Historically the imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is a charming, more laid back antidote to flashy Tokyo. The city's alluring mix of traditional culture and trademark Japanese quirk has turned it into one of the country's most popular tourist destinations, but don't be turned off by the high prices and large crowds- Kyoto has much to offer travelers, and it is absolutely worth spending at least 3-4 days exploring its many nooks and crannies. Here are some basic tips that will help you get the most out of your stay:
Kyoto does not have its own international airport, so be prepared for a bit of a trek upon arrival. You can fly into one of Tokyo's airports, and then take an under 2 hr. ride on the famous Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto; or arrive into one of Osaka’s airport, and transfer by coach (drive time ranging from 1 hr. to 1 hr. 45 min.)
With manageable traffic throughout the city, coach transportation is a simple and convenient way to get around. Most destinations can be easily accessed, but there are a number of smaller side streets unable to accommodate large buses, so a bit of walking may be necessary to reach your final stop (typically no more than 5-10 minutes).
Although there is a decent subway line, and an extensive bus network, both systems are typically packed to the brim. While public transit is a good option for individual passengers/smaller groups during free time, we do not recommend it for full group transit.
Where to stay: One of the best areas to stay in the city is the Downtown district. While there aren’t any main attractions in this neighborhood, you’ll be located in the heart of the city, within walking distance of countless restaurants and shops, and you’ll have easy access to Southern and Norther Higashiyama, two of the city’s key sightseeing neighborhoods. There are many hotels scattered throughout Higashiyama as well, however its prime location means rates are often inaccessible for most university groups.
Sights to see: Kyoto has a seemingly limitless number of cultural and historical attractions to visit during your stay. A few of the most popular include:
Fushimi Inari Shrine: Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine renowned as the international “headquarters” of all shrines worshipping the god Inari (of which there are 40,000 worldwide). While the shrine buildings themselves are impressive, the show-stopper is the path of thousands of torii gates leading up the neighboring mountain.
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion): This gold-leaf-covered Zen Buddhist temple and its lush grounds compose an iconic image of Kyoto.
Arashiyama: This bustling neighborhood is most famous for its bamboo forest, however it’s also fun strolling along the river and through the streets lined with shops, restaurants, and souvenir stands.
Keep in mind that it's hard to avoid crowds in Kyoto, so most attractions will inevitably be very busy. Depending on the attractions, we recommend using headsets in order to ensure that all group members can hear the content being shared by your guide.
Kyoto is a very safe and immensely walkable city, so it is recommended to build some free time into your itinerary. Take a few unstructured hours here and there to stroll along the river and down Pontocho Alley; see if you can spot geisha in the Gion district; and simply explore the countless side streets of the city, where you may stumble across a hidden shrine, a cat cafe, or perhaps the best ramen you will ever eat.