Kyoto couldn’t be a better introduction to Japan. Get a glimpse of Japanese traditions from old shrines and temples. Enjoy a cup of hot matcha and a special tofu meal. It’s a place full of surprises! Check out my guide about things to do and eat in Kyoto.
It has been more than a month since we are back from our trip. We are missing Japan dearly!
Let me share with you things we did in Japan. If you are planning to go to Kyoto & Osaka, hopefully this will give you some insights and tips. We were in Japan for 10 days. 6 days in Kyoto and 4 days in Osaka.
In this post, I am only writing about Kyoto (Osaka will be coming soon.). I am not going to list everything we did, but just to focus on the famous point of interests or things we like and enjoy.
First of all, Kyoto is nothing like Tokyo. It’s not a city with lots of high-rise. Most buildings are a few floors tall only. That city landscape reminds me so much of Los Angeles. Kyoto is an older city with tons of shrines and temples everywhere. You can even find a couple hidden in the middle of a busy shopping street, like Teramachi-dori. The city is still crowded, especially near shopping district and famous temples and shrines, but it is much more relax when comparing to Tokyo or Osaka.
We were in Kyoto early February, which is winter time. For a normal winter, Kyoto gets snow a few times a year. We were incredibly lucky to see snow falling for almost every day. Most of the time, it was just a quick 15 minutes sprinkle during morning or night hours. Fortunately, one of those days, snow actually sticked and there were a good few inches on ground in certain areas. The snow transformed the city. The views were magnificent and magical. Bryan and I have never seen snow falling before, so that was very special! No doubt, the snow made Kyoto even better!
If you are into cultures and traditions, no doubt you will fall in love with Kyoto. I think Kyoto is a great introduction and first stop for first-time visitor to Japan. It is less crowded and less intimidating than big cities, like Tokyo and Osaka. People are always really nice, friendly and polite. Even though not everyone can speak English, they will try their best to communicate with you. Everything will work out. Take it slow and enjoy every moment of it!
Click below to jump to sections:
Where we stay:
Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto
The hotel is located in downtown Kyoto and it is just across from Sanjo-dori (shopping street). Bus stops are just around the corner and train station is 5-minute walk away. There are many restaurants in the area. The hotel is modern and very clean. Our room is pretty big compare to most hotels in Japan. The staffs are very friendly. There is a self-served laundry room as well. We stayed there for all 5 nights, and we slept pretty well. When we booked the hotel, it was about US$150/per night. It was off-season, so the price was good. However for cherry blossom season, you can be looking at about US$240/per night.
What we see:
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine 伏見稲荷大社
This is a shrine famous for their thousands of bright red torri gates. You must have at least seen a picture or two before. It is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. In the shrines, you will see many foxes statues, because foxes are thought to be the messengers for Inari. The torri gates are started small and short at the entrance, and they get taller and bigger along the way. It can get really crowded at the starting point. Keep walking and the crowd will thin out. It was also snowing/raining when we were there, so we didn’t hike up all the way. If you do, it will take about 2 – 3 hours round trip.
Don’t forget to check out all the shops with cute fox souvenirs and tasty street foods along the way to the temple.
Kiyomizudera Temple 清水寺
This is the most celebrated temple in Japan. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. The main hall of the temple is located on a steep cliff and it was built by wood only without using a single nail. Drinking the water from the Otowa Waterfall is said to bring good luck to you. Each stream represents different things (longevity, success in school and a fortunate love life).
Starting in February 2017, there is major construction happening in this temple. The temple will remain open, but some area may be covered up. It will take up to 3 years to finish. Make sure you do some researching before going. When we were there, they just started the construction work. You can see the machines and scaffolding in the picture above.
Kyoto Railway Museum
This museum opened in 1972, but was expanded and modernized in April 2016. There are plenty full-sized train models, like the bullet train and steam locomotives. The museum is very interactive. You can even walk under a couple trains to check out how everything is put together. If you are curious about trains, you should come here for sure. Kids will certainly love it too!
Ginkakuji Temple 銀閣寺
This temple has to be our favorite! Not only it was the day with snow on the ground, the temple has a zen environment. The sand garden, moss garden and the pond are all very peaceful and beautiful. There is also a path led to higher up for a view of the full temple and part of the city.
Since there was snow when we were there that day, we saw a bunch of local and foreign photographers running around with huge and expensive cameras. From that, we knew how special this moment is.
When finished Ginkakuji, you can take a walk (about 30 – 40 minutes) down to Nanzen-ji Temple through Philosopher’s Path. It is a nice path along the canal. You get to see how a local neighbor is like and it is said to look exceptional during cherry blossom season.
http://www.shokoku-ji.jp/g_about.html (Japanese only)
Nanzen-ji Temple 南禅寺
Nanzen-ji was once a retirement villa for an emperor. It is quite different than the other temples. It is pretty big and there are a couple unique things to check out. Inside the main hall, Hojo, there are a few rock gardens and also art paintings on sliding doors from the old days. Then there is the brick aqueduct in the middle of the temple, which feels kind of out of place. It was built much later during Meji period for carrying water and goods to nearby prefecture. It is worth checking out.
This is the area famous for geisha, tea houses, and traditional buildings. Hanami-koji Street is the most popular street, where restaurants and tea houses are located. This is the best place to buy some green tea leaves from famous tea houses as souvenir. Be warned, this area gets really busy during the weekends. If you are interested, this is where you can check out a cultural show performed by geisha. Another area to check out is Shirakawa. Walking along the canal and willow trees was quite relaxing. We also saw a grey heron hanging out on a roof next to the canal.
Nishiki Market 京都錦市場
As a foodie, local market is always a fun place to go to. Nishiki Market is more like a really long street. Tons of shops and restaurants are lining up on both sides. We saw a lot of pickled vegetables, seafood, fresh fruits, takoyaki, fried food, and snacks. If you are there in winter time, pick up some strawberries. Strawberries from different prefectures taste different. Some are sweeter and some are more sour. Try a few different ones and find the one you like the most. Nishiki Market is a perfect place to enjoy some street foods and buy some cute souvenirs.
http://www.kyoto-nishiki.or.jp (Japanese only)
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove 嵐山竹林
This is another place that you must have seen a picture before. Bamboo Grove is located on the other side of Kyoto, Arashiyama area. It is about 1 hour ride bus or train ride from downtown Kyoto. We arrived at the grove around 9am. There were only a few people here and there. This is the best time if you want a picture of just the bamboos without people. Overall, I have to say the bamboo grove is a bit overrated. The size of the grove is literally 2 long roads. It is so much smaller than we imagined. Although it is not a big forest we expected, it is still peaceful and gorgeous.
Kinkakuji Temple 金閣寺
Kinkakuji Temple is sure impressive. It was once a retirement complex of a powerful shogun. Later, it was turned into a Buddhist temple. The main building of the temple sits next to a large pond and its’ top two floors are covered with gold leaf. It is eye-catching and photogenic, so expect to see a huge crowd.
What we eat:
Sukemasa ぎょうざ処 東山 亮昌 (Gyoza)
Gyoza! We learned about this place from watching Eat Your Sushi on Youtube. Sukemasa have 2 restaurants. They are both in Kyoto. We went to the one that is closer to our hotel. This location is tiny. There are only 3 tables. The gyoza were fried to perfection. The bottom was crispy and the filling was flavorful and juicy. Great lunch!
Price: about ¥1000 – ¥1200/per person
English Menu: Yes
http://sukemasa.kyoto (Japanese only)
Ichiran 一蘭 京都河原町店 (Ramen)
Ichiran is a famous ramen chain. You can customize how you want your bowl of ramen, like spiciness, richness, toppings, and the firmness of the noodles. It is also fun that you get to sit in your own booth and enjoy a private moment. What makes Ichiran different from other ramen shops is the secret spicy sauce. I don’t eat too much spicy food, but I went with the mild option. I thought the sauce added some nice flavors and kick to the ramen. It was a warming bowl of comfort food for a cold day.
Price: about ¥1000 – ¥1900/per person
English Menu: Yes
Tips: Popular restaurant. Go early or be prepared to wait in line.
Tousuiro 豆水楼 木屋町本店 (Tofu)
Kyoto tofu is one of the food that you have to try. Tousuiro is well-known wit their tofu. There are two locations near Gion area. We went to the one next to Kamo River. We made a reservation ahead for lunch. We got 2 set meals, which include appetizer, soup, rice, dessert and many different tofu courses. The tofu are being prepared in many different ways, like grilled, tempura, cold and in soup. One of our favorites is fried yuba. It’s a very thin tofu skin being fried like a chip. It is not included in the set meal. Remember to order on the side. I know tofu is not too exciting to many people, but this tofu meal is very unique and definitely worth trying at least once.
Price: about ¥2300 – ¥2700/per person
English Menu: Yes
Tips: 1) Go for lunch. Lunch is much cheaper than dinner, and the amount of food is about the same. 2) Reservation recommended.
Katsukura かつくら三条本店 (Tonkatsu – fried pork cutlet)
Bryan’s favorite Japanese food is tonkatsu. A tender piece of pork tenderloin rolled in a flaky panko crust and fried to perfection. Katsukura is a cute little restaurant hidden in an alley in Sanjo. Their tonkatsu is juicy and crispy at the same time. Other than pork, they also serve fried prawn and different kind of croquettes too. If you love fried food, this is a place not to miss!
Price: about ¥1700 – ¥2400/per person
English Menu: Yes, with eating instruction.
Tips: It can get busy during rush hour. Try to be there early to avoid line.
Hanana 鯛匠 (Japanese Seabream)
This restaurant is located in Arashiyama. They are famous for their Japanese seabream. It is an excellent place for lunch. The restaurant only offers 2 options in their menu. One is a grilled seabream set and the other one is a sashimi seabream with rice and green tea. We researched and learned that the sashimi version is much more popular and with less bones, so we both got the sashimi. The seabream is thinly sliced and served in a rich sesame sauce. To eat, first place a few pieces of fish and a little bit of sauce over the rice. Then pour some green tea over. Enjoy everything together. The fish was fresh and the sauce was delicious. It was a unique and tasty meal. If I am ever coming back to Kyoto, no doubt I will come back here.
Price: about ¥2300/per person
English Menu: Yes, with eating instruction.
Tips: The restaurant opens at 11am, but people start lining up at 10:30 or so.
Address: 京都市右京区 嵯峨天龍寺瀬戸川町 26-1
http://www.hanana-kyoto.com (Japanese only)
Kyoto Omuraisu 京都 オムライス ルフ
This place locates in a tiny alley near Kiya-machi Dori. It was pretty hard to find even with the direction of google map. After circling around a couple times, we finally found this place. It is a small restaurant. They are famous for their omurice, but they also have a few other things like, fried shrimp and hamburger steak. Bryan got the house special omurice and I ordered the white miso one. The white miso one is definitely special. The rice inside is not a traditional ketchup fried rice, instead it has mushroom, tofu curd and couple other things that I can’t remember. The sauce was savory and the taste of miso was present. It was a pleasant surprise! I wish I can eat that every day!
Price: about ¥900 – ¥1300/per person
English Menu: Yes
Tips: It will help to find this restaurant if you can remember how the front entrance looks like. Download the picture and keep it with you.
Address: 京都市中京区 先斗町四条上ル17番ロジ
http://kyoto-omurice.com (Japanese only)
Konna Monja こんなもんじゃ
If you are visiting Nishiki Market, be sure to stop by this little shop. They sell food that is made from soy or soy milk. Their donuts were really amazing! We tried the ones with brown sugar and soybean flour. So light, fluffy, hot and flavorful! If we are not going to eat later, I could eat another half dozen donuts and a soy milk soft serve too!
Price: about ¥200 – ¥400/per person
English Menu: Yes
Address: 京都市中京区 堺町通錦小路上ル中魚屋494
Saryo Tsujiri 茶寮都路里 祇園本店 (Dessert Parfait)
This tea house is well known in Kyoto. Many locals love coming here for their matcha desserts and parfaits. We came after 7pm on Sunday night. There was a line with about 10 people. We waited for 20 minutes or so. Even though we just finished dinner, we still each got a parfait. There is always another stomach for dessert, right? My parfait has matcha whipped cream, chestnut, mochi, matcha jelly, matcha ice cream, red bean and matcha castella (cake). It was packed with matcha, not overly sweet, not too bitter and not too heavy. It really wasn’t too much for one person. I enjoyed it very much! This is a must-visit! Remember to pick up a few green tea teabags as gifts on the way out too!
Price: about ¥300 – ¥1400/per person (Each parfait is between ¥1000 – ¥1400.)
English Menu: Yes
Tips: Be prepared for a line, especially during the weekend.
Address: 東山区四条通祇園町南側 573-3
Planning and traveling tips:
- Rent a wifi hotspot! Internet and google map is your best friend. Google map even has bus and train schedules, which is super helpful. We rented our hotspot from eConnect and they mailed it to our hotel before we arrived. We picked up the hotspot at the hotel and it was ready to be used. It was about US$9-10 per day. Worth every penny!
- Get a ICOCA card. It is a rechargeable contactless smart card for public transports. You can use it in buses, trains, trams and JR in Kansei area (including Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe etc). Instead of trying to figure out fare each time and digging through your coin purse, you can just use this card and recharge it every once a while.
- There are many different kind of discount bus, train, subway passes. Some can only be used for specific type of transports and most have a limited time. It gets pretty complicated and confusing. If you want to learn more, click here. If you are like us, who only go to a couple destinations in a day, discount passes won’t save you that much. I personally prefer ICOCA card.
- Most restaurants only accept reservations in Japanese. For me, I don’t have a Japanese-speaking friend that I can ask for help. I used my visa card concierge service. They are able to make reservations through their team in Japan. It was easy and it totally worked. It may require a few days to complete the reservation. Do it at least a few weeks ahead your trip. Make sure to check that you have the right restaurant, because some restaurants may have similar names and multiple locations.
- Transportation in Japan can be confusing and stressful. Take your time to study the transport maps and read signs before you get on anything. Give yourself extra time for traveling. Oh yes, we had got on a wrong bus.
- Head to point of interests early to avoid crowds. In our advantage, we woke up pretty early everyday because of our jet lag. We got to most shines and temples around 9am. I understand it is hard to go to every place early. Pick a few favorites from your list and schedule those for morning visit.
- Use the website Tabelog for restaurant searches. It is like Yelp and Openrice.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes. We walked about 9 miles each day while we were trying to take it easy.
- Japanese companies like to push out limited edition and regional edition products (souvenirs and snacks). For example, Starbucks sell a sakura latte from mid-February to mid-March. After that you won’t find it anywhere. Another example is you may not be able to find the same fox souvenirs elsewhere other than shops near Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine. So, I encourage to buy or try whatever you want right away. If not, you may not find it in other places or you may have miss the period.
- When buying a food product, check the expiration day. Many food products in Japan has a short consuming period. Green tea and cookies can usually last longer.
- Airport souvenirs are about the same price as outside. It’s a great place for last minute souvenirs, like snacks.
- February is considered as low season in Japan, which is exactly what Bryan and I like. We are not fond of huge crowds. It feels overwhelming. If you are like us, think about going to Japan during low season, like December, January, and February.