When traveling in Kyoto, one of Japan’s most beautiful cities, you’re in for a treat. Surrounded by mountains, Kyoto is filled with Zen gardens, temples, hiking paths, sake breweries, and delicious food. It’s a joy to explore, from visiting one temple to another, admiring different gardens, and walking through the bamboo forest. It truly lives up to its reputation.
Kyoto is a must-visit for everyone, attracting both international and local tourists. It can get crowded, especially during peak seasons, but it’s worth it. And don’t worry, I have tips to help you avoid the crowds. Ideally, spend at least three days here to fully experience the city.
This guide will help you navigate Kyoto, ensuring you make the most of your trip while saving money.
What to See and Do in Kyoto
1. Visit Gion
Gion is known as the geisha district. When you walk around here, you’ll see ochayas (teahouses where geishas perform), small stores, and lots of traditional restaurants. The area is well-kept, full of old-style buildings and designs. A walking tour of Gion is a great way to learn more about its history and the culture of geishas. Just remember, you can’t take pictures on the narrow private streets in Gion, as too many tourists have disturbed geishas while they’re working.
Nara, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its park with over 1,300 free-roaming “wild” deer. These deer are seen as messengers of the gods by the Japanese. Around the park, you can buy deer crackers to feed them by hand. Don’t forget to visit Todai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building, which has been around since the eighth century and was rebuilt in the 1700s. Just a tip: keep an eye on your belongings in the park, as the deer might try to eat anything you’re holding, like your food or paper maps.
3. Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)
Rokuon-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto and part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. A temple has stood here since the late 14th century, but it has been rebuilt a few times, first in the mid-15th century and later in the 1950s. The temple is famous for its top two floors, which are covered in gold leaf. It’s one of the most stunning temples in Kyoto. To enter, it costs 400 JPY.
4. Arashiyama – The Bamboo Forest
Close to the famous Tenryu-ji temple, this bamboo forest is a great place to wander and discover hidden spots. It’s not too big, but there’s still plenty to see. The forest is quite popular, with many school groups visiting, so try to get there before 9am to avoid the crowds. Entry is free. Nearby, you can also check out the beautiful Okochi Sanso Garden. It costs 1,000 JPY to enter, and it’s worth it, as it’s usually not crowded.
5. Tour Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle, built in 1603 for the first shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu, has a rich history. It was once an imperial palace and is now open to the public. Covering 170 acres, the castle boasts peaceful Zen gardens, beautiful interior art, and a protective moat. It’s a well-liked spot for tourists, so it’s a good idea to get there early to avoid the crowds. Entry costs 800 JPY, and if you want to see Ninomaru, one of the two palaces inside, it’s an extra 500 JPY. I suggest getting the English audio guide for 500 JPY to enhance your visit.
This historic area is one of the oldest and best-kept parts of the city, with the famous eighth-century Kiyomizudera temple. Spend an afternoon on the east side of the Kamo River, walking through its narrow streets filled with traditional wooden buildings. These streets have many small shops where you can buy local items like Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, candy, pickles, handicrafts, and souvenirs. Another lovely spot in this area is the Philosopher’s Path. It runs along a canal lined with cherry trees, offering a peaceful and beautiful walk, even when the cherry blossoms aren’t blooming.
7. Wander among the plum blossoms
If you’re in Kyoto from mid-February to mid-March, you’ll get to see plum trees blooming with bright white and dark pink flowers, much like the famous cherry blossoms. You can see these at two places in northern Kyoto: Kitano Tenmangu and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens. It’s free to get into Kitano Tenmangu shrine, but visiting the Plum Grove costs 1,000 JPY. The botanical gardens have an entry fee of 200 JPY.
8. Kyoto International Manga Museum
Opened in 2006, this is a paradise for manga (Japanese comics and graphic novels) fans. It has a huge collection of over 50,000 manga, including 5,000 in other languages, making it more like a library. You can explore exhibits that show how manga has grown and changed over the years. There are also workshops where manga artists teach their craft. Plus, you can find rare, old manga from as far back as the 1860s. The entrance fee is 900 JPY.
9. Wander the Nishiki Market
Nishiki Ichiba has grown into one of the largest indoor markets in the city. This market is packed with stalls selling traditional local dishes, classic Kyoto souvenirs, and much more. Many stalls have been run by the same family for generations. The shops usually open from 9am to 6pm, but times can vary. For a closer look at Japanese food culture, consider taking a food tour of the market.
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Kyoto Travel Costs
Accommodation in Kyoto
- Hostels: Dorm rooms in hostels cost between 2,400-3,500 JPY per night. For a private room, prices range from 6,500-10,000 JPY. These rates are pretty consistent throughout the year. You’ll usually get free Wi-Fi and lockers, and many hostels offer kitchens for cooking your own meals. However, don’t expect free breakfast.
- Budget Hotels: A budget hotel room with a double bed at a two-star hotel will cost around 7,000-8,000 JPY. Capsule hotels, offering a small sleeping pod, start at 4,500-5,000 JPY for a unique experience.
- Airbnb: It’s tightly regulated and often expensive in Japan. Private apartments usually start at around 20,000 JPY per night. A single room might cost at least 12,500 JPY.
Food in Kyoto
- Budget Meals: Curry and donburi (meat and rice bowls) are the cheapest, costing about 500-700 JPY. Ramen is usually less than 1,200 JPY. Fast food combos are around 800 JPY. For cheaper eats, step away from tourist spots. Street food like sweets and sashimi sticks are about 300 JPY. You can find cheap meal sets at 7-Eleven for under 500 JPY.
- Mid-Range Dining: Expect to pay around 2,500-3,000 JPY per person at sit-down restaurants. Kaiseki ryori, a high-end dining experience, starts from 8,000-10,000 JPY for a multicourse meal. Wagyu steak courses begin at 10,000 JPY.
- Drinks: Domestic beer is about 450-550 JPY, sake around 800-900 JPY per glass, and cocktails are approximately 1,200 JPY. Coffee costs 500-600 JPY, and water is 100-130 JPY.
Groceries: Weekly groceries may cost 5,000-6,000 JPY for basics. But with cheap food available, you might not cook much unless on a tight budget.
Recommended Eateries: Okonomiyaki Yoshino, Ryuuann, Ramen Sen-no-Kaze Kyoto, Trattoria Macedonia Yuki, and for cocktails, Kingdom.
Budgeting for Your Kyoto Trip
- Backpacking Budget: If you’re backpacking, plan around 7,500 JPY per day. This assumes you’re staying in a hostel dorm, cooking most meals, eating cheaply at 100-yen stores, drinking less, visiting free sites, and using public transport.
- Mid-Range Budget: With a budget of 17,000 JPY per day, you can afford a private hostel room or Airbnb, eat out more, enjoy some drinks, visit paid attractions, and occasionally use a taxi. This gives you more flexibility in your travel.
- Luxury Budget: For a luxury experience, budget at least 36,000 JPY per day. This lets you stay in nicer hotels, dine at upscale restaurants, enjoy more drinks, go on food tours or cooking classes, and have a more comfortable trip. Remember, this is just the starting point for luxury travel.
Kyoto Travel Guide: Tips to Save Money
Japan might seem expensive, but actually, it’s quite affordable, especially in Kyoto. Here are some easy ways to save money while enjoying Kyoto:
- Transportation Pass: If you’re using public transport a lot, get a day pass for 1,100 JPY (550 JPY for kids). It offers unlimited travel on subways and city buses.
- Traffica Kyoto Card: This prepaid card gives you a 10% discount on buses and subways in Kyoto. You can load it with 1,000 or 3,000 JPY. Remember, unused money on the card is non-refundable, so load it wisely.
- JR Pass: If you’re traveling to Kyoto by train and plan to visit other cities, consider a JR Pass. It offers unlimited train travel and is available in 7-, 14-, and 21-day options. Buy it outside Japan before your trip.
- Rent a Bicycle: Renting a bike is a cheap and fun way to see Kyoto. Prices are about 800-1,000 JPY per day for a regular bike or 1,700-2,000 JPY for an e-bike.
- Eat at Convenience Stores: 7-Eleven and Family Mart offer cheap meal sets for lunch. Supermarkets have similar deals.
- Dine on Curry, Ramen, and Donburi: These dishes are affordable and filling when eating out.
- Cook Your Own Meals: Many hostels have kitchens. Cooking your meals, especially with ingredients from 100-yen stores, can save a lot of money.
- Shop at 100-Yen Stores: Find meal sets, groceries, and other essentials at low prices in these stores. Ask at your hotel or hostel for the nearest one.
- Buy Food at Night: Supermarkets often discount their fresh food after 8pm. You can save up to 50%.
- Bring a Water Bottle: Tap water in Kyoto is safe to drink. Carry a reusable bottle to save money and reduce plastic use.
- Stay with Locals: Use Couchsurfing or similar sites to stay with locals for free and learn about their lifestyle.
Getting Around in Kyoto
- Public Transportation: It’s easy to travel around Kyoto using buses and the metro. Buses are clean and reliable, with single fares starting at 230 JPY. Make sure to have exact change, which you can get from a machine near the driver. The metro has two lines and over 30 stations, with fares ranging from 210-350 JPY. For frequent travelers, consider getting the prepaid Traffica Kyoto Card for a 10% discount, or a one-day pass for 1,100 JPY that works for both buses and the metro.
- Taxis: Taxis are easy to find but can be expensive. Fares start at 600 JPY and increase by 465 JPY per kilometer. It’s best to use public transport if possible.
- Ridesharing: Apps like Didi and Uber are available, but they cost about the same as taxis, so they won’t save you money.
- Bicycles: Kyoto is bicycle-friendly. Standard bike rentals cost about 800-1,000 JPY per day, or 1,700-2,000 JPY for an e-bike. They’re a popular way to explore, especially in summer, so book ahead or get up early to secure one. Remember, traffic in Japan moves on the left.
- Car Rental: If you have an International Driving Permit (IDP), you can rent a car for around 7,500 JPY per day. Remember to drive on the left side and get your IDP before arriving in Japan. Discover Cars can help you find good deals. However, sticking to public transport and trains is usually faster unless you really need a car.
Best Times to Visit Kyoto
- Summer (June-August): Summer is popular but very warm, with temperatures over 32°C (89°F) and high humidity. It’s also crowded since Kyoto is a top destination. If you visit in summer, start your day early to avoid crowds and book your stay ahead of time.
- Shoulder Seasons (April-May and October-November): These are great times to visit, with cooler weather and less rain. But remember, late March to early April is cherry blossom season, so it’s extremely busy. Make sure to book accommodations in advance.
- Winter: Winters are cold but manageable, with daytime temperatures around 10°C (50°F) and nights dropping to about 1°C (34°F). The city is quieter, and while snow is common, it usually melts quickly. Expect some rain and dress warmly.
- Typhoon Season (May-October): This period can see typhoons, though Japan is well-prepared for them. Still, it’s a good idea to get travel insurance just in case.
How to Stay Safe in Kyoto
Japan, including Kyoto, is very safe. It’s unlikely you’ll face robbery, scams, or harm.
- For Solo Female Travelers: Generally, it’s safe for women traveling alone. But, it’s still important to be cautious like not leaving drinks unattended or walking home alone when drunk. Occasionally, there might be some inappropriate behavior like personal questions or catcalling, but it’s rare. During rush hours, many trains have ‘women-only’ cars, marked with pink signs.
- Scams: Scams are almost nonexistent in Kyoto.
- Natural Risks: The main safety concern is natural events like earthquakes and typhoons. Know the emergency exits where you’re staying and have offline maps on your phone for emergencies.
- Emergency Numbers: In case of emergency, dial 110. For non-emergencies, the Japan Helpline at 0570-000-911 can provide assistance.