This post is part of a Japan Trip series.
If you visit just one city in Japan, make it Kyoto. With its temples, geiko (geisha), bamboo groves, walking paths and traditional wooden houses it is the quintessential Japanese city combining the charm of Takayama with the glitz of Tokyo.
Now, here’s what you should do in Kyoto.
STAY AT THE HYATT REGENCY KYOTO
After my spartan stay at Ekoin walking into the Hyatt Regency Kyoto felt like entering a palace. A concierge! Restaurants! My own shower! Sure, sleeping on the floor of a monastery is all fun and games for one night. And then it’s not. I like my luxuries.
TOP 10 REASONS TO STAY AT THE HYATT REGENCY KYOTO:
- Complimentary taxi service from Kyoto Station (but it’s secret complimentary taxi service: the Hyatt Regency Kyoto website and the reservation confirmation emails fail to mention the service.) After you disembark, go to the MK taxi stand near the Ibis hotel to claim your cab
- Proximity to the Yogen-in Temple (next door), Shichijo station (the Keihan Line conveniently runs North and South along the River) and a McDonald’s (I know! I know it’s wrong! But I will never get used to Japanese food for breakfast)
- Choice of three restaurants and a bar
- $30 off meals and spa services when you book your reservation online (this may be a temporary perk — I was surprised to receive it even though I booked my stay with points)
- Some native English speaking staff
- Above-and-beyond, friendly service (outside of the restaurants, anyway)
- Garden/courtyard views
- The Hyatt Regency Kyoto accepts and awards Starwood Points
- To-die-for pillows (of course any pillow is going to feel like heaven after that oversized bag of marbles I slept on at Ekoin)
- Colorful but tasteful decor:
WALK THE KYOTO WALKS
When you arrive at Kyoto Station, go to the Tourist Information Center to get a map and the Kyoto Walks guide (or download it here), which outlines specific routes and lists the admission fees and opening hours for the sights along them. My favorite of the Kyoto Walks was the Higashiyama Area walk (photo below) that cuts through the Gion district, past shops, restaurants, temples, and gardens into Maruyama Park, ending at the Heian Jingu Shrine. If you’re not walked-out at this point, head approximately six blocks east to catch the lovely Path of Philosophy leading to even more temples and shrines. Kyoto is not lacking in temples and shrines.
GET LOST IN GION
Exploring the Gion District was my favorite thing to do in Kyoto. Don’t stick precisely to the Higashiyama Area walk artery: explore its capillaries for glimpses into upscale residential life in Kyoto. Everything feels so secretive, so impenetrable in Japan: I’ve never felt like more of a foreigner in this land than when I wandered through Kyoto’s backstreets.
The street you hear the most about — Shijo Street — may be the most dull: the blocks north of it are far more interesting. I’d walk them at night, passing the endless clubs, restaurants and teahouses that appear so aloof and unwelcoming. Who is going to all those places? What’s going on in there?
Geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) spotting is a popular pastime in these parts, but during the day you’re more likely to spy young Japanese women dressing up as geiko for a kick, shuffling joyfully between temples and posing for selfies with unsuspecting tourists.
From Gion, cross the Kamo River near Shijo Station and stroll the atmospheric Pontocho Alley (it runs parallel to the west bank of the river) in the evening. The narrow strip of sidewalk is not much to look at by day, but its restaurants and bars come alive at night.
SIDETRIP TO ARASHIYAMA
The Arashiyama District is an easy Japan Railway train ride from Kyoto Station. You’ll first encounter its main street, which is kinda touristy but should not be overlooked if for no other reason than the availability of green tea, black sesame and yuba tofu soft serve ice cream cones (all excellent and, yes, I indulged in one of each).
A pleasant (if melanoma-inducing) walk or bike ride through the district will lead you to multiple shrines, the Kameyama-koen monkey park, and the river where you can rent a boat and do some rowing. Or, — better yet — sit in the shade, enjoy a tap beer and watch other people row their boats past you while feeling smug.
Don’t miss the tranquilic bamboo grove.
EAT A SEN MON TEN
Here’s how you find Sen Mon Ten restaurant: Find Man on the Moon pub, which is on many maps and sports a big sign written in English, and then look across the street. That little hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the top of the steps that you would never, ever look at twice? That’s Sen Mon Ten.
Sen Mon Ten is not fancy. For decor there’s a tv, a bar, and a few tables and stools. For food there are three varieties of gyoza (potstickers) (vegetarian, pork or pork topped with melted cheese), draft beer, sake and all the pickles you can eat. Unlike many Kyoto restaurants hidden behind foreboding heavy wooden doors, Sen Mon Ten is casual, welcoming and unintimidating, and the food is cheap and tasty. Sen Mon Ten is a neighborhood hidden gem that is worth the search.
VISIT KYOTO’S TEMPLES
The one thing you absolutely HAVE to do in Kyoto is visit the temples. More on that subject in my next post…
My last recommendation for what to do in Kyoto is to check-out the Inside Kyoto website before you go. It’s an attractive, straightforward website authored by Chris Rowthorn, author of Lonely Planet Kyoto. You will find everything about what to do in Kyoto and how to do it at this resource.
Read the entire Japan Trip series.