If ever you’ve read the book or seen the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” then you’ve probably put Kyoto on your bucket list of travels. If you haven’t then should. Kyoto is an amazing place to visit!
We decided to visit in July and time our trip to overlap the famous Gion Matsuri (Festival). It was crazy hot and humid during the day. But no worse than what we’ve experienced in Bangkok and at night it cooled down and was very comfortable. Another plus of visiting during the off-season was that we were able to visit the sights without throngs of tourists and never had an issue getting a table or bar stool.
In this article I’d like to share some of the must see sights of Kyoto. There’s tons of places to visit but I’m highlighting the places that you really ought to check out. I’m also giving you some great recommendations for places to eat and drink. Basically, this article is meant to be a solid roadmap for the DIY tourist wanting to experience Kyoto.
I wish I’d had this before going!
Getting about Kyoto…
Many of the places that are in this article are easily accessible by bicycle. Kyoto is a very bicycle friendly city with bike lanes and bike parking available just about everywhere (including the historical sites). Most of the terrain is flat, too, so you don’t have to be an athlete.
If biking’s not your thing you’ll find that there are many places that are nearby subway stations. The subway and train system can be a little intimidating but the information booths are very helpful and are used to lost tourists. Don’t be afraid to ask.
In Kyoto the taxicabs are amazing. I say amazing because they’re not always so great here in Bangkok. In Kyoto the taxi drivers automatically open and close the doors, get you exactly where you want to go, and use the meter…EVERY TIME.
Feeling especially lazy or just want a neat experience? Take a rickshaw. Of course these are for short trips usually around sites. You wouldn’t want to take one across town. You’re not THAT cruel, right?
Now that you have some ideas for getting about, let’s begin with 8 must see sights in Kyoto, shall we?
#1 – Fushimi Inari Taisha
It is said that there are over 10,000 torii gates in the Fushimi Inari Taisha complex. I think that’s a lowball figure. These reddish orange painted wooden “gateways” are everywhere big and small. Most noticeably are the larger ones which form a millipede like pathway snaking up the mountainside.
The shrine was originally built in the 7th century to honor “Inari”, the god of rice and sake. Today it’s more of a place where folks make offerings for good luck and prosperity. Each torii is donated by people or companies that are hoping to gain luck and prosperity. On the front of the each torii, you will see the name of the person or company who donated the torii on the left side . On the right side, you will see the date that it was donated (by Japanese imperial year). The torii collection grows and they were installing a new torii during our visit.
But what I want to know is, how many steps are there? I mean, just when you think you’ve made near the top you round a corner and find a new set of steps to climb. A visit here will ensure you get your steps in for the day.
As it was near the Gion Matsuri, there were many Japanese tourists visiting dressed in traditional garb. But it wasn’t crowded and they didn’t mind stopping for a happy snap!
More than torii gates…
There’s more to the Fushimi Inari shrine than torii’s. Along the route you’ll find interesting dragon water fountains (not meant for drinking from), various shrines, and many fox statues. Foxes are considered to be messengers to the god, Inari. Often you’ll see them with something in their mouth (keys, and paper scrolls are common).
The Fushimi Inari shrine is free to visit.
HANDY TIP: If you go in the summer time you’ll want to get water early and plenty of it. This could be a hot and humid 3 hour trek. The vending machine prices skyrocket the higher you climb and during the off season many of them are turned off to conserve power.
A great resource about how to get there and more information about the Fushimi Inari Shrine can be found in this picture filled article by Inside Kyoto.
#2 – Kinkaku-Ji
One of the most beautiful sites in Kyoto to visit is Kinkaku-ji (translated as “Temple of the Golden Pavilion“). The most famous and picturesque view is of the gleaming golden pavilion across from a still pond reflecting the beautiful scene.
The official name for this park is actually Rokuon-ji (“Deer Garden Temple“) probably because of its beautiful gardens. Here you’ll find plenty of small winding trails through perfectly manicured gardens meant for peaceful reflection.
A great resource about how to get there and more information about Kinkaku-ji can be found in this picture filled article by Japan Guide.
#3 – Tō-ji Temple
At 54.8 meters tall, the 5 story pagoda (gojū no tō) is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. It hovers over the southeast corner of the Tō-ji Temple grounds and is nearly impossible to capture the entire thing from base to towering tip on camera.
But don’t forget to check out the other buildings in the temple complex. These large wooden structures house some amazing Buddhist statues (no picture taking allowed, unfortunately). If you’re lucky you might even get a chance to see and hear the young monks chanting near the temple.
A great resource about how to get there and more information about the Tō-ji can be found in this picture filled article by Discover Kyoto.
#4 – Nijō Castle
The Nijō Castle is Kyoto’s best preserved castle and a fine example of just how much power the Shogunate had in Japan. This castle is incredibly opulent and fortified. There is a moat and 2 surrounding stone walls protecting the castle grounds.
As soon as you walk through the gate to the main castle you immediately see the expansive gravel and grass courtyards surrounding the complex buildings.
To get a real sense of how large the complex is, climb up to the top of the immense defensive walls for see it all.
One of the most famous features to this castle is it’s “chirping” Nightingale floor. It’s said that the nails in the floor were designed to rub when pressure was placed on the boards so that they emitted a chirping noise and warned the house of intruders.
For more information here is an excellent guide to the history and the grounds of Nijō Castle that you can download to your phone before touring.
#5 – Higashi Honganji Temple
Higashi Honganji Temple is big. I mean really big. But as majestic as it looks from the outside it is a little bit of a disappointment inside because it’s big and empty. There are basically few things of interest inside the temple–rather a large area of tatami mat I assume is meant for prayer and meditation.
What is of interest in the complex is all the cool water fountains.
You can see just how huge these temple buildings are from the Kyoto Tower observation deck (though it will set you back 700 Yen for the admission). To learn more about the Higashi Honganji Temple and Shin Buddhism check out their website.
#6 The Bamboo Forest
Another very famous thing to visit in Kyoto is the famous Bamboo Forest (also known as Arashiyama Bamboo Grove). The well maintained paths offer stunning and peaceful views of the towering bamboo stalks. It’s like strolling through a set from a Kung Fu movie.
Along the pathway to the bamboo grove you’ll see the backs of private homes and a small temple.
If your pockets are deep or you’re feeling particularly lazy you can even tour the bamboo forest via rickshaw!
One nice thing about visiting in the off season as that you are able to enjoy the serenity of the grove and your more apt to see locals enjoying the scene as well.
Inside Kyoto provides an excellent resource of what to see and do in the Bamboo Grove here.
#7 – Hit the beautiful streets!
Kyoto is a very modern city. That being said, underneath the modernity are some side streets that make you feel like you are stepping into living history.
Shinbashi Dori, located in the heart of the Gion district is one of those streets. The houses appear to be from mediaeval times. Forget about neon signs–you won’t find them here. Here it’s all about the paper lanterns.
Next to Shinbashi Dori, running slightly parallel, is the beautiful Shirakawa-minami Dori with it’s polished cobblestones. Here you’ll find quaint cafe’s along the canal (don’t think they’re cheap just because they’re so quaint!).
Shirakawa-minami Dori and Shinbashi Dori merge. At this merging is the Tatsumi Daimyōjin shrine which is frequented by geisha and maiko (geisha in training).
The small street of Hanamikoji Dori located off of Shijo Dori near the Gion Corner and the Yasaka Shrine has tons of tiny “tea houses”. This is a great location for spotting geisha or maiko hustling to their next gigs.
But I must warn you, it’s not like there are geisha everywhere. They seemingly pop out of nowhere and are like wooden shoe wearing cheetahs. Seriously. You’ll need to set your camera to “sport” mode if you want to take a picture of one!
#8 – Nishiki Market
The Nishiki Market isn’t just a place you should visit when in Kyoto. It’s a place you should visit every day that you are in Kyoto. I just love it! What began in the year 1310 as a fish wholesaler has expanded over time to now contain hundreds of small shops selling everything from fresh local produce, meats, fishes, snacks, and even handmade knifes.
The Nishiki Market is often referred to as “Kyoto’s Kitchen“. Here you’ll find locals as well as tourists exploring the different stalls for snacks and ready made simple food. Not everything looks especially tasty (nara zuke, a pickled sea cucumber looks especially unpleasant). But it’s mesmerizing seeing all the different things that are available.
One very popular snack is the baby octopus with a hardboiled quail egg stuffed in it’s head. Honestly I don’t know how they get the egg in there…it’s a bit uncomfortable to think about. It’s like the Japanese version of a turducken.
The thing I love most about Nishiki Market is that you can get so many ready made foods. As a “meatatarian” my favorite experience was the premium beef on sticks. Forget Black Angus beef. Forget Kobe beef. For a real beef treat it’s all about the Omi beef, a wagyu beef raised in Japan’s Shiga prefecture. At 1,000 Yen a stick I thought it was a pricey treat. But the second I tasted it I knew I was worth it.
Only 8 places?
There’s certainly plenty to see in Kyoto and I could easily pad the list with some more places to visit. However, I really want to recommend the places that from my experience are worth visiting. Some of the places I visited sounded like must visit places…and then I was disappointed.
As an example, the Kyoto Imperial Palace is probably interesting if you can go inside. But you can’t. So unless you are a fan of walls it’s really not worth visiting. Also the “Monkey Mountain” near the Bamboo Forest sounds really interesting but is a lot of work and in the end a lot of daylight is wasted. The Kyoto National Museum was pretty cool, but when we visited much of it was closed for renovation which was pretty disappointing.
So 8 recommendations it is. But if you have some time in Kyoto, I highly recommend a day trip to Himeji Castle! It’s a must see Japan treasure and was one of the highlights of our visit to Kyoto.
Where to eat in Kyoto…
There are tons of places to eat in Kyoto and during our stay we tried many. It wouldn’t be a Chow Traveller article if I didn’t recommend some good places to eat, right?
For this article I would like to recommend my top 4 places that I thought were incredible. Each specialized in a particular dish, and all were very reasonably priced. These are must visit places for great eats during your visit to Kyoto!
#1 – Issen Yoshuku – Delicious Kyoto style Okinomiyaki
Issen Yoshoku restaurant is named after the very dish they specialize in, a Kyoto version of the okonomiyaki.
Issen Yoshoku is made from a wheat flour based batter and cooked like a crepe. In front of the restaurant you can watch the cooks preparing dozens of Issen Yoshuku on a large frying surface.
Each crepe is then filled with chopped scallions, egg and thinly sliced pork, which is garnished with a savory sauce and strips of nori seaweed. At 680 Yen it’s a very reasonably priced meal!
The restaurant is family friendly and a very interesting scene (their are mannequins sitting at some of the booths, and some very interesting NSFW wooden plaques decorating the walls).
This is a great place to visit either before or after checking out Shinbashi Dori or if you’re in the Gion area.
#2 – Gyoza Chao Chao – Great Gyoza!
If you guessed that Gyoza Chao Chao specializes in gyoza then you’d be correct. One look at their menu will confirm that.
Though they’re famous for their gyoza there are other dishes on their menu to snack on. I recommend the Karaage (deep fried chicken) along with a variety of gyoza.
For a real treat try to sit at the bar. Your service will be immediate and it’s fascinating to watch them prepare hundreds of batches of fresh gyoza right in front of you.
This place is quite popular so I recommend getting their just before the dinner rush (after 7 pm you’ll see lines forming to get in). This is a perfect place to stuff your stomach with some great food before drinks. In fact right across the street from Gyoza Chao Chao are tons of tiny bars you might enjoy exploring.
#3 Kyoto Ramen Daruma-ya
I love ramen. It’s one of my favorite meals. I’m confident I could eat it everyday and never get bored of it. During our visit it just so happened that Kyoto Ramen Daruma-ya opened it’s doors to the public.
It’s named after the Daruma, a Japanese wishing doll. And with the giant Daruma head on the restaurant front it looked interesting…plus I can always go for a bowl of ramen. It was one of the best ramen’s we had in Kyoto which is why I recommend it.
There’s a small bar counter sitting downstairs (good for 3 people) with additional seating upstairs. If you’re able to, I highly recommend sitting downstairs so you can watch them preparing your ramen. They give each bowl a lot of attention, and the large steaming vats of ramen broth behind them provide a dramatic background.
The ramen is served in a golden bowl. The broth is rich and savory, the pork slices thick and tender, and it’s loaded with delicious al dente ramen noodles. If you’re a fan of ramen I highly recommend this place for a visit.
#4 – Mr. Young Men – Fantastic Yakisoba!
Located at the end of the Teramachi Street Shopping District, Mr. Young Men specializes in 2 dishes: okonomiyaki and yakisoba. I didn’t try the okonomiyaki but I can tell you that their yakisoba is to die for!
The place oozes with greasy diner charm. Upon entering you are greeted with a vision of where the magic happens, a giant frying station sizzling with yummy goodness.
This is a place that you want to go to when you are starving. You’ll leave full. The GIANT portions are served on hot skillets. The noodles are amazing–slightly charred and super flavorful. If you like yakisoba you will love this place!
How about some drink recommendations?
There are tons of places in Kyoto to drink ranging from fine whiskey bars to tiny hole in the wall joints with just a few seats. If you like to imbibe I think you’ll find these 3 recommendations handy!
#1 – Hello Dolly – Jazz and Whisky, yes please.
I am a BIG fan of whisky. The only familiarity I had with Japanese whisky was the Suntory Whisky bartenders pour in my HUGE Suntory Highballs. Hello Dolly provides a great introduction to fine Japanese whisky both single malt and blended.
But be prepared to open your wallet deep for the lessons. Single shots of the single malt range from 1,300 – 4,000 Yen and 700 – 4,000 Yen for the blended. If you’re a whisky fan, or interested in experiencing some top shelf Japanese hooch, this is a great place to do so. It’s classy, the service is impeccable, the staff knowledgable, and as a bonus in the evening they have some great live jazz.
It’s located along the narrow street of the Pontocho area along with several other bars and small eateries and larger restaurants that overlook the Kamo River. The restaurants that overlook the Kamo River are very popular for dinner and as a result many of them have a “table charge” in which you pay for the privilege of sitting their to dine.
Should you choose to dine at one I’d highly recommend a visit to Hello Dolly afterwards for a nightcap or 4!
#2 – Visit a “tiny bar”…make friends instantly!
Bars in Kyoto can be a bit pricey. You’re basically paying for the service (a staff) and their expensive rent costs. One life hack for drinking out on the town AND having a good time is to frequent the “tiny bars”. Tiny bars are basically very tiny bars staffed with one person tending and serving anywhere between 4 and 10 patrons all seated around the bar.
The first one we went to was a larger tiny bar able to accommodate 10 patrons. Here they had some more upscale drinks as well as some advanced eats.
The second tiny bar that we visited was even more intimate being able to accommodate only 5 patrons. It’s where locals go and go regularly. There was a bit of a language barrier, but the gaps were bridged by Google Translate and eventually the gaps were completely filled in by the alcohol.
One of the customers brought in a large ceramic container of special sake from Okinawa. When I’d mentioned that I used to live in Okinawa it was immediately opened and shared by all. This was my favorite drinking experience in Kyoto!
Both of these tiny bars were located down this narrow passageway along with other tiny bars. Located within a minute walk down Tominokoji Dori from the Nishiki Market, this Google Map below shows you the exact location via street view.
#3 – Get a personal izakaya guide!
I wanted to experience an izakaya (a Japanese pub) but was intimidated as the truly authentic ones are all in Japanese and my reading skills for kanji are nonexistent. I found what I felt was a great deal for a local guide (at the time it was under $60) through the website Tours By Locals. The price didn’t include food and drink (or the guide’s food and drink). The tour was called “Kyoto Izakaya(local pub) Hopping!“. That seemed spot on for the kind of tour I was hoping for.
Our guide’s name was Kenzo-san. Our first stop was in a very local izakaya where we enjoyed a few beers and snacks (including the dangerous fugu). All the prices were very reasonable. After the izakaya Kenso-san took us to the tiny bar place I mentioned previously.
If it weren’t for this guide I wouldn’t have experienced these places on my own. If you’re interested in getting an izakaya tour guide and meeting locals I highly recommend Kenso-san. You can see his profile and message him directly through the Tours By Locals site here.
A bit about Gion Matsuri…
Gion Matsuri is Japan’s best-known festival. This annual festival dates back to the year 869. Throughout the month of July there are several festival-related events but the main event occurs on the day of the Yamaboko Junko (July 17th) and on the three evenings preceding which are called yoiyama evenings.
In the evening Shijo Dori is closed to car traffic and open to revelry. Many dress in traditional clothing and there’s plenty of street food and street drinks to keep the party going.
“Yamaboko” refers to the two types of floats: the smaller yama floats and the massive hoko floats. Hoko floats can be up to several stories (around 25 meters) in height, can weigh up to 12 tons, and require up to 40 people to pull them. Both types of floats are decorated with beautiful tapestries and paper lanterns.
If you like parades with a variety of floats streaming by you’ll be a little disappointed. These floats creep by at a snails pace since they’re pulled by hand and after awhile the they all start to look like same. What is pretty cool is the atmosphere. The participants are very enthusiastic and proud of their heritage, and the evening atmosphere feels very festive!
Where to stay?
There are tons of places to stay at in Kyoto that can accommodate any budget. I really wanted to stay in a Ryokan. A ryokan is basically a Japanese home stay kind of place. The Kyoto Machiya Ryokan Cinq has a cafe downstairs (the Cinq Cafe) and upstairs there are a few 5 separate rooms for lodging.
The location was very convenient. It was located a 3 minute walk to the Teramachi Street Shopping District and a 6 minute walk to the Nishiki Market.
The staff were very pleasant and attentive when we needed things like towels and toilet paper. For a room with a queen sized bed we paid a little over $140 a night, but the prices are probably much lower outside of the Gion Matsuri period. If you’re looking to stay in a ryokan in a great location I highly recommend this place.
Is Kyoto on your bucket list now?
I really enjoyed visiting Kyoto. It was hot as blazes in July, but it was still less touristy even though it was during the Gion Matsuri. No matter when you decide to visit I hope this article helps you make the most of your visit. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section!