My Thorough Guide to Kyoto Japan
Kyoto is one of Japan’s most visited tourist destinations and one of the great cities of the world. The Emperors of Japan made Kyoto their capital and ruled from this historic location from 796-1869. Consequently, it is rich in history, Japanese culture, and full of must-see sites. Kyoto is home to 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines! I chose Kyoto for our first trip to Japan because I wanted to get a better sense of old Japan rather than the bustle of Tokyo. Plus, it is centrally located, affording plenty of side-trip opportunities to see other cities and sites in Japan, too.
Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. If you buy something after clicking one of these links, I may earn a small commission. This does not cost you anything extra and helps support this blog
What follows is a very detailed outline about using public transportation in Kyoto. I also have a post on this blog dedicated exclusively to Kyoto transportation.
I love using local public transportation. To me, that’s part of the experience of a place. When I met my wife, she had never ridden a subway. She was a taxi traveler. I have now converted her to the joys of public transportation, and she loves it too. It’s here that you really get a taste of what local life is like. It’s here that you can observe regular people getting along in their regular lives. And it’s much less expensive than taxis. Japan’s system of public transportation is glorious and complicated. I spent hours studying how to get around Kyoto before we left, and learned a lot about it while we were there. I am passing along a lot of those pearls in what follows.
Getting To Kyoto from Osaka’s Kansai Airport
Kansai International Airport (KIX) outside of Osaka is the largest international airport in the area. It sits on reclaimed land in the middle of Osaka Bay, south of the city. Alternatively, visitors to Tokyo often will take the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto – it’s only a 2.5 hour trip. Kyoto was our primary destination and so we flew into KIX. Kyoto is about 100 km away from KIX.
We used the Haruka Limited Express to get from Kansai Airport to the main Kyoto train station (Kyoto Station). My research showed this to be the most practical way to get there. The journey took 75 minutes on a single train with 3 stops.
In order to get the best price for this train ride, you must go to the JR Ticket station at the airport. The ticket station is clearly marked and easy to reach from the arrival area of the airport. You want to purchase the ICOCA & Haruka ticket. This ticket is available only to foreign visitors. You will receive a discounted ticket for a non-reserved seat on the Haruka Limited Express, along with an ICOCA card to use during your stay (more on this extremely useful card below). Your ICOCA card comes preloaded with 2000 yen, including a 500 yen refundable deposit. (You will blow through that 2000 yen in the first couple days if taking public transportation around Kyoto.) With this discount combo, you are getting the train ticket for almost half of its normal price. More detailed information including current total pricing on this ticket can be found here.
(For Japan Rail Pass holders, this ticket is covered. More information on the Japan Rail Pass is below)
The JR ticket office did not accept credit cards for the ICOCA & Haruka ticket – only cash. After standing in line once, I was redirected to a nearby ATM. I generally look for an ATM anyway as soon as a get off a plane in a foreign land. I didn’t spot one immediately at the Osaka airport. He directed me across a nearby hotel walkway where there was a Lawson – the ubiquitous Japanese convenience store. The ticket agent spoke excellent English. I bought round trip tickets back and forth from Kyoto, and with the accompanying preloaded ICOCA card, the cost was 5260 yen or approximately $50 each
As I mentioned, this discount ticket is for a non-reserved seat. Many Japanese express trains offer three types of train cars – a First Class car, a reserved regular car, and a non-reserved regular car. On the Haruka Limited Express, the car type is clearly marked both on the outside and on the inside. Be sure that you are on the non-reserved car. Ticket agents will come through the train after it leaves the station and check your tickets. If you are on the wrong car, you will be charged the fare difference.
The train leaves the airport station every 30 minutes. At busy times, you may not be able to find a seat on the non-reserved car and will need to stand. We stood for the first 30 minutes (seats became available for us at the first stop). There were luggage racks between cars. If ensuring a seat for the full trip is important to you, you may want to wait and board the next train as soon as it arrives at the station.
Getting Around Kyoto
I have never before witnessed a train system like Japan’s. The major train stations alone (like Kyoto Station or Namba Station in Osaka) are almost like full cities unto themselves with lodging, floors and floors and floors of shopping, and a multitude of dining options. Kyoto’s train system can be confusing and does require some research and planning. There are three different train companies with train lines in Kyoto. Each has different stations. Sometimes those stations are literally within a block of each other (Fushimi Inari for example). But despite the potential confusion, its a great way to get around.
Here are some tools to help make train travel through this labyrinth of train track easier:
1. The ICOCA card. This is really the only transportation ticket that you need for all public transportation needs in Kyoto. We were able to use it in Osaka, Nara, and Hiroshima as well. As I outlined above, we obtained ours at the airport with our Haruka Limited Express ticket (remember you are required to get a preloaded ICOCA card in order to get the discounted train ticket). You basically rent the card for your time in Japan. Your 500 yen deposit is refundable at the Kansai airport JR ticket office on your departure day.
With card in hand, you can load it as needed with money at various ATM-like machines located at every train and subway station. (Note that these machines only accept cash. There is a button on the machine that switches the language to English and walks you through the process). This card then automatically deducts the cost of travel for each train, subway, or bus journey on all the different trains, subways, and buses in Kyoto. Any unused funds on the card will be refunded to you when you return it to the JR office.
2. Hyperdia is a route planner for the train and subway systems throughout Japan. There is a web-based version, or an App for either Iphone or Android. Hyperdia was invaluable in helping me know how to get where. Forget trying to read the train maps – they are extremely complicated given the number of stops on each train line and the different number of train companies in the city.
With Hyperdia you simply enter your starting train station or subway station and your ending station, along with your desired time of departure. It will then show you which series of trains to take, which platforms to board your train, the next departure time, how long each segment will take, anticipated time of arrival, and cost. I found Hyperdia to be extremely accurate and I couldn’t have managed our daily travel without it.
3. Google Maps – by entering your location and your destination in Google Maps, you will be given similar routing information as Hyperdia. However, for train/subway travel, I found Hyperdia more useful. But, I absolutely depended on Google Maps once I left the train station to show me where I was and how to get to where I wanted to go. I also used Google Maps to identify which train or subway stations were closest to my desired destination (for loading into Hyperdia).
Having GPS in your pocket is a must if you are going to navigate Kyoto on your own. I would highly recommend paying for either portable pocket wifi (which seemed quite popular in Japan) or for your cell carrier’s international travel plan. My carrier is Verizon and they charge me a reasonable $10/day for high speed data in Japan.
Bullet Train (Shinkansen)
I don’t think that any trip to Japan is complete without a ride on the shinkansen. Japan has an extensive network of bullet trains that will quickly move you from one major city to another. I’ve been tripping an upcoming trip to Portugal, and find myself wishing for bullet trains to get me from one city to the next (there are a few high-speed trains lines in Europe, just not everywhere like in Japan). While not cheap, the shinkansen system is very quick and very convenient – trains leave on time, there are several departures each hour, there are no security checks or long airport lines. They are indeed very fast. On our trip to Hiroshima, I was guessing top speeds of around 200 mph based on travel time and distance. There were stops however that interrupted the journey a little.
Like the Haruka Limited Express, the shinkansen trains have a First Class (Green Car), Reserved, and Non-Reserved cars. A ticket on the first two of these assures you an assigned seat. There is a risk of standing on the non-reserved car if it is full. The reserved car ticket does cost more than the non-reserved car, though not by a lot, and I personally think that an assured seat on the shinkansen is worth it (price difference varies according to the route). Like on a plane, First Class seats are a little wider and a little more comfortable, but I couldn’t convince myself that they were worth the additional cost.
Tickets for the shinkansen can be purchased in advance, and doing so assures that you will get a seat on your desired train. I bought our tickets two days in advance at the Shinkansen ticket office at Kyoto Station. There are automatic ticket machines for the shinkansen, but I was nervous I would buy the wrong tickets, plus I wanted to use my credit card. The ticket agent in the office spoke excellent English and I was able to use my AMEX card. The cost for our tickets each way to Hiroshima were $108 apiece.
On travel day, you wait for the train on a platform, just as you would any other train in Japan. Ours pulled up exactly on schedule, we got on and found our seats, and after a few minutes, we were off. So much easier than air travel. There is overhead luggage storage. fold-down tray tables, and an attendant that comes through from time to time selling snacks. I definitely felt the speed, and obviously the world outside rushes by. I personally found it hard to read my iPad, experiencing a slight bit of motion sickness if I tried – I was fine when I stopped looking at it.
Travel by shinkansen is obviously quite expensive. Your costs can be significantly reduced by purchasing the Japan Rail Pass or one of JR’s regional passes. These money-saving passes are available only to foreign visitors and costs less if purchased online prior to your travel. If you are traveling by shinkansen to Kyoto from Tokyo as many visitors do, or if you travel by shinkansen to other areas of Japan from Kyoto as we did, these passes could save you a lot of money. And they cover local JR trains as well, further reducing your transportation costs. Click here for more Japan Rail Pass information and pricing
Kyoto’s subway system is not extensive. It only has two lines. We used the trains more, but often combined train and subway travel when Hyperdia told me to.
We rode the Kyoto Bus a few times. Certain sites for us were best accessed by bus, since we were staying near the Kyoto station. The station is a major transportation hub for all forms of transportation in Kyoto. The bus is easy to ride. You enter from the back and pay with your ICOCA card when you exit the front.
Google Maps was the best resource for guiding our bus travel. For example, choose your GPS location as your starting point, add your desired destination, and Google Maps will show you all your transportation options (walking, bus, train, subway, and taxi with estimated fare). As I mentioned, I preferred Hyperdia for my train/subway route. But if I wanted to go by bus, Google Maps would show me nearest bus stop on the map, the bus number that I needed to take, the anticipated time the bus would arrive, and my anticipated time of arrival. Technology is awesome!
We used a taxi twice in Kyoto. In both cases we were tired and not near any train or subway stop. A note on taxis in Kyoto – neither of our drivers spoke English and I read that is usually the case. Fortunately, we were going back to Kyoto Station each time and both drivers understood that. Payment is in cash and tipping isn’t expected. Google Maps will give you an estimate of your taxi fare which is very helpful. There is no Uber or Lyft in Japan as of this writing. There appears to be a Japanese version that would pop up on Google Maps, but it always appeared to cost the same as a regular tax ride.
We walked. A lot! Many cities are best explored on foot and Kyoto is one of those. Google Maps is very useful for walking too, as long as you are connected. That blue dot not only keeps you from getting lost, but it is also helpful in determining walking distance and walking times.
Our Kyoto Lodging
After doing my research on Kyoto, I decided that location was extremely important in determining where to stay. The sites of Kyoto are spread out in many directions and because we were on a relatively short trip, a central location was important to me. I used Booking.com for all hotel bookings this trip, and immediately found a new hotel located across the street from Kyoto Station called The Thousand Kyoto. Booking.com’s search features make it very easy to find a hotel in your desired location. Because the hotel had just opened when I made the booking, I think we received an introductory rate. It cost about $250/night which is more than I generally like to pay for lodging, but given the central location and quality of hotel, I didn’t feel too bad about it.
The Thousand Kyoto was wonderful. Spacious rooms, especially by Japanese standards, comfortable beds, incredibly kind staff, minimalistic modern design, and our room had a view of Kyomizo-dera in the distance. Plus the location was everything I wanted. It only took a few minutes to walk to Kyoto Station (access to most train lines, the subway line, important bus routes, and a taxi stand). All three Japanese convenience stores – Lawson’s, 7-11, and Family Mart – for quick meals and ATMs, were within a few blocks.
We took a side trip to Hiroshima half-way through our time in Kyoto, and upon our return to Kyoto, stayed at a different hotel in a different location. I decided to put us near one of Kyoto’s most popular sites – Fushimi Inari. We stayed at the Gentle Fox Kyoto – a newly built apartment-hotel about two blocks from the Inari train station and about 5 blocks from the shrine itself. It was a large studio apartment with a kitchen, small living room space, and a washing machine (which is always welcome towards the end of a trip). It was in a residential neighborhood and gave us a completely different taste of Kyoto. The staff here were also very friendly and spoke excellent English. It only cost approximately $150 per night.
Our Top Daily Sites and Meals
There is so much to see and do in Kyoto. Tripping for this trip was overwhelming. I read several suggested itineraries in preparation for our time there, and they all involved more sites each day than I thought was reasonable for us. Ultimately, I put together daily schedules (many of them on the fly) that felt manageable but still allowed us to see a lot of what Kyoto has to offer. Similarly, I’ve condensed my writing about our Kyoto day-to-day adventures down to each day’s Best Site, 2nd Best Site, and Best Meal. We saw and experienced more each day, but its really just the highlights we want to read about, isn’t it?
Day #1 – Southern Higashiyama
Best Site: Kyomizu-dera
Kyomizu-dera is one of the most famous temples in Japan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most-visited sites in Kyoto. It is at or near the top of most Kyoto must-see lists. It’s best known for its main hall with its massive wooden deck. Unfortunately for us, the main hall was under extensive renovation during our visit. We could still enter and we could still stand on the deck, but the construction certainly detracted from the beauty of the place. As with most temple complexes in Japan, there are multiple surrounding shrines and pagodas within the grounds.
When did we go – first thing in the morning. As with most popular sites in Kyoto, the crowds grow over mid morning and persist through the day. I read that early morning is the best time to visit and indeed it was. There was only a handful of people at the site. We arrived around 8:30am and at one point had the wood deck to ourselves! As we were leaving, the tourist hoards were arriving.
How did we get there – we took Bus number 206 from Kyoto Station and exited four stops later. There are road signs directing you along a few uphill streets to the temple, though I guarantee that you will also have busmates that you can follow
How much time did we spend – about an hour wandering the grounds
What did we think – We were enthralled, but that was partly due to the fact that we were looking at it through our first-temple-in-Japan glasses. In retrospect, I personally think it is a little over-rated. Our experience might have been dampened by the renovation. But, it was perhaps only my 4th or 5th favorite temple of the trip
2nd Best Site: Higashiyama District
After leaving the temple, we walked northwest through the streets of the Higashiyama District. This charming neighborhood is everything you imagine when you think of rustic Japan – old buildings, narrow streets, small shops, hidden gardens. Then you walk around a corner and discover a towering pagoda. It was mid-morning at this point but the streets were not crowded yet. Most of the tourists we passed were heading up to Kyomizu-dera.
We wandered through the narrow streets for a couple of hours, soaking up the atmosphere and peeking in at the various shops. This area of Kyoto – called Southern Higashiyama is also lined with temple after temple after temple along the ridge of hills bordering Eastern Kyoto. It is impossible and would be very tiring to try and see all these temples during a week-long trip – temple fatigue is a real condition 🙂 but it’s fun to pick and choose according to your mood while strolling through the area.
Best Meal: Dinner at Ippudo Ramen.
I grew up eating Top Ramen. At some point in college, I started adding ingredients to make it more nutritious – chicken, egg, snap peas, etc. I must have been aware that real Ramen in Japan was more involved. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be hungry again in an hour, so I figured that protein would help. Authentic Japanese ramen places have started to pop up in the US, including Salt Lake. They certainly offer a step up from my college Ramen and are pretty darn close to the real thing. But eating Ramen in Japan? Come on…that’s bucket list material! And so, our first dinner on our first night was Ramen.
We were tired after our first full day and so we chose a place literally within steps of our hotel. There is a mall in the subway station underneath Kyoto station called Porta, and there you will find a branch of the popular Japanese Ramen chain Ippudo. Flavorful rich cloudy broth, chewy noodles, pork, egg, and loads of green onions. We ordered it with a side of the Japanese pork dumpling called Gyoza. (Incidentally, I’ve never come across a country so in love with the green onion. My wife is allergic to onions and so it was a daily constant battle for her). There was an English version of the menu. The staff was high school/college age and spoke English. It was cheap and filling and big (neither of us could finish our bowls). The cost was around $25 for the two of us.
Day #2 – Fushimi Inari
Best Site: Fushimi Inari
Fushimi Inari is a Shinto Shrine located in south Kyoto. It is situated along the side of the a mountain called Inari which is considered sacred. It is famous for its thousands of vermillion torii gates and its many sub-shrines.
When did we go – first thing in the morning. As this is Kyoto’s other most popular site, an early morning arrival is a must if you want torii gate pictures minus other tourists. We arrived at around 8:30 and again found ourselves sharing the lower shrine area with only a handful of people. However, when we left a few hours later, the throngs were literally shoulder to shoulder through those lower photogenic gates.
How did we get there – there are two train stations near Fushimi Inari. From Kyoto Station, the JR train will take you to the Fushimi Inari station which is right across the entrance of the shrine.
The Keihan train offers a more convenient route from Gion or the Southern Higashiyama district, and will take you to the Inari station which is about 3 short blocks from the shrine.
How much time did we spend – a few hours
What did we think – this was one of our favorite spots of the trip. The oft-photographed torii gate tunnels that line this sacred mountain are visually stunning. We followed them far up the hillside and visited the various small shinto shrines that dotted the gated pathways. The hike along these pathways can be moderate at times, but you can turn around and head back down at anytime 🙂 We also followed the advice from the TravelCaffeine blog and visited the hidden bamboo forest at Fushimi Inari, rather than contending with the crowds at the more famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Following the suggested secret route, we found it easily. We had it all to ourselves! And it was beautiful!
2nd Best Site: Higashi Otani Cemetery
You won’t find this on many Best of Kyoto lists, and we stumbled upon it accidentally (see – organized travel can still be spontaneous), but it was a spectacular spot to watch the sunset on our second night. We were wandering the edge of the Southern Higashiyma district along the “temple ridge” that I mentioned before, while waiting for the time of our dinner reservation in Gion that night. We heard banging noise coming from one of the temples and decided to explore. Turns out that it was the Chorakuji Temple and by the time we climbed the stairs and made our way into the temple complex, the noise had stopped.
We decided to continue exploring, and as we walked around the edge of the complex, the view of this amazing cemetery opened up in front of us. We love to explore cemeteries wherever our travels take us. It is fascinating to see how different cultures both bury and honor their dead. This was a large cemetery built into the side of the hillside with levels and levels of tightly packed “gravestone pillars.” We were the only two people there in tourist-packed Kyoto. And it was sunset. Spectacular!
Best Meal: Lunch at Udon Sanshiki
After burning all those calories hiking around at Fushimi Inari, we were starving. We took the Keihan train directly from the Inari train station to the Kiyomizu-Gojo stop and then walked a few blocks east. We used online pictures to identify the small store front. It’s a few doors east of a 7-11. The name is printed in English letters on the outside, though you have to look hard to see them.
This small udon restaurant has been recognized as a Bib Gourmand restaurant by Michelin. Bib Gormand restaurants are given this distinction for their high quality at a lower price point than the Michelin Starred restaurants. Our meal was excellent! Udon noodles are a thick and chewy wheat noodle. They were served in a delicious broth. We ordered ours with chicken tempura. This was the best tempura we had on our trip. The batter was light, the chicken was very tender, and the accompanying sauce was delicious. The staff understood English and there was an English version of the menu. The cost for the two of us was less than $25. An amazing value for an amazing meal.
Day #3 – Nara and Osaka
Best Site: Todaiji temple in Nara
Nara is a city south of Kyoto and day-trips to Nara are commonly suggested for those who are staying in the Kyoto area for more than a few days. Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8th century, and so is a location rich in history. I was initially on the fence about going to Nara since the most popular site is a temple, and as I mentioned, temple fatigue is a real condition. But having gone, I think Nara is an absolute must-visit! The Todaiji temple in Nara was one of my top 3 temples on this trip.
When did we go – late morning. Since it was a little further away, we didn’t see a point in rising early to beat the crowds. We left in the late morning, ate lunch near the Nara train station, and spent the early afternoon exploring Nara’s main sites.
How did we get there – there are two different train lines that go from Kyoto Station to Nara and two different train stations in Nara. We took the Kintetsu limited express service. I chose this because the Kintetsu station is a few blocks closer to Nara Park (all the major sites are in this park) and it is also a faster train service with fewer stops. It only takes 35 minutes to reach Nara from Kyoto Station. We then walked from the station to the park – it’s only 1 km away.
How much time did we spend – we explored more of the park than just the massive Todaiji temple, including Yoshikien Garden – one of the two traditional Japanese Gardens in the park , and spent time feeding the famous Nara deer that roam freely through the park. We were there for several hours.
What did we think – We loved it all! Todaiji is a massive impressive structure. In fact, it is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. Inside you will find a spectacular 45 foot tall Buddha. You will pass through the imposing Nandaimon Gate on your approach to the temple complex. Big is the best word that describes all of this. And the overall architecture is different than many of the Buddhist temples in Kyoto which honestly can all start to look the same after a few days.
2nd Best Site: Dontonbori in Osaka
Spending at least an evening in Osaka – Japan’s second largest city – was a goal for this trip. I wasn’t sure when we were going to fit it in since there is so much to do in Kyoto, but I did want to get a taste of a larger Japanese city since we weren’t going to Tokyo. Dontonbori is one of the most visited areas of Osaka and sits in the Namba district of the city. It is known for its nightlife, food, and neon.
Nara and Osaka’s Namba Station are conveniently linked by a single train and so it made perfect sense to head over to Osaka after visiting Nara. We took the Kintetsu Limited Express train and 35 minutes later, we found ourselves in the center of Osaka nightlife. When it was time to return to our hotel in Kyoto later that evening, all that was required was a 45 minute subway/train combo back to Kyoto Station (itinerary courtesy of Hyperdia).
We spent the evening exploring the maze of covered shopping streets in Namba; being wowed by the lights, signs, and chaos of Dontonbori; and sampling the plethora of street food along the famous canal. I even suppressed my fear of heights, and with sweaty palms rode the tubular-shaped Dontonbori Ferris Wheel which marks the canal’s skyline and, at a height of 250 feet, offers a commanding view of surrounding Osaka.
Best Meal: Dinner at Toki Sushi
Sushi in Japan – another bucket list food experience! We waited until night #3 for sushi because I had read in my trip preparation that Kyoto is not known for its sushi, and that we would have a better sushi experience in Osaka or Hiroshima. Toki Sushi didn’t disappoint. It is oft-mentioned online as one of the better reasonably-priced sushi restaurants in the Namba/Dontonbori area. It is located within a few blocks of the train station. I used my little blue GPS dot on Google Maps to guide us there.
Toki Sushi is very small, just a sushi bar with a few additional tables. It was around 5 pm – early for most diners and so it was not crowded. The staff was friendly and understood English. They had English menus. The highlight of the meal was a plate of sushi with a light char to the fish and rice. Smokey goodness! The price was indeed reasonable and far less than what we would have paid for a comparable amount in Salt Lake. We spent around $45
Day #4 – Hiroshima
Best Site: Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima
We wanted to travel to a second location in Japan and decided on a 2-day side trip to Hiroshima because of its history and relatively close proximity to Kyoto (close by bullet train). It would also give as a nice taste of a mid-sized Japanese city. Miyajima island – another popular destination in Japan – is generally included in any itinerary to Hiroshima and we ended up spending a full day there. I would presume that all tourists in Hiroshima go to the Peace Park
When did we go – we booked our bullet train tickets for a noon departure. It only takes 100 minutes to get to Hiroshima on the most direct train. We bought Bento boxes at Kyoto station to eat on the train, and arrived at our Hiroshima hotel near the Hiroshima train station right in time for check in at 2:00pm
How did we get there – this was a big part of our Day #4 experience as it was our first time riding any sort of high speed train. We rode the Nozomi shinkansen which has the fewest number of stops and doesn’t require a train change in Osaka like the other routes. The round trip cost was $216. I should note that the Nozomi train is not included on the money-saving Japan Rail Pass, but the other shinkansen routes from Kyoto are.
After we checked into our hotel, we rode Hiroshima’s trolley system to get from the train station to the Peace Memorial Park located in the center of the city (and we were able to pay our trolley fare using our ICOCA card)
Where did we stay – I was a little underwhelmed by the lodging choices in Hiroshima. We ended up staying at a Japanese chain hotel called Daiwa Roynet Hotel Hiroshima-ekimae located right next to Hiroshima station. I found this through Booking.com. It cost $160 per night. The rooms were small and the beds were hard, but the view was awesome and the location was perfect for easy access to the public transportation we required for our sight-seeing itinerary. If we had been staying in the area longer, I would have tried to stay on Miyajima island, though lodging selections on the island seem limited and so require a lot of advanced planning to ensure a booking
What did we think – The trolley stop is adjacent to the A-Bomb Dome, the only remaining structure from the bomb blast’s hypocenter (the bomb exploded in the air several hundred meters above this structure), and so you immediately come upon this now-fortified skeleton of a former commercial hall. It was a somber experience to stand next to this structure and quietly reflect on the horror of that day and the days that followed. There were several tourists sharing the moment with us and it was very much like being in a church. Everyone was quiet and reverential as they absorbed the gravity of what happened here.
The Peace Park is located in a beautiful part of the city along a river. There is a large green space across the river from the Dome that leads to the Peace Memorial Museum. The museum documents the events leading up to the bombing, the immediate effects of the bombing, the aftermath of the bombing, and makes a clear call for a destruction of all atomic weapons. It contains many many artifacts from a bombed-out Hiroshima. It was very very very crowded, mostly with Japanese school children. I generally do not get agoraphobic. I will have to admit though, that there were times in the shoulder to shoulder slow moving masses of people, that I did experience some panic, which was certainly exacerbated by the images of true darkness that surrounded us.
2nd Best Site and Best Meal – Okonomiyaki at Okonomimura
Hiroshima is famous for its cabbage pancake called Okonomiyaki. In fact, Okonomiyaki is so popular in Hiroshima that there is an entire building filled with okonomiyaki counters. It’s called Okonomimura, is within walking distance of the Peace Park, and is an experience unto itself. Navigating with Google Maps, we walked the 1 km through the streets of Hiroshima to our okonomiyaki dinner.
I used Tripadvisor to decide on the counter called Ron which is located on the third floor, last counter on the right coming out of the elevator. Your counter manager/guide at Ron is a Japanese American guy from California, and was very helpful in guiding us through our meal. A big part of the experience is watching these huge mounds of food being prepared and cooked. They start with a pancake batter which is then topped with cabbage. At certain points through the process, bacon, egg, noodles, the largest pile of green onions ever, special sauce, and other proteins of your choice are added. It is served to you right on top of the counter grill, and you are given a sharp spatula to help cut it into more manageable pieces.
You can get okonomiyaki all over Japan, but Hiroshima seems to be the pancake capital, and Hiroshima okonomiyaki is distinct in the use of noodles. But were they tasty? They were good, but this was an example of the experience itself being the highlight of the meal.
Day #5 – Miyajima
Best Site: Miyajima Island
I almost didn’t take us to Miyajima. This would have been a huge mistake! Its most famous site, the iconic “floating” Torii Gate was under renovation and covered with scaffolding, and feeling bad about that, I did look for alternatives for our second day in Hiroshima. But I really couldn’t come up with any, so we went.
How did we get there: we took a JR train from the Hiroshima station to the small Miyajima station. The train ride took 25 minutes. From there, you walk about two blocks following the signs to the ferry port. There are two different ferry companies offering the quick 10-15 minute ride across to the island. They both cost the same and I couldn’t find one clear advantage of one over the other. We took the JR ferry and we were able to use our ICOCA card.
What did we think: The whole experience of riding the ferry to the island, walking through the single shopping/dining street, eating Hiroshima oysters, walking through the Itsukushima shrine (the torii gate was still cool despite the construction), chasing away hungry deer (really cute for the first 15 minutes in Nara, charmingly annoying all the other times after that), exploring ancient monuments, hiking through Japanese oak forests as their colors were beginning to change while discovering small waterfalls. All of it qualifies as our best site of the day. Miyajima was known in ancient times as The Island of the Gods, and is considered one of the top scenic spots in Japan, and we understand why. I thought we might be there for a few hours. We were there most of the day. Click here to read more about all my top sites on Miyajima Island.
2nd Best Site: Daishoin Temple at Miyajima
While the island as a whole was my favorite site of the day, the Daishoin Temple complex was my single favorite site on the island. In fact, it was my favorite temple of this entire trip full of temples. It’s a Buddhist temple complex consisting of several buildings progressing up the side of the island’s holy mountain Mount Misen.
If it’s possible to have a site remind you of something straight out of a cartoon, I kept thinking about the mountain temple in Kung Fu Panda the whole time I was there. The buildings are varied and beautiful, the grottos and shrines are peaceful, and the views up to the top of the mountain and down to the ocean are spectacular. Plus it really seemed like a working temple as opposed to a tourist site. There was only a handful of tourists (at mid afternoon) and several monk-led ceremonies were quietly taking place as we climbed through the various levels of this complex.
Best Meal: Kakiya
Hiroshima is famous for its large oysters. We ate lunch at Kakiya, one of Tripadvisor’s highest rated oyster restaurants on the Miyajima shopping street. The menu selection was limited to oysters only, but that’s why we were there, right? We ate chargrilled oysters in the shell, deep-fried oysters, and stewed oysters in a flavorful broth served with rice. Each version was delicious and it would be hard to pick a favorite, though to my suprise, I would choose the fried oyster. It was deep-fried in a light crusty batter and the oyster had an-almost-creamy consistency in the center. It wasn’t greasy at all. The friendly staff spoke English and there were English menus. We spent around $35
Day #6 – Return to Kyoto
Best Site: Fushimi Inari at Night
We returned to Kyoto on the bullet train where we ultimately checked in to our second Kyoto hotel for the next three nights. As I mentioned earlier, it was located near Fushimi Inari in a residential neighborhood. Fushimi Inari is one of the few Kyoto sites that is always open. And at night there are lights! Visiting the shrine at night offers a different mood, along with another opportunity to experience one of Kyoto’s most-visited sites without the crowds.
How did we get there -Walked a few blocks 🙂
When did we go – Straight from dinner around 7pm
What did we think – It’s a little spooky to visit Fushimi Inari at night. Inari is a holy Shinto mountain and home to Shinto spirit entities. This, plus the fact that the shrines and gates are illuminated in a low light, all add to the spooky nightime ambience. Plus it happened to be Halloween! We didn’t hike to the top as we had done earlier in the week. We revisited the lower gates and wandered off between the gated paths since viewing the luminous gates pathways from afar is a sight unto itself.
2nd Best Site and Best Meal: Nishiki Market
We had several hours after arriving back in Kyoto before we could check into our hotel. We stored our luggage at Kyoto station and took the subway two stops north to central Kyoto. The famed Nishiki market is just a few blocks east of the subway stop. It was lunchtime and we were hungry.
I always make it a point to visit city markets like Nishiki. It’s always interesting for me to see what the fresh local ingredients indiginous to each place are like. Nishiki – often referred to as Kyoto’s Kitchen – is a 5 block long series of stalls selling fresh fish, meats, and vegetables, but also selling cooked food and souviners. It covers actual city blocks but has a roof to protect you from the elements. This was a common theme that we found in every city’s busy shopping districts including Nara, Osaka, and Hiroshima – a type of covered indoor mall located on the city streets.
We worked our way down the crowded market, picking and choosing various delicacies to fill our hungry tummies. Highlights included fresh grilled salmon on a stick, pickled vegetables (I hadn’t realized prior to our trip what an important role pickled vegetables plays in Japanese cuisine), and black sesame soy ice cream. Japan is probably the cleanest country I have ever visited. One reason that Japan stays clean is that walking while eating is highly frowned upon. Every food stand in Nishiki has a sign asking that you stay and eat at the stall. Most would provide a small eating area or a few chairs. We stood and ate our salmon in the back, next to the fish tanks, for example. Now that’s ambience 🙂
Day #7 – Kurama
Best Site: Kurama Onsen
There are several reasons to take a trip to Kurama located in the mountains north of Kyoto – its mountain temple, the hike across the mountain to the beautiful village of Kibune, the train ride through the tree tunnels, but we went primarily for the Japanese onsen experience, and Kurama onsen is considered the best in the Kyoto area. By this time in the trip, our leg muscles were ready for a nice therapeutic soak in the healing waters of this public bathhouse.
How did we get there: We took the Keihan train line from Inari station near our apartment, north to the end of the line. From there you transfer to the Eizan line. The stations are adjacent to each other, and trains to Kurama leave about every 30 minutes.
It’s a 30 minute ride to Kurama including multiple stops along the way. I had read about the spectacular scenery along this route, but you don’t reach the tree tunnels until the last few stops, and they are honestly just OK – maybe better a few weeks later when the fall colors were in their full glory. The rest of the trip is through northern Kyoto, but this does offer a glimpse into normal life in this part of the otherwise touristic city. Kurama is very small and the train station is immediately across from the mountain temple. Kurama Onsen has a shuttle van that picks up just outside the station. It seemed like it ran back and forth about every 30 minutes or so.
When did we go: We strategically planned our visit to the onsen after our mountain sight-seeing that afternoon. It was mid- afternoon when we arrived
What did we think: An onsen is unique experiences for the non-initiated. I haven’t shared another bathing facility with other naked men since high school PE. But we were there to go with the flow. Kurama Onsen has two types of onsen tickets including an indoor/outdoor option and an outdoor only option. We opted for the latter. We bought our tickets for entry, our bathing towel, and a smaller towel (for covering your privates if you wish) from an automatic machine outside of the outdoor building. It all cost around $16. There is a small booth right next to the machine, where an attendant takes your tickets and gives you your towels. You then head up the stairs to the onsen. There is a male section and a female section.
Inside the onsen, there are signs posted in English that walk you through the proper onsen etiquette. This includes showering first (sitting down – so no one has to watch you) and keeping your towels out of the onsen water. The bathing pool isn’t big. There were about 10 other men in the onsen while I was there – some Japanese, some white guy tourists like me. Even though it’s not big, there was plenty of individual space for all of us. I just tried to ignore the fact that I was naked with the gang. It was the best outdoor soak I’ve ever experienced – coolish mountain fresh-smelling air, surrounded by tree covered peaks just starting to turn autumnal colors. The onsen water temperature was comfortably hot. It was a relaxing end to the afternoon.
A word about tattoos: Many onsens in Japan do not allow entry to anyone that has a tattoo. I read that this is because of a traditional affiliation between tattoos and gangs in Japan. There are a few however that do allow the tattooed to enter. My wife has a noticeable tattoo on her trunk. She didn’t have any issues at Kurama Onsen
2nd Best Site: Trail from Kurama to Kibune
The Kurama-dera mountain temple is the other main reason that tourists visit this area and as I mentioned, the entrance to the temple complex is just across from the Kurama train station. I thought the temple itself was just OK. For me, it paled in comparison to the mountain temple on Miyajima. The views though from the temple courtyard are fantastic.
We hike a lot at home. Since the hike across the mountain via the temple to Kibune is another oft-mentioned reason for a visit to this area, I thought it seemed like a no-brainer activity for us. But by this point in the trip, we had walked so much, and climbed so many temple stairs, that I wasn’t sure I cared to hike. We did intend on seeing the temple though, and so entered the complex heading up the zigzag pathway that would take us there. There is a funicular available that takes you up about halfway, but since it skips a couple of shrines along the path, we decided to walk up. Honestly, in retrospect, I wish we had taken the funicular. The shrines along the way weren’t that great and the funicular would have saved my legs for what was yet to come.
After we zigzag climbed and then climbed a bunch more staircases, we made it to the temple courtyard and took in the views. At this point, I still did not intend to hike over to Kibune. But then we decided to keep following the path behind the temple for a bit to check out some of the various outbuilding, hoping for a Miyajima-like experience (didn’t have one). More stairs, more climbing. At this point, after studying Google Maps (still had good connection up there) and discovering that the distance down to Kibune was almost as far as turning around and retracing our steps, we committed fully to the rest of the hike.
It was indeed beautiful finishing the path across the mountain. The entire mountain, including the temple, is considered holy and there were a couple of smaller shrine buildings along the way that were scenic and worthwhile. We sat inside one of them and watched a shrine worker load all the donated coins into his backpack and literally have to hoist the heavily laden coinage onto his back and head up the trail, bent over from the coin weight.
Overall, this hike is not really very flat anywhere. The trail down to Kibune is also very steep and mostly made up of earthen steps. So needless to say, our already tired legs, were even more tired, and well in need of a visit to the onsen. There is a bus (yep, ICOCA card works) at the base of the little village of Kibune – basically just a row of quaint houses and restaurants along a river – that took us to the Kibune station, where we jumped on the train back to Kurama one stop away for our much-needed soak. The entire hike from the Kurama train station, up to the temple, and across to Kibune, is about 2.5 km. Not a long hike, but steep up and down.
Best Meal: Ramen Hiwamatanoboru
This small ramen restaurant is located just around the corner from the Inari train station. There are many styles of ramen in Japan. This version has a very rich thick pork broth – almost like a light gravy. The pork had a light char to it as well, adding a depth of flavor. Of the three ramen meals I ate on this trip, this version was probably my favorite. Here you order your meal at an automated machine at the entrance. You then add money and it spits out tokens that you hand to your waiter. Our waiter was very friendly in helping us through the process. Total cost was around $20
Day #8 – Northern Higashiyama
Best Site: Honen-in Temple along Philosophers Walk
Philosophers Walk is a popular tourist destination in the Northern Higashiyama district of Kyoto. It’s a tree-lined stone pathway that follows a canal through a quiet part of the city for about a kilometer. It’s another Kyoto site that is best visited early in the morning or later in the day, as crowds can detract from its serenity. There are several temples that are easily accessed while strolling along this Path (this is the type of path that demands strolling). As we were in the throws of full-blown temple fatigue by this point, we visited only one. It turned out to be my favorite temple in Kyoto
How did we get there – we took the Keihan line from Inari train station to it’s northernmost station. From there I used Google Maps to show me which bus to take eastward to the beginning of the path (the bus stop is a few blocks from the northernmost starting point for the path). It would have also been easy to take a taxi to the path from the train station, but the bus stop was directly outside the station and came before a taxi did. I then used Google Maps to direct me to the temple though there are signs along the path indicating the various off-path sites.
When did we go – We arrived at the path at around 9:30am. There were only a few other strollers at this time, mostly locals.
What did we think – As I mentioned before, this temple was my Kyoto favorite. It’s a small Buddhist temple and very peaceful. For most of our time, we were the only two tourists inside the complex. Moss abounds throughout this small temple complex – it is a very green space. The buildings are smaller and more intimate than the other temples we visited. And the large sand sculptures flanking the entrance are unique to anything else we saw on our Kyoto visit.
How long did we stay – We were only there for about 20 minutes. I wish we could have stayed longer to soak it in and maybe even sit and meditate for a bit, but we had a lunch reservation in central Kyoto, and so had to keep moving.
2nd Best Site: Byodo-in Temple in Uji
So despite my aforementioned raging case of temple fatigue, we went to another temple after lunch. We could have chosen from several Kyoto landmarks we had yet to visit (and never did have time to visit including both the Gold and the Silver Pavilions), but instead we hopped on a JR train and journeyed about 25 minutes south of Kyoto Station to the town of Uji. I wanted to go here for two reasons 1) the temple itself has a somewhat different design from those that we had already visited and 2) I thought it would be interesting to see a smaller Japanese town.
From the train station, you walk about 0.5 km through the small town of Uji to get to the temple, and it offered us a different glimpse of Japanese life. It is a popular tourist destination and it was moderately crowded, but I didn’t see any other Western tourists there except for us. I think it is a popular destination for out–of-town practitioners of the form of Buddhism celebrated there. We didn’t stay for long as the inside of the temple is under renovation, but I was very happy we went, because the picture I took of the temple with the light from the late afternoon sun is my favorite picture of the trip (and is the featured image of this blog post)
Best Meal: Tempura Kitenya
This is another Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant and was recommended online as an excellent place to experience a coursed tempura meal. We went for lunch because it costs less by quite a bit, though the experience is still the same. It’s near Nishiki market and we stopped in the day before, hoping to secure a reservation. The gracious owner and chef was able accommodate us the next day.
The restaurant is very small, just a counter with 8 seats. Lunch started promptly at noon and we were all seated and served together. The chef prepares the food behind the counter and individually serves each diner across the counter as each item is ready. We had three different menu options each consisting of different number of tempura foods. There was an English version of the menu. We ended up eating 4 different kinds of fish and 4 different kinds of vegetables, along with rice, pickled vegetables, and miso soup. The chef spoke a little English and had English cards as well. When he would serve us an item, he would also show us a card with the English name.
We thought that the overall experience was better than the food itself. Honestly, one tempura vegetable doesn’t taste a lot different from the next. But the chef was so nice, the service outstanding, and the setting so different from what we experience in our normal life, we loved it! Total cost was around 55 USD for the two of us
Final Thoughts and Tips
I downloaded my Google Translate off-line Japanese…and never used it. Everyone spoke excellent English at our hotels and at the train ticket counters. There was an English version of every menu we looked at (though I did purposely choose restaurants that were known to have English menus). There was always at least one restaurant employee who understood English. We had no problem navigating our way through Nishiki market with just English. There were a couple of occasions at the convenience stores where the clerk didn’t speak English, but we all managed just fine.
Cash was required for most of my transportation purchases except for our bullet train tickets. The train ticket automatic machines and ICOCA card reload machines all required cash. Many restaurants only accepted cash too. When I was able to use a card, I was always able to use my American Express card which isn’t always the case internationally, though it’s preferred card when I travel. My personal card is a Gold American Express and it does not charge me foreign transaction fees, plus I get 4X membership rewards points at restaurants internationally. I was able to use AMEX at all groceries stores and convenience stores.
When I needed to reload my wallet with Yen, ATMs are located at every convenience store and throughout the train stations. I actually didn’t see a bank the whole time we were there, but I wasn’t really looking either since ATM machines were everywhere. All had English language options.
Thoughts on Cost
Speaking of money, I had always heard that Japan was expensive. In fact, when I told people we were going to Japan, expensive was a common comment. However, I didn’t find it any more expensive than Europe, or the US for that matter. Transportation costs added up each day, but were about equal to daily car rental fees. We generally spent the same on food each day as we would eating out in Utah. I generally try and keep my average hotel bill to less than $200/night when using hotels (rather than rentals) and had no issue achieving that goal on this trip. Booking.com does make it very easy to find quality properties in your price range whatever that might be. Overall, I did not find that this was an expensive trip.
Japan Rail Pass
One way to reduce your transportation costs would be to purchase the Japan Rail Pass or a JR regional pass ahead of your trip. These passes are only available to foreign visitors and can be purchased online prior to your trip for the greatest savings. If you plan on using the bullet train for roundtrip travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, or if you plan on using bullet trains for more than one side trip from Kyoto, the JR Pass can save you a lot of money. Plus, you can use the pass for all JR local train rides in and around Kyoto (and throughout Japan). It can also be used for Osaka airport transportation on the Haruka Limited Express. Click here for more Japan Rail Pass information and pricing.
Given our itinerary, I did not purchase the Pass. I figured that with only one bullet train trip to Hiroshima, we would have come out about even. However, I’ve since discovered that JR now offers cheaper regional passes and their Kansai-Hiroshima pass would have actually saved us quite a bit of money on that side trip to Hiroshima.
Hotel breakfasts are very expensive in Japan and definitely favor the Japanese palate. Plus, I feel that hotel breakfasts anywhere aren’t very fun. When staying at a rental with a kitchen we go shopping at the local grocery store and stock up with breakfast items. When we stay at a hotel, I prefer to “forage”. I’ll hit the nearby streets early in the morning and see what I can find. Usually it’s a local bakery. On this trip, it was the convenience stores.
Japanese Convenience Stores
Much has been written about Japanese convenience stores, and let me testify – they are indeed great! There was always a Lawson within two blocks of where we stayed. There was also generally a 7-11 and a Family Mart nearby as well. I foraged at all three at various times. Tasty fresh grab-and-go sandwiches, fresh fruit, a yogurt wonderland, hot items like pork-filled buns, and much more, all made for an easy cheap breakfast.
AirBNB has a big presence in Japan. We did not use AirBNB or other rental companies this time though. It would have been an even cheaper trip, no doubt. But most weren’t as conveniently located to the train stations as I wanted for our first time in Japan, and most that I found in my initial tripping were very traditional with futons, floor mats, etc. While that would have undoubtedly been more authentically experiential, we opted for the Western style hotels this time. The Gentle Fox Kyoto felt like an AirBNb though – an apartment hotel with all the amenities of a traditional rental.
Because train travel is such a big part of life in Japan, the train stations offer lots of luggage storage. The massive Kyoto Station had multiple locations where luggage could be stored. These were mostly rows of self-serve storage units and your ICOCA card was used for both payment and as your key! We needed to use these twice. We were able to fit all of our luggage – two hard-case carry-ons and two backpacks in the large-sized unit. The cost for that size is around $7 for the day.
Yes, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the toilets. Smart Toilets abound in Japan. We had one in every hotel room. Even some public bathrooms featured a Smart Toilet (though some also featured a Dumb Toilet, i.e. a hole in the floor – seriously). Some had more features than others. Our toilet at The Thousand Kyoto was certainly a Rolls Royce of Toilets. It opened when you entered the room, closed when you left, warmed your bare bottom, flushed itself, offered a bidet cleansing function at various pressures and temperatures. It had its own control panel on the wall. I really miss it. We can get them in the US. I looked as soon as we returned home. I’m too practical though to spend $4000 on a toilet.
We were there at the end of October into the first of November. The temperatures where a perfect 70 every day. They dipped to the mid-50s at night – light jacket/sweater weather. We saw rain only once – for about two hours one morning. Peak fall foliage travel season was about 2-3 weeks away, and so it wasn’t as crowed as it reportedly can get mid-November.
Japan is the cleanest country that I have ever visited – hands down. Which is especially amazing given how crowded it is. Cleanliness is certainly ingrained in the culture. No litter anywhere. All facilities spotless.
The Japanese people are the kindest, politest, most accommodating people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. The people that we came into contact with on a daily basis – at the hotels, restaurants, stores, train stations – make sure that you are not inconvenienced in any way, are treated with respect, and are given the utmost in customer service and politeness.
My most useful sources for tripping our Kyoto adventure were the very thorough overviews of all things Kyoto on Inside Kyoto and Travel Caffeine; the YouTube channel Only in Japan; and Japan-Guide.com.
What a beautifully written travel log. I felt like I was truly along for the journey, and anyone planning a trip to Japan certainly needs to gleen from your wonderful descriptions and important travel tips. Thanks so much for sharing this with those of us who, like you, enjoy traveling.
Thank you for your kind feedback
Great comments on Kyoto. I was there last year and saw most of what you did too, it was a fantastic experience (still have to write up that blog post!). I stayed in Osaka and commuted in/out Kyoto for two days as the hotels were so much cheaper there, the trains were free as I used my Japan Rail Pass, and I was to fly out of Osaka to Taiwan at the end of the trip. I have taken note of your use of public transport and the cards which were of great benefit, there are some awesome tips there. You are certainly a well researched traveller. The food comments are invaluable and descriptions so informative. If ever I am back there – which I hope to be one day – I shall certainly check out the restaurants you mentioned.
I’m glad you found it valuable. The train system in Japan is so impressive, isn’t it? We hope to get back there sometime too.
Fantastic post, Steven! We are unexpectedly planning a trip to Japan the first week of April. Thinking 4-5 days in Kyoto (one day trip to Hiroshima) then the last couple of days in Tokyo. I will be reaching out to get some insights from you!
Nothing like a trip to Japan coming out of nowhere. Such a great place. I’m ready to help, unless something happens and you end up somewhere like Malaysia…