Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, leaving it with a ridiculous number of historic sites. Among the hundreds within the city limits, 14 are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and when you add in the surrounding cities, that number grows to 17. One problem: the sites are very spread out and, unlike the rest of Japan, Kyoto’s rail and subway network is not always all that useful for sightseeing. You’ll have to rely on buses and will likely waste a lot of time sitting at various red lights. Accommodation can get expensive as well, but you can actually save quite a bit by staying in nearby Osaka instead.
Best Time to Go
From mid June to July, the rainy season brings overcast skies to Kyoto (but not really all that much rain) and high humidity; following that, the humidity stays and temperatures soar, making even just breathing uncomfortable. Several festivals take place in the summer, but the weather is not pleasant.
Winters get colder than most of Japan’s other major cities, but they’re still a good time to visit, in my opinion. Spring and autumn are hands down the best, though. The cherry blossom season (usually the first half of April) is probably the most popular, but the fall colors in autumn are just as impressive. Late summer to early autumn is typhoon season; while the typhoons won’t pose any real danger in the city, they can shut down transportation.
Getting to Kyoto
Kyoto does not have its own airport, so anyone flying in will likely arrive at one of Osaka’s airports. The best way to get to Kyoto from the Kansai International Airport is the JR West Haruka Kansai Airport Limited Express train which costs ¥2,980. You can save around 1000 yen by buying the JR West Kansai Area Pass for ¥2,000, but you will need to have proof of a plane ticket out of Japan. Limousine buses are another option. They take between 90 minutes and two hours, depending on traffic and cost ¥2,500 (or ¥4000 round-trip) to Kyoto Station, with stops at several major hotels along the way.
From Itami Airport, limousine bus #15 takes around one hour and costs ¥1,280. If you don’t mind changing trains a few times, you can save money by taking the monorail to Hotarugaike, the Hankyu Takarazuka Line from there to Juso and finally the Hankyu Kyoto Line to Kyoto. This option costs ¥650 and will take around the same amount of time. It will also leave you on Shijo Street in central Kyoto, while the bus drops you off at Kyoto Station in the south of the city.
Most people who come to Kyoto from outside the Kansai area (for example Tokyo, Yokohama or Nagoya in the east or Fukuoka, Hiroshima or Himeji in the west) take the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), which arrives at Kyoto Station. Within the Kansai area, regular express trains are much cheaper and don’t take much longer. If arriving by highway bus, the drop-off location depends on the bus company, but they are all connected to public transportation.
As I recommend staying in the Shin-Imamiya area of Osaka instead of Kyoto and simply commuting, I will detail how best to do this. You basically have three options:
- JR Special Rapid Service: runs from the JR Umeda Station in Osaka to Kyoto Station in southern Kyoto for 540 yen; takes 28 minutes
- Hankyu Limited Express: runs from the Hankyu Umeda Station in Osaka to the Kawaramachi Station in central Kyoto for 390 Yen; takes 43 minutes; several of the stations prior to Kawaramachi can be convenient, too, depending on your plans in Kyoto
- Keihan Limited Express: runs from Yodoyabashi Station in Osaka to Sanjo Station in central Kyoto for 400 Yen; takes 50 minutes; especially convenient for the sightseeing spots in eastern Kyoto
Since you have to take the subway from the Doubutsuen-mae Station or the JR from the Shin-Imamiya Station to connect to any of these three options, the first will be the fastest and the easiest option when leaving Osaka. However, the other two options take you directly to central Kyoto and are thus more convenient for sightseeing. Which choice is the best will ultimately depend on your itinerary.
Unlike other Japanese cities, the subway system in Kyoto is mostly useless for sightseeing. A number of private railways cover parts of the city, with the Keihan and Hankyu lines probably being the most useful, but many of the sights can only be reached by bus. Luckily, the buses in Kyoto are the most tourist-friendly in Japan, with station names and announcements in English.
The buses are quite slow, however, and I always got frustrated when I ended up spending more time sitting at red lights than exploring temples. There’s not much you can do about it though, other than planning a good route sightseeing route in advance. You can also speed things up a bit by sticking to the ‘Raku’ buses, which skip all non-tourist stops. They leave from platform D2 outside Kyoto Station
If you plan on making extensive use of the bus and subway lines, I’d recommend getting the Kyoto Sightseeing card, which costs 1200 yen for one day or 2000 for two. Personally, I never found much use for the subway and I just got a day pass on the bus for 500 yen. With a single ride costing 220 yen, you get your money’s worth pretty quickly. These passes can be bought directly from the driver or from the bus information center just outside Kyoto Station.
If you are in good shape, bicycles are another good option, as they allow you to avoid the traffic congestion, which is what can really slow down the buses. Starting at 1000 yen per day, bikes can be rented form several places around town, including the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project located 5 minutes north of Kyoto Station (ask at the information desk for dierctions). Guided bike tours are also available, but need to be arranged three days in advance (Tel: 075-354-3636).
Kyoto lacks a neighborhood with true budget options, like the area around Shin-Imamiya Station in Osaka. Since that area is only about 40 minutes away by train, I’ve always just stayed there and visited Kyoto on a day trip.
If you prefer staying in the city, hostels are your best bet. Luckily, there are quite a few really good ones here. None are better than the Khaosan Theater, one of the nicest hostels you’ll find anywhere. Its sister property, the Khaosan Guesthouse is a good alternative, although it doesn’t come close to the theater.
The Khaosan Guesthouse has private rooms, but they are a bit expensive. If you want your own room, I’d go with the Hana Hostel, where twins are $35 or the Guesthouse Bon, where you’ll pay just under $40 for a single.
If you really want to go cheap, just spend the night in an internet cafe, where you’ll probably pay around 2000 yen for the whole night, but might be able to find a place offering special overnight rates as low as 800 yen.
A lot of people come to Kyoto with the idea of staying in a ryokan, but the truth is, you’re better off doing that elsewhere in Japan. Most of the places called ryokan in Kyoto are actually minshuku, which are a cheaper version. There’s nothing wrong with minshuku, but they are not the same as ryokan and many people end up being disappointed when their experience does not meet their expectations.
Eating & Drinking
Like anywhere in Japan, you will have no trouble finding good places to eat in Kyoto. The railway station itself has more places to eat than most cities around the world. Just avoid the overly touristy places and you will get a good meal. To save money, eat at places that sell order tickets from vending machines.
If you are looking for some exciting nightlife, hop a train to Osaka. Kyoto has many bars, but most are generally Japanese style places and not all that appealing to visitors (and often ridiculously expensive). This is one case where I recommend sticking to bars geared toward westerners.
Things to Do
With 17 UNESCO listed sites in the area, and countless other historic attractions, Kyoto has way too many things to see and do for most people. It would take months to see them all, so I will only list the most important, most impressive and most unique among them, grouped by region—and even this list will keep you busy for days. If you want some more help in planning your sightseeing itinerary, the Japan National Tourist Organization has an excellent pamphlet detailing self-guided “Kyoto Walks” available for free in pdf format here. It includes admission fees, opening hours and bus numbers.
- Nijo Castle: great castle with good views of the city, nice gardens and “nightingale floors” that make bird-like squeaking sounds when stepped on to give advance warning when someone was approaching; popular location for cherry blossoms, plum blossoms and autumn colors; Nijojo-mae Station for both bus and subway; open daily, 8.45-17:00, last admission at 16:00; admission: 600 yen
- Kyoto Imperial Palace: not worth the trouble in my opinion, as you can’t enter the palace buildings, but it’s the only Imperial Site in the city with English tours—at 10am and 2pm Monday to Friday, by appointment only; make advance bookings through the Imperial Household Agency’s website (in English), but you might be able to join a tour if there’s space, by just showing up at the the Imperial Household Agency building west of the Imperial Palace (I wouldn’t count on this though, especially during busy times of the year); 5-10 minute walk south of Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma subway line; admission is free
- Nishiki Market: a narrow shopping street known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” lined by over a hundred restaurants, food stalls and shops selling any food you can imagine as well as knives, cookware, etc; some places give out samples; one block north of, and running parallel to, Shijo Avenue, 5 minutes on foot from Shijo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line or Karasuma or Kawaramachi Stations on the Hankyu Line
Higashiyama (Eastern Kyoto)
- Kiyomizudera Temple: one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions, with great views over the city from the main hall’s veranda, which is made entirely of wood (no nails, etc) and a waterfall that gives the temple its name (kiyomizu means “pure water”); a path leads from the temple up into the mountain, providing a nice escape from the city and some great scenery; open daily, 6:00-18:00; the nearest bus stop is Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka; admission ¥300
- Mount Daimonji: an hour of walking through a forest gets you to the summit with some great views of the city; the path is well-marked and begins near Ginkakuji
- Heian Shrine: Shin’en Garden behind the shrine is one of the city’s most beautiful and a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms, especially pink ones; 10 minutes on foot north of Higashiyama Station on the Tozai Subway Line; open 8:30-17:30 from March to August, 8:30-17:00 from Sep to Oct and 8:30-16:00 from Nov-Feb; entrance to the grounds is free, entrance to the garden is ¥600
- Maruyama Park: most popular cherry blossom viewing spot in Kyoto and very crowded during cherry blossom season; 10 minutes on foot east of the Gion bus stop or the Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line; enter through Yasaka Shrine; free admission
- Gion District: very photogenic neighborhood with traditional buidlings, flagstone-paved streets and the occasional glimpse of geisha or maiko (geisha apprentices); Gion bus stop or the Gion Shijo Station on the Keihan Line
- Ginkakuji: the “Silver Pavilion” is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions, but is not actually covered in silver; surrounded by an immaculate zen garden and a moss garden; located at the northern end of the Philosopher’s Path; Ginkakuji-michi is the nearest bus stop; 08:30-17:00 from Mar to Nov and 09:00-16:30 from Dec to Feb; admission is ¥500
- Nanzenji Temple: large temple complex with a massive Sanmon entrance gate and a large brick aqueduct; located a few minutes south of the southern end of the Philosopher’s Path; 5 minute walk from Keage Station on the Tozai Line or from the Nanzenji-Eikando-michi bus stop; 08:30-17:00 from Mar to Nov and 09:00-16:30 from Dec to Feb; admission to the complex is free, but entering the Sanmon Gate costs ¥500, the Nanzen-in Zen Temple and its moss garden ¥300 and Hojo (the abbot’s quarters) with its raked garden and painted sliding doors is ¥500
- Philosopher’s Path: 2km long path that runs from Ginkakuji to Eikando, though most continue to Nanzenji (or start from there if going the opposite direction), passing several temples along the way; pleasant walk all year, but especially beautiful when cherry blossoms or fall foliage make their appearance
- Kinkaku-ji: the Golden Pavillion is Kyoto’s most popular attraction and an absolute “must-see”; the nearest bus stops are Kinkakuji-michi and Kinkakuji-mae; open daily from 9:00-17:00; admission is ¥400
- Ryouan-ji: famous for its minimalist zen garden, but most are more impressed by the beautiful grounds surrounding a large pond, especially in autumn when the leaves change colors; near Ryouanji-mae bus stop and Ryouanji-michi on the Keifuku Kitano Tram Line; 8:00-17:00 from Mar to Nov and 8:30-16:30 from Dec to Feb; admission ¥500
- Ninnaji Temple: large temple complex with a five-story pagoda, a plantation of dwarf cherry trees, the former palace building and a miniature version of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Shikoku in the hills behind the temple (this takes an hour or two to complete—the original takes a month or two); near Omuro Ninnaji bus stop; open daily 9:00 to 16:30; entrance to the former palace building is ¥500, everything else is free
- Takao: a wooded valley with temples just north of the city and one of the most popular places to view the fall leaves; in autumn, vendors sell fresh treats and lanterns are lit up along the river at night, but the rest of the year the Takao area is very quiet; among the temples, Jingo-ji is well worth visiting for its view of the Kiyotaki River between two hills (especially beautiful in autumn), while the others can be skipped, but you might as well check out Saimyoji and Kozan-ji if you’re already in the area; take a JR Bus or a Kyoto City Bus to Takao Bus Stop for 500 yen (the day pass will not fully cover this as Takao is outside the flat fare zone)
Arashiyama (Western Kyoto)
This district on the western outskirts of the city is popular with Japanese tourists, but not quite so much with westerners. It is arguably the best spot to view the fall colors and is very beautiful—and crowded—during cherry blossom season as well. This was my favorite area of Kyoto.
- Togetsukyo Bridge: a picturesque bridge over the Hozu River that is Arashiyama’s most famous landmark; just south of Arashiyama Station on the Keifuku Arashiyama Line and just north of Arashiyama Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line
- Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple: rarely visited temple featuring over 1200 small statues that each have a unique facial expression—photographers will have hours of fun; near Otagidera-Mae bus stop; open from 8:00 to 17:00; admission is ¥300.
- Jojakkoji Temple: beautiful temple when the leaves change colors, but the real draw is the amazing view of the city from above the pagoda; open 9:00 to 17:00; entrance is ¥400
- Kokedera: another World Heritage Site with a beautiful moss garden that now requires advance registration by mail to visit; send a letter giving your name, the date you prefer to visit and the number of people in your party and include a self-addressed stamped envelope, so that they can let you know when your reservation is scheduled if you are accepted; the address is: Saiho-ji Temple 56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto, 615-8286, Japan; located a 20 minute walk from Matsuo Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line; I didn’t bother with Kokedera, but apparently, it’s well worth the trouble; it’s certainly expensive enough, with an admission fee of ¥3000
- Sagano Romantic Train: a scenic ride on a steam train to Kameoka; from there, many visitors take a Hozu River Cruise to get back; trains depart from Torokko Saga Station every hour from 8:50 to 16:50 and from Torokko Arashiyama Station three minutes later; ¥600
- Tenryu-ji: one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one of Kyoto’s five great zen temples, but not worth the trouble unless you really like temples; the garden and pond are nice though, but overall, I found the bamboo forest just north of the temple complex much more interesting; a short walk west of the Keifuku Arashiyama Station; 8:30-17:30 from Mar to Oct and 8:30-17:00 from Nov to Feb; admission is ¥600
- Okochi Sanso: mountain retreat with beautiful grounds and nice views of the city; especially impressive in autumn; located just west of the bamboo forest north of Tenryu-ji; 9:00 to 17:00; entrance is ¥1000, which includes a cup of matcha green tea and a small dessert in the villa’s tea house
- Fushimi Inari Taisha: hundreds of bright red torii (gates) line a path behind the shrine and the hillside offers great views of the city; Fushimi-Inari Station on the Keihan Main Line or Inari Station on the JR Nara Line; always open; admission is free.
- To-ji Temple: the tallest pagoda in Japan, a nice garden with cherry blossoms and a famous flea market on the 21st of every month; 15 minute walk southwest of Kyoto Station or 5 minutes west from Toji Station on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line; open 9:00 to 17:30; entrance fee: ¥500
- Tofuku-ji: large temple complex with many beautiful, small gardens; very popular with Japanese tourists when the leaves change colors; located ten minutes southeast from Tofukuji Station on the JR Nara Line and the Keihan Main Line and the Tofukiji bus stop; also connected to Fushimi Inari Shrine by a path through the woods; open from 9:00 to 16:00
- Daigo-ji: large temple complex that is famous for being one of Kyoto’s best cherry blossom and autumn foliage viewing spots; located 15 minutes east of Daigo Station on the Tozai Subway Line or the Daigoji bus stop; open from 9:00 to 17:00 from Mar through November and 9:00 to 16:00 from Dec through Feb (the museum is always open from 9 to 4); admission is ¥600 for each part (main complex, museum and the beautiful Sanboin Garden) or ¥1000 for any two and ¥1500 for all three
Uji is actually a separate town, located about twenty minutes south of Kyoto on the JR Nara Line (¥230). The Keihan Uji line will take you there as well. Uji is famous for its tea, but it is also a beautiful town and one of Japan’s oldest.
- Byodo-in Temple: features the Phoenix Hall, which can be found on the 10 yen coin (Note: the Phonexi Hall is undergoing renovation and is currently not visible or open to the public—the work is scheduled to be completed in March 2014, but will likely take a bit longer); open daily 8:30-17:30 form Mar to Nov and 9:00-16:30 from Dec to Feb; admission fee is ¥600 to the grounds and museum and an additional ¥300 for Phoenxi Hall, but during the construction work, the Phoenix Hall is closed and admission to the grounds is reduced to ¥300
- Mt. Buttoko (aka Mt. Daikichi): nice hike with an observatory at the top offering views of the area; located east of the river
- Kosho-ji Temple: a working temple, meaning the buildings are in use and you can hear zen chants in the late afternoon—visitors are asked to stay quiet; the tree covered approach from the river is famous and especially beautiful in autumn
- Mimurotoji Temple: thousands of flowers adorn the temple complex and are at their most beautiful from mid May to July; admission is ¥500
- Taiho-an Tea House: Uji is the tea capital of Japan and this tea house operated by the municipal government is a good place to try a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and/or a cup—or several—of matcha green tea; 1-5 Uji, Togawa, Uji city, Tel. 081-774-23-3334); open 10:00 – 16:00
- Cormorant fishing on summer nights, fishermen using fire, nets and trained birds to catch fish; tickets for boat tours sold at the kiosk by the stone pagoda; 1800 yen per person (children 900 yen) for one hour
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport; take the train instead (or the limousine bus if arriving at Itami Airport)
- take public transit, especially the buses, to get around town; a day pass on a bus costs half as much as the cheapest bicycle you can rent
- avoid touristy restaurants and eat at small, local places and street stalls
- stay in the Shin-Imamiya area of Osaka, if you plan on visiting that city anyway; otherwise, try a hostel or a minshuku
- entrance fees will add up, so only pay for the most important sites and stick to free ones the rest of the time; I found that many of the lesser temples were not worth the entrance fee, but people with a strong interest in temples will likely disagree