Planning your first trip to Kyoto? Check out this helpful list to 7 things to expect and what to do when you are visiting this culturally-rich part of Japan.
Many people say that if you can visit only one city in Japan, Kyoto is a strong contender for the spot. As an ancient capital city, Kyoto is quintessential to any trip across Japan. Uniquely a city that retains centuries-worth of tradition while welcoming the new quirks of modern society, read this list to discover every single last detail and landmark to plan your itinerary out.
1. Kyoto Has No Native Airport
Despite being the main tourist destination in Japan, Kyoto itself does not have a native airport. The closest airports to the hotel, and in turn Kyoto, are the Kansai International Airport (KIX) and Chubu Centrair International Airport (NGO) in Nagoya. Alternatively, you can land in Osaka’s Itami Domestic Airport (ITM) if you are coming from other parts of Japan.
From those airports, Kyoto is easily reached via train, so it is highly recommended that you equip yourself with Japan Rail Pass. Fortunately, Singapore is one of the 15 countries receiving the convenience of visa-on-arrival. Singaporeans are welcome to visit Japan using the 90-days temporary visa that can be applied upon their arrival in the country. For some countries, the visa can be extended for another 90 days. Still, the initial 90 days can be considered to be more than enough for most travelling purposes. Just a heads-up however, all visitors of Japan will be photographed and have their fingerprints recorded upon arrival at Customs.
2. Bus: Your Best Bet in Public Transport
While Kyoto is well-connected to other cities through train and shinkansen, exploring within the city is a breeze if done via the bus service. You can buy a one-day-pass to get to many major attractions in Kyoto. You can purchase the pass at any bus or subway station, or even when boarding the bus itself. Not only it saves you a lot of money on travelling, it saves you time having to count out notes and bills for each trip.
Kyoto may be an old-fashioned city, but the transportation service and system are extremely smooth and well-run—keeping to the well-known Japanese standard of punctual and rapid transport. For your convenience, many, Kyoto hotels are easily found in the downtown area. From there, you can easily commute to numerous tourism destinations by bus.
3. Most Museums and Shrines Offer Free Entry
Kyoto is the land of countless shrines and temples to visit, and most of them offer free entry. Some of the popular ones among tourists are the Yasaka Shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto Imperial Palace, Heian Jingu Shrine, and Ninna-ji Temple. Of course, you can opt to also explore the area at your own pace and time.
Aside from the shrines and museums, another free-admission attraction that you should experience is Kyoto’s many cultural festivals. For example, Hanami or the cherry blossom festival is held annually between March and May. Enjoy the scenic beauty of Kyoto’s blooming sakura and the vibrant buzz of native Kyoto residents ushering in the season with festivities. Other festivals that are worth to attend are the Hanatoura or the Lantern Festival in March, and the Tanabata or the Star Festival in August.
The biggest matsuri in Kyoto is celebrated in Gion. This matsuri’s highlight is something called a hoko parade, where a huge carriage with a heavy long spear enshrined within it is passed through the city. Historically, the festival was celebrated to appease the gods and deities responsible for preventing natural disasters and afflictions.
These festivals function as wondrous time capsules, allowing you to take part in Japan's centuries-old traditions and rituals. During festivals, residents of Kyoto will dress in traditional outfits: kimono for girls and yukata for boys. If you want to fully experience this whole cultural celebration, pick the right date with the right costume to find the right festival you are looking to immerse yourself in.
4. You’re Going to Need Many Five-Yen Coins
In Japanese currency, the five-yen denomination, or “go-yen” in Japanese , also means “good luck” in English. One of the few yen coins to have holes stamped in the centre of it, it is tradition to use a five-yen coin to fill the offering box of a temple or shrine when praying for good luck or warding off bad luck.
You might as well join in the tradition the next time you visit a Japanese temple or shrine, so don't forget to bring enough five-yen coins to cover all your blessings.
5. Some Tourists Attractions Might be Loaded with Visitors
Do not assume the locations you plan to visit will look exactly like how it does in the picture: during peak season, popular tourist destinations such as Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Tenryuji Temple, and Ginkakuji Temple are sure to be crowded with visitors. Expect long queues if you plan to visit these public attractions, especially if it has free entry.
Other places like Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine offers a special spot reserved for those seeking Instagrammable opportunities right under the weave of its vermillion gates. Expect to have to deal with crowds and people in the background of your pictures, but the excitement and experience of being immersed in the vibrance of these cultural festivals may be worth it.
6. Kyoto Has Ryokan and Hotels
When it comes to picking up a place to stay, Japan mainly has two options: ryokan and hotels. Kyoto hotels can measure up to the standard of contemporary hotels that you commonly find in other countries. Meanwhile, ryokan refers to traditional guesthouses.
The ryokan, or Japanese guest houses or inn features traditional Japanese architecture, complete with tatami flooring, sliding doors, and futon bedding. Some ryokans even feature communal baths: the traditional Japanese way of relaxing by soaking your body in hot spring waters in communal baths.
In more densely-packed and people-heavy cities like Tokyo, a ryokan is rather hard to find and may have relatively higher rates. In Kyoto, you’ll find no shortage of ryokan spoiling guests with its local style of hospitality. In addition, the foods served in these ryokan houses are traditional cuisines. It can either come in the form of kaiseki, a Japanese set of snacks and light meals or you can opt for a complete meal such as ryori: an eleven-course meal that is crafted by an authentic Japanese cook.
You can choose to have the food served to your room, or enjoy it prepared in a communal dining area with other guests. Recently, due to the large numbers of international guests opting to stay in a ryokan, guesthouses have been starting to serve Western cuisines to cater to international tastes.
7. Get Ready for Flea Market Shopping in Kyoto
Indeed, Kyoto is well-known for many cultural quirks from its temples and shrines, to geishas and samurai. However, sight-seeing all these attractions would be incomplete if you did not bring back any memorabilia. Shopaholics listen up, Kyoto organises special price flea markets on the 15th, 21st, and 25th of every month. These flea markets will definitely have the souvenirs that you are looking for, from handicrafts, ceramics, wooden carvings, to kimono straight from the makers.
Several popular flea markets to consider visiting are the Kobo-san market at Toji Temple and the flea market at Toyokuni Shrine. The Kobo-san market is located at Toji Temple, a UNESCO heritage site. Known as one of the largest flea markets in Kyoto, antiques and trinkets-hunters will have the highest chance of finding something with historical value here. It is held several times in a month, with 21st being the most extensive one. It is also one of a few flea markets where bargaining for the price is accepted.
Meanwhile, the Toyokuni Shrine holds a themed flea market on different dates each month. The general flea market is held on every 18th of the month, every 8th, the fabrics market where you can find quality kimono fabrics, and a market for handicrafts every 28th of the month.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
A popular choice of accommodations would be the ones near Kyoto Station, where easy access to public transport is a popular “must-have”. Some of these hotels include the Ibis Styles Kyoto Station, The Hotel Vista Kyoto, and New Miyako Hotel Kyoto. You will find more options for capsule and compact hotels in the area for travellers looking for a temporary place of lodging before moving on the following day.
As most travellers would also be looking to commute around Kyoto by bus, the Kyoto downtown area should be the perfect place for your base. Quite a few popular and modern Kyoto hotels are also located here, and for good reason, you will also find many restaurants, bars, and shops are within a walking distance within Kyoto Downtown.
Besides Kyoto’s Downtown, Southern Higashiyama is another area to try, where you can find the legendary district of Gion. The area boasts many ryokans as well as modern hotels. Some of the choices are Four Seasons Kyoto, Westin Miyako Kyoto Hotel, and Hyatt Regency Kyoto.
Lastly, if you prefer a more natural surrounding, Arashiyama in the western part of the city is a perfect place to stay. You can stay in the legendary Hoshinoya Kyoto and Arashiyama Benkei, which offers a magnificent view of the mountains.
Kyoto is definitely a tourist-heavy destination all year round, but hopefully through this article, you will be able to quickly snag accommodation near your preferred destination, and have an unforgettable experience there.