Our 2020 Kyoto, Japan guide offers planning tips & tricks, hotel recommendations, best temples & shrines, transportation hacks, where to eat, crowd info, why we love the city, and more. Before we get to the basics, we’ll a coronavirus update and how the outbreak is impacting travel to Kyoto. (Updated February 19, 2020.)
With regard to coronavirus, the first question we’ve been asked is whether it’s safe to visit Japan. Instances of community spread of the new coronavirus have been reported in Japan. Despite this and Japan’s geographic proximity to China, the United States Centers for Disease Control is not currently advising people to change their travel plans to Japan. Per the CDC, travelers should avoid contact with sick people and clean their hands often by washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
It’s worth noting that Kyoto in particular is a popular destination for Chinese tourists, who make up nearly half of all foreign visitors to the city. However, China’s Communist Party has banned overseas tour groups from the country, and is requiring travel agents to suspend sales of package travel including hotels and airline tickets. The majority of Kyoto’s tourism from China comes via these forms, meaning there has been a marked downturn in tourism to Kyoto…
Because of the reputation of Kyoto as a destination for Chinese tour groups, it’s reported that domestic tourism is also down due to Japanese who are fearful of visiting the city. In fact, Kyoto is so quiet right now that an association within Arashiyama is undertaking an “Empty Kyoto” promotional campaign. These posters are meant to lure visitors to the area with tongue-in-cheek messaging (“it’s been a while since there were more monkeys than humans“) and images of deserted points of interest that are normally swarming with visitors.
It’s highly likely that this trend of low crowds will continue through Kyoto’s normally busy sakura season in April 2020 and beyond. Japan’s government plans to launch a huge financial aid program for hotel operators and tourism firms struggling due to a drop in overseas visitors and projections of over $1 billion in lost tourism revenue during the year’s first quarter.
Japanese hospitality industry companies are reporting waves of cancellations that ripple months from now, and there are already fears that the lasting impact of coronavirus will be felt in attendance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer. Anecdotally, we’ve seen some of the best deals ever on Japan travel this spring–including for what would normally be peak travel dates.
Obviously, we are not medical professionals nor do we have a crystal ball as to what the future holds with regard to coronavirus. It would be irresponsible of us to offer a recommendation one way or the other in that regard. (If you do opt to visit, you should consult resources about protecting yourself from coronavirus while traveling.)
All we will say is that we plan on visiting Kyoto this cherry blossom season. Unless the situation deteriorates significantly, we actually plan on spending more time in Kyoto this spring. The prospect of lower crowds and lower prices during one of the best times of year to visit Japan is too enticing to pass up.
On top of that, visiting now during a time when others are fearful of traveling helps sustain businesses (in Japan, many of these are truly mom and pop shops) that truly need it. Whether you’ll feel safe and comfortable traveling to Asia in the near future is obviously a personal question, but if you are, this seems like a scenario where everyone wins.
With that info about coronavirus out of the way, let’s begin with the Kyoto planning in earnest. Note that 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.
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 several months there over the course of the last several years. We now travel to Kyoto several times per year to keep our resources on this site current. As noted above, our next visit is in March/April 2020.
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.
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…
What’s New in Kyoto for 2020
Aside from the low crowds due to coronavirus, the big news that concerns tourists is that last fall the popular Gion District is banning photography on private roads. Gion is one of Kyoto’s most famous historic districts, and is home to many geisha and maiko.
In our Guide to Gion, we have long cautioned against “geisha-stalking” or being an obnoxious paparazzi. In fact, we avoid Gion during peak tourist hours because it has gotten so bad recently. The district has had many rules for a while, but these are all at the behest of that same association, and it remains to be seen to what extent the fines issued are legally enforceable.
We hate to start this out with a lecture, but please be courteous and respectful of the locals while visiting Kyoto. This is a living, breathing city–and one that has seen an explosion of tourists in the last 5 years, many of whom are disrespectful. There’s an etiquette section below, but just remember: you are essentially an ambassador of your country–behave like you would in a colleague’s home or a museum, because Kyoto is essentially both a home and a museum.
For more thorough insight into what’s new and what has changed, we highly recommend reading our What’s New in Kyoto, Japan post series. A lot of renovations, new things, and redevelopments are occurring ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics (yes, even in Kyoto). That also covers crowd patterns, the new Airbnb law, and more.
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 1-Week Itineraries
If you’re looking for itineraries that combine a little of everything, we have several different itineraries in our 1-Day to 1-Week Kyoto, Japan Itineraries. These offer multi-day itineraries, including several not listed below that are season-specific, as well as single day options that you can combine to see different sides of the city that interest you the most. Here are some of the best ones:
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 Kyoto, Kurama & Kibune Itinerary
- 1-Day Southwestern Kyoto 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, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, and more.
Debating other day trips from Kyoto? We cover our top recommendations of cities, big and mall, to visit in our Top 10 Kyoto Day Trips list.
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. 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 have a “Top 100 Temples & Shrines in Kyoto, Japan.” Yes, really. We’ve visited over 200 temples and shrines in Kyoto, and the top 52 are all great. Any one of top 52 on that list could be your ‘surprise favorite’ temple or shrine in Kyoto.
If you’re on a tight budget, we have a list of the Best Free Temples & Shrines in Kyoto. If you’re visiting during a particularly busy time, our Hidden Gem Temples & Shrines in Kyoto is also a great resource for avoiding the crowds. This gives you plenty of choices for experiencing the true serenity of Kyoto, even if you visit during the busiest national holiday of the year! Both of these lists compile the best options that are in the top 52.
Below is 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
If you’d rather take the word of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization over us, our List of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, Japan covers all 17 UNESCO-listed locations in Kyoto (and ranks them).
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 are chaotic.
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. It’s possible to enjoy fall colors or sakura season without encountering tons of other tourists, you just need to get the timing right. That’s one thing we break down in our When to Visit post. We also go through each month to assess pros and cons.
If you do opt to go during Kyoto’s peak seasons, our Tips for Beating Kyoto’s Crowds post, will help you avoid the worst congestion. Irrespective of when you visit, 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.
Outside of the peak seasons, 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, it can be 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 spring, the weather is once again temperate, and it stays pleasant through late May.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s summer, which is just as bad from a weather perspective both in terms of both precipitation and debilitating humidity. Crowds are only moderate in summer, but not low enough to justify braving the weather in our opinion.
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.
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, all of which we cover 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.
First, 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, 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.
There are a lot of great Airbnb units in all of these areas, and without question, we recommend going that route over staying in a hotel. Not only is Airbnb significantly cheaper, but it provides more spacious accommodations and 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!)
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 (pictured above), Westin, Ritz-Carlton, or Hyatt Regency. If you want to splurge, our absolute favorite hotel in Kyoto is the new Park Hyatt–read and see more in our full Park Hyatt Kyoto Review.)
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.
Backtracking a bit, when it comes to choosing where to stay within the Kansai region as a “home base,” we highly recommend Kyoto over Osaka. 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.
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.
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 with some effort. 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.
Flying into Osaka is an easier option, and will save you from having to take the Shinkansen to Kyoto. 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!
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
Our What to Pack for Kyoto, Japan guide covers all of the necessities, along with some things that will help improve your trip to Japan. To answer some common questions, no voltage converter is necessary for Japan, and you don’t need things like a neck wallet 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, and now she has several things she swears by to help her sleep, all of which are covered in that packing list. I could sleep on a pile of hay during a death metal concert, so I don’t use anything special.
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 train stations. (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
Dining is a huge wildcard in your Kyoto planning budget. You could eat for under $20 per day by frequenting family-run neighborhood restaurants or quick service chains, or easily spend an upwards of $1,000 on kaiseki. Our Dining Guide to Kyoto, Japan presents our specific restaurant recommendations and generalized advice for eating great meals–and doing so on a budget.
That dining guide contains everything: what not to eat, where to find budget kaiseki, the importance of dining at 7-11 (seriously!), and so much more. Being a traditional city brimming with culture, Kyoto has a multitude of dining options, and they’re all detailed there. We are particularly partial to noodles; our favorite options are covered 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.
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…with one exception. See our Best Coffee Shops in Kyoto list for more specific recommendations.
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 (
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.
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, 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, as is nearly every single temple.
We pay with credit card whenever possible, but thanks to restaurants, vending machines, small restaurants, temples, 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. See our “The Joy of Japanese 7-Eleven” for more on what we recommend buying at these stores.
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 ~6,000 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.
If you enjoyed our Kyoto planning guide or found it useful, we’d greatly appreciate it if you’d leave a comment below and/or share this post on social media via the sharing buttons below. This guide has been in draft form for a few months now, and we’ve put a lot of work into it, so we’d love for as many people to be able to use it as possible. Thank you so much for your support!
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!