Revisiting Kyoto: why Japan’s cultural heart will win you over

Olivia Rawes

written by
Olivia Rawes

updated 19.06.2024

Kyoto hardly needs an introduction. In a country often associated with logic-defying bullet trains and kaleidoscopic mega cities, Japan’s former imperial capital holds an eternal appeal. It’s traditional Japan distilled – history-steeped tea houses, cherry-blossom-cloaked streets, elaborately sculpted temples – and yet, it’s also a city with a burgeoning modern spirit.

Last year Japan recorded its highest level of international visitors, and with the upcoming Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics, Japan – and undoubtedly Kyoto along with it – will be attracting even more attention. Here’s everything you need to know before your trip:

Why should I go?

The word Kyoto translates as ‘Capital City’, a name that provides a definite clue to the city’s appeal. Although Kyoto’s time at the helm of Japan is long gone, the city is still cluttered with hallmarks of its time as the country’s ruler.

History and culture are inescapable here: Kyoto is home to one of the world’s largest collections of UNESCO Heritage sites, the cuisine is renowned as the most refined in Japan, and geishas still conduct intricate tea ceremonies in the city’s wood-clad houses.

Yet bubbling beneath all this tradition, there’s a modern undercurrent. Wander a little off the beaten track and you’ll see that Kyoto’s contemporary edge unfurls itself in a clutch of edgy designer shops, quirky cafés – and, most notably, with the Kyoto International Manga Museum.

There’s no denying that Kyoto is a hard city to contain. Surrounded on three sides by low, mist-slung mountains, the city sprawls, crawling its way up the slopes that were meant to limit it. Its sheer scale may initially intimidate, but with an efficient transport network, Kyoto is a manageable – and endlessly enjoyable – city to work your way around.

Bamboo forest credit Olivia Rawes

Bamboo forest in Kyoto © Olivia Rawes

Which sights shouldn’t I miss?

Let’s face it, there are far more temples, palaces and ornately sculpted gardens here than you can realistically squeeze into one trip. So the best strategy is to hone in on the city’s highlights.

The first stop for many is the temple-choked eastern district of Higashiyama. Here the unmissable Philosopher's Path links up a whole raft of temples, museums and gardens. Hugging a carp-filled stream and dotted with little cafés and shops, you could easily spend hours meandering along this lovely pathway. Come in spring and you’ll find the cobbled path draped with cherry trees smothered with puffs of dusky-pink blossom.

In the south of the city another walking route, situated in the district of Fushimi, is an equally popular draw. This is Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of rice and sake. Here a network of paths – lined with thousands of flame-red torii (shrine gates) – meander up a forested mountain slope. Hemmed in by this crimson tunnel the climb is spectacular; every now and then the paths open out to reveal little moss-covered stone shrines and glimpses of Kyoto stretched out below.

Finally, no trip to Kyoto would be complete without a wander through the city’s traditional geisha districts. In Gion, the most famous of these, some of the traditional Japanese houses (machiya) still function as exclusive teahouses, while others have transformed into artisan shops and modern cafés.

Philosophers Path credit Olivia Rawes

Cherry blossom on the Philosopher's Path © Olivia Rawes

Where should I eat?

The cuisine in Kyoto may be famously refined, but there are still plenty of places to eat that don’t come with a Michelin-starred price tag.

At night, a good area to hunt for a meal is around the geisha district of Pontocho. Off the restaurant-packed main lane, a riddle of dimly lit, narrow passages wiggle off, many of which are dotted with fantastic local places to eat. Of these Bankara (209-8 Nabeyacho), an izakaya restaurant (informal Japanese pub), is one of the best. While the lack of English can initially be unnerving – the menu is purely in Japanese, and no, there aren’t any accompanying photographs – persevere and you’ll find the food is fantastic: dine on the likes of tempura baby squid and octopus sashimi, all set in a relaxed, friendly space.

For those looking for a slightly more user-friendly local experience, Kiramekinotori, shouldn’t be missed. Vending machines are something of a cultural phenomenon in Japan – with just over 5 million of them, Japan has the highest density of vending machines worldwide. And at Kiramekinotori it’s all about vending machine ramen. Customise your ramen at the machine and the chefs will get to work on what’s likely to be the best ramen you’ve ever tasted. Make sure you go overboard on the extras: eggs with just-sticky yolks, silk-encased wontons and strips of succulent pork.

Pontocho credit Olivia Rawes

Pontocho © Olivia Rawes

Is it worth trying the tea?

A definite highlight of a trip to Kyoto is experiencing the city’s deeply rooted tea culture. Dating back to the fourteenth century, this part of Kyoto life is fed by the nearby Uji region, a lushly terraced area renowned for producing Japan’s highest quality tea. For the full immersion head to Gion, where tea houses such as Camellia offer traditional-style tea ceremonies.

However, while tea may get all the limelight, Kyoto’s coffee culture is far from second-place. In central Kyoto, around Sanjo street, a number of cool cafés are dotted amongst the area’s elegant fashion boutiques. One of these, Drip & Drop Coffee Supply, is kitted out with an effortlessly hip interior – concrete floor, white subway tiles, low-lit bar – that feels more akin to New York than Kyoto. And just down the same street is Sowgen, a café-meets-bar that’s tucked away at the back of a warren-like shop packed with antiques and plants.

Continue your exploration of Japan with our practical tips on what you need to know before travelling to the country.

Tea credit Olivia Rawes

Tea ceremony © Olivia Rawes

Where should I stay?

Staying in a ryokan is an unmissable Japanese experience and while there’s no shortage of fantastic examples in Kyoto, nothing comes close to HOSHINOYA Kyoto. Only reachable by boat from Arashiyama – a history-steeped district that’s home to the famous bamboo forest – HOSHINOYA Kyoto is a luxury ryokan nestled in the seclusion of the Arashi Gorge. A little oasis of sculpted gardens and lantern-lit pathways, carved into the banks of the turquoise-tinged Ôigawa River, this former nobles’ retreat perfectly blends the best of its hundred-year history with more contemporary design.

Can’t splash out on a ryokan? There are still plenty of budget-friendly places to stay that don’t skimp on style. Centrally located in the cool streets around Sanjo street, Piece Hostel Sanjo, offers the best of hostel facilities teamed up with cutting-edge design. Meanwhile, if you want a unique stay (on a budget), look no further than Book and Bed. Taking the concept of a Japanese capsule hotel to quirky new levels, here cubbyhole rooms slot in amongst the 3500-or-so tomes that fill its bookshelf-packed walls.

Hoshinoya Kyoto credit Olivia Rawes

HOSHINOYA Kyoto © Olivia Rawes

Olivia Rawes was hosted by HOSHINOYA Kyoto, a luxury resort in Kyoto, Japan, nestled in the peaceful Arashi Gorge on the banks of the beautiful Ôigawa River. The contemporary Japanese ryokan has 25 elegant pavilion-style bedrooms, a renowned restaurant serving seasonal Japanese cuisine and a range of complimentary activities including early morning stretching/breathing exercises, introductory tea-drinking ceremonies and incense burning appreciation. An overnight stay costs from £527 per room per night (two sharing; room only).

Discover more of Kyoto with The Rough Guide to Japan. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Top image: Fushimi Inari Taisha © Olivia Rawes.

Olivia Rawes

written by
Olivia Rawes

updated 19.06.2024

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