Kyo, The Ancient City
Considered as the most beautiful and fascinating city in Japan, it is a must visit for anyone coming to the country. The old royal capital of Japan, a place where time stood still and never passed. The place where you can feel how old Japan used to be and at a great scale since this is a large city. I must say how lucky I am for returning once again after 5 years and for staying here much longer time than how this trip was done back in 2012 as a day trip from Tokyo , not staying overnight and really rushing as much as we could to visit as many temples and shrines as we could since there is a horrible downside anywhere in Japan you are: the closing hours of the sights, especially the temples, shrines, palaces and castles, rarely beyond just 17.00pm! When in Kyoto especially, you will need to plan your day to start as early as possible as it will end very early too. Simply concentrate in what has opening times to be done the first, and leave what is enjoying walking through the streets for afterwards as it’s for example, the district of Gion.
Although not a big city itself, the construction is much different to that in Tokyo. Here you will find small houses with few floors, small streets in quarters divided by the main avenues, and no compact at all; therefore and if you do not have much time to spare, be ready for taking the public transport more often than you though, or taxis since the public transport does not cover as much as anyone would like. The sights are very widespread through the city so it’s a long way in between. Unfortunately there are only 2 metro lines, the north-south and east to west, meeting at a station right in the heart of the city near the Imperial Palace.
This is a city of temples, shrines and palaces. One after another, with one larger than the other and so on. Each of the complexes is not just about a building itself, but many of them. Visiting each takes your time so calculate well in advance because of the early closing times. Majority of these places are listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, however you do not need to go to every temple in the city, it would be pointless and will actually saturate you and make you very tired even bored of seeing very similar structures. That’s why it’s best to include in your list the “must-do’s” among other sights, and see how this goes and what’s your spare time if any for anything else.
Kyoto was for us our second base in this tour through Japan. Having spent a whole week in Tokyo which we used as our main base to get to Nikko, Nagoya and Yokohama, here we would be doing the same to access some of the truly fascinating cities of ancient Japan.
Although this was the second time in this city, my feeling towards it were the same. Will we have enough time? Will it all be as planned? Well gladly it was better than the last time, but it requires a lot of planning in order to accommodate the most viable sightseeing tour, almost to the point of precision. Very contrary to how our trip has been so far for the past week where the plan was more flexible and open. What really influences this are the closing times of the sights. I cannot say this enough, but why! The second most visited city in Japan, so, so touristy, but still, so traditional that even the times have not been affected nor changed. Well that’s how it is and how we had to play it around.
Some few notes on food: again, so different city to how Tokyo is, that even the restaurants situation has nothing to do with one to another, and not only with Tokyo anymore, but with any of the other cities we’ve been so far. It is complicated, it is more limited. Perhaps you end up having lunch at dinner time, you never know. But with such a tight times and schedule you will be having when touring around, all I can guarantee you is the evening time could be the most different. Better chances to get anywhere nice, but careful with the prices and the closing times again! It’s a city with almost no nightlife, for that you go to the twin city of Osaka. Restaurants will not open later than 22.00pm, and anywhere around Gion prices could be prohibited. You are warned! It’s very beautiful and tempting to stay at such traditional pure Japanese restaurants, but the bill won’t be that fun anymore.
For more information about Kyoto check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Japan’s currency is the Yen (JPY, ¥). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Kyoto
For a one or two days visit of the city you can perfectly (but tightly) see around 10 of the best sights the city has to offer. These are by all means the most important places, leaving secondary ones out. Notice in the list below I’ve added some numbers, these are the places to take into strong consideration before any other. If you have more days in the city then definitely do not rush that much to see this big program below in just a day or two, split it instead and include any other secondary places you wish. Also, get yourself familiar with the map of the city, and locate the sights listed below within, this, together with a transport map, will save you crucial time. Remember your deadline is not actually not having enough time in the day, but the very early closing of the temples itself! On top, bear in mind on Monday the Imperial Palaces are closed and some of the shrines too.
- Station area and east across the river This area immediately around the train station contains some of the finest shrines not to be missed. All of which are a small walking distance from each other. Farther beyond across the river are the next famous sights, all easy to reach on foot.
-Tō-ji Temple (1) Southwest from the train station, it is home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. Listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Open from 09.00am until 17.30pm, you can walk from the train station or a short walk away from Toji Station on the local commuter line. Entrance fee ¥500 per person.
-Kanchi-in Temple It is a sub-temple of Tō-ji, located north from this and a little bit hidden and off-the-path to the average tourist. The current structures date from 1605 and are incredibly well preserved. A labyrinth of corridors and rooms one after another, with beautiful small courtyards with Japanese stone gardens. ¥500 entrance fee.
-Nishi Honganji (2) At 3 blocks northwest of the train station it is another of the major UNESCO listed shrines in Kyoto. A large complex of buildings founded in 1591. Open from 05.30am until 17.00pm, every day. Free entrance. Should you wish to speed up your walking and sightseeing tour around, then you could take the bus 207 from To-ji Temple.
-Higashi Honganji (3) Right across from the Nishi Honganji along any of the parallel streets, like Shomen-dori Street for example, 5 minutes away. The majestic main hall is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world. The “hair rope” is perhaps the most interesting sight in the temple, as it is just that; an extremely thick rope made from human hair. Open from 05.30am until 17.00pm, every day. Free entrance.
-Shichijo-dori Street Running from the south side of the Higashi Honganji all the way east across the river and directly into the Kyoto National Museum.
-Kyoto National Museum Built in 1895 the building itself is a landmark. It’s home to exhibitions from fine arts, handicrafts and archaeology; one of the largest and most complete in Japan.
-Sanjusangen-do Temple Literally across the road south of the Kyoto Museum. Home to 1001 golden kannon Buddhist statues in long, tiered rows in the main hall. 124 statues are from the original temple rescued from the fire of 1249, with the remaining constructed in the 13th century.
-Chishaku-in This Buddhist temple just east from Sanjusangen-do and the Kyoto Museum has an incredible beautiful landscaped Japanese garden. Worth to visit if you have time.
-Matsubara Dori Street (4) One of the major streets west to east through the entire city, becomes famous across the river in the east near the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, full of small shops, bars and restaurants in traditional architecture. From here it is a short distance to Gion district.
-Kiyomizu-dera Temple (5) An UNESCO listed site. Founded in 778 with the current buildings dating from 1633. As a curious note, although the entire main building is built of wood, there is not even a single nail to hold the structure. It was built to perfection. Opening times from 06.00am to 17.30pm, ¥400 entrance fee. Its wooden balcony is a world famous image of Kyoto.
- Southeast from the station Although there are countless shrines across the city and especially around this area, there is one famous you should not miss, although will take you longer to reach on public transport.
-Fushimi Inari Taisha (6) An UNESCO listed site. Free admission and no opening/closing times. Just off Inari JR station (on the Nara Line) where commuter trains link with Kyoto Station, or Fushimi Inari station on the local Keiham Main Line that runs parallel to the river and passes through Gion station. Here you will find the famous torii, 230 meters of red arches.
- City centre The area around the Castle and Imperial Palace is the true heart of Kyoto, with the corner southeast from both the unmissable district of Gion.
-Nijō Castle (7) An UNESCO listed site. Open from 08.45am until 17.00pm. Admission fee ¥600. Almost next door to the Nijojo-mae station of the Tozai metro line. Closed Tuesdays.
-Imperial Palace and park (8) Free tours available, but limited spaces are released per day. In the Imperial Household Agency official website, you can find all the information on the opening days and hours (09.00am until 17.00pm) and when it is closed (as Mondays). Something they’ve done for benefit of the tourists is the no need for booking in advance, now it is opened to anyone. Check the time of the tours in that website and attend in advance in order not to be disappointed. You can reach there from the Nijojo-mae station (from castle) to Karasuma-Oike and change line to Imadegawa Station. It seems distances are not long but in reality they are for what I advice you to take the metro.
-Sento Imperial Palace (9) In the same compounds of the huge Imperial Park, is this second palace. For this one you need to pre-book your free tickets through the Imperial Household Agency official website. Make sure you do this the earlier the better as these go quite quickly. Closed Mondays.
-Gion (10) East of the river. This is the traditional old Kyoto where you can see Geishas (geiko as they are known in Kyoto) and many tiny bars and restaurants. From the southeast corner of the Imperial Palace you can walk towards the river and farther south where this district starts, or from the Kyoto station you could take bus 100 or 206, or the nearest metro station on Sanjo just few minutes north of the main area.
-Pontocho The riverside right opposite Gion paralel to both Sanjo to Gion-Shijo train stations is full of wooden houses famous for their large terraces opening towards the river. This is a great walk on both sides of the riverside, however for the best views take the opposite river bank.
-Hanamikoji Street The principal and most historical and beautiful street in Gion where the most traditional and symbolic buildings are. It starts from the north by the intersection with the main Shijo-dori Street (Fourth Avenue) that cuts west to east the city and across the river.
-Kennin-ji A massive Zen Buddhist temple considered to be one of the Kyoto Gozan (one of five most important Zen temples of Kyoto). Founded in 1202 it is the oldest Zen temple in the city.
-Yasaka Shrine By the easternmost side of Gion district is this Shinto shrine founded in 656. Among its important structures is the main gate towards Shijo-dori Street (Fourth Avenue).
-Chion-in Temple Farther east from Yasaka Shrine, with Maruyama Park in between, is this large complex of buildings with some of the key structures in Japan. The Sanmon Gate, built in 1619 is the largest surviving structure of its kind in Japan, and the largest bell temple in Japan, built in 1633 it requires 25 people to sound it
- Northwest Not much over here except for what has become one of the symbols not only of the city, but Japan, the Golden Temple.
-Kinkaku-ji Temple (11) In 1 Kinkakuji-cho. An UNESCO listed site. Opening times from 09.00am until 16.30pm, every day. Admission fee ¥400. From the Imperial Palace you can take the bus 59 or 102 (quicker this one from the stop Karasuma Imadegawa) to Kinkakuji-michi. Or buses 101 or 205 from Kyoto Station. This is the icon and unmissable shrine in Kyoto, and one of the most symbolic in the entire of Japan. It is commonly known as the Golden Temple as it is that, the golden pavilion sitting by the lake entirely covered in pure gold leaf.
Kyoto itself does not have an airport, this is instead at the nearby and larger Osaka which serves the air traffic for both cities. Plenty of international routes are served from all continents therefore it’s the most direct and faster way to get here. Osaka Kansai is the huge international airport, while the nearer Osaka Itami Airport serves internal traffic.
However, as Kyoto is for almost every tourist coming to Japan a stopover or base in their tour, the chance you will be coming from Tokyo are high. Being this the case, then by bullet train is as fast a 2.5 hours, with plenty of frequencies and very comfortable. If you have a Japan Railway Pass, you are able to take the Shinkansen but only the ones under the name of Hikari, Sakura, Kodama, Tsubame. Beware that any other train under different name as it’s the case of Nozomi is NOT included with your pass, and should you take even by mistake one of them, you will need to pay for the full fare plus the reservation, meaning you will end up paying around £300. Be very careful on this and ask anyone if needed before boarding the train.
If all you have is a day coming from Tokyo then the best time would be the Shinkansen Hikari 461 departing at 07.03am arriving to Kyoto at 09.47am. As for the return, be careful as trains do not run late or in the night, therefore the best return would be the 20.38pm (this is in fact the last train of the day) arriving at 23.10pm back in Tokyo.
As for the public transport within the city, there are only 2 metro lines and not too convenient to be honest. At least the north/south connects with the main railway station and both lines meet near the city centre, where you can get to the Castle and Imperial Palaces. Buses do serve the entire city, but are very confusing and hard to figure out a map of the routes and directions. If in your plans you believe you will be needing to take metro and/or buses 3 times or more in a day then make sure you get the Metro & bus day pass for ¥1100, this will save you lots of money and time than if buying every time single tickets, especially when boarding buses.
Kyoto has every world hotel chain possible, but like in Tokyo, it’s pretty expensive. Check well in advance to get the best deals. Or depending on your plans and tour, perhaps your base will be elsewhere as Tokyo, Osaka or even Nagoya, all of which cities with extremely great connection to Kyoto.
A good starting point is running a search across some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. If Tokyo is your main base and you are coming here as a day trip then check the respective guide with all the information about accommodation and which hotels we stayed and can recommend here. Back in 2012 this was our case so we did not have to experience having to search something in Kyoto.
In our most recent trip however, Kyoto was our second base while in our longer Japanese tour. First were 7 days in Tokyo, now 5 in this city, although not all these days were for this city but as already mentioned, the perfect base for other cities nearby. We stayed at the Urban Hotel Kyoto Nijo Premium, in 25-5 Jurakumawariminami machi, Nakagyo, 6048411. Almost next door to Nijo metro station and meters away from the Castle moat, 5 minutes by train from Kyoto Station, the location could not be any more central than this. No need for public transport on your first sightseeing area, with the Castle, Imperial Palaces and Gion all in the row at walking distance from each other. The property itself was nice, very comfortable although small rooms of course, like almost anywhere in Japan unless paying the premium for space. The staff was very friendly, helpful and professional, and seemed to enjoy talking to us. The breakfast was really nice with a great choice, mixed of western and Japanese products.