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Kyoto Travel Guide- Everything You Need to Know

Kyoto Travel Guide Torri Gates

Kyoto is a beautiful, traditional city to visit in Japan.  It is full of diverse experiences, from visiting centuries-old shrines to walking through a bamboo forest and experiencing traditional tea ceremonies. Kyoto is an enchanting city, and was once the imperial capital of Japan. Whether you are a nature lover, history enthusiast or a foodie, Kyoto is a great city to visit. It is also only a 30 minute bullet train away from Osaka, and easy bullet train rides away from Nara and Hiroshima, making it a perfect place to stay and do day trips from. Below is the Kyoto travel guide, filled with everything you need to know before visiting Kyoto.

Kyoto Quick Links

Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I travel to Kyoto?

There are many reasons why you should travel to Kyoto. If you are planning a trip to Japan, Kyoto is a great city to add to your trip. It is easy to travel by bullet train to Kyoto from Osaka, Tokyo, Hakone and other popular destinations in Japan.

Kyoto has a very rich cultural heritage, more so than the other large cities in Japan. Popular temples and shrines to visit include Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), Fushimi Inari Shrine (thousands of torii gates and popular hike) and Kiyomizu-dera. Depending on what time of year you go, you can also experience the incredible Cherry Blossom season. But, regardless of season, Kyoto is filled with incredible natural beauty year round. The culture is also very communal. It is a very safe, clean, considerate country to visit. There are no street trash cans, yet the streets stay clean because everyone carries their trash to throw it out at home.

The culinary scene in Kyoto is incredible. Kyoto has great sushi, wagyu, fruit and ramen. It also has incredible matcha tea, matcha snacks and matcha desserts, more than the other cities in Japan.

How to Get to Kyoto from Tokyo

Since Kyoto doesn’t have an international airport, you will need to either fly into Tokyo or Osaka to get to Kyoto. The easiest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto is to take the bullet train, also known as the Shinkansen. You’ll depart from Tokyo station, which is connected to many other trains including the train from Narita airport. Tickets can either be purchased at the station, or as part of your Japan Rail Pass. It’s best to buy tickets in advance, especially during peak season and this can be done through purchasing your Japan Rail Tickets through the official site. Depending on what train you take, the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto will take between 2 hours and 15 minutes, which is not included in the Japan Rail Pass, to 2 hours and 40 minutes. The Shinkansen will arrive at Kyoto Station, where you will have easy access to cabs, trains and buses to get to your final destination.

How to Get to Kyoto from Osaka

Since Kyoto doesn’t have an international airport, you will need to either fly into Osaka or Tokyo to get to Kyoto. Osaka has the closest international airport to Kyoto. The easiest way to get from Osaka to Kyoto is to take the bullet train, also known as the Shinkansen. You’ll depart from Osaka station, which is connected to many other trains. Tickets can either be purchased at the station, or as part of your Japan Rail Pass. It’s best to buy tickets in advance, especially during peak season and this can be done through purchasing your Japan Rail Tickets through the official site. The bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto will take between 30 and 45 minutes. The Shinkansen will arrive at Kyoto Station, where you will have easy access to cabs, trains and buses to get to your final destination. You can also take the Hankyu Kyoto Line from Umeda station to Kawaramachi station, which takes approximately 45 to 50 minutes.

How to get to Kyoto from Hakone

One great stop in your trip to Japan is Hakone, which is in the countryside. It’s right on the way between Tokyo and Kyoto and is a popular destination in between these two cities. To get from Hakone to Kyoto, you’ll leave Hakone either by train or cab to Odawara. From Odawara you can take the bullet train to Kyoto, arriving in Kyoto station. The Shinkansen from Odawara to Kyoto takes between 2.5 and 3 hours. The Shinkansen will arrive at Kyoto Station, where you will have easy access to cabs, trains and buses to get to your final destination.

What do I need to know before going to Kyoto?

How to get to Kyoto

  • There are no international airports in Kyoto so you will need to either fly into Tokyo or Osaka and then take the bullet train to Kyoto.

Getting Around Kyoto

  • Foreigners are able to buy a discounted Japan Rail Pass who are visiting Japan under “temporary visitor” status. If you purchase on their official site, you are able to reserve trains ahead of time online. This pass is most useful if you are using the bullet train multiple times. It’s best to calculate if it’s cheaper to buy the JR Pass or to buy individual tickets before you buy it.
  • The green car (business class) with the JR Pass is better as you can reserve seats ahead of time and the seats are roomy and comfortable.
  • If you have checked luggage and you are taking the bullet train you’ll want to reserve the seats that come with large baggage storage. They are at the back of he car. If your bags are acarry-on, they can go up top over the seats and you can reserve any seat.
  • Apple Maps gives better directions than Google Maps.
  • It is very easy to take the train within the cities and also the bullet train to get to other cities.
  • When taking the train, pay attention to the recommended exits in Maps, the train stations span many city blocks and it is directing you to the closest exit to your location.
  • Make sure you get on the right train! They trains are very prompt and the bullet trains have different lines on the same track. If you get on even 3 minutes early, you may get on the wrong train.
  • The Kyoto train cards is the Icoca, but the Suica and Pasmo work in Kyoto as well.
  • If you need to take a taxi early in Kyoto (before 8AM), arrange a taxi with your hotel the night before. We had a very hard time getting a taxi at 6:30AM.

Language & Translation

  • The official language is Japanese and while English is taught in school, not everyone is fluent. It’s helpful to learn a few basic Japanese phrases and install Google translate on your phone.
  • Google Translate is necessary, you can point your phone at a picture / sign / menu and it’ll immediately translate it. Also helpful to tell taxis where you are going.

WiFi & Electricity

  • WiFi is widely available in the cities and many hotels provide free WiFi.
  • Consider renting a portable WiFi device as you’ll use WiFi frequently for translation on your phone and directions. You’ll need constant connectivity when traveling in Japan.
  • Japan uses type A and type B sockets, with a standard voltage of 100V and a frequency of 50/60Hz. I like this power adaptor best as it includes power adaptors for all countries compactly.

Cash and Credit

  • The official currency is the Japanese Yen (JPY). The Yen only has full amounts i.e. no 1.50, only 1.00. The change is a full yen or greater.
  • While credit cards are accepted in many places, some markets and smaller establishments only accept cash so it’s best to have some cash on you.
  • Bring cash for the temples and shrines in Kyoto, as several charge entrance fees and some are cash only.
  • Getting cash before you get to Japan is easier and cheaper, and one less thing to do when you arrive in Japan.
  • You can also exchange currency in the airport but it’ll be cheaper through your local bank

Shopping

  • There is a lot of great shopping in Kyoto. There are many unique things you’ll want to buy that you can only find in Kyoto.
  • Pack an extra bag or save room in your suitcase for the stuff you buy.
  • It is not customary to bargain and negotiate in Japan.

Cultural Etiquette

  • Kyoto places high importance on etiquette so it’s important to understand the basics before coming to Kyoto as it’s important to be respectful.
  • Be mindful of the local customs and cultural etiquette in Kyoto, especially in the temples, shrines and other sacred places. Respect the rules posted.
  • Bowing is a common form of greeting and shows respect in Kyoto.
  • Some establishments and temples will ask you to remove your shoes before coming in. Many of them provide bags or a space to leave your shoes. This is especially common in the inside of the temples and shrines in Kyoto.
  • Forming orderly queues is a common practice in Kyoto – you’ll see this often waiting for the train.
  • In Japan, tattoos are often associated with organized crime, and many hot springs (onsens) have policies restricting entry for individuals with tattoos or require they be covered by stickers that they provide.
  • Be aware of places that have restrictions on photography – especially in temples and shrines.
  • Kyoto places great important on respecting elders.

How many days should I spend in Kyoto?

The ideal duration of your stay in Kyoto depends on your interests, budget and how much time you want to explore other cities and areas in Japan. While smaller than Tokyo, Kyoto is still a massive city, filled with things to do and is a popular landing spot for nearby day trips. In this Kyoto travel guide, here are general guidelines on how to decide how many days to spend in Kyoto:

Day Trip to Kyoto

If you only have the opportunity to spend one day in Kyoto, one day is better than nothing! It’s hard to recommend the absolute top thing to do and top thing to eat as peoples preferences are so different so look over the best things to do in Kyoto and best restaurants in Kyoto and pick your top choices.

Two Days in Kyoto

If you’re on a tight schedule and only have a long weekend to spend in Kyoto, you can still experience some of the cities highlights in 3 days. Focus on some of the must-see attractions like Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), hiking some of the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. You can book a tour, and spend a full day seeing all of the top cultural attractions in Kyoto. For meals, try to eat ramen, a steak dinner and a sushi meal all at least once.

Standard Visit of 3-4 Days in Kyoto

Most people spend at least 3-4 days in Kyoto when they go to Kyoto for the first time. This allows you to explore a more comprehensive selection of attractions. In addition to the most popular spots, you can visit additional temples, gardens and neighborhoods. You’re able to hike to the top of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and enjoy other hikes in Kyoto. You also have the option to potentially do a day trip to either Osaka, Nara or Hiroshima.

5 or More Days in Kyoto

If you don’t feel like moving hotels often, Kyoto is a great base for day trips to places like Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima. You’re also able to explore Kyoto at a more leisurely pace when you stay in Kyoto for 5 or more days.

Best time of year to visit Kyoto

The best time of year to visit Kyoto depends on your preferences, the experiences you are seeking and the regions you plan to visit. The most popular time to visit is during Cherry Blossom season in the spring.

Spring (March to May) Cherry Blossom Season

Cherry Blossom Season in the spring is the most popular time to visit Kyoto, especially late March to early April. The exact timing of the cherry blossoms blooming varies every year. Maruyama Park and Philosopher’s Path are popular places to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto. Cherry Blossom Season is also the most expensive time to visit Kyoto as hotel prices are much higher. It’s also very important to book accommodations, activities, restaurants and transport early because of the amount of tourists visiting during this time. The temperatures are generally comfortable this time of year, though it is best to still bring a jacket.

Summer (June to August)

The Kyoto summer can be hot and humid, with temperatures often exceeding 86°F. June is also the rainy season, while July and August are the hottest months in Kyoto. In the summer in Kyoto, you can enjoy festivals like the Gion Matsuri festival in July and the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi festival in August. Both of these festivals offer unique cultural experiences.

Autumn (September to November)

Autumn is another popular time to visit Kyoto. There is stunning fall foliage in Kyoto, known as Koyo, and the weather is generally mild, making it comfortable to walk outdoors and sightsee. The leaves typically change colors in lake October to early December. Peak fall foliage is in mid-November. Crowds tend to be smaller compared to Cherry Blossom Season.

Winter (December to February)

Kyoto winters are relatively mild, with temperatures rarely dropping below freezing. Kyoto’s temples and shrines, such as Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji offer a serene atmosphere. It’s also nice to enjoy the onsens (hot springs) in the colder weather.

What is Kyoto famous for?

Kyoto is most famous for its shrines and temples, and is also famous for i a variety of cultural, technological, natural and culinary aspects. This Kyoto travel guide goes into some of the things that Kyoto is particularly renowned for:

Historic Temples and Shrines

Kyoto, which was once the imperial capital of Japan, is home to some of Japan’s most iconic and historically significant temples and shrines. Popular temples and shrines to visit include Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), Fushimi Inari Shrine (thousands of torii gates and popular hike) and Kiyomizu-dera.

Traditional Geisha Culture

Kyoto is famous for it’s traditional geisha culture and the historic Gion district.The historic Gion district is where geisha and maiko live and has traditional teahouses.

Cuisine

Kyoto is known for it’s incredible cuisine, especially wagyu, sushi, ramen and fruit like Tokyo. However, when you’re in Kyoto the best things to get are matcha teas, snacks and desserts. There is a lot more matcha variety in Kyoto than other cities. Kyoto also has the famous Ippodo tea house and store where you can buy blends unique to Kyoto.

Technology and Innovation

Kyoto is known its bullet trains that travel at high speeds between cities and are a very efficient way to travel around Japan. Kyoto has high tech toilets, many of which have heated seats and various settings.

Cherry Blossom Season

Japan is famous for its cherry blossom (Sakura) season, which is in the spring. Popular places to experience Cherry Blossom Season in Kyoto are Maruyama Park and the Philosopher’s Path. During cherry blossom season, many cafes and restaurants have cherry blossom specials like cherry blossom coffee.

Natural Beauty

Kyoto is the center of Zen Buddhism, with many Zen temples and gardens known for their tranquility and minimalist design  Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is where you can wander through a massive bamboo forest and gaze at the beauty that surrounds you. The Fushimi Inari Shrine has thousands of torii gates and you can spend a few hours here hiking to the top and down.

What are the best things to do in Kyoto?

There are so many incredible things to do when you’re in Kyoto, it’s hard to summarize them all in a paragraph. So, we’ve created an in depth list for the best things to do in Kyoto.

Some of the most popular things to do in Kyoto are to experience Cherry Blossom Season in Maruyama Park and the Philosopher’s Path, enjoy a traditional tea ceremony, stroll through Gion, hike and explore nature and visit the historic temples and shrines. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Hozugawa River and Fushimi Inari Shrine are popular places to stroll and hike. Other iconic temples include Kinkak-ji (the Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) and Kiyomizu-dera. In Gion, the historic district, you can stroll along traditional wooden machiya houses, tea houses and the potential to see geisha and maiko.

While Kyoto is known for incredible food like Tokyo, the number one thing to get in Kyoto is matcha. There is a famous tea restaurant and store called Ippodo based in Kyoto that has blends you can only buy there in Kyoto. There are lots of great matcha teas, desserts and snacks available throughout Kyoto too.

Is Kyoto Safe?

Kyoto is considered a very safe destination for travelers. Kyoto has a low crime rate and is known for its safety, cleanliness and strong sense of public order. As you’re walking around, you’ll notice many small signs of this such as nobody locks up their bike. They leave their bike there, and no one takes it. If you happen to lose something, there is a good chance it will be turned over to the local authorities or lost and found. The culture places a high value on honesty, and it is a very respectful society.

The public transportation is also known to be incredibly reliable, punctual and safe.

If you do need emergency services, the emergency number in Japan is 110 for police, fire and ambulance services.

Japan is prone to earthquakes. Most buildings and public spaces have clear earthquake safety instructions.

What is the best area to stay in Kyoto?

The best area to stay in Kyoto depends on your interests, budget and the type of experience you’re seeking. Kyoto is a large city, with many popular sites to visit on your trip. Many of these sites are spread out, so you’ll be taking many trains and a few cabs regardless of where you stay in order to see everything. As a result, instead of picking a top area to stay, pick a hotel you like that is close to either a few sites you want to see or meals you want to enjoy. Areas to stay in Kyoto include downtown Kyoto, Higashiyama district, Gion, Arashiyama, Pontocho, Gion-Shijo, Northern Higashiyama, Fushimi-ku and the Ukyo Ward. There are several stunning hotels in Kyoto that are worth staying at regardless of the rest of your itinerary. Here are the best areas to stay in Kyoto.

How to save money traveling in Kyoto

Traveling in Kyoto can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. It is possible to only take public transportation using your Icoca, Pasmo or Suica card and Japan Rail Pass, though if you are tight on time you will be taking taxis in order to squeeze in all of the popular sites. Using public transportation is one of the easiest ways to save money, especially as the trains are so clean, extensive and efficient. Kyoto is also beautiful to walk around, and you can walk to some of your destinations.

Accommodations range from budget friendly accommodations like hostels or capsule hotels all the way to some of the most luxurious hotels in the world. Staying in less touristy areas can also help reduce your accommodation costs. Major US chains like Marriott and Hyatt are in Kyoto and you can save money by using points for your stays. Avoiding Cherry Blossom Season will also save you money as accommodations prices are highest during Cherry Blossom Season. Planning your accommodations well in advance will also help you get a better hotel rate and the cheapest rooms are more likely to still be available.

You can save on meals by getting food at 7-11 (yes, this is a great option and you should check out 7-11 even if you’re not trying to save money on food). The ramen restaurants like Ichiran are incredible cheap yet amazing. There are even incredible markets in the train stations like Kyoto Station.

Many of the historic temples and shrines in Kyoto are either free or fairly cheap to enter. If you don’t feel like paying the entrance fee, you are still able to enjoy seeing some of the sites from a distance.

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