Kyoto Travel Guide
Kon'nichiwa, Holiday Extras here to help you make the most of your trip with our definitive guide to Kyoto! In this Kyoto travel guide we'll be sharing all the essential information you'll need to use the city's transport, some insight into the epic food scene and some language tips, plus a rundown of our best things to do in Kyoto.
In fact, here's a contents table with handy links to the Kyoto travel guide sections:
But first, before diving straight in, let's start off with a quick introduction about this beautiful city…
- An Introduction to Kyoto
- Our Holiday Extras better start
- Getting to Kyoto from the UK
- Public transport in Kyoto
- Food in Kyoto
- Things to do in Kyoto
- Money in Kyoto
- Using basic Japanese in Kyoto
An Introduction to Kyoto
The ancient city of Kyoto lies around 280 miles west of it's neon counterpart, Tokyo and roughly 25 miles north of Osaka.
For well over a thousand years the city of Kyoto was home to the Japanese Imperial Family, and therefore the nation's capital city until 1868. It was at this time that the Emperor moved east to Edo, the home of the Shogunate and an already well-established port of trade, who renamed the city, Tokyo.
It's fair to say that the traditional and historic Kyoto is in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Here, arts and culture have had a huge influence on the city, which has helped shaped the beautiful and peaceful Kyoto that stands today.
Aside from Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which include temples, shrines and gardens, there's a bustling food and craft scene, plus it's also the home of a very small company called Nintendo, which you may or may not have heard of…
There's a lot of things to see and do in Kyoto so let's get on with it – here's the Holiday Extras Guide to Kyoto…
Our Holiday Extras better start
We're a little biased but we think that any trip you start with us is always going to be brilliant. We're also never one to shy away from making a point, so let's explain…
Our trip started the day before our flight when the film crew drove up to London's Heathrow airport. Our plane was scheduled for the crack of dawn and none of us are particularly morning people, neither are we fans of getting stuck in traffic. Arriving early, we parked our car at the nearby Purple Parking and made our way to the the swanky Hilton T4 for an overnight stay.
Breakfast included, we scoffed up and made the short stroll to the terminal without even a whiff of delays on the M25.
Of course, travelling in style is something we love to do at any given opportunity and booking the lush, yet modestly priced Plaza Premium to chill out for a couple of hours was an absolute no-brainer.
Sufficiently relaxed and as ready as one can be for an epic 10-hour flight, we boarded the plane and flew east towards Kyoto, Japan.
Getting to Kyoto from the UK
Flights from the UK will arrive at Osaka Kansai International airport 60 miles south of Kyoto. From here you can take one of Japan's super-efficient trains into the city or hop on the Airport Limousine bus.
The JR Haruka Express takes 75 minutes to Kyoto Station, stopping at Shin-Osaka along the way. A one-way ticket costs ¥1,880.
The Limousine Bus departs from the first floor of both terminals and takes 90 minutes to reach Kyoto Station, after which it makes several further stops across town. If one of these stops is near your hotel, the bus may end up quicker than the train, so check their online timetable before planning your journey. Expect to pay ¥2550 for your journey.
If you hold a British passport you will not need a visa to enter Japan and can stay for up to 90 days as a tourist. You'll need to fill out a landing card when you arrive and may need proof that your departure flight is booked.
Public transport in Kyoto
Somewhat surprisingly for Japan, Kyoto does not have an extensive subway network. Yes, there is a metro, but we found that when visiting Kyoto's tourist sites it generally worked out quicker to get the bus and you get to really see the city.
Getting the bus in Kyoto
When using public buses in Kyoto, bear these important things in mind:
- When boarding, get on at the back and off at the front
- Kyoto buses have a single flat fare of ¥230 that you must pay as you get off
- The driver will not have change, so make sure you have the exact money when buying a single
Top tip: Pick up a 24-hour pass for ¥500
Most bus services run between 7am and 9pm, with some offering earlier and later routes, what's more, most have announcements in English for tourists.
We mentioned Kyoto's Metro system earlier; yes, it's a potential option for getting around, though we strongly recommend buses. Kyoto is an old city and the subway system isn't nearly as convenient as hopping on a good ol' bus, or even walking and cycling if that tickles your fancy.
If you do insist on getting the subway in Kyoto you need to know that there are two lines:
- The Karasuma line that runs north to south…
- … And the Tozai line which runs east to west.
The subway operates between 5:30am and 11:30pm and the minimum adult fare costs ¥210.
Travel Apps in Kyoto
Regardless of whether you take the bus or metro, when it comes to navigation, get your data sorted and use Google Maps; it's as reliable as ever in Kyoto. Alternatively you can use the Arukumachi KYOTO Route Planner app, which is free on iOS and Android.
Rush hour in Kyoto
No matter where in the world you are, rush hour is always going to be a big deal when visiting a major city. In the morning, your peak busy periods are between 8am and 9am and in the evening, 5pm is busiest with people thinning out by 7pm. Avoid public transport at these times, especially if travelling with children.
Food in Kyoto
What's the food like in Japan?
Cuisine in Kyoto is known for being refined, delicious and second only to Tokyo when it comes to quality, in fact the city of Kyoto has over 100 Michelin-star restaurants.
When it comes to food (and pretty much anything in Japan for that matter) the attention to detail and the care taken in preparation is unrivalled. The food on offer here is nothing short of spectacular and mark my words, from high-end restaurants, street stalls or even ready-prepared meals from any given 7-Eleven store, you will not be disappointed. Neither will you go hungry.
Delciious dishes you need to try in Kyoto
One Kyoto's many specialities is Kaiseki, which is Japanese haute cuisine. The meal itself consists of a set menu offering a simple, hand-crafted dish for each each course, of which there can be as many as 11. However, both style and substance play a huge part, with a focus on balancing flavours, colour and texture.
Kyoto is also famous for its tofu. There's also a strong Japanese Buddhist influence in the region making this city a great place to find vegetarian cuisine, like yudofu and shojin ryori.
Another speciality in Kyoto are sweets, specifically Kyo-wagashi – beautifully crafted confections in various shapes and colours, which genuinely are as sweet as they look. Nom.
Where should I eat in Kyoto?
Head to the nearest department store. ASAP.
Department stores in Japan are typically multi-storey behemoths, with each floor dedicated to different sections. And while the stores in central Kyoto can't match the scale of those in Tokyo, they're certainly cut from the same cloth. Often, the top floors are dedicated to restaurants and places to grab a quick bite, and the best part about sticking to the larger department stores is the wide variety of delicious dishes on offer.
My tip for Kyoto is to head to the station. The Isetan store in the station building has both the top and bottom floors dedicated to food. The top is a selection of restaurants, but best of all, the bottom floor is a huge food hall with just about anything you could imagine. This is the absolute best place to load up your packed lunch before a day's sightseeing.
Things to do in Kyoto
As one of Japan's oldest cities, it's no surprise that there's plenty of things to do in Kyoto, and in my opinion, no trip here would be complete without visiting these hotspots…
Top of the list if Kyoto's old town, Gion. This is the place to go for traditional Japan, and our personal favourite. If you're a fan of Memoirs of a Geisha and all things historical and cultural, and you're also an Instagram aficionado, this is an absolute must-visit, though bear mind that the town is very popular and can get rather busy.
Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, is you guessed it, covered in gold. According to local custom the gold plating will purify negative energy. The temple itself is stunning although there isn't a whole lot else to do here once you've got the obligatory photo. My top tip for visiting this popular tourist attraction: go early to avoid the crowds and then move on to my personal favourite, Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Temple…
Now this is what comes to mind when thinking of traditional Japanese temples. A gentle, quiet and relaxing garden with some beautiful buildings. In English, Ginkaku-ji translates to Silver Pavilion, though unlike it's golden counterpart never got plated with precious metal. In all honesty, it's just as pretty and well-worth a wander regardless.
Next up is the Fushimi Inari shrine and its thousands of orange torii. This legendary site is one of Japan's most famous and most photographed.
The gates line the paths up the Inari mountain and if you can get ahead of the crowds the walk itself a beautifully serene experience. Just watch out for the bugs! The walk to the top will take a couple of hours, but the views over the city make it well worth it in my opinion. Fushimi Inari is open 24 hours a day all year round and best of all, is free to enter!
The famous orange torii are packed most densely at the beginning of the trail and spread out the further you travel up the path to the shrine. Bear in mind that this walk involves trekking a small mountain, so have good footwear and plenty of water. You'll also be pleased to know that there are designated rest areas serving tea on your trek. All-in-all, expect to take a couple of hours to get to the top.
Oh deer, oh deer… next on our list is Nara Park and its hundreds of "friendly" Sika Deer.
Of course, we were mauled as soon as we got there. You can buy crackers to feed the deer, just be aware that once they know you have some, they'll go for you!
Jokes about rabid Bambi aside, the park is great and having the opportunity to get up close to the deer was something we'll never forget. And if animals aren't your thing, there are many temples and shrines in the park, including Todaiji, the world's largest wooden structure.
To get to Nara we took the JR Nara line from Kyoto to JR Nara Station, which cost ¥690 each. Make sure you get the 45-minute direct service instead of the local service which will take 70 minutes. Once you're at the station there are plenty of directions to get the bus to the park.
Top tip: When feeding the deer, stay calm and hold out one cracker at a time. They'll bow their head and take the biscuit from you.
Another must-see, if not for your Instagram feed, then to boost your zen is Arashiyama, the nearby famous bamboo grove.
The grove's open 24/7 and admission is free, though I'd say that the best times to visit are during the afternoons, especially in summertime, because the grove isn't particularly well-lit and you want to make as much of the natural light. It's worth mentioning that along the way there are several temples and residences to stop and explore, like Tenryu-ji Temple, that do require a small entry fee.
Money in Kyoto
The currency here is the Japanese yen and at the time of writing this guide, £1 should buy you between 140 and 150.
Credit and debits cards in Kyoto
Now, despite the country's technological advances and love of all things futuristic, Japan is still a predominantly cash reliant society, favouring notes and coins over credit and debit cards, which can be a bit of a pain unless you're prepared.
Credit cards are accepted in most hotels and department stores, but only some restaurants and ryokan.
Fun fact: Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns that originated in the 8th Century A.D
ATMs in Kyoto
ATMs are available in major banks, post offices and 7-Eleven stores, though these can be closed from 9pm and not always available at the weekend. If this is the case, some convenience stores and shopping centres are 24/7.
Do I have to tip in Japan?
Another great thing about money in Japan, tipping just isn't done. In fact, to leave a tip is quite an offense in some instances, as it implies that you're being charitable rather than generous.
Money etiquette in Kyoto
It's quite common for a small tray to be near tills. These are for depositing your cash rather than handing directly to the cashier. It's deemed poor etiquette to ignore this custom. The other is that in bars, bills run on tabs and are paid before you leave.
What did we spend in Kyoto?
Here's a breakdown of what we spent during our trip:
- Return flights from London with one stopover like ours can be had for around £650
- Our 3-bedroom rental house was £165 per night
- Worldwide travel insurance with Holiday Extras was £16
- A tasty pork katsu dish, ¥1,512 (that's about £9.85)
- Entry to Kinkaku-ji was ¥400 (say £2.60-ish)
- And entry to Ginkaku-ji was ¥500 (£3.26 if we're being exact)
Using basic Japanese in Kyoto
At first glance, Japanese can seem a little overwhelming to novices like myself and English isn't widely spoken, here are a few helpful phrases to see you through.
- Hello – Kon'nichiwa
- Thank you – Arigatō
- Thank you very much | Arigatō gozaimasu
- Can I have the Bill please – Okaikei
- Excuse me – Sumimasen
- Yes – Hai
- No – Īe
- Goodbye – Sayōnara
That's it for our time in the city of Kyoto! In summary, Kyoto is clean, peaceful and rich in historic landmarks that are begging to be explored. What's more, Kyoto is so photogenic, especially when it comes to the food (yes, we're that person…).
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That's it from us, Sayōnara!
Exchange rates accurate at time of writing.
Next article: Mallorca Travel Guide
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