Kyoto is, without a doubt, one of the jewels in Japan’s elaborate crown. Filled with beautiful parks and gardens, markets, shopping, countless temples and delicious food to try, it’s definitely somewhere you need several days to properly enjoy.
We spent four days in this former national capital – reputably the country’s most beautiful – and we barely even scratched the surface. There’s so much to see in Kyoto, so should you find yourself heading in its direction, save some of these for your to-do list.
1. Find a place to stay
There’s a plethora accomodation in Kyoto, from hotels and guest houses to more traditional ryokans and machiya. Choose what part of town you want to stay in, set your budget, get online and start searching.
We stayed at the RC Hotel in the Higashiyama Ward, right in the heart of the historic temple district. The building served as a residential block for 50 years, before being gutted and remodelled into a contemporary hotel. Some may see it as a concrete bunker, others will see it as industrial chic. Either way, you’re just steps from one of the city’s most impressive pagodas and in the thick of one of the city’s historic districts.
2. Explore Higashiyama
Located on the foothills of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, Higashiyama is one of the city’s best preserved historic districts. It’s here that you can get a taste of old Kyoto. Wander narrow laneways lined with traditional wooden buildings and merchant shops, cafes, souvenir stores and restaurants.
Yasaka-no-to Pagoda dominates the skyline, yet it stands alone as the temple it belonged to – Hokan-ji Temple – was destroyed over the years by fires, wars and earthquakes.
3. Play dress-ups
Many people indulge in getting made up as a maiko, geisha or samurai, just to wander the tourist hotspots and soak up the atmosphere. It’s hugely popular! I mean, who wouldn’t want to shuffle about the streets and stop every five minutes to take countless selfies? Your followers will love you for it!
4. Start your day with a curry
Head to Higashiyama’s vibrant Yasaka Street and settle in for breakfast at Toh no shita. Sit amongst Scandi tableware – most of which is for sale – and fill the tummy with a delicious vegetarian morning curry (¥750), a wholemeal toast set (¥680) or Finnish pancakes.
5. Drink coffee excellence
Just metres from Yasaka-no-to Pagoda is pure coffee heaven. It doesn’t take much to spot % Arabica, as all you need to look out for is a line of people waiting patiently for their jolt of caffeine. Whether it’s espresso, iced Americano or milky latte, these guys sure deliver.
There are two other % Arabica outlets in town, one of which is mentioned further down my list.
6. Eat soft cream
If you don’t see people dressed in colourful kimonos clutching their phones or a takeaway coffee on Yasaka Street, you’ll see them clutching a soft cream. Probably with a phone in their other hand! Mizuirotei is a tiny shopfront on the popular shopping strip that offers many flavours of soft cream. Try their house matcha kyoto special – green tea soft cream topped with brown sugar syrup and kinako (sweet toasted soybean flour).
7. Lunch on cheap bento
Yūshokutei is a tiny fast food-style bento joint that offers a temporary escape from traffic-filled Bishamoncho in east Kyoto, not far from Yasaka Street and Yasaka-no-to Pagoda. The pricing is seriously cheap – as little as ¥360 – so you can fill up on the likes of yaki bento (¥695) with tender pork yakiniku, fried chicken, pickles and rice. The beer’s cheap, too.
8. Hit up the supermarket
Checking out supermarkets in foreign countries is always on my agenda. It’s a great way to get an idea of the local cuisine, you always make some great discovers, and in places like Japan, you can pick up some cheap ready-to-eat meals like bento and sushi.
Fresco is bigger than the usual 7-Eleven and FamilyMart, so the choice is greater. We often dropped in to pick up beer, wine, juice and snacks, and how excited was I when I found packets of potato crisps branded with dark chocolate?!
9. Explore Hanami Lane and the Kennin-ji Temple precinct
These are just two small pieces that form the much larger historic Gion district. During the day it’s virtually impossible to avoid the tourist crowds, so it’s best to look past the hoards and appreciate the gorgeous traditional architecture, streetscapes and gardens.
Hanami Lane – or Hanami-koji – is lined with traditional wooden teahouses and, if you’re very lucky, you just may spot a geisha (or geiko, as they are known in Kyoto). Kennin-ji is one of five great zen temples in Kyoto, and being founded in 1202, it’s considered the oldest. The gardens around it are stunning, as are the dragon artworks, so it’s no wonder people flock here. Entry is ¥500.
10. Follow the footsteps of a philosopher
In the northern part of the Higashiyama district is The Philosopher’s Path, an almost 2km stretch of stone walkway along a cherry tree-lined canal. Visit in April and you’ll witness a sea of colourful blossoms.
The path gets its name from Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous 20th-century philosophers, where it’s believed he meditated whilst walking along the canal to Kyoto University.
11. Explore the grounds of Nanzen-ji temple
The leafy foothills of the Higashiyama Mountains are home to the sprawling grounds of the 13th-century Nanzen-ji Temple, not too far from the Philosopher’s Path. Within the grounds are numerous sub-temples, paths and some beautiful gardens; all worth exploring.
It’s difficult to miss the Suirokaku Aqueduct, which cuts a swath through the temple grounds. The still-functioning aqueduct was built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), and is an impressive sight to see.
Access to the Nanzen-ji Temple grounds is free, but entry to the temples, sub-temples and climbing up Sanmon Gate incur separate fees.
12. Have coffee with a side of zen
A hop, skip and jump from Nanzen-ji Temple is Blue Bottle Coffee, housed in a beautifully restored century-old building. The simple wooden interior is the perfect place to take a moment of zen, and re-caffeinate before or after exploring the temple grounds.
13. Take an afternoon stroll by the Kamo River
It may not be the prettiest stretch of water you’ve seen, but the Kamo River is the ideal spot to escape the busy streets and breathe in the fresh air; especially at dusk when the light is magical. During summer, restaurants and bars that face the river open their doors and decks for customers to enjoy the cool air and water views.
Notice how perfectly spaced the couples are, sitting on the riverbank? This comes from the impressive Japanese culture of people respecting each other’s space. I love it!
14. See Kyoto from 100 metres up
It may look completely out of place on the relatively flat city skyline, but the 1960s Kyoto Tower is a spot for those that like to get 360° views from above. You can even see as far as Osaka on a clear day. The building on which it sits is a labyrinth of souvenir shops, restaurants, plus a hotel.
Costs ¥700 weekdays, ¥750 weekends.
15. Get your ramen fix at Kyoto Station
The beauty of Japanese train stations, as well as shopping centres, are the food options they also house. Kyoto Station doesn’t disappoint as, if you head to the 10th floor, you’ll find Kyoto Ramen Koji – or Ramen Street. This corridor features 10 ramen joints selling different varieties of ramen from different parts of the country. And they’re all well priced.
Our pick was Shirakaba Sanso, a Sapporo-style ramen eatery that gets packed at lunchtime. Arm yourself with an optional disposable bib, help yourself to the bowls of boiled eggs on each table, get cracking and slurp over your steaming ramen. We went for miso with char siu (¥1050), black fungus and bamboo shoots. Delicious!
16. Hit the market
The city’s premier marketplace would have to be Nishiki, a 6 block-long extravaganza fresh produce, seafood, souvenir, tea and ceramic stores, custom knives and just about anything you need to whip up a traditional Japanese meal.
Pickled vegetables are hugely popular in Japan, and it’s difficult to miss the barrels of nukazuke throughout the market. This method of preservation stems from the Edo period, where each store ferments its own vegetables in salt and rice bran. The array of vegetables is impressive!
Cooked food ready to devour is another attraction to Nishiki Market. Skewers of squid and fish straight off the coals, delightful little fried hedgehog pastries filled with sweet custard or deliciously sweet smoked eel. There’s even baby octopus filled with a boiled quail egg!
17. Wander the shopping arcades
The Nishiki Market area has a lot around it, and at its eastern end are the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku shopping arcades. This is the beating heart when it comes to Kyoto’s shopping, and thanks to being covered, visitors are all set if it starts to rain, snow or the sun’s just too intense.
Teramachi is filled with more refined clothing, bookstores and galleries, whereas Shinkyogoku caters more to the tacky souvenir end of the market.
18. Eat Korean soup for lunch
Korean food in Kyoto? Why not? The main attraction at Tokyo Sundubu is sundubu-jjigae (soft tofu stew), which has a base of freshly curdled soft tofu with the addition of vegetables, seafood or meat. You choose your soup base (salty, miso or non-spicy), your level of chilli and the amount of rice you prefer. They even make their own tofu here, so it doesn’t come fresher.
Ignore the uninterested staff and focus on your piping hot bowl of goodness – as I did with my pork & potato with kimchi (¥1250).
This place is located in the Sumitomo Fudosan Building, but if Korean food doesn’t do it for you, check out the nine other restaurants on the same floor. Or head up to Level 8 for even more eateries.
19. Do fluffy pancakes
The soufflé pancake thing is something many people rave about, when in Japan. It wasn’t until this point in our travels that we took the plunge, so I obediently followed and partook in the new (for us) culinary experience.
Happy Pancake is situated down a corridor and one floor up from the street, and their specialty is, you guessed it – pancakes. Whilst the other half quite liked the green tea pancake with azuki butter & black honey (¥1380), I found them akin to a very eggy-flavoured soufflé. A fan, I am not.
20. Eat your body weight in pastries
Discovering Heart Bread Antique felt like some kind of godsend. Yes, Japan is saturated with bakeries, but this one’s just a bit different from the rest. The choice is immense – sweet, savoury and everything else between.
Go crazy and pick up enormous croissant rings, oozing béchamel & French cheese rolls and the one that rocked my world – the custard-filled baumkuchen.
21. Become a coffee snob
Good coffee can be found in some unexpected places, so it goes without saying that a carpark in central Kyoto harbours a tiny joint that extracts coffee perfection.
Weekenders Coffee is squeezed into a small traditional townhouse, complete with clay walls, wood beams, bamboo details and sliding partition door. A single bench out front is the only seating at this little mecca, but that doesn’t matter, this isn’t somewhere you’d linger for more than 10 minutes. Unless it’s for a second shot of coffee excellence.
22. Eat sweets and gaze at art
The backstreets of downtown Kyoto contain many fascinating businesses, one of which is the little oasis of Umezono Cafe & Gallery. Enter the converted traditional “machiya” residence and choose from a variety of sweets like mitarashi-dango (skewered rice balls in sweet syrup), matcha pancakes, even French toast. The iced matcha tea is delicious, though pricey, and the matcha & kinako warabi (brown sugar) mocha (¥720) are well-worth visiting for.
23. Slurp on burnt ramen
The former geisha house Kyoto Gokyu resides in is the perfect space for a restaurant. Take a seat at the kitchen counter, or at one of the tables out the back and slurp on tasty kogashi miso-men (burnt miso ramen ¥1290). The selling point of the noodles is the charred black oil slick on the surface which adds an interesting element, but I much preferred the tonkotsu-men (pork broth ramen ¥1290). The gyoza (¥590) are good, too.
24. Follow the torii gate road and reward yourself with coffee
Fushimi Inari Shrine – found just two stops from Kyoto Station – is one of several thousand shrines dedicated to the god of rice and sake. As impressive as the building is, the main attraction here are the 5000-or-so vermillion torii gates that line paths winding through the forest up sacred Mount Inari; also named after this god.
Each torii gate has been donated by companies or individuals that are happy to fork out at least ¥400,000 for a small gate. ¥1K will buy you a big one. The walk up the mountain isn’t overly strenuous, if you pace yourself, but there are several kiosks along the way to pick up refreshments or take a rest.
Another fact: Inari’s messenger is the fox, hence the multitude of fox statues along the trail.
Once you’ve done the trails, take a well-earned breather at Vermillion Cafe, found a short walk north of the temple complex. The interior is raw, yet inviting, but it’s the leafy outdoor terrace that makes the experience a tad more zen. The coffee is excellent, and it ought to be, considering it’s sourced from Weekenders.
25. Crane your neck in a bamboo forest
Kyoto’s Arashiyama District, on the western edge of the city, is a part of town that’s dotted with shrines and temples, a Monkey Park and a lot of open space, but its biggest claim to fame is the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. As impressively beautiful as it is, the path through the grove is underwhelmingly short. The best time to come is before 8.30am, after which it fills with people very rapidly. Get in early!
Down by the Katsura River near the Bamboo Forest, just upstream from the Togetsu-kyō Bridge, is the second % Arabica cafe we visited in Kyoto. The tiny booth has some fab views over the river, although if you want to sit at its only table, there’s a ¥1000 surcharge. Otherwise it’s takeaway, standing near the counter or sitting at the bench on the curb. Still, the coffee is consistently good.
26. Buy a ¥400 golden ticket
A must-see icon in Kyoto is Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, originally built as part of a retirement complex in 1397 by the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimitsu. The building burned down several times throughout its history, more recently by a monk that lost the plot, in 1950.
The pavilion we see today was built in 1955, pretty much as it once was. Three distinct architectural styles can be seen in each floor. Shinden in the first, Bukke in the second and the third in Chinese Zen Hall style. The top two levels look as if they’ve been dipped in liquid gold and are an impressive sight when viewed across the beautifully manicured pond.
Entry to Kinkaku-ji is ¥400.
27. Have dinner on Ponto-chō Alley
For an evening of drinks and dinner with oodles of atmosphere, Ponto-chō Alley is the place to head. Aside from pricey restaurants and bars, the area is also filled with traditional teahouses. Visit around 5 or 6pm and you just may spot a geisha (or geiko), as we did.
28. Stuff your face with gyoza and beer
If the pricing on Ponto-chō Alley is a little too steep for you, head up the road to Chao Chao Gyoza. This award-winning eatery packs them in because they’re cheap, delicious and also serve cheap beer. Pork is the default filling of these crisp little dumplings, but they have some unusual fillings like curry, yuba, mashed potato or even mushroom risotto. Look at spending ¥600 for 16 pieces of pork gyoza.
29. Order food on sticks
Those with a penchant for izakaya (Japanese pub), Torikizoku on the busy Kiyamachi-dori eating strip is an inexpensive contender; and in true Japanese style, smoking is allowed inside. Order your food and drinks from the touch screen menu, all of them ¥321. That makes it easy!
A few of our choices – Sesame wasabi yaki (chicken topped with wasabi & shredded nori; Piman nikuzume (chicken stuffed peppers); mi-tare & kimo-tare (chicken & chicken liver skewers) and tare katsudon (crumbed chicken, soft egg on rice).
30. Fill up on tempura
Also in the vicinity is Kome-fuku, a bit of a hotspot for many things fried. These guys have a bit of a following for their tempura, hence their name, offering 40 different types of tempura.
Complimentary warm tofu with homemade peach ponzu vinegar may come your way, followed with a procession of tempura, should you order it. Eggplant (¥100), conger eel (¥390), oyster (¥270), shrimp (¥190), cod (¥190) all arrive at different times. For something non-tempura, try the delicious grilled salted fish gill (¥590) or the grilled yellowtail on dried leaf with homemade miso (¥590).
31. Eat ramen, or not, in Gion
The backstreets of Gion are a hive of eating activity once the sun goes down, and it pays to look down every little lane and passage, as you can chance upon a great little gem.
Once such place is Gion, Kyoto Ramen. Being completely ramen-ed out at the end of our stay in Kyoto, we opted for some other edibles. These guys get busy in no time, so getting in early is a wise idea. Most people seem to order ramen, which made me doubt our choices, but our roast pork rice (¥400), karaage (¥500) and rice topped with pickles (¥350) were nothing to scoff at.
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