I had a great week in Kyoto, Japan, and I wanted to share with you some of the awesome things I saw and did to help you in your own trip planning if you want to visit this beautiful city!
First thing I should mention….Kyoto is cold in February. Like…really cold. Think about being cold, and then imagine being even colder than that. You’ll still be surprised by how cold you are in Kyoto in February. We chose this time of year to go because it was a little less expensive and my husband’s work schedule determined that this was a good time to go, but if you’re willing to pay a little more and your time is flexible, I would suggest going at a warmer time of year. That being said, we still had a fantastic time and I would do it all over again, chattering teeth and all.
Kyoto is a lovely city and is a nice blend of a modern city and old Japan. I enjoyed visiting temples and shrines by day and then meandering down modern boulevards in the evening. Here are some of the things we did while we were in Kyoto…
*I’ve also linked all the titles to more information about the topic in case you’re interested in learning more about these places.
We wanted to stay in a Ryokan for at least part of our trip to Japan. For those of you who don’t know what a Ryokan is, it’s a traditional Japanese guest house. There are Ryokan to fit a variety of budgets, but we wanted to stay in a nice one to get the full experience. As it was a nice hotel (a.k.a. expensive), we opted only to stay for one night and then move to a more affordable Airbnb. It was a lovely, relaxing time we had at the Ryokan, however! I wrote more about my experience in the Ryokan in this post, so I won’t get too into it here, but I’ll just say that Kyoto was the perfect place to try out the Ryokan life.
This was the first temple we visited in Kyoto, as it’s huge and very near the train station, and when we arrived in town we had a couple hours to spare before we could check in to our Ryokan. It’s a big, beautiful temple and you can’t miss it if you arrive in Kyoto by train.
Part of the charm of Kyoto is wandering around the streets and seeing what kind of things you can discover. We walked to the Kiyomizu-dera temple one day from the center of town and saw the most beautiful shrines, small temples, cemeteries, old buildings, and gorgeous misty hills along the way. Other days we would meander down a side street and discover delightful little details on buildings or little shrines. Kyoto is full of delights if you let yourself wander. I highly recommend setting aside some time for this.
If you’re only going to visit a few temples in Kyoto, this should be one of them. Situated on a hill with an impressive view of the city, this is one of the most popular sights in Kyoto, and for good reason. This temple and the grounds it’s on is, quite frankly, stunning.
After you leave Kiyomizu-dera, you’ll want to spend some time wandering around the Higashiyama District. It’s a beautiful historic district where you can get a taste of old Kyoto. It also happens to be quite crowded with tourists, but it is what it is. In addition to getting a taste of old Kyoto, you’ll also get a taste of some really delicious food, as there are shops and food stalls all up and down this district. Try the little triangular mochis that they have in various flavors…delicious!
Known as the “golden temple”, this place is well known. I’m sure you’ve likely seen images of it before as it’s one of the most iconic sights in Kyoto. When you arrive, you pay an entrance fee and walk in. The temple is right there (no giant hill to climb…hooray!) so it’s great even for people who can’t walk too much. You can’t go inside the temple, only look at it from the outside, but it’s absolutely stunning. Don’t leave Kyoto without catching a glimpse of this beautiful place.
This temple is known as the “silver temple” It’s not actually silver, despite the name, but this temple is absolutely beautiful and definitely one of the places in Kyoto that you should visit if you get the chance.
This is actually a Mexican restaurant. Yes. We went to a Mexican restaurant….in Japan. Due to my issues with gluten, I had been eating nothing but rice balls with tuna and mayonaise for weeks and I was looking for a change of pace. Not that rice balls with tuna and mayonaise aren’t good, but…you know. Variety. At home, I eat Mexican food at least a few times a week and I missed it. On a whim, I did a quick Google search for Mexican restaurants and….I actually found one! It wasn’t too far away from me, either, so off I went. I actually ended up having a really delightful time here. I got the nachos because they were made with corn chips (I wasn’t sure how to determine if the tortillas for the tacos were corn or flour tortillas…you know, language barriers and all). The nachos actually were pretty good and I was quite pleased with myself. I also got an order of guacamole. Also the staff at Kyoto Orale were such a delight. Our server was so sweet, and generally concerned when she asked us where we were from and we told her San Diego. “But…there’s a lot of Mexican food in San Diego, isn’t there?” were her exact words. After assuring her that yes, there’s a lot of Mexican food at home, and yes, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal here, she just had to tell the chef. Next thing we knew the chef himself had come out of the kitchen to ask us if we enjoyed the meal and was really happy when we told him we had. This place is a little gem in the heart of Kyoto, so if you’re looking for a change of pace when you’re in town and you want to eat at a really delightful place, I recommend you stop in and give them a try.
Other than the food and somehow comforting Mexican decor and Ranchera music they had playing (some people think mashed potatoes and country music is comforting…for me it’s Mexican food and Ranchera music all the way), I delighted in noticing the little Japanese touches at this restaurant. The tables all offered chopsticks, and things like hot sauce were served on tiny, adorable little plates. What fun! If I ever make it back to Kyoto (I hope I do), I would very much enjoy paying them another visit.
A couple things you should know about Fushimi Inari Taisha…
- It’s awesome. This is one of the top attractions in Japan, and for good reason. It’s such a beautiful, interesting, unique place. Go there! Don’t miss it!
- If you want to see the whole thing, you’re going to get a workout, but you don’t have to see the whole thing to enjoy it.
We wanted to see the whole thing, and we did. We walked and we walked. We climbed and we climbed. We climbed hills, we climbed staircases, and then we climbed more hills and staircases. Up and up we went, all the way passing through an endless line of red gates. It was such an interesting, intriguing place, I had to keep going and make it all the way to the top, and boy was it a workout! I like that it was a workout, personally, because I’m always trying to stay in shape and there’s nothing like an endless Shinto shrine up a giant hill to keep me interested and moving forward. If you’re not the type to enjoy a lot of exercise or for one reason or another you’re just not up to climbing all the way, the good news is that you can get the experience of the place and get a sense of what it’s all about pretty quickly and easily, so I do encourage you to visit no matter what your fitness level is. If you’re interested in climbing all the way to the top, the good news is that the crowds thin out significantly the higher up you go.
If you want to do a little climbing but you don’t want to go all the way to the top, I would suggest ascending until you get to the point where you have a beautiful panoramic view of the city. That was a really nice spot and a good turnaround point.
I didn’t know if anything extra special would await me at the top, so I’ll let you know here in order to aid you in your decision…there is a shrine at the top. There are also shrines dotted all the way up the hill, and the one at the top wasn’t significantly different from the other ones. If you are a follower of the Shinto religion, I’m sure it means something significant, but for tourists like myself, it was similar to the other shrines along the way. The biggest reward I got for going all the way up was a smug sense of accomplishment, but I wanted to let you know so you can use that information to aid you in your own decision when you visit.
This area of town is home to the Arashiyama Monkey Park and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest (more on those later) as well as some really beautiful temples and shrines. It’s also just a gorgeous, charming area of town that’s so Kyoto. You should definitely make it a point to check out this area of town while you’re in Kyoto. Make sure to take the time to stroll around, look in the various shops and restaurants, explore some temples and shrines, and take in that old Japan ambiance while you’re here. It’s a truly special place.
The Arashiyama Monkey Park was a highlight of my trip! In the Arashiyama area of town, you enter the monkey park next to a small shrine. To the left of the shrine, there is a ticketing booth. After you purchase your tickets, you follow a path to the top of a hill (it’s a bit of a hike, but don’t let that stop you…I met a delightful 80 year old woman on the trail and she made it just fine, so you can, too.). The day we chose to do the hike, it was snowing and while it was cold, it was also quite beautiful as we ascended through the trees with a light dusting of snow on them. At the top, we were greeted by a large number of snow monkeys! The monkeys live on the hill and are wild, but enjoy hanging around people because we feed them treats. If you want to feed the monkeys treats, you can go inside a little building they have at the top of the hill and purchase little bags of things like fruit or sweet potatoes that the monkeys enjoy eating. You then can walk up to any of the monkeys hanging out on the other side of the fenced windows and offer them a treat. They will take it from your hand with such a gentle touch. Wonderful! After you’ve fed the monkeys all your treats, you can go back outside (no feeding the monkeys outside of the building) and watch them scamper around for a little while. Every now and then a conflict between monkeys will erupt and there will be much screeching, but they are otherwise pretty mellow. It was a stormy day when you’re up there, but on a clear day the hill also offers up impressive views of Kyoto. This is, in my opinion, a must-do activity!
While you’re in Arashiyama, don’t miss the meandering bamboo forest trail. It’s flat, not too long, and easily accessible from the main area of Arashiyama, plus it’s just really beautiful. Go there!
Gion is the famous Geisha district of Kyoto and is also just a beautiful historical area of town. When you stroll around Gion, you’ll find that a lot of the places are closed, though there are a few businesses and restaurants you can go into. Mostly the appeal of Gion is about wandering through the streets, trying to catch a glimpse of a Geisha or Maiko (apprentice Geisha) as you meander around. You’ll see a lot of beautiful girls wandering around in beautiful kimonos, but the vast majority of them are fellow tourists who have rented a kimono for the day and have gotten their hair done at one of the many businesses around town that will do this for you. The kimonos were beautiful and it looked like a lot of fun to wander around Kyoto dressed like that. Had it been warmer I may have indulged myself, but since it was freaking freezing the week I was in Kyoto, I opted for my hat, gloves, boots, and big puffy jacket instead. We did catch a very brief glimpse of a maiko while we were there. She was scurrying into a building in the alley. It was too quick for me to even snap a photo. Needless to say, the geisha are actually quite elusive!
While you’re wandering around Gion, you might as well visit this beautiful shrine, located directly next to the Gion district.This beautiful red shrine is very easily accessed from Gion.
More temples and shrines!
You could probably spend a year in Kyoto and not see all the temples and shrines the city has to offer. That being said, I didn’t even see all of the top ones while I was there (my husband was a little temple and shrined-out after a while). Still, I wanted to include a link to this list which includes some of the temples and shrines I’ve described here as well as a few other notable ones you might be interested in for your Kyoto visit.
If shopping is your thing, there are a few areas of Kyoto you should know about. Shijo-dori is a long street that is absolutely full of modern shops, restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques. It was pretty close to our Airbnb, so we ended up spending a lot of time wandering up and down this street in the evenings. There are also a few subway stations along here, so it’s a good transit hub if you’re looking for somewhere to stay that’s both near Gion and a lot of public transit (staying near Kyoto station would probably be the most convenient option for transit options, but this is a close second).
While you’re shopping, you should also check out the Nishiki Market, which is located only a few blocks up from Shijo-dori. This narrow alleyway is lined with a lot of different food and grocery vendors and is frequented by locals and tourists alike. You’ll be able to get some unique souvenirs and also check out some interesting food products along the way.
There are also a lot of shops and restaurants located near the Kyoto station area, including several malls and department stores.
Eat some street food.
Kyoto has some amazing street food. You’ll find it often in the areas near some of the city’s most popular temples and shrines. There are all sorts of varieties of snacks, meals, and sweets available in these areas so bring some cash and a sense of adventure! One tip for you on eating street food: since there are practically zero trash cans in Japan, do as the locals do and eat your street food standing right next to the stall where they serve it. You can then hand the wrappers and containers back to the stall operator and they will throw it away for you. Otherwise you’re going to be stuck carrying around your food trash all day.
Head to the rooftop of Kyoto Station.
You’ll likely find yourself at Kyoto Station while you’re in town if you’re taking public transit (which you should be…the streets in Kyoto are narrow, they drive on the left, and all the signs are in Japanese…renting a car would be an….interesting…adventure). While you’re at Kyoto station, head all the way up to the rooftop where you’ll be treated to the happy terrace with great views of Kyoto from all around.
Have you been to Kyoto? Any additional tips for people? If you haven’t been to Kyoto yet, what would you want to do most while you’re there? Would love to hear all your thoughts!