Kyoto is quintessential Japan; historic, beautiful and full of culture. Located in the Kansai region south-west of Tokyo, this city was actually the capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Because of this, the city is full of ornate temples, palaces and shrines.
Look beyond these, however, and you will find a bustling city full of wonderful sights, interesting people and delicious food. In the case that you travel to Kyoto from Tokyo, the most practical and advisable is to travel to it with the Tokaido Shinkansen line. If you have the JR Pass your trip will be included so you only need to reserve your seat!
Temples, Shrines and Palaces
One of the most obvious activities in Kyoto is to explore the many historical buildings the city hosts. Kyoto Imperial Palace, once home to the emperors, is a notable site to visit. The architecture here is in a classic Japanese style, making it a common place for photographers and history enthusiasts alike. It also serves as a reminder that Kyoto is the former capital city; Tokyo only became the capital in the 1800s. Nijō Castle is extremely ornate and has vast and breathtaking gardens. Built for the Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, this 16th century castle is full of details, from the intricately decorated ceilings of the Ninomaru Palace to the gold leaf and wood carvings adorning the interior walls of both on-site palaces.
As for temples, there are plenty of these to keep you occupied. Kyoto has temples or shrines in virtually every neighbourhood. Kiyomizu Temple is iconic for its pagoda and abundance of cherry blossom trees. Located on a hill in Higashiyama ward on the eastern edge of the city, Kiyomizu offers outstanding views across Kyoto and a wonderful walk up to the temple, passing traditional buildings and beautiful gardens. Tō-ji near the city centre is another renowned temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an impressive pagoda tower which is the tallest in Japan. The buildings are full of ornate decorations and beautiful antique art, serving as a museum of sorts.
Whether you plan to use your Japan Rail Pass to visit Kyoto for a few days or dedicate just one to it, the Fushimi -Inari Sanctuary is a must-see. The notable Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine with its paths lined with torii (traditional gates). Dedicated to Inari, the Shinto fox god of rice and agriculture, this shrine holds deep religious importance for the adherents of Shinto and the grounds are full of fox-related sculptures. Tourists are accepted as visitors as long as they are respectful to worshippers attending the shrine, and it stands as one of the most prominent tourist attractions in Japan.
There are also small Shinto shrines all over Kyoto, with many neighbourhoods having several often tucked away amongst stores and houses. For example, along Shinkyogoku Street there is the compact Nishiki-Tenmangu Shrine which contains lanterns, spring water and a bronze cow sculpture.
Although Kyoto is a very historic place, it has no shortage of the trappings of city life. There are many great bars and clubs to spend your evenings in and hang out with friends and locals. With your Japan Rail Pass you will have access to numerous trains to move around the center and surroundings of the city. Kyoto Station is the hub of the Japan Railway and also a great shopping centre. Along the Kamo River in the Higashiyama ward there are many food and drink establishments, such as The Common One Bar. This bar in Gion is well known for its delicious cocktails and calm but convivial atmosphere. It is also a little more tucked away than some other places, meaning that it isn’t overrun with tourists. Just across the river in Shimogyo is SURFDISCO, a nightclub which hosts a variety of live acts and DJ music across 2 floors, perfect for those who like to dance or get lost in the music.
If you’d like to buy souvenirs of your visit, or simply look around Japanese shops, Shinkyogoku Shopping Street has many interesting stores and eateries for you to enjoy. Here you can find stores selling clothing, including traditional yukata, souvenirs, umbrellas, candy and more. Many tourists stop here to buy gifts to take home. Kiyomizu-Zaka Street leading to the Kiyomizu Temple is lined with traditional-style buildings hosting handmade craft items and souvenirs, such as pottery, fans, wind chimes and wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery).
The local style of ramen is known as shōyu and consists of a pork and chicken broth with generous amounts of soy sauce. Typically topped with pork, spring onions or nori seaweed, this salty and savoury treat is available in the many ramen shops all over the city. Kyoto is particularly known for its ramen and Kyoto-style shōyu noodles are popular all over Japan. Of course, this means there are many places to enjoy a piping hot bowl of noodles in Kyoto. If you want somewhere adventurous, Kobushi in the Sujaku-Shokaicho neighbourhood has excellent shōyu ramen as well as its dry tantanmen – spicy noodles without broth – all served in a store with such unique decoration as a Honda motorbike. Ramen Sen-no-Kaze, just off of Shinkyogoku Street, serves high quality tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen, all served with a topping of freshly cooked pork slices and fresh Japanese-grown vegetables.
For dessert, consider visiting one of the stores selling sweet treats around the city. Melon pan ice cream (ice cream served in a sweet and crispy bun) can be found on Shinkyogoku Shopping Street at The World’s 2nd Tastiest, which serves this treat with a choice of ice cream flavours. If you don’t fancy this, there are an abundance of dessert shops and kissa (cafés) which serve desserts. Kinana in the Gion neighbourhood specialises in ice cream and parfait, using traditional Japanese flavours such as azuki (sweet red bean), kuromitsu (molasses) and matcha (green tea). If matcha takes your fancy, Saryo Suisen serves everything matcha-flavoured, including jelly, cake, ice cream and mochi (glutinous rice-powder based cakes). Located just a 20-minute walk away from Nijō Castle, you can stop for a sweet treat after exploring the beautiful architecture and history.
If you travel to Kyoto, you will get a perfect mix of Japanese culture, history and food. If you want to see traditional Japan while still getting some of the urban bustle of Tokyo, this city is definitely the place to be. The ideal travel itinerary for Kyoto will see you explore the historical and cultural sites while also enjoying the great food and city life, getting the best of both traditional and modern Japan in one awe-inspiring place.