Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for a thousand years. As such the architecture, culture and elevated refinement are worlds apart from the high-tech modernity of Tokyo. The city is a carefully balanced mix of old and new, with beautiful temples and Geisha culture providing a graceful backdrop to a hip and innovative city. Kyoto is the type of city you can spend an action packed week in without feeling like you have done everything the city has to offer.
We have now visited Kyoto twice. The first trip was the usual run around of visiting famous sites and typical tourist activities. Our second trip however was very different, we flew to Kyoto to attend a friend’s traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. This enabled us to experience the culture through the Japanese lens.
The wedding was held at an open air shinto shrine in Kyoto where a ceremony full of tradition and solemnity was performed. This cultural experience is one that will be hard to forget. The wedding reception was a lunch affair and was held at the beautiful Park Hyatt in Kyoto. The food here was unbelievable, it was a French inspired menu and like everything in Japan was executed with perfection.
Kyoto is one of the best preserved cities in Japan, houses constructed in the Japanese style of architecture known as machiya can still be found standing around the city. The Old Town of Kyoto, gives an enticing glimpse into what imperial Japan would have looked like. Along with this the 2000 religious sites and the imperial palaces provide further historical and cultural context to this very urbane city. The rest of Kyoto sprawls out around the river in low lying buildings, there are no tall glass and concrete skyscrapers to be found here. All in all a trip to Kyoto provides a soothing reprieve from the hectic hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
The Japanese take design seriously, Kyoto elevates this to the next level seamlessly blending imperial elegance with vintage cool and new wave design. Walking around the inner city suburbs of Kyoto will allow you to discover quaint shops full of vintage goods, curated apparel and of course, Japanese denim.
Visiting temples is a must during your time in the city. Kyoto is known as the city of temples, you can spend days viewing over 1600 temples or alternatively pick a few of the must see gems.
This is one the most famous temples in the region. It is located on a hilltop and as such the views at the summit are stunning. The path to the top begins in the Higashiyama neighbourhood, it is easily marked by souvenir shops and the throng of tourists who make the daily pilgrimage. If you visit the temple at the right time of year, you will be able to see Cherry blossoms flowering by the temple lake.
Some of the other must see temples in the area are:
Ginkaku – Ji (silver temple)
Kinkaku- Ji (gold temple)
Ryoan – Ji (famed for its zen garden)
There also some temples you can do as day trips from Kyoto. It’s worth checking out all the possibilities so that you can best plan your trip for what truly interests you.
This is the famous geisha district of Kyoto and is renowned across Japan as a centre for arts. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot a geisha strolling in and out of shops and restaurants in this neighbourhood. The Gion district, retains much of Kyoto’s history as it is filled with traditional shops, tea houses (Ochaya). It is now also a famous nightlife destination for tourists and locals alike with its plethora of restaurants and bars.
The trip to Arashiyama takes 30mins by train and is relatively easy to get to. It is tucked into the base of the Arashiyama mountains and has quite a few things to see and do here.
The most famous of course is the Bamboo grove. Where you can loose yourself in a green world full of peace and tranquility.
Tenryu-Ji is another headline attraction in the area, it is a sprawling zen temple with beautiful gardens. The other destination often visited by tourists in the area is the Kameyama Koen Park to see the monkeys.
This is an important Shinto shrine near Kyoto and pays homage to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. There are thousands of vermillion tori gates that mark the hiking trail ascending Mount Inari. The hike to the summit of the mountain takes 2 – 3 hours and roughly half way up the mountain is the Yotsutsuji intersection. Here you can see sprawling views of Kyoto city.
Kyoto is a great place to base yourself for a trip to Japan as it easily allows daytrips to the most commonly visited places in Japan.
The benefit of daytrips from Kyoto is that they are all easily accessible via the rail network. Cities you can visit include: Osaka and Kobe for a food adventure, Nara to see deer, Hiroshima to learn more about world history and Uji for the tea connoisseur.
Foodie things to do:
One of the best things to do in Kyoto is to visit their market. It’s a lot smaller than Tsukiji market and most of it is under cover making it easily accessible. All the produce is fresh and the quality of the food is unbelievable. We had succulent king prawns cooked fresh and simply over a grill with salt, pepper and a little lemon – these were amazing! The Kyoto style omelette is also a must try, it is a warm, fluffy savoury version of the famous Japanese omelette.
It is at night where the city of Kyoto truly comes alive with all of its various bars and izakayas. The Kyoto bar scene is sophisticated, always serving the best quality sake, beer or whiskey. Often times the drinks are all accompanied with scrumptious morsels of Japanese bar food. The atmosphere here is laid back and unpretentious but that’s where it’s misleading – you get the impression that these places are where the trends actually begin!
During our second trip we were taken to a couple of eateries frequented by locals. We had a multi-course dinner at a family run restaurant specialising in eel. To get a booking at this hidden gem you really need a local contact as the restaurant is only open by reservation. The food as you can imagine was unbelievable.
For lunch one day we visited a local tea house called Wakuden Sakimachi which specialised in ochaya (teahouse) style lunch meals. This included rice and tea with some grilled meat. It was a very simple lunch cooked to perfection. We were served some delicious houjicha at the beginning and a matcha tea at the end of the meal with some local sweets. Again getting into this restaurant required a local contact to organise a reservation.
If you have local contacts in Kyoto definitely get in touch as you will experience a completely different side of the city. However Kyoto is still fun as a tourist and reviewing food review sites like Tabelog will allow you to eat well during your stay and skip the plethora of tourist traps that abound. We have also listed a bunch of our favourite Kyoto food recommendations here.
1. Geisha culture is still a part of everyday life in Kyoto. You might be able to catch sight of one in the main city area in the evenings with their clients.
2. There are some really beautiful temples to see in Kyoto, with amazing zen gardens, make a list of the your must-see destinations, to help plan your stay in Kyoto as some are located far away.
3. The coffee scene in Kyoto is fantastic and the four square app has lots of quality suggestions
4. Catching the train to Kyoto is super easy from Tokyo. You also get a stunning view of Mount Fuji. Sit on the right side of the carriage heading to Kyoto.
5. Kyoto is the ideal place to base yourself for a trip to Japan as many of the must see tourist attractions are day trips from this cosmopolitan city. Aim to spend more time in Kyoto if you are planning on doing these day trips.