When you visit Japan, one of the must-stop places on your list is sure to be Kyoto (京都, Kyōto). This mesmerizing city on the island of Honshu once served as the actual capital of Japan, as well as the location of the Emperor’s residence, from 794 to 1868.
During that time, the city has seen numerous changes in the country’s cultural focus. To this day, Kyoto continues to be considered the country’s cultural capital, if not its actual geographical one.
Of course, like most great cities, Kyoto has seen more than its fair share of disasters over the years, both natural and man-made. Perhaps most notably, during World War II, Kyoto was actually slated as one of the cities on the atomic bomb list. Luckily, it miraculously escaped complete destruction because of its great cultural richness, and beauty, and continues to be a tourist hot spot to this day. Luckily, this article will cover all the things to do in Kyoto so go ahead and read on!
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How far is Kyoto from Tokyo? How long does it take to get there?
Naturally, the first question on everyone’s minds is, how far is Kyoto from the current capital of Japan, Tokyo? Since a lot of people travel to Japan for work or official business, and since Tokyo is the most famous city, most tourists tend to focus on the capital, and the surrounding areas. However, if you’re looking to truly absorb the meaning of this country, and get to the heart of Japanese culture, both Tokyo and Kyoto should be on your list. Tokyo, for its more modern appeal, and Kyoto for its traditional history, and historic relevance.
Unfortunately, if you want to go from Tokyo to Kyoto, you’ve got a fair distance ahead of you. The distance between the two is roughly 450 km (or 280 miles), and there are a bunch of options available for the journey.
Hands down the fastest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto is by boarding one of the infamous Shinkansen (新幹線, Japanese bullet trains) that can get you there in about 2h and 20 minutes. Although, depending on the bullet train you choose, it can take up to 3h 50 min. The cost of a one-way trip via Shinkansen is ¥10,500– ¥14,370, so anything from $90 to $125.
Alternatively, you could travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by air, which takes about 4.5 hours, and costs roughly ¥6,700 ($58); by bus, which takes 6-9 hours, and costs upward of ¥1,600 ($14); or by regular train, which will take at least 9 hours, and costs about ¥2,410 ($20).
Why should I visit Kyoto?
Aside from its rich cultural background and historical relevance, Kyoto is known as a city of temples and shrines. Here, you will be able to explore, at length, over 1,600 Buddhist temples, and over 400 shrines.
Kyoto is also known for its beautiful and soothing Zen gardens, which are open to walk or meditate in and explore at your leisure. In the past, these gardens were designed for the pleasure of feudal lords and samurai shoguns.
As the birthplace of geisha (芸者, geiko) and maiko (舞妓) culture, Kyoto still houses numerous wooden teahouses, and traditional restaurants, where the geishas used to spend much of their time.
The simple truth is, once in Kyoto, you’ll have no end of things to do and delight yourself with, so let’s get a closer look at what you can do in Kyoto.
5 Must-try dishes and local specialties in Kyoto
One of the biggest attractions for foreign travelers who arrive in Japan is, of course, the delicious food. As the Emperor’s home for so many years, Kyoto traditionally drew culinary experts and chefs and continues to be an important culinary center of Japan to this day.
Don't forget to check out our Top 17 Unique Dishes in Japanese Cuisine where we will provide a list of unique and delicious dishes that you should try at least once while living in Japan!
Here are the five local specialties you need to try, once in Kyoto, and below, we’ll also look at the best restaurants in town.
1. Kyoto Fire Ramen
First up on the list, we have the infamous Menbakaichidai Kyoto Fire Ramen, a delicious and exciting delicacy of the Kyoto region. Best enjoyed in the Kyoto Fire Ramen Menbaka restaurant, the Fire Ramen is as much delicacy as it is a show.
Here, you will get to watch the mesmerizing flames as the ramen is cooked right before your eyes. You will get to watch, and cry out, along with the other patrons of this small, cozy diner, as the professionally trained staff pour hot oil over the flaming ramen, and give you all a show to remember. You will also have the option of customizing your ramen, going from the standard rice ramen, with the possibility to add fried chicken, and gyoza (Japanese dumplings).
2. Kyoto Teori-Sushi
This is the must-try treat for those of a more creative bend. This Kyoto specialty blends the traditional sushi we’ve all come to know and love with a more modern, and artistic twist.
Originating from the famous AWOMB Karasuma Honten restaurant in Kyoto, this particular handwoven sushi comes as a sort of deconstructed delicacy meal. Starting from a multitude of ingredients, you’re free to assemble your sushi as you see fit. Like the Fire Ramen, this is not just a chance to enjoy tasty food, but also a fun experience in its own right.
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A special kind of boiled tofu, Yudofu is one of the main culinary attractions points of Kyoto. It is considered one of the symbols of Japan’s old capital and is known, mainly, for its incredible simplicity.
This particular type of tofu only requires clear water, kelp, vinegar sauce, and of course, tofu. It is believed that Yudofu originated in Buddhist culture, as a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dish, part of the original shojin ryori diet. The shojin ryori was a very restrictive diet that the Buddhist monks needed to adhere to.
It’s believed that Yudofu restaurants originated in the 1600s, near Buddhist temples, and some continue to exist to this day. Perhaps one of the most appealing restaurants that currently offer Yudofu on its menu in Kyoto is Yudofu Sagano.
4. Green Tea Desserts
When in Kyoto, you’ll find a lot of green tea-flavored dishes and desserts. This is because Kyoto is very close to the original birthplace of green tea, Uji (located about 30 minutes outside of Kyoto).
Because many local restaurants and cafes can easily get green tea and matcha from the nearby Uji, desserts here have a unique, and highly yummy flavor to them unparalleled anywhere else in the world. If you need a little assist for shopping, go check out this website where you can buy matcha sweets in Kyoto!
Local cafes, like the highly popular Tsujii Gion, offer a vast assortment of matcha desserts and dishes, so pencil in time to try as many as you can!
Whether you’re a sugarholic in Japan needing your next fix, or a foodie seeking the occasional Japanese sweets, go ahead and read our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sweets
5. Tsukemono (Japanese artisan pickles)
Whether you love pickles or hate them, you need to at least try this wonderful local craft. The tsukemono originated back in the late eighth century when Kyoto became the nation’s capital. Soon, dishes from all over the country were naturally brought to the Imperial court, where artisans began experimenting and refining them.
There are numerous types of tsukemono pickles, some of the most famous ones including shibazuke, senmaizuke and sugizuke. These local tasty treats are pickled alongside various other foods, like eggplant, red shiso, and the infamous Shogoin turnip.
These pickles, available at numerous street food stands in Kyoto, can be eaten on their own, or with sushi.
Top 10 things to do in Kyoto
Now that we’ve got our bellies full, let’s talk a bit about the cultural stops you should be making in Kyoto. Here are the most appealing temples, shrines, gardens, parks, and palaces that you must try to visit when you’re in the old Japanese capital.
1. Kinkaku-Ji Temple
Surrounded by a placid, calm lake, Kinkaku-ji Temple (金閣寺) is among the most famous and beloved tourist attractions in Kyoto. Although the Temple’s original name is Rokuonji Temple, its iconic, golden appearance has changed its name to Kinkaku-ji Temple (literally “the Golden Pavilion”).
Built-in 1397, and wrapped in gold leaf both inside and out, the temple was originally designed as a retirement home for a famous shogun, who wanted it to become a temple after his death.
2. Kyoto Tower
The Kyoto Tower (京都タワー) is a bit of an anomaly - a highly modernist building, in an ancient city of temples and old shrines, the Tower easily dominates the rest of the city, and is officially it's the tallest building.
From here, you can enjoy the best panoramic view of Japan’s old Imperial capital, complete with touchscreen maps, detailing each monument and important building you’re seeing. Best enjoyed in the evening, as the sun is setting, Kyoto Tower allows you to look over the vastness of Kyoto, as it extends all the way into Osaka.
3. Tea Ceremony
This one is a must for tea lovers, as well as for the people looking for a bit of stillness in this chaotic world. The traditional tea ceremony (茶道, known as chado or sado), though available throughout Japan, is best observed in Kyoto because of the town’s strong Zen roots.
In this delicate ceremony, the teacup is prepared with great care and respect, as a way of appreciating the utensils, not just the tea. It’s a wonderful way to appreciate the present moment, as well as the company of the special people you’re with.
4. Hot Springs of Mt. Kurama
For those of a more adventurous bend, visiting Mount Kurama (鞍馬山) is an absolute must. Located just outside the busy city of Kyoto (about 20 km), Kurama is a small, quiet town, known for its hot springs or onsen.
From here, you can pull your boots on, and hike up to the top of Mt. Kurama, to find the extraordinary Kurama-Dera, a Buddhist temple known for its hot springs, located on the top of the mountain. Alternatively, you can get a cable car, and still enjoy the hot springs, on the chilly mountainside.
5. Kiyomizu-Dera Temple
This UNESCO World Heritage site sits atop a beautiful hill and is surrounded by exotic cherry blossom trees that only serve to add to the place’s relaxing stillness. Built-in 780, the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple (清水寺) is more than just a beautiful tourist hot spot.
Here, you get to participate in ancient traditions, like walking the stone path before the Jishu Shrine (for the God of Love), with your eyes closed. If you succeed, tradition says you will find your true love.
Arashiyama ( 嵐山) is not just a single tourist attraction, but rather a whole tourist region, located on the western side of Kyoto. Of course, here, as everywhere else, you will get your fair share of stunning shrines and temples to admire and contemplate. But Arashyiama is also the home of several other monuments, as well as the winter Hanatouro Festival.
Here, you can find the scenic Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋), which will afford you an enviable view of the landscape, and also a great photo opportunity.
If you are a festival enthusiast, then you should also learn more about Gozan Okuribi in Kyoto in our Ultimate Guide to Obon in Japan.
7. Bamboo Grove
Technically still a part of the Arashiyama area, the Bamboo Grove (竹林の道) deserves its own entry on the list. Easily one of the most photographed and tourist-favorite spots of Kyoto, the Bamboo Grove carries a sort of foreboding beauty.
Lining the path between the Okouchi Sanso Garden and the Tenryuji Temple, the Bamboo Grove is at its best in the early morning, when it’s not full of tourists, and allows you to enjoy a peaceful nature walk, and also some great shots.
8. Ine no Funaya
Being so full of excellent historic sites, Kyoto rarely allows its visitors any time to wander the periphery, but that also means missing out on gems like this one. Located on the Tango Peninsula, on the northern coast of Kyoto, this picturesque fishing village of Ine no Funaya (伊根の舟屋) is a great location to spend a quiet day, take some photos, and of course, enjoy the fish delicacies.
9. Geisha Spring Dances
While spotting a geisha hurrying from one appointment to another is not at all uncommon in Kyoto, throughout the year, watching the Geisha Spring Dances is something else altogether.
Traditionally organized in April, in the geisha districts, these celebrations allow you to take in the kimonos and unique hairstyles, as they dance, sing, and play traditional instruments. A smaller festival, the Gion Odori, can be enjoyed in November, and maikos (apprentice geishas) can be seen dancing throughout the year at the Maiko Theater.
10. Kyoto International Manga Museum
With Japanese manga culture rapidly growing in popularity in recent years, the Kyoto International Manga Museum is rapidly becoming one of the city's hottest destinations. Here, you can have your pick of over 300,000 original manga, mainly in Japanese, though with some translated into other languages, also.
At the Museum, you can also take a short trip down their exhibition detailing the important role of manga in international culture.
3 Things to do in Kyoto that will light up your Instagram/TikTok
Naturally, traveling to Japan, especially a cultural and historic wonderland, like Kyoto, is a great opportunity to diversify and add a spark to your feed. Below, you’ll find the best Kyoto attraction points for your Instagram and TikTok.
1. Shojuin Temple
When we’re talking picture-worthy temples, you can’t mention Shojuin Temple (正寿院). The Temple famously houses a heart-shaped window that allows you to see out into the stupendous wilderness and definitely creates a picture opportunity to remember.
The Temple, with its happy, bright decorations has been a favorite for influencers for years now.
2. Otagi Nenbutsu Temple
Another fascinating journey to mark on your calendar is that to Otagi Nenbutsu Temple (愛宕念仏寺). This stunning temple, located in the Arashiyama area, west of Kyoto, is known for its 1,200 small stone statues. These statues, which line a considerable bit of the path to the temple, are known as rakan, and are thought to represent the Buddha’s disciples.
3. Rurikoin Temple
By far the rarest treat on this list, Rurikoin Temple (瑠璃光院) only opens to the public twice a year: once in the spring, to view the green maple trees on all sides of the temple, and once in autumn, to delight in the colorful, orange, red, and yellow leaves.
The temple’s large, welcoming windows allow not only for fabulous snaps but also a rare moment to take in the breathtaking beauty of nature.
5 budget-friendly things to do in Kyoto
Last but not least, here are some tourist attractions in Kyoto that you can visit for free.
1. Kifune Shrine
The Kifune Shrine (貴船神社) is known as much for the beauty of the shrine itself, as well as for the walkway there. The stone stairs, lined with red posts, and paper lanterns, in the heart of all that nature, create an iconic view that’s impossible to forget.
2. Okazaki Shrine
This one is a great tourist destination for families traveling with children since the Okazaki Shrine (岡崎神社) is also known as the bunny shrine, thanks to the multitude of statues and rabbit motifs strewn about the place. Originally a symbol of fertility and easy birth, the bunnies now just make the place incredibly fun and colorful.
3. Fushimi Inari Taisha
This highly popular landmark is known for its red torii gates tunnel, which creates a mesmerizing sight, at the end of which, you can find the beautiful Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) Shrine. As you travel up the shrine-laden mountain, the panoramic views get more and more breathtaking.
4. Philosopher’s Path
The Philosopher’s Path follows a canal, beginning at the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and ending in the Nanzenji neighborhood. The Philosopher’s Path is a great opportunity to take in the sights, and enjoy the beauty of Japanese nature, as well as appreciate the sheer beauty of Kyoto.
5. Yoshida Hill Temples and Shrines
A little off the Philosopher’s Path, there’s a treasure trove of shrines and temples that are free of charge, and usually less visited than some of the other Kyoto temples. Here, you get to enjoy a much-needed moment of peace and quiet, in between the gorgeous cherry blossoms.
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7 travel tips before you visit Kyoto
As with any trip, when traveling to Kyoto, it’s important that you plan ahead, as this will allow you to have the best possible experience in Kyoto. Here are some of our favorite traveling tips for visiting Kyoto, that is sure to guarantee a holiday to remember.
1. Book transport ahead.
Regardless of your transport method of choice, many train and bus services in Japan tend to get overcrowded, especially if you leave the ticket-buying to the last minute. This is why it’s a good idea to book your train tickets (to and around Kyoto) ahead, to ensure you catch a seat and don’t have to pay an exorbitant price.
2. Try going off-season.
Sure, Kyoto might seem more exciting during Golden Week, or in late spring, which is considered the peak traveling season for the area. However, it’s also a lot pricier during this time, and a lot more crowded. If you’re looking to visit Kyoto on a budget, and without too many crowds, consider going off-season.
3. Check the weather.
Since summer in Japan can be quite extreme (with super hot weather and freezing cold winters), one thing you need to do is check the weather, and dress accordingly. You don’t want to spend your trip indoors because you didn’t pack the right clothes! If you are curious about things to do during summer in Japan, you can go ahead and check out our Ultimate Guide to Summer in Japan!
4. Bring your comfiest shoes.
Even if you’re planning on traveling mostly by bus or train, as we’ve seen, there are a lot of walking and hiking trails in Kyoto. This is why we strongly recommend choosing comfort over style, when packing, to keep yourself as comfortable as possible on long walks.
5. Make a list of free attractions.
Since Kyoto is a city known for its temples and shrines, there are usually plenty of free-entry attractions, and we even mentioned some of them on this list. Having a list of free attractions can balance your travel budget, while also ensuring an experience to remember.
6. Book your accommodation wisely.
The place you stay should depend on what you want to do, while in Kyoto. If you’re looking to explore a particular area, it’s best to choose a hotel or inn there, but also consider transport time to and from the city, to avoid getting stuck on the road.
7. Don’t skip lunch!
Last but not least, it’s important to know, especially if you’re traveling on a budget, that many Kyoto restaurants offer sampler menus that include traditional dishes, and offer better value for money. This will help you save some cash, while also enjoying the traditional cuisine!
I hope these suggestions help you fall in love with Kyoto as much as we do! There is a lot to see and do in the city, but don't try to see everything.
Whether you prefer activities over sightseeing, being a tourist, or experiencing the historic city like a native, Kyoto has something for everyone. Choose a couple of activities from each of the areas above and you'll have an incredible trip that incorporates both traditional and off-the-beaten-path locations.
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