One of the things I love most about Japan is its intriguing blend of old and new. Many Japanese cities embody the new but no city epitomizes the old quite like Kyoto.
Before our first trip to Kyoto in 2014, I had come to associate Japan with levitating trains and robot restaurants. Kyoto isn’t like that. Slower and more deliberate in pace, it’s a city of samurais and geishas, of torii gates and zen gardens far removed from the sensory overload that is Tokyo and Osaka. When you’re in Kyoto, it feels like you’re in a completely different era.
Without a doubt, modern Japanese culture is mesmerizing, but Kyoto will make you fall in love with the old Japan.
GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS
PLAN YOUR TRIP WITH VIAHERO
I enjoy trip planning. I love finding interesting restaurants and attractions and putting them all together in an itinerary. For me, it’s half the fun.
But not everyone enjoys trip planning as much as other people do. Some are happy just using a ready-made itinerary they find online. That’s fine, but we all have our own travel preferences so an itinerary that works for one person may not necessarily work for someone else. If you’d like to have an itinerary made especially for you, then you may want to check out ViaHero.
ViaHero is a travel planning service that links travelers with local experts to create custom itineraries to Japan, Cuba, Colombia, and Puerto Rico. They made us a 4-day itinerary to Kyoto that was super impressive in its thoroughness and attention to detail. It included maps, facts, transportation info, and trip costs, all neatly laid out in an engaging and easy to read format.
Trip planning for me is fun but I know it isn’t for everyone. Some people may find it a little tedious. If you’re the type of person who wants your travel plans neatly laid out for you, then you may want to give ViaHero a try. As described, they can help plan your trips to any city in Japan, Cuba, Colombia, and Puerto Rico. They like how we roll so they’re giving all traveleaters (that’s us and you) a 5% discount when you plan your next trip with ViaHero. Woohoo!
NOTE: I shared the itinerary they made for us so you have a better idea of what to expect from ViaHero. I told them we had already been to Kyoto and seen the major sights, so they made an itinerary that focused on food and lesser known attractions. If it’s your first time visiting Kyoto, then it’s best to have them create an itinerary just for you.
KYOTO AT A GLANCE
When people think of Japan, two cities usually come to mind – Tokyo and Kyoto. While Tokyo embraces the modern, Kyoto hangs on to the traditional, two equally fascinating opposites that define and shape the cultural identity of Japan.
Tokyo may be Japan’s present-day capital, but Kyoto held that distinction for over a thousand years – from 794 to 1868 – before control of Japan moved from the Shogun to the Emperor. In spite of this shift in influence, many today still regard Kyoto as Japan’s cultural and historical center, home to over a thousand temples and gardens that have earned it a reputation for being the country’s most beautiful city.
We’ve visited many prefectures and cities in Japan through the years, but Kyoto remains one of the most special. It is without a doubt the heart and soul of traditional Japan.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
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. Unlike its cold winters and hot summers, the weather is mild in Spring and Fall so either season would be the perfect time to visit.
If you’re interested in Kyoto’s festivals, then you can follow this link for a list of Kyoto’s annual festivals and events. It’ll give you a monthly breakdown of its weather as well.
DEC-FEB: This is the coldest time of the year in Kyoto. Unless you want to experience snow, then this probably isn’t the best time to go. I heard it snows a few times a year though it doesn’t stick. If you want to see snow, then there are a couple of side trips you can make from Kyoto.
MAR-MAY: This is one of the most popular times of the year to visit Kyoto. The weather is ideal. The cherry trees begin to blossom in late March and they’re usually in full bloom by the first week of April. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the busiest time of the year so expect larger crowds and steeper hotel prices. The same goes for the first week of May which is the Golden Week holiday for local Japanese.
JUN-AUG: This is summer in Kyoto. Crowds are thinner but it’s hotter and more humid, so it may not be the best time to go. It’s usually hottest in August and rainiest from June to July.
SEPT-NOV: Like spring, autumn is one of the best times to visit Kyoto. The weather is ideal and the autumn foliage is striking. We visited Arashiyama in late November and the fall colors were stunning.
Climate: Annual Monthly Weather in Kyoto
To help you better understand the weather in Kyoto, I’ve included average temperature and annual rainfall graphs below. Suggested months to visit are indicated in orange.
TRAVELING TO KYOTO
There are many ways to get to Kyoto depending on where you are. If you’re flying in to Japan, then chances are you’ll be arriving at Kansai International Airport (KIX). Located in Osaka, it’s the main access hub to the Kansai area. Here’s how you can get to Kyoto from KIX.
BY TRAIN: The Limited Express Haruka Train is the only direct rail service from KIX to Kyoto station. It takes about 80 minutes and will cost you at least JPY 2,850. You can check Hyperdia for a schedule. You can purchase tickets at the station or in advance through KKday.
It’s worth noting that some transportation passes are valid for travel between KIX and Kyoto. Jump to the HOW TO GET AROUND section of this guide for more information.
BY BUS: You can travel from KIX to Kyoto by limousine bus as well. They operate on a 24-hr schedule so this may be the better option if you’re arriving at off-hours. The journey takes about an hour and a half and costs JPY 2,550 for adults and JPY 1,280 for children. You can refer to the Kansai Airport transportation website for a timetable. Tickets can be purchased at the airport or you can get them in advance through Klook or KKday.
BY SHUTTLE: There’s a convenient door-to-door shuttle service that takes you from KIX to your hotel in Kyoto. It costs JPY 4,200 and will get you to your hotel in about 2 hrs 30 mins. You can make reservations on the Yasaka Taxi website. Advanced bookings are required.
BY TAXI: If you have a lot of luggage, then going by taxi is the most convenient option, but it’s also the most expensive. Expect to pay no less than JPY 30,000 each way.
From Other Parts of Japan
If you’re already in Japan, then you can take a train to Kyoto from wherever you are. You can check hyperdia.com for train routes and schedules.
If you’re doing a multi-city tour of Japan, then you may be interested in purchasing a JR Pass. It will give you unlimited use of all JR national trains in Japan – including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka, Shinkansen bullet trains, and the Narita Express – for a consecutive number of days. You can purchase a JR Pass in 7-, 14-, or 21-day variants from Japan Rail Pass or Klook.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY
Banks and post offices are the best places to exchange currency in Japan. Based on what I’ve read, people seem to prefer post offices because the transactions are faster. I exchanged currency at a bank and the process did take some time. I had to fill a bunch of paperwork then wait for the transaction to complete. But if you don’t mind the wait, then either place is fine.
Alternatively, you can also withdraw JPY from an ATM. The rates are competitive. Just be sure to advise your bank you’ll be using your ATM card overseas so you don’t run into any problems. In my experience, my ATM card works in some machines but not in others.
NOTE: When an ATM asks if you want to proceed “with or without conversion”, always choose WITHOUT conversion. Proceeding “with conversion” means that the foreign bank operating the ATM does the conversion (instead of your local bank). In my experience, this has always led to terrible exchange rates. According to this excellent article, the difference between rates offered can be as high as 10% or more.
BEST AREA TO STAY
We’ve only stayed in Kyoto once, in the downtown area, which by all accounts is one of the best areas to stay in the city. It’s close to many restaurants and shops and is within walking distance to two of the city’s main sightseeing areas – Southern and Northern Higashiyama. Both of the city’s subway lines run through here, along with a couple of private train lines, making it easy to get around.
I’ve created the color-coded map below to help you visualize where all these recommended areas are: (Please note that marked areas are approximations only)
BLUE – Downtown / Central
RED – Around Kyoto Station
YELLOW – Northern Higashiyama
ORANGE – Southern Higashiyama
GREEN – Arashiyama
DOWNTOWN: Toyoko Inn Kyoto Gojo-Karasuma
As described, the downtown area is a great place to stay in Kyoto. It’s conveniently located with plenty of hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, and convenience stores.
Toyoko Inn is one of the biggest and most popular business hotel chains in Japan. Like all Japanese business hotels, the rooms are small but well-amenitized. You can book a room here on Agoda.
If you want to stay in downtown/central area but don’t feel this is the right hotel for you, then you can check for alternate listings on Booking.com, Agoda, and AirBnB. If you’re new to AirBnB, then you can get up to USD 43 free travel credit when you sign up via THIS LINK.
Approximate Room Rate: USD 60 per night (as of February 2019)
AROUND KYOTO STATION
The area around Kyoto Station is another great place to stay in Kyoto. Kyoto station is the city’s main transportation hub so staying in this area will give you easy access to transportation around the city and to other parts of Japan. There are plenty of shops and restaurants here as well. Check these sites for listings around Kyoto station: Booking.com | Agoda | AirBnB. As described, you can get up to USD 43 free travel credit on AirBnB when you sign up via THIS LINK.
Across the Kamo River from central/downtown Kyoto is Higashiyama Ward. Divided into north and south, this area is home to some of Kyoto’s most popular attractions like the Gion entertainment district, the Silver Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera, and Ninen-zaka/Sannen-zaka districts. Both Northern and Southern Higashiyama make great bases from which to explore Kyoto, though the area around Gion district in the south may be best. You can check these sites for listings in Higashiyama: Booking.com | Agoda | AirBnB. Newbies to AirBnB can get up to USD 43 free travel credit when you sign up via THIS LINK.
Arashiyama is farther away from central Kyoto but it’s such a lovely area that it’s worth considering. It’s where you’ll find those iconic bamboo groves that people often post on social media. Unlike the previous areas which are more densely populated, Arashiyama is quieter and closer to nature. It’s home to quaint shops and a few temples, most notably Tenryu-ji. When searching for accommodations, I suggest looking for a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) as this is the perfect environment for it: Booking.com | Agoda | AirBnB. As described, AirBnB newbies can get up to USD 43 free travel credit by signing up here.
PLACES TO VISIT
There is a LOT to see in Kyoto. You could spend an entire week there and still not see everything. Here are some of its most popular attractions.
1. Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji is a World Cultural Heritage Site and one of seventeen locations that comprise the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Covered in gold leaf, it’s easily one of the city’s most striking temples. In fact, so stunning is Kinkaku-ji that it was once burned down by a schizophrenic monk who felt that it was “too beautiful”.
Check out my post on Kinkakuji (Golven Pavilion) for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2 hrs / Admission: JPY 400
2. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine and one of Kyoto’s most recognizable landmarks. It’s known for it’s 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 as they’re both specialties here.
Check out my post on Fushimi Inari Shrine for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 3-4 hrs / Admission: FREE
3. Arashiyama Bamboo Groves
This was my favorite spot in all the places that we visited in Kyoto. It’s a magical place that reminded me of that iconic scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Apart from these bamboo groves, the entire Arashiyama area is dotted with picturesque temples, gardens, quaint shops, and restaurants. It’s a great place to spend the day wearing a kimono.
Check out my post on Arashiyama Bamboo Groves for more pictures and information. We haven’t done this but many people like to explore the bamboo groves on a hand-pulled rickshaw. It’s touristy but it looks like fun. You can hire one on the spot or book it in advance through Klook or KKday.
Suggested Length of Visit: At least half a day / Admission: FREE
Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered the most important temple in Arashiyama. Located right next to the bamboo groves, it’s home to landscaped Japanese gardens featuring a central pond with the forested Arashiyama mountains as its backdrop. We were here in late November and as you can see below, the colors of autumn were on full display. It was so beautiful and one of many reasons why Arashiyama is my favorite area in Kyoto.
Tenryu-ji and the Arashiyama area are easy enough to explore on your own, but if you’d rather go on a guided tour, then you can book one in advance through Klook.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hours / Admission: JPY 500
Kiyomizu-dera is a temple for making wishes. It’s one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and another 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 for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs / Admission: JPY 400
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. Like Arashiyama, this is a great area to explore wearing a kimono. Just be careful not to fall down here.
Check out my post on Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka to find out why.
Suggested Length of Visit: 1-2 hrs / Admission: FREE
7. Nijō Castle
Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nijō Castle is home to the nightingale floors, an ingenious alarm system designed to ward off ninja attacks. With every step, flooring nails beneath the floorboards would rub against a jacket or clamp and produce low creaks reminiscent of chirping sounds, hence the name “nightingale floors”.
Check out my post on Nijo Castle in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Suggested Length of Visit: 2-3 hrs / Admission: JPY 600
8. 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: JPY 2,200
9. 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. You can purchase entry tickets at the gate or in advance through Klook.
Suggested Length of Visit: 1 hr / Admission: JPY 770
10. Maruyama Park
Many tourists plan their trips to Kyoto around cherry blossom season. Can you blame them? It’s a beautiful, fleeting sight that lasts for just a couple of weeks every year. We haven’t been there ourselves in April, but I’ve been told that Maruyama Park is one of the most popular places to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto. You can check out our ViaHero Kyoto itinerary for directions on how to get there.
THINGS TO DO
Aside from all the temples and gardens, there are plenty of other things you can do in Kyoto as well.
1. Rent a Kimono
I know that renting a kimono in Japan sounds touristy and cliched, but who cares? It’s fun and makes for great Instagram photos. Plus, there’s no better backdrop for it than Kyoto, the country’s center for culture and the arts.
There are kimono rental shops throughout Kyoto. We rented one for Ren in Arashiyama and paid JPY 4,800 total for a basic kimono with hair styling. You can rent one on the spot but according to our Japanese friend Tsutomu, they can run out during busy periods like cherry blossom season, so you may want to book them in advance through Klook or KKday. Rentals are usually good for the entire day. Just be sure to check the address of the rental shops in the links above to make sure the location is convenient for you.
2. Go on a Guided Tour
Ren and I rarely go on guided tours so it isn’t common for me to push for one, but in Kyoto, it may be the most convenient option. Public transportation is great but there is so much to see in this city, many of the attractions deserving of at least two hours of your time. Factor in travel times between sites and you may wind up missing a few or feeling rushed at each location. The latter happened to us.
If you’re staying for several days to a week, then traveling by public transportation is fine. But if you only have a couple of days to play with and have the budget, then going on a guided tour may be best. You can check Klook and KKday for tour options in Kyoto. They offer many variations so be sure to check each one thoroughly to see if it includes the attractions you want.
3. Eat Your Way Through Nishiki Market
Nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki Market is a long and narrow shopping street with over a hundred food shops and restaurants on either side. It’s similar to Kuromon Ichiba Market in Osaka, which appropriately, is nicknamed “Osaka’s Kitchen”. If you want to eat for cheap in Kyoto, then you need to make a stop here. It’s about a 5 minute walk from Shijo subway station.
4. Take a Cooking Class
Ever since we took this cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam, Ren and I have been taking cooking classes wherever we go. It’s so much fun and it teaches you a lot about the local cuisine.
If you’re interested in taking a cooking class in Kyoto, then I suggest searching for one on Cookly. Cookly is an online booking platform that offers cooking classes in many cities around the world. For me, there’s no better place to look for one-day cooking classes than Cookly. Follow the link to search through their list of cooking classes in Kyoto.
Photo borrowed from cookly.me
5. Taste Sake at Fushimi Sake District
If you like sake, then you’re probably going to enjoy a visit to the Fushimi Sake District. It’s a traditional sake brewing district along the Horikawa River in southern Kyoto. From what I understand, there are a few breweries in the area but one of the most popular is Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Established in 1637, it’s one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the world and a good place to learn about and taste sake.
You can check out our ViaHero Kyoto itinerary for details on how to get there on your own, but if you’d prefer to go on a walking tour of the area with lunch, then you can book one through Get Your Guide.
6. Learn the Ways of the Samurai
If watching actors at Toei Kyoto Studio Park isn’t enough to satisfy your thirst for all things bushido, then you’ll probably want to take a samurai class. To be honest, this isn’t something I’d think of at my age, but when ViaHero told me about it, I found it too interesting to pass up! During this one-hour class, you’ll be taught basic techniques and get an introduction to the fascinating world of the samurai.
Follow the link to book a samurai class in Kyoto with Get Your Guide.
Photo borrowed from www.japanexperterna.se
7. Watch Miyako Odori in Spring
If you’re going to be in Kyoto in April for the cherry blossoms, then I’ve been told that Miyako Odori is a show you absolutely MUST see. Considered one of the four great spring shows in the five geisha districts of Kyoto, the dances and songs are performed by the maiko and geiko of the Gion quarter. The show is held only in April so be sure to book your tickets well in advance.
SIDE TRIPS FROM KYOTO
I went on a press trip of Western Japan in 2017 that opened my eyes to this part of the country. There’s so much more to the Kansai region than Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara! If you have enough time and want to do side trips from Kyoto (with or without a JR Pass), then here are a few places to consider.
Travelers who love to eat can’t visit Kyoto without spending some time in Osaka. If you’ll be flying in to Japan, then chances are you’ll be landing at KIX anyway which is just outside Osaka. Less than half an hour away from Kyoto, Osaka is known as the “nation’s kitchen” and is recognized by many as the food capital of Japan. We LOVE this city. 🙂
Check out my First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Osaka, Japan for more information.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 560 each way
Like Osaka, many travelers visit Nara on a trip to Kyoto. It’s second only to Kyoto in its wealth of temples, shrines, and traditional gardens in Japan. Apart from its cultural sites, Nara is best known for its parks with tame Sika deer. There are an estimated 1,200 Sika deer in Nara which visitors can feed with sika senbei or “deer crackers”. Nara is around 45 minutes from Kyoto making it an ideal place for a day or overnight trip.
If you’d prefer to visit on a guided tour, then you may want to check out this Nara day tour on Klook.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 710 each way
3. Kinosaki Onsen
Kinosaki Onsen is a lovely onsen town about two and a half hours from Kyoto. It’s an atmospheric place known for its seven public hot springs or soto-yu. Many people visit Kinosaki Onsen to go onsen hopping in winter. You feel SO GOOD afterwards. No wonder it’s so popular among the Japanese! You can go to hot spring baths in many places but I suggest going to an onsen town like this one. The experience is completely different.
Check out my post on Kinosaki Onsen for more pictures and information.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 4,320 each way
4. Kannabe Highlands
Many travelers want to experience skiing in winter and you can do so here at Kannabe Highlands. About two and a half hours from Kyoto, the area is home to a few small ski resorts where you can go skiing, snowboarding, even snowshoe hiking!
Check out my post on Kannabe Highlands for more pictures and information.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 3,670 each way
Amanohashidate is a long and slender sandbar that’s considered one of the three most scenic views in all of Japan. It’s about two hours away by train so you can do it on a day trip from Kyoto.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 3,880 each way
THE ULTIMATE JAPANESE FOOD GUIDE
We adore Japanese food. It’s my absolute favorite cuisine in the world and a big reason why we love visiting this country. If you enjoy Japanese food as much as we do, then you need to read our Japanese Food Guide. It includes popular dishes in Japan as well as regional specialties by prefecture, including Kyoto.
WHERE TO EAT
1. Gion Kappa Restaurant
Nestled in the heart of the Gion entertainment district, Gion Kappa restaurant is an izakaya and a local favorite. It was highly recommended for two reasons: 1) they serve good, authentic Japanese food; and 2) almost everything on the menu goes for just JPY 390.
Check out my post on Gion Kappa Restaurant in Kyoto for more pictures and information.
Expect to Pay: JPY 2,500-3,500 per person with drinks
2. Kura Sushi
Kura Sushi is 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 JPY 100. That’s equivalent to about one US dollar. We LOVED this place.
Expect to Pay: JPY 1,000-1,500 per person with drinks
3. Rai Rai Tei
Like sushi, ramen is one of the most beloved dishes in Japanese cuisine. We asked our Japanese friend Tsutomu to take us to a great ramen restaurant and he took us here to Rai Rai Tei. It’s his absolute favorite ramen restaurant in Japan.
We’ve had ramen a few times throughout Japan – including miso ramen in Sapporo and tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka – so I didn’t think this place would be that much better, but it was. It was so deeply flavorful and the best ramen we’ve had so far.
Expect to Pay: Starts at JPY 620 per bowl of ramen
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. It’s very hearty and delicious.
Expect to Pay: JPY 1,500-2,500 per person with drinks
5. Unagi Hirokawa
We’ve eaten a lot of great food in Japan, but the one experience we were dying to have was unagi or grilled freshwater eel at an unagi kabayaki restaurant. We finally got to do that on our most recent trip to Japan. Our friend Tsutomu took us to Hirokawa, a Michelin-recommended unagi restaurant in Arashiyama. It was some of the best unagi we’ve ever had.
NOTE: According to their website, Hirokawa will be closed for renovations till the end of March 2019, after which they’ll reopen as a reservations-only restaurant. This makes sense because Hirokawa is exceedingly popular, often attracting long lines. Be sure to follow the Hirokawa website for updates.
Expect to Pay: JPY 3,300 for the medium una jyu (pictured)
I wanted to find a good sake bar where we could unwind after a day of exploration in Kyoto, and my research led us to Wadachi, an izakaya in the Gion district known for serving many different types of sake and bar food at affordable prices. Wadachi is a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence awardee with an average rating of 4.5. If you enjoy sake, then Wadachi is a great choice for an evening out in Kyoto.
Expect to Pay: JPY 500 per small jar of sake (pictured), around JPY 400-500 per bar chow dish
POINTS OF INTEREST IN KYOTO
To make it easier for you to visualize where everything is, I’ve pinned them all on this map.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Kyoto has a great public transportation system. You can get pretty much anywhere using the subway or bus. Be sure to bookmark hyperdia.com as it’ll help you navigate Japan’s efficient but often confusing rail system.
Personally, I prefer using the subway when we travel because I find buses to be more confusing. But in Kyoto, it may be best to use a combination of both. This is because some attractions aren’t that near a subway station. For example, the nearest MRT station to Kinkaku-ji is Kita-oji, but it’s still over 3 km from the temple. Another example is Kiyomizu-dera. Kiyomizu-Gojo is the closest MRT station but it’s still about a 20-minute walk from the temple. If you only have a couple of days in Kyoto, then you’ll be wasting a lot of time walking if you try to get around exclusively by train.
To maximize your time in Kyoto, then it may be a good idea to get a transportation pass. There are a lot to choose from so I’ve narrowed it down to the most pertinent ones below to hopefully make it less confusing.
Kansai Thru Pass
If you’ll be traveling a lot by train around the Kansai region, then you may want to get a Kansai Thru Pass. Available in 2- or 3-day variants, it gives you unlimited train and bus rides in Kansai cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. Unlike JR Passes, you don’t have to use it on consecutive days. It isn’t valid for travel on JR trains but you can use it to go from KIX to Kyoto, as long as you ride only on non-JR trains. You can purchase the Kansai Thru Pass on Klook or KKday.
JR Kansai Area Pass
JR Kansai Area Passes are similar to Kansai Thru Passes except they’re for use on JR trains (including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka) and need to be used on consecutive days. However, I read that there are very few JR lines in Kyoto so this pass may not be your best option if you plan on spending most of your time in Kyoto. But if you plan on exploring more of the Kansai region, then this may be a good option. You can purchase the JR Kansai Area Pass on Klook (1-day | 2-day | 3-day | 4-day) or KKday.
ICOCA IC Card
Another option is to get an ICOCA IC Card. It isn’t an unlimited use pass like the Kansai Thru Pass or the JR Kansai Area Pass but it’ll give you discounts on JR trains (including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka), the subway, private railways, and buses. Think of it as a stored value card similar to Hong Kong’s Octopus Card or Seoul’s T-Money Card.
Lastly, if Kyoto is just one of many stops on a countrywide tour of Japan, then a JR Pass may be a good investment. As described, it’ll give you unlimited use of all JR national trains in Japan – including the Kansai Airport Express Haruka, Shinkansen bullet trains, and the Narita Express – for a consecutive number of days. You can purchase a JR Pass in 7-, 14-, or 21-day variants from Japan Rail Pass or Klook.
HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY / SAMPLE ITINERARY
As described, there is a lot to see and do in Kyoto. It’s a such a beautiful and peaceful city that it isn’t the kind of place you just want to breeze through. If you have a whole week to spend here, then that’s great. But if not, then you should be able to see the major sights in about three days. Here’s a sample 3D/2N Kyoto itinerary to help you plan your trip.
| DAY ONE|
• Fushimi Inari Shrine
• Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka
• Maruyama Park (during cherry blossom season)
| DAY TWO|
• Nishiki Market
• Nijo Castle
• Kyoto Tower
• Kyoto Station
| DAY THREE|
• Toei Kyoto Studio Park
• Arashiyama Bamboo Groves
BUDGET / SUMMARY OF EXPENSES
Kyoto may not be as expensive as Tokyo, but it’s still in Japan. It’s still an expensive destination relative to most of Asia. There are ways to cut costs but expect nonetheless to spend more here compared to destinations like Bangkok or Taipei.
The unit of currency in Japan is the Japanese Yen (JPY). Assuming you’ll be staying in Kyoto for 3 full days and sharing mid-level accommodations with one other person, then a daily budget of around JPY 8,000-8,500 per person should be plenty. This takes into account your accommodations, transportation, meals, drinks, pocket wifi rental, and attraction entrance fees. Here’s a quick breakdown of expenses:
This is highly subjective. It depends on multiple factors like hotel preference and number of travel companions. You can get a decent room at a business hotel for around JPY 7,500 a night. Expect to pay much less if you’re staying at a hostel or capsule hotel.
Kyoto is well-known for its kaiseki meals but these tend to be pricey. If you stick to moderately priced meals like ramen, then I’d say around JPY 1,500-2,000 a day per person is enough. If you want to spend considerably less, then cheap but good meals can be had at convenience stores like Family Mart, Lawson, or 7-Eleven.
| ENTRANCE FEES|
Entrance to Toei Kyoto Studio Park is considerably higher than all other attractions in this guide. If you’d rather not go there, then the total cost of admission minus Toei is JPY 2,670.
| POCKET WIFI RENTAL|
If you’re sharing the cost with one other person, then you’ll each be paying around JPY 195 per day.
By all accounts, the Kansai Thru Pass seems a good investment in Kyoto. The 3-day pass will run you JPY 5,097.
This comes out to about JPY 8,034 a day per person. Keep in mind that this baseline estimate is only for Kyoto and doesn’t include any shopping. Ren and I are middle of the road travelers who enjoy good food and drink, so the recommended budget is a good baseline for travelers like us. Adjust accordingly based on your own travel habits.
1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel (formerly Tripomatic)
This has been my go-to travel planning app for several years now. Sygic Travel is a free app that allows you to plot points of interest on a map, including your hotel, so you can see how far you need to travel between points. It allows you to easily group attractions that are close to each other 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 nifty right? Check out my post on the Sygic Travel app for more information.
Sygic Travel is what I used to create the location map above. Follow this link to check out our most recent 7-day Kansai itinerary on Sygic Travel. We spent time in Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. You can also download it in editable Word format by signing up for our FREE newsletter below.
2. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device
A constant wifi connection is a must when traveling these days, especially in Japan. There are few free wifi zones in this country so you’ll need it to do research, navigate the subways, convert currencies, etc. Having access to Hyperdia alone justifies the cost. We never go anywhere now without renting a pocket wifi device first.
For our most recent trip to the Kansai region, our friends at KKday were kind enough to let us use this 4G pocket wifi device for the duration of our trip. It was fast and reliable and costs just JPY 390 a day. We never had any connectivity issues and the battery would last around 6-7 hours before I had to plug it in to a powerbank. Follow the link to rent a pocket wifi device through KKday.
3. Bookmark Hyperdia or Get the App on your Mobile Device
As I’ve mentioned often in this guide, Hyperdia 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.
4. Check for Discount Passes
There are many websites that offer discount passes to tours and services. For destinations in Asia, the sites I use the most are Klook and KKday. They offer deals in many cities around the world, including Kyoto. If you want to find deals on tours, airport transfers, activities, etc, then you can search through these lists of Kyoto attractions on Klook and Kkday. You’ll also find interesting activities that you wouldn’t normally think of yourself so it’s definitely worth a look.
5. Get Travel Insurance
I’ll be straight with you, it was only recently when we understood the importance of travel insurance. Back when we traveled just once or twice a year, travel insurance felt like a luxury, something we didn’t really need. But now that we’re older and travel more often, I understand how important it is. Fact is, you never know what can happen on the road. 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 Osaka just shopping and eating may not really call for insurance but if you plan on doing more active things like bungee jumping, skiing, 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 the link or use the widget below to learn more and get a free travel insurance quote from World Nomads. It’s super quick and easy.
6. Get Comfortable Shoes
This may seem self-explanatory but you’ll be doing a lot of walking in Kyoto so comfortable shoes are a must. 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.
7. Bring the Right Power Adapter
8. Learn Basic Japanese Etiquette
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, don’t be a stupid 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. Here’s a good overview on Japanese etiquette for tourists. Japan is a country with many unspoken rules so it’s good to familiarize yourself with the basics.
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. I went with Reli Tours & Travel and at the time (2016), they charged PHP 950 if you’re applying as a tourist, and PHP 2,000 if you’ll be visiting friends or relatives. It takes between 3-7 days to process.
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 KIX 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.
I’m not an expert on Kyoto but I do hope that you find this post useful. I’m only sharing some of the things that I learned from our trip. 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 have a great time exploring the beauty of Kyoto!
These are some of the things we brought with us to Osaka. As you can tell, I document a lot of content for this blog so most of the things I bring are photo and video equipment. 😆 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.)
ViaHero was kind enough to create a Kyoto itinerary for us in exchange for an honest account of the experience. We were in Osaka on a partially sponsored trip to Universal Studios Japan, courtesy of our friends at KKday. They provided us with a pocket wifi device and a 4-day JR Kansai Area Pass. As always, all thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are mine and mine alone.
Some of the links in this guide are affiliate links, meaning we’ll get a small commission if you make a purchase at NO extra cost to you. We only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as this helps us make more of these free travel guides. Thank you!
JB and Renée are the Traveleaters behind Will Fly for Food, a travel blog for the gastronomically inclined. They enjoy experiencing food from different cultures so they’ve made it their mission to try every country’s national dish. Read more about them and their National Dish Quest here.