We love Kyoto!! There are so many things to love about it!!
Some friends are visiting Kyoto soon and they have asked for recommendations and our suggested itinerary for our beloved Kyoto.
So here it is, hope you enjoy the ancient capital of Japan as much as we do!
Day 1: Nishiki Market | Nijo Castle | Imperial Palace or Kinkakuji & Ryoanji Temple
Usually our first point of call when we arrive in Kyoto is to head to Nishiki Market (錦市場). It’s sensory overload! We would skip lunch or brunch and walk down this market street from one end to the other and sample all the foods and snacks along the way! This can be from grilled seafood, chicken bites, ice cream to fresh egg omelets and seasonal fruits.
After the walking brunch, a great way to walk it off (and let the kids expel some of their energy) is to take a walk over to Nijo Castle (二条城). It is a beautiful fortified wooden “castle” with a unique feature. We love going there for the Nightingale wooden floors!! The boys can go a little crazy making the floor “sing”! The specially designed flooring was to deter the stealth Nijas from going in and assassinating the warlord who lived inside. It’s one of a kind nowadays, and is super cool, even for adults!
If still in the mood for more sight-seeing nearby, there is the Kyoto Imperial Palace. To visit inside the palace and its internal grounds, application needs to be made in advance to the Imperial Household Agency. This can be done online but it is not guaranteed that you can secure a booking (kids are not allowed). Nevertheless, the grounds are beautiful and they have some old Sakura (cherry blossom trees) trees on the northern side with magnificent blooms during the Sakura season.
Alternatively, it is also a great place to take bus 12 or 50 to Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion). This is one of the most exquisite temple structures covered in gold (thin sheets of squared golden paper) – shiny and golden right by the pond and surrounded by a beautifully landscaped garden. In my opinion, the best time to visit is in the afternoon on a glorious sunny day – when the setting sun is shining directly on the golden pavilion. The golden glow of the pavilion is magical, and the photos are worthy to be hung at home!
Close by (around 20 mins walk; 5 mins by Bus 59) is the famous zen rock garden housed in the Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺). It is extremely serene (if you can ignore all the other tourists!) and a bit of a mystery as to the origins of the garden itself. For an early bite for dinner, there is a restaurant inside, Seigenin, which specializes in Yudofu, the Kyoto specialty of boiled tofu.
Day 2: Gion Area | Shijo District Shopping
Gion (祇園) is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. With its traditional wooden machiya merchant houses, one can imagine what ancient Kyoto would have been like. Many of the city’s expensive restaurants and tea houses are located in this area. We love walking down the Shirakawa area of Gion as its scenic path runs along the Shirakawa canal lined with willow trees and trendy restaurants.
Many many years ago, before kids, Jeff and I had a very memorable sushi dinner in the nearby area of Pontocho (先斗町). There are many small alleyways lined with restaurants – its worth exploring but its such a maze, we can’t quite remember where this restaurant was!! It’s a shame as we have wanted to return to relive our good memories!
All that walking and soaking in historical Kyoto, we usually opt to do some retail therapy! The main thoroughfare Shijo Dori, its cross road Karasuma Dori, the Teramachi shopping arcade and their back streets are full of shops selling Japanese produce, souvenirs and all kinds of kawaii (cute) and fascinatingly Japanese things! We definitely can spend an afternoon just wandering.
Day 3: Higashiyama District | Kiyomizudera Temple | Maruyama Park | Yasaka Shrine
The Higashiyama District is THE place to experience old ancient traditional Kyoto. We especially love the walk between Kiyomizudera Temple (清水寺) and Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社), with the the narrow lanes, cobble stone walkways, wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops.
We always start at Kiyomizudera Temple (清水寺). This Temple is extremely famous, so be warned that there are loads of tourists!! However, its most beautiful views are still worth the visit.
After our visit, we stop for our tofu fix at Shimizu JunTadashi Okabe house. My favorite is the Yuba menu set where there is a hot pot of thick soya milk, and as it boils, a thin layer of soya skin (Yuba sheets) forms. With a wooden stick, you can delicately lift the Yuba sheet and dip it in the specialized tangy soya sauce. Absolutely exquisite!
After lunch, we would take the Sannenzka stairs down towards the Maruyama Park (円山公園) & the Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社). Along this stone path are many wooden merchant tourist shops, cafes, snack bars and artisan houses. There are so many fascinating things to see and buy!
Finally, leaving the shopping behind, we would walk towards the Maruyama Park which is extremely crowded during Sakura season as the Japanese all flock to get a spot under the cherry blossom trees to have a cherry blossom viewing picnic party (hanami). There are food stalls everywhere!! As we hold onto our roasted corn, boiled seasonal bamboo shoots or grilled octopus, we would wander straight into the Yasaka Shrine next door, which is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto.
As we exit the front gates of the Yasaka Shrine, we are back in Gion!
Day 4: Ginkukuji | The Philosopher’s Path | Kyoto Zoo
The Ginkukuji Temple (銀閣寺, Silver Pavilion), unlike Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), is not covered in silver. Being on the other side of Kyoto, it was modeled after, and so named to distinguish itself from, the Golden Pavilion. Despite that, Ginkukuji zen garden is like an outdoor art piece – I often wondered how they can rake (and how often!) the little white pebbles so perfectly into those long lines or circles without leaving any footprints!!
The street towards is usually teeming with energy and activities. The boys love snacking their way up and down with green tea goodies and ice cream, fish balls, specialty biscuits and rice crackers!! There’s also a restaurant that specialises in Japanese rice where they steam their rice in special ceramic pots – the menu is limited but the meals and the rice are very good (salmon miso with the rice is awesome and the crispy rice pieces!).
The start of the Philosopher’s Path (哲学の道) is right at the beginning of the street leading up to Ginakuji. We love walking down the relaxing path with the little steam down one side, and the well appointed trees lined along side it. The Path got its name from a famous Japanese Philosopher who was said to practice his daily mediation while walking down this path. Nowadays, due to its popularity (especially during Sakura/Koyo seasons) it is hard to escape the hordes of tourists let alone mediate! It is best to walk the Path in the early morning or late afternoon after 5pm.
At the end of the Path, we would enter the neighborhood of the Nanzenji Temple (南禅寺) – best place to explore its sparse grounds, its rather out of place brick aqueduct and to sample their famous boiled tofu at Junsei Restaurant. We’ve only scrapped the surface of this area as there are many temples and gardens further up the mountain and behind the aqueduct to explore! It is best for us to return without the pram!
After lunch, we normally make our way to the Kyoto Zoo (5 mins walk from the restaurant). We never guessed that this Zoo has opened its doors since 1903 as its modern upgrades, kid friendly facilities and wide range of animals make it a wonderful visit for our boys each time. The grounds are not big but they house all the boys’ favorite animals (and mine)!
*From Kyoto Station, we normally take Express Bus 100 to Ginkukuji otherwise, we’d be stuck in traffic along the main roads and it takes forever to get there!
Day 5: Arashiyama
Arashiyama (嵐山) is a very scenic district outside of Kyoto, and it is an obligatory day trip for us. It’s a must go as the mountain and river scenery is amazing – especially during the Sakura and Autumn falling leaves (Koyo) season.
The touristy areas are around the river side walk, Togetsukyo Bridge and the streets surrounding the Tenryuji Temple. A walk through the bamboo groves is a must, but instead of heading back to the busy shopping streets (see below for the tofu restaurant), we would take a pleasure stroll in the northern part of Arashiyama where it is more rural and quiet. Our walk usually take us all the way to the Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple to see the little stone face figures and to the Daikakuji Temple – I love it here, as the feeling of serenity truly calms and cleanses the soul.
The most scenic way to get to Arashiyama is to take the Keifuku Arashiyama Line (section of Sarua) via Omiya station – it stops right in the heart of Arashiyama. From Kyoto Station, the JR Sagano line also has a direct stop at Saga Arashiyama which is a little north of the main tourist area.
Day 6: Nara
A 35-45 minutes JR express ride from Kyoto Station, Nara (奈良), now a small town, used to be the first permanent capital of Japan back in the year 710.
Once arrived and walking towards Nara’s main sight, the Todaiji Temple (東大寺), we were warmly (if not too warmly) greeted by the Nara deers. The boys were both fascinated by, and scared of, the deers that roam freely in the Nara deer park. That’s because they can be quite persistent in begging for their beloved special crackers that are sold (150 yen) along the road and in the temple grounds. We’ve had our hands and clothes tugged and nibbled on – they mean no harm of course but they can still cause a bit of a fright!
The main hall of the temple is the world’s largest wooden building and houses a 15m tall Buddha. It’s quite a sight, and we could imagine what an impression it would have made to the ordinary Japanese folks of old. We ourselves were certainly in awe of its size and architecture!
Before heading back to the Nara JR station, we usually stop by the Sarusawa-ike pond for one very scenic sunset shot of the 5 storey pagoda nearby. That famous vista is not to be missed!
Day 7: Fushimi Inari Shrine | Kyoto Station Shopping or Kyoto Railway Museum
We love the Japanese red Torri gates, and this Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) has thousands of them all over the mountain!!! It takes around 3 hours to walk through all the Torri gates up the mountain. However, with younger kids or for a shorter visit, it’s just fun walking through them on the lower parts of the Shrine (we did this with our
pram!) and there are opportunities for great photos especially through the lower Torri gate tunnels and walking through them.
After the visit to this unique Shrine, hop back on the JR train towards Kyoto Station. If we craved some shopping, we would spend more than an afternoon here! Right on top of the station is the Isetan Department Store, the CUBE shopping mall at its basement as well as the underground Porta shopping centre. If that is still not enough, close by, there’s the AEON Mall to the south or the Yodobashi Multimedia Centre to the north of Kyoto Tower. There are also numerous dining options around this area – our favourite being the Ramen Street on the 10th Floor of Isetan. Ramen styles from all over Japan are represented here, and it’s fun to sample at least one or two of them!
As we have boys, long shopping bouts are impossible!! Another close by place we visit is the Kyoto Railway Museum (around 20 mins walk from Kyoto Station). The
Museum reopened in April 2016 and it’s great for little ones who are obsessed with railways and trains. It’s perfect for our Thomas the Tank Engine fans, the roundhouse platform and the train turntable would fascinate them to no ends! There’s also a steam locomotive that the boys can ride, variety of interactive exhibitions where kids can perform the duties of a train conductor or drive a train simulator!
We normally fly Cathay Pacific or redeem Asia Mile points for Cathay Pacific flights. Now that we have tried Hong Kong Airlines (link to earlier post), we might be able to find more economical deals!
There are so many amazing restaurants in Kyoto, it is impossible to list them all here!
Kaiseki is essentially a traditional Japanese style mutli-course degustation menu. It has become an art form where it is not only about taste, but also presentation, colour and texture. We have tried a few Kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto and recommend the following:
Kikunoi (菊乃井) – We booked the main restaurant for a kaiseki dinner (the 30K yen) – it’s expensive but really worth the experience and food!! Bookings can only be made via the hotel conceige and book as early as possbile!! The last 2 times we wanted to return, it was fully booked.
Kitcho (吉兆) – this famous restaurant serves its dishes on antique ceramic and stoneware which can only be handled by authorised personnel. The dishes presented are like exquisite art work and skillfully dished out by their staff.
Kikusui (菊水) – this is a ryokan hotel which has a restaurant where it serves its meals in the main dining room or in one of the guest rooms (if the room is not already occupied by guests). We had a wonderful birthday lunch for Joshua here. In our private large tatami guest room, we enjoyed its spring lunch menu in complete privacy and serenity.
Kani Doraku Kyoto – For crab lovers like me, this is heaven! This restaurant specialisies in Japanese crabs cooked in multiple different ways. Whichever way, they are all deliciously sweet and yummy!! There’s one at the end of the Teramachi shopping arcade and you can’t miss it cuz there’s a huge moving crab on top of the door; and there’s one very close to Ginkukuji Temple.
Ramen & Udon
For Ramen, we love the Ramen Street at the top of the Kyoto Station Isetan where you can sample different types of Ramen and soup base from different parts of Japan.
One of the best Udon places we’ve tried is Omen, a little unassuming restaurant off the main road leading up to the Ginkukuji Temple. We’ve always seen a long line there during lunch as it is that popular with the locals.
Tendan is a popular Japanese BBQ restaurant right near the Shijo Dori Bridge overlooking the river. Near the Kyoto Station is another popular local joint –
Daishogan. As I have to feed my boys, this is the perfect place for them meat-eaters!
Kyoto is the best place in the world for tofu, and the Japanese are so creative with this ingredient!! They offer Kaiseki menus just around Tofu
As mentioned above, our favourite finds have been the Junsei restaurant outside the main gates of the Nanzenji Temple (南禅寺) and Shimizu JunTadashi Okabe house which is slightly hidden on half-way up the souvenir street towards Kiyomizudera Temple (清水寺) (on the right hand side inside the plaza at the back where the fountain is). There’s also a good one in Arashiyama, Kyo Ine, which is located on the right hand side as you exit the end of the Keifuku Arashiyama Line.
They all offer set menus featuring the silky smooth boiled tofu, fresh yuba sheets, grilled sticky tofu; tofu soups and drinks together with tempura items, rice or udon noodles. These menus usually are vegetarian and offer no meat protein options. However, they are so good that I don’t get any complaints from the boys or hubby Jeff
Basement of Department Stores
Do not underestimate basements of department stores in Japan – there is a treasure trove to be found down there! Often times, when we are really tired, we go downstairs to the basement of the departemnt stores (like Daimaru / Takashimiya / Isetan) where they have the cooked foods and supermarket section (if we are there around closing, many of the items would also be discounted). We would buy sushi; sashimi and all other goodies from those stores and bring it back to our hotel room/Machiya.
Sometimes, we would buy sashimi uncut (like fatty tuna) and cut it ourselves to enjoy – a lot cheaper than eating at sushi restaurants and a way to relax earlier and still get a good meal in.
When we first visited Kyoto with kids in tow, Jayden was only 9 months. Given that Japan is infamous for tiny hotel rooms that barely fit a semi-double bed (slightly larger than a single), we needed to find something that could fit at least 4 people (preferably in separate rooms so Jayden’s night time crying didn’t disturb Joshie), and had a kitchenette and laundry facilities.
Enter the world of the “Machiya”. Machiya (sometimes called kyōmachiya (京町家 or 京町屋)) are historical traditional wooden townhouses, typically 2-3 storey high with a narrow street frontage, stretching deep into the city block and housing a small Japanese styled garden.
Being expensive and difficult to maintain, Machiyas are disappearing fast and are being demolished. Only in Kyoto are there many more Machiyas still remaining. To preserve these historical places, companies have started buying them, either turning them into short term accommodation or renovating them for resale.
We fell in love with Machiyas on our first experience with Machiya Residence Inn. They offer over 20 different types of Machiyas in various convenient locations around Kyoto which cater to families and groups of 4 to 10 guests.
We first stayed at Fushizome-an, then on another trip, Momohana-an. Not only did we love the privacy of having the whole house to ourselves, we loved the Japanese cultural finishings from the tatami mats, futon beds, Japanese styled bathrooms to the detailed Japanese architecture all the way to the fragrant smells of the wooden beams. All added to a truly unique Japanese experience that we haven’t found anywhere outside of Kyoto.
Haruka Rail Pass
There is a direct Haruka express train from the Kansai Airport (Osaka) to Kyoto Station (70-90 mins). The return Haruka Rail pass is Y4060 per person – this includes the tickets to and from the airport; as well as Y2000 credit on a ICOCA Card to use on subways and buses.
This is the most convenient and the best deal around!
Kyoto is around 100km from the Kansai Airport (Osaka) and it is possible to rent a car and drive direct to Kyoto (around 1.5 hours without major traffic). We haven’t tried this yet but may do so if we were planning on exploring the outer regions of Kyoto or the small towns along Lake Biwa. If we only plan to visit the sites in Kyoto, there is no need for a car.
Shinkansen (bullet train)
We have also flown into the Chūbu Centrair International Airport (near Nagoya) when we couldn’t get a flight into Osaka. From the Airport, we took the metro (Meitetsu Line) to Nagoya Station (28 mins) and then the Shinkansen from Nagoya Station to Kyoto Station (30 mins). Although the total train time is less than the Haruka Express, we would still fly into Nagoya as a second resort (and without the boys around).
Not only was there waiting time between trains, there was also the hassle of dragging all our luggage with us between the Meitetsu Nagoya Station and the Shinkansen platforms – which is at least a 10-15 mins walk.
Coupled with the fact that Shinkansen train tickets are much more expensive and it may be difficult to find a seat on non-reservation session (it’s a busy route!), flying into Nagoya has only been an option when we were not able to get airfares direct to Osaka.
At least there is a backup if we were desperate to visit Kyoto again – especially during Sakura or Autumn leaves season!
We have also rented wifi routers in Japan via Softbank’s English site, and picked it up at the Kansai Airport (Osaka) upon arrival. Softbank has 2 counters at the Arrival Hall of the Kansai Airport and we usually pick up from the North Counter. At the end of our trip, we just dropped it off at the same airport counter before checking in. Easy!