Our first-timer’s guide to Kyoto covers what you need to know to plan the perfect trip to Japan’s cultural capital, and second most popular destination in the country after Tokyo. Avoid common mistakes and learn everything for the ideal vacation with our top 10 tips & tricks for your first visit to Kyoto, Japan. (Last updated August 4, 2019.)
When planning trips and picturing the traditional side of Japan, Kyoto is what first-timers envision. It’s the quintessential cultural experience filled with temples, shrines, gardens, teahouses, geisha, quaint alleys, wooden homes, etc. While there’s so much more to Kyoto than all of this, it is the notion of Japan that you’ve seen or imagined.
First-timers with romanticized visions of Kyoto are often in for a reality check upon arrival. Not because it doesn’t comport with expectations, but more simply, because our dream-like depictions of a place usually overlook practical realities. As great as Kyoto is–and it’s our favorite city in the world–there are some things you should know as you start planning to set expectations accordingly.
Think of this post as a supplement to our Ultimate Kyoto, Japan Planning Guide. That covers everything you need to know in excruciating detail. This focuses mostly on correcting misconceptions, and highlights the most essential knowledge you should have when planning your trip.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the top 10 Kyoto first-timer tips so you can plan accordingly and avoid some common pitfalls that make for a less-than-magical first visit to Kyoto, Japan…
10. Kyoto is Crowded – We aren’t going to beat around the bush on this one. Kyoto can barely handle the crowds that flock to the city, and this is especially true during the most popular tourist times in the spring and fall. If remedial measures aren’t taken, this is only going to get worse as tourism to Japan continues to climb at a dramatic rate.
Our photos of the torii gates of Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, or Kiyomizudera Temple devoid of people are incredibly misleading. All of those were shot before 8 a.m. (often before 7 a.m.) or late at night. If you arrive to these or other popular Kyoto attractions between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., that is not even remotely what you’ll experience. The silver lining here is that it is possible to beat the crowds in Kyoto with a couple of our handy resources…
We put months into creating and refining our 1-Day to 1-Week Kyoto, Japan Itineraries. In fact, we continue to tweak these, experiencing these temples at numerous times of day and wandering around in search of more hidden gems. If you want to build your own itinerary, consult our List of Hidden Gem Temples & Shrines in Kyoto, Japan.
Between those resources and our Tips for Beating Kyoto’s Crowds post, you can enjoy some of the tranquility that defines the city and avoid the worst congestion. Even if you don’t follow our specific advice, it’s imperative that you don’t just show up to popular temples in the middle of the day–that’s the recipe for a bad time.
9. Ryokan for Authenticity, Hotels for Familiarity, Airbnb for Value – As we’ve noted in other posts, it’s unlikely we’ll ever book another hotel stay in Kyoto, unless we need something for only a night or two. Hotels simply cannot compete with apartment rentals on size or price. If you’re a bottom line kind of traveler, that’s undoubtedly the right route for you.
However, as experienced Kyoto travelers with little need for hotel amenities or assistance from staff, we are slightly unique. It is worth noting that high-end hotels provide concierge services, access to hard-to-book dining, entertainment, and a variety of amenities.
If you’re looking for an authentic cultural experience, a ryokan is your best option. Traditional ryokan are a staple of the Kyoto experience, and something worth trying for a night or two. Read our Where to Stay in Kyoto, Japan guide for specific recommendations on all three, as well as the best areas of the city for transportation convenience, etc.
8. Dining is Divine – After accommodations, the single biggest variable in your Kyoto budget is dining. You could eat for under $20 per day on udon or okonomiyaki, or easily spend an upwards of $1,000 on kaiseki. In both cases, you could enjoy great and memorable meals.
For the latter, the Michelin Guide to Kyoto, Osaka, and Tottori is your best bet. If you’re throwing around that kind of money on meals, you’ll also want to stay at a high-end hotel with a concierge who can get you into those restaurants. For the former, our Dining Guide to Kyoto, Japan presents our specific restaurant recommendations and generalized advice for eating great meals on a budget.
7. Transportation is Tricky – Japan is known for its efficient, clean, and punctual public transportation. That extends to Kyoto, but with less emphasis on “efficient.” This problem mostly stems from a lack of coverage by the railways and subway to some of the most popular temples, which almost necessitates bus or taxi use.
Unfortunately, some bus routes have more demand than they can handle, leading to some unpleasant experiences there. Accordingly, we try to avoid Kyoto’s popular bus routes at all costs, and recommend walking instead of taking the bus whenever possible.
Another issue is that Kyoto’s railway, subway, and bus lines have several different owners, rendering the Japan Rail Pass far less useful. (We do use and recommend some of the 1-day unlimited passes pictured above.) The upside is that Kyoto is fairly compact, and walking around the city leads to delightful little discoveries. Our Transportation Tips for Getting Around Kyoto offers more time and money-saving hacks.
6. November and April are Best – This is a pretty straightforward one. November brings with it the peak of fall colors season and April offers the heart of cherry blossom or sakura season. In terms of beauty and weather, both are ideal times to visit.
Unfortunately, this is hardly a secret, and these are also–by far–the two most crowded times of the year to visit Kyoto. In our When to Visit Kyoto, Japan post we offer suggestions on travel ranges that help avoid peak crowds while still enjoying these absolutely resplendent seasons.
5. Kyoto Can Be Deceptively Expensive – Japan can be a surprisingly inexpensive country to visit. That’s not its reputation, but there pretty easy ways to slash your travel budget and do ‘Japan on a dime.’
In the planning stages, you might find this to be especially true of Kyoto. However, upon arrival, you can find that costs creep up on you. Temples, transportation, and dining can all be surprises if you’re not careful. Read our Tips for Doing Kyoto on a Budget post for more insight into keeping all of your expenses low.
4. Don’t Do Two Days – Our most popular itinerary is our 2-Day Kyoto, Japan Highlights followed by our 1-Day “Best of” Kyoto, Japan Touring Plan. This is unsurprising and expected, but nonetheless disappointing.
Kyoto is a city that is better slowly savored than quickly devoured. Not only do the temples and shrines require a bit of time to experience and fully absorb, but the districts themselves should be wandered, allowing you to get lost in the soul of this transfixing city.
That might all sound unrealistically romanticized. Time is certainly a luxury that those doing whirlwind tours of Japan do not have the ability to indulge. We understand that time is limited and for most people, a trip to Japan is a once in a lifetime experience. We would encourage you to not to overdo it, choosing quality over quantity of experiences.
You have zero chance of seeing all of Japan, even if you spend an entire year there–don’t try to see the entire country in a week or two; choose a couple of cities and really get to know them. Obviously, we think Kyoto should be one of those cities, and we’d strongly encourage you to spend 5 days there, with one of those perhaps as a day-trip to Nara for a “bonus” city.
3. Pack Your Bags Appropriately – Kyoto has four seasons. (No, not the Four Seasons, although Kyoto has that, too.) Aside from its shrines and temples, this is literally the defining characteristic of the city. Kyotoites are known for their appreciation of the passing seasons, and things about the city change as the seasons pass.
Most appreciably, Kyoto has four distinct seasons of weather. It’s predictably cold in the winter with the possibility of snow, summers are always hot with the potential for torrential downpours, and so on. In addition to the weather, you can expect to walk a ton, use Google Maps heavily, and go out for a nice dinner or two. Our What to Pack for Kyoto, Japan guide covers all of the necessities, along with some things that will help improve your trip.
2. Avoid Temple Fatigue – There are nearly 2,000 temples in Kyoto. There is zero chance you will see them all in your lifetime. Narrowing that down a bit, we have a list of the Top 100 Temples & Shrines in Kyoto, Japan. As we point out on that list, there are 52 that are very good and could ‘wow’ you. On your first trip to Kyoto, you will not see all 52 of those, nor should you try.
There is a tendency to approach travel from a ‘check-list’ style perspective, and this is exacerbated in places with literal lists of easy-to-accomplish things to do like Kyoto and its temples. The problem with such an approach is that many of these temples start to blend together and you become overwhelmed or tired from the repetitive nature of the day.
To put a more succinct point on it, you’re far better off spending an hour at one temple than 30 minutes each at two temples. Slowing down and savoring the experience will allow you to appreciate the subtle nuances and ornate design that define each, and give you a chance to better digest what you’re experiencing. This is a big reason why our itineraries are loaded with so many optional stops–in some cases, you’re better off skipping things and taking a ‘choose your own adventure’ approach.
1. Kyoto is the World’s Greatest City – Kyoto is our favorite city in the world. In our years of providing Japan travel advice, we’ve heard that same sentiment echoed by many others. We’ve also heard an incredibly small number of dissenting voices who had negative experiences (we think) due mostly to self-induced errors.
Mistakes are easy to make as a first-time visitor to any place. Even as frequent visitors, we make gaffes here and there. However, there’s a significant difference between catching the wrong train and deciding 1 p.m. is a reasonable time to catch the bus from Kyoto Station to the Golden Pavilion.
Likewise, opting to stay in a Western hotel, only dining at chain restaurants, using the buses to get everywhere, and only doing the most popular temples when tour groups are descending upon them is a recipe for a tainted perspective of Kyoto.
This might sound incredibly cheesy, but Kyoto is a city that begs to be explored, revealing itself to those who put in the effort to discover its true essence. It’s not merely for sampling its iconic sites and ignoring the rest nor is it for racing from temple to temple (at the other end of the spectrum). We hope this top 10 list coupled with our other resources help you prepare for a truly special experience in Kyoto.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Are you planning your first visit to Kyoto? Have you traveled elsewhere in Japan? Anything else you’d like to know or unanswered questions? If you’re a seasoned veteran of Japan, anything to add? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!