Kyoto, the ancient capital and ‘cultural heart of Japan’ lures travellers with its ancient temples and shrines, picturesque gardens, delicious cuisine and geisha tradition, but the Kyoto appeal goes a lot deeper than its obvious drawcards.
From insider-guided neighbourhood tours to sake tastings and tea ceremonies, from big sights to hidden gems, Kyoto is a destination that is diverse and enticing all around.
Kyoto is a multi-faceted destination that offers something for everyone to see and do. Couples may want to indulge in the many gourmet experiences available, immerse themselves in onsens, enjoy a traditional ryokan experience or simply wander the city’s ancient cobbled streets.
Being one of the world’s safest travel destinations, Kyoto also makes for an excellent family holiday.
Active travellers are well-catered for with a huge amount of active pursuits available such as cycling tours and walking tours in Kyoto itself and surrounds.
How to get to Kyoto
There are more direct services from Australia to Japan on offer than ever before with Qantas, Jetstar and All Nippon Airways (ANA) all offering affordable flights year-round from all major cities in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, Gold Coast). ANA will begin offering daily services between Tokyo and Perth in September 2019.
Once in Japan, the most convenient and affordable way to get around is by getting a Japan Rail (JR) Pass, a special pass valid for unlimited travel on all JR trains.
Kyoto has some walkable areas, with few hills and tall buildings. Getting around on rental cycles is also very popular. But visitors also have a wealth of options when it comes to public transportation, from the Kyoto subway, to Kyoto City Buses, to a number of other train lines that run throughout the city.
Top 10 things to do in Kyoto
Take an Insider-Guided Cultural Tour
The ‘City of Kyoto Visitors Host’ is a series of insider-guided experiences designed to unveil the essence of the cultural capital of Japan. From exploring the hidden corners of historic castles to learning about traditional arts and crafts and strolling some of the city’s most unique neighbourhoods, the tours make Kyoto’s cultural assets shine bright.
Kyoto Artisan Experiences
Known for attention to detail and creativity, Japan oozes sophistication and there is nowhere this becomes more obvious than in Kyoto. Kyoto Artisan Concierge is an online service providing visitors with the unique opportunity to make private visits to studios in Kyoto for hands-on experience of local traditional crafts. It is a bridge connecting people in search of genuine experiences with artisans offering visits to over 30 different ateliers- we recommend booking a Kyoto Visitors Host to assist with translation and to make the most of your visit.
See the Cherry Blossoms-by Day and Night
With its elegant temples and shrines, quaint cobblestone alleys and its heritage going back to the old days of Japan, there is nowhere else you’d want to witness the colourful blooming spectacles. Some of Kyoto’s most iconic sights, such as the famous five-storey Toji-ji temple and Nijo-jo castle, hold special illumination events allowing travellers to have the cherry blossom experience they may have never expected to have. A Useful Guide ‘Best Times to see Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto’ can be found HERE.
Autumn Leaves Illuminations
Kyoto’s temple light-up events are an absolute feast for the eyes allowing you to witness the autumn foliage in full bloom. Some great spots to view the autumn illuminations are Kogen-ji temple, Kifune-jinja shrine, To-ji temple and Entoku-in temple. The yearly Kyoto Arashiyama Hanatouro sees Kyoto’s most famous temples and shrines and other historical and cultural heritage sites and city streets transform into festival pathways decorated with traditional lanterns and large ikebana displays.
Geiko and Maiko Dances
Every season comes with a dose of culture in Kyoto but spring and autumn offer some particularly charming events. The Gion Odori autumn dance (held early November) is one of the more intimate ways to experience the long-held dance tradition and counts as one of the most enticingly charming geiko and maiko performances in town. Miyako Odori is one of the great spring shows held during the peak of cherry blossom season throughout the month of April with the most popular dances being the Miyako Odori “Cherry Blossom Dances” and “Dances of the Old Capital.”
Explore Kyoto’s Gardens
Being home to some of Japan’s – and the world’s – most beautiful gardens, Kyoto becomes a green paradise of colour and tradition every early summer. In Kyoto, special garden openings often come with colourful festivals, rituals and traditional dancing performances. Some garden must-do’s include the gardens at Ryosoku-in Temple and Shisen-do Temple. Murin-an Garden is one of Kyoto’s best-kept secrets and considered to be a pioneer of the modern Japanese gardens in Kyoto.
Japanese Food & Sake Tasting
Kyoto is graced with one of the world’s most spectacular cuisines, from traditional kaiseki to some of the best sushi and ramen restaurants. Visitors can now easily access restaurants and make reservations through the website.
Kyoto Restaurant Winter Special
Every February, Kyoto’s restaurants cook up a storm with 200 shops and restaurants offering a range of exciting winter specials giving visitors the opportunity to sample the finest of Kyoto’s cuisine at the most amazing prices, as part of the Kyoto Restaurant Winter Special.
For a unique sake experience, head to the Fushimi district, that, due to its abundant underground reserves of clear, high-quality water, has blossomed into a centre for sake production. Tour the Kizakura Fushimigura sake brewery in Kyoto, relish premium Japanese sake paired with light foods and enjoy a guided tour of the Fushimi Sake District.
The city is home to more than 200 public and private museums, as well as numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines which hold various national treasures and cultural assets. Some highlights include:
- Kyoto National Museum
- The Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts
- Kyoto International Manga Museum
- Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art
Colourful Festivals – Kyoto’s three big festivals
Aoi Matsuri Festival (held every year in May): Aoi Matsuri Festival is known for its elegant parade with people dressed in classic costumes of the Heian period. During the festival, Japanese wild ginger leaves (aoi) are presented in front of the shrine, and used to decorate shrine halls and nearby buildings. Throughout the whole month, many rituals are held in preparation for Aoi Festival.
Gion Matsuri Festival (held every year in July): Known as THE summer festival of Japan, there is no other event that fills the city with joy and excitement like Gion Matsuri does. It is one of Yasaka Jinja Shrine’s yearly rituals, developed as a festival of local Kyoto leaders, and is known for the great history and splendour of its events. Festivities are held for a period of one month and include a diversity of rituals and events with the greatest highlight being the Yamahoko Float Procession with floats being decorated with works of art, including beautiful fabrics, carpets, and tapestries, the floats in the parade are like an outdoor, moving art gallery.
Jidai Matsuri Festival (held every year on 22 October): The most exciting fusion of a costume show and a history lesson, Jidai-Matsuri Festival is an incredible celebration of Kyoto’s fascinating past. The festival procession sees several hundred marchers dressed in exquisite costumes from the various periods of Kyoto history winding their way from the Old Imperial Palace to the Heian Shrine.
Stay in a traditional ryokan
What better way to get an authentic Japan experience than by staying in a traditional Japanese inn-and there are plenty of great ones in Kyoto. Check out this video about experiencing the Kyoto ryokan experience.