Kyoto is an incredible city, it’s one of the two cities that tourists mainly visit when they come to Japan, the first being Tokyo. It’s considered a cultural heat of Japan with numerous iconic shrines and temples
Where to Stay
I stayed in two hotels during my time in Kyoto. One was a pretty expensive ryokan but I filed this under wanting to have the experience of staying in this type of hotel while in Japan.
Momiji-ya is ryokan style hotel that is nearly 100 years old. What is a ryokan? I’m glad you asked. It’s a traditional Japanese inn, some key characteristics include tatami mat rooms, onsens or public baths. Dinner and breakfast afer often included in the room rate and you can expect to experience the best of Japanese hospitality. Imagine staying at the home of a close friend. There is welcome tea and a snack and they provide a yukata, light robe, to wear while you are visiting.
Momiji has multiple buildings associated with it. I chose to stay in the “Annex” as it is the older, more traditional building and had rooms with private open-air baths. I booked this room through Agoda.com as the hotel’s website is not very English friendly. They do respond to questions via email in English and are helpful. One thing to note is that the room rates are for couples, there are no single rooms, so as a solo traveler on this trip I basically paid double. Womp, womp.
After checking in, I took some time to explore the nearby area, the hotel provides a nice map that details local attractions most of which require a hike to get to. I decided to go to Takaosan Jigoji Temple which is at the top of many stairs but the view into the valley of the Kiyotaki River is totally worth it. I had the place mostly to myself because it was close to closing time.
Dinner was served in my room in multiple courses and after dinner the futon style bed was laid out by the staff.
Having fully experienced a night on a traditional style futon bed I got up early to take advantage of the outdoor bath. Being up in the mountains means it was a bit colder than back down in the city so it was snowing. Breakfast was served in another room in the hotel and while I ate the staff put away my futon and returned the room to its original state.
I recommend spending only one or two nights in a ryokan, they are designed for you to have a peaceful and relaxing experience but they are not the best places to be a launch pad for your sightseeing adventures especially the one that I stayed at which is in the mountains away from the main attractions of Kyoto.
The second place I stayed at was a capsule hotel. I have written about my first capsule experience in Tokyo so I knew what I liked and disliked about this style of hotel. Likes – cheap, convenient, well stocked toiletries. Dislikes – having to check out every day for cleanings, hard mattresses, and little space.
I found the First Cabin hotels to be a great way to eliminate two of the things I disliked – they still had hard mattresses. At this capsule hotel I didn’t have to check out every day in fact they were fine with me “going eco” an opting to not have my capsule serviced every day. They also had upgraded capsules that had some room for me to stand, change, and store my luggage. I opted for one of these larger capsules called a “First Class Cabin.”
Just a note that First Cabin capsule hotels are all over Japan so you don’t have to be in Kyoto to stay in one.
The First Cabin Kyoto Kawaramachi Sanjo was also conveniently located above both a Family Mart and a grab-and-go sushi restaurant. They also hosted happy hours in the lounge, provided umbrellas and humidifiers – I basically wanted to make it my home.
Where to Eat
This is an all tofu restaurant and I got their set lunch menu. I went to their Kiyamachi location, they also have one located in Gion. I’ll start by saying that tofu is not my favorite but I loved this restaurant. Everything tastes very good and is beautiful. Tofu has a deep history in Kyoto being brought to the city by monks with a vegetarian diet. This restaurant is particularly famous for its tofu, I found it topping many lists of must-try restaurants in Kyoto. I’m going to add my voice to the chorus of “go eat here.”
You can file this under cheap eats. This is basically a fast food restaurant serving beef over rice, it’s a tasty breakfast option. I got the Teishoku which is a set meal that included a raw egg which I chickened out (pun intended) of eating.
This is a small sushi restaurant near the main Kyoto station. It’s not fancy but it’s so good and well priced. They do have an english menu but don’t speak English well. I will mention that the wasabi is strong here!
My favorite place ever! This is actually a department store but on the bottom floors is a magnificent food hall with the most beautiful bento boxes. Go and gaze the pretty food and then buy some.
This is another little hole in the wall, it’s so small I think there was only maybe 6 tables. This restaurant serves okonomiyaki which is like a savory Japanese pancake. It’s served in front of you on a hot plate where you add your own toppings. I opted for the seafood version but there are a ton of varieties. This is also the perfect place to pair with a visit to the Golden Temple because it’s right across the street.
Things to Do
Kyoto is famous for it’s Geiko (Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and most tourists may only catch a glimpse of them while they are heading to their appointments around the Gion district. But one of the ways that you can interact with Maiko (Geiko in training) is by attending a dinner that specifically has tourists in mind. Attending the Maiko dinner at Gion Hatanaka Ryokan was hands down the highlight of my trip. I got to learn about the history of the Geiko, watch Maiko perform, talk to them and ask questions, even participate (and win!) a drinking game all during a lovely dinner. If there is one experience I can recommend for your trip to Kyoto this is it. One of the major reasons is because this artform is slowly dying, there are fewer and fewer Geiko in Kyoto and the artisans that create their kimonos, instruments, and hair – basically all the things they need to sustain their art are also disappearing. So this dinner is a rare look into traditional art that most tourists never get to see. It is worth the splurge.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
You’ve probably seen photos of this beautiful path. It is just as gorgeous as the photos if you get up early enough to beat the all the tourists. It’s actually not very large and you can see it and enjoy it in less than an hour. I ended up going really early in the morning and freezing my butt off taking photos – which was worth it but I also ended up not being able to explore much more of this area because I had to get back to my hotel to warm up.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
This is a great free option in Kyoto. The grounds that surround the palace are a beautiful large park. The palace itself is hardly open to visitors. I was lucky enough to be there for the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Emperor’s enthronement so I was able to get very close to the palace and enjoy the historical exhibits as well as traditional performances. It was quite a special experience.
You’re going to feel like you stepped back in time when you visit Gion. This is the old town, wooden wall district in the city. It’s where you are going to love taking photos. If you have the time, rent a kimono and explore the hidden alleys.
Shrines and Temples
Kyoto is full of gorgeous shrines (Shinto) and temples (Buddhist) so I’m going to list my favorites here with a few notes about each:
Heian Shrine – Gorgeous, big, and colorful. But the garden is a real beauty. Buy a ticket and enjoy, even at the very beginning of Spring I was impressed.
Fushimi Inari – This is the famous torii gate shrine for the fox god, Inari. You can climb all the way to the top of the mountain going through hundreds of these beautiful gates. There is a impressive view of the city once your reach the top. Also make sure to enjoy a snack or drink at one of the many tea houses along the way.
Hokanji Temple – Probably one of the most photographed spots in Kyoto. This temple is in the heart of Gion and home to a beautiful 5-story pagoda.
Kinkaku-ji – This is a golden temple and is quite beautiful. It’s hardly tranquil though because it’s quite popular and crowded. The best view of the temple is when you first enter and it doesn’t take long to make your way around it.
In addition to these better known shrines/temples there are a couple smaller ones that I think you should know about:
Higashi-Tenno Okazaki-Jinja Shrine – This is a childbirth shrine which main animal is of course a rabbit. I stopped here to get my sister-in-law a shrine charm as she was pregnant with her third child.
Konogji – This temple has colorful balls that you can purchase to write your wishes on and then hang around the temple.
Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine – There is a rock here with a hole that you are supposed to crawl through to break off a bad relationship or start a new one.
Getting Around Kyoto
I highly recommend getting an IC card when you are in Japan. The two most popular are the PASMO and Suica. It doesn’t really matter what card you choose as they are widely accepted. I personally have a registered PASMO card which has my name on it and I can have it reissued if I lose it. It is also valid for 10 years.
One thing to note about an IC card is that you can only reload it with cash so you can only use yen and not your credit card.
The IC card can be used on public transportation and as a form of payment in many shops and restaurants. It’s really handy.
Kyoto has limited train routes especially compared to Tokyo so the bus is king here. You use your IC card to pay your fare. I personally get a local sim card when I travel so that I can use my phone to look up public transportation on Google maps.
Take the train a little ways out of the city and visit the Yamazaki Distillery. This is the first whiskey distillery in Japan and its history is fascinating. If you want to take a tour, and trust me you do, make sure you make reservations in advance.
So those are my highlights from spending 5 days in Kyoto. I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of everything that this city has to offer. Japan is my favorite place in the world so I guarantee that I will be back to explore more.
This is the map that I used to plan my trip. I’ve added everything that caught my interest during the planning process so there are some places on here that I may not have actually been able to fit into my itinerary.
Wanna see more videos and photos from my trip to Kyoto? Head over to my Instagram and check out the Japan highlight at the top of my profile.