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top five guide: kyoto, japan

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Kyoto river walk at sunset traditional Japanese buildings 2023

Kyoto, Japan's former capital city and current cultural capital, has long held an alluring place in the minds of westerners. One example is in our fascination with geisha (or geiko), most of which are still trained and reside in Kyoto today. Another example is in our music, where a string of "Kyoto" songs have been released over the last several decades. (You can probably identify someone's generation by which artist comes to mind first: is it Skrillex? Phoebe Bridgers? The Cure?)

Just a two-and-a-half bullet train ride away from Tokyo, Kyoto is a must-visit destination for any first-time Japan traveler and its more relaxed, slower pace of life is an ideal foil to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

Here are my top five tips for a trip to Kyoto:

Fushimi Inari Taisha vermillion gates Kyoto Japan 2023

1: cultural sights and shrines

Kyoto was largely spared from WWII bombings due to its many culturally significant sights. You could easily spend your whole trip jumping from one temple to the next, so I suggest prioritizing your time wisely. Don't miss a late afternoon walk through Gion, the geisha district, where you may get lucky and spy one "in the wild" (we saw several!). A sunrise hike through the vermillion gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha (pictured) can be magical, but make sure to arrive before the crowds. We also visited the hyped Kinkaku-ji, and while the golden pavilion is stunning, I am not sure it was worth the time and entrance fee for essentially a 15-minute viewing.

higashiyama ward temple ninenzaka kyoto japan 2023

2: higashiyama ward

This neighborhood is famous for retaining much of the historic architecture and feel of feudal-era Japan. It includes Gion, the geisha district mentioned above, but there are many more treasures to explore. Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka in particular are charming, stone-paved streets lined with traditional houses and shops (note: these areas get busy!). I found some of the most fascinating antiques - including very cool vintage matchbooks - at Maiko Antiques, and though there is a unique Starbucks here built into an old building, I preferred the Kyoto latte from % Arabica. Catch a stunning sunset over Kyoto from the terrace at Kiyomizu-Dera, a Buddhist temple originally opened in 778 AD.

Shimogyo ward Kyoto, Japan vinyl audiophile listening bar Jazz In Rokudenashi

3: bar hopping in shimogyo

The Shimogyo ward, particularly the stretch running along the west bank of the Kamo River, is dotted with cool, intimate bars begging to be explored. My hands-down favorite was Jazz In Rokudenashi (pictured), a tiny spot with the coolest vibe. Stepping inside the smoky room (yes, smoking inside is legal there) feels a bit like walking into the owner's living room. The owner/bartender/DJ boasts an impressive vinyl collection, with records stored in every nook and cranny. Also worth a stop on your bar hopping journey: Turquoise Bar and Escamoteur Bar.

Pontocho ward at night neon-lit street Kyoto, Japan 2023

4: night in pontocho

The center of Kyoto nightlife is Pontocho, a a lantern-lit area of narrow streets and alleys that are ideal for getting lost in. While there are plenty of bars in this area, we preferred the lower-key, less touristy energy just south of here (in Shimogyo). That said, this is still an excellent area to grab dinner and drinks. We felt the (admittedly VERY long) wait for Gyukatsu Kyoto Katsugyu was worth it to taste their delicious and tender fried beef cutlets. We also enjoyed trying a more traditional Kyoto meal, a simple small plates style called obanzai, at Kyomachiya Obanzai Kohaku.

Nishiki food market Kyoto, Japan 2023

5: nishiki market

Kyoto is known for its high class (and high priced) kaiseki meals, which are certainly worth experiencing at least once. That said, if you are looking for delicious food for a fraction of the cost, head to the sprawling Nishiki Market. This covered food hall seems to go on for ages, so come hungry. We personally loved the tempura and taiyaki, which custard-filled cakes that are shaped like fish, but thankfully don't taste like them.

You can't always do it all, so one thing we didn’t do but wish we had:

Visit Nara and Arashiyama. Two popular day trips from Kyoto are visiting the famous deer park in Nara as well as the famous bamboo forest and gardens around Arashiyama. Full disclosure: both of these areas have been accused of being overhyped, so we decided to skip them on this first trip, though I would still like to see them for myself one day.

Have a great trip! Feel free to leave a comment with your own favorites. You can also find these recommendations (and more!) in map format by following me on the Out of Office app.

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