Modern Kyoto offers visitors a glimpse into Japan's Imperial past, a time of Shinto shrines and Geisha - traditions that both still live in what was once the nation's capital. The city was the seat of imperial power from 794 to 1868 and is characterized by its graceful traditional architecture, including classical Buddhist temples and ornate palaces. There are thousands of examples of beautifully preserved historic architecture from various eras.
Kyoto is a feast for the eyes, with many outstanding examples of both traditional and modern architecture like the Kyoto Tower. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a haven of tall, bright green shoots, including some trees over 1,000 feet tall, just one of the many lush gardens and green spaces in Kyoto.
A modern city with an ancient soul, Kyoto is a place that should be experienced by all the senses, from the exquisite beauty of its gardens to the tranquil calm of a Shinto shrine and the flavorful cuisine shaped by customs and local ingredients.
There are about 2,000 temples and shrines in Kyoto to admire and explore. They include traditional examples like the five-centuries-old Yuki-jinja Shrine, and the spacious and elegant Honganji Temple in the central part of Kyoto that conveys modern Japanese Buddhist design.
Many of the city's lovely gardens are associated with temples and other attractions, such as the meticulously landscaped grounds of the Kodaiji Temple in the eastern part of the city or the lush gardens surrounding Sento Imperial Palace. The Philosopher's Path is the place to take in the beauty of the cherry blossom season in the spring.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace housed Japan's royal family for more than 1,100 years until 1868, and it's only one of several former imperial residences that dot throughout the city. Nijo Castle, built in 1603, was the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 to 1606,) founder and the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, which became the ruling force in Japan until 1868.
Kyoto is home to lovingly preserved authentic cuisine, culture, and arts. In the Gion District, the long, narrow traditional buildings house the many ochaya (Japanese teahouses) where Geisha - called Geiko in Kyoto - and their apprentices, or Maiko, entertain clientele over tea or drinks with elaborate costumes, music, and dance.
In Kyoto, the culinary traditions live and thrive to be enjoyed. From kaiseki dining, a multi-course meal served in the time-honored style, to sake made in the old method, there is a wealth of options to choose from, including many vegetarian and vegan choices due to the Buddhist influence.
Kyoto is the city of temples, and Kinkaku-ji remains the greatest of them all. Nestled in a pristine Zen Buddhist garden complex, the gold-plated building can be gazed upon from all angles across a serene reflecting pool. Devoted tourists might happily stumble upon its sister pavilions, Gingaku-ji and Shokoku-ji, among the hundreds of enchanting temples scattered about the city.
This Shinto shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and agriculture, primordial to good business in Japanese culture. Beyond the gorgeous shrines at the base of Inari mountain, the thousands of vermillion torii gates lead visitors in mesmerizing trails around the temples, and to trailheads up the mountainside. A two-hour hike up the hill reveals four more smaller shrines and views over Kyoto.
A medieval quarter of Kyoto, Gion also happens to be one of the most exclusive geisha districts in Japan, still true to the fictionalized Memoirs that made it internationally famous. To this day, geishas, or geikos as the local appellation goes, continue to entertain the patrons as women of art and sophistication. Don't miss the festival revolving around the Yasaka Shrine if you're visiting during the month of July.
In western Kyoto, at the base of the Arashiyama Mountain, the district of the same name draws tourists from far and wide with its scenic sights. The spectacular green bamboo forest is one of the most iconic images of the city, exuding a sense of natural serenity. Atop the mountain, Iwatayama Monkey Park lets visitors socialize with wild macaques, always open to a treat and a little fun.
Kiyomizu-dera is another wonder of a temple, having been built without using a single nail. It sits within a vast complex of shrines, lending to great exploration and great panoramas. The Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the god of love, and invites visitors to walk 60 feet between two love stones with their eyes closed, in search of luck. Three streams of water also fall into a pond visitors can drink from in the hope to make their wishes come true.
With a moist, subtropical climate, Kyoto's summers are hot and humid, and it often sees periods of snow during the winter. It is a popular spot for summer tourists, including families. Because of the lush, treed environment both within the city and in the surrounding area, it is also a very popular destination in the spring for cherry blossom season and fall for colors that range from golden yellow to scarlet red.
Osaka International Airport (ITM), also known as Itami Airport, is the closest to Kyoto at about 35 miles away. It is a domestic airport and serves the Kansai region, which also includes Kobe. The airport is accessible via bus or train starting at about ¥6,000. Haneda Airport in Tokyo is another alternative for international travelers. The best route from Haneda Airport is via local train, transferring at Shinagawa Station to the high-speed Nozomi or bullet train to Kyoto.
Speeds on the high-speed, futuristic bullet train that runs between Kyoto Station and Tokyo reach up to 200mph. Also called Shinkansen in Japanese, the train links most of the major cities in the country. The bullet train makes the one-way trip of about 230 miles from Shinagawa Station in Tokyo to Kyoto Station in just over three hours and costs about ¥1,310.
Japan National Route 1 connects Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The bullet train is faster and much more efficient than driving in Japan, however, and cheaper too when you include road toll costs. Public transportation and taxis in town are a better option.
Luxury buses like the Willer line offer overnight travel in comfort for about ¥7,100 one way from Kyoto to Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The Osaka Airport Limousine makes the trip from Kyoto to Itami Airport with a number of stops for ¥1,310.
You can expect accommodation in Kyoto to be up to 50 percent cheaper than in Tokyo, with average hotel room rates from about ¥16,375-38,200 and up for 5-star properties like the palatial new Four Seasons. There are a few newer boutique hotels like the Hotel Mume in Gion or Hoshinoya, situated on the river and accessible only by boat. Luxury Ryokan or traditional Japanese inns like the Hiiragiya in Gion Hatanaka offer breakfast and dinner along with a room.
Gion District - this is the historic home of the Geisha tradition, and is nowadays home to many upscale shops and restaurants such as Tempura Endo Yasaka and Gion Manzara along with the many ochaya that offer Geisha entertainment. It is an old district with many traditional wooden houses, called machiya.
Central Kyoto or Nakagyo-ku - this area encompasses Kyoto's main shopping district, which includes traditional craft stores along with modern chains and boutiques. The area is home to both traditional structures like Nijo Castle and modern structures like the Shin-Puh-Kan, a renovated industrial building that now houses trendy shops, restaurants, and a performance space.
Pontocho and Kiyamachi - these two streets, Pontocho to the west of the Kamo River, and Kiyamachi to the east, represent the bulk of Kyoto's thriving nightlife scene. Both are packed with bars, clubs, and restaurants, including outdoor verandas over the river in the summer.
Eastern Kyoto - this includes Higashiyama-ku and Sakyo-ku and is where to find the renowned Yasaka Shrine, along with the majority of the city's historic temples and shrines. There are also many restaurants offering authentic regional cuisine, including vegetarian dishes. This is the place to purchase genuine local crafts, gifts, and souvenirs at reasonable prices.
Northern Kyoto - encompassing the Kita-ku, Kamigyo-ku, and Ukyo-ku wards, this area is home to many of the city's iconic attractions, including the Kyoto Imperial Palace, historic Kiyomizu-dera Temple, and gorgeous golden Kinkaku-ji Temple.
Kyoto Station is the hub for a network of trains, subway lines, and buses that operate throughout the city. The trains and subway fares are determined by zone, and begin at ¥190. Kyoto City Bus and Kyoto Bus are the two main companies operating in the city. Bus travel within the city zone costs a flat fare of ¥230. Remember to board the bus at the back and leave by the front.
Taxis are readily available to flag down in most areas of Kyoto, or you can simply find them outside train stations, bus terminals, and even larger shops. Fares are very reasonable, with a minimum charge of about ¥575 for just over the first mile.
Kyoto was made for walking, and public transit options are plentiful, but a car rental starting at about ¥8,175 per day can allow you to explore the area outside the city, including the Kitayama Mountains. Parking may not be as readily available as you'd like, especially during peak tourist seasons, with a daily maximum at city parking lots running about ¥1,500.
Shijo Street incorporates a shopping area centered around Kawaramachi Street, including upscale department stores like Takashimaya and Marui. Towards the Yasaka Shrine, there are smaller boutiques and traditional specialty stores. The Kyoto Station and surrounding area is where to find large shopping malls, including the huge underground Porta shopping mall.
While the cost of living in Kyoto is lower than that of American cities like Minneapolis or Chicago, groceries are generally slightly more expensive. A gallon of milk will run about ¥720, a loaf of white bread ¥185, and a dozen eggs about ¥225. Fresco is the most common supermarket, with the food department in the Takashimaya department store a good alternative with reasonable prices. Nishiki Market, in the central part of town, is a long, narrow food market street that the locals call "Kyoto's Kitchen," and it is home to many reasonably priced options. Most grocery stores in Japan sell a wide variety of prepared foods, including both hot and cold options, with full meals available at less than ¥1,100.
Kyoto's dining scene offers a wealth of choices at all price points, including traditional Japanese steak houses like the Hafuu Honten at more than ¥10,000 per person, and French, Italian, and Indian options. Traditional cuisine includes Buddhist vegetarian as well as Kyoto dishes, available in many restaurants like Gion Yata in the Gion district. Located in a traditional wooden house with an open kitchen, the menu offers multi-course kaiseki dinners. At the low end of the scale, it is still possible to find tasty food choices at about ¥1,000 or even less. There are many cheaper options, including Tachi-kui (standing restaurants) with no seating at all, offering a menu of basic noodle and rice dishes at budget prices.