walk to the top is 4kms / about 2hr. If you don’t have enough time for the whole walk the lower areas are very beautiful.
Next get return to the station and head to Arashiyama in western Kyoto. Most well known for its bamboo grove Arashiyama is a large area filled with lots of temples and shrines. You could spend many hours wandering the main street souvenir shopping, having a meal, walking along the river, through the bamboo groves and around some of the temples and shrines. If you’re short for time make sure you visit Tenryu-ji Temple which connects to the bamboo grove. For those with more time head further north from there to discover some of the quieter areas.
Day 3: Central Kyoto
There’s lots of smaller temples and shrines within walking distance of the station including Nishi & Higashi Hongan-ji just north of the station. Just south of the station you have To-ji. If you head further north (you might like to use public transport or a taxi here) you will find Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace (bookings required here).
If you’re short on time you can combine your central Kyoto day with your northern & eastern Kyoto day.
Day 4: See our ‘Day Trips’ tab for some great nearby areas to visit including Nara, Osaka, Himeji & Kobe.
Kinkaku-ji – the Golden Pavilion
Daitoku ji – a temple complex, boasting several small, secluded sub-temples
Kinkaku-ji – the Silver pavilion, which is not actually silver, a beautiful temple which was modelled in the Golden Temple has lovely serene gardens
The Heian Jingu – a Shinto shrine celebrating the Imperial family (built in 1895)
Ryoan-ji – relax in the famous Zen Rock Garden
Kiyomizi-dera – water temple and this beautiful temple incorporates flowing water to imbue a sense of calm to those that visit
Nishi & Higashi Hongan-ji – two head temples of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Pure Land Buddhism, the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan
To-ji – near central Kyoto, its pagoda is the tallest wooden structure in Japan
Ni-jo Castle – built in 1603 this was the residence of the first Shogun of the Edo period
Kyoto Imperial Palace – home of the Emperors of Japan for many centuries
Funisimi Inarai-Taisha – the head shrine of the god Inari, with roughly a thousand red gates lining the hillside
Tenryu-ji – is a World Heritage Site and one of the most historic site in Kyoto
Ninna-ji – famous for a 17th century five-storey pagoda and dwarf cherry trees
Of course this is not an exhaustive list, however, these are some of our favourite and must visit places.
Osaka – See our Osaka page here for more information.
Nara – Nara is a must do day trip from Kyoto and is home to the largest wooden structure in the world; Todaiji. Todaiji Temple is surround by hundred of wild deer which stay on the temple grounds as they are fed snacks by tourists. If you have time make sure you wander around the rest of the temples near Todaiji, not many go into the forested area so you will have a very quiet and peaceful time there.
Nara is a 45min train from Kyoto.
Himeji & Kobe – combining these two make a great day trip from Kyoto
Himeji is Japan’s largest and finest castle, if you’re to visit any castle this is the one! This early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture covers 107 hectares and comprises eighty-two buildings.
We suggest starting at Himeji, if possible avoid weekends as it can get busy. Spend your morning / early afternoon discovering the castle and its grounds. It’s a very large complex so you could spend a few hours there.
After you’re finished at the castle head to Kobe. Kobe is a port city and especially beautiful in the evening by the water. For you foodies we suggest spending some time wandering the port and city before having dinner at a Kobe Beef restaurant. We recommend booking in advance as the best restaurants are often small and booked out in advance.
If you’re after a real Kobe Beef experience be aware that not all beef bred in Kobe is classified as Kobe Beef due to its strict regulations. We suggest asking your hotel to suggest and book a restaurant for you in advance so you can have a good experience. Within the scale of Kobe beef there are 5 grade / 12 different levels which indicate the amount of marbling within the beef. Be aware the very fatty meat is very rich so you might want to try a few different grades. Most Kobe beef restaurants will set you back ¥15,000+ per person, but is well worth it whilst in Kobe! The meal is often multiple courses with lots of small Japanese dishes, cooked on a hotplate in front of you.
Kyoto – Himeji 45mins (bullet train)
Himeji – Kobe 35mins (rapid train – you can take the bullet train, however, Shin-Kobe Bullet Train station is not in central Kobe)
Kobe – Kyoto 1hr (rapid trains via Osaka)
See www.hyperdia.com for train timetables and best routes.
There are two main areas we recommend staying in Kyoto depending on your preference:
- Kyoto Station Area
Kyoto station is the most convenient place to stay. There are lots of nice western hotels near the station. This makes getting to/from the station and your hotel very easy on foot, Granvia Hotel is actually located in the station building itself!As Kyoto is so big you will spend a lot of time on buses and trains so staying near the station will provide a great central location for you to access all attractions easily.
If you’re visiting Kyoto for a traditional Japanese experience then Gion is the place to stay! About 15 minutes (3.5kms) north east of the station via taxi this is Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district. Staying here will allow you to stay in a traditional Ryokan (guesthouse) and hopefully you’ll see some Geisha or Maiko (apprentice Geisha) wandering the streets.Gion is in Eastern Kyoto where a lot of Kyotos famous temples and shrines are so you’ll be able to access a lot on foot from your base here.
- Kaiseki Ryori – degustation style haute cuisine, most commonly served in Kyoto’s Geisha District – Gion.
- Tofu, Soba & Sake
Kyoto is known for its fresh water, all of the above require water for their production, making those made in Kyoto superior.
- Herring Soba – Herring cooked in sweet soy sauce is particularly popular in Kyoto
- Vegetarian food (Shojin Ryori – Buddhist devotional cusine) – good news for you vegetarians, as you may have found it’s quite hard to find vegetarian food in Japan. Well here in Kyoto there are many vegetarian dishes – commonly called Obanzai (lots of little dishes like tapas). The quality of vegetables from Kyoto is very high so you’ll enjoy these meals. If you’re a strict vegetarian be aware some of these vegetable dishes are cooked with dashi (fish stock).
- Mackerel Sushi – often salted to preserve as it was traditionally brought from the north this is quite different to most sushi you’ll have had before. It was often eaten on special occasions.
- Green tea sweets – green tea (matcha) was first brought to Kyoto from China (early 9th century) so you’ll find lots of matcha flavoured sweets here including ice cream, shaved ice, cookies, jellies and even green tea noodles!
- Hot senbei (rick crackers) – you’ll find these in many of the shops around the temples and shrines. They’re freshly grilled with lots of different sweet and savoury flavours, a delicious snack!
If you’re coming from Hokkaido, flight is the quickest. If you’re starting or finishing in Kyoto then we suggest flying into/out of Kansai if possible.
- Kansai International Airport (KIX) is just 70 minutes via direct train service from Kyoto: JR Haruka Limited Express.
- Itami (ITM) Airport is in Osaka but has many direct flights from Hokkaido and is your best option if flying from there. From Itami it is about 1hr to Kyoto via bus.
Train and/or Shinkansen
If you’re in Honshu the easiest way to/from get to Kyoto is by train and/or Shinkansen
- From Osaka 30mins (local line or local line & bullet train)
- From Hiroshima 1hr 40mins
- From Tokyo about 2 1/4hrs
- From Nagano 4hrs + (can go via Kanazawa or Tokyo)
See www.hyperdia.com for train timetables and best routes.