Our Guide to Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto is a vibrant city full of rich history, beautiful shrines, and Buddhist temples. The Zen gardens cannot compare and formal traditions such as geisha and kaiseki dining make this city quite unique. Kyoto is conveniently located roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes from Osaka Airport Station and an hour from Nara – a perfect day trip from Kyoto.
Kyoto Ibis Styles Hotel
Convenient location as it is right next to Kyoto JR station and extremely budget friendly. Another great aspect of this hotel is the coin laundry and ice machine, located on the same floor where they serve breakfast (not complimentary).
Voted as one of the most luxurious and best services in the entire country, Hotel Mume is a hidden gem. From the second you enter this boutique inn the staff absolutely pampers you. Trained with the mindset of European maids/butlers, blended with traditional Japanese ryokan characteristics, Mume’s crowning jewel is their customer service.
In the evenings before we left out, the staff was sure to ask us where we were going or if we needed any suggestions on places to eat or visit. The staff would make calls and reservations that allowed us to spend less time planning and more time enjoying ourselves. Another greatly appreciated effort made by the staff was when they printed a map with directions to the desired destination and provided a picture of what it looked like. Mume also offers a complimentary happy hour with, beverages and snacks every afternoon and a delicious breakfast each morning.
If you are looking for a tranquil place with spectacular beauty during your time in Kyoto we highly recommend visiting Sanjusangendo Hall. Famous for it’s 1,000 Buddha statues and serene garden nearby it is well worth the 600 JPY.
Restaurant: Sobanomi Yoshimura
Great noodle shop that offers fresh-made soba or udon noodles at a reasonable price.
The character alone of the Nishiki Market is worth going for. This is the perfect place to taste test many various Japanese foods as well as many small shops and restaurants.
GEAR Art Complex 1928 Show
When we planned out our trip to Kyoto, the GEAR Art Complex was an attraction we added last minute because we had an evening open. When we arrived at the location we were a tad early and enjoyed shopping in the stores nearby.
The show is on the third floor of the 1928 building, above a bar and coffee shop. There were plenty of signs and directions that got us to where we needed to be. The venue is very personal, the seats are all close and I don’t think the venue could hold much more than 50 people. When we sat down they said we could take some photos before the show, but asked that we put our cameras away when the show started. Then they proceeded to hand us a clipboard with a short plot outline and safety goggles. When I asked the hostess what the goggles were for she just smiled at me and said I would soon find out.
The amount of detail in the props and plot is astounding. However, the defining element of the GEAR Art Complex show is the passion of the actors and actress. I felt they put 110% into their performance, and were able to share that energy with the audience. It was incredible how so many emotions were conveyed and not a single word was spoken.
TRAVEL TIP: We went to a 7:00 showing and had previously reserved tickets. You are able to pick them up an hour beforehand. The show itself is 75 minutes long.
Restaurant: Kanidoraku Kyoto main
Overall we were pleased with our visit here. The staff was friendly and the restaurant itself was a “modernized” traditional Japanese style restaurant. We went after going to the Gear Art Complex show around 8:30 pm so the restaurant was winding down and not as busy, otherwise, I would suggest you make a reservation because it is normally packed! We ordered a crab hot pot and it very delicious but it wasn’t a lot of crab for the price.
TRAVEL TIP: Note that this restaurant requires the removal of your shoes and has traditional style Japanese seating.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
When we first planned our visit to Japan, Fushimi Inari was the site I (Logan) was most looking forward to. The earliest structures of Fushimi Inari are recorded to have been built around 711 A.D. The beauty and ambiance of this shrine spans over a breathtaking 10,000 orange gates, or Torii (鳥居), that envelope a path that winds over 2.5 miles up the Inari mountain.
While we were hiking up the path (which is estimated to take 2 hours to reach the top at a moderate pace) we stopped to talk to some locals who told us of one of the folklore of the shrine. They told us it is commonly believed that making the journey to the top of the mountain brings good fortune and longevity. I highly recommend visiting this fantastic cultural site as early as you can, because it becomes quite busy as the day continues on.
Taking a scenic route from the Fushimi Inari Shrine we stumbled across a somber yet beautiful street of family shrines and tombstones while walking to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Upon arriving it seemed like it would be like any other shrine or temple however you can see from our photos that the views were astonishing.
Overall I’d have to say that this historic area was intriguing to see because of the historic streets and buildings. But the downfall is how unbelievably crowded it is due to the traffic from the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It is a huge a tourist hotspot, which was to be expected but we wouldn’t suggest buying souvenirs here due to the overpriced items due to the tourism.
While walking through Sannezaka Ninezaka we began window shopping for a place to have lunch. Kikaru happened to be close and their outdoor menu looked appetizing. They had many selections that we had not seen before on other menus like the shrimp tempura roll!
A lesser known and less crowded temple complete with beautiful paintings and zen garden.
JR Kyoto Station
That evening we went back to the Kyoto JR station by our hotel and appreciated the architecture of this public transit and the views of Kyoto tower there are also some great places to shop and restaurants to dine at for those interested.
This temple consists of two parts, the temple itself and the gardens. The garden itself is very pristine and beautiful. There are a few seating areas to enjoy the tranquil scenery. If you are visiting Arashiyama (the bamboo forest) you will most likely stumble upon this temple.
A gorgeous bamboo forest. While walking through Arashiyama you will stumble upon many temples and gardens.
Do not let the entrance fee of 1,000 JPY scare you away from this unbelievable gem. The gardens itself are lovely as well as the gorgeous views of the mountains nearby. At the end of your visit, you are served complimentary green tea and a biscuit cookie.
This history behind Nijo Castle is very interesting along with the amazing paintings and “Nightingale” flooring. Make sure visit early in the day so you can take a proper amount of time visiting the castle and the grounds.
When we first arrived at Menbakaichidai, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We were asked if we wanted fire ramen, or regular ramen when we entered and of course we had to go with the fire ramen. When we finally had the opportunity to eat our dish, we were completely blown away. Read more about our experience here.
Monkey Park Iwatayama
Some things you should know before visiting…
1) This isn’t just a park to view monkeys. It also has the most amazing skyline view of Kyoto, so even just for that, it would be a good place to visit.
2) It is about a 20-minute mountain hike that can be a little steep at times so make sure you bring water and comfortable shoes. If you do get tired there are many “resting areas” along the trail.
3) This would be a terrific attraction for kids, but please note, you are not allowed to touch or pet the monkeys. Some of the kids we saw there were a little young to understand that.
4) For only 100¥ you can get a cup of food to feed the monkeys inside the air-conditioned resting room area.
Read more about our experience here.
Restaurant: Chojiro, Shijo-Kiyamachi
This sushi restaurant has the option of either the traditional conveyor belt or separate seating where you order sushi from a tablet. This was a nice option for lunch because we were able to order each type of nigiri a la carte and as much as we wanted (priced per order).
Restaurant: Karafuneya Coffee shop Sanjo Main shop
This incredible parfait shop had a selection of over 100 ice-cream parfaits. While most of the menu was the many options for dessert, there were also a few options for lunch items and beverages.
Shop for yukata and kimono
After spending many days on our feet we decided to shop for yukata and other gifts in various stores near the 1928 building. Our favorite stores being Bentendou and Kyotoya NY that sold gently used clothing, yukata/kimono, and obi.
Restaurant: Chao Chao Sanjo Kimyamachi
Hands down, the best gyoza we had in Japan!
Restaurant: Shinshindo Sanjo Kawaramachi
Don’t let the inexpensive prices deceive you! The breakfast portions at this French-inspired bakery were quite large!
This tea house is located down the street from the sweet store of the same name. Toraya is a tea house that offers beautifully crafted wagashi (Japanese sweets) and various teas, that you can enjoy either inside or by sitting outside in the garden.
On this evening, we had the most amazing experience we couldn’t have imagined for our trip to Japan. Miyazawa-san (from Menbakaichidai) invited us over to his home for a lovely evening of sushi, drinks, new friends, and some impromptu singing and cake for Logan’s belated birthday. We are thankful for these new friendships.
Kinkaku-ji Temple (The Golden Temple)
We had heard about this iconic temple based on other travel reviews and upon arriving in Kyoto and while it was the most crowded attraction we visited, the temple itself was beautiful. We recommend that if you are only spending a weekend in Kyoto, add this to your itinerary, plan to be there early in the morning. While we were there we tried a strawberry shaved ice with mochi from a vendor.
A local shrine recommended to us by our friends that live in Kyoto. It had a few beautiful bridges and was nice to explore because there were no tourists when we visited.
A garden and temple tucked away in a more quiet sector of Kyoto. Similar to Imayima, it was especially enjoyable due to not having a lot of tourist or other people around while we walked around the grounds.
That evening, being our last, we decided to dress in our yukata while visiting Gion (the Geisha district) and for our dinner plans at Wabiya Korekido.
Restaurant: Wabiya Korekido (Gion Hanamikoji Honten)
We wanted to dine somewhere in the historic Gion and decided to drop into Wabiya Korekido based on a recommendation from Hotel Mume. Keep in mind that Wabiya is a pretty popular place and there are a limited number of seats so be mindful of a potential wait. This restaurant has an English menu for those so inclined, and you order each “stick” of yakitori a la carte. This format is nice because it allows you to order various types, and as much as you like.
A few words of wisdom:
1) the prices aren’t ridiculous but they are on the higher side and can add up quickly if you don’t keep an eye on it.
2) The most expensive dish is described by what we thought was containing a rare cheese, in actuality the entire yakitori was only cheese. Granted, it was delicious cheese it really had us laughing when they brought out a plate of skewered cheese!
Kyoto will always hold a special place in our hearts as we fell in love with the culture and serenity of one of the most iconic places in Japan. It is a city full of history and many Japanese World Heritage Sites.
Be sure to check out the next stop on our trip, Hiroshima.