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
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
Check out holiday-weather.com for more on Kyoto’s weather. For your convenience, I’ve created the 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
Japan’s railway system is so efficient and extensive that it’s easy to travel to Kyoto by train from other parts of the country. You can check hyperdia.com for train routes and schedules.
If you’ll be visiting many cities in Japan, then you might want to get a JR Pass. 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. JR Passes are available in 7-, 14-, or 21-day variants and can be purchased from Japan Rail Pass or Klook.
WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY
The unit of currency in Japan is the Japanese Yen (JPY). Banks and post offices are the best places to exchange foreign currency for JPY. Transactions seem to be faster at post offices but either place is fine.
If you’d rather not bring too much foreign currency with you, then a more convenient option might be to withdraw JPY from an ATM. Rates are comparable. Just be sure to let your bank know that you’ll be using your 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: Some ATM machines will ask you if you’d like to proceed “with or without conversion”. Always choose WITHOUT conversion. Proceeding “with conversion” allows the foreign bank running the ATM machine to do the conversion, usually at terrible rates. According to this article, the difference can be as high as 10%.
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.
To help you understand where all these recommended areas are, I’ve created the color-coded map below: (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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The temple is easy to explore on your own, but if you’d like to go with a guide, then you may want to check out this Kiyomizu-dera temple walking tour with tea ceremony. There seem to be many interesting backstories to this temple so it may be more enjoyable to go with a guide.
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. Experience Kyoto like a Local
It goes without saying that nothing beats local knowledge, especially when it comes to food. Some of the best food experiences we’ve had on our travels often come from local recommendations – either from a friend or tour guide, even from a Grab or Uber driver!
If you want to have a Kyoto experience that goes beyond the usual temples and shrines, then I suggest checking out Magical Trip. They’re a fun Japanese boutique tour company that offers small group experiences led by locals. We’ll be checking them out on our upcoming trip to Tokyo, but next time we’re in Kyoto, we’d love to try this food tour in Gion or this bar hopping tour in historic Pontocho Alley. As we learned with Gion Kappa, there’s a lot of interesting food to be discovered in this area so it really helps to go with a knowledgeable local.
Photo borrowed from magical-trip.com
4. 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. If you’d like to experience a traditional Japanese breakfast here, then you may want to try this Nishiki Market breakfast walking tour.
5. Take a Cooking Class
Ren’s a great so we enjoy taking cooking classes whenever we travel. So far, we’ve taken classes in Hoi An, Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Bali. All were fun and taught us a lot about the local cuisine. Simply put, there’s no better way to learn about local food than by taking a cooking class.
If you’re interested in taking a cooking class in Kyoto, then I suggest searching for one on airKitchen or Cookly. They’re both online booking platforms that offer cooking classes – airKitchen focuses on Japan while Cookly offers classes in many cities around the world. Follow the links to search for a cooking class in Kyoto on airKitchen or Cookly.
Photo borrowed from cookly.me
6. 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 or Magical Trip.
7. 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.
8. 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
Many first-time travelers to the Kansai region only visit Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara, but there is so much more to this region than just those three cities. If you’re spending enough time in the area, then here are a few interesting places for you to visit.
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
Nara is one of the “big three” popular cities to visit in the Kansai region. It has the second most number of temples and shrines in Japan, behind only Kyoto. If you haven’t had your fill of temples in Kyoto, then you may want to spend a day in Nara. Aside from the temples, it’s biggest draw are its 1,200 tame Sika deer freely roaming the park. You can feed them with sika senbei or “deer crackers”. Bow to the deer, and some will bow back to you.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 710 each way
3. Kinosaki Onsen
I loved this place. Onsen towns like Kinosaki and Kurokawa Onsen are some of the coolest places we’ve visited in the country. They really make you feel like you’re in traditional Japan! If you’d like to experience a Japanese onsen, then Kinosaki Onsen is a great place for an overnight trip.
Check out my post on Kinosaki Onsen for more pictures and information.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 4,320 each way
4. Kannabe Highlands
If you’re visiting the Kansai region in winter and want to experience snow, then you can do so in Kannabe Highlands. It’s about two-and-a-half hours from Kyoto. The area is home to small ski resorts where you can go skiing and 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 considered one of the three most scenic views in Japan. It’s a long and slender sandbar located about two hours from Kyoto, making it another great place to visit on a day trip.
Fare from Kyoto: Around JPY 3,880 each way
THE ULTIMATE JAPANESE FOOD GUIDE
Japanese food is 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 might want to check out our Japanese Food Guide. It features popular dishes throughout Japan, including regional specialties by prefecture.
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 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. Check out their website for a list of Kura Sushi branches in Kyoto.
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 most of the places recommended in this guide 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. It’s available in 2- or 3-day variants and gives you unlimited train and bus rides in cities throughout the Kansai area. 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 transportation pass you can get is the ICOCA IC Card. It won’t entitle you to unlimited rides 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.
If you’re doing a countrywide tour of Japan, then a JR Pass may be a worthwhile investment. It’ll give you unlimited rides on 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. It’s available in 7-, 14-, or 21-day variants and can be purchased through 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
Assuming you’ll be staying in Kyoto for 3 full days and sharing modest 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 varies from person to person. If you’re not a luxury traveler, then you can get a great 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 or ViaHero
SYGIC TRAVEL: If you like creating your own travel itineraries, then you’re going to love Sygic Travel. I’ve been using this free trip planning app for several years now. It allows me to pin all points of interest on a map then group them together by location so I can create an efficient itinerary. It’s available for free on iOS and Android.
VIAHERO: If you don’t like trip planning or don’t have the time to do it, then you can have a destination expert do it for you. ViaHero is a travel planning service that links travelers with local experts to create custom itineraries to different cities around the world, including Kyoto and the Kansai region. If you’d like to try them out, then you can get a 5% discount on their services if you use our link.
2. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device
Having a steady wifi connection is a must when traveling these days, especially in a country like Japan where there’s a significant language barrier. The rail system is incredibly efficient but it can also be very confusing, which is why it’s so important to have uninterrupted access to the internet. You’ll need it to use Hyperdia which is essential to making sense of Japan’s rail system.
You can get access to the internet by renting a pocket wifi device or buying a sim card. We prefer pocket wifi devices because we find them simpler to use, but either is fine. You can arrange for either one through KKday (pocket wifi | sim card) or Klook (pocket wifi | sim card).
3. Bookmark Hyperdia or Get the App on your Mobile Device
I can’t stress how helpful Hyperdia is when navigating through Japan’s efficient but confounding railway system. Not only will it give you precise train arrival and departure times, but it’ll tell you exactly how to go from one station to the next. It makes it so much easier so be sure to download the app or bookmark the website on your mobile device. It’ll be you new best friend in Japan.
4. Check for Discount Passes
I buy discount vouchers from many websites, but for Asia, my favorites by far are Klook and KKday. They often offer the widest selection at the best prices. If you want to find deals on tours, airport transfers, pocket wifi rental, etc, then you can search through these lists of Kyoto attractions on Klook and Kkday. I often find cool activities that I wouldn’t think of myself so it’s always worth a look.
5. Get Travel Insurance
People have differing opinions when it comes to travel insurance. Many don’t think they need it but for me, it depends on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. If we plan on doing anything physical like riding bikes or skiing, then I’ll definitely get it. I don’t want to break my leg on a mountain and not have insurance! But if all we’ll be doing is eating and visiting temples for a few days like we did in Kyoto, then I probably won’t get it. The decision is yours.
When we do feel the need for it, we get insurance from World Nomads or SafetyWing. They’re both trusted travel medical insurance providers used by many long-term travelers. Check out my article on why we buy travel insurance for a closer look at the two. You can follow the links to get a free quote from World Nomads or SafetyWing.
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
Japan is a country of many unwritten rules. It’s easy to commit a cultural faux pas here so it’s best to familiarize yourself with the basics. Before your trip, I suggest checking out this good overview on Japanese etiquette for tourists.
VISA INFORMATION (for Filipinos)
Philippine passport holders need to secure a tourist visa to enter Japan. Applications are coursed through accredited travel agencies so you don’t have to go to the Embassy of Japan. I applied with Reli Tours & Travel in 2016 and at the time, they charged PHP 950 if you’re applying as a tourist, and PHP 2,000 if you’ll be visiting friends or relatives. I was granted a 5-year multiple entry visa.
Check out my post on how to apply for a Japan tourist visa for a complete step-by-step process.
I’m definitely not an expert on Kyoto but I do hope that this guide helps you plan your trip. I’m only sharing some of the things that I’ve learned from our visits there. If you have any questions or suggestions, then please leave them in the comment section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well.
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 Kyoto. For more on our travel gear, 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.
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