Kyoto is one of the major historic cities of Japan. Our trip to Japan would not have been complete without a visit to this amazing city. Due to the short amount of time we have when visiting a country as we balance travel with full-time careers, we always need to maximize our time when visiting cities. We are going to provide some insight on how to make the most of your Kyoto itinerary during your next visit to Japan.
If your flight does not arrive in Kyoto, the next best way to get to Kyoto is by train. Our international flight arrived in Osaka and we boarded a bullet train to Kyoto within an hour of landing. The trains are efficient and easy to understand. We found the ticket agents at the train station, which is connected to the airport, to be helpful and easy to understand. To make things even easier, Google maps recognizes the train system during their navigation. They easily tell you the most efficient routes and timing options. While we normally don’t travel by train, it was clean, efficient and budget friendly. Book the train!
WHERE TO STAY
If you’ve followed us and know our travel style, we always choose 4 and 5-star hotels. Travel for us is a real treat when we get to break away from the office and luxury accommodations are worth every penny to us! When traveling to multiple cities during a trip, we progressively increase the quality of hotel at each destination. It leaves us from feeling underwhelmed as we move through the week and keeps us anticipating the next property!
We chose to stay at the Rhiga Royal Hotel in Kyoto. The room was spacious with a separate seating area and bedroom. The bathroom was spacious, although it only had 1 sink. Seriously, we dock points from luxury hotels that don’t have double sinks! A highlight of the room was a cute vanity area with mirror and lighting for Amanda. The location was good for our needs as it was within walking distance to the train station. If we return, we will choose a property that is closer to the main attractions as our taxi fees were a bit much. It was a solid 4-star property and we recommend.
Our absolute favorite feature was the expansive breakfast buffet that was included. There was a wide selection of both traditional breakfast items and western options. The options felt endless and unique. We began each morning with a matcha green tea espresso. We loved it so much, we now make them at home!
THINGS TO DO
We had just about 4 days in Kyoto which made us have a very compact itinerary. We found that many of the sites closed around 5 pm, therefore, it is important to start your day early. We’ll bucket the activities into areas to help maximize your time.
Head over to Sannenzaka Ninenzaka. The bad news, the streets are crowded. The good news is the shops are filled with worthwhile trinkets and several snacks. Make your way through the crowds to get to the most popular temples in Kyoto. First stop will be Niōmon as you enter the gates of the temple turn around to take in the amazing views of Kyoto below.
As you continue through the grounds you will pass by the Sanjunoto. The vibrant orange color is stunning and learning the significance of the buildings helps you appreciate the history. We highly recommend a tour with Context Travel. They offer small group and private tours. We took one on the history of Buddhism as we toured the temples.
Finally, we made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, the pure water temple, one of the most celebrated in Japan. There is a small fee to visit the property.
One of our favorite sunsets during our trip to Japan was during our walk back from the temple to the hotel. Simply stunning!
Get ready for a full day. From Rhiga Royal, take the train to Saga Arashiyama stop. After a 10-minute walk from the station, you will arrive at the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. We were surprised with how vast the forest actually was. We only reserved about an hour to explore but if you have more time you can easily spend the entire morning.
After wandering through the forest and indulging in several photo ops, make your way to Tenryū-Ji temple which is just steps from the main area of the forest.
The temple grounds are vast and full of gardens, if you are lucky enough to be there in spring or fall don’t miss a visit here. The gardens must be filled with color.
Upon exiting the temple, head down the street to the Arashiyama Station for the Komono Forest, which is a colorful art installment of textile dyed in the Kyo-yuzen style and formed into acrylic columns. It is especially colorful at night as the columns illuminate.
Keep heading down the street and pass shops and eateries until you come upon the river. Here you can get a 30-minute Hozugawa River Cruise. It’s a sightseeing boat ride in a traditional style, flat-bottomed boat guided by boatmen using bamboo poles.
It’s a fun way to take in the surroundings by water and rest your legs from the morning sightseeing! After the boat ride, make your way back to the train to Shijo Station where you will go to Nishiki Market.
The market is full of hustle and bustle and vendors sell traditional market foods and a variety of street foods. We indulged in fish eggs, sesame ice cream, glazed matcha balls and traditional pancakes!
Take a leisurely stroll back to the hotel as you take in the surrounding sites and prepare for dinner.
Wake up early and head to Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It’s not near a train line so even if you take the train you will need to get a cab. We took a cab here from our hotel as we wanted to be there promptly before opening at 9:00 AM. We found that there were a couple other bus groups that arrived as well. Since we were just a party of two, we were able to efficiently make it through the ticket counter. The crown jewel of this attraction in the Zen temple that is completely covered in gold on the top 2 floors.
The area is crowded as people circle the temple to take photos. Just as we said in other areas we visited, we can only imagine the beauty if you were to visit in spring or fall with the resulting colors! Entry to the temple was not an option so we just viewed it from the distance. There are several other areas onsight to explore including gardens, a tea house, and other shrines.
After leaving the temple, we had a 20-minute walk to Ryoanji Temple. We enjoy walking as it gives us an opportunity to see other streets and shops outside the touristy ones. This temple is home to Japan’s most famous rock garden!
The origin and meaning of the of the rock garden is unclear which is a large part of the attraction to visitors.
Following the rock garden view, there are several paths to weave around the garden and lakes on the property. Overall we spent about 1 hour here. It was early in the afternoon and time to head to meet our Context Travel guide for more tours of the temples and learn about Shinto and Buddhism. First up was the Yasak Shrine.
This shrine is located between Gion and Higashiyama districts which have many options for shopping and dining. It’s a great area to spend some time and explore by foot. The area is always open so it’s great to visit when other attractions are closed.
From here, take about a 15-minute walk to the Zen Buddhist Temple of Kennin-ji. It is the oldest Zen temples in Kyoto and has many famous art pieces including the Twin Dragon Ceiling of Hondō Hall.
In addition to this building, there are many other buildings to tour and gardens to explore on the grounds. You may even see a monk in training. Next up, walk about 10 minutes to the Gion district which is the famous Geisha District. Keep your eyes open, amongst the tourist dressed in traditional Geisha outfits, you just might spot an actual Geisha!
Spend the remaining evening walking through the districts and small alleys. It is a very safe area and google maps are quite strong at guiding you along the streets.
This is likely a travel day. For us, we had an early afternoon train departure en-route to Tokyo. The last activity for us in Kyoto was Fushimi Inari-taisha, the famous Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto. It is easily accessible by train to the JR Inari Station. The site is famous for the 1,000’s of vermilion torii gates that wrap around trials up the mountain.
We had allocated a little over 2 hours for this visit as we had read you can walk the trails in 2-3 hours. Figuring we were in decent shape, we thought we could move at a faster than average pace, WRONG! By the time you factor in the viewing of the shrines at the base, stopping to take photos and a leisurely pace, we would push that estimate to 3-4 hours. Don’t make our mistake, dedicate the time to walking through all of the paths.
Overall there was plenty to keep us busy for 2 full days and 2 half days in Kyoto. We felt just slightly rushed and would have easily been able to extend this to 5 full days.
WHERE TO EAT
Michelin Star Restaurants
Don’t miss out on the ridiculous amount of Michelin star restaurants in Kyoto. Start planning early as these places are very difficult to get a reservation even when preparing months in advance. Michelin restaurants don’t accept reservations from people outside of Japan. All visitors must work with their hotel to book reservations. This is another reason for a degree of difficulty. Communication is done through multiple emails. Most surprising was after confirming your date and time, we needed to choose the menu which is typically: good, better and best. Prices are told to you to help you choose. You won’t know exactly what you are eating until you arrive because it depends on the chef’s feelings and also the fresh ingredients on that day. Trust the process. In the end, you won’t be disappointed.
Kyoto is known for their rich tradition in the Kaiseki style meal. This is similar to a multi-course meal in the USA, but Kaiseki is different because of the attention to details. Each dish is meticulously prepared, thought about from start to finish and served to each diner as that course is ready.
Jiki-Miyazawa – 1 * Michelin
This was our first Michelin restaurant we dined at while in Japan. We were pretty excited, to say the least. We arrived promptly for our dining time. We were seated pretty quickly in our spot along the bar area in full view of Chef Jiki and his team. Seating for 10 people is all Jiki-Miyazawa holds so remember this when trying to book a reservation. We had an intimate dining experience while watching Chef Jiki carefully and systematically prepare each of the 14 courses of our meal. We began with some sake, then we were taken on a journey through Chef Jiki’s mind as we dined on shrimp scallop marrow, 12-day aged tuna sashimi, sesame tofu, crab stuffed pepper and multiple other seafood selections. We finished with two dessert courses of Japanese fruits, white wine jelly and other Japanese sweets. These were accompanied by matcha tea. Matcha tea is how we knew the meal had ended. This traditional tea is bright green in color and served as the final course.
Nishikawa – 2 * Michelin
We arrived at Nishikawa on day two with high expectations again. We had enjoyed the meal at Jiki so much that we had high hopes for Nishikawa. Nishikawa did not disappoint. We arrived on time and were promptly taken to our seats overlooking the kitchen area where Chef Nishikawa and his team were already in full preparation mode for the other diners already enjoying their food. We watched the precision preparation as Chef Nishikawa commanded the kitchen as if it were his orchestra. Subtle movements or words to his team and they were quick to oblige.
Courses here were a little larger than at Jiki-Miyazawa. We dined on 12 courses which included Japanese noodles, abalone, tuna, pickled vegetables, roast beef, and chiayu. We learned that chiayu is a seasonal baby sweet fish found in Japan. These are considered a delicacy in Japan and only served in high-end restaurants. We also noticed a distinct taste difference from one to the other. We found out that the liver in each can add a very bitter flavor to the taste which is the reason for the difference in character. Dessert courses mochi, fruits, ice cream and of course, matcha tea.
Hyotei 3 * Michelin
Hyotei has been serving food in the location for almost 400 years.
We pulled up in the cab and were instantly greeted and quickly taken to our tea house for the evening. As we walked through the gardens, we were amazed looking at the well-kept plants and pathways leading back to our private tea house for the evening. Eating here was unlike any other places we have eaten. The attention to detail was impeccable. The entire meal was about three hours. Wear nice socks, because your shoes are coming off as you step into your tea house for the meal. You will also be sitting on a pillow on the floor, so although the dress code is business casual, remember to wear something comfortable.
We did not see the chef prepare the meal here. We sat patiently on the floor of the tea house drinking our sake Each course is served by a woman wearing a kimono that appears through a small sliding door in the tea house.
Remember, here you are not only paying for dinner, you are paying for the tradition and history of Hyotei. Soak in every minute of the grounds, construction of the tea house and the service. Notice the fine dishes, the cuts, preparation and presentation of the food. Yes, this will be an expensive meal, but it’s totally worth it.
Overall Kyoto exceeded our expectations! We loved the rich history and culture found here and can’t wait to return! We could have easily spent several more days and taken a couple day-trips to the surrounding areas.
Here are a few things we would recommend to visitors.
- If you are wearing sandals, bring a pair of socks with you. You will need to take your shoes off at most places and it’s respectful to have socks.
- If you plan to book at Michelin star restaurants, do it early. There are strict rules for booking Michelin restaurants in Japan and you will need your hotel concierge to help with the process.
- Enable Google maps on your phone. It was highly reliable and even included routes with the train and subway systems.
- Many sites close at 5 pm, therefore, plan your day accordingly. You will have a 9-5 window to visit most places.