Have a weekend to spare in Japan? Looking to visit the city of Kyoto? Want to know how to spend your days there? Keep reading for an informative guide to a weekend in Kyoto.
Getting to Kyoto
The first step of planning a weekend trip to Kyoto is figuring out how to get there. This will all depend on where in the country you start beforehand and how much money you are willing to spend. Assuming that you do not have a car as a personal mode of transportation your three main options will be plane, train, or bus.
A plane ticket may be one of your quickest options to get to Kyoto. If you are planning on flying, I would suggest planning your trip as far in advance as possible. Flights are much cheaper if booked weeks or months out. Also, look for deals. Airlines will have special promotions and deals that can save you lots of money. Keep in mind that Kyoto does not have an airport. To get there, you will need to fly to Kansai International Airport in the neighboring city of Osaka. From Osaka, you will likely take the JR West train into Kyoto. The fare is typically around 3000 yen and takes just over an hour. If you want to visit both Kyoto and Osaka this could be the way to go with airlines specials putting prices at less than 10,000 yen. However, when you include the time to get to and from the airport it is much slower than our next method.
The general consensus is that the best way to travel to Kyoto is by train. Specifically, a bullet train (Shinkasen). The Shinkasen is a network of high-speed trains that connect many areas of Japan. Trains on the Shinkasen travel upwards of 200 mph. This allows you to comfortably reach your destination in minimal time.
Tickets for the Shinkasen are sold by Japan Railway Group (JR Group) a conglomerate of 7 different railway companies. Tickets are sold either based upon duration or as a single/return ticket. You can purchase a 7, 14, or 21-day passes. There are standard and first-class tickets available. Ticket prices vary, but expect to spend almost 30,000 yen at the cheapest for a 7-day pass. Discounted tickets are available for foreigners and those who purchase outside Japan. The standard one-way ticket on the Shinkansen is around 14,000 yen. In most cases it is cheaper to use a 7-day pass for travelling return, however you can sometimes purchase discounted return tickets which can offer you a good discount.
For a cheaper option, you can take a bus to Kyoto. The bus will be by far your slowest and least comfortable option. However, it can save you a good chunk of change. Bus tickets can be bought through several different vendors. Many buses run a popular night shift to Osaka and Kyoto. Similar to plane tickets, booking in advance helps to save.
Staying in Kyoto
You will have several options for accommodations in Kyoto. Once again this will depend on your budget and what kind of experience you are looking for. Some popular options include hotels, hostels, ryokans, guesthouses and Airbnb. Each one comes with its own benefits and shortcomings.
You can find hundreds of hotels in Kyoto. From hotels under 500 yen to 5-star accommodations and everything in-between. When choosing a hotel, I strongly suggest considering its location. Downtown Kyoto has great access to shops, food, and nightlife. Staying near Kyoto Station provides quick accessibility to transportation. Hotels more on the outskirts of Kyoto have surrounding nature and have a more authentic Japanese feel. No matter where you choose, hotels are always a reliable accommodation.
If you are trying to save money, a hostel could be a great option for you. Hostel prices can start for as little as 500 to 1000 yen a night. With shared bedrooms and common areas, hostels can also be a great place to make new friends. There is such an emphasis on cleanliness in Japan that you have no need to worry about a cheap hostel being dirty or gross. Len and K’s House are two cheap hostels with consistently great reviews.
For an authentic Japanese experience think about staying in a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. Some distinct features of ryokans include: living rooms, communal baths, and tatami (mat) rooms. Often, you will be provided with a yukata to wear around the ryokan. In many ryokans they provide breakfast and dinner to their guests. Staying in a ryokan will give you a unique glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. A perfect fit for the long and rich history of Kyoto.
Another chance to get a truly authentic experience is to stay at an Airbnb or guest house. Both of these options are available for booking online. Depending on the quality of the home the prices vary drastically. Staying in an Airbnb or guesthouse provides a unique opportunity to truly step inside the Japanese way of life. You will experience living in Kyoto just as the locals do. This can also be a great way to get some extra space to rewind at the end of the day. Also, I have found that you are able to accommodate larger groups of people in an Airbnb.
With so many accommodation options it can be overwhelming trying to choose where to stay in Kyoto. I recommend trying to balance location, price and quality. For the most part I prioritize them in that order. Location, I believe, is the most important aspect of where you stay. Staying near the locations you want to visit will save you both precious time and money during your stay in Kyoto. Price is always important and saving on accommodations can allow you to splurge more on activities during the day. Also, I have found that while traveling I am for the most part out exploring the city, so it makes sense to try and save money on my room as it is mostly just used as a place to sleep. The best part about traveling throughout Japan, is that the quality of almost every accommodation is more than suitable. Even the cheap places are clean and have friendly service.
Where do you plan on staying in Kyoto?
A History of Kyoto
Before we go into what to do in Kyoto, it would be helpful to know a brief history of the city. Many aspects of the city’s current culture are based off of its stories and history.
The exact beginnings of Kyoto are difficult to trace back. The beginnings of the documented history of Kyoto began in the 6thcentury. In the 8thcentury, under the name of Heian-kyō, Kyoto became the capital city of Japan. This lasted for over a thousand years until 1868, when the Imperial power moved to Tokyo.
Throughout its history, Kyoto has seen various periods of destruction and growth. Most notably, the city saw large scale destruction during the Ōnin War of the 15thcentury. During the war, large portions of the city were burned. It took almost 100 years for Kyoto to recover from the destruction.
During WWII, Kyoto was one of the primary targets for an atomic bomb from the United States. However, a military general, who had visited Kyoto on his honeymoon, noted its historical and cultural significance and removed Kyoto from the list of targets. For the most part Kyoto was spared from bombing during the war. This has allowed it to maintain many historical buildings and landmarks unlike other Japanese cities.
Today, Kyoto is a unique juxtaposition between old and new. Thousand-year-old temples stand near modern skyscrapers. Visiting the city allows you to experience the history of Japan while enjoying the amenities of the new world.
What to Do in Kyoto
When planning a weekend in Kyoto your first step should be surrendering the idea that you will get to do everything you want to. The city is filled with so much to do that you will never be able to see or do everything over two days. Trying to do will only result in rushing through the parts of your visit you should be savoring. Rather, I would suggest marking your top attractions and spending quality time there. You will truly want to take in every moment you have in Kyoto. Additionally, I recommend trying to extend your stay into a 3-day weekend. This is entirely doable in Japan due to the “Happy Monday System” which moved several Japanese holidays to Mondays in order to create 3-day weekends.
So, what are the top things to do in Kyoto?
First and foremost, Kyoto is known for its numerous temples. There are over 1500 Buddhist temples in the city. While each one is unique and worth a visit, here are some of the top temples to visit in Kyoto.
Kinkakuji – Also known as the Golden Pavilion. As the name infers, the temple is literally covered in gold. The second and third stories of the temple are covered in gold leaf making for a spectacular sight. While you can’t enter the temple, the surrounding grounds are well worth a visit. A large pond reflects the golden brilliance and beautiful gardens that surround the temple.
Ginkakuji – The Silver Pavilion. Unlike the Golden Pavilion, Ginkakuji is not actually covered in silver. Yet, its lack of metallic adornment does not make it any less worth a visit. The entire grounds of Ginkakuji actually includes 6 other temple buildings. Most notable on the grounds are the gardens. A dry sand garden known as the “Sea of Silver Sand” and the moss garden will be some of the highlights of your visit.
Kiyomizudera Temple – Pure Water Temple. This is one of the most famous temples in Japan. Built in the 8thcentury it is also among the oldest. The temple is best known for its wooden stage that provides one of the best views of Kyoto. Visit in the fall or spring for views of colored foliage or blooming cherry blossoms. Part of the experience of visiting Kiyomizudera Temple is the approach to the temple which is lined with many restaurants and shops.
Chionin Temple – Most well-known for the Sanmon Gate that marks the temples entrance. This massive gate is impossible to miss and sure to inspire awe. Inside the temple make sure to check out the Miedo and Amidado Halls, the main buildings of the temple. Also, on the grounds are several beautiful gardens that you will not want to miss.
These are just a few of the many temples in Kyoto that are worth a visit. If you find yourself with extra time on your hands in Kyoto, there are many temple guides online that can provide more detailed recommendations.
To continue to find your Zen in Kyoto, go check out the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. This shrine is most famous for the trails behind its main building. The trails are covered by thousands of vermillion colored torii gates. The trails go into the mountains for 2-3 miles but feel free to turn around at any point.
Another great spot to hike through in Kyoto is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This path is lined by a towering bamboo forest. Walking through is an experience unlike any other. The bamboo groves proximity to other temples allows you to fill an afternoon in the Arashiyama area.
If you aren’t tired of walking yet find some time to enjoy the Philosopher’s Path. This is a stone path that lines a canal. The path is particularly popular in the spring as it is covered by blooming cherry blossom trees. If you get hungry along the way there are great restaurants all along the path.
Speaking of being hungry, you won’t be during your stay in Kyoto! There is an abundance of great food all around Kyoto. The city is particular known for its tofu. It is also known for kaiseki ryori, a traditional style of Japanese cuisine. In a kaiseki meal, many courses, made up of seasonal ingredients and local flavors, are served. Expect to pay the price for such delicious cuisine as most kaiseki ryori cost around 10,000 yen.
Another meal Kyoto is known for is shojin ryori. These are all vegetarian meals originally made to serve monks. Make sure to try yodufo, a tofu dish served with vegetables in a broth.
A can’t miss food spot in Kyoto is the Nishiki Market. The market is filled with hundreds of food stands selling fresh local foods. You will be able to find just about any food you could imagine in the market.
After a day of adventure, you might be tired. If not, Kyoto has a great nightlife ready for you to enjoy. There is a great club scene in Kyoto mostly filled with the many students who live in the city. In Pontocho alley there is an abundance of great smaller bars and restaurants. You can catch a traditional performance at Yasaka Hall. Don’t stay out too late though, as you are bound to have a busy next day continuing to explore the city.
Now that you know a little more about Kyoto, how are you planning to spend a weekend there? What are you most excited for? Do you still have some questions? Let us know in the comments!