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Kyōto (京都) was the capital of Japan for over a millennium, and carries a reputation as its most beautiful city. However, visitors may be surprised by how much work they will have to do to see Kyoto's beautiful side. Most first impressions of the city will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station, which is itself an example of a city steeped in tradition colliding with the modern world.
Nonetheless, the persistent visitor will soon discover Kyoto's hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city center, and find that the city has much more to offer than immediately meets the eye.
Though dwarfed in size by other major Japanese cities, Kyoto is vast in terms of its rich cultural heritage - the material endowment of over a thousand years as the country's imperial capital. The city's numerous palaces, shrines, temples and other landmarks are spread out over the following districts:
- Central - Site of Nijō Castle (a former residence of the Tokugawa shōguns) and the stately grounds of the Imperial Palace. The district's southern end is anchored by the massive glass-and-steel building of the city's main gateway, Kyoto Station.
- Arashiyama (Western Kyoto) - Set against the beautiful tree-covered hills of Arashiyama, this district is rich in both historic and natural wonders.
- Higashiyama (Eastern Kyoto) - Nestled between the Kamo River and the temple-studded mountains of Higashiyama, this area's many attractions include the famed geisha district of Gion and the historic sites strung alongside the well-known Philosopher's Path.
- North - Graced with scores of centuries-old shrines and temples, including several World Heritage Sites. One of Kyoto's most famous attractions - the magnificent gilded pavilion of Kinkaku-ji - can be found here.
- South - This district covers a large part of Japan's former capital, stretching from the Ōharano area in the west to Fushimi-ku, Daigo, and the southern tip of Higashiyama-ku in the east.
Nestled among the mountains of Western Honshu, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the Emperor from 794 until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. During its millennium at the center of Japanese power, culture, tradition, and religion, it accumulated an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines, built for emperors, shoguns, and monks. Kyoto was among the few Japanese cities that escaped the allied bombings of World War II and as a result, Kyoto still has an abundance of prewar buildings, such as the traditional townhouses known as machiya. However the city is continuously undergoing modernization with some of the traditional Kyoto buildings being replaced by newer architecture, such as the Kyoto Station complex. Kyoto is also home to Japan's second most prestigious university, Kyoto University.
Kyoto's city planners way back in 794 decided to copy the Chinese capital Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) and adopt a grid pattern, which persists to this day in the city core. West-east streets are numbered, with Ichijō-dōri (一条通, "First Street") up north and Jūjō-dōri (十条通, "Tenth Street") down south, but there is no obvious pattern to the names of north-south streets.
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Not arriving at Kansai or Itami?
You can also hop on a bus from Narita Airport directly to Kyoto. Nankai Bus and Chiba Kotsu operate a daily overnight bus service, leaving Narita Airport's terminals at around 9:30 in the evening and arriving in Kyoto at around 6:20 the next morning. The return leaves Kyoto at 10:15 in the evening, arriving at Narita at around 6:50 in the morning. If and when returning to Narita, arrive with plenty of time for your flight! The one-way bus fare is ¥8500 per person.
Kyoto does not have its own airport, but rather is served by Osaka's two airports. There is an excellent road and railway network between the two cities.
You can fly into Kansai International Airport and then get a train to Kyoto. Kansai Airport Station is located opposite the arrival lobby where the Haruka limited express train, operated by West Japan Railway (JR West), can be caught. The Haruka runs to Kyoto in 75-80 minutes and the one-way cost normally starts from around ¥2,850 yen for an open (non-reserved) seat.
There are a few ways that foreign tourists can use the Haruka at a discount. One way is to buy a one-day Kansai Area Pass. At a cost of only ¥2,060 yen, this pass costs ¥790 yen less than a regular ticket. You will need to show your passport, as well as a copy of your foreign-bound return flight, when purchasing a ticket. Note that you are limited to purchasing one pass per trip, so if you return to Kansai Airport on the Haruka you will have to pay the regular fare.
Another option that JR West offers is the ICOCA and HARUKA discount ticket which includes travel in unreserved seating on the Haruka to Kyoto and any JR station within a designated "Free Zone", and a rechargeable ICOCA transit card containing ¥2000 (includes ¥500 deposit) that can be used on JR, private railways, buses and stores in the Kansai region. A one-way discount ticket costs ¥3030 and a round-trip costs ¥4060.
Both of the above tickets can be purchased online or at the Kansai Airport train station. Some other, more expensive JR West passes that include trips on the Haruka and are valid to Kyoto include the Kansai WIDE Area Pass and the Sanyo Area Pass.
The other train company operating out of Kansai Airport is the Nankai Railway. They offer a discounted ticket if you are interested in traveling to Central Kyoto, called the Kyoto Access Ticket. For ¥1230 this ticket includes a journey on the Nankai Railway Airport service to Tengachaya station in Osaka, followed by a trip on the Osaka Sakaisuji Subway Line. With a second transfer at Awaji station you can travel to Kyoto on the Hankyu Main Line. Under this plan you can reach Central Kyoto in approximately 1 3/4 hours. You have the option to upgrade to the fastest Nankai train service, the Rapi:t, for an additional 300 yen.
Comfortable limousine buses run from the airport to Kyoto Station, twice an hour, stopping at some of the major hotels along the way. The ticket costs ¥2,550 (children ¥1,280) one-way or ¥4,180 for round-trip. Bus tickets can be purchased outside of the airport's arrival lobby on the first floor. (just go straight when you leave customs through the "North gate"). The buses leave the airport from bus stop #8, which is located directly opposite the ticket vending machine. Buses discharge at the south end of Kyoto Station; return tickets are sold from a vending machine on the first floor of the Hotel Keihan Kyoto. The ride takes 88 minutes but can take longer when there is traffic (about 90 – 135 minutes).
Located near Osaka, Itami Airport is Kansai's largest domestic airport. Travelers flying into Kyoto from other areas in Japan will most likely arrive here. The easiest way to get to Kyoto from Itami Airport is by limousine bus No. 15. The trip takes about an hour and costs ¥1,310. The buses run three times an hour. Alternatively, you can take a combination of monorail and train, which requires at least two changes (monorail to Hotarugaike, Hankyu Takarazuka Line to Juso, Hankyu Kyoto Line to Kyoto) but costs just ¥670 and can be completed in an hour. Whereas the Limousine Bus will leave you at Kyoto Station in the southern part of Kyoto, the Hankyu Railway runs to Shijō Street in central Kyoto.
Most visitors arrive at JR Kyoto station by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. Nozomi trains take approximately 2.15 hrs. to Kyoto and costs ¥13520 one-way. Travel agencies in Tokyo and Kyoto sell nozomi tickets with ¥700-1,000 discount. If you buy a ticket in an agency, it is "open date" - you can board any train as long as it is not full. All you have to do is show up at the train station, register your agency ticket and then you will be reserved a seat. The trains are equipped with vending machines and attendants selling snacks. Hikari trains, which run less frequently and make a few more stops, cover the trip in around 2.45 hours, but only the Hikari and the Kodama trains can be used by Japan Rail Pass holders at no charge.
Travelers can also take advantage of the Puratto Kodama Ticket, which offers a discount on the all-stopping Kodama services if purchased at least one day in advance. You get a reserved seat and a coupon for a free drink (including beer) which can be redeemed at a "Kiosk" convenience counter inside the station. With this ticket a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto costs ¥9800 and takes 3.45 hours. Note that there is only one Kodama service per hour from Tokyo, and a few early-morning Kodama trains cannot be used with this ticket.
During travel periods when the Seishun 18 Ticket is valid, you can go from Tokyo to Kyoto during the day in about 8.30 hours using all-local trains. Traveling in a group is the best way to get discounts. The usual fare is ¥8000 however a party of three costs ¥3800 per person, and a group of five traveling together drops the price down to ¥2300 per person.
For travel in the Kansai region, a cheaper and almost as fast alternative is the JR shinkaisoku (新快速) rapid service, which connects to Osaka, Kobe and Himeji at the price of a local train. For a slightly cheaper price you can use the private Hankyu or Keihan lines to Osaka and Kobe, or the Kintetsu line to Nara. The Kansai Thru Pass includes travel on the private lines through to Kyoto, and this may prove cheaper that a JR Pass if you are staying a few days in the area.
Those travelling from Hokuriku region are pretty much forced to use the Thunderbird limited express service, as Hokuriku hasn't yet been reached by a Shinkansen network, with it still ending around Nagano. While the work is in progress, the only segment that is anywhere close to opening is the stretch between Nagano and Kanazawa, slated to open in March 2015, while the line between Kanazawa and Osaka (that will probably pass through Kyoto) is still in the early planning stages and in the end may skirt the city completely, if one of the proposed routes is taken. All this requires using the Thunderbird trains, which will take around 3 hours from Toyama to Kyoto and will cost ¥7800 for the non-reserved ticket.
Overnight by train
Direct overnight train service between Tokyo and Kyoto on a daily basis was abolished with the discontinuation of the Ginga express train in 2008. An alternative route via northern Japan became moot when another overnight train was removed from regular service in 2012. As a result, taking the bus is now the easiest way to travel between these two cities at night.
Overnight travel between Tokyo and Kyoto is still possible, and if you have a Japan Rail Pass and are willing to do some research, it can be inexpensive as well. The idea is to split your journey into two parts, stopping at an intermediate destination en route in order to sleep somewhere. Your cost will only be for the hotel room, as your train fare has already been paid for on your rail pass.
This two-part method carries a couple of advantages: location and money. You will more than likely find good accommodations very close to a main train station in a smaller city, compared to a big city such as Tokyo, and it will more than likely be cheaper than hotels found in Tokyo. You could use the money you save to forward some of your luggage to Kyoto using a luggage delivery service and take an overnight bag with you, which will make the journey easier.
For example, you can use the Tokaido Shinkansen late at night and sleep over at a hotel in Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi or Nagoya; In the morning, grab one of the first bullet train departures in the same direction to continue your trip. Here is an example: In the evening hours, take a Hikari or Kodama train to Hamamatsu (75–90 minutes via Hikari or 2 hours via Kodama). Once there you can take a rest at Hamamatsu's Toyoko Inn, which costs as low as ¥4000 for a single room if booked in advance. At 6:30 the next morning, board the first bullet train of the day, a Kodama, and you will be in Kyoto before 8:00.
Kyoto is easily reached by car via the Meishin Expressway between Nagoya and Osaka, but you'll definitely want to park your car on the outskirts of the city and use public transport to get around. Most attractions are in places built well before the existence of automobiles, and the availability of parking varies between extremely limited and non-existent. Furthermore, what little parking is available might be outrageously expensive.
As Kyoto is a major city, there are many day and overnight buses which run between Kyoto and other locations throughout Japan, which can be a cheaper alternative than shinkansen fares.
The run between Tokyo and the Kansai region is the busiest in Japan, and fierce competition between bus operators has resulted in better amenities and lower prices. Buses from Tokyo follow either the Tomei Expressway or the Chuo Expressway to Nagoya, then the Meishin Expressway to Kyoto. Trips take approximately 7–9 hours depending on the route and stops.
The following are among the major bus services available between Tokyo and Kyoto: (Current as of March, 2012)
Discount bus operator Willer Express runs daytime and overnight buses with a variety of seating options ranging from standard bus seats to luxurious shell seats. Bus journeys can be booked online in English, and Willer's Japan Bus Pass is valid on all of their routes with some exceptions.
Buses from Tokyo leave from Willer's own bus terminal, located west of Shinjuku Station in the Sumitomo Building. Some buses also leave from Tokyo Disneyland - Goofy Car Park, Tokyo Station - Yaesu-Chuo Exit, Shinagawa Station - Shinagawa Prince Hotel and Yokohama Station. In Kyoto, Willer Express uses the Hachijo Exit (八条口) at the south side of Kyoto Station, with some routes also stopping in front of the Kiyomizu-Gojo post office.
Willer's overnight one-way fares to/from Tokyo start from approximately ¥3800 for overnight trips in standard seats up to ¥9800 in shell seats with advanced purchase. Daytime bus fares start from ¥4900. Fares are typically higher on weekends and holidays.
JR Bus (Japanese Website) is also a major operator on the Tokyo-Kyoto route. The drawback is that you cannot make online reservations in English, but you can make reservations in train stations at the same "Midori-no-Madoguchi" ticket windows used to reserve seats on trains.
JR Buses depart from Tokyo Station - Yaesu Exit (八重洲口) and the JR Highway Bus Terminal (JR高速バスターミナル) located adjacent to Yoyogi Station on the Yamanote Line (one stop south of Shinjuku). In Kyoto, buses congregate at the Karasuma Exit (烏丸口) at the north side of Kyoto Station.
JR Bus offers, in order of comfort and price, Seishun (youth) buses with 2x2 seating configurations, Standard buses with individual seats arranged 1x1x1, and Premium Buses that offer wider seats and more amenities.
JR Bus' overnight one-way fares to/from Tokyo start from approximately ¥3500 for overnight trips in Seishun buses up to ¥7600 for premium buses with advanced purchase. Daytime bus fares start from ¥5000. Fares are typically higher on weekends and holidays.
Some JR Buses heading to/from Osaka stop at the Kyoto Fukakusa Bus Stop on the Meishin Expressway. Fujinomori Station on the Keihan Railway is a 10-minute walk from Fukakusa, while Takeda Station on the Kintetsu Railway and the Kyoto Subway is 15 minutes away; all can be used to reach the main city. A local city bus also runs to Kyoto station from the nearby Youth Science Center 1-2 times per hour.
Japan Rail Passes (for trains) used to be valid on this and other JR highway bus routes, but as of April 2013 this has been discontinued.
Other bus services
- Kanto Bus/Keihan Bus: overnight from Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal, Shibuya Mark City, Tokyo Disneyland and Keisei Ueno station. Discount buses from ¥3000; regular buses ¥8180. Buses stop next to the Hotel Keihan Kyoto (near Kyoto Station's Hachijo Exit) and next to the Keihan train station at Sanjo.
- Kintetsu Bus/Tohoku Kyuko Bus: overnight from Asakusa Station, Ueno Station, Tokyo Station and Yokohama Station. "Flying Liner" buses from ¥6300; "Flying Sneaker" discount bus from ¥3900 with advance purchase. Buses stop at Kyoto Station's Hachijo Exit.
The sheer size of the city of Kyoto, and the distribution of tourist attractions around the periphery of the city, make the city's public transport system invaluable.
One of the easiest ways to plan a route is through Hyperdia. This website contain station-to-station route plans, which reference public and private trains and subways as well as buses throughout Japan.
If you are planning to travel beyond city limits you might consider using the tickets from Surutto Kansai. For use in west Japan, including Kyoto, there are some other useful tickets: a rechargeable smart card, ICOCA, can be used on rail, subway and bus networks in the Kansai area and also Okayama, Hiroshima, Nagoya (Kintetsu trains) and Tokyo (JR East trains). These cards are available at vending machines at these rail stations, and cost ¥2000, which includes a ¥500 deposit that will be refunded when the card is returned at JR West Station. For use in Kyoto only there are some other useful tickets:
- The Kyoto Sightseeing Card can be purchased as a one-day (Adults ¥1200/Children ¥600) or two-day pass (¥2000/¥1000). It can be used for unlimited travel on the subway and city buses as well as a part of the Kyoto bus route. The two-day pass has to be used on two consecutive days.
- The Traffica Kyoto Card is a stored-value card in denominations of ¥1000 or ¥3000. It can be conveniently used up to face value on all subways and buses by simply sliding it through the ticket gate. They offer a 10% bonus value.
Check the Kyoto City Webpage for more information on how to use these cards.
Kyoto is criss-crossed by several train lines, all of which are clearly sign-posted in English. Although the lines are run independently and prices vary slightly between them, transfers can be purchased at most of the ticket machines. The Keihan train line can be useful for traveling in eastern Kyoto, while the two Keifuku tram lines are an attractive way of traveling in the northwest. Across the street from the northern terminus of the Keihan Line is the Eidan Eizan line, which runs to Mount Hiei and Kurama. The Hankyu Line starts at Shijo-Kawaramachi downtown, and connects to the Karasuma Line one stop later at Karasuma. It's useful for reaching Arashiyama and the Katsura Rikyu; it runs all the way to Osaka and Kobe. JR lines run from Kyoto station to the northwest (JR Sagano line), to the southwest (JR Kyoto line) and to the southeast (JR Nara line). There are local and express trains so check if they stop at your station before you get on.
There are two subway lines which only serve a rather small part of the city. The north-south running Karasuma Line runs under Kyoto Station, and the west-east running Tozai Line links up with it near the city center. Both are useful for travel in the city center but not really suitable for temple-hopping. The Tozai Line does connect with the Keihan Line, however, which runs parallel to the Kamo-gawa, and is convenient for reaching Gion and southern Kyoto; it also gets you within a short walk of many of the sights in eastern Kyoto.
A one-day pass for the subway costs ¥ 600.
The bus network is the only practical way of reaching some attractions, particularly those in north-western Kyoto. Fortunately the system is geared toward tourists, with destinations electronically displayed/announced in English as well as Japanese. Unlike other Japanese cities, a tourist probably is advised to use the buses here.
Confusingly however, there are two different bus companies in Kyoto, which occasionally even have overlapping line numbers. Green-and-white Kyoto City Buses (市バス shi-basu) travel within the city, and are the most useful for visitors; unless otherwise noted, all buses listed in this guide are city buses. Red-and-white Kyoto Buses travel to the suburbs and are generally much less useful.
Many buses depart from Kyoto Station, but there are well-served bus stations closer to the city center at Sanjō-Kawabata just outside the Sanjō Keihan subway line, and in the northern part of the city at the Kitaōji subway station. Most city buses have a fixed fare of ¥230, but you can also purchase a one day pass (¥500 for adults and ¥250 for children under 12) with which you can ride an unlimited number of times within a one day period. The day passes can be bought from the bus drivers or from the bus information center just outside Kyoto Station. This is especially useful if you plan on visiting many different points of interest within Kyoto. You can also buy a combined unlimited subway and bus pass for ¥1200.
The municipal transport company publishes a very useful leaflet called Bus Navi. It contains a route map for the bus lines to most sights and information. You can pick it up at the information center in front of the main station.
- Raku Bus - The city has three routes (100, 101, and 102) which are specifically designed for foreign tourists wishing to hit the tourist spots quickly. The buses skip many of the non-tourist stops and are thus a faster way to get from one sight to the next. The Raku Bus leaves from platform D2 at Kyoto Station. The cost is ¥230 per ride, but the day passes are accepted as well.
Particularly in spring and fall, but at any time of year, getting around by bicycle is an excellent option. Cycling forms a major form of personal transport year-round for locals. The city's grid layout makes navigation easy. You can rent bicycles in many places in Japan for a reasonable price. During the peak tourist seasons, when roads are busy and buses tend to be crammed beyond capacity, bicycles are probably the best way to navigate Kyoto.
Kyoto's wide, straight roads make for heavy traffic in many parts of the city, but it is possible to find back alleys that are quieter and offer better chances to happen upon all sorts of sightseeing/cultural gems. Riding on major roads is OK, especially if you are confident and used to riding with traffic on the road, rather than on the sidewalk and especially again if you are used to riding/driving on the LEFT-HAND side of the road.
- Kyoto Cycling Tour Project(KCTP), ☎ . A five-minute walk from the North Exit (the side with the buses and Kyoto Tower) of Kyoto Station. Bikes range from ¥ 1000 to ¥ 2000 for an actual 27-speed mountain bike with city-tires on it; perfect for the average foreigner who is used to a 'real' bike in their home country. The following options can be added: bi-lingual cycling/walking map of Kyoto ¥ 100; light FREE; helmet ¥ 200; back pack; ¥ 100; rain poncho ¥ 100. They can hold on to your luggage while you are riding. There are four other locations of KCTP and you can return your bike to any location, however you will incur a ¥ 400 charge if you return the bike to a location other than the one you rented from. Guided bike tours are also available ranging from ¥ 3900 (three hours) to ¥ 12000 (7.5 hours) that include guide, bike rental, lunch/snacks, accident insurance and admission to some attractions on the tour. Minimum of two people to guarantee departure/maximum of 10. Needs to be reserved three days in advance if you want a tour. Don't worry if the mountain bikes sell out - Kyoto (like Tokyo) is a city with perfect kerb transitions so a 8 speed with basket and bell is fine, if a little bumpy on the river path.
- There is a friendly bicycle rental shop across the street from the Keihan Demachiyanagi station, behind the taxi rank. ¥ 500 for a day, ¥ 750 for a day and night, and ¥ 3000 for a month. ¥ 3000 deposit (¥ 2000 when showing ID). Has 22" children's bikes which come with a free helmet. Opens early (<9AM) - 7PM.
- There is a small rental shop just north of Sanjo Keihan station on Kawabata Dori that rents bicycles, which doesn't have "tourist signs" attached. On the downside, they do not speak English. ¥ 1000 per day.
- For those staying more than a week or so, purchasing a used bicycle may be economical. Most bicycle shops in Kyoto offer used town bicycles with lights, bell, basket, and lock for around ¥ 5000 — ¥ 10,000 (plus a ¥ 500 registration fee). At least some of this cost can be made back by re-selling the bicycle just prior to departure. Cycle Eirin, a chain found throughout the city, is a good place to start.
Kyoto offers an incredible number of attractions for tourists, and visitors will probably need to plan an itinerary in advance in order to visit as many as possible.
Japan National Tourist Organization's self-guided "Kyoto Walks" pamphlet is available in a ready to print PDF format here. The guide enables first time visitors to tour the city with ease and with minimum fuss by providing bus numbers, names of bus stops and clearly marked walking routes. There are a variety of self-guided walks in different districts to sample Kyoto's various sites. If you see the browser's dialog box popping up, just click on it till the entire PDF document opens.
World Heritage Sites
In 1994, 17 historic sites were inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List under the group designation Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Fourteen of the listed sites are in Kyoto itself, two are in the neighbouring city of Uji and one is in Ōtsu.
Listed by location, the fourteen World Heritage Sites in the city of Kyoto are:
- Northern Kyoto: Kinkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji, Ninna-ji, Kōzan-ji, Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine
- Central Kyoto: Nijō Castle, Nishi Hongan-ji, Tō-ji
- Eastern Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkaku-ji
- Western Kyoto: Tenryū-ji, Koke-dera
- Southern Kyoto: Daigo-ji
Imperial Palaces and Villas
Stroll through the regal retreats of the Imperial Palace or one of the two Imperial villas with gardens and teahouses managed by the Imperial Household Agency. These are the Imperial Palace (京都御所 Kyōto-gosho) and Sentō Imperial Palace (仙洞御所 Sentō-gosho) in Central Kyoto, Katsura Imperial Villa (桂離宮 Katsura-rikyū) in Western Kyoto, and Shūgakuin Imperial Villa (修学院離宮 Shugaku-in-rikyū) in Northern Kyoto. All four of these sites are open to the public by reservation through the Imperial Household Agency. The gardens located within the precincts of each palace and villa are at their most scenic during spring cherry blossom season and autumn where a riot of colors enchant visitors. Each property is still used from time to time for official state functions or for private visits by the current royal family members.
The Imperial Household Agency maintains a quota on the number of visitors to each site per tour. Admission is free. English guides are available at the Imperial Palace; however, tours of the Sento Imperial Palace, Katsura Villa, and Shūgakuin Villa are conducted in Japanese only (English pamphlets are given at each destination upon entry and books are available for purchase if you'd like to know more). Overseas visitors can apply online to the Imperial Household Agency in English here. On its website are write ups and videos in English for interested visitors to gauge which ones they would like to visit before making an online application. Please note that advanced applications first become available on the first day of the month, three months in advance of the applicant's preferred touring month. For example, if your preferred date of visit falls in the month of April, you can begin applying on January 1. As these visits are over subscribed by the Japanese and overseas visitors, the Imperial Household Agency has to draw lots to pick the successful applicants. All applicants are notified on the status of their applications whether they are successful or otherwise within a week after closing date. Most applicants to the Imperial Palace are accepted, and early reservation is not usually necessary; however, those planning to visit the Sentō Imperial Palace, or either of the Imperial Villas should apply on the first available day of application as they are highly competitive and entire months of tours often become full within the first few days. Winter tours are typically much less competitive, but be aware that the gardens will not be as beautiful as other times of the year.
If an applicant is not successful, they can still go direct in person to the Imperial Household Agency Kyoto Office to enquire whether there are vacancies, as they typically save a few spots for walk-ins. Many people are able to do this successfully for the Imperial Palace, but it can be more of a risk for the others, so go early. Address: Imperial household Agency Kyoto Office, 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, 602-8611, tel: +81-75-211-1215.
Public baths have been a cornerstone of the society for centuries in Kyoto. The first public baths, or sentō (銭湯), were documented in the 13th century. Soon they became one of the few places in society where social status was irrelevant. Noblemen shared baths with commoners and warriors. Today over 140 bath houses remain in Kyoto. Funaoka Onsen is the oldest of these and dubbed "king of sentō", but newer bath houses and super sentō are just as much part of the Japanese bathing culture. If you have the time, make your way to one of the many public bath houses Kyoto has to offer.
- Funaoka Onsen (船岡温泉), Kyoto, Kita Ward, Murasakino Minamifunaokacho 82-1 京都市右京区太秦東蜂岡町10 (take bus line 206 from Kyoto station), ☎ . 15:00 - 01:00. Funaoka Onsen is one of the oldest public bath houses in Kyoto still in operation. Its classic building is an excellent example of bath house architecture of the beginning of the 20th century. Funaoka Onsen is popular with both locals and visitors and is a must if you have an hour to spare. ¥410.
Kyoto is the traditional home of the Japanese film industry and while it has declined since its heyday in the 1950's, to this day, the majority of Japanese period dramas (時代劇 jidaigeki) continue to be produced in Kyoto.
- Toei Kyoto Studio Park (東映太秦映画村), Kyoto, Ukyo Ward, Uzumasa Higashihachiokacho 10 (take bus line 75 from Kyoto station), ☎ . 09:30 - 16:30. Toei Kyoto Studio Park is an active film studio which continues to be used for the filming of period dramas. Visitors may visit the outdoor sets used in many samurai movies, and if they are lucky, could potentially observe the filming of a period drama. ¥2,200.
Well known for its abundance of historical sites, Kyoto often draws visitors eager to experience traditional Japanese culture. Buddhist meditation sessions are one of the most popular of these activities, and multiple options are available. In Northern Kyoto, Taizo-in and Shunko-in (both sub-temples of Myoshin-ji) offer authentic Zen meditation sessions, complete with explanations of the meaning and significance of such meditation. Reservations are necessary.
Kyoto is arguably the most well known place in the country to view cherry blossoms, and there are certainly no lack of options. On the Official Top 100 cherry blossom spots list, three are in Kyoto (Arashiyama, Daigoji, Ninnaji).
Eastern Kyoto is particularly popular during the cherry blossom season. A walk from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji along the Philosopher's Path, lined with cherry trees, is enjoyable, as there are a variety of temples and shrines to stop at along the way. The garden of the Heian Shrine, not far from the Philosopher's Path, features colorful pink blossoms, which is a nice contrast to the white blossoms you'll see on the Philosopher's Path. The famous cherry tree in Maruyama Park is often the center of attention in the evenings when it is lit up. Vendors line the pathway leading up to it, creating a festive atmosphere. Kiyomizu-dera and Kodai-ji have extended hours during the first few days of this season offering visitors the opportunity to view them at night, lit up against the blossoms. Blossoms can also be seen along the Kamogawa River. The entire area literally blossoms in the spring!
In Central Kyoto the northern section of the Imperial Park is home to a variety of different types of cherry blossoms. Nijo Castle hosts its own Nijo Light-Up, in which visitors can walk the grounds of the castle at night among the cherry blossoms (typically for 10–14 days). You cannot enter the castle during the light-up, so those who want to enter should visit during the day to see the castle and the blossoms. Just south of Kyoto station, the grounds of Toji Temple bloom beautifully below the towering pagoda.
In Arashiyama, a large portion of the mountainside is bright with cherry blossoms, along with the area around Hankyu Arashiyama Station. During the day, many people enjoy viewing the blossoms on the mountainside from the "Romantic Train" that travels through Arashiyama. At night, the area is lit up and food stalls are set up with a variety of delicious snacks.
Northern Kyoto offers cherry-blossom scouts worthwhile experiences at Hirano Shrine and Kyoto Botanical Gardens, and a walk inside the large grounds of Daigo-ji in Southern Kyoto is certainly made memorable when all the blossoms are in full bloom.
Although they are less well-known to foreign tourists, who tend only to focus their attentions on seeing cherry blosssoms, for those with plans to visit Kyoto from mid-February through mid-March, plum blossom viewing makes for a great alternative. Kyoto has two popular plum blossom locations; Kitano Tenmangu and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, both in northern Kyoto. Kitano Tenmangu has a large grove of plum trees just outside the shrine entrance that, with a ¥600 fee, you can stroll about. Within the shrine grounds, there are many more trees (viewable for free). The shrine even hosts annual performances by geisha amidst the plum blossoms. Plum blossoms have a very pleasantly distinct fragrance. These Japanese ume trees are actually more closely related to apricot trees. However an early mistranslation by the Japanese resulted in these trees being called "plum" trees instead.
Festivals and Events
- Setsubun (February 3 or 4) A large bonfire and Shinto ceremony is held at Yoshida Shrine.
- Cherry Blossom Season (April 1–15; days vary depending upon the weather) Although viewing the blossoms is enough for many, special events are often held throughout the city. (See "Cherry Blossoms" above)
- Aoi Matsuri (May 15) Beginning at Kyoto Imperial palace, a large procession dressed in Heian Period garbs walks to Shimogamo Shrine and finishes at Kamigamo Shrine.
- Gion Matsuri (July 17) Many Mikoshi are paraded through the streets. It is considered to be one of the top three festivals in Japan.
- Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (August 16) The hillside in Northwestern Kyoto is lit aflame in this festival honoring one's ancestors. Candle lanterns are floated out in Hirosawa Pond.
- Jidai Matsuri (October 22) People dressed in traditional garbs parade to Heian Shrine.
MeetUs Kyoto offers various cultural activities hosted by locals. The project is organised by university students, and they will translate between English and Japanese during the tour (usually locals don't speak English.) More than 15 things to do are listed and each has specific available dates (Japanese hairstyle arrangement and Kimono, for example, is not available on Monday). See MeetUs Kyoto for more information.
- Kyoto University (京都大学 Kyōto daigaku). One of Japan's most prestigious universities, second only to the University of Tokyo. Admissions are extremely competitive, though it is may be easier for foreigners on exchange programmes.
There is a nice selection of reassuringly non-tacky traditional souvenir shops around Arashiyama station in Western Kyoto, selling fans and traditional sweets. More tacky stores can be found in Gion and the approach to Kiyomizu Temple, selling keyrings, cuddly toys, and garish ornaments. Other traditional souvenirs from Kyoto include parasols and carved wooden dolls.
More unconventional but colorful (and relatively cheap) souvenirs are the wooden votive tablets produced by Shinto shrines, which bear an image relevant to the shrine on the reverse. Visitors write their prayers on the tablets and hang them up, but there's no rule that says you can't take it with you.
Manga and anime enthusiasts should visit Teramachi Street, a covered shopping street off the main Shijo-dori, which boasts a large manga store on two floors, as well as a two-story branch of Gamers (a chain of anime stores), and a small two-story anime and collectables store.
Many ATMs in Kyoto do not allow non-domestic credit cards to be used, but ATMs in post offices and Seven-Eleven usually do. So if you find your card rejected or invalid in an ATM then try and get to a post office (郵便局 / yuubinkyoku or JP (in orange letters)) to use their ATMs instead. Look for the PLUS or Cirrus logos, whichever you find printed on the back of your ATM card. Another option is Citibank, which should work, too. There is an old standby international ATM at the top floor of Takashimaya Department Store at Shijo/Kawaramachi in the "Cash Corner." The bank of ATMs in the basement of the Kyoto Tower shopping center (across the street from JR Kyoto Station) also includes one machine where international cards may be used.
In the shopping areas adjacent to Kiyomizudera (on the other side of the Kamo River), it is possible to purchase samurai swords and top of the line kimonos. Do not be surprised if the prices for either item exceed ¥3,000,000.
Kyoto incense is also famous. It usually has a very delicate yet fragrant bouquet. Incense is relatively agreeable in price (¥400-2000). You will be able to find it between Nishi and Higashi Hongwanji.
Damascene, a special metal created by imbedding other metals, originated in Damascus, Syria over 2000 years ago and was first introduced to Japan in the 8th century. Since then, it has ceased production worldwide with the exception of Kyoto city, which continues producing it even today. The technique used to create Kyoto's damascene is quite complex, as it must be corroded, rusted, and boiled in tea, along with inlaying many layers of metal to produce the final product. Today, visitors can purchase a variety of jewelry, as well as vases, tea utensils, lighters, and other accessories made using this technique.
If you've just stepped off the train and the first thing on your mind is a bite to eat, there are several restaurants on the tenth and eleventh floors of the Isetan department store attached to Kyoto station. Most of the offerings are Japanese, including a veritable Ramen village, with a few casual Italian cafes as well.
Kyoto and the nearby city of Uji are well known for matcha (抹茶 maccha) or green tea, but visitors don't just come to drink the tea; there are a wide variety of matcha-flavored treats. Matcha ice cream is particularly popular, and most places selling ice cream will have it as an option. It also shows up in a variety of snacks and gifts.
Yatsuhashi (八ツ橋) is another delicious Kyoto snack. There are two types of yatsuhashi; baked and raw. The hard yatsuhashi was originally made using cinnamon, and tastes like a crunchy biscuit. Today, while the biscuits remain the same, you can also buy hard yatsuhashi dipped in macha and strawberry-flavored glazes.
Raw yatsuhashi, also known as hijiri was also made with cinnamon, but the cinnamon is mixed with bean paste and then folded into the hijiri to make a triangle shape. Today, you can buy a wide variety of flavors, including macha, chocolate and banana, and black poppyseed. Many of the flavors are seasonal, such as the sakura (cherry blossom) yatsuhashi available in the spring and mango, peach, blueberry, and strawberry, available from May to October.
Although yatsuhashi can be purchased at most souvenir shops, the best place to purchase raw yatsuhashi is the famous Honkenishio Yatsuhashi. While other stores may carry yatsuhashi, this is the place to find all of the seasonal flavors, as well as free samples. Most of these shops are located in Higashiyama. The most convenient for tourists is probably the one on Kiyomizu-zaka, just below the entrance to Kiyomizu-dera.
While many tourists find raw yatsuhashi to be a delicious (and highly affordable) souvenir, be aware that it only lasts for one week after purchase. Baked yatsuhashi on the other hand, will last for about three months. Consider this when deciding what gifts to take home with you.
Other Kyoto specialities include hamo (a white fish served with ume as sushi), tofu (try places around Nanzenji temple), suppon (an expensive turtle dish), vegetarian dishes (thanks to the abundance of temples), and kaiseki-ryori (multi-course chef's choice that can be extremely good and expensive).
Kyoto's night scene is dominated by bars catering for local needs, most of which are located in Central Kyoto around Kiyamachi, between Shijo and Sanjo. This area offers a wide variety of drinking options for all types of people. You'll also have no trouble finding the host and hostess bars, courtesy of the staff pacing around out front trying to entice visitors. There are plenty of options beyond this street in other regions, but with such a large concentration of bars along in the same area, its easy to locate a place where you feel most at home to relax for the night.
If you're looking for nightclubs, Kyoto has a few options, but it is not a city known for its thriving dance clubs. Those hoping to experience that part of Japanese nightlife should consider taking a train to Osaka where many of the clubs are hip and wild enough to rival any Tokyo club.
Some of Kyoto's most famous sake comes from Gekkeikan Brewery in the Fushimi area of Southern Kyoto. A 400-year-old brewery that still produces great sake, Gekkeikan also offers tours of its facilities.
|This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:|
Kyoto has a wide range of accommodation, much of it geared towards foreign visitors. During peak seasons, such as the cherry blossoms in April or during Golden Week when accommodation is difficult to get, consider staying in Osaka. A thirty-minute train ride from Kyoto Station to Osaka Station will cost you ¥540 one way. Since Kyoto is a major tourist destination, demand is high and prices follow suit.
Most of the lodging in the city is clustered near the central city, especially around Kyoto Station and the downtown area near Karasuma-Oike. The outer areas have a scattering of their own, tending towards inexpensive but often much further from train or subway stations.
At the bottom of the price scale, many temples in Kyoto own and run their own lodging complex known as shukubō (宿坊), usually located on or near temple grounds. Guests are often invited to participate in morning prayer service (otsutome) held at the temple. Unfortunately, most temple lodgings do not have English-speaking receptions, and curfews and check-in/out times tend to be strict. Most are located in the northern region of the city.
Hostels are common and popular with students. Inexpensive hotels lack amenities but compensate with prices surprisingly low for Japan; both can be found in all regions of the city, and may be the only options available if you need to stay in an outlying ward.
The majority of self-named ryokan in this range are actually minshuku. Most are small family-run operations and accustomed to dealing with foreigners. Be prepared to pay for the full stay in advance.
Internet and manga cafés
As in other Japanese cities, internet cafes and capsule hotels are available for those truly on the cheap. Expect to pay around ¥2000 for a night's stay in an internet cafe. You get a computer, a comfortable chair, and all the tea and hot chocolate you want.
Don't fear those places. There is nothing bad about staying in those last resorts, but most of the time, people stay there for a few nights only.
Most places have no separate space for smokers/non-smokers, and manga is usually only in Japanese, but they have cushions and blankets and free unlimited (soft) drinks. Showers are available and there may be a charge for use.
Remember that cafés don't keep luggage during the day so either carry it with you every day, find free storage or use a coin locker (¥300-600 per use). As a result the cost of a night in a café could be similar to a bed in a hostel.
The boundary between budget and midrange is often unclear, particularly among ryokan. Hotels in this category are concentrated in Central Kyoto, serving the business market with the typical amenities and close proximity to transportation.
Split between the downtown and Higashiyama areas on each side of the Kamogawa River, these top-of-the-line lodgings can make your airfare look cheap. Western-style hotels dominate in this category; unlike the midrange options, very few of the high end ryokan can be booked without a fluent command of Japanese.
In Kyoto, there are traditional wooden townhouses called Kyo-Machiya or Machiya. Kyo-Machiya defined the architectural atmosphere of downtown Kyoto for centuries, and represents the standard defining form of Machiya throughout the country.
There are several facilities offers those Machiya to the travellers to stay privately, and can experience the traditional living in Kyoto. Most of those facilities are located in central Kyoto that easy to access to any sightseeing spot. However, generally those facilities don’t offer any meals, but in Kyoto, there is a delivery system from the Japanese restaurant that customer can order and eat in the Kyo-Machiya. During the guest stay, it is completely private that guests can feel like staying at their home.
The size of the facilities are average 80㎡, can stay from 2 people but it is better to use with group of 4 to 6, or with family. There is a facility that guests can stay together in the same Machiya for up to 14 people.
The price is from ¥25,000-
- Uji - the best tea in Japan and the Byodo-in temple.
- Kurama - less than an hour's journey by a local train from Kyoto Demachi-Yanagi station, the small village of Kurama has real onsen (Japanese natural hot springs).
- Lake Biwa - if the summer humidity has drained your will to sightsee, take a day swimming at the underrated beaches of western Lake Biwa. Popular choices include Omi Maiko and Shiga Beach, each about 40 minutes from Kyoto on the JR Kosei Line.
- Mount Hiei - an ancient hilltop temple complex that traditionally guarded (and occasionally raided) Kyoto.
- Koka - home of ninjas, and there is the Miho Museum.
- Nara - less than an hour's journey by train on the JR Nara line from Kyoto station, Nara is an even older capital than Kyoto and has a stunning collection of temples in a giant landscaped park.
- Osaka - about half an hour from Kyoto by JR rapid train, this bustling city offers more retail opportunities and a central castle.
- Amanohashidate - literally "the bridge to heaven", it is considered one of Japan's top three scenic views (along with Matsushima in Miyagi prefecture and Miyajima in Hiroshima prefecture). It forms a thin strip of land straddling the Miyazu Bay in northern Kyoto Prefecture, hence the name. Visitors are asked to turn their backs toward the view, bend over, and look at it between their legs.
- Himeji - about an hour by Shinkansen west of Kyoto, Himeji boasts a spectacular traditional castle.
|Routes through Kyoto|
|END ← Shin-Osaka ←||W E||→ Maibara → Nagoya|
|Tottori ← Toyooka ←||W E||→ END|
|Kobe ← Osaka ←||W E||→ Otsu → Nagoya|
|Kobe ← Ibaraki ←||W E||→ Otsu → Nagoya|