If I asked you to think about Japan, I could almost guarantee your brain would conjure up an image that depicts Kyoto. Buddhist temples, manicured gardens and imperial palaces are the cornerstone of Japan, and Kyoto has them all and more.
The former capital of Japan, and the seventh-largest city in the country, sits on the middle of island of Honshu; the largest of the Japanese islands and the same as Tokyo. Kyoto is very much considered to be the cultural heart of Japan with over 2000 religious sites – 1,600 Buddhist and 400 Shinto. It is also the city of glorious festivals. One of the most significant, the Gion Matsuri, takes place over the entire month of July and is a grand spectacle of floats and parades traditionally dedicated to appeasing the gods to ward off disease.
All that glitters is gold!
Settlement in Kyoto is said to date back to the Palaeolithic period, though evidence of this is sparse. One of the first recorded settlements in the city was recorded in the 6th Century with the building of Shimogamo Shrine, the oldest shrine in Japan. During the following centuries, Kyoto was a village-based society focused on religion and agriculture. Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1869 when the Emperor moved the capital to the more industrialised Tokyo. Kyoto is the site of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an agreement aimed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. Today, Kyoto offers visitors the chance to appreciate ancient Japanese traditions while keeping a sharp eye on the future.
Here’s a Pro-tip: The currency used is the Japanese Yen. About 150 Japanese Yen is equal to one British Pound, though the rate regularly fluctuates.
Most travellers touch down at Osaka International Airport, which sits just under 50km south-west of the city or Kansai International Airport. From Kansai, take the Limited Express Haruka train operated by Japan Rail West. This high-speed train will have you in Kyoto in just 75-minutes, with a brief stop at Osaka on the way. If you’ve never taken a high-speed train before, it’s definitely worth the experience!
From golden temples and zen gardens to vermillion shrines and bamboo forests, there’s plenty to enjoy in Kyoto! Below are a handful of my favourite attractions dotted across the city:
- Kiyomizudera – This is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan set amongst the wooden hills east of the city right next to a waterfall. Like many other temples, the building is constructed entirely out of wood. Over the years, planks are replaced, until literally every piece of wood is replaced over a period of hundreds of years, but the structure looks exactly the way it did when it was built in the 8th This offers a paradox: is the temple really twelve centuries old or a replica of the original?
I’m Geisha-ing you’ll have a great time!
- To-ji Temple – This famous 5 storey pagoda temple dating back to 794, is probably the most pohotgraphed in the city and is one of the city’s many UNESCO world heritage sites. If you’re visit falls over the 21st of the month, don’t miss the Kobi-San market on the temple grounds .
- Kyoto’s Imperial Palace – The official residence of the Emperor in Kyoto, this walled compound sits inside the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. Book a guided group tour or wander through on your own and marvel at the traditional architecture and immaculate gardens.
- Kyoto Botanical Gardens – Founded in 1942 and featuring an impressive collection of 12,000 species of flora, the Botanical Gardens located in Kitayama is a welcoming green haven in the middle of the city. This is an especially beautiful attraction in spring for the cherry blossoms and autumn for the fall colours.
- Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine – Fushimi is an important Shinto shrine famous for its vermilion torii gates which line the shrine’s trails. An entire day could be spent wandering amongst this treasure.
It’s like walking through a forest of No. 2 pencils!
- Kinkakuji Temple –This gilded gold temple sits beside a beautiful lake in Kyoto’s Kita Ward district. I suggest visiting at sunrise to witness the light bouncing off the gold leaf structure.
- Monkey Park Iwatayama – Located on a forested hill west of Kyoto is a sprawling monkey park home to over 120 wild Japanese macaque monkeys. Make sure you zip your belongings into your bag, or you might lose an item or two to these cheeky primates.
- Kyoto Tower – For panoramic views over the city, head to the top of Kyoto Tower (the tallest building in the city). The tower’s observation deck, 100m above the city, features telescopes and informative touch screen displays about the city’s skyline.
- Kyoto International Manga Museum – Kyoto’s Manga Museum features an extensive array of Japanese comic books, graphic novels and cartoon artwork. If you’re interested in Japanese pop culture, this museum is an absolute must-see!
Did you know Kyoto has the third most Michelin stars in the world? That’s probably because Japanese cuisine is so fantastic. The city is also renowned for its kaiseki dining, a multi-course meal traditionally consumed while geishas perform. Check out my favourite places to dine in Kyoto below:
- Menya Inoichi Hanare – For the most delicious bowl of Ramen noodles, head to Menya Inoichi Hanare. The tiny 10-seater cafe-come-restaurant specialises in miso ramen and serves grilled wagyu beef on the side of each bowl!
Eating sushi makes Miso happy!
- Kyoto Kitcho Arashiyama – Kitcho restaurant is a renowned fine-dining restaurant located in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, and it’s one of the best places to try kaiseki dining. If you’re not on a tight budget, make a reservation and enjoy the luxury of fine dining in an elegant atmosphere.
- Azuma Sushi – Dine with the locals at Azuma Sushi, an unpretentious sushi restaurant in the Southern Higashiyama district. Note that you don’t particularly order here; you eat what you’re given (but all dishes are delicious)!
Kyoto is brimming with bars, clubs and watering holes, but the city also has its fair share of theatres and live music venues. Check out my favourite places to frequent after a day of exploring the city:
- Minamiza Kabuki Theater – No trip to Kyoto is complete without seeing kabuki, a classical Japanese dance-drama. You might not have a clue what’s happening on stage, but the spectacular stagecraft, glamorous costumes and elaborate kumadori make-up are quite a cultural experience.
- Metro – This is one of the best music venues in the city. Both local and international artists take to the stage, and in recent years poets, lecturers and screenwriters have stepped up to share their work with the crowd.
- Jo Social Sake Bar – Spend the evening sampling sake, a traditional Japanese wine made from fermented rice. Most staff speak English and are more than happy to talk you through the variants of sake on offer.
Kyoto has its fair share of 5-star hotels and luxury retreats, but the city also boasts a good mix of affordable options including traditional ryokan inns. Here are my favourite places to enjoy a good night’s sleep in the city:
Kyoto is the gateway to my happy place!
- Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto – To be truly wowed, enjoy a night or two at the Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto. This 5-star hotel boasts an incredible spa, beautiful gardens and zen-themed rooms.
- Aman Kyoto – Sticking with the theme of luxury, the Aman Kyoto provides unparalleled accommodation. The contemporary hotel is tucked away amidst 32 acres of lush forest and features private hot spring onsen pools!
- Sowaka – For a more affordable stay, consider resting your head at Sowaka. This 21st Century ryokan inn sits in a former teahouse and is picture-perfect in every way. Enjoy views of the city from your room!
Learn the art of Zen Buddhism, sip too much tea and dine like Japanese royalty. Kyoto offers a wonderful immersion into classical Japanese culture which you’ll love!