Exploring Kyoto, Japan’s Most Beautiful City

Golden Temple in Kyoto

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.

Ryokan, Kyoto

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.

Kyoto, beautiful city

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.

Beautiful Japanese girls in Kyoto

Japanese girls wearing kimonos in Kyoto

Japanese girls wearing Kimonos in Kyoto

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 in Gion, Kyoto
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.

Nishiki food market in Kyoto, Japan

Nishiki Market in Kyoto

And like any market, it’s also a great place for people watching.

Japanese mask spotted in Kyoto

Kyoto, local life

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:

Sashimi, Kyoto restaurant

Japanese food, Kyoto

Eating in Kyoto, Japan
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.

Beautiful Fushimi Inari-Taisha in Kyoto

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.

Golden pavilion temple, Kyoto

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…

Bamboo grove in Kyoto

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.

Further Information

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.

Would you like to go to Kyoto? Or have you already been?

A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.

'Exploring Kyoto, Japan’s Most Beautiful City' have 29 comments

  1. November 7, 2015 @ 5:59 pm Colleen Brynn

    Absolutely gorgeous pictures!! I cannot wait to go to Japan one day. I want to eat sashimi like that. Mmmmmmm.


    • November 7, 2015 @ 7:33 pm Shing Yoong

      Thanks Colleen, Japan is so amazing and completely worth the wait! It exceeded my expectations in so many ways and I hope you feel the same when you finally get there!


  2. November 8, 2015 @ 5:40 pm Anca | Globaloud

    Those kimono dressed girls look so adorable. Do they dress like that everyday or only for special occasions?


    • November 8, 2015 @ 7:04 pm Shing Yoong

      I swooned over those kimonos! From what I know they wear them on special occasions, but in Kyoto I think Japanese visitors (and foreigners) enjoy wearing them for novelty because of the city’s link with Geisha girls! In Tokyo for example, I don’t think I saw anyone wearing kimonos, the younger generation love delving into more outlandish styles like the Harajuku girls!


  3. November 8, 2015 @ 8:55 pm Susanne

    Wow, the place looks fabulous! Japan is definitely on my bucket list.


    • November 8, 2015 @ 10:38 pm Shing Yoong

      Japan is all kinds of fabulousness! It’s hard not to love, I’m sure you will Susanne!


  4. November 10, 2015 @ 7:22 am Victoria@ The British Berliner

    I would love to visit Kyoto Shing! I love your photographs and I especially like the idea of trying out a ryokan for that more authentic, traditional feeling LOL! I’m not sure that it would be comfortable, but there’s always a first time LOL!


    • November 10, 2015 @ 5:59 pm Shing Yoong

      There’s always a first time – that’s the attitude Victoria! 😀


  5. November 11, 2015 @ 6:33 am Patrick

    I loved Kyoto’s spirit as a city, I never experienced such zen in a city. I have to say Kyoto was my favorite city in Japan so far although I would love to be in Tokyo for the city experience. I completely missed the 金閣寺. The 鴨川!!memories I wish i was back


    • November 11, 2015 @ 5:49 pm Shing Yoong

      I wish to be in Japan again too Patrick, and Kyoto would be top of the list as well as the places I never got the chance to visit!

      Glad to hear this city had an impact on you too 🙂


  6. November 11, 2015 @ 9:20 am Devon

    Love your blog design. I’ve been to Kyoto several times and I highly recommend it. It’s such a unique place, but it’s also very comfortable and easy navigate. I heart Japan!


  7. November 11, 2015 @ 6:15 pm Shing Yoong

    You know what I’m talking about Devon! Glad you love this city too, it sure is one of the greatest beauties of the East!


  8. November 21, 2015 @ 5:05 am Mary {The World Is A Book}

    Love these beautiful pictures, Shing! I’m glad you enjoyed Kyoto. We were there last year but only for a day and made it to the Golden Temple and to Fushimi Inari Shrine but didn’t see any geishas either. We loved the city! I wish I had a picture of the girls in kimono and the toriis. It’s such a classic Japan shot. We’d love to return for a longer stay.


    • November 24, 2015 @ 5:59 pm Shing Yoong

      Even though you were only there for a day I think you chose the two best attractions. Ahhh thanks Mary, that’s one of my favourite travel photos – luck was on my side with that one!


  9. November 23, 2015 @ 10:19 am Kenny

    Wow great site and photos! I’m going to Kyoto later this week for one day, what would you say are the top two or three sites that are a must see in Kyoto?


  10. November 23, 2015 @ 12:10 pm Shing Yoong

    It’s going to be a challenge on your time limitations, but a good challenge I’m sure! The two places I recommend the most are the Golden Temple and Fushimi Inari-Taisha, they are quite the vision and extremely unique. Unfortunately they are on opposite ends of each other so I would recommend seeing one in the morning, then in the afternoon explore the old town and also the Food Market, then in the late afternoon go to the other attraction.

    Alternatively, you can see the attractions first and then spend your remaining few hours in Kyoto enjoying yourself in one of the restaurants and seeing what you can of the city. Short but sweet 🙂

    P.S. If you are really pushed for time, taxis are not as expensive as I imagined them to be!


  11. November 23, 2015 @ 12:37 pm Simon

    Whilst I loved the nature around the city and Arashiyama especially – I felt the landmarks were huge tourist traps and Gion in particular felt very fake. I must admit to being very disappointed with Kyoto but I will be going back in 3 years so hope I might see it under a different light!


    • November 25, 2015 @ 9:35 am Shing Yoong

      Hi Simon, thanks for your comment. It’s true, these places do get very busy but crowds are something all top attractions have to contend with. I was pretty lucky with the my visit because I went off-season in March, just before swarms of crowds enter Japan for cherry blossom season. Perhaps if I’d been witness to all the crowds my opinion might be closer to yours… which is why I hope you go off-season next time so Kyoto can redeem itself 😉 I loved it, I thought it was utterly beautiful with the dimly-lit narrow alleyways in contrast with the big, mesmerising attractions.

      Interesting to hear you talk about Gion as fake, I didn’t stay in Gion and as I said in my post I spent very little time there, so perhaps I made the right choice?


      • November 26, 2015 @ 3:20 pm Simon

        I was travelling across Japan from Kumamoto to Tokyo via Mt Fuji for 3 weeks from April 12th to May 5th, and probably was in Kyoto around April 20th for a couple of days. I gather this is prime tourist season? It was so busy and crowded at such places as the Zen Garden and the Golden Pavilion. Next time I go, I will be going a tad earlier so hope to miss the bulk of the crowds (plus I also know what to expect now!)

        I found Gion to be a purposely constructed town for tourists only. Designed to look like the 1800s and chock full of very expensive restaurants! To be very fair, I didnt get to spend *too* much time in Gion so might give it another shot one day!

        Loved Japan as a whole and hoping to see more of Asia over the coming years after having just landed back in the UK from Hong Kong and Southern China last weekend!


  12. February 2, 2016 @ 9:48 pm Elia

    I will be traveling to Kyoto and Osaka, soon do you have any recommendations, besides what you have posted? i would like something different. something that is not seen by tourists, more of what locals do? also, your pictures are amazing.


    • February 3, 2016 @ 9:21 am Simon

      Just a quick heads up Elia, Kyoto is thee most touristy place in Japan. It will be a struggle to find somewhere untouched and uncrowed by tourists.


      • February 4, 2016 @ 3:59 am Elia

        Thank you! I’m having trouble with the neighborhoods in Kyoto. Do you think you can help me out with that? I found Tokyo very easy to process, but can’t quite do the same for Kyoto. Any recommendations? Thanks in advance again.


        • February 4, 2016 @ 11:10 am Simon

          I stayed in the ‘Nishinomoncho’ area and it was absolutely fine. 10 minute walk to the Shinkansen, 10 minute walk to Kiyomizu-dera, 5 minute walk to a Mcdonalds (!) and a 5 minute walk to a subway line 🙂


    • March 9, 2016 @ 10:33 am Shing Yoong

      Sorry about the late reply Elia, but I see Simon did a good job advising you. I’m not sure if you’ve gone to Japan yet, so I hope you have/had a fabulous time exploring!


  13. March 4, 2016 @ 2:27 pm Nicole

    Hi,I love your pictures, may i know the name of the place of the third picture from the top? Thank you


    • March 9, 2016 @ 10:30 am Shing Yoong

      Hi Nicole, the 3rd photo was taken on the banks of the Kamo River that runs through the city. At night it’s also very pretty along the banks because all the buildings give off a warm, yellow glow.


  14. March 30, 2016 @ 11:37 pm Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

    I’m headed to Japan for the first time next month and will be spending time in both Tokyo and Kyoto so have been excitedly reading your posts! Kyoto sounds incredible – the Golden Temple looks beautiful but I so wish that I knew the name of the restaurant where you found that delicious sashimi – I often end up forgetting names of small authentic places too on my travels! We’re doing a mix of Ryokans and western hotels but I’m very much looking forward to the ryokan experience.


  15. August 19, 2016 @ 8:50 am Kel

    Stumbled upon this blog researching Kyoto, awesome post. I am book-ending a Kumano Kodo hike with weekends in Kyoto (very soon and very excited)! I will require a suffiently authentic meal and I know you must remember the name of that restaurant 🙂


  16. October 2, 2017 @ 3:12 am Carmela

    I spent three days in kyoto and fell in love with the city. I have seen one geisha when i was strolling around gion at night. And i also watched a maiko performance at Gion Corner. It was actually a cultural presentation with performing maiko as only one of them. It was a very relaxing show, for 2500 yen for foreigners, it was worth it.


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