If Tokyo is like stepping into the future with its hypermodern architecture, giant video screens and electronic district, Kyoto is like stepping back in time with its classic Zen gardens, ancient shrines and mystical geishas.
I spent five nights in Kyoto staying in a ryokan which is a traditional Japanese Inn with tatami mat rooms and futons instead of beds. Elsewhere in Japan I stayed in hotels and Airbnb apartments but I wanted my time in Kyoto to be as traditional as possible to be in keeping with the city’s quintessentially Japanese landscape and culture.
Once the capital of Japan, with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto offers a wealth of visually inspiring sights and culturally rich experiences. The abundance of attractions drive home the message that this isn’t a city that can be experienced in just a weekend, if you can manage to squeeze in five or six days then you really should go for it.
If I could have spent longer here I absolutely would have done, but I also feel this way about every place I visited in Japan, I truly love this country. In fact, I call it the ‘Scandinavia of the East’ but I think that’s a conversation for another day…
Kyoto is laid out in a grid pattern which makes it really easy to navigate, or at least it should be, but I still got lost a few times because there are so many narrow alleyways that all look the same. During the evening these alleyways come into their own where romance is concerned, all the houses which run along the river cast a warm glow across the water, and all the dimly-lit restaurants fill intimately with good food and conversation – a setting that makes Cupid’s work effortlessly easy.
Though you can cover a lot of Kyoto on foot, there’s also a lot to see and do around the city’s periphery including Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the Golden Temple and Fushimi Inari-Taisha, so expect to use a mixture of buses and trains. I found both modes of transport super efficient and way easier to navigate than Tokyo.
What I like most about Kyoto is that there’s something for all your senses as well as places to go for peace and contemplation. It’s such a calming city and that’s why it’s the perfect place to go before the inevitable head-spin that Tokyo will induce.
Sadly, I didn’t see a geisha, but I didn’t really try to look or wait for one to appear either. Instead I saw lots of girls dressing up in traditional Japanese costumes, which although don’t have the same intrigue, still take a good photo because the kimonos are so vivid in colour and expressive in pattern.
If you do have your heart set on seeing a geisha, I recommend staying in Gion in Southern Higashiyama. Gion is Kyoto’s famous entertainment and geisha district which means it is also one of busiest neighbourhoods with a mix of old and new architecture. There is an area lined with restaurants and teahouses, many of which are exclusive establishments for geisha entertainment. If staying in Gion isn’t enough, and you want to maximise your chances of seeing one of Japan’s most iconic traditions then why not book to see a geisha dance? This is something I regret not doing, I’ve heard they’re stunningly hypnotic and worth the splurge.
Geisha © travelescapism.com
Everybody knows Japan is a paradise for foodies, and Kyoto is no exception. If you want to try a little bit of everything wander through Nishiki Market where you can pick from all kinds of unusual delicacies.
And like any market, it’s also a great place for people watching.
During the evening, head to the narrow alleyways near the Kamo River, where traditional lanterns light the streets and cosy little wooden restaurants create a wonderful atmosphere. After inhaling the aroma of freshly cooked food that escapes the buildings, you’ll have no other choice but to enter. Be warned.
I was lucky enough to stumble across a really cool Swiss guy who helped me find a specific street I was looking for in the Gion district, and after doing a spot of sight-seeing together he brought me to this tiny little restaurant, claiming to me that it had the best Japanese food he’d ever had. I didn’t quite believe him, but I was hoping to be proven wrong, and oh boy I was – the food was incredible, the sashimi just melted in my mouth! The only problem is… I can’t remember what the restaurant was called, but here are some photos to emphasise my point:
Happy is the girl with a full stomach!
Kyoto excels when it comes to top-quality attractions, and they’re unlike anywhere else in the world. My number one favourite is the blazing orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari-Taisha, however, it does get busy so avoid the weekends if you can.
I’ve also never seen a temple quite so beautiful as Kinkaku-Ji aka the Golden Temple in northwest Kyoto. It sounds gaudy but sitting between lakes and trees it looks very elegant, however, as mentioned previously, expect crowds.
And there’s also the Ginkaku-Ji which translates as ‘Silver Pavilion’, yet ironically doesn’t have a trace of silver on it. You can get to Ginkaka-Ju by walking along the ‘Path of Philosophy’ that runs along the canal and poetically takes it name from the 20th-century philosopher Nishida Kitaro. It is said that he spent his time meandering along this path lost in thought…
Lastly, make a trip out to Arashiyama, located west of the city and home to the famous Bamboo Grove, and the base of Kyoto’s western mountains. Spend a full day exploring the paths and trails leading up into the hills and the small temples shrouded among the greenery.
Stay: In a modern Ryokan at Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura. From here you can walk to all central locations and are within close proximity to bus stops and the subway to reach the Golden Temple and Fushimi Inari-Taisha.
Day trip to: From Kyoto Station take the train to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nara, less than a hour away.
Spending longer in Japan and need inspiration? Read my 2-week itinerary.