Kyoto is Japan’s most beautiful city, sometimes achingly so. The shape of a willow tree as it arches gracefully over a narrow canal. A glimpse of the white-dusted neck of a geisha as she disappears around a corner, her hair coiffed perfectly above. The fragile pink blossoms of cherry trees shimmering like clouds. Majestic wooden temples stand sentry to centuries of history, while gardens shaped to perfection seem like heaven on earth. There are narrow streets lined with old wooden homes, artisan shops that have been passed down for generations, and tatami-floored restaurants and inns that have welcomed travelers so long it’s almost beyond comprehension. If there’s only one city in Japan you have time to visit, Kyoto should be it.
That’s not to say that the modern world hasn’t invaded this ancient capital, sometimes shockingly so, but there’s no better place to immerse yourself in the Japan of old than here. The only major Japanese city spared Allied bombing during World War II, Kyoto served as Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years, from 794 to 1868, after which the emperor and the capital moved to Tokyo. During that millennium, Kyoto witnessed the blossoming of the nation’s arts and crafts and everything from the tea ceremony to Buddhism. Because the imperial family lived here, Kyoto was the nation’s center for artisans, weavers, landscape gardeners, carpenters, and others needed to maintain a royal court, giving birth to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, extravagant imperial villas like Katsura, its own cuisine and almost 2,000 shines and temples.
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An astonishing 17 structures and sites in Kyoto Prefecture comprise the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it almost impossible not to see them on a visit to Kyoto. Among the sights first-timers should be sure to visit are Kiyomizu Temple, the shogun’s Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji Temple with its gold façade and Ryoanji with its famous rock garden. But to experience this former capital in an intimate way, visitors should also consider staying in a traditional Japanese inn, visiting the historic downtown food market, strolling Pontocho alongside the Kamo River and maybe joining a guided tour of the Gion geisha district or another walking or cycling tour.
Visitors with more time on their hands or repeat visitors might wish to take in more of historic Kyoto, with visits to Heian Shrine with its weeping cherry trees, Philosopher’s Pathway with its canal lined with cherry trees and nearby temples like Ginkakuji (Silver) Temple and the Saihoji moss garden.
Higashiyama-ku in eastern Kyoto has for more than three decades been my favorite place for a stroll, not only because I love visiting the Kyoto National Museum, Sanjusangendo Hall with its mind-boggling 1,001 life-size statues, Kiyomizu Temple and other famous sights, but also because of the tiny tearooms, shops, restaurants and the narrow, twisting lanes that link them all together. Shopping for those exquisite Japanese crafts is also a pleasure in Kyoto, whether it’s at a tea shop, a textile center, a monthly antiques market, or a department store.
It’s worthwhile also to make a side trip to Nara, a former capital even more ancient than Kyoto and blessed with a park dotted with temples (the star of the show is Todaiji Temple with its Great Buddha statue), roaming deer and Kasuga Grand Shrine. Nearby is Horyuji Temple with the oldest wooden structures in the world, Byodoin Temple and Fushimi-Inari Shrine with its thousands of vermillion-colored torii gates.
But no matter how long you stay or what you do, make sure to allow time for simply wandering. Kyoto is a town to be savored slowly and without plan, allowing the genteelness of its people, the simplicity of its unadorned latticed homes and vestiges of its past enter your subconscious and enrich your understanding of one of the world’s greatest cities.
Unsurprisingly considering Kyoto’s international fame, Kyoto draws tourists throughout the year. When making hotel reservations, keep in mind that accommodations can be tight during the cherry blossom season (usually March), in autumn for the changing of the leaves Oct/Nov, during summer vacation (mid-July through Aug) and during Kyoto’s many festivals. As for weather, summers in Kyoto are hot and humid, while winters are cold and can be snowy. The rainy season runs from June to July.
It’s possible to see Kyoto’s top sights in two days, but the city’s other main attractions are its historic neighborhoods radiating from downtown and the old capital’s atmosphere. Be sure to allow time simply to explore; if you’re racing from one temple to the next, the allure of this ancient town will literally pass you by. Three to four days will connect you to Kyoto’s history in a more personal way and will also allow enough time to visit Nara, which served as capital before Kyoto.
Japan’s national holidays are January 1
(New Year’s Day), second Monday in January (Coming-of-Age Day), February 11
(National Foundation Day), March 20 (Vernal Equinox Day), April 29 (Showa Day,
after the late Emperor Showa), May 3 (Constitution Memorial Day), May 4
(Greenery Day), May 5 (Children’s Day), third Monday in July (Maritime Day),
August 11 (Mountain Day, new holiday beginning in 2016); third Monday in
September (Respect-for-the-Aged Day), September 23 (Autumn Equinox Day), second
Monday in October (Health Sports Day), November 3 (Culture Day; many municipal
museums are free), November 23 (Labor Thanksgiving Day), and December 23
When a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday becomes
Aoi Matsuri — An annual festival of two shrines with a parade on May 15 in the style of the ancient Heian Court.
Gion Matsuri — One of Japan’s most famous festivals, dating back to the 9th century and featuring a parade of wheeled floats on July 17.
Jidai Matsuri — Celebrating the founding of Kyoto in 794, with a procession of more than 2,000 people dressed in traditional costumes on October 22.
To see what’s going on during your visit, see listings on Kyoto City’s tourism website.
Along with Tokyo, Kyoto is one of Japan’s most expensive cities. However, a favorable exchange rate for most visitors makes it less expensive than it was only a few years ago, and more affordable accommodations–often with bathrooms down the hall–are opening all the time. You can also save money by eating your biggest meal at lunch, when many restaurants offer a daily special (called a teishoku in a Japanese restaurant, or a seto or coursu in Western-style restaurants) that’s much cheaper than dinner.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in Japanese Yen.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than ¥600 per person
$$ => Tickets ¥600-¥1,500 per person
$$$ => Tickets more than ¥1,500 per person
$ => Rooms less than ¥15,000 for a double
$$ => Rooms ¥15,000-¥35,000 for a double
$$$ => Rooms more than ¥35,000 for a double
$ => Up to ¥1,200 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$=> ¥1,200-¥5,000 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => ¥¥¥5,000 and more per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than ¥2,000 per person
$$ => Tickets ¥2,000-¥6,000 per person
$$$ => Tickets ¥6,000 and more per person
N/A => Not applicable
Your major expenses in Japan—hotels, meals in
tourist-oriented restaurants, train tickets, purchases in department stores and
many other shops—can be made using a credit card. Although just a few decades
ago Japan was largely a cash society, the weaker yen, more international
visitors and the upcoming Olympic games translate into an increase in places
that accept credit cards. That being said, many ma- and-pa-owned shops,
inexpensive Japanese inns and hostels, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bars and
other inexpensive establishments often do not accept credit cards. Be sure to
have plenty of cash with you, therefore, if you are traveling to more rural
areas or are traveling on a budget.
You can use credit cards to withdraw money
from ATMs, but only those located at Japanese post offices and 7-Eleven
convenience stores. Frustratingly, Japanese bank ATMs accept cards only issued
by Japanese banks; maybe this, too, will change by the 2020 Olympics, but it’s
useful to keep in mind that only 25 years ago, there were virtually no ATMs in
Japan that accepted any foreign credit cards whatsoever.
There are some 26,000 Japan Post Bank ATMs that
give money for overseas bank cards, including in major post offices located
near train stations with long hours (usually 7am-11pm weekdays and 9am-7pm
weekends but some open almost 24 hours). Rural or neighborhood post offices
have more limited hours. A better bet for finding an ATM is at the ubiquitous
7-Elevens, most open 24 hours. You’ll need to know your 4-digit
PIN and withdrawal limit.
Although I generally don’t bother with
traveler’s checks when traveling abroad, for Japan I find it useful because
cash is still widely used and continual money withdrawals from ATMs is be
expensive due to fees. Banks that display a foreign exchange decal can cash
traveler’s checks, but quicker are Travelex and World Currency Shop kiosks.
Hotels and department stores also exchange money and traveler’s checks. Note
that you may need to show your passport, and banks in small towns may not be
able to cash traveler’s checks.
One of the joys of being in Japan is that there is no tipping, whether
it’s bellhops, taxi drivers or waitresses. Note, however, that a service
charge of 11%-20% is added to bills in fancier restaurants and in
higher-priced hotels. Cheaper establishments do not add service charge,
simply because service is thought to be minimal.
consumption tax, however, will be added to goods and services, including
restaurant meals and hotel stays. International visitors, however, can
receive a refund on the consumption tax on purchases, mostly at
department stores and other shops that cater to foreigners. Restrictions
apply (you must spend a given amount on the same day at the same store)
and most will charge a small handling fee. Best is to ask the store
whether they give refunds, and if they do, you’ll be given the refund
Kyoto is flat and laid out in a grid, making it easy to find your way around than in many other Japanese cities. It’s a great walking and biking town, with most attractions spreading northward from Kyoto Station. Downtown, home to department stores, artisan boutiques, hotels, restaurants and Nijo Castle are in Nakagyo-ku (the Central Ward), while Higashiyama-ku to the east is Kyoto’s most atmospheric neighborhood with famous temples, restaurants specializing in Kyoto and Buddhist vegetarian cusine and the Gion geisha district.
Kyoto is served by two subway lines, with the Karasuma Line connecting Kyoto Station with the Nakagyo-ku downtown area.
Otherwise, buses are the most common modes of transportation, with many departing from Kyoto Station for other parts of the city. Pick up a map showing routes from the Kyoto Tourist Information Center in the station or the Bus and Subway Information Counter near the bus terminal. Some buses make loops around the city, while others make runs between two destinations.
If you’re interesting in biking, the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project maintains several shops, including those at Kyoto Station and Nijo Castle, and also runs guided cycling tours.
Kyoto is a major stop on the Shinkansen bullet train, about 2 1/2 hours from Tokyo. Kyoto Station is strikingly modern and the object of many photos. Escalators take visitors to the rooftop garden, while inside the station is a department store, restaurants, a hotel and tourist office. Buses and subways depart from in front of the station for the rest of the city.
Kyoto’s history stretches back more than 1,200 years; its influence on Japanese culture, the arts and cuisine is profound. A good source for all things Kyoto is the Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau website, the Kyoto City Official Travel Guide. In Kyoto, you’ll find the Kyoto Tourist Information Center in Kyoto Station, open 8:30am to 7pm daily.