It took me a long time to write this post. I kept starting and stopping, not sure how to articulate how I felt about Kyoto. I expected to love the ancient Japanese city. I’d heard so many people sing its praises and had seen so many breathtaking photos. How could it not be amazing?
Now I realize it comes down to this: I didn’t love my experience of Kyoto, but I’d definitely give it another chance if I could do some things differently.
In that spirit, I’ve outlined my top five tips for a more enjoyable experience, followed by itinerary highlights during our three days in Kyoto.
This is part 4 of my Japan series. Read more here:
Slow Travel Japan: Two Weeks in Tokyo, Izu and Kyoto
7-Day Tokyo Itinerary
Traditional Japanese Onsen Ryokan for First Timers
Discovering Shuzenji: A Hidden Gem on Japan’s Izu Peninsula
Kyoto is a beloved place to many travelers and locals alike. It has an ancient history, an amazing food scene, a famous market, elusive geishas and thousands of stunning temples, shrines, and gardens.
Being there feels like stepping back in time, except with wine bars, Michelin-starred restaurants, and hipster coffee spots. And tourists–lots and lots of tourists. That brings me to my first tip.
5 tips for getting the most out of your trip to Kyoto
1. Avoid peak season
I visited Kyoto during cherry blossom season, and while beautiful, the crowds were intense. I can’t blame the tourists (after all, I was there too), but the sheer volume of people overwhelmed me. And that’s saying a lot from someone who lives in NYC!
Kyoto felt like a Disney World version of itself. Geishas were stalked paparazzi-style like a costumed character. Visiting temples required slogging through suffocating, selfie stick-wielding crowds just to get to the entrance. Vendors touted expensive treats and souvenirs.
It seemed like all those beautiful, quaint, peaceful scenes I’d seen on travel blogs and Instagram must have been photoshopped with some sort of solitude-inducing filter that didn’t translate to real life.
2. Consider the pace of your entire Japan itinerary
I’m sure timing also played into my lack of excitement. We arrived in Kyoto at the end of a two-week trip. Tokyo the first week. Followed by a peaceful stay at an onsen ryokan in Izu before heading to Kyoto for the tail end of the journey.
Looking back, I would have explored Kyoto before ending the trip on a relaxing note in the countryside.
3. Visit temples as soon as they open
This is probably the top tip I have for Kyoto. If you want any chance of having a peaceful time exploring the temples—and maybe getting a photo or two without massive crowds—go as early as possible. By early I mean be there before they open.
4. Plan for long-ish distances within the city
The metro is very limited, especially compared to Tokyo so public buses are the main mode of getting around. Many of the popular sightseeing areas are spread out and Kyoto itself isn’t the most walkable city. Just like all the transportation in Japan, then buses are clean and on time, however, you may need to wait longer to squish yourself onto one and dedicate more time to getting around.
5. Take the road less traveled
Even though Kyoto was crowded, you can usually slip onto a back street and escape into a lovely neighborhood with traditional buildings, family business, restaurants and maybe even spot a pet or two. Get off the main streets and get a little lost. These moments were my favorite part of our time in Kyoto.
3-day Kyoto itinerary: The highlights
Crazy crowds and mismanaged expectations aside, I truly enjoyed much of what we did and saw. Here are the highlights of three days in Kyoto.
Day 1: Arrival + Exploring Gion
After arriving by bullet train, we got settled in a well-situated, modern Airbnb in the downtown district that was twice the size of our place in Tokyo for the same price. Overall the location was great with easy access to public transportation and things to do.
Next, we ventured out, crossing over the Kamo River to Gion. By this time the sun started to set and it was prime geisha spotting time. It would have been cool to spot a geisha scurrying to her appointment, but alas, none were to be seen during our stroll.
After a delicious tempura dinner, it was time to rest for the next day’s adventures.
Day 2: Fushimi Inari Shrine + Kiyomizu-Dera Temple
Getting to the Fushimi Inari shrine from central Kyoto requires a short hop on the JR Nara line. Once there, the trek through the famous vermillion torii gates takes two hours for the full jaunt. If you’re not in it for the long haul you can always turn back at any time. However, the farther you walk the less crowded (and more enjoyable!) it gets, so strap on those walking shoes.
Next, we made our way back to Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, one of the city’s most preserved and traditional areas. It’s a popular tourist spot, so expect crowds, but there are also many quiet back streets perfect for a relaxed stroll. I could walk down those quaint streets forever!
Along the way, we picked up a tasty taiyaki and stopped at Arabica coffee for a pick me up before heading to the next temple. If you’re a coffee fan, don’t miss Arabica. They roast their beans daily and make an excellent brew, which can be hard to find in Japan.
After a lovely latté, we made our way right down the street to Kiyomizu-Dera temple. To get there, we trekked up a narrow, steep road simply packed to the brim with people. This was one of those times when my meditation practice came in quite handy. I simply accepted the situation, focused on my breath and enjoyed noticing all of the shops and vendors we passed along the way.
Unfortunately, the main hall, the temple’s biggest claim to fame, was under construction while we were there. Its unique construction (139 pillars support the main hall which sits on a steep cliff) and spectacular views would have been a sight to see.
All templed-out for the day, we found a surprisingly empty spot along the riverside where we sat with our feet dangling in the breeze watching the cherry blossoms float by.
Tired and hungry, we ended the day at Winebar Ryuchan, a teeny tiny Italian wine bar (the Japanese have a thing with Italian food, we discovered) right next to our Airbnb. It was run by one man who did everything himself. Wine. Food. Coffee. Serving. It turned out to be one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had. It might not have been Japanese food, but it was a local experience that I will always remember.
Day 3: Nishiki Market + Wandering
We intended to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest on our third and final day. Instead, we chose to simply wander around our hood and soak in the local vibes and I don’t regret it.
First stop: Nishiki Market. This market is famous for its unique food items, namely Tako Tamago, which is baby octopus stuffed with quail egg, candied and skewered. You’ll also see ice cream, fresh grapefruit juice (with alcohol if you’d like), Japanese style peanuts, and of course, matcha in every way, shape and form.
The rest of the day we simply wandered, shopped, sat in the park with bubble tea and let ourselves enjoy Kyoto in and of itself as much as possible.
Lessons from Kyoto
Travel isn’t a guaranteed good time, but it does teach us about who we are and how we chose to show up when things aren’t as we’d hoped. That’s part of the beauty of it. Kyoto reminded me that I am the one who makes the most of my destination. Oh…and what I see on Instagram isn’t always a reality (shocker, I know).
Have you ever felt disappointed in a travel destination? How do you deal?
Nano @ Travel With Nano B. says
Hi Katie! I loved this post, very insightful and detailed. Especially the part about what you’d do differently!
Katie Leavitt says
Thanks so much, Nano! Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to go back to Kyoto one day and do it right. 🙂
Bharat & Supriya says
Planning to visit Japan during Sakura season and your post is JUST the reality check we need as we plan. Thank you for this practical, frank and relatable post – we are so going to be careful with planning (and our expectations) now.
Katie Leavitt says
Great, so glad you found it helpful! Hope you have an amazing trip.
Hello, when exactly you visited Kyoto? We are planning to go there mid February…
Thank you for the honest reviews 🙂
Katie Leavitt says
Hi Kelly. We went in April during cherry blossom season. Hopefully, it will be less crowded for you in February!
Katie, yours has to be the most honest account I have read in weeks of internet reading- really appreciate this reality check, and the reminder that we are masters of our reactions.