Is Kyoto worth visiting in 2023?

Guest Post by Emma – Solo Travel Blogger at Emma Jane Explores

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Exploring Japan: Is Kyoto Worth Visiting?

Kyoto is in so many ways the real heart of Japan. The hustle of the country’s big modern cities like Tokyo and Osaka seems a distant memory here as skyscrapers give way to cobbled streets and lantern-lit alleys. But is Kyoto worth visiting in 2023 as Japan re-opens for tourism? The answer is a resounding yes. 

Kyoto - Kamo River
Kyoto – Kamo River

What is so special about Kyoto?

Kyoto History

Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan and one of the most historically significant. The emperors of Japan ruled the country from Kyoto from 794 AD until 1869, so in reality, this gorgeous city was also critically important for centuries. In fact, the name Kyoto actually means ‘Capital City’.

The Kyoto Imperial Palace is still standing in the city, albeit not the original building which was burnt down and reconstructed in 1855, and a visit here allows visitors to explore the region’s grand past as the centre of the country. 

Kyoto is worth visiting for an insight into Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist religious practices and the area is full of shrines and temples to visit. Some are small and unassuming; others are really quite unique and remarkable such as the bright orange Torii gates of Fushimi Inari or the sparkling gold pavilion of Kinkaku-Ji. 

kyoto origami crane on string in rainbow colours
Origami Crane
Statue of fox at Fushimi Inari Taisha
Statue of fox at Fushimi Inari Taisha

In 1994, many of these significant Kyoto shrines and temples were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage register – the city and surrounds have an incredible 17 sites designated on the register which is one of the highest concentrations of World Heritage sites in the world. 

Kyoto Today

Fortunately, Kyoto survived World War II relatively unscathed from bombings which means it is one of few areas in the country that boasts many pre-war buildings. Today, the main tourist district’s preserved wooden houses or ‘machiya’ are used for restaurants, bars and tea shops. 

The region is also famous for still upholding the elusive Japanese tradition of Geisha and often at night in the dimly lit alleyways, it is possible to spot a Geisha briskly walking to her next appointment. This is all part of the magic that makes Kyoto worth visiting. 

Downtown Kyoto is certainly more modern than the well-preserved tourist areas of Gion and Pontocho Alley and feels more like one of Japan’s contemporary cities, though it definitely seems to still maintain a slower pace than the craziness of Tokyo. 

Kyoto torii gate - huge red gate with tourists walking
Torii gate

Getting to Kyoto

Getting around Japan is wonderfully easy with the country’s amazing rail system – one that is right up there with the best in the world. If you’re planning on travelling around the country, you may like to consider the JR Rail Pass which is a tourist rail pass that allows unlimited travel on JR services (including the Shinkansen or Bullet Train). Travelling from city to city is really quick and easy with a JR Pass, but do note that it is only valid for JR lines – some subways in the cities are not eligible for free travel with the pass and you’ll need to buy a ticket. 

From Tokyo

From Tokyo Station, getting to Kyoto is quick and easy. Simply buy a ticket (or use your JR Pass) for the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen and travel 4 stops to Kyoto station. A trip will take just over two hours. By comparison, driving between the two cities would take over 5 hours!

From Osaka

Kyoto is very close to Osaka, so it is a very quick trip between the two cities at a mere 30 minutes. From Osaka Station, the Tokaido Shinkansen will go 3 stops before arriving at Kyoto. Driving is a little more doable between these locations, but as it will still take an hour versus 30 minutes, I’d always recommend the train. 

Getting around Kyoto

Kyoto is a very easy city to explore with many attractions walking distance from the town centre and a great subway, bus and rail system. The main tourist area of Gion is a 20 minute train ride from Kyoto Station and from here you are able to explore many of the traditional sights of the city by foot. 

Any visit to Kyoto should include the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest which will require you to utilise a rather unique form of public transport called the Randen or Keifuku Electric Railroad which is a sort of tram. 

Gion skyline at sunset with purple sky and orange pagoda.
Gion skyline at sunset

Where to stay in Kyoto

If you’re a first-time visitor to Kyoto, then I’d always recommend staying in or near Gion. This will mean you have an abundance of restaurants and bars at your disposal and you will have the added pleasure of strolling the famous geisha district’s alleys at night to really enjoy the city’s magic without having to worry about having to get back to your accommodation. 

For a traditional Ryokan stay, try the Ryokan Motonago which features beautiful tatami mat floor rooms, futon bedding and a public bath (onsen).

For a more contemporary stay, the beautiful Gion Elite Terrace is hard to pass up with modern rooms that still encompass Kyoto’s traditional feel. 

Best time of year to visit Kyoto

Any time of year is a great time to visit Kyoto as every season brings out a different side of the city’s beauty. 

two brightly dressed japanese worshippers Arashiyami
Japanese worshippers Arashiyami

Winter

Winter is low season for international tourists and visitors are treated to the sparse branches of the weeping cherry blossom trees amid celebrations of the New Year where Japanese people flock to the temples and shrines in droves. If you visit Japan in winter Hakuba is a must!

Spring

Spring brings the world-renowned cherry blossom season, where the streets are filled with the famous pink flowers. Be warned, this is Kyoto’s busiest time of year and you will need to steel yourself to deal with huge crowds and peak season prices. However, it is the city’s prettiest time of year, so it is still worth visiting Kyoto in spring despite the crowds.

Autumn

My personal favourite time of year to visit Kyoto is in the Autumn foliage season. In November, the fire-engine red of the Japanese Maple trees make visiting the temples and shrines extra picturesque and the colours are just to die for. In my opinion, this time of year is even more striking than the cherry blossom season. 

Summer

Summer is hot in Kyoto, with high levels of humidity and frequent rainfall, so this would probably be my least favourite time to visit. That said, the trees and streams are all lush and beautiful at this time of year, so if you are able to weather the heat and moisture in the air then you will definitely still enjoy your stay. In July, the Gion Matsuri is on – a huge festival where floats and processions parade the streets making Kyoto worth visiting despite the humidity. Just be sure to carry an umbrella!

River in Kyoto with traditional wooden buildings on the rivers edge
Gion – Kyoto

How many days should I spend in Kyoto?

There are so many things to do that make Kyoto worth visiting for a week or more. However, a three-day itinerary will allow you to experience a great Kyoto ‘sampler’ that will definitely have you desperate to return for more.  

Where to eat in Kyoto

Kyoto, known for its rich history and cultural heritage, also offers a wide range of delightful vegan options. From traditional Japanese dishes to international fare, this city does not disappoint when it comes to plant-based food.

  1. Ain Soph Journey Kyoto Station: This charming restaurant, conveniently located near Kyoto Station, is part of a popular vegan chain in Japan. Ain Soph offers a menu brimming with creativity and a wide selection of both Western and Japanese dishes, such as the hearty vegan ramen and flavorful vegan curry.
  2. Towzen: Nestled in the South of Kyoto, Towzen is a must-visit for ramen lovers. Their soy milk ramen is a crowd favorite, offering a unique, creamy take on this traditional dish. They also serve an assortment of vegan sides and desserts that change with the seasons.
  3. Choice Café and Restaurant: Located in central Kyoto, Choice offers a plethora of vegan cheese options, a rarity in Japan. Their menu features a range of dishes, from pizzas to lasagnas, all made with their house-made vegan cheese. Don’t miss out on their selection of mouth-watering vegan pastries for dessert!
  4. Shigetsu: Inside the grounds of Tenryu-ji Temple, Shigetsu serves Zen Buddhist cuisine, also known as Shojin Ryori. This form of cooking is entirely plant-based and plays with textures and flavours in seasonally inspired dishes. It’s an exquisite, contemplative dining experience that ties in beautifully with a visit to the temple.
  5. Veg Out: Overlooking the Kamogawa River, Veg Out provides a tranquil dining experience. They serve a plant-based menu with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients. Visit them for brunch and enjoy their delectable avocado toast or drop by for dinner to savour their daily special.

Things to do in Kyoto

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest - huge green bamboo plants
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Often some of the most iconic pictures of Kyoto feature this lush green bamboo forest located a little way from Kyoto’s centre. Arashiyama is absolutely worth the day trip, which can be coupled with a visit to several of the area’s most significant temples such as Kinkaku-Ji. 

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-Ji is otherwise known as the Gold Pavilion and is one of Kyoto’s most famous temples on the UNESCO World Heritage list. This stunning pavilion is best experienced when the sky is blue to truly bring out the colours of the building. 

Geisha spotting in Ponto-Cho Alley

You can’t visit Kyoto without holding out some hope you might see a Geiko (fully fledged Geisha) or Maiko (apprentice Geisha) scurrying through the lantern lit alleys of the town. Ponto-Cho is one of the best alleys to wander up and down at night in the hope you may spot one. Remember your Geisha etiquette though – do not get in their way or intrude as they make their way through the laneways to their place of work. 

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine - Red shrine with people
Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine is an expansive Shinto shrine walking distance from the main Gion area. The shrine is expansive, with several halls adorned with lanterns and lovely gardens to explore. This shrine is home to the Gion Matsuri, a huge festival held every July that dates back to the year 869.  

Kyoto Imperial Palace

The Kyoto Imperial Palace is definitely a place worth visiting in Kyoto as it helps visitors understand the huge significance the city has in Japanese history. Situated in a lovely park where another palace for retired emperors is also located, the grounds are free to wander however none of the buildings can be accessed.  

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is a must-visit for foodies as this incredibly tantalising five-block market offers up the best in local produce. This market is known as Kyoto’s Kitchen because it isn’t just a tourist market – locals come here and shop or eat in droves. Keep an eye out as many stalls offer tasting samples for free, but if you’re in search of a meal then there are also many restaurants here to have a sit down meal. Please note: in Japan it is considered rude to walk and eat, so if you’re tasting food from a stall, make sure you stop and eat it there before continuing on your way.

Nijo-Jo

Nijo Jo - temple in Kyoto
Nijo Jo

Nijo Castle is an impressive Edo era castle not far from the Imperial Palace. This castle was home to the Shoguns of the Edo era and was built in 1603. It is UNESCO World Heritage listed because it is one of the best surviving examples of a castle from this time. Unlike the Imperial Palace, you are able to access the interior buildings of Nijo-jo, however this does incur an additional charge. 

Tenryu-Ji

Tenryu-ji - green river with green trees - Is Kyoto worth visiting?
Tenryu-ji

The magnificent gardens of Tenryu-Ji are best visited when the Autumn foliage season is on in November as the red of the maple leaves beautifully frame the zen gardens. This Buddhist temple is located in the Arashiyama area so it can be visited on the same day as a trip to the Bamboo Forest. Whilst the temple buildings have been burnt and rebuilt several times, the impressive gardens (which are the real drawcard here) date back to 1339 and are still meticulously looked after. This temple is part of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage listed sites. 

Ryoan-Ji

Ryoan Ji Shrine - rocks surrounded by white gravel
Ryoan Ji

Ryoan-Ji is another famous Buddhist temple. However, this one is unique for its pristine raked rock garden. This is the perfect spot for a sit down and some internal reflection as you take in the zen garden. Notice that from any vantage point there is always one rock that is unable to be seen – part of the mystery of the garden’s design. 

Walk the Philosopher’s Path

Philosophers Path - green trees with river in centre
Philosophers Path

The Philosopher’s Path is famous for its cherry blossom lined canal, however there is much beauty here to be seen at any time of year. A walk along this route starts at the Silver Pavilion and finishes in the beautiful Nazen-ji area with plenty of little temple stops to make along the way. The walk itself is a lovely, peaceful stroll – perfect for a post-lunch amble to make room for dinner!

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari Taisha - multiple red torii gates
Fushimi Inari Taisha

The seemingly infinite orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari are surely one of Kyoto’s most famous sights. These rows of wooden gates stretch a long way up into the mountain and the complex is home to many sub shrines. You’ll see plenty of fox statues at this shrine as these were thought to be Inari’s (God of the Harvest) messengers. 

Kodai-Ji

Kodai-Ji is yet another Buddhist temple located in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. It has beautiful gardens and buildings that are some of Kyoto’s finest, so this temple is not to be missed. It is particularly famous for being one of Kyoto’s most beautiful sights in the Autumn foliage season.

Kiyomizu-dera

This Buddhist temple is famous for its stunning wooden terrace, particularly in cherry blossom season and Autumn foliage season. The temple’s name means Pure Water Temple as it was built on a waterfall way back in 780. Kiyomizu-dera is part of Kyoto’s cohort of UNESCO World Heritage Listed temples and shrines. 

Otagi Nenbutsu

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a very small temple in the Arashiyama area that is interesting enough to trek a little off the beaten path. This unassuming temple is full of tiny statues that upon closer look are all unique – some are sharing sake or playing with children. While this temple is nowhere near as grand as some of the others on this list, this quirky temple could suck up hours of your time as you examine each of the tiny statues.

Gion Tatsumi Bridge

The Gion Tatsumi Bridge has always been a picturesque place for a photo in Kyoto’s traditional area, however the film Memoirs of a Geisha really threw this bridge into the spotlight. In peak season, crowds line up to have their photo taken here, but in off season it is much easier to get the snap without having to wait for a long time. 

Minamiza Kabuki Theatre

Japan’s traditional theatre is Kabuki Theatre. This strange and unusual art form requires actors to dress in excessive makeup and act out Japanese stories. Performances often run for three hours or so (with intermissions) and at times they do provide headsets to help visitors understand what is happening – the whole thing is such a spectacle though that really you can just sit down and enjoy the madness without having to worry about translations. 

Hanami Koji

Hanami Koji is one of Kyoto’s famous Geisha streets and is the most famous one in Gion. A much wider street than the dingy alleys around Pontocho, this lovely machiya lined road is full of tea houses and it is possible to spot a geisha visiting these ochiya for a performance and tea ceremony. 

Gion Cultural Show

For those interested in seeing a Geisha performance, but who can’t afford to sling for a genuine one in the privacy of an ochiya, the Gion Cultural Show will give you a taste of the artform without the hefty price tag. Designed for tourists, this show at Gion Corner demonstrates the art of dance, tea ceremony and music complete with photo opportunities if desired. 

Ginkaku-Ji

Kyoto’s Silver Pavilion marks the start of the Philosopher’s Path and is a zen Buddhist temple. For me, the real highlight of this temple complex is the beautiful moss garden – quite unique to the other temples in the area. The Silver Pavilion isn’t actually silver, instead it is rumoured to look silvery in the moonlight and was modelled on the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji.

Kyoto Tower

The Kyoto Tower is a very modern change of pace from viewing all of these beautiful old temples and shrines. It is Kyoto’s tallest building and offers panoramic views of the city and on a clear day you can even see Osaka. 

Two Japanese women at temple with string of paper prayers

In Conclusion: Is Kyoto Worth Visiting in 2023?

Yes, of course Kyoto is worth visiting in 2023 and I’m sure it will be for decades to come! This city is unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Japan which is why I continue to return again and again. There’s nothing I like better than an after dinner stroll walking the beautiful lantern lit alleys keeping an eagle eye out for the elusive geisha or engaging in some reflection at one of the city’s many temples. There’s just so much to do here that I truly believe Kyoto is worth visiting again and again and again.