If Tokyo is a giant arcade game filled with overstimulating senses and city skyscrapers, Kyoto is a giant zen garden that holds the key to Japan’s past and fascinating culture; even the toilets play music of rushing streams, and the metro stations play recordings of birds chirping. Kyoto was the first stop on our Japan trip, and I am so excited to share with you the beauty and richness of old Japan in this post.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, be sure to also check out my post on 61 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Japan.
First, you’ll have to know how to get around. We flew into Kansai Airport in Osaka and arrived to find this:
Oi. Japan’s transit system is overwhelming, but we found a nice lady at the counter who spoke English and helped us get a transportation card, which you can load up whenever you run out, and at the end of your trip you are refunded whatever you didn’t use, minus the deposit. Kyoto’s public transport card is called ICOCA and looks like this:
Currency in Japan
Japan’s currency is Yen, (￥). If you’re traveling with American currency, an easy conversion trick is to drop two zeroes to find out the U.S. equivalent. For example, ￥3,200 is around $32 USD.
Weather in Kyoto
We visited during late March / early April, and the weather varied from the low 40’s in the morning and evening to the high 60’s during daytime. We had a range of rainy, wet overcast days as well as some dry, sunny days. Pack an umbrella, rain jacket, beanie, scarf, gloves and warm puffy coat as well as layers and very comfortable walking shoes. We averaged around 5 – 10 miles per day and walked on average, 12 hours per day.
Now that you’re set for transportation and weather, here are 14 things not to miss in Kyoto!
14 Must-Sees in Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Kyoto Free Walking Tour
Yasaka Koshindo (the most colorful temple in Kyoto)
Nishiki Market (a foodie lover’s paradise!)
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
Enjoy Matcha at a Traditional Tea House
Maruyama Park – View Sakura (March – April during cherry blossom season)
Day Trip to Nara to see the Bowing Deer and Great Buddha Hall
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Fushimi Inari Shrine
This is one of the most photographed destinations in Kyoto, and I recommend getting a head start early, as it can get crowded. We visited in late March / early April, which is during peak cherry blossom season, so crowds were something we just had to accept.
Everybody tries to get that perfect photo at the very start of the torii (gates), but don’t fret; there will be plenty of opportunities to snap a photo without anybody else in your way, as the hike is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) up to the summit, and lined with torii the entire way!
Fushimi Inari is the most important out of several thousand shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of rice. Foxes are believed to be messengers from God in the Shinto religion, so you will see many fox statues around the grounds.
The hike takes between 2 – 3 hours to get to the summit, but you are welcome to turn around at any point. Admission is free and open 24 hours a day, so you can even go at night when the torri are lit up!
Gion District – Kyoto Free Walking Tour
This is our favorite thing to do at the start of any trip we take because it’s great to get the local guide’s recommendations and to get your bearings around the city. We went with Kyoto Free Walking Tour and had a wonderful guide! It’s a striking dichotomy between mid-day crowds versus going early in the morning. In the photos below, the far right photo was taken at 8:00 AM and the ones in the middle were taken around 1:00 PM. The good news, unlike in Europe where people get an early start to the day, is that in Japan you won’t see the streets start to fill up with locals or tourists until after 8:30 AM, which leaves you plenty of time to feel like you have a bit of Kyoto to yourself.
Gion is the lovely cultural district where you can find the famous street views of Kyoto.
We quickly noticed that while walking around Kyoto, there were loads of Geisha wannabes. Kimono rentals are quite popular in Kyoto, and you too can be a Geisha for a day and walk around ornately dressed.
*FUN FACT* Geisha are actually quite simply dressed because they are usually older and have already mastered many skills, on which they rely to entertain their clients. The Geisha’s apprentice, called Maiko, are actually the ones dressed in fancy kimono with ornaments in their perfectly coiffed hair because they must rely on their physical beauty until they learn to be skillful Geisha. We learned that they can mostly be seen at night, whilst walking to and from tea houses preparing to entertain; therefore it is not so common to see a real Geisha during the daytime. However, we got to see a rare treat; the woman in the bottom left photo, our guide thought, was most likely the real deal because she was very discreet, walked quickly by herself, and did not carry a phone. We later saw another Maiko (bottom right photo) later that evening in the same district.
*FUN FACT* The word “Geisha” means artist. Once a Geisha marries, she can no longer be a Geisha. Maiko, their apprentices, usually begin their careers around 15 years old. They go from door to door of the “mothers” who run the house asking to be taken in. To become a Geisha is a huge investment; they require up to 40 kimono in their wardrobe, and each kimono can cost around $10,000 USD.
So the point is, if you see girls walking around dressed in kimono taking selfies, I am sorry to break it to you, but they are not Geisha, they are tourists.
Where to Eat in Gion
Udon Main – this tiny restaurant is owned by a young man and his mother (the cook) and is down an unassuming side alley (as most delicious places are in Kyoto). This was the first place where I saw salad on the menu! (Veggies are uncommon to find when eating out). Their gyoza were incredible. Tea comes with nearly every meal, and the tea in Kyoto has a dry, smoky flavor similar to whisky.
Cacao Market – this European chocolatier is extremely pricey, but tasty and adorable with views outside the window of sakura along the stream that runs through the town. We made the mistake of ordering the European chocolate (which was $8 USD for a tiny shot!!) compared to the American chocolate, which was $8 USD for a much larger size with milk.
Gyoza Bar Anzukko – this little eatery has only two tables plus bar seating and is located on the third floor of a side alley. It’s run by a husband and wife, and has been around for 14 years! We arrived around 8:00 PM and waited 40 minutes, and we were the last couple to be seated for the evening because they make everything by hand fresh to order and sell out.
Order the set menu for 2 persons, which comes with 24 gyoza (12 per person) and fried noodles and cost ￥5,940 (we also ordered a bowl of sake – at nearly $60 USD, this was our most expensive meal during our entire trip in Kyoto, which I would say is pretty impressive, as we typically spend more than that on a meal out on Oahu.) The fried camembert cheese gyoza and plum gyoza were our favorites. They cook it in a cast iron skillet, so they stay hot throughout your meal.
There are so many amazing places to eat, and half the fun is just stumbling upon something with a queue, which usually means it’s going to be good. Be prepared for lots of queues during dinner time. And be sure to go down as many side alleys as you can; some of the best food is tucked away there.
Yasaka Koshindo Temple
Here you can write your wish on a colorful ball called “kukurizaru” and hang them at the temple. Kukurizaru is a round ball made of cloth, which represents the good faith monkeys. It is believed that if you write down your sins, greed or undesirable traits and hang it at the temple, it will be left behind and you will be cleansed of that negative trait. This visit was included during our Kyoto free walking tour.
Nishiki Market – A Foodie-Lover’s Paradise!
If you have visited Seattle, Washington, Nishiki Market is to Kyoto what Pike Place Market is to Seattle. Here you can find every possible Japanese street food, from fried octopus doughy balls to soy milk croquettes and everything in between. Unleash your weird inner foodie and try it all! Prices range from ￥100 – ￥1,000 ($1 – $10 USD) for small bites. Our favorite were the raw cubes of ahi (tuna). We live in Hawaii, so our standards for fresh fish are high. Japan never disappoints. The most interesting item we tried was the sweet red octopus with a hard boiled egg inside its head. I’m not sure how they get the egg inside the head, or how they get the tiny octopus to be so shiny, but it was delicious and had a sweet flavor!
An important thing to know about visiting Japan, is that eating whilst walking is not allowed. This applies for the entire country of Japan, even in food markets. The proper etiquette is to purchase your food and then stand to the side to finish it before continuing to walk. Some places will have designated eating areas.
This beautiful installation of pastel-colored kimono wrapped inside tall plastic tubes, can be found at the Arashiyama train station.
This is the train station you disembark to get to the Bamboo Forest.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
This was quite the journey to get to from where we were staying in Yamashina district (around 1.5 hours), but it was certainly worth it! Go early to beat the crowds, and be sure to try some street food at the entry of the forest! (The curry bread and beef croquettes were our favorite)
Admission is ￥500 per person and is a world heritage site. The gardens are beautiful and serene.
Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
Admission: ￥400 per person
This zen temple in Northern Kyoto is covered in gold leaf. It has burned down several times and the most recent reconstruction was in 1955. One thing that surprised Sasha and me is that all the temples in Japan are constructed with wood, which is susceptible to fire. I asked one of our guides why wood is the material of choice, and the response was that it can withstand their hot, humid climate in the summer season.
*FUN FACT* Whenever a Japanese zen garden is built, it must always have an island within the pond, which is representative of Japan.
Admission: ￥600 per person
The Nijo Palace was built at the beginning of the Edo period in 1603 by the Shogun who brought 130 years of civil war to an end. The palace served as the Shogun residence during visits to the Imperial Capital of Kyoto. The emperor would visit, but he had his own private residence in a different location. When you walk on the floors, you will hear the wood squeak; this was intentional to detect assassins and prevent them from attacking. Each samurai has a family crest on the back of their kimono as well as on the sleeves. There are 6,000 family crests left in Japan from the samurai period. Shoes must be removed while inside, and no photography is allowed inside the castle.
Enjoy Matcha (Green Tea) at a Traditional Tea House
Matcha is life in Japan! You will find that nearly every place sells some sort of matcha treat; lattes, mochi, ice cream or cakes. We enjoyed many a matcha treat, but our favorite was at a place in Arashiyama just outside of the bamboo forest, serving matcha mochi with red adzuki bean filling.
We visited a tea house with the traditional tatami mat seating, but the prices were very expensive because this is a tourist district. Poor Sasha had a hard time getting into the tatami mat seats because he’s so tall and leggy. 🙂
The other place we enjoyed with a beautiful outdoor seating area, was called Matcha House, located in Sannenzaka near Gion district. This place is known for their matcha tiramisu, which is a must-try! It had a marshmallow-like consistency.
Admission: ￥400 per person
The main temple was under construction when we went, but it was still worth it to walk the grounds. It is common practice to cleanse yourself prior to entering any shrine in Japan. Here is the proper way to do it:
Take the cup by the handle and rinse it
Rinse your left hand
Rinse your right hand
Rinse your mouth by pouring some water into your hand and sipping it from your hand (the water is clean, but you should subtly spit it out not in the well but on the side. Do NOT sip the water directly from the cup)
Run the water from the cup down the handle of the stick
It is also customary to pray to the Gods upon arriving to a shrine. Here is the order:
Ring the bell to alert the Gods that you are about to make a prayer
Bow twice (bow with your hands by your side and bend at the waist)
Make your prayer
Bow one more time for respect
Allow Sasha to demonstrate below:
Visit Maruyama Park to see Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)
If you are visiting during late March / early April, you’re both in and out of luck: in luck because you’ll get to see these beauties:
Out of luck because you’ll be amongst thousands of other tourists doing the same thing.
*FUN FACT* There are over 40 different varieties of sakura in Maruyama Park alone! But you don’t have to go to Maruyama Park just to see sakura; they are truly everywhere, lining paths, rivers and residential areas.
Take a Day Trip to Nara
Nara is synonymous with polite Japanese deer who will bow for a cookie. We adored this small town vibe on a day trip on our last day in Kyoto. Transportation time is approximately 45 – 60 minutes from Kyoto Station. Deer were considered messengers of the Gods in the Shinto religion, so they roam the park grounds freely.
They even wait with other pedestrians to cross the street:
But quickly decide at the last minute that they can’t be bothered because there are more cookies on the side they’re already on.
Even Japanese deer politely queue in line for the vending machines.
“Yes, if you could just grab my wallet, I’ll have an Ito En green tea, please.”
Deer selfies are pretty much obligatory…
But there’s more to Nara than just the adorable deer that prance around, sniffing your pockets for cookies (which you can purchase all over the park.)
Great Buddha Hall
Admission: ￥600 per person
This temple houses the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world at 16 meters high. Until 1998, this shrine was the world’s largest wooden building.
Where to Eat in Nara
The train stations here have amazing food, and we had the most delicious tempura of our lives. Using Google translate, I asked the chef what kind of oil he was using to fry the batter in, and he said sesame! He was pouring gallons of it into a vat! That would be so expensive in the U.S.! I reckon sesame oil is cheaper in Japan. We ordered the mixed tempura bowl with dried salted sakura flowers, which you are meant to crumble over the top. We spent ￥3,423 (around $34 USD) for 2 bowls of tempura.
Bento Box Lunch
Bento is similar to tapas in Spain, where you have a little bit of everything, served on one plate, or dried leaf. This place was called Cafe Lifestyle and Goods Gallery and had a set menu. We spent ￥2,130 for the two of us (around $21 USD) for lunch.
I hope this guide to Kyoto will help you in planning your next trip to Japan! Have you visited Kyoto? I’d love to hear your favorite highlights!
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