Culturally impressive and overwhelming at the same time, Kyoto is an amazing city to get lost in. The city is filled with temples around each corner, complemented by beautiful nature and sweet people. Filled with tiny alleyways to explore and some of the best restaurants in Japan. This is a city that a visitor in Japan cannot miss! And they don’t. Kyoto surpassed the 50 million visitors in 2014 already! This includes both international and Japanese tourists, but it’s clear that Kyoto is a major tourist attraction.
When I visited it in 2016 for the first time, it was such a change from Tokyo. As a tourist, you feel the pressure to see everything and pack as much as possible into your itinerary. My post the Fiery Explorer’s guide to Kyoto and this guide are written to help you make choices on what to see and enjoy in this beautiful city! The recommendations below are keeping in mind a reasonable budget and on my personal experiences 😉.
Read on for the Fiery Kyoto guide: skip that, do this instead!
Restaurants in the central Gion area and in Pontocho: go into the smaller alleys and do research beforehand
The Gion area is known for being incredibly atmospheric and giving the visitor a feel and view of what Kyoto must have looked like many decades ago. Pontocho is a narrow alley next to the Kamogawa River, filled with restaurants representing many different cuisines. When my friend and I were there, we took so many photos of the beautiful buildings and of the moody streets. It also took us a long time to find a restaurant with an affordable menu. We were looking to spend below 3,000 yen for food (around 28 EUR/USD at the time). We wanted to eat in Pontocho to have that ‘experience’, but it proved difficult to find something in our budget.
My recommendation is: if you really want to eat in this area and want to have an affordable meal:
- Plan in advance: You’d be surprised by how many restaurants you can locate via google maps. Look for restaurants in side streets and alleyways, which tend to be less frequented by tourists. Also, check with your Airbnb host or hotel if they can recommend something in your budget.
- If there is one restaurant you really want to dine at, go during lunch! Lunch menus are often much cheaper (sometimes 2/3’s) than the evening meal, and it still allows you to have an amazing experience. For example, if I visit Kyoto again, I will save up to visit Roiro in Gion (see also Simon and Martina’s visit here). The lunch menu is 10,000 yen (78 EUR/90 USD) vs. the dinner menu of 25,000 yen.
- If you want to eat in the area but want to stay low-budget, try one of the many chain restaurants around. There are many in the area, and they offer good quality food at very good prices! It will not be a fancy meal in a historic building but will satisfy you and allow you to maintain your budget. Some suggestions in the Gion area are Matsuya (gyudon), Torikizoku (yakitori), Freshness Burger (hamburgers) and coco ichibanya (Japanese curry).
Sightseeing: don’t try and see everything – make choices!
There is no sugar coating it – it is nearly impossible to see all the beautiful temples and sights in Kyoto. Nor should you want to. You will walk a lot, and combined with the magnitude of tourists at some sights, you may be overwhelmed. I know you may be slightly disappointed at this suggestion. However, if your aim is to enjoy and be able to really immerse yourself in Kyoto (aka a fiery visit!), this is a necessary route.
- 2 – 3 temple visits per day: look, and listen; temple fatigue hits quickly if you have been rushing through multiple each day. My suggestion is to pick a maximum of three a day and combine it with other sights in the same area. Visit the first in the morning, then go for a walk through a garden or do some shopping. After lunch, visit another two which are in the same area. In this manner, you take the time to enjoy the artistry and are still receptive to see all the differences and small details. Alternatively, when visiting a temple, just visit the gardens around the temple instead to give yourself a chance to recharge.
- Choose an area: On some days we made the mistake of zooming through the city trying to see too many temples. Especially when the weather is hot, this tires quickly! Check which sights you really want to see and do those on the same day. Then you can walk between the sights (you see more and save money) and don’t get caught up in the stress of public transport.
- Go with the flow: I am very happy that we allowed for some spontaneity in our days. After visiting the Ginkaku-ji temple we hopped on a bus that we hoped would take us to Gion. On the way, we last minute decided to jump out and ended up at the Heian Shrine. Where we met a lovely tour guide, that offered to take us through the temple gardens for free. It was such a sweet encounter and never would have happened if we had stuck to our ‘schedule’. The beautiful moody photo below is from the Shrine, and a reminder to myself to allow space for life’s surprises.
Visit surrounding towns: don’t rush!
There are several beautiful towns around Kyoto to visit. Some people try to combine them in one or multiple days, but this takes away from the pleasure of the experience in my opinion. If your travel style is a quick visit & photo snap – this guide isn’t for you. I have included estimates of how long it will take to visit the surrounding towns below, and linked any Fiery guides available!
- Nara: I really loved this temple town, just 45 minutes from Kyoto with the fast train. One of its unique features is its park filled with 1000 tame deer. They roam around and enjoy being fed and being photographed by the tourists. I recommend taking at least half a day (4-5 hours) to explore the park and the main temples, and perhaps visiting the owl cafe in Nara. See the Fiery Explorer’s guide to Nara here.
- Arashiyama: Officially still part of Kyoto, this district is a 15-minute train ride from Kyoto station. I recommend planning at least five to six hours for Arashiyama (and that is still rushing it). It’s home to the famous bamboo groove, a monkey park, dozens of beautiful temples and a long street full of shops. The Japan Guide Kyoto page has an extensive overview of the attractions in Kyoto.
- Osaka: Don’t skip Osaka! This is a hotspot for foodies – the city is known for its great food. Ranging from street food to high-end cuisine, Osaka has it all. It is the perfect day trip if you are a little temple tired. It boasts the second largest aquarium in the world, many indoor shopping malls, and Universal Studios Japan! Read more in the Fiery Explorer’s guide to Osaka.