Conquering Kyoto: Travel Planning Guide

Overview

Kyoto is more than the heart of Japan.  It is also its soul.  As beautiful as pictures are, this is a place that cannot be adequately described or photographed.  Sight is only one sense and Kyoto is a city that engages all of them to their full extent. There is a sense of peace that is ever present that doesn’t seem possible in a city of 1.5 million and thousands of tourists.  

Traditional Japanese culture is characterized by temples, shrines, geisha’s, and zen gardens.  Those are hard to find in the modern metropolis of Tokyo.  They are in abundance in Kyoto, which make it perhaps even more desirable a tourist destination than Tokyo.      

Get To Know Kyoto

Kyoto translates to capital city and indeed it was the capital of Japan between 794-1868, before it moved to Tokyo.  During its time as the capital the city built an impressive number of historic and amazing structures.  Combined with its natural beauty, the city has become one of the most culturally significant and beautiful in the world.  It was one of the few cities to escape the bombs of World War II because of its historical significance.

Today, Kyoto boasts an impressive 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Between temples and shrines you can visit 2,000 religious sites.  The Gion district is where you can still catch a glimpse of a geisha while strolling through its traditional entertainment district.  

The beautiful buildings enhance the beautiful natural setting of the city.  Kyoto is located in a valley and surrounded by mountains by three sides.   Several rivers run through the city and often combine with the surrounding mountains to provide the perfect backdrop. 

The city is laid out in a grid pattern unlike other cities like Tokyo, which are known for people getting lost.  This makes teh city fairly easy to navigate although it suffers from urban sprawl.  Kyoto is divided into several districts.  The most popular for tourists are Higashiyama, Arashiyama, Central and Northern Kyoto. 

Despite being known for being the home of traditional Japan, there is also a modern side.  Many tech companies are located in Kyoto including popular video game maker Nintendo.  Fans of Japanese Anime or Manga as they call it can visit the International Manga Museum.

When To Go

Kyoto has two absolute best times to visit.  Spring brings out the cherry blossoms and autumn brings the fall foliage.  During either time the city becomes one of the most beautiful places on earth.  If you have a choice of when to visit, try and pick one of these times.  The cherry blossoms usually bloom between late March to early April although it is somewhat dependent on weather.  The fall foliage typically peaks in mid November. 

Kyoto has distinct seasons.  Summer is hot and humid with a lot of rain.  September and October is typhoon season.  Winter is cold with occasional snow.  If good weather is a priority, avoid June through October.   

How Long To Stay

You can experience the best of Kyoto in 3-4 full days, however staying longer allows you to see more at a more leisurely pace.  There are plenty of day trips to places such as Nara that are well worth venturing to if you have the extra time.

If you plan on seeing other parts of Japan, Osaka can be reached in under and hour and Tokyo is just over two hours away.  The extensive and expanding network of bullet trains make exploring various parts of Japan easy. 

Language Barrier

While American pop culture is very popular in Japan, English fluency is not as common as you may think. Places where tourists congregate such as hotels and popular tourist attractions will have a greater chance of English speaking staff.  Younger people are more likely to speak English.  Local schools often send students out to tourist attractions during the day to practice their English with foreigners, so don’t be surprised if you are asked to have a conversation with a group of students.    

Many restaurants will have either English menus or photos of the food that will allow you to point at what you would like.  A big industry in Japan is food models, which restaurants use as advertising.  This allows you to have an accurate representation of what you are ordering. Customer Service in Japan is among the best in the world and people will go out of their way to help, even if they do not speak English.   

Getting to Kyoto

Visitors to Kyoto will likely come by train or bus as there is no airport in Kyoto.  You will likely fly into either Osaka or Tokyo, with Osaka being the closest.    

From Osaka

There are two airports in Osaka.  The closest is Itami Airport (ITM)  about one hour away.  A limousine bus is the easiest way to arrive and drops you off at Kyoto Station. 

You may also take the train, but requires at least two transfers. 

Kansai Airport (KIX) is approximately 1.5 hours away.  The JR Haruka limited express train links the airport with Kyoto Station.  A cheaper option is to take the JR train from the airport to Osaka Station and then transfer to a train taking you to Kyoto.  There are also direct busses between the airport and Kyoto.

From Tokyo    

If you are coming from Tokyo the easiest and fastest way to arrive is by Shinkansen bullet train.  The trip takes a little over two hours and includes views of Mt. Fuji along the way.  Tickets are purchased in the country and can be purchased from an agent or a ticket machine.  If you are planning to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, it almost always pays to get a Japan Rail Pass.  The cost of the cheapest Rail Pass is close to the same cost of a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto.     

Getting Around Kyoto

Getting around Kyoto involves using many methods of public transportation.  There are trains, subways, busses, taxi’s and you can even rent a bicycle. Train or subway are faster than busses, but they do not go everywhere.  The subway only has two lines and the train only goes to select locations. 

The bus network is very extensive and will fill in any gaps when you can’t arrive by train or subway, such as the famous Golden Pavillion.  If you plan on using the bus extensively an all day bus pass is a great value.  The best website and app to have is Hyperdia which will help you plan your route.

Taxi’s are everywhere and will be the quickest way to get around. Ideally you want to have the destination written down in Japanese as English speaking among drivers is hit and miss.  Having your hotel business card is invaluable in these situations.  You may also ask the front desk to write down locations in Japanese to hand to a driver. 

Renting a bicycle is popular and Kyoto is very conducive to bicycle traffic despite the city having many hills.  Walking is also a great option for hitting up multiple spots within a district.  The city is spread out, but part of the draw of the city is the atmosphere.  When possible, walk or ride a bike to get around and enjoy the sights and sounds.

  

What to See 

Kyoto is full of places to visit.  Walking down a typical street and you are likely to bump into a 1,00 year old temple or other historical site.  In addition to historical buildings, the city is well known for its natural beauty.  Many of the best places to visit are gardens, forests, and along rivers.

  • Kiyomizu-dera Temple – This gorgeous temple sits at the top of the hill in the Higashiyama district.  The main hall hangs over the side of the hill, providing an impressive view below.  
  • Fushimi Inari Shrine – The impressive shrine is known for having thousands of tori gates on display.  Take a stroll through the peaceful grounds and contemplate why you can stay here forever.
  • Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) – Perhaps the most famous structure in Kyoto.  The multi story main hall has its top two levels covered in in gold leaf.  
  • Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) – a sibling of the Golden Pavilion, however it actually is not silver at all.  It does have a superb garden and has great views of the surrounding area.  
  • Arashiyama Bamboo Forest – Possibly the most peaceful place on earth.  The towering bamboo is a gorgeous backdrop and enhanced by the breeze whistling through the forest.  It takes a little effort to get out her, but is well worth it.
  • Philosophers Path – It’s easy to see why philosophers once strolled this path in contemplation.  a gentle stream and beautiful cherry blossom trees make this one of the best places to enjoy an afternoon.
  • Gion – The traditional entertainment district still has geisha’s that entertain locals.  Visitors can enjoy the traditional Japanese architecture and restaurants.  It is a great place to wander around in the evening.
  • Nijo Castle – the former residence of a Japanese Shogun, the castle looks like the setting of a ninja movie.  The complex includes traditional Japanese architecture and gardens, all surrounded by a moat.
  • Nishiki Market – The fresh food market is where locals and visitors alike go to see a variety of food offerings.  Whether you grab something to eat right there or geab a bite to eat at a local restaurant, chances are part of your meal will go through the market at some point.

What To Do

In addition to plenty to see, there is also a lot of other things to keep you busy.  Many of them involve enjoying the naturalistic setting or engaging in traditional Japanese activities.

  • Stay in a traditional ryokan.
  • Take the Sagano scenic railway through Arashiyama.
  • Visit an onsen (traditional public bath.)
  • Meditate.  It’s one thing to visit the temples and shrines.  Take it to another level and take part in these places of worship.
  • Attend a festival.  The city has many festivals throughout the year including the cherry blossom festival and the Gion Matsuri.
  • Walk.  The city is gorgeous.  Be sure to take it in and walk as much as you can.
  • Rent a Kimono.  What can be better than that?

 

Money 

The Japanese Yen is the currency used throughout Japan.  Credit cards are widely accepted, but cash is still king in Japan and it would be prudent to always carry around Japanese currency.  ATM’s are plentiful throughout Kyoto and offer the best exchange rate.  You can find ATM’s in train stations, 7-Eleven stores, banks, and post offices.  It is advisable to also bring your local currency to exchange if there is an issue with your ATM card. The post office is one of the easiest places for currency exchange in Japan.

Budget Tips

Japan is one of the more expensive places to visit in Asia, but if you are visiting from a western country, you will have a favorable exchange rate.  Here are some tips to make your trip more affordable.

Accommodations

  • Stay in a capsule hotel.  One of the most unique experiences you will have.  In many ways they function like a hostel with common areas.  However your sleeping area is private and as the name states, a capsule.
  • Stay in a Hostel.
  • Use Airbnb.  There are plenty of Airbnb options that can be a great value, espeically if traveling in a group.
  • Use hotel travel reward points.

Attractions And Food

  • Most temples and shrines are either really cheap or free to enter.
  • Enjoy the Nature.  Walking around the city is free and a great way to explore and find hidden treasures.  Many of the best things to see like the Arashiyama Bamboo forest are free to enter.
  • Enjoy free samples.  Many shops in the Nishiki Market and in Higashiyama offer free samples to guests.  Be careful though, the snacks are good and you could end up spending a small fortune buying them.
  • Eat at the train station.  Locals grab food including bento boxes from train stations.  The food is good and cheap.
  • Eat Street food.  There are plenty of delicious and cheap options all over the city.

Transportation

  • An all day bus pass is very cost effective if using public transportation.
  • Rent a bike.  Most of the city is easily accessible by bike.
  • The Japan Rail Pass is very cost effective if you plan on visiting Tokyo or other cities in addition to Kyoto.  Purchase and receive the pass voucher before leaving for Japan and redeem once you arrive.  Many companies sell the pass online.  While most of the time the price will be roughly the same price no matter which company you purchase it through, it can pay to shop around.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip

Things To Know

  • Japan has many local customs and it would be best to learn some etiquette as their guest.  These include things not leaving your chopsticks standing straight up in a bowl of rice.
  • Credit Cards are widely accepted but always carry Japanese Yen as many places will only accept cash.  Japan is an incredibly safe country with locals known for carry around large amounts of cash without a problem.
  • Kyoto is famous for being one of the few places where geisha’s still work.  The best chance for a tourist to see one is as they head into an engagement in the Gion district.  Foreigners must either know a local or book an event through a private tour company.
  • Free WiFi is available in most hotels and many restaurants like McDonalds.
  • You enter busses from the rear.  Exit through the front.

Things To Avoid

  • Do not try and take a picture with a geisha or maiko.  They are trying to get to work.
  • Do not treat temples and shrines with disrespect.  These are places of worship.  Many of them prohibit pictures.  Remove your hat and sunglasses when entering.  You also should remove your shoes when going indoors.  Most places have signs that display the rules.
  • Do not Tip.  It’s considered rude.
  • Do not smoke outdoors.  You can be fined.

Time Saving Tips

  • Book accommodations in advance.
  • Make at least a rough itinerary.  Make a list of your must do’s and plan them out in a natural geographical order.
  • Know how to get around.  Look at a public transportation map in advance and know how to get around.
 



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