Kyoto was a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t expect much from Osaka, and it turned out to be cool. But I thought Kyoto would Wow me. After all, it was a royal capital for a thousand years, and it was one of the few Japanese cities that wasn’t bombed by the Allies during WWII. Yes, Kyoto has outstanding temples, Japan’s finest, there are several cool old neighborhoods, it is reasonably sized and it’s easy to bike around. Finally, just like elsewhere in Japan, people are very nice. But something didn’t quite fit. Anyhow, let’s start from the beginning.
The Bad Side of Kyoto
We took the train from Nara to Kyoto and again there were buildings everywhere. We are talking about an 800 km long urban sprawl that goes from Hiroshima all the way to Tokyo. I would lie if I said it didn’t disturb me. On top of that, most important sites are overridden by tourists. Yes, I know that massive tourism is not only in Kyoto, but still it was kind of annoying. There was another major disappointment. We biked all over the city for 3 days and tried to enter various natural spots around the city. It simply isn’t possible: a fence surrounds the entire city!
World Heritage Sites
Kyoto has outstanding architectural heritage. As an architect I think this is Kyoto’s asset number one. In total there are 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, 14 in the city proper and 10 of them easily accessible by bike. To visit as many world heritage sites as possible you should divide them into groups. The sites around the center include the Nijo Castle, the Nishi Hongan-ji and the To-ji, but the Kiyomizu-Dera is close enough. Northeast of the center you’ll find the Ginkaku-ji and the Shimogamo Shrine. Northwest of the center and around Arashiyama there are four temples: the Kinkaku-ji, the Ryoan-ji, the Ninna-ji and the Tenryu-ji.
Other Important Sites
Yes, Kyoto is famous for its outstanding historical temples, shrines and palaces, but not all of them are world heritage sites. An interesting place to visit is the exceptionally overcrowded Fushimi Inari Taisha shinto shrine, also accessible with a bike. The much-photographed red arches are nice, but there are just too many tourists. Another place sharing the same fate is the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. If you have seen gorgeous photos of its lush greenery without people, trust me it’s not true. The place is as crowded as Barcelona’s La Rambla in the middle of summer! While biking around the city we could see several bamboo forests, but we couldn’t get in! Really?
Best Neighborhoods to Stay in Kyoto
Let me tell you what I love even more than fabulous temples: cool intimate neighborhoods packed with old architecture and charming streets. Luckily for me Kyoto has that a plenty and if you are biking around you may visit them all. If you’ve been reading carefully you’ve realized there are tons of things to see in Kyoto. So where to stay really depends on your interests and the way you plan on moving around. Kyoto is divided into 11 administrative wards. Six of these make the wider central area of Kyoto. You should stay here. The most important sites in Kyoto are within these neighborhoods, which are well connected to the rest of the city.
Downtown Kyoto – Nakagyo
Kyoto has one well defined, centrally located city center. It is known for its numerous covered commercial streets, like the ones in Osaka. The center occupies the eastern end of Nakagyo ward, north of the Shijo-dori, south of the Oike-dori, east of the Karasuma-dori and west of the Kamo River. The main market streets are the Teramachi-dori and the Nishiki-dori (food street). The charming narrow Pontocho Street is restaurant central, while the nearby canal next to the Kiyamachi-dori is party central. Our favorite street in the area is Sanjo-dori, west of the pedestrian streets. Most of the remaining pre-war Japanese buildings are there. Therefore, if you want to be in the middle of the action, stay in Nakagyo.
Best Hotels in Nakagyo
As you can imagine, the center has loads of interesting options. We recommend the lovely Nest at Nishiki for its great location, right next to the pedestrian streets. They offer large comfortable rooms and first-class service.
We found the Higashiyama District to be pretty authentic and perfectly connected to the rest of the city. There are plenty of interesting temples to visit and cute streets to walkabout. What’s more, if you get tired of people, the lush green hills are nearby. One of Kyoto’s nicest neighborhoods is the area between the Yasaka Shrine and the Kiyomizu-dera (around Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka streets) packed with old wooden townhouses called Machiya. As you can imagine, it’s always crowded! On the other hand, for some reason the famous geisha area of Gion is not that crowded. The atmosphere there is quite unique: intimate and mystical. For us, Higashiyama is the best neighborhood to stay in Kyoto.
Best Hotels in Higashiyama
We stayed at the sleek Eco and Tec Hotel in a quiet neighborhood near the Higashiyama Metro Station. A cute little canal passes through the area and there is a charming covered street nearby. The Museum area, Gion district and Maruyama Park are also within walking distance. Besides, the neighborhood is full of gorgeous hidden temples and they rent their own bicycles!
Sakyo is a long district that begins north of Sanjo Dori Street and stretches for kilometers up north of Kyoto. Hills and forests cover the northern part of the ward. The city is in the southern part. Take note that the area between Shugakuin and Sanjo Dori (in the south) is known as North Higashiyama. The temples and the museums are in North Higashiyama. To us, the area surrounding the so-called Philosopher’s Path is one of Kyoto’s nicest. We also loved the views from the cemetery around the Shinnyo-do temple. We were practically the only tourists in both areas. Extra tip: Spend an evening around the Kamogawa Delta, it seems that all young locals go there to have fun! If you are into museums, stay in Sakyo.
Best Hotels in Sakyo
Sakyo is a large district, so if you decide to stay here, you have to book a hotel close to its southwestern tip. The chic Kyoto Sanjo Ohashi is here, next to the Sanjo metro and train stations. They offer comfortable apartment-style rooms.
Many royals used to live in Kamigyo. In fact, the Royal Palace occupies eastern Kamigyo. If you bike from Nijo Castle to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) you’ll bump into some beautiful hidden temples and cute little streets with no tourists on site. Our absolute favorite is the Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine and the semi-pedestrian diagonal street leading to it. The historical Nishijin neighborhood with its wooden houses and clothing factories is here too. The heritage temples of Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, and Ninna-ji included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list are nearby. If you are into elegant neighborhoods, stay in Kamigyo.
Best Hotels in Kamigyo
Among the numerous great options in Kamigyo, we chose Kyoto Artstay Nishijin Sutematsu for its wonderful location in the charming neighborhood of Nishijin. Their rooms are quite large, and they offer free bikes to tour the city. There is even a nice temple right in front!
Shimogyo – Kyoto Station Area
After Nakagyo, Shimogyo is Kyoto’s most central neighborhood. One of Kyoto’s main commercial streets, Shijo Dori, is here. The whole area is quite busy, with great shopping and dining possibilities. Nevertheless, it lacks the feel of an authentic neighborhood and local character. Some of the nicest temples are here, including the World Heritage Site of Nishi Hongan-ji, where you can part take in a peaceful religious ceremony. We also loved the nearby albeit less popular, temple of Higashi Hongan-ji. Stay in Shimogyo, if you plan on making day trips. Kyoto Train Station is nearby.
Best Hotels in Shimogyo
Located halfway between the pedestrian area and Kyoto Train Station, the Kyoto Oyado ZEN is an ideal base for exploring Kyoto. They offer large traditional style apartments suitable for up to 5 people. Hence, if you are traveling in a group, this is your place.
Minamani ward is to the south of Kyoto Train Station. Since many train lines cut it off from the rest of the city, it feels somewhat isolated. But the train station is there and so is the Karasuma Metro line, so Minami is well connected to the rest of the city. This is a working-class neighborhood with few interesting sites. However, the gorgeous To-ji temple with its large green garden is here, and well worth a visit. We also loved the cool area south of the temple and the Kamo Riverbank. If you are looking for a quiet yet well-connected area, stay in Minami.
Best Hotels in Minami
Minami is home to slightly cheaper accommodation, so stay here if you want to save some money. The Hotel WBF Kyoto Toji is a great design hotel between the Train Station and To-ji temple. They offer beautifully designed comfortable rooms. Ask for an upper floor room for nice views.
How to Avoid the Crowds in Kyoto
As mentioned above, one of our major disappointments with Kyoto was the constant crowds. We couldn’t enjoy the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest or the Fushimi Inari Taisha. Simply put, the amount of people is overwhelming. As you can imagine, crowds overtake the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku Ji), the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku Ji), and the Nijo Castle too. So visit these sites early in the morning. Fortunately, most people follow one route leaving other places relatively empty. We dearly recommend visiting the Nishi Hongan-ji and To-ji. For some reason they are far less crowded! Also note that the Kiyomizu-dera is currently under reconstruction, so you get to visit only part of it. To really feel the charm of Kyoto, get lost in its neighborhoods by following our previous tips, especially in Sakyo and Kamigyo.
Kyoto has a well-developed network of public transport that includes metro, trains, and buses. There are two metro lines (Karasuma and Tozai), five local railway lines (Hankyu, Kintetsu, Keihan, Eizan, and Keifuku), and a national railway line. Although public transport is frequent and safe, we recommend exploring Kyoto by bike. You’ll be able to reach corners tourists don’t visit. Many hotels and guesthouses offer bicycles. Otherwise, there are plenty of bike rentals all around the city. One thing you should bear in mind is that you cannot park bikes anywhere you want. Kyoto is terribly overpopulated, so this makes sense. Therefore, always ask when entering an important site. You are in Japan: people are super nice and will be happy to instruct you where to leave your bike.
Massive Tourism is a Reality
I know I said in the beginning that Kyoto disappointed me. I should probably say people disappointed me! The city is fascinating and a mandatory stop on any route around Japan. If there is one place that tells the glorious Japanese history, it’s Kyoto. So yes, it is mass tourism that sucks! But that’s the reality of the XXI Century and no major cultural center is immune to it. Also, I didn’t like the fact that natural spots are off limits. But it is part of understanding what Japan is really like. And that’s what traveling is all about.