Kyoto came closest to matching the picture of Japan I had painted in my head before visiting. It’s overflowing with ancient temples, shrines, palaces, and gardens. You can feed monkeys and explore a bamboo forest in the same day! Finish every day with some world-class Ramen and you’ve got the perfect vacation. Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto is still an important cultural center. The super-saturation of Japanese cultural sites makes it feel considerably more authentic than Tokyo. At times it can feel crowded and touristy, but that doesn’t take away from its charm.
Unlike Tokyo (where the metro goes everywhere), the best way to get around Kyoto is by bus. We found that the metro stops are spread out and the bus was often quicker. You can hop on any bus for 230 JPY per ride. If you’re going to take several trips, then you should consider purchasing the day pass for 500 JPY.
The metro is also a fast and reliable way to zip around Kyoto. If you can, try to find accommodations near one of the main lines (Karasuma or Tozai). Our apartment was near the Shijo station along the Karasuma line and we could transfer quickly to the main stations. Fares for the metro start at 210 JPY. Kyoto also happens to be very bike friendly. There are several shops around town that rent bikes for around 1,500 JPY per day. We had two bikes available at our Airbnb, but the weather was never good enough for us to use them (it rains a lot in December).
THINGS TO DO
Give yourself plenty of time in Kyoto, but don’t plan on visiting temples and shrines the whole time. Honestly, you’ll be “shrined out” like us after one day. They all just start to look the same. Make sure to incorporate a couple day trips into your itinerary. We spent half a day visiting Nara and a full day exploring Miyajima Island and Hiroshima.
Explore the Shrines and Temples
There’s plenty to choose from. Over 1600 actually. Using public transit you can quickly hop from one to the next. Pro tip: go early or go late. Early in the morning (before 10 am) and later at night (after 6 pm) the popular Shrines will be less crowded. If you go in the middle of the day you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with people like Costco on a Sunday.
Our first night in Kyoto we stopped by the Yasaka Shrine after eating at the Nishiki Market (it’s down the street). The terrential downpour cut our visit short, but it was beautiful to see it lit up at night.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is the most well-known cultural site in Kyoto. It’s beautiful! Thousands of bright red Torii Gates line a 3-mile long trail to a hilltop. Each one is dedicated to a company or individual that made a donation. They start at 400,000 JPY in case you want to buy your Mom an epic Christmas present. We got up early and got to the shrine around 8 am to avoid the crowds. There were still some groups of tourists, but the further we went along the hike the fewer people we saw. Near the summit we had the trail to ourselves.
To get there take the JR Nara line and get off at the Inari station. Doing Fushimi Inari and Nara Park in the same day is easy because they’re on the same train route.
When in Japan you have to slurp as much Ramen as possible because it’s so much better than everywhere else. Kyoto has some awesome spots to grab a bowl and a beer. The recipes seemed more traditional and fresh in Kyoto. My favorite place we tried was Ramen Sen No Kaze. To this day it was the best bowl of Ramen I’ve ever had. This place is well known and highly rated so expect quite a wait. We sat outside in the cold for over an hour before being seated. It was 100% worth that wait.
This bustling market is over 400 years old and one of the country’s most iconic. Nicknamed “Kyoto’s Pantry,” it’s filled with vendors selling local fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, and other unique ingredients. You can buy prepared foods right on the street and there are also some small sit down restaurants. Whether you’re trying a local snack or just people watching – this is a must-do in Kyoto.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
This is another very popular photography destination in Kyoto. Layer after layer of gigantic bamboo trees creates a stunning visual effect. It’s powerful and peaceful at the same time. There’s a nice walking path that winds through the forest. Like the Fushimi Inari Shrine, it’s best to go early to avoid the crowds of tourists that might ruin your photos.
To get there, take the JR Sagano line from Kyoto station and get off at Saga Arashiyama. It’s about a 15 minute ride on the train followed by a 15 minute walk to the entrance. There are some neat little shops in the area as well. You can also take a bus or taxi to the bamboo forest if you don’t have a JR Pass.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
The park offers a great opportunity to get up close with Japanese macaque monkeys. There’s also an amazing view of Kyoto from the top! It’s not far from the Arashiyama Bamboo forest and can be accessed from the same train station (Saga Arashiyama).
Entry to the park costs 550 JPY. You’ll first have to hike up a trail through the forest for around 30-45 minutes and after a while you’ll start to wonder where all the monkeys are. Don’t worry though, they all hang out at the top of the hill. There’s a gated wooden building at the top where you can feed the monkeys some snacks for 100 JPY. We didn’t feed them, but they were entertaining to watch!
Get harassed by bowing Deer in Nara
The park is located in Nara (1 hr from Kyoto) and is home to a large number of free roaming deer. According to the Shinto religion, the deer are the messengers of the gods. Due to their constant interaction with people at the park they are extremely tame. You can purchase crackers around the park and feed them. Some deer will politely bow to ask for a cracker! They started getting a little aggressive once they found out we had a whole pack of crackers though. It was hilarious!
To get there, take the JR Nara line from Kyoto Station. Get off at Nara station and it’s about a 15-20 minute walk from there.
Have Tea with an Owl
Themed cafes are really popular in Japan. Cat cafes, owl cafes, rabbit cafes, hedgehog cafes. Pick an animal and I bet there’s a cafe for that. We had a cup of green tea at a cafe in central Kyoto that had about 15 different owls! It costs 1000 JPY to enter and spend time holding the owls, but that includes 1 “free” drink. The staff were super nice and let us hold several owls! My favorite was a large one named Picasso.