Our Kyoto, Japan guide offers planning tips & tricks, hotel recommendations, best temples & shrines, transportation hacks, where to eat, crowd info, and more. Before we get to the basics of planning, we’ll share some updates, and why we love Kyoto so much. (Last updated January 1, 2019.)
If you’re already in Kyoto and are scrambling to figure out what to do, scroll down to our “Things to Do” section for our top 25 temples and points of interest in Kyoto. We also offer a bunch of step-by-step itineraries that cover exactly what you need to know for a perfect day in Kyoto; these will take the stress out of trip planning.
We most recently traveled to Japan a month ago, and wrote about the experience in our Kyoto, Japan Fall Trip Recap. This was for the start of Japan’s fall colors season, which arrived later than normal. While we pretty much missed all of the gorgeous foliage, we changed up our plans to see some mountain areas that were already changing, and focused on more non-temple experiences.
There is some interesting and useful tidbits in that trip report, but from an ‘updates’ perspective, the most useful thing to know is that Kyoto is almost entirely back to normal following the devastation of Typhoon Jebi. This damaged countless temples, brought down part of Kyoto Station’s ceiling, and caused the closure of the part of the Eizan Line to Kurama.
Repairs to the impacted temples could take years, but everything else is operating as normal. During our trip, we made the trek up to Kuramadera Temple via the Eizan Line (which is now fully operational) and found a lot of damage there, but the temple was open. Suffice to say, 99% of visitors to Kyoto in 2019 won’t see any signs that the typhoon occurred, so that’s a plus.
The other main update we have is that Airbnb listings are back to normal now that Japan’s new “minpaku,” or private temporary lodging law has been on the books for about 6 months. This law caused some initial complications, but the vast majority of renters in Kyoto obtained their licenses months ago, and we haven’t noticed any significant spike in prices as a result.
There are some new formalities as a result of the law, though. For example, during our recent trip we actually had to meet with our host, who inspected our passports and had us fill out a bit of paperwork. Nothing troublesome–the same type of thing you’d go through at a hotel (which is the aim of the law). Previously, most Airbnb rentals in Japan provided access via keycodes, and you never even met the host.
This law will streamline procedures ahead of Japan’s Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and should help ease with the shortage of hotel rooms. Most importantly, any listing that is still active on Airbnb in Japan is licensed. That means you are safe if you book a reservation in Kyoto for 2019 or beyond.
Before we get started, we should probably get something out of the way: Kyoto is our favorite city in the world, and a place we fell in love with the first time we visited. While we don’t live in Kyoto full-time, we have spent months there over the course of the last several years. If you’re still debating whether you should visit Kyoto during a trip to Japan, you should read our Why We Love Kyoto, Japan post, which is our love letter to our favorite city in the world.
Our opinion that Kyoto is the greatest city in the world is hardly unique, but hopefully our perspective is. While we could be described as unofficial cheerleaders for the city, we don’t think our resources are colored by rose glasses. As strongly as we feel about Kyoto, we strive to ‘keep it real’, and make our planning resources more than just glorified ‘advertorials’ for Japan.
We also aim to provide planning advice beyond the superficial ‘best of’ lists. Although visiting popular temples is fun, Kyoto should not be treated as simply a highlight reel of temples. You’ll get so much more out of a visit to the city with a varied mix of major attractions and hidden gems–and encounter fewer crowds in the process.
If you’ve already made the very sage decision to visit Kyoto, our planning guide will help you fill in the details…
Things to Do in Kyoto
We’re going to go a bit out of order here, but we’ve found that most people reading this guide are already in Japan, so we should probably cut to the chase for those of you trying to figure out what to do during your time in Kyoto.
If you’re planning on visiting Kyoto, hopefully you like temples, because that’s the main draw. With that said, there are plenty of other things to do. Although we don’t believe its museums measure up to Tokyo’s, Kyoto does have a fair number of them, and between its niche art museums and independent galleries, Kyoto has a thriving arts community.
Food is another thing. Few cities in the world have as many Michelin-starred restaurants as Kyoto. Great ramen, udon, tempura, and other inexpensive options also abound in Kyoto. The city is famous for tea ceremonies, but it’s the independent coffee scene that’s truly flourishing.
Wandering aimlessly (let’s call it “exploring” to sound more purpose-driven) is another thing to do. Kyoto is a beautiful, quirky city and discovering what makes it tick is part of the fun. That could be bizarre art featuring the human anatomy (which you’re sure to see when walking from Kiyomizudera to Yasaka Pagoda) or an antique shop down a narrow alley.
In our case, it’s petting or photographing feral cats and dogs, selfies with tanuki statues, marveling at meticulously handcrafted signage, and perusing 100 yen stores. The treasures you’ll discover when aimlessly wandering cannot be planned-for, and having your own unique experience is part of the fun.
Kyoto 1-Day to 4-Day Itineraries
If you’re looking for itineraries that combine a little of everything, we have several different itineraries–including multi-day itineraries as well as single day options that you can combine to see different sides of the city that interest you the most.
Multi-Day Kyoto Itineraries
Single Day Itineraries:
- 1-Day ‘Best of’ Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day Eastern Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day Western Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day Central Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day “Cool Kyoto” (Northern) Itinerary
- 1-Day Southwestern Kyoto Itinerary
- 1-Day Kyoto Cherry Blossom Itinerary
- 1-Day Kyoto Fall Colors Highlights Itinerary
If you have the Japan Rail Pass and are interested in venturing beyond Kyoto during your stay in Kansai, we recommend consulting our Japan Itineraries for Kyoto, Tokyo, and Beyond.
Obviously, those cover Kyoto and Tokyo, but we also have ones for Nara and Kobe–both easy day-trips from Kyoto–and we will soon have more for Osaka and other cities in Japan.
These itineraries are heavy on temples (and walking!), but we feel they’re fairly balanced and offer a good sampling of Kyoto’s most interesting points of interest. As for temples, a little section in a blog post guide (even a so-called ULTIMATE one!) cannot do justice to a topic of this breadth. Heck, even dedicated guidebooks gloss over some pretty major temples in Kyoto, or just give quick one or two sentence blurbs.
Part of this is out of necessity (there are over 1,600 temples in Kyoto) and part of it is out of practicality. Temple fatigue is a real thing, and you should be careful to avoid scheduling too many temples into your itinerary because they’ll all start to blur together.
Unless you’re trying to join the high stakes game of temple blogging (it’s every bit as lucrative and glamorous as you’d expect–which is not at all) you should probably aim to visit around one dozen temples during your time in Kyoto. There’s absolutely no reason to see every single major temple in Kyoto. Take a less is more approach and savor your time at each so they make a distinct impression.
Best Temples & Shrines in Kyoto
As there’s an overwhelming number of temples, shrines, and other things to do in Kyoto, we’ve put together the list below of our top 25 options. If you do one of our multi-day itineraries above, you’ll visit many or most of these (depending upon how many days you have).
If you want to build your itinerary itinerary, this list is a good starting point. Choose about a dozen of those, plus a couple of wildcard temples and other things that appeal to you, you’re going to have a great trip.
For those who have more time in Kyoto, or just want something comprehensive, we’re currently working on a post titled “Top 100 Temples & Shrines in Kyoto, Japan.” We’ve already visited nearly 200 temples and shrines in Kyoto–we’re just trying to visit a few (yes, we’re obsessed) before releasing our “definitive” rankings.
For now, here’s a list of our top 25 things to do in Kyoto. It’s mostly temples and shrines, but you’ll notice a few museums and districts that are particularly noteworthy, too. Click on any of these names to open our posts about these points of interest in new windows, where you can see and learn more about them.
25. Eikando Temple
24. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
23. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
22. Kennin-ji Temple
21. Kodai-ji Temple
20. Okochi Sanso Villa
19. Daitokuji Temple
18. Sanjusangendo Temple
17. Ryoanji Temple
16. Ninnaji Temple
15. Kokedera Moss Temple
14. Daikakuji Temple
13. Kyoto Railway Museum
12. Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple)
11. Katsura Imperial Villa
10. Philosopher’s Path
9. Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple)
8. Nanzenji Temple
7. Gion (Geisha District)
6. Kyoto Monkey Park Iwatayama
5. Yoshiminedera Temple
4. Higashiyama District
3. Kiyomizudera Temple
2. Kuramadera Temple
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
Finally, special events. As we indicated elsewhere in this guide, Kyoto is a city of the seasons. Each is quite distinct, and Kyotoites have a certain reverence for the seasons. This is evident not just in the weather and scenery, but in a lengthy list of special events that occur throughout the year. We’ve done a few posts on seasonal events in Kyoto, starting with the two biggest ones:
- Japan Fall Colors & Autumn Foliage Guide
- Cherry Blossom Season Guide to Kyoto
- Hanatoro Festival: Higashiyama & Arashiyama Tips
Note that within each season, there are numerous special events. While most visitors to Kyoto in fall or spring come for the foliage or sakura, but less realize there are scheduled events, such as the Cherry Blossom Nighttime Illumination at Kiyomizudera Temple. The dates of these events–and sometimes the temples that are open–change annually.
There are sites online that offer calendars of events, but we’ve been burned by these before. Rather than exclusively consulting the internet or travel guidebooks for a special events calendar, we’d recommend making tentative plans before arrival, and then stopping into the city’s many tourist information centers upon arrival. They will have fliers and information for every single event going on during your visit.
When to Visit
The most popular times to visit Kyoto are for sakura (cherry blossom) season in early April and fall colors season in mid to late November. Kyoto is absolutely stunning during these peak seasons, but the crowds make it almost unbearable. Parking lots become veritable seas of tour buses, train stations are overflowing with people, and the most popular temples become loud and chaotic. Everything we write about tranquility, peacefulness, and contemplativeness is untrue during those times of the year.
If seeing Kyoto during these seasons is important to you but you’re apprehensive about the crowds (or hotel prices!), we’d recommend visiting just before or after these peaks. In the case of cherry blossom season, we favor going after the blossoms have peaked, during the later half of April. We favor this over late March (both of which are about equal in terms of crowds) since the weather is nicer and the scenery is a bit more vibrant as new greenery is starting to appear.
Conversely, when it comes to autumn foliage, it’s better to go early than to go late. This way, you’ll beat the peak season crowds and have warmer weather. Plus, green leaves that haven’t quite turned are infinitely prettier than barren trees. Late October is your best option here in terms of crowds, with Kyoto getting progressively busier into late November. The ‘sweet spot’ for moderate crowds and a decent amount of color is generally the second week of November.
In terms of crowds, neither summer nor winter are particularly busy, save for holidays and various festivals (Gion Matsuri, in particular) that draw large numbers of domestic tourists. However, we generally avoid both of these seasons unless you have a specific reason to go during them for one simple reason: weather.
The other incredibly important variable to consider is weather. Kyoto has four very distinct seasons. During winter months (December through early March) it can be frigid–cold enough to snow. While a fresh blanket of snow makes for beautiful scenery, you’re more likely to just have freezing weather, and that’s not exactly the most comfortable for touring. By late March, the weather is once again temperate, and it stays pleasant through late May.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s late-June through August, which is just as bad from a weather perspective both in terms of both precipitation and (more importantly) debilitating humidity. Crowds are only moderate in summer, but not low enough to justify braving the weather in our opinion. Temperatures then start to cool again in the fall leading to colder weather again in the winter, with the whole cycle repeating itself.
The upside to summer is the festivals, most notably the aforementioned Gion Matsuri, which occurs throughout the month of July, and is the most famous festival in Japan. This celebration of Yasaka Shrine culminates with a grand procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko) on July 17, followed by a smaller second parade on July 24.
An ancillary consideration when it comes to weather is where you’ll be staying. If you plan on renting an Airbnb or staying in anything other than a hotel, you need to be aware that many homes and flats in Kyoto are older and rather spartan. We’ve stayed at units in Kyoto that did not have adequate heat or air conditioning. The former was true on one of our extended stays, and we ended up buying fleece layers, thicker socks, and slippers…to wear to bed.
How Long to Visit
Between our own first-time experience and feedback we hear from others, we know that the average first visit to Kyoto is 2-3 days. Most people view Kyoto as an add-on to a Tokyo trip, spending the majority of their time in Japan’s largest, more famous city and leaving only a little time to scratch the surface of Kyoto in a rush to see its major temples.
While we love Tokyo, we would strongly encourage you to strike something closer to a 50/50 balance between the two. It’s one thing to explore Tokyo with a chaotic pace, as the city is itself a frenzied place awash with neon and general zaniness. Such an approach only feels natural and fitting.
If Tokyo is the Four Loko (OG style) of cities, Kyoto is the fine wine. It’s meant to be sipped. It’s an experience to relish, and its best points of interest are deserving of drawn-out, deliberate paces. For maximum impact, it’s not the kind of place you do ‘checklist style’ (no judgment there–it’s a mistake we made our first visit!).
To that end, we recommend at least 4 days for your first visit in Kyoto. If you can swing it, more time is always good. This gives you one day in Arashiyama, one day in Higashiyama, one in Central/Downtown Kyoto, and one flexible ‘other’ day.
This is more of a general tip, but we would caution those of you planning first time visits to Japan days against trying to see too many cities unless you have a couple of weeks. There’s the temptation to also visit Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, or Himeji in addition to Tokyo and Kyoto, but those should really be reserved for longer stays or second visits.
Those are all wonderful places that we’d strongly recommend you visit…eventually. For your first visit to Japan, allocate more time for Tokyo and Kyoto. Obviously, there’s the downside of missing those other cities entirely if there is no second trip to Japan, but conversely, there’s the downside of barely scratching the surface of Japan’s two greatest cities if you try to do too much.
If you do end up disagreeing with our advice, you can always do day trips from both Kyoto and Tokyo, particularly if you have the Japan Rail Pass, as there are several major cities within an hour or so of both Kyoto and Tokyo. What we’re ultimately cautioning against is changing hotels/accommodations numerous times over the course of a first trip to Japan. It’s exhausting.
Where to Stay
There are a few components to this decision. First, where to stay within the Kansai region as a “home base,” which gets to our point above about not constantly changing hotels. Second, whether to stay in a hotel, ryokan, or townhouse/apartment rentals. Finally, where within Kyoto to stay.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our answer to the first question is Kyoto. This might sound like bias towards our favorite city, but hear us out. Osaka, Nara, and Kobe–the major destinations for tourists within the Kansai region–are all easily accessible from Kyoto and that’s without taking the Shinkansen.
From Kyoto Station, you can get to any of these destinations in under 60 minutes (again, without taking the Shinkansen). The same would not be true if you stayed in any of the other cities. (As nice and centralized as Osaka is, it’s not as convenient for accessing Nara.)
However, the bigger reason for staying in Kyoto is because it has the most popular points of interest, and beating the crowds to many of these spots is really important. By contrast, the only place in Osaka that it’s important to arrive at super -early is Universal Studios Japan. (Speaking of which, it’s essential to rope drop USJ. Read our Universal Studios Japan Strategy Guide & Tips post for more on that.)
Additionally, we recommend 3+ days in Kyoto, whereas less time is necessary in Osaka, Kobe, or Nara (if you do those cities at all). It’s always better to stay closer to where you’re going to be spending the bulk of your time, which is why we recommend a Kyoto home-base for your visit to the Kansai region of Japan.
As for the second and third considerations, we’ve covered this topic fairly comprehensively, listing the pros and cons of each and offering specific recommendations in our Where to Stay in Kyoto, Japan post. Rather than rehashing that, we’ll share some additional thoughts since we wrote that.
We’ve always found hotels, particularly U.S. chains, to be particularly expensive in Kyoto. More recently, we’ve found the gap between hotel prices and Airbnb to be significant. We’re talking spacious units for ~$125/night versus that same price for a matchbox size hotel, and exponentially more for a Western-sized hotel.
Airbnb is a particularly good option for families with kids or anyone wanting more space, but not wanting or being able to splurge on the Four Seasons Kyoto, Westin, Ritz-Carlton, or Hyatt Regency. At this point, we don’t even look at hotel prices anymore, and I doubt we’ll ever stay in another Kyoto hotel. We get way more bang for our buck with Airbnb.
During the off-season, spacious Airbnb units can be booked for under $100/night. We’re talking apartments that are double the size of more expensive hotel rooms. Unfortunately, even Airbnb can get expensive during peak tourist times, particularly fall colors and sakura seasons. We recommend pricing out accommodations before booking airfare so you know if you need to adjust travel dates slightly.
Suffice to say, we highly recommend Airbnb. It also allows you to live like a local, whether that means doing some laundry halfway through your trip or getting food to prepare you own meals. (You can use my sign-up link for a free credit your first time using Airbnb!)
The next consideration is location. In our ‘Where to Stay’ post, we talk up the Fushimi area. We absolutely stand by that suggestion, and we stayed there for a month since publishing that post. It’s a great area for accessing both Fushimi Inari and the temples in the Higashiyama District. It’s significantly less expensive than staying in Higashiyama itself, and nearly as convenient.
One alternative we’d present is staying north of Kyoto Station. If you can find a location that’s about a 10 minute walk from the station and a 15 minute walk from Downtown and 20 minutes from Gion, you have fairly convenient train access and convenient restaurant access. (We also like this location because it’s only a ~25 minute walk from the Higashiyama District, which can be frustratingly tough to access via public transit.)
If dining or drinking are important to you (or you’re just “cool” in general), Gion is the place for you. The vast majority of Kyoto’s Michelin-starred restaurants are in Gion, and there are other trendy and inventive options near there on the cheaper end of the spectrum, too.
We also appreciate that Gion is one of the few areas of Kyoto that doesn’t shut down at 6 p.m.; many of the restaurants are open until midnight, meaning you can do a long day of temple-touring, go back to your room and get some rest, and then go out for dinner or a night on the town.
Flights to Japan from the United States are 10+ hours, which is obviously a lot of time in the air. Fortunately, the larger planes used for these flights are much more comfortable than your normal planes used for domestic flights. Complimentary in-flight entertainment (including the latest movies and television shows) also makes things easier.
If you know your travel dates and have no flexibility as to when you travel, we recommend ITA Software to search for flights. ITA is the best way to find the lowest prices on airfare for set dates of travel. If you’re in the preliminary stages of researching your flight, use fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com. You can set some parameters for the alerts and receive email updates when there are deals to be had.
Airfare costs fluctuate dramatically dependent upon city of origin, time of year, etc., with round-trip airfare out of Los Angeles to Japan’s major airports regularly in the <$600 range. Irrespective of your location, your complete airfare package should cost under $1,000/person if use Airfarewatchdog, have moderate flexibility of days of the week you fly, and put effort into choosing the right times to travel. If you’re booking at the last minute or don’t do any work to find deals, the sky is the limit on the upper end of airfare pricing.
Before you even get to that step, you need to determine which airport to fly into and out of. Doing a roundtrip through Tokyo is the most straightforward option, with a Shinkansen (bullet train) ride to and from Kyoto for that leg of the trip. If that’s your plan, either HND or NRT will work as arrival airports. HND is located closer to the city center, whereas NRT is farther from downtown. NRT is the more common arrival airport for flights from the US, but we prefer HND for ease.
An alternative to this is flying into Osaka (Kansai – KIX), taking the shorter train ride to Kyoto for that leg of the trip, using the Shinkansen to Tokyo, and then flying out of Tokyo. This is an attractive option if you don’t want to purchase the Japan Rail Pass, are using miles to fly, or somehow find a good deal flying into Osaka.
The downside to flying into Osaka is that it’s usually more expensive, has more layovers, and offers a fairly negligible time-savings in terms of the train commute despite being significantly closer in distance to Kyoto. If you’re using the Japan Rail Pass–and we highly recommend that you do–you’re probably better off just doing a roundtrip through Tokyo. Plus, the Shinkansen is a fun experience that’s worth having twice!
If you fly into KIX, you’ll want to take the JR Haruka limited express train to Kyoto Station. The good news here is that foreign visitors can purchase an ICOCA card plus half-price Haruka ticket to Kyoto at the JR Ticket Office in the station at KIX. Getting the ICOCA card is convenient and makes getting around the rails in Kyoto more convenient, so it’s really a win-win.
Once you arrive in Kyoto, you’ll use the city’s vast network of city buses, railways, and the subway. We cover this in greater depth in our Getting Around Kyoto, Japan post. Suffice to say, you can get anywhere in Kyoto either by foot or by rail, and although attractive discount passes are available for them, we mostly recommend skipping the buses.
What to Pack
There’s not really anything specific to Kyoto that you will need to pack for your trip. More broadly, no voltage converter is necessary for Japan, and you don’t need things like a neck wallet or other items for the sake of safety like you might want in Europe, since there’s virtually no crime in Japan.
However, there are a few things you might want to pack for the long international flight. Sarah had trouble sleeping on our first couple of flights to Japan, so she purchased these reusable earplugs, this sleep mask, and this fancy inflatable airplane pillow (whatever pillow you get, make sure it’s inflatable–carrying a normal pillow while traveling is a hassle). Now she swears by all 3. I could sleep on a pile of hay during a death metal concert, so I don’t use earplugs or a special pillow.
As we’ve stressed multiple times now, Kyoto is a city of four distinct seasons. Spring and fall are both lovely, temperate times of the year, but it gets really hot and humid in the summer, and it snows in the winter. If you’re visiting Japan during the summer, things like Frogg Togg Chilly Pads will also come in handy. If you’re visiting in the winter, you’ll want to pack layers, including outerwear.
Ideally, we’d recommend packing this all in a single roller-bag. Navigating Japan’s public transportation can be stressful, and that’s doubly the case with luggage. We’ve seen the looks of horror in traveler’s eyes while dragging two suitcases and trying to dodge commuters during rush hour at Tokyo Station. Even during our long trips, we always limit ourselves to one carry-on suitcase each, plus a backpack. (We’ll also typically pack a cheap/lightweight duffel bag inside our suitcase that we then for souvenirs purchased at our last stop.)
Where & What to Eat
Being a traditional city brimming with culture, Kyoto has a multitude of traditional dining experiences. These are exceptional, memorable experiences. However, they’re also time consuming, and if you only have a few days in Kyoto, you should stick to quicker and easier options. Our recommendation in this regard is noodles. We are “ramen heads” we cover our favorite options in Best Ramen Restaurants in Kyoto, which is the result of “research” at over 50 ramen shops in Kyoto.
If you have more time in the city or want to spend more time eating, consider kaiseki. This is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal that is as much about artful presentation and omotenashi as it is about the food itself. Kaiseki options abound in Gion, and typically start at over $100 per person.
Many kaiseki locations have are Michelin-starred, and can be difficult to book. They’re definitely an experience, and for well-heeled couples, potentially a must-do. With that said, they aren’t for everyone. Although these restaurants strive for wholehearted service that puts guests at ease, the formality and etiquette can be intimidating.
Our recommendation here would be to ease into kaiseki by booking a reservation at Giro Giro Hitoshina the first night of your trip (request the chef’s counter). This is modern kaiseki, serving artful dishes with inventive approaches but without the pretense. It’s also significantly cheaper than traditional kaiseki (but worth every penny).
If your experience there leaves you satisfied–which we think will be the case for most Westerners–perfect. If it leaves you hungry for something more traditional and formal, book a table at another kaiseki restaurant later in your visit.
Kyoto is also known for its seasonal vegetables, as well as its burgeoning independent coffee scene. There are a number of exceptional coffee shops in Kyoto, so don’t settle for Starbucks!
You can also find plenty of izakaya, tempura, soba, udon, ramen, katsu, unagi, sushi, and okonomiyaki restaurants throughout the city. We’ve started a series compiling some of the city’s best restaurants in Our Favorite Kyoto Restaurants – Part 1 and Part 2 posts. Parts 3 – 17 will be coming soon, and we’ll probably have even more installments after that. We love to eat, and have had dozens of great meals in Kyoto.
Generally, Kyoto’s noodle restaurant scene is excellent, and okonomiyaki is also a must-try (unless you’re also visiting Hiroshima, which specializes in the dish). One thing we’d probably avoid is sushi. While there are good options, getting your sushi fix in Tokyo is a much better idea.
Even if you’re not a vegetarian, we’d recommend trying tofu, which is prepared in a multitude of ways in Kyoto, and is the city’s main specialty dish. There are many dedicated tofu restaurants, and also ones that use tofu plus Kyo-yasai (
One thing we see come up a lot is that “[insert name of restaurant] is too touristy.” Unless you’re visiting some serious hole-in-the-wall in a quiet neighborhood or the suburbs, just about any restaurant in Kyoto has the potential to be touristy. You just may not realize the other patrons are tourists because they’re domestic tourists or aren’t Western tourists.
We’d encourage you to be more receptive to touristy restaurants in Japan. Unlike in the United States where quintessential tourist trap restaurants are Bubba Gump, Rainforest Cafe, Cheesecake Factory, and anything with Guy Fieri–bland offerings that lean heavily on cheese, butter, and salt, that’s not the case in Japan.
Many restaurants you might call touristy in Kyoto are the ones pushing the culinary envelope, trying bold things with flavors. While Kyotoites enjoy these restaurants, many prefer the conservative approaches of lower profile establishments that use tried and true flavors. Just as you’re not going to the fancy French haute cuisine restaurant in your area with regularity, neither are they.
If you remain steadfast in your position as a tourist who is averse to tourists (oh, the self-loathing that must entail!), you will generally find fewer tourists at izakaya (after work pubs), restaurants without English menus outside, and cheap low-key places that aren’t ranked highly on TripAdvisor and aren’t on Michelin’s radar. You can expect plenty of tourists at any kaiseki restaurant, and anywhere in Gion.
Random 12-seat ramen locations down alleyways are great for a local atmosphere. McDonald’s and KFC are also good spots to avoid tourists (this is a glib recommendation, but I’m not kidding), but if you’re so anti-tourist to stoop to that, a reevaluation of priorities might be in order.
Here we’ll offer an assortment of other random tips that aren’t quite deserving of their own headings, but are frequently-asked questions, nonetheless…
Etiquette – “Kyoto-ites are pretty fastidious!” That’s how a flyer is titled that describes etiquette in Kyoto, and use of the somewhat arcane term “fastidious” tells you just about everything you need to know. It’s a quiet city with residents who pay attention to details and are concerned with the cleanliness and culture of their hometown.
Being a cultural outsider gets you a big pass on a lot of explicit and implicit cultural norms and expectations in Japan, but not on everything. Things like taking off your shoes before entering temples or some businesses are strictly enforced, as are no photography rules.
In fact, pretty much any rule you see posted somewhere is zealously enforced. No matter if it makes sense to you, follow it. While the Japanese have a reputation for being polite, that should be modified to “polite but firm.” The culture is unyielding when it comes to rules, and this is probably the most challenging thing for Americans who break rules on a daily basis. (Don’t be offended–everything from jaywalking to requesting a modified entree at a restaurant counts!)
In the last several years, Kyoto has seen a surge in foreign visitors, and many Kyotoites are displeased with how they treat the city. As a result, Kyoto partnered with TripAdvisor to distribute pamphlets to foreign visitors in English and Chinese, that cover a range of topics from tipping (don’t do it–it’s offensive) to how to use toilets (don’t stand on them).
Throughout the city, you’ll also see storefronts with “Kyoto Style” fliers in the window that encourage visitors to talk quietly and throw away their trash. When we stayed near Fushimi Inari, we saw a large banner go up along one road politely encouraging visitors to walk in a single file line and not congest the roads. (This is a big problem in many touristy areas, and one that’s exacerbated by a lack of sidewalks.)
Language Barrier/Comfort Zone – Traveling to Japan is outside comfort zones. From the long international flight to the prospect of navigating a foreign country without speaking its native language, a trip to Japan can be daunting. There are two pieces of good news here.
First, most Kyotoites speak at least a little English (although it’s not to the degree as in Tokyo), and all important signage is in both Japanese and English. Between that and Google Maps, getting around in Kyoto is far easier than you might expect.
Second, Japan is the nicest, most helpful, and hospitable country in the world. “Omotenashi” is the Japanese term for this, which is the guiding principle for wholehearted Japanese hospitality with great attention to detail. These manifests itself in myriad ways, from transactions at 7-11 to getting directions at the train station.
Essentially, if you’re a visitor to Japan, you can expect to cheerful, encounter VIP-caliber service across the board.
Cash/Credit Cards – Currency in Kyoto is the Japanese Yen, and you will most definitely want paper currency for your visit. While Japan is one of the most technically-advanced societies in the world, most people conduct business in cash. Credit cards are widely accepted at major chains, but the vast majority of mom and pop restaurants are cash only.
We pay with credit card whenever possible, but thanks to restaurants, vending machines, and random other transactions, we find ourselves spending a lot per person in cash. This is not something over which we fret; while we recommend bringing some cash (converted to yen) with you on your first trip, we seldom bring more than $20 with us now.
Instead, we withdraw yen as necessary using our debit cards from ATMs in the ubiquitous 7-11 and Lawson convenience stores. Our bank reimburses us for foreign transaction fees and converts at full market rate, so this is the best option for us. Your mileage may vary on this one depending upon your bank’s policies.
7-11/Lawson – Speaking of 7-11 and Lawson, they are your friends. These convenience stores are everywhere and should be utilized. We recommend these two chains over Family Mart and others because both tend to have the best selection of prepared foods and also labels that are in English.
These grab and go foods are actually good, and you should definitely plan on a meal or two coming from 7-11 or Lawson. When we have a busy day planned (or if it’s a tourist season when restaurants have long lines), we’ll skip eating at a sit-down restaurant and just do something on the run from a convenience store. Consider this another “culturally authentic” experience, as many Kyotoites do the same.
Not every 7-11 has English labels yet. They started this initiative in 2018 to prepare for the influx of foreign tourists in advance of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and are starting the initiative in the most touristy areas of Japan. There are several of these stores already around Kyoto, but I cannot recall where they all are located.
Speaking of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, if you travel to Japan in the near future, you’ll benefit from the nation’s preparations for the event. There has been a significant increase in the amount of English signage and information, and a concerted effort to provide information to tourists.
The downside is that several refurbishment and construction projects (most notably, the main hall at Kiyomizudera–pictured above) that are being undertaken to prepare for 2020 that won’t be done until right before the Olympics.
I know this just begins to scratch the surface of planning for a trip to Kyoto, but we’re already at 6,500 words so I’m thinking maybe it’s time to cut this short before I lose everyone with something that’s overly long. My goal was to provide detailed information for planning a trip, but also have it serve as a jumping off point with more thorough posts elaborating on certain topics to prevent it from being so long that it’s intimidating. I’ll update this guide on a regular basis with links to new posts and new information, so rest assured that the information here is, and will be, current.
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Have you been to Kyoto? What did you think–do you agree that it’s one of the greatest cities in the world? Planning a trip to Japan and have questions? If you’ve visited or are living in Japan and have tips of your own, please add them in the comments. (I might just borrow them for the guide itself.) Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts!