I’ve been building up to this post for weeks now. Two months removed from our trip to Japan, I’ve been writing one article at a time so I could piece them all together in this post, my first travel guide.
By coincidence, I was working on it at the breakfast table yesterday morning when Ren told me about Travel and Leisure’s list of Top Global Cities. Guess which city came out on top this year? I’ll give you a clue. It starts with the letter K.
No. It was Kyoto, moving up four notches to unseat Bangkok as the world’s best city in 2014. Pretty cool eh?
Having been to Kyoto just once, I hardly qualify as an expert, but I do know a few things now that I wish I had known back then. It’s for this very reason why I’ve compiled this beginner’s travel guide, to help first-time travelers navigate their way through this ancient city that draws over 30 million visitors annually. I hope you find it useful.
GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
WHEN TO GO
The most popular times to visit Kyoto are during the Spring (March-May) and Fall (October-November) months when the weather is ideal and the landscape is at its most striking. Both seasons are characterized by a dramatic change in color – Spring for its cherry blossom pinks and whites, and Autumn for its fiery reds, oranges, and yellows. Either season would be the perfect time to visit. Follow the link for more information on Kyoto’s weather and annual festivals.
HOW TO GET THERE
For international travelers, the main access point to Kyoto is Kansai International Airport (KIX). About an hour and forty minutes away, you can catch a train from the airport to Kyoto Station for ¥1,880. For up-to-date train schedules, check out hyperdia.com. Because our flight arrived late in the evening, we stayed one night in Osaka before traveling to Kyoto the next morning. We took the Hankyu Railway train from Osaka to Kyoto for ¥400 each. The ride took just 45 minutes. As far as I know, Hankyu is one of the cheapest ways to travel between cities but you can check this link for more information on how to travel between Osaka and Kyoto.
HOW LONG TO STAY
There’s much to see in Kyoto, with each attraction requiring 2-3 hrs of your time. I suggest staying here 3-4 nights, even longer if you can. 4 nights will allow you to soak up the atmosphere and see almost everything at a relaxed pace. But if you’re in a rush, then 3 nights should be enough to visit the major sites.
HOW MUCH MONEY TO BRING
This is a tough one. The amount of money you should bring depends on how much you intend to shop and how expensively you want to eat. We didn’t shop much on our trip, but we did eat well.
Japan in general is pricier than Southeast Asian countries, but it isn’t prohibitively expensive like many people think. For example, you can have a good meal at a restaurant for around ¥1,500. If you’d like to save more on food, then you can buy prepackaged meals at convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart. Entrance fees to temples and shrines are on average around ¥500 each. Transportation can be cheap too, with all day bus passes going for just ¥500.
Based on our experience, you’d be pretty comfortable with a budget of ¥12,000-15,000 per day in Kyoto. This includes all meals, transportation, entrance fees, and your hotel room, plus a little extra. If you’re sharing a room with someone, then you’ll be good with around ¥10,000. You can adjust depending on how much you want to shop or eat, but ¥10,000 each is a good baseline for two people traveling together.
Also, please bear in mind that Japan is mostly a cash society, so be sure that you have enough yen. We brought all our yen with us, but it would be just as easy to exchange your currency there. Based on what I’ve read online, the rates are actually better. Best ways to do it are at banks and post office ATMs.
WHERE TO STAY: Toyoko Inn Kyoto Gojo-Karasuma
Toyoko Inn is one of the biggest and most popular business hotel chains in Japan, with over 300 hotels across the country. Staying for two weeknights at their Gojo-Karasuma branch in Kyoto, I made the reservation through Booking.com and paid ¥6,980 per night in May 2014. Like all business hotels in Japan, the rooms are small but a good size for couples or single travelers. There are lots of restaurants and shops nearby, with a Family Mart right next door for your convenience. The hotel is around a 30-45 minute walk from Kyoto station. If you prefer, you can take a quick 4-minute train ride to nearby Shijo station, then walk to the hotel from there.
Check out my post on Toyoko Inn Kyoto Gojo-Karasuma for more pictures and information.
Approximate Room Rate: ¥6,980 per night (as of May 2014)
WHERE TO GO
There is a LOT to see in Kyoto. With only two full days in the city, we had to rush through all these major attractions in just 48 hours. It wasn’t enough time to fully appreciate them, so I suggest spreading them out between three or four days if you can.
1. Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
A stunningly beautiful temple covered in gold leaf, Kinkaku-ji is a World Cultural Heritage Site and one of seventeen locations that comprise the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Its name derived from the gold leaf that envelopes it, Kinkaku-ji was once burned down by a schizophrenic monk who felt that it was “too beautiful”.
Check out my post on Kinkakuji (Golven Pavilion) in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2 hrs / Admission: ¥400
2. Fushimi Inari Shrine
One of Kyoto’s most recognizable landmarks, Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine known for some 10,000 orange torii gates arching over a scenic, two-hour-long walking trail. Be sure to stop and enjoy a bowl of Kitsune Udon and Inari Sushi during your walk, both of which are specialties here.
Check out my post on Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 3-4 hrs / Admission: FREE
3. Arashiyama Bamboo Groves
My favorite spot among all the places that we visited in Kyoto. It’s a magical place, like that iconic scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Apart from these bamboo groves, the entire Arashiyama area is dotted with picturesque temples, gardens, restaurants, and shops. Located on the outskirts of town, be sure to allocate at least half a day here.
Check out my post on Arashiyama Bamboo Groves in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: At least half a day / Admission: FREE
4. Toei Kyoto Studio Park
Step back in time at this active movie and TV studio where a reported 200 jidaigeki films (period films) are shot every year. Apart from the ninjas and samurais walking about, highlights include the Ninja Mystery House, Optical Illusion Maze, and Haunted House. Fans of the genre will be pleased to find an anime museum here as well.
Check out my post on Toei Kyoto Studio Park for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 3-4 hrs / Admission: ¥2,200
A temple for making wishes, Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unattached travelers should try and make their way blindfolded between two stones at Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. According to legend, successfully doing so brings with it the promise of finding true love.
Check out my post on Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs / Admission: ¥300
6. Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka
A charming shopping district that leads to and from Kiyomizu-dera, there’s no better place to soak up the Kyoto atmosphere than Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka streets. On both sides of these gently sloping roads are traditional wooden shops and teahouses offering many items from incense to fans to matcha cakes. Just be careful not to fall down here.
Check out my post on Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 1-2 hrs / Admission: FREE
7. Nijō Castle
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nijō Castle is home to the Nightingale Floors, an ingenious alarm system designed to ward off ninja attacks. Just try walking on them without alerting the nightingales.
Check out my post on Nijo Castle in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs / Admission: ¥600
8. Kyoto Tower
Conveniently located across the street from Kyoto station, you can get a bird’s eye view of the entire Kyoto area from here. Unlike the previous seven, this is an optional stop in my opinion, one that you should visit only if you have time and money to spare. Otherwise, you can skip it entirely.
Check out my post on Kyoto Tower for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 1 hr / Admission: ¥770
WHERE TO EAT
1. Gion Kappa Restaurant
Nestled in the heart of the Gion entertainment district, Gion Kappa restaurant is an absolute gem. A favorite among Kyoto locals, it was highly recommended for two reasons: 1) they serve good, authentic Japanese food; and 2) almost everything on the menu goes for just ¥390.
We pigged out and had several rounds of beer, but you can enjoy a good meal here for around ¥1,500. Though cheap, the servings are small so you’ll wind up ordering several plates. We ordered off the menu and had the best sushi that we’ve ever tasted in our lives. It was unbelievable.
Check out my post on Gion Kappa Restaurant in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Expect to Pay: ¥2,500-3,500 per person with drinks
2. Kura Sushi
One of the most popular kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) chains in Japan, a meal at Kura Sushi isn’t just cheap and delicious, it’s super fun too. Every single plate of sushi on that conveyor belt – from maguro, to hamachi, to unagi, to chuotoro, to hotate, to katsuo – goes for an even ¥100. At the time, that was equivalent to about one dollar. I LOVED this place.
Check out my post on Kura Sushi in Japan for more pictures and information.
Expect to Pay: ¥1,000-1,500 per person with drinks
Though more commonly associated with Osaka, you can have great okonomiyaki in Kyoto as well, right here at Donguri. If you’ve never had this Kansai delicacy before, it’s a savory pancake made with a base of wheat flour, eggs, and cabbage, with a slew of other ingredients thrown in like seafood, beef, pork, and cheese. Really hearty and delicious.
Check out my post on Donguri in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Expect to Pay: ¥1,500-2,500 per person with drinks
1. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device
This is essential, especially if you’re a first-time traveler to Kyoto. Apart from your hotel, you’ll find few free wifi zones in Japan, so this device will come in very handy when checking train routes and doing emergency online research.
You can preorder the device before your trip and have it sent to your hotel, or you can pick it up at their airport counter upon arrival. I chose the former and my device was conveniently sent to my hotel a day before we arrived. Inside the package was a self-addressed stamped envelope so you can easily mail back the device before leaving Japan. You can drop it in any red postal office box or leave it at the front desk of your hotel. In my case, I dropped it in the postal office box at the airport, just before going through the departure gates. Cool huh?
I rented our device from Global Advanced Communications. I got the standard 75 Mbps model for ¥990 per day which was lightning fast. You can also rent a 4G pocket wifi device from Klook for as little as ¥150 per day (with 3GB data limit). Follow this link to rent a pocket wifi device from Klook. Be sure to reserve your device at least a couple of weeks prior to your trip.
2. Bookmark Hyperdia or Get the App on your Mobile Device
Referenced up top, this website will be your new best friend while in Japan. You’ll be riding the subway a lot, frequently changing lines and services, and this website will tell you exactly how to get from one station to another. It’s very detailed, providing several route options with fare prices and travel times. Train arrival and departure information is very accurate as well. I can’t stress enough how handy this website is. It’s a lifesaver for commuters in Japan.
3. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel (formerly Tripomatic)
This is my go-to travel app. With this free app that you can use on your desktop and mobile devices, you can plot points of interest on a map, including your hotel, so you can see exactly how far you need to travel between points. This enables you to lump attractions that are in close proximity to each other in an effort to minimize travel time. With pocket wifi, it can turn your mobile phone into a GPS tracking device so people with a poor sense of direction (like me) never get lost again. Pretty cool right? Check out my post on the Sygic Travel app for more information.
4. Check for Discount Passes
I recently discovered Klook and have been using them to get discounts on attractions and services. They offer deals in multiple cities throughout Asia including Kyoto. If you’re looking for deals on tours, transportation, pocket wifi rental, etc, then you can search through this list of Kyoto attractions on Klook.
5. Get Travel Insurance
To be honest, it was only recently when we started buying travel insurance. Back when we traveled just once or twice a year, travel insurance felt like an added expense, one we didn’t need. But now that we travel more, I understand how important it is to have it. Fact is, you never know what can happen. It’s one of those things that you hope you never have to use, but if you do wind up needing it, then you’ll be thanking the gods that you had it. Or cursing them if you didn’t.
Though I do find it more necessary now, it’s still up to you if you think you need it. A 3-day trip to Hong Kong just shopping and eating may not really call for insurance but if you plan on doing more active things like bungee jumping, horseback riding, or even going on a city bike tour, then I’d say travel insurance is a must.
We buy travel insurance from World Nomads because every long-term traveler I know recommends it. From the sound of it, they’re the best in the industry by a mile. Not only do they provide a high coverage limit for medical expenses (up to USD 5 million with the Standard package), they also cover things like trip delays, missed flight connections, theft/loss of passport and luggage, etc. Follow this link to learn more and get a free travel insurance quote from World Nomads. It’s super quick and easy.
6. Learn Basic Japanese Etiquette
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, don’t be a sutpid gaijin. You don’t have to know all the rules, but you can learn a few basics that will make you more palatable as a traveler. This, for me, is the main difference between a traveler and a tourist, understanding the importance of respect. You wouldn’t appreciate anyone being disrespectful in your home, would you?
7. Get Comfortable Shoes
Last but not least, get comfortable walking shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of walking in Kyoto. And by a lot, I do mean A LOT! Many of the sites are vast and spread out, so comfort and support for your feet are paramount. For convenience, I suggest wearing slip-ons as well because you’ll be taking them off frequently at temples.
8. Pack Well
What you should bring on trips is highly subjective, but these are some of the things we brought with us on our trip to Kyoto. If you’d like to see what other gear we use, then you can check out our “What’s in Our Backpack?” post. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon affiliate links.)
HOW TO GET AROUND
As mentioned earlier in this post, we got around the city entirely by bus so the Kyoto Bus Only Pass was a great investment. Available for just ¥500 at any subway station, each daily pass entitles you to as many bus rides as you like within the city’s limits. Without it, we would have paid up to ¥280 for every ride. Among the tourist attractions listed above, only Arashiyama fell outside the allocated zone so we had to pay a little extra to go there. Follow the link for more information on Kyoto special bus-train-subway passes.
HOW TO APPLY FOR A VISA
If you’re a Philippine passport holder, then you’ll need to secure a tourist visa to Japan. The entire application process is coursed through a travel agency so you’ll never have to go to the Japanese Embassy. The cost of the application ranges from PHP 1,500-2,500, depending on which agency you file with. It takes between 3-7 days to complete. Check out my post on how to apply for a Japan tourist visa for a step-by-step process and a list of accredited agencies.
HOW TO GET CHEAP AIRLINE TICKETS
Ever since I scored my first piso fare from Cebu Pacific, I’ve been hopelessly addicted to cheap airline tickets. Our tickets to Osaka had a base fare price of PHP 10. After taxes, fuel surcharges, and a shared 20 kg baggage allowance, the total fare came out to just under PHP 6,000 each roundtrip. How awesome is that?
These piso fare tickets are limited and sell fast, so you have to be quick. For our Osaka tickets, I had to try three separate times before finally getting them. They just kept selling out before I could complete the transaction! To give yourself an advantage, I suggest liking their Facebook page and following them on Twitter to quickly find out about these seat sales. If you check off “Get notifications” on Facebook, then you’ll receive instant alerts every time they post something new.
Other airlines that fly from Manila to KIX are Jetstar Asia and Philippine Airlines. Of these three carriers, Jetstar Asia seems to have the best flight schedule with an estimated arrival time of 11:50 AM, as opposed to after 7 PM for the other two.
As mentioned up top, I’m not an expert so this guide is something that I’ll continue to work on and refine over time. We loved the Kansai region so much that we’re definitely coming back, most likely in fall or winter. I want to experience an entirely different Kyoto from the one we enjoyed in late May of 2014.
If you have any suggestions or simply want to share your own experiences, then please feel free to do so in the comments section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well. We’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for stopping by and enjoy your trip!
For travel tips to Osaka, check out our First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Osaka, Japan
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