If you’re in Japan for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and looking for one other city to visit between events or just for a bit of sightseeing while you’re in the country, Kyoto is the obvious choice.
As Japan’s capital from the late 8th Century to the late 19th Century it’s a living treasure of ancient temples and a living repository of traditional Japanese culture, and unlike most Japanese cities it came through WWII intact (nearby Osaka and Kobe were reduced to rubble).
The years since then have seen Kyoto recieve the same kind of concrete makeover as the rest of Japan, so don’t expect the whole city to look like Memoirs of a Geisha – if you do you’ll be disappointed, especially when arriving at Kyoto Station. That said, some areas of the city are beautifully preserved and even in the most modern suburbs the temples and shrines remain as islands of ancient beauty.
For a taste of old Japan, the Gion & Higashiyama and Arashiyama districts are lovely, and southern Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari is my favourite shrine in all Japan.
Meanwhile there’s great hiking (and more shrines & temples) in the surrounding mountains (though the summer heat isn’t great hiking weather – plenty of water & sunscreen required).
If you’re able to visit a week before the Olympics begin, you can check out the Gion Festival on July 17th.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Search Hotels Combined for hotel deals in Kyoto
More specifically, the best part of town to stay in is the Gion/Sanjo/Shijo area which puts you close to the shopping & nightlife as well as the traditional architecture & alleyways of Gion; search hotels near Gion. You could also consider the Kyoto Station area – it’s not nearly as nice, but there are loads of accommodation options there and it’s super convenient for access from other cities with good transportation links to wherever you want to go in Kyoto. Search hotels near Kyoto Station
Airbnb is also a great option in Japan, in fact in Japan it seems to work particularly well – most hosts arrange self-checkin & checkout systems, allowing you to arrive & leave flexibly without needing to meet someone for the keys (the key’s often left in a lockbox for you). The wifi is always super-fast, and I’ve never had an Airbnb nightmare in Japan (have had a few elsewhere). There was a crackdown in 2018 with the introduction of new regulations which led to a collapse in the number of listings available and accordingly a jump in prices, with a lot of travellers reporting that their reservations were suddenly cancelled as a result. It was all a bit of a mess at first, but you can be confident that any listings remaining on there at this point are legit. Prices went up unfortunately, but then so did standards, and Airbnb is still my usual go to for accommodation in Japan.
New users can get a $35 discount from their first Airbnb rental through 4corners7seas, simply click here and sign up.
There’s so much to see in Kyoto, it really goes beyond the scope of the few days you’re likely to be there for to try and cover it all. There are so many temples & shrines to choose from, it’s easy to overdo it and get ‘templed out’ so they all end up looking the same – best thing to do is pick a few standouts to base your itinerary around, and compliment visits to those with some random wanderings. For me the star of the show is Fushimi Inari, and you also shouldn’t skip the hillside Kiyomizu-dera; the Golden Temple (Kinkakuji) is probably the most famous single image of the city, I’m not personally a huge fan of it actually but lots of people love it. See here for a detailed post about the best temples & shrines to visit in Kyoto, and just pick out a few standouts instead of getting jaded by visiting too many.
Although quite large & spread out, Kyoto’s a great walking city in places – see here for a good walking route taking in the Gion teahouse district before heading up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera, and here for the Philosopher’s Path area further north.
For more general reading and sightseeing ideas see here
It’ll be bloody hot in Kyoto if you visit during the Olympics, but it’s a great city for a spot of hiking if you can handle the heat – if you fancy getting out into the hills for the day see here
If you visit Kyoto a week before the Olympics begin, you can attend the Gion Festival on July 17th
On the other hand if you visit in winter you can get some skiing in at Biwako Valley in neighbouring Shiga Prefecture, easily accessed from Kyoto by train & bus. It’s a tiny ski hill, but it’s there
The best club in the Kansai area is actually Club World in Kyoto, located just outside Kawaramachi Station (map here). Other than that it’s more of a bar scene, with most drinking spots along Kiyamachi street between Shijo and Sanjo streets, and the parallel Pontocho alleyway. Many of these are pokey little joints with just a few seats squeezed between the bar and the wall, and for first time visitors it can be a little hard to work out which places are good just for casual drinks.
Pontocho’s a great place for a wander even if you don’t go in anywhere, while the northern bit of Kiyamachi (closer to Sanjo street) has a decent number of standing bars and shisha places which are straightforward enough. My personal favourite is ING Bar, a crazy little rock bar run by local legend Haku-san – it’s tucked away at the back of the second floor of the Royal Building on Kiyamachi. There are also some good bars across the river in Gion; for serious cocktails the bartenders at Gion359 know what they’re doing.
Shopping in Kyoto
Kyoto isn’t known as a shopping mecca, but the Teramachi district of covered shopping arcades is an interesting area for a wander and a browse; the Nishiki Market cuts through the same area. If you’re after electronics there’s a Bic Camera attached to Kyoto Station and a Yodabashi Camera just north of the station on Karasuma-dori.
Transportation in Kyoto
Kyoto’s transportation is frustratingly disjointed, with multiple companies operating different train lines with separate ticketing; the easiest way to deal with this is to use an IC card which works it all out automatically when you tap in & out (otherwise you’ll likely find yourself faffing about with ticket machines to an annoying degree). The local IC card is Icoca from Japan Rail (for a full explanation on IC cards see here), but you can also use your Tokyo IC card (Suica or Pasmo) in Kyoto.
It’s often more cost-effective to use a bus pass – these are 500 yen for the day, available at the office next to the bus stops on the north side of Kyoto Station. Also some popular sites are easier to visit by bus, notably the Golden Temple and Ryoan-ji. Do be aware that buses can often get snarled up in traffic and take considerably longer, especially for slightly further areas like Arashiyama.
For the specifics of how to get from A to B by train use Hyperdia (there’s a good explanation how to use it here), for buses use Google Maps. Most visitors will probably stay near Kyoto Station or somewhere near the Sanjo/Gion area, so here are the best routes from those to the main places you’re likely to be planning for:
From Kyoto Station
Arashiyama: JR train, direct on the Saga Line
Fushimi Inari: JR train, direct on the Nara Line
Gion & Higashiyama area: JR to Tofukuji (Nara Line, 1 stop) & transfer to Keihan Line OR subway to Sanjo/Higashiyama/Keage (changing from green line to orange line at Karasuma-Oike) OR bus direct #100
Kinkakuji: bus direct #101
Nara: JR Nara line direct OR Kintetsu Line (latter is better in terms of where you end up in Nara, as the Kintetsu station’s closer to Nara Park & the Great Buddha at Todaiji; however if you have a JR Pass you might still want to take the JR Line and put up with the extra 10 minutes of walking)
From Sanjo/Gion area
The Keihan Line runs north-south down the eastern side of Kyoto and will be useful for those staying near Sanjo or Gion.
Arashiyama: Hankyu Line from Kawaramachi Station (changing at Katsura)
Fushimi Inari: Keihan Line direct to Fushimi Inari Station
Kyoto Station: Keihan Line to Tofukuji and JR Line (1 stop) from there OR subway from Sanjo Station (changing from orange line to green line at Karasuma-Oike) OR bus #100 from Gion
Kinkakuji bus direct #59
Nara: Keihan Line to Tofukuji and JR Nara Line from there
Another useful bus route is direct between the Silver Temple bus stop & the Golden Temple using #102 or #204. There’s more useful bus info here, and Google Maps is very reliable with the bus routes & times.
Useful Links for Visiting Kyoto
Click the banner to pre-order your JR Pass and save 40 dollars, or see here for full details on buying & using the JR Pass:
Check train times on Hyperdia (see here for an explanation on how to use it)
Search Hotels Combined for hotel deals in Kyoto
Any questions about Kyoto? I used to live there and know it well – give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.