Whether you’re a first timer or a well-seasoned traveller in Japan, Kyoto ranks high among the cities to visit. After all, with a plethora of religious monuments and sites, cultural icons, and endless cuisine, it’s hard to run out of things to do in Japan’s former capital.
I get it – you’ve pinned countless to-do’s on Pinterest, trawled through travel blogs and forums a hundred times and now, after one long ass plane (or train) ride, you’re finally in Kyoto. You wanna do everything! So how can you make the most of your time?
While I don’t claim to know everything about Kyoto, I think the two times I’ve travelled there has given me some insight as to what to do – and what not to do, hence this nifty first-timer’s list (you’re welcome!).
1. How much of Kyoto can I cover in 1 day?
Take this map of the city of Kyoto and divide it into four quadrants. How many attractions within each quadrant is how much you can cover comfortably from half a day to a whole day. Yes, it doesn’t look like much on the map. But trust me, you’ll be spending more time than you expected just wandering about and getting happily lost in the neighbourhood.
2. Hey! I see Arashiyama up north. Can/should I explore Kyoto in the morning and head up in the afternoon, or vice versa?
It depends on what you want to explore in both areas. Some itineraries suggest that it’s possible to visit the bamboo grove in Arashiyama and some parts of Kyoto on the same day – and it doesn’t take more than 30 minutes to reach by train (minus the time spent figuring out the train lines and jostling with the crowds during the peak season).
Then again, if you want to see more than bamboo groves in Arashiyama, it’s best to spend the better part of the day there – think monkey parks, scenic rail rides and river boat tours! – and not worry about catching that train back until it’s time to head to home base.
3. The buses are so complicated! Should I just walk to wherever I want to get to?
While the dizzying array of bus lines can be daunting for some first timers, you don’t have to trace the map with your fingers every time you need to hitch a ride.
Here’s a lil cheat code for you: look at your start and end points and find the common bus numbers. That should tell you which one to take! (Make sure you’re on the right side of the road lest you take the loooong way around.)
Kyoto is a tourist hot spot, and the bus system has evolved to become very tourist friendly over the years (read: announcements in English and screens showing the next 5 stops on the route). So don’t worry!
4. Should I buy a bus pass? What about taking the train?
Unlike Tokyo, where virtually every major neighbourhood is within less than a minute’s walk from the train station, Kyoto is an old timer whose castles and temple grounds are relatively spread out. While it’s still possible to take the train, buses are much more convenient in Kyoto.
Also, the last thing you’d want to do when you’re queueing to alight is scramble for the right amount of change. Every time someone holds up the line, a fellow tourist gets less time to spend soaking in the sights. Don’t be that guy!
5. Will I be able to see the geisha up close?
If you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to spot a couple of maiko on the way to their appointments or classes.
Otherwise, why not check out the Miyako Odori, an annual dance showcase that takes place during the sakura season?
6. Can I try my hand at a tea ceremony? Where should I go for one?
Kyoto is brimming with places for these, so you shouldn’t miss out!
If it’s your first time at one, I highly recommend Tea Ceremony Room Ju-An. It’s within walking distance from Kyoto Station, and each step is performed and painstakingly explained in English. You’ll also receive a Certificate of Participation via email 2 weeks later – how cute is that?!
7. Is it all just about matcha and temples in Kyoto?
Not at all! Chances are you’ll run into some serious temple fatigue after a couple of days in Kyoto, so here are a couple of alternatives:
- If you’re a fan of manga, the International Manga Museum is a colossal library of manga (Japanese comics) where you can spend an afternoon browsing through your favourite serials. Also a great place to get your caricature drawn by an artist!
- Not into books? You can chill with a cuppa at Cat Cafe Nekokaigi too.
- History buffs can check out one of 8 sightseeing routes for the Kyoto Shinsengumi (thanks /u/Pennwisedom for the recommendation!)
- Don’t forget to make a reservation at the world famous Kichi Kichi Omurice, known for their chef’s theatrical cooking performance which went viral on social media. Go with a friend to sample more dishes!
Website / Facebook/ Reservation Page
- And just like every major city in Japan, Kyoto is home to her own Pokemon Center which opened in April 2016.
And there you have it! A beginner’s guide to Kyoto. Enjoy. 😉