Kyoto was by far our favorite city in Japan. And it was one of our favorite cities we’ve been to together.
Kyoto is the quintessential Japanese city, full of striking temples, peaceful gardens, and incredible food. We were blown away by the beauty we found here.
I had recently read Memoirs of a Geisha which takes place in the Gion district of Kyoto. So I was feeling VERY in tune with the culture. I was craving green tea and ready to go stalk some maiko (more on that later).
One thing we noticed immediately about Japan, especially in Kyoto, was the amount of care, respect, and precision the Japanese put into everything they do. Each meal, each place setting, each interaction we had, seemed to be executed with intention and reverence.
Coming from California where we all run around like headless chickens, perpetually ten minutes late, it was refreshing to see this kind of control and peace. We loved watching people do even the littlest things.
For instance, I watched a man working at a cafe making coffee for customers for about an hour straight – cup after cup. But he was SO precise. He treated each cup as if it was the most important cup of coffee he would ever serve.
We truly loved every second of our time in Kyoto, so it was tough to narrow down our recommendations.
First, though, lodging. We stayed at the Westin Miyako Kyoto. The reason we really loved this was because the location, right off the Sanjo Dori, was perfect. We were just a 20 minute walk away from a ton of sights and restaurants.
To be honest, we never really got the hang of public transport in Kyoto and only took the train a couple of times. And yes, there were a couple of harsh words exchanged while searching for a cab in vain (read more about how we are learning to travel with each other here, ha!).
I’m going to go ahead and blame our lack of preparedness/research on the last minute rush to even get to Japan in the first place (I explained this frenzy in our post about Tokyo).
We are going to break this down into a two day itinerary, but I would suggest even spending more time than that here if you can.
Alright then, let’s get on with it.
Always, coffee (or tea. We are in Japan, after all)
I couldn’t find this place on Google Maps, but if you do stay at the Westin Miyaki, listen up. After you exit the lobby, turn left and walk down the Sanjo Dori. This teeny tiny coffee shop will be on your left just a couple of minutes down the road. This dude, who I mentioned at the beginning of this post, makes cups of pour-over coffee for each guest that enters his quaint cafe. There’s just one bar, a few chairs, and about 3 old men reading newspapers. But what more do you need?
Act natural as you visit massively intimidating temples
After coffee (and perhaps some toast and jam?), walk over to the Chion-in and Shore-in temples. You can spend hours staring up at these stunning works of architecture. Try not to get too caught up; there is a lot to see and plenty of temples to visit.
The earlier you can get your butt out of bed, the better. Tourists flock to each of these temples, especially on the weekends, and you are going to want to get in and out QUICK.
Once you’re properly at peace, head around the corner to embark on the Philosopher’s Walk. This is a pedestrian walkway along a canal that is lined with cherry blossoms (and reason enough to travel back to Kyoto in the spring). It gets its name from (you guessed it) ancient Japanese philosophers that strolled this walkway daily. We understand the draw.
Contemplate the meaning of life at Ginkaku-ji
Taxi to Ginkaku-ji, a temple that’s been around since 1460 (yes, that’s right). It’s also known as the Silver Pavilion. This was definitely worth the inexpensive entry fee to walk around the property.
It is incredibly peaceful (if you get there before the 10am selfie stick invasion) and has some awesome views overlooking Kyoto.
Spot (stalk) geisha in the Gion District
The Gion district, with its narrow alleyways and shaded windows, is where Japanese geisha culture originated hundreds of years ago. Geisha are trained artists who host and entertain through music, dancing, and conversation. Maiko, or geisha in training, spend their entire lives learning the art that comes with this profession, even how to flawlessly pour the perfect cup of tea. Most are raised and trained in geisha houses called okiya.
You can spot geisha usually around sunset in the Gion district as they make their way into wooden teahouses for an evening of work.
(By the way, if you’re at all interested in this stuff, I definitely recommend reading Memoirs of a Geisha. I was so much more interested in Kyoto because I read this.)
Stuff your face with pork katsu
After a long day of temple-gawking, you’ll be ready to eat. Luckily, cuisine options in Kyoto are endless. We ate at Katsukura the first night we were there and loved it. The portions of pork katsu were HUGE, and I loved the salad that came with it. ALSO. They give you fresh, whole mustard seeds and have you grind them up yourself to dip your katsu into. INSANE.
Grab a nightcap at your new favorite bar in Kyoto
After dinner, we walked over to Pontocho Alley, a famous narrow walkway in Gion filled with fancy restaurants and bars. At first, we felt a little intimidated as we slowly made our way down the alley. We couldn’t tell which of the establishments were private, and we didn’t exactly fit into the wealthy and coy clientele that we saw walking into the dark teahouses.
Suddenly, Tyler darted up some stairs toward a sign that said “Beer Bar.” He popped down a second later and waved me up. I walked up the stairs into a tiny hallway-sized bar and was greeted with a loud cheer by a friendly group of Hibiki-drinkers. We spent the rest of the night there, cracking up and getting to know the bartenders/owners. Definitely swing by this place when you check out Pontocho Alley.
Just one last temple, but it’s worth it!
Start your day off bright and early with a trip to see the Kinkaku-ji temple. This was my favorite temple that we saw because, hello, it’s covered in gold!! If for some reason you need to pick just one temple to see in Kyoto, make it this one. This was truly stunning.
Play with monkeys, need we say more?
After the Golden Pavillion, head across the city to Arashiyama. This was our favorite district in Kyoto.
Imagine taking a hike up a mountain to a stunning view of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains. Easy decision, right? Right. Now imagine that at the top of this mountain is a park with about 100 monkeys wandering around. Better decision.
The hike is about a mile, and they collect a few bucks before you ascend the mountain. Totally worth it.This was actually one of the coolest things we did in Kyoto. In the park, you can walk around with the monkeys and even feed them through a fence in an enclosed building. It is a riot.
Just don’t look the monkeys in the eye. At least that’s what the sign says, and we were too scared to find out what would happen if we did.
Is there anything better than eating wagyu beef on the floor of someone’s garage/restaurant?
You will have worked up quite an appetite after your morning at the Golden Pavilion and the Monkey Park. Your hunger deserves the best Kyoto has to offer — Otsuka. This traditional Japanese steakhouse is located in a residential area (literally– this restaurant is in someone’s garage) in Arashiyama and has mouth watering wagyu beef.
Take off your shoes, settle into the low tables, and sit back and relax while you enjoy the Japanese speciality.
They have different tiers of cuts, so there will be something in your price range. We chose the A4 which was everything we could’ve asked for. Take note that they do not accept reservations and you will have to wait a bit.
Stroll through the Bamboo Forest
Fight off a food coma by taking a walk over to the Bamboo Forest.
On your way over, stop at one of the street vendors to try the green tea soft serve ice cream. It’s not for everyone, but at least try it once. I was obsessed with it, not shocking.
Take your time making your way through the Bamboo Forest. You can even rent bikes! We ran out of time but would definitely do that next time. This place was so cool.
Go out with a bang and eat 75 dumplings
You know what they say. When it rains, it pours. And when the diet’s off, it’s off. You are in Japan, so, yes, you are going to eat every kind of dumpling you can think of at Gyoza Bar Anzukko for dinner.
You can make reservations here, and we recommend doing so because it is a really small space. The chef cooks up skillets of fresh dumplings right in front of you, and they are shockingly delicious.
This time around, we didn’t make it to the Fushimi Inari shrine or the deers at Nara Park outside of the city. Did we miss anything else?? We can’t wait to go back.