Choosing the right hotel, ryokan, or other place to stay in Kyoto is important—not from the perspective of having a comfortable bed and the most high-tech toilet (although having the right temperature of heated seat is important), but primarily due to location. (Last updated July 16, 2019.)
No matter how long you’re staying in Kyoto, you will not have enough time. This is something we’ve stressed in our posts about Kyoto, and it bears reiterating. There are such a high number of compelling temples, shrines, and other points of interest that it’s impossible to see it all during a single visit.
We’ve visited Kyoto multiple times over the last several years, and have stayed at several hotels, ryokan, and Airbnb rentals. In this post, we’ll make specific recommendations concerning where to stay within Kyoto, offer a few specific and generalized hotel recommendations, and offer the pros and cons of staying at a ryokan or Airbnb rental.
Let’s start with location, as this is going to be important regardless of the style of accommodations you choose. If you’re visiting Kyoto for 2 days or less, I’d recommend extending your visit. But seriously, in that case, you should determine which region of the city appeals to you most, and choose a place that is convenient to those points of interest.
In 2 days or less, you are not going to be able to see it all, so it’s best to not even try. Instead of criss-crossing the city, wasting time in the process, pinpoint an area. See as much as humanly possible in that area, and save everything else for a future trip.
In this case, my recommendation is staying near Inari (more on that below), which provides convenient access to Fushimi Inari, and relatively easy access to Higashiyama. If there are other things in Kyoto that pique your interest more, consider a different location. There aren’t any “wrong” answers here.
If you’re staying 3 days or longer, I think choosing a location near a transportation hub makes more sense, as this enables you easy access to all of the regions of Kyoto. The obvious pick here is Kyoto Station, which is Kyoto’s main artery for transportation. Not only is it easy to get anywhere in the city from here, but it’s easy to get to Osaka and Tokyo from here.
We also are really fond of staying just north of Kiyomizu-Gojo Station in the south part of Gion. We’ve done this twice now, in the exact same Airbnb, which is pictured above. We’ll likely return to this Airbnb, as it works perfectly for our needs.
For one, the Gion area is lovely, and being at its southern edge is cheaper and away from the touristy area where the hordes flock. Second, it’s convenient to the Keihan Line, which is our favorite railway line in Kyoto. Finally, it’s an easy walk to the Higashiyama District. As discussed below, we also like staying near Fushimi Inari for similar reasons.
Okay, now let’s break down the various types of places to stay, starting with hotels…
Beyond location, one thing you have to consider with regard to hotels is whether they are Japanese or western style accommodations. While this is true no matter where you go in Japan, the two most popular tourist spots in Japan are Tokyo and Kyoto, and the former has far more western chains that offer familiar accommodations to Americans.
In Kyoto, western chains are far less common. There are a few popular hotels, such as the Hyatt Regency Kyoto (pictured above), which earns bonus points from us due to its location in Higashiyama. Another option in this same general (desirable) area is the Westin Miyaka Kyoto.
There’s also the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto in this same area, which is one of the nicest Ritz Carlton hotels in the world. If you’re a real high-roller, Four Seasons Kyoto (pictured at the top of the post) is superlative. Soon, the Park Hyatt Kyoto will open in the best location of all–the heart of Higashiyama. You can see our Park Hyatt Kyoto Photos & Preview for more info on that big addition.
Kyoto Century Hotel, or as I call it “Lamp Shrine Inn,” is one specific hotel at which we’ve stayed that really sticks out to me as being good, both in terms of location and quality (the top photo of the giant lamp is its lobby…hence the moniker). It’s about a 5-minute walk from Kyoto Station, which is about as close as you can get. Like many hotels in Japan, the exterior is fairly nondescript, but the inside is nice and the rooms are a cross between Japanese and western styles.
There are a lot of other hotels in Kyoto that offer western style rooms, and my only general advice beyond the above is to not be tempted by ones that are downtown. In Kyoto, downtown is not the best place to stay. Fortunately, most of the nice hotels that pitch themselves as downtown are actually near Kyoto Station or Higashiyama. (I think they probably realize there’s allure to “downtown” for foreign visitors.) If you’re looking for a hotel beyond what we’ve listed, just consult a map and make sure the location is good.
A ryokan is a traditional style of Japanese accommodation that originated during the Edo period, when such inns served wayward travelers en route from place to place. They exist today as something between a remnant and an homage to the past.
They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, traditional yukata for guests to wear, and common spaces for guests to interact with other patrons and the owner. They also sometimes (but not always) feature communal baths (the idea of this was extremely awkward to me at first, but I’ve come around). Due to the more spacious nature of the ryokan, it’s typically something you’ll only find outside of Tokyo.
Now, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of you took one look at the above photo and instantly ruled out the ryokan. Perhaps the bedding looks uncomfortable or the idea of sleeping on the floor turns you off. Or, maybe you are like me and don’t like the idea of going full frontal in front of a bunch of strangers.
Well, let me “reassure” you: the bedding is about as comfortable as a normal hotel mattress in Japan and…well, at least you won’t get hurt falling out of bed? Also, the public nudity thing is something you get over quickly once you realize no one cares about what you look like naked. (Or perhaps that’s just me…) In any case, many ryokan have private bathroom options for “shy” tourists.
In all seriousness, before you rule out the ryokan, give it serious thought and look at some of the options. We consider the ryokan to be one of the quintessential Japanese experiences, and it’s definitely worth trying to get over some of your hesitations for this. If the idea of a ryokan is a non-starter, you probably should stick to an American chain in Kyoto. Japanese preferences favor firm mattresses, and we’ve had some that make ryokan pads feel like floating in a floor-level cloud by comparison.
Machiya are traditional wooden townhouses that are iconic to Kyoto and probably what you picture when thinking of a traditional Japanese townhome. Machiya were popular with Kyotoites in the last century, up until around the post-World War II development boom in Japan that resulted in more ugly concrete towers (to put it charitably).
Many machiya survive today, and there has been a concerted effort in recent years to restore and redevelop machiya, and even build new structures in this classic style. Machiya continue to serve as homes to Kyoto residents, while others have been converted to vacation rentals, shops, and restaurants. There’s even a Starbucks in one converted machiya!
Machiya interior design is quintessentially Japanese. Inside, you’ll find tatami mat floors, minimalist decor, fusuma doors/screens separating rooms (which sometimes serve dual purposes), and exposed wood. The design of machiya is deceptively simple, but like most Japanese design, there are many pleasing details that make the spaces lovely and inviting.
We’ve stayed in a variety of machiya throughout Japan, and highly recommend the experience. In Kyoto, most machiya are found in Gion and Higashiyama, which are great areas of the city. (You’ll also find some in Arashiyama, but we don’t recommend that part of Kyoto quite as enthusiastically.)
Best of all, you can book machiya via Airbnb or your preferred hotel booking site. In both cases, you’ll pay a bit of a premium over non-machiya accommodations, but we’d argue that it’s worth the money for the unique, distinctly Japanese experience. We’d recommend going the Airbnb route over booking a machiya hotel. Speaking of which…
Pretty much whenever we travel internationally, we check out prices on Airbnb–particularly if we are visiting during a busier season. In Japan, we’ve visited during sakura season (cherry blossoms), fall foliage, and Golden Week, and have thus encountered high hotel prices. Instead of paying those rates, we looked to Airbnb. In case you’re unfamiliar with Airbnb, we have a post on our Disney blog that discusses our Tips for Using Airbnb and provides some general background.
We prefer Airbnb to booking hotels because it gives us the option for a much larger room, usually an entire apartment. Japanese hotel rooms (that are not Western chains) tend to be very small, and using Airbnb is the best way to avoid this issue. A lot of Airbnb flats are “ryokan style” in terms of the guest quarters, which also provides a slice of authentic culture. (If this isn’t for you, just made sure to get an Airbnb with proper beds–a variety of styles are available.)
Obviously, the lower price is the biggest selling point of Airbnb. It’s also nice that many rentals can accommodate larger parties without an extra per person charge (as is common in Japan). Plus, Airbnb hosts often include free MiFi so you can use the internet on the go. We’ve had some fun experiences staying at unique Airbnb locations throughout Japan and really cannot recommend it highly enough. You can also use my sign-up link for a free credit your first time using Airbnb!
We’ve had several excellent Airbnb experiences in Kyoto, including two month-long stays (one near Kyoto Station, the other near Fushimi Inari). For a longer trip with side trips elsewhere in the Kansai region, we’d recommend being near Kyoto Station or in Gion. For a short 2-3 day trip, the Fushimi Inari area is absolutely perfect.
I don’t like visiting Kyoto for fewer than 3 days, but if we ever have another short stay in Kyoto, I’d book the Fushimi Inari Airbnb we’ve used in the past once more. (The one we rented is pictured above. If anyone wants more info on this unit, let me know in the comments–I’ll dig up our reservation details.)
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to rent this same unit–the general location is good enough. I like this area because Kiyomizu-Gojo and Inari are both on the Keihan Line (separated by 4 stops), making it convenient to accomplish everything along the spine of the Higashiyama mountains, starting with Philosphers’ Path and ending with Kiyomizu-dera Temple. You can then do Fushimi Inari late at night, or early the next morning.
This works because Fushimi Inari is one of the few spots in Kyoto that is open 24/7. If you have limited time in Kyoto, doing Fushimi Inari early in the morning or late in the night is pretty much a must. Not only does it allow you to extend your day, but the experiences at Fushimi Inari without crowds are second to none. (We have done Fushimi Inari at sunrise and late at night many times.)
I think that about covers the pitfalls and our recommendations for where to stay in Kyoto, and which kind of accommodations might appeal most to you. I’m guessing I made the decision of where to stay in Kyoto slightly more complicated, but hopefully I didn’t overcomplicate the decision for you. I will say that some “complication” is good here, as it’s easy to make a bad choice when it comes to Kyoto (we did on our first visit!) On the plus side, it’s pretty easy to make a good decision once you have a bit more info–and hopefully this post has set you on the right path!
If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto, Japan, please check out my other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Kyoto has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there.
Have you visited Kyoto? If so, where did you stay? Would you recommend it? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions about specific hotels, ryokan, or Airbnb rentals? If you have experience staying in Kyoto, please share in the comments–more viewpoints will help other readers! If you don’t have experience, feel free to ask any questions you might have in the comments!