At the end of our trip to Japan, we (I traveled with a group of close friends) pondered which part of the trip was our favorite and why I remember distinctly thinking, Kyoto was my favorite. For anyone who says I have been to Tokyo, and therefore Japan, I would say you haven’t really seen Japan until you have been to Kyoto.
So if time is of the essence and you want to make sure you see the best of what Kyoto has to offer, I hope my tips for you from my recent trip to the ancient capital of Japan will be of help!
Of all the shrines I had the pleasure of visiting this one was probably the most impressive shrine complex. The place gets crowded, so head there early if you are keen to get some great photos. If you are staying in the center of Kyoto, it’s about half an hour's taxi ride.
We got there at 8.30am just before the busloads of tourists started pouring in. So I recommend getting there at 8am. Have a look at the official website and it has a map of the entire complex with a write-up of what each site is about read as you walk along.
Ponto-chō and Gion
To see some traditional architecture and to feel like you are taking a step back in time head to either Ponto-Cho or Gion in the evening or better yet both! Ponto-Cho is a narrow alleyway of beautiful bars, restaurants, and tea houses. Just magical at night! If you are as lucky as we were, you might even spot a Geisha on her way to an appointment!
It’s hard to know or pick where to dine when you don’t have a local guide, so stroll around, and if you see a place you fancy that has an English menu, walk in! If you are heading there for dinner make sure you go before 10pm, as most take their last orders at 10pm. The chances are that the food will be pretty fantastic anyhow! The same goes for the bars, try one, then the next, and the one after and I assure you, you will be impressed.
Head across the river and you are in Gion, the most famous Geisha district. A Geisha experience is expensive and exclusive (north of $700) but Gion corner offers a more accessible experience; a one-hour cultural show covering seven of Kyoto’s performing arts which include dances performed by real maiko. Kyoto has over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants and if you are looking for a Michelin-star dining experience, Gion has plenty! Be sure to book in advance though.
A district west of Kyoto, Arashiyama is also about a 30-minute drive from Kyoto’s center. The top things to see are the Bamboo grove, Tenryu-Ji temple, and the Iwatayama monkey park. If you intend to go inside the temple, I recommend just buying the entry to the gardens and you can see the temple from outside as it is pretty much an empty structure.
The best time to head to the bamboo grove which is open 24 hours and free, is around 7am. Great time to get those photos clicked as the sunlight peaks through the forest and before the crowds roll in. The monkey park is about a 30-minute hike from the point of entry and in addition to seeing the Macaque monkeys, you will have an amazing view of Kyoto from up there.
Now I’m sure you can do a tea ceremony in other cities too but Kyoto was where it was born, so my recommendation is to try it here. Dressing up in a kimono and learning about the art and customs of preparing and drinking Matcha tea was definitely one of the highlights for me!These are the places that stood out for me in my time in Kyoto, but of course, if time permits by all means add a visit to the Nishiki market, Kinkaku-Ji (golden pavilion), Kiyomizu-Dera, Nijo castle, and Imperial palace! Hope this helps, happy tripping!