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Kyoto Travel Guide The historic heart of Japan

Kyoto old Japan city street

The capital of Japan for over a thousand years, it is nearly impossible to overstate the significance of Kyoto on Japanese history and culture. Kyoto is the historic heart of Japan, with seventeen World Cultural Heritage Sites in the city alone. From the intricacies of tea ceremony to the breathtaking beauty of Arashiyama, Kyoto has captured the hearts and imaginations of travelers for centuries. It is also very easy to access, a short train ride away from Tokyo in the Kansai region. If you want to take a break from the golf course and you find yourself in Kyoto, here are the absolute must-sees for your visit to this stunning city.

Things to do

geisha in Kyoto bamboo forest

Gion- one of the best-preserved entertainment districts in Japan, Gion hasn’t changed much in the past 300 years. Come here to see Geisha and Maiko (geisha in-training) perform.

Fushimi Inari Shrine- Famous for the thousands of vermillion tori gates that stretch 4 kilometers up into the mountains, this Shrine is dedicated to Inari, a fox god of rice and commerce. In a town of historic sites, this is one of the oldest.

Kinkaku-ji temple- Originally built in 1398, it was burned to the ground in the 1950’s. This brilliant gold shrine is one of the most visited attractions in all of Japan.

Monkey Park Iwatayama- if you need a break from the stunning historical sites, visit this small park on a hillside where you can feed Japanese Macque monkeys.

Arashiyama Bamboo Path – just a few small steps inside this tranquil bamboo forest can transport you to a different time and place.

Kyoto National Museum-with so much history on the streets, it might feel strange to go to a museum, but this is one of four in all of Japan, focusing on pre-modern Japanese art.

Kamogawa- take a nighttime or day time stroll by the banks of the river, with plenty of restaurants offering a waterfront view.

Flavors of Kyoto

Wagashi Sweets in Kyoto

Kyoto is the home of Kaiseki Ryori, the most formal style of a traditional multi-course dinner. Presentation is key, with each ingredient purposefully chosen to complement the others. Seasonality is also integral to the enjoyment of this meal, with each ingredient picked at the height of their season.

Kyoto is also an excellent place to sample wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweets. Sample these with a cup of green tea. Yatsuhashi is a local favorite.

If you’ve tried food in Tokyo or other cities, you may be a little surprised if the dishes you order are slightly different. Kyoto is in the Kansai region of Japan, while Tokyo is in Kanto; these two regions have been locked in a bitter culinary rivalry for centuries. The dashi (stock) used as a staple in most foods is made differently in each region, giving every dish you try in Kyoto a subtly different flavor. Try Kyoto-style ramen or sushi and pick a side in this ongoing regional battle!


Events & Seasonal Happenings

Blossoms in Kyoto

If you wish to step back in time and witness a 6th century imperial procession, come in May for the Aoi Matsuri, which has been held for over a thousand years.

The Gion Matsuri runs the entire month of July and is one of Japan’s best known festivals.  It started in 869 to appease the Gods and prevent plague from spreading, but has now become an annual tradition.

Kurama Fire Festival in October is unique to Kyoto, with most participants in traditional kimono carrying giant torches.

In January, Sanjusangendo Temple holds a Kyudo archery competition, with participants striving to shoot an arrow across the 120-meter building.

Kyoto is breathtaking in March and April during hanami season, with cherry blossoms falling like snow over Kyoto’s famous temples and palaces.

Photo: Ninomaru Garden. Kyoto by Alexander Shchukin

What to Bring Back

Green Tea and black smoked tea KitKats

Kyoto is an ideal place to buy traditional handicrafts. Kyoto dolls have been a popular souvenir for travelers since the Edo era and have been made in the region for nearly a thousand years. Japanese knives are also an excellent purchase; made in the same manner as Japanese swords, it’s said that Michelin-star chefs purchase these on their visits to Japan. If you attend during the summer festival season, you will feel at home in a traditional yukata.

An ever-popular souvenir, KitKat’s come in regional flavors, some of which are only available in Kyoto.

Photo: from KitKat Japan

Where to Stay

The best way to experience Japanese hospitality is in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn.

Tawara-ya Ryokan has been called the best ryokan in Japan by Time Magazine, with an indoor onsen and luxurious traditionally appointed rooms. In 1818, this ryokan opened its doors to samurai, but has since hosted luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and several world leaders. Each room overlooks a private garden. Can include a 10 course kaiseki dinner.

A stay in Yoshikawa Ryokan, an opulent former merchant’s residence, includes an in-room kaiseki meal. Centrally located near the Imperial Palace, the rooms overlook an Enshuu style garden. You can eat at their tempura restaurant.


Wrap up

Fushimi Inari-taisha, Kyoto

Kyoto is a city and a prefecture for all of the senses, with breath-taking beauty, delicious cuisine, and centuries of culture. It’s also perfect to visit at any time of year; to see shrines blanketed in cherry blossoms or snow; the colorful falling autumn leaves, or exciting summer festivals. Whenever you go, you are sure to treasure your time in this cultural heart of Japan.

Photo: Fushimi Inari-taisha, Kyoto by Dimitry B.


Getting there

From Tokyo, you can take a Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station and arrive in 2 ½ hours.  By air, it’s roughly 1 ½ hours from Haneda Airport to Kansai International Airport, with a bus or train transfer to Kyoto Station.

From Osaka, take the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station is 15 minutes. Osaka and Kyoto share an airport, so there are no flight options from Osaka.

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