Japan Travel Guide: Everything you need to know for visiting Kyoto

Heading to Japan? Check out our Japan Travel Guide: Osaka

Kyoto - the tourist and cultural capital of Japan and the perfect place to get in touch with your zen side within one of their 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto sites. One of the many great things about Kyoto is that most people can speak English, making this city much more accessible to people like me in comparison to Osaka.

Where To Stay

While in Kyoto, I stayed in Hotel Imu, which is about a five minute walk from the Karasuma train station and ten minute walk from the Nishiki Market. The hotel was a steal for around 50 USD a night and had simple rooms, loaner smartphones, coin laundry, and wifi. For those who do not speak Japanese, I recommend staying in a hotel versus an Airbnb because most hotelployees are fluent in english and can help you with making recommendations and potential problem solving. If you do choose to book an Airbnb or other rental property, make sure that your chosen language is listed.

A more expensive choice, but my prefered area to stay in Kyoto is the Gion district, which is between Shijo-dori and Kennin-ji Temple and the birthplace of Geisha and Maiko. Geisha and Maiko are highly skilled art entertainers who attend high-end dinners, private parties, and special events. They wear beautiful makeup and kimonos, and can be found around dusk on weekend nights in Gion.

What To Eat

Being a vegetarian, I was pleased to find that Kyoto is a great city for vegan and vegetarian restaurant options, due to their large Buddhist population. I found myself eating a lot of udon (a type of thick, wheat-four noodle that typically has vegetables, meat, and/or fish cakes in it), gyoza (Japanese dumplings filled with vegetables and/or meat), yuba (tofu skin), and matcha.

You can find some of the highest quality matcha here and the city is filled with amazing matcha cafés. These cafés sell matcha in every form imaginabletea, ice cream, baked goods, dressing, and even snow cones. The matcha in Japan has proved to supersede any matcha I’ve had in the U.S. It also has more caffeine than coffee, boosts your metabolism, and lowers blood pressure along with many more health benefits. We would start every morning with a cup of matcha and it is a routine that I continue to implement into my life now.

What to do

  • The Sanjusangendo Temple is the longest wood building in the world and is home to 1000 buddhas. Speaking and taking pictures are not allowed inside of the temple making it a great opportunity to get in touch with the spirits up above. If you focus you can truly feel the power of the Buddha.

  • Ryoan-ji Temple belongs to the Myōshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism and it hosts a type of Japanese Zen temple garden design called Kare-sansui. Kare-sansui consists of large rock formations arranged amidst a field of small smooth pebbles that are raked into a new linear pattern every day in order to facilitate mediation. I spent hours looking at the Kare-sansui and wandered around it’s surrounding garden in a dream-like state. You really feel the calming impact the temple has throughout your entire body.

  • Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its thousands of red vermilion torii gates. The gates follow a path up the Inari Mountain and it takes about two to three hours to walk to its top and back down. The temple is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and it is always open with free admission to the public.

  • Kyoto is famous for its onsens, which are hot spring bath houses that are typically open to the public and people of all ages and genders will relax at them, unclothed. Tattoos are traditionally prohibited at onsens but this problem is less prevalent as tattoos are being more accepted in Japan. If you have a tattoo, I recommend checking reviews or calling ahead to make sure that they will allow you to enter the onsen.

  • Nara is a city about thirty five minutes from Kyoto and a round trip train ride is around 20 USD. Nara is known for its deer park and Todaiji Temple. Nara Park has over 1200 wild sika deer that freely roam and can be pet and fed by tourists. These deer are fearless and polite to humans because they were considered to be the city’s protectors and sacred messengers of the gods under the Shinto religion. Todaiji Temple hosts the Great Buddha Hall which has the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana. The Buddha is so large that the Great Buddha Hall had to be built around it and it is like looking at a skyscraper.

Things To Consider When Traveling to Japan

Japan is an amazing place to travel to and I hold my experience there close to my heart. Osaka and Kyoto are relatively safe and I never felt uncomfortable wandering the streets as a young woman. Respect is of the utmost importance in Japan so it is crucial to always be on your best behavior, especially when attending temples and shrines. In these sacred places, you have to make sure to never sit or step on anything except for the designated paths, because almost everything has a meaning and all must be respected. Along this line, it is important to bow when giving thanks or after being bowed at by another person.

In Kyoto, enough people spoke english that I did not have many problems, but almost no one spoke english in Osaka and if we did not have a translator on our trip it would have made things much more difficult. However, there are 7/11’s all over both cities and they always have food and cell phone service, so the language barrier was not that big a deal and certainly not a reason to defer a person from traveling to Japan.

While I did not have the chance to travel to Tokyo, a bullet train ride would have only been a two hour trip at around 120 USD.

Flying Tips

Japan is thirteen hours ahead of New York time and I flew out of JFK. In order to avoid jet lag, I suggest booking a flight at night (mine was around midnight) and bringing along any accessories or gear that will help you sleep during the flight. My flight was sixteen hours to Hong Kong and then five hours from Hong Kong to Osaka. With a little help from the sleeping pill Gods, I slept through the whole sixteen hours, felt great when I landed, and did not have any jet lag, so I believe this is the best way to approach such a long flight.

Words You Need to Know Before Traveling to Japan

Arigatou (ah-ree-gah-toe) - thank you

Arigatou Gozaimasu - thank you very much (more polite, use when talking to elders)

Sumimasen (sue-me-mah-sen) - excuse me / pardon me

Doko (dough-ko) - where

Nani (nan-i) - what

Egio (ey-go) - english

Ikura (ee-koo-rah) - how much

Hai (hi) - yes / polite term of acknowledgement

Wakarimasen (wah-kah-ree-mah-sen) - I don’t understand

Kudasai (koo-dah-sigh) - please

Oishii (oh-ee-she) - delicious

Kawaii (kuh-wai-ee) - cute

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This blog was written by Featured Wrighter, Jess Celella.