If your an absolute culture vulture like myself then I’m sure Kyoto is already on your travel radar! Kyoto was once Japan’s capital city prior to Tokyo, today it is a bright and colourful city full to the brim with authentic Japanese experiences, architecture, temples and traditions not to mention its striking natural beauty!
Kyoto along with the rest of Japan has been somewhere I have dreamt of visiting for years and years, as we all know Japan can be amazing be pretty expensive to visit, so my husband and I have always put off going on holiday there until we have enough saved so we can fully do everything we would like to. Saying that we have visited Japan several times with my work, I have been extremely lucky to get layovers with the airline I work for in Japan and have taken my husband along on several trips.
When I got rostered an Osaka trip I knew I had to take my husband along, as Osaka and Kyoto were both places we were keen to explore. We were put up Osaka and spent 1 day exploring Osaka, then spent our second day getting up early and venturing over to Kyoto. On our last day we got up early again and went to visit Nara in the morning then got the train over to Kyoto from Nara to spend the rest of the day seeing more of Kyoto.
I would recommend if your going to Japan on holiday to allow at least 2 to 3 full days for Kyoto as there is just so much to see! Although we did a pretty good job of cramming as much into a day and a half as possible. Kyoto was a lot busier and a lot more touristy than I expected, however saying that I absolutely fell in love with this city. We visited just towards the end of cherry blossom season, and we also had perfect warm weather which just made everything look so pretty.
I honestly cannot recommend Japan’s former capital enough you can’t come to Japan and not visit Kyoto! It’s today seen as Japan’s cultural capital and when you visit you can clearly see why – it’s just got so much original charm.
Sights & Activities
Chion-in Temple is not one of Kyoto’s most famous temples, however it is centrally located near Maruyama Park, Shoren-in Temple and Yasaka Shrine. So if your visiting them it’s worth popping along to have a look at. The temple is the head temple of Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism. Some parts of the temple and shrines date back to the 1600s, the large wooden gate at the main entrance is the largest in all of Japan. This temple does close quite early at about 4pm, so unfortunately we got there just after and it was closed so we just had a look at the outside of the temple. So if you are desperate to look inside make sure you get there before it closes.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha is probably one of Kyoto’s most famous Shinto shrines along with its 5000 bright orange torii gates that trail through the hills behind the shrine, these vibrant orange arches are one of the main icons associated with the city, and this is one of the most popular shrines.
This famous shrine was built back in the 8th century and dedicated to the god of rice and sake, as farming slowly diminished the shrine is now dedicated to business prosperity. There are lots of fox statues all around the shrine which signifies a messenger to the gods.
We visited in the afternoon and the place was heaving around the main entrance and the shrines, however we decided to walk up the hill through all the orange gates, and even though it’s a tiring hike which was more due to the heat, the paths are easy enough to walk and the further up you walk the quieter it becomes! We got some really nice areas to ourselves and also when you reach the top you get a lovely view. It’s completely free to enter the shrine and to do the hike, and as it’s one of the brightest and most popular shrines its a must when in Kyoto.
Ginkakuji Temple sits alongside Kyoto’s Eastern mountains, it was originally built as a retirement villa for one of Kyoto’s shoguns. The villa was later converted after his death to a zen temple back on 1490. Ginkakuji also became a center of contemporary culture, known as the Higashiyama Culture. The arts evolved and refined during that time include the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, theater, poetry, garden design and architecture.
The temple consists of beautiful well kept gardens, a moss garden and a dry sand garden with perfectly raked lines, as well as the main silver pavilion there are several other buildings and temples. There are set pathways to walk around all of the buildings and gardens, this temple was quite popular with tourists and you can see why it’s a stunning temple. The entrance is only 500 yen per person which is about £4 so it should definitely be added to any Kyoto itinerary, the tickets they give you also make nice keepsakes and can be used as a bookmark.
Gion is Kyoto’s world famous geisha district, it’s most well known street is Hanami-koji Street, it has lots of charm and character with wooden narrow merchant houses filled with shops, restaurants and of course tea houses. Geishas also known as geiko which is Kyoto’s dialect for geisha, and maiko which are geiko apprentices perform and entertain in traditional Japanese arts in the tea houses.
You can sometimes spot the odd geisha going to work or walking along, but ensure you act respectful towards the geisha as there have been many complaints about how tourists act towards geishas. While we were there we saw a geisha walking along and all of a sudden a stampede of tourists ran towards her to get photos. The best thing to do if you want to experience geiko is to book a tea room, it was honestly one of the highlights of our trip. There is a cultural geisha show held daily at Gion Corner too! But if you can try and book into a small tea house for a more authentic and intimate show.
Gion is very busy so ensure to go early to beat the crowds or aim to visit late afternoon or early evening which is normally when you can spot a geisha walking to attend a work engagement or being dropped off.
Gion Taotei is one of the best experiences we had in Kyoto, it’s a Chinese restaurant located in a former tea house along the main Street in Gion. They do offer a Maiko (geisha apprentice) experience it was about £28 per person and its held in a small room upstairs. You do have to book as they only allow a maximum of 20 people, as we walked past during the afternoon we spotted the place as they had a board outside advertising it, so we booked our space for that evening.
If you are in Kyoto try and be organised and book on well in advance as we were just lucky as we could see all the other nights were fully booked, we seemed to go on a quieter night. The experience included a drink, some dumplings (normally they are meat dumplings – we asked for vegetarian which were sweet dumplings more like dessert) watching the Maiko perform serval dances, and we were also allowed to meet and greet the Maiko and she gave us a small gift (a sticker with her name on in Japanese) and there was a question and answer part where you could ask a the Maiko a question and there was a translator to translate. We were also allowed to have our photo taken with her too!
This is a much better experience rather than trying to spot them in the street, also your not allowed to bother them when they are walking about their day to day life’s. This was an amazing experience as I had always wanted to meet a geisha and it was on my bucketlist. There is so much mystery still surrounding geishas but it was really good to be able to ask questions and learn about this unique practise. This place was a great intimate setting but do try and book on in advance to avoid missing out, and maybe have dinner before hand as the dumplings are more of a snack than a full meal.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple means pure water temple which got his name when it was founded back in 780 on the site of Otowa Waterfall in the forested hills east of the city. The temple is one of the most celebrated temples in all of Kyoto and is now a UNESCO heritage site, and also one of the oldest schools teaching Japanese Buddhism.
This shrine was absolutely stunning it’s surrounded by woodlands and trees which make the surrounding area so colourful, we were there during spring so all the greenery was really vivid and just stunning next to the brightly coloured temples and buildings. To enter this temple it was 400 yen per person so not very much at all and the temple has a real genuine Japanese feel to it, and just how you imagine a temple in Kyoto to look like.
Maruyama Park is a public park and is next to some of Kyoto’s most popular shrines and temples such as Chion-in Temple, Shoren-in Temple and Yasaka Shrine all within close walking distance. The park is extremely popular with both locals and tourists during cherry blossom season, we came towards the end of cherry blossom season however it was really lovely warm weather so was a really pretty park to walk around.
Nanzen-Ji is a zen temple and holds high importance within the Japanese Zen Buddhism religion as it is a head school which teaches these practices. The large temple complex is spread out across the foot of the mountains, and the grounds history dates back to the 13th century but was destroyed in the civil war in the late 1500s, but reconstruction began again in the 1600s.
It has many temples within the complex and each charge between 300 to 500 yen to enter, however the grounds are free to roam. We did not go into all of them but we did pay 500 yen to go up to the viewing deck of the Sanmon Gate, which is at the main entrance into the grounds. There are steep stairs to go up but once at the top you get lush greenery views over the surrounding woods and mountains.
I would recommend visiting Nanzen-Ji and even if you don’t pay to enter every temple the grounds are really beautiful and well kept and the grounds are located only a short walk from the Philosphers Path too.
Ninenzaka & Sannenzaka
Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka are both well preserved streets situated in the historic Higashiyama District. Both of these streets are sloped lanes which are lined with traditional shops, restaurants and tea houses. There are no cars on either of these streets they are pedestrian streets only, and give a great insight into what Kyoto would have been like many years ago. It’s worth visiting both these streets as they are both really pretty and full of Japanese appeal and culture.
We wandered up and down these streets several times while walking around the city and came at different times of the day. Late afternoon and early evening the streets were much quieter! While walking along the streets you can also get a great views of Yasaka Pagoda which is the oldest pagoda in all of Kyoto and dates back to 592, try and head to Yasaka Street just before sunset to view the pagoda at its best, and its a great photo opportunity too.
Nishiki Market is also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen and is a huge undercover market across 5 blocks, its narrow and busy but jam packed full of restaurants, streetfood, groceries and cookware. At the market you can find plenty of Japanese delicacies and lots of fish. As vegetarians we struggled finding vegetarian street food and ordered what we thought was a potato cake and as we bit into soon discovered it was fish.
The market was originally a wholesale fish market and has operated for several centuries and many of the stalls and shops have been run by the same families for generations. The market is a great place to visit to break up the many temple and shrine visits, and is good place to come to see what’s on offer. Expect crowds it’s extremely busy but we just walked up and down the whole length just to see what it had on offer.
Nishiki-Tenmangu Shrine is located inside Nishiki Market it’s a small Shinto shrine covered in lanterns from the outside so is easy to spot when inside the market. It does get quite busy with many shoppers from around the market visiting, but is worth popping your head in if your at the market anyways as it’s free to enter and it’s a really calm space to come and escape the chaos of the busy market outside the entrance.
The Philosophers Path is a popular pathed pedestrian walkway which stretches just over a mile long, the stone path runs along next to a cherry tree lined canal, and it is situated in the Higashiyama district. If your planning on visiting Ginkakuji Temple then the path starts nearby so plan on walking the path after your visit or head along the path towards the temple and end there.
The path got its name from one of Japan’s most famous philosophers – Nishida Kitaro who practiced meditation daily while walking this path on his commute to Kyoto University. There is also a number of small temples and shrines tucked away behind the canal along the path. There’s plenty of restaurants, cafes and cute boutiques along the way and plenty of places to stop for ice cream which is lovely on a warm day.
We really enjoyed the walk it’s so peaceful and we caught the end of cherry blossom too which was great to see. It’s easy to tie in the Philosphers Path into your Kyoto itinerary as it doesn’t take too long and is a scenic way to walk in between places.
Shoren-in Temple is a Japanese Buddhist temple set at the base of the cities Higashiyama mountains. The temples was built back in the 12th century and was linked to the imperial family, when the emperor built the temple for his son to live and learn in from the head priest in the city, over the years the residence transitioned into a temple.
This temple was pretty quiet which was lovely we visited in the morning and only saw several other people. The gardens and buildings are beautiful to walk through and behind the gardens is a small hill with a beautiful bamboo grove and shrine which was my favourite part of the temple, it had a really nice energy up there and we had it all to ourselves! Like most other temples around Kyoto it was 500 yen to enter, so is inexpensive.
Yasaka Shrine is maybe not Kyoto’s most largest and grandest of shrines however it is a shrine of great importance, as it was founded over 1350 years ago and today holds the most famous lantern summer festival. It’s also a popular spot during cherry blossom season as it’s close to Maruyama Park. It’s easy enough to stop off at Yasaka Shrine as it’s located between Gion District and Higashiyama District, so easy enough when your walking between the districts to stop here to admire the buildings.
Food & Beverage
Crafthouse Kyoto is located walking distance from Keihan Shichijo station. It’s a microbrewery and provides a huge range of craft beers from all over Japan, so it’s a great stop for any beer lovers. The bar is in a former 100 year old tea house but they have kept many original features and made it super chic and modern. They also serve food too, so we stopped for some lunch as they had several vegetarian options available which can be hard to come by in Japan.
Grapevine Cafe is located in the historic Higashiyama District in Kyoto. This cafe is a really cute place to visit its decor is very traditional with floor cushions and low tables, it’s the perfect spot to nip in for a refreshment. We came just before it’s closed to grab a drink before heading to the Geisha show.
Kyoto Sweet Treats
There are tons of stalls and shops all over Kyoto that serve a variety of sweet treats. Being vegetarian can be a struggle to try typical Japanese food as most of it contains meat and fish, however the sweets are mostly vegetarian so we opted to try some as we wandered the streets.
There are so many to choose from we tried some dangos which come in a variety of forms it’s like a spongey dumpling, we tried one which was covered in like a sticky soy sauce, another we tried was matcha flavoured. Dango isn’t really that flavoursome however it’s always good to try local food. We also tried some Japanese cream puffs which have a selection of flavours such as vanilla, strawberry and matcha which were all really nice.
There is so much choice most people when they think of Japan think of savoury and fish dishes, however the Japanese have a real sweet tooth there are tons of sweet treats on offer fromoo mochi, baked cheesecake, taiyaki, dorayaki, daifuku and manju to name a few more traditional Japanese sweet treats. All these snacks are cheap and great to grab on the go as a quick pick me up.
Sushi Otowa is situated close by to Nishiki Market towards the end where Nishiki-Tenmangu Shrine is. This small sushi restaurant is a perfect spot for lunch, we were hoping to try and find some lunch in Nishiki Market but everything was meat or fish, we stumbled across Sushi Otowa when leaving the market and discovered they had some vegetarian sushi we opted for a mix of cucumber and radish maki sushi.
There is a large variety of sushi available but there is no English menu, so we just showed our little English translation card asking for vegetarian. However if you eat fish then there are displays of sushi which you could point to the ones you would like.
Transport & Getting Around
Kyoto is easily reached from Osaka and Nara by train and only takes 1 hour to reach from both. Once in Kyoto getting around is relatively easy by public transport and by foot. We walked to most places and did use several buses, my husband had picked up a leaflet which had all the bus times and locations on so go prepared and try and find one which should be available in tourist information or look online and screenshot before loosing your WiFi.
The easiest and quickest option is the subway however there are only two lines so it doesn’t go everywhere in the city. So try and plan an itinerary before venturing out as although a lot of the locals in Kyoto are really friendly and helpful many of them don’t speak English so asking for directions isn’t always easy.
As we were strapped for time we did also take one taxi to a temple as weren’t anywhere near a subway station and we didn’t want to wait for a bus, taxis are a quick option but not very cosy effective.
If your vegetarian or just prefer a plant based diet, then the biggest bit of advice would be to do some research before leaving your accommodation and decide where to eat beforehand. My husband and I really struggled finding vegetarian food and wasted lots of time traipsing around many restaurants asking if they had anything vegetarian.
Try downloading the Happy Cow app or googling vegetarian friendly restaurants as trying to seek out places that serve veggie food isn’t always obvious in Japan, so research before you go, as afterwards having a look there was quite a few options and Kyoto is famed for its tofu! This is one thing we should have done we researched everything apart from where to eat! If you can also take a small translation card or find it in a guide book and take the translation for vegetarian food, as there is a language barrier. So if you have this you can show waiters and waitresses so they can assist you with choosing vegetarian options.
I would really recommend when exploring the city to download the maps.me app this is a great app to have in any country but especially countries where there can be quite a big language barrier. I swear by having this map in an unfamiliar city. It’s like google maps but works offline so is great if you don’t have WiFi, and it helped us get around Kyoto so easily, and we found everything that we wanted to find with ease.
I would recommend planning your day before heading out, and seeing what sights and attractions are near to one another. I normally search places on my maps.me app and save and pin it so I can see what is close by, and what is the best route to take so I’m not wasting time going out of the way and then having to go back on myself etc.