Whether you like Japan for its sakura or its historical temples, no trip to the country is complete without a visit to Kyoto, the oasis of zen. It’s a quaint city to experience Japanese culture in its utmost splendour. This comprehensive Kyoto travel guide will help you plan a trip and explore the tranquil nooks of the spiritual and cultural capital of Japan.
There are numerous reasons why visiting Japan is on so many people’s travel bucket lists. These include the intriguing balance between the old and the new in each prefecture of the country. But Kyoto, with its bewitching beauty, slows you down and is the place to go if you’re seeking peaceful environs.
Spending a day or two in the city has several benefits, including the chance to see the cherry blossoms in spring and the vibrant foliage in autumn, relax in the Zen gardens, and visit 17 World Heritage Sites and 1,600-year-old Buddhist temples.
How to plan a Kyoto trip
Start by finalising your tour dates, and getting your passport, visa and Japanese currency requirements sorted. Next, book your flight tickets to either Osaka or Kansai, as these are the easiest ways to reach Kyoto by air. Find out about commuting (JR passes and the Icoca and Haruka discount tickets) to the city, and book your accommodation in Kyoto.
Lastly, learn some Japanese phrases that can come in use to communicate with locals, keep this Kyoto travel guide handy, pack your bags, and head to the ‘city of ten thousand shrines’.
Kyoto trip cost
Kyoto is known to be one of the most expensive cities in Japan. However, there are several ways of planning a considerably affordable Kyoto trip as well, which would cost approximately JPY 10,000 (around INR 6,189.29) per person, per day, for a mid-range holiday to the city. This includes JPY 1,500–2,000 for accommodation in hotels or Airbnb, JPY 800–1,000 for intercity transport, JPY 4,000 for dining out (restaurants and local food), and JPY 2,000–3,000 as an extra budget (paid tourist attractions, taking a taxi, and miscellaneous expenses).
The best time to visit Kyoto City in Japan
Kyoto, throughout the year, retains its charming scenery. Be it the cherry blossoms in summer or snow-clad temples in winter, you can witness the fairytale-like sights on your visit to this Japanese city any time of the year.
During the hot months in Kyoto, the average daily temperature is 27°C (81°F). The temperature drops to 12°C (54°F) in the winter. The monsoon season in the city is not very harsh, and it doesn’t rain often. Factor in the various festivals to decide which ones you’d like to experience. Here are the most recommended times of the year for tourists to visit Kyoto.
March to May
This is the peak season in Kyoto. During spring, you’ll be mesmerised by the cherry blossoms all over the city. Pale pink flowers adorning the streets, parks and gardens make for the most picturesque scenes in the city.
June to September
Travellers to Kyoto should mark this time on their calendar to witness festivals and celebrations in Japan. Gion Matsuri is held in July, which is the most extravagant festival in the city. The O-Bon holiday in August is another suitable time to tour the bustling ancient city.
October to mid-December
Watch the changing colours of autumn during this time of the year. The gold and fiery orange maple leaves create dreamy scenery throughout the city.
Mid-December to February
The city is covered with a blanket of snow during winter. The tariffs are lower and the time is generally considered the off-season. However, tourists can unwind at onsens (hot springs) in such cold temperatures to rid themselves of the humdrum of city life.
How to reach Kyoto
The Kyoto Prefecture in Japan is located in the Kansai region. The city is nestled in the Tamba Highlands at the foot of Mount Atago. Geographically, it falls in the central region of Honshu Island, which is the largest in Japan. The nearest airport is the Osaka Itami International Airport (ITM), followed by the Osaka Kansai International Airport (KIX). You can take a connecting flight to either of the airports. Then, to reach Kyoto, you can use public or private transport.
A bullet train ride to Kyoto promises grand views of Mt. Fuji. Kyoto, the cultural and historical centre of the country, is on the bullet train route from Tokyo to Osaka and onward to Hiroshima. Board the super-fast Nozomi (the fastest of the bullet trains) from either Tokyo (a little over two hours) or Osaka (less than an hour). As the frequency of the trains is quite high, you can arrive in Kyoto easily.
Getting around in Kyoto
Buy a Japan Rail (JR) ticket or a seven-day pass online or through a travel agent. It could be cheaper than buying it at a station in Japan. You need a reservation for the bullet train journey, especially if you want the right seats — with great window views of Mt. Fuji — while travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto.
The best places to visit in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji is a Zen temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It is located in the northwestern part of Kyoto. The Golden Pavilion gets its name from its top two floors which are swathed in gold leaf. It’s a stunning structure, and on a bright day, its reflection in the surrounding lake is a spectacle to behold.
Head to the Higashiyama district on the slopes of the eastern mountains to visit Ginkaku-ji. It is another Zen temple, which is also called the Silver Pavilion in the Sakyo ward. Built in 1482 by shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a retirement villa, it was converted into a Zen temple following his death in 1490. The shōgun was obsessed with art, and Ginkaku-ji became a centre of contemporary culture, known as Higashiyama Culture, which eventually had a country-wide impact.
Some beautiful cultural elements of Kyoto, such as tea ceremonies, theatre and poetry, flower arrangements, garden design and architecture, come from that time. Despite its name, the Silver Pavilion showcases no silver foiling, unlike the Golden Pavilion. It is believed that it was just a nickname, chosen more than a century after the building’s construction, possibly to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion.
Passing by the Togudo Hall, you can walk to Ginkaku-ji’s famed moss garden, which features ponds with islets and bridges, small streams and a variety of plants. Stroll down the Philosopher’s Walk (named after the philosopher and professor, Nishida Kitaro) and proceed south along the canal until the path culminates near the Nanzen-ji temple.
Along the way, you’ll find numerous cafes and shops. In spring, the one-hour walk is quite picturesque with cherry blossoms blooming on both sides of the canal.
In the southeastern part of the city, it’s the most prominent landmark of Kyoto, the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera. Spend some time inside the temple for the view from the balcony of the main building. While spring drapes the whole of Japan in beautiful pink and white, and autumn ushers in a myriad of colours, the phenomena are best experienced from atop these mountains.
Near the Kiyomizu-dera, is the Otowa Waterfall, which gave the temple its name (pure water). The waterfall has three streams, believed to bring longevity, academic success, and love. However, it is believed that drinking from all three streams brings bad luck.
Visiting Gion is a magical experience. It is one of the most prestigious geisha districts. Tourists and photographers from all over the world come to Gion just to catch a glimpse of a geiko or a maiko in their colourful kimonos and wooden sandals, flitting between tea houses on private appointments. The apprentices can easily be identified by their rather tender age (usually in their late teens) and their attire (more colourful full-sleeve kimonos as compared to the geikos).
While you’re in Gion, do not let the geishas draw all your attention, for the neighbourhood is lovely, with historical tea houses, wood-lined roads, kaiseki restaurants and wooden ryokans. One way or another, Gion will leave you with a longing to return.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Kyoto boasts many fine attractions and a day can never be enough to visit all of them. However, if you’re pressed for time, board a JR train from Kyoto to Inari station, and head to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, this shrine is dedicated to Inari — the Shinto deity of rice, fertility and sake.
Shinto shrines are known for their orange torii gates, and Fushimi Inari has 10,000 of them lined over a four-kilometre path up Mount Inari. Most visitors do not have the time or stamina to complete the trek; you can opt for a short walk for the experience.
The shrine complex dates back to the eighth century, but it’s the torii gates that attract tourists in large numbers. Right outside the exit gate of the shrine, you will find some of the best street food in the country, for a few hundred yen.
Start with the Kyoto station, where you are sure to be spoiled for choices with countless shops and eateries. Take the elevator to the terrace to get a 360-degree aerial view of the city. If you’re a ramen noodles fan, head straight to Kyoto Ramen Street on the 10th floor. Each of the eight ramen restaurants here specialises in a different local style of the dish. Just buy a ticket for the type of ramen from the vending machines in front of the restaurants (unless you can read Japanese, you will have to go by the accompanying visuals).
The tallest structure in the city, the Kyoto Tower, stands at 131 metres. It is an iconic modern landmark. You can head up to the viewing platform at 100 metres in the tower and get a bird’s-eye view of Kyoto. The tower also has restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Situated to the north of the Tenryu-ji Temple, you can walk through the stunning, emerald-green bamboo trees soaring throughout the way. Visit the Okochi-Sanso Villa at the top, which has a huge garden and a teahouse.
Ryoan-ji Temple & Garden
A Buddhist temple, Ryoan-ji is one of the most popular tourist spots in Japan. It has one of the most unique Zen rock gardens in Kyoto. Founded in the 15th century, the garden is designed with a mystifying arrangement of stones. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it a significant and must-visit place in the capital city.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kyoto is Nijo Castle. It was built in 1603 as a residence for the first shōgun of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Tokugawa Leyasu. You can circumnavigate the Ninomaru, which is a secondary circle of defence, after going around the Honmaru, which is the main circle of defence. You can even take a stroll through the castle’s gardens. The Chinese-style architecture is particularly striking.
Kyoto Samurai and Ninja Museum
If you are a ninja or samurai fan, this place must be on your itinerary. The museum, located in the Nakagyo Ward, is a treat to have different experiences. You can take a paid guided tour and watch ancient swords and listen to old tales. There are several activities, too, to make you feel like a real Samurai or Ninja. These include dressing up in Samurai armour costumes, learning how to throw the Ninja star, and using a Ninja blowgun.
Nightlife in Kyoto
To enjoy Kyoto’s nightlife, visit the upscale Kiyamachi and Pontocho districts. The nightlife in the ancient city is diverse and includes a number of bars, nightclubs and venues with live music. Enjoy a cup of sake (a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage) while you’re there.
One of the most prominent nightclubs in Kyoto is Kitsune Kyoto. The two-floored, neon-and-black-themed club has two sections called the Sea and Land, which are a mix of old and new-age music. Located in the Pontocho district, Kitsune Kyoto has the world’s top DJs running the show and will make your experience there one to remember.
Overlooking the Kamo River, Atlantis is the only bar in Kyoto with riverside counter seating. The Yuka terrace will let you enjoy the breeze and serenity of the city. Relish their signature cocktails like the “Pontocho Cooler” and spend a refreshing evening.
Ever heard of an amusement disco club? The Maharaja Gion is the largest live entertainment disco in Kyoto. You can enjoy many Japanese traditional shows while dancing your heart out! Some of the incredible performances to see here include a Ninja show, Maiko walks on Saturdays, the Oiran show, Wadaiko (Japanese drum percussion) performances, and even LED robot dancing.
Things to do in Kyoto
In addition to the city’s major tourist attractions, there are other interesting things to do in Kyoto. In this Kyoto travel guide, we also have listed the following activities that will immerse you fully in Japanese culture.
Traditional tea ceremony
Kyoto Maikoya is a cultural property in Japan where you can have an authentic Japanese tea ceremony. Basically, the old machiya house is where you can sit down and have matcha tea with a host performing ancient rituals. They even have the option of doing the tea ceremony with a geisha or maiko.
The basic ceremony lasts for 45 minutes and is held in the facility’s traditional tatami tea room. The per-person cost is JPY 2,900 (INR 1,805). Add in an extra JPY 3,424 (INR 2,132) to perform the ceremony wearing a real kimono with a hairstyle done by the staff. You can even take a stroll and click pictures in the garden afterwards.
Traditional Japanese arts
Japanese calligraphy, Shodo, and flower arrangement, Ikebana, are two of the traditional Japanese arts that you must experience or learn while in Japan. These two are creative hobbies, but they also have significance in terms of being used as a form of Zen training. Zen circles using Shodo are known to help attain nirvana, and Ikebana is used as a way to maintain balance.
Where to eat in Kyoto
Yudofu Restaurant Kyoto
Located in the tranquil area of the Arashiyama district, the Yudofu Sagano restaurant specialises in the dish of the same name. It is made with tofu chunks cooked in kombu (seaweed). The terrace seating overlooks the beautiful Zen garden in the area. You can be seated in the tatami room and try their vegan Asian dishes.
Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto is a haven for seafood lovers. For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine, a trip to this market can be an overwhelming experience. This bustling, five-block-long, covered market comprises around 125 stalls, each hawking local Japanese food and handcrafted speciality items. Try authentic green tea and the famous Kyoto rice balls here.
What to eat in Kyoto
Takoyaki is a popular street food prepared with diced octopus, tenkasu and green onion. Travellers can also try roe-stuffed squid, fresh sashimi sticks and Kyoto-style takoyaki.
The finest culinary experience in Japan is a wholeheartedly prepared Kaiseki meal. The multi-course Japanese dinner is meticulously crafted by chefs and can be quite expensive as it’s treated as a royal meal.
An appetiser served with sake, a simmered dish, a sashimi dish and a grilled course are some of the courses included in the meal. The feast includes matcha tea and Japanese dessert. The Miyamasou restaurant in Kyoto is one of the best places in the city to have a Kaiseki meal.
Where and what to shop for in Kyoto
Kyoto Handicraft Center
Located in the Higashiyama-Okazaki area, the Kyoto Handicraft Center is a local and tourist favourite. The building comprises a store with local goods and handicrafts, restaurants, and a children’s bookshop. You can shop for products that are unique to Japan and Kyoto. Ornamental swords, Japanese dolls, woodblock prints, incense, lacquerware, Kanazawa gold leaf, Kokeshi dolls, kimonos and postcards are some of the items you can buy here.
Takashimaya Shopping Centre
The seven-story Takashimaya shopping centre is one of Kyoto’s biggest shopping centres. The mall, which is located in the heart of Kyoto, is a paradise for shoppers. You can find both local and international brands there, like Givenchy, Swarovski, and many more. On the seventh floor of the mall is a dining garden as well.
Where to stay in Kyoto
Here are some of the best options for booking a hotel in Kyoto. This Kyoto travel guide includes Airbnbs and resorts if you wish to have a leisure, luxury holiday.
Hotels in Kyoto
Resorts in Kyoto
(Note: All JPY to INR conversions were done at the time of writing.)
Hero Image: Courtesy Kristin Wilson/ Unsplash
Feature Image: Courtesy Zhaoli JIN/ Unsplash
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: A minimum of two days is enough to explore Kyoto. You can cover most of the main tourist attractions. However, as the city is rich in culture, a week-long trip will give you the best taste of Japanese traditions.
Answer: Before planning a trip to Kyoto, you must check the weather and pack appropriately. Get your intercountry rail pass for a smoother holiday. Learn basic phrases in Japanese for ease of communication. First-timers must be prepared to discover a whole new culture.
Answer: The winter months from December to February are the cheapest time to visit Kyoto.
Answer: There is no strict dress code in Kyoto for tourists. You can wear smart casuals which are most preferred in the city.
Answer: When visiting Kyoto, learn to say okino or arigato, which means 'thank you' in Japanese. Do not smoke in public or cycle around the city while intoxicated. Be polite and respectful to geishas or maikos and get their consent before clicking photos. Photography is prohibited in protected areas like shrines. Read the full Akimahen (a list of don’ts) before you visit Kyoto city.
Answer: In Kyoto, it is best to have a little amount of cash on hand (JPY) to use for small purchases, meals out, and even emergencies.
Answer: Nijo Castle, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto Imperial Palace and Kinkaku-ji Temple are some of the most famous historical places in Kyoto.
Answer: Kyoto Station, Aeon Mall Kyoto, and Takashimaya Shopping Centre are some of the best malls in Kyoto.