For our first visit to Japan, we decided to stay in Kyoto for one of our three weeks, and it worked out perfectly. Kyoto is a cultural epicenter, having been the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years. It is well preserved, being one of the few places spared during the WWII bombings due to it’s cultural significance. From the iconic torii gates of the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine to the geisha district of Gion, Kyoto encompasses one’s vision of Japan. You can easily spend a week (or a lifetime) in Kyoto, but it is also centrally located, making it an ideal basecamp for day trips. Our Kyoto Travel Guide will share how to spend a magical week in Kyoto, from where to stay, what to do, and the best day trips.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know I’m a huge fan of staying local at AirBnB accommodations. Our Kyoto house did not disappoint! It was tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of 300 year-old wooden houses, yet a short walk gets you to the train station, convenience stores, a large supermarket, restaurants, and Nijo castle. The place had such a warm traditional feel; I’ll never forget having our tea in the hand-made pottery at our little wooden table.
What turns a good Airbnb stay into great, is the host. Shogo was so kind and pleasant, ensuring our stay was perfect. His friend Hana offers a traditional Japanese breakfast service where she brings a homemade meal right to your place. As the miso soup is warming, Hana brings out dishes of salmon, rice, soy sauce covered tofu, pickled vegetables, and a Japanese omelette. My daughter said it was the best breakfast she’s ever had! The meal was only surpassed by Hana’s contagious smile and friendliness that makes you feel right at home.
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Accommodations: Kyoto AirBnB
What to Do in Kyoto
There is so much to do in Kyoto, and surrounding areas, it can be overwhelming. As in Europe and other destinations, you cannot see everything…and you shouldn’t try to. Castles, shrines, and temples will quickly start to blend together, no matter how magnificent. Knowing this will happen, don’t feel bad breezing through or skipping some sites, and take your time with the activities that are most appealing to you. For us, that was wandering to new areas in search of the perfect sushi or ramen!
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
The fiery torri gates behind Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine are one of the most iconic images of Japan. There are over 5,000 gates winding through the lush woods leading up the sacred Mount Inari. It is a ~3 hour hike to reach the summit and back, but most people hike just far enough to get a picture without people in it. So if you’re not an early riser, be prepared to do some hill climbing!
The Shrine and gates are a major attraction, so don’t be surprised at the mob of people near the shrine and first few sets of gates. People space out pretty quickly as everyone seeks a little solitude or stops for their isolated pictures. Finding a section with a slight turn (photo above) makes it easier to get a tourist-free shot and also makes for a more interesting perspective. Just be patient and have your shot set up so you can shoot quickly.
Each gate is actually donated (400,000 to 1 million yen each for the large gates, in case you’re interested), with an inscription of the donor and date of donation on the back. You’ll find tiny torii gates along the trail donated by those with a smaller budget. You will also find shrines with fox statues, who are thought to be messengers of Inari, the Shinto god of rice and sake.
One of the best parts of visiting a new country is checking out the markets. Kyoto’s Nishiki market has something for everyone, running 5 blocks with ~150 shops. The market has been around hundreds of years, with some food stands passed down for multiple generations.
The market has incredible variety, with many items you can eat right there, including oysters, sparrow on a stick, and baby octopus stuffed with a boiled quail egg (takotomago). Even if you’re not hungry, just looking at the fish, eels, pickled vegetables, and locals shopping is a wonderful experience. You can even pick up some titanium or custom engraved chopsticks!
Nijo Castle was built over 400 years ago in 1603, the home of the first Shogun of the Edo Period. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and considered the best surviving example of feudal Japan architecture. Inside the castle walls and surrounding moat, you will find lovely gardens with palace buildings interspersed.
There is very clear signage in english as you walk through the castle explaining the various rooms and power of the Shogun. Listen for the squeaking “nightingale” floors that sound like a bird chirping as a security measure against intruders.
Gion is the geisha district of Kyoto and has charming streets lined with traditional wooden houses, many of which are restaurants and teahouses. In truth, this is how I imagined all of Kyoto looking, but unfortunately modern times have had their impact. Wander beyond the crowded and touristy Hanami-koji Street to the Shirakawa canal and Kamo river to find locals relaxing and a more tranquil stroll.
Geisha from Kyoto are called geiko and the apprentices called maiko. They are highly-skilled entertainers, not prostitutes. Some tour companies offer geisha entertainment, but don’t expect a true geisha experience without a personal invitation from an existing customer. Even then, it is very expensive, starting at around $500 per person. Bucketlist?
Apparently, the geisha are mobbed by tourists shoving cameras in their faces. We intentionally avoided the place and time to spot (stalk) geisha. I was more than happy to capture a few shots of locals in kimonos discreetly taken with my phone.
Traditional Tea Ceremony
In addition to accommodations, AirBnB offers cultural Experiences. This was the first one we tried, and it was better than expected. We participated in a traditional tea ceremony experience that was wonderful…and delicious! The ceremony is meditative, focusing on harmony and tranquility. Tea masters spend years perfecting the ceremony variations, with careful attention to every detail to make the experience perfect for their guests. You will not only learn about the history and meaning of this ancient tradition, but will learn how to properly participate in a tea ceremony…you never know when you might be invited for tea!
Day Trips from Kyoto
We like to have basecamps when we travel, rather than changing places every couple days. The rail system in Japan is incredible and makes it so easy to pop over to different cities. As Kyoto itself has so much to offer we only did this a couple days, but Himeji, Nara, Osaka, and Kobe are less than an hour away, and you could even have a long day and take a 2.5 hour bullet train (Shinkansen) to Hiroshima. The trains are so pleasant and scenery so beautiful, you will relish this down time.
In addition to being easily accessible by train, Himeji is very convenient to explore. The top attractions, dining, and shopping are right out the door of the station and along a central road…just walk towards the big white castle! In hindsight, I think we would have gotten a lot more out of the visit doing a walking tour with a local guide. I added a link to a tour below.
If you can only see one castle in Japan, it has to be Himeji. It miraculously survived the WWII bombings, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is considered a national treasure. Himeji castle, also known as the White Heron Castle, is spectacular with it’s multiple roof levels and white plastered walls. While it’s interesting to see the wooden structure inside, it is,unfortunately, primarily empty rooms and a lot of stairs (this is where I was thinking a guide would add some color…and maybe give you a piggyback ride). If you make it to the top of the castle, you will be rewarded with a wonderful 360-degree view of the city below.
Unfortunately, we didn’t visit in Spring, but the castle with a foreground of cherry blossoms would be incredible to see and photograph. I also saw stunning pictures of the castle in snow, another confirmation that I need to go back to Japan in Spring and Winter.
There is nothing like a Japanese Garden. Every detail is considered to inspire reflection and highlight each element of the garden. A bridge or path may be built with a turn that subtly directs your attention to a particularly beautiful scene, and the placement of each stone is thoughtfully considered.
The Ko-Koen garden is divided into 9 separate walled gardens each with a different theme. From lovely waterfalls and koi filled ponds to a bamboo garden, enjoy the subtle variety of the gardens based on the techniques of the Edo period. There is also a tea ceremony house where you may enjoy a cup of green tea while taking in the beauty of the garden.
Himeji castle is a 45 minute train ride from Kyoto station via bullet train (free with Japan Rail (JR) Pass; seat reservation required).
The castle is a 20 minute walk from the train station. As you exit the station, you can see the castle, so just walk straight up the main street.
Buy a dual ticket to include both the castle and the Ko-Koen Garden. To locate the garden, exit the castle back across the bridge, turn right, and you will run into it in a few minutes.
Nara is one of the oldest cities in Japan, established in the year 710, and was the first permanent capital. In addition to it’s famous free-roaming deer, Nara has many historic treasures, including the oldest and the largest temples in Japan.
Nara Deer Park
As mentioned in my recent post, Top 5 Things to Do in Japan with Kids, the Deer Park is must-see for everyone! Deer are spectacular creatures, and this provides an amazing opportunity to interact with them up close. It is also a cultural experience, as the deer are considered sacred messengers of the Shinto Gods. If nothing else, you will have a constant smile on your face seeing the deer standing at a bus stop or cross walk, or even walking into a shop.
Just past the Deer Park is the impressive Todaiji Temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world’s largest wooden building and home to the world’s largest bronze buddha. The temple was originally constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial buddhist temples. The structure and statues are impressive and the backdrop of forest and hills quite tranquil.
One thing we somehow missed was a pillar inside the temple with a hole in its base that is the same size as the giant buddha’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. Another reason to go back to Japan!
Nara Half-Day Walking Tour (Starting in Kyoto)
Nara Walking Tour (Starting at Nara Station)
I know planning a Japan trip can be daunting for first time visitors, but it is really quite easy to get around and decide what to do when you get there. The basecamp approach (staying in the same place for an extended period), combined with a JR train pass, allows you to be flexible and plan your day based on weather and mood. While we only scratched the surface of Kyoto and Japan, we quickly fell in love, and will certainly return. I hope our Kyoto Travel Guide helps inspire you to visit this magical city or gave you some ideas on what to see and do if your trip planning is already underway.
Please leave any questions or comments below or feel free to contact me directly.
- Top 5 Things to Do in Japan with Kids (or if you’re a kid at heart)
- Japan- What to Know Before You Go
Where to Stay: Kyoto AirBnB
Kyoto Tours / Tickets / Michelin Reservations: Voyagin
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