I was thinking of going into extreme detail here but figured I’d skip the fluff and skip to the point. I will break this up by temples/shrines : neighborhoods : bars/food/cafe.
Kyoto is located 15 min by bullet train north of Osaka. The best way to get there is via a bullet train from Tokyo from Shinegawa stn directly to Kyoto Station, or if you’re flying, get to Osaka airport and take a limousine shuttle (1 hour) to Kyoto.
Think of Kyoto in this way. In the south is Kyoto Station. Generally you will not be spending any time south of the station as it is mostly industrial. In the center is a valley and that is generally where downtown is. This is where you will find the majority of the shopping, Gion (geisha quarters), bars etc in this center. To the West of the downtown you will have Arashiyama river. This is as west as most people go and is generally accessible by train (40 min) To the South is nothing really except for the Yamazaki distillery. You must make reservations online months in advance to make the tour. You may try calling day of to see if they had any cancellations. This is about 20 min from Kyoto Station. To the North is Kinkakuji which is the famous golden pavilion. And to the East you will have Gion, and further NE is the philosophers path.
If Downtown Kyoto is the center of Kyoto then think of a large ring of hills and mountains surrounding the valley as where all the major shrines and temples are located. Here are my favorite. I would suggest if you’re staying 3-5 days in Kyoto to see at least 3-4 shrines. Here’s the order I would check them out.
- Kinkakuji temple (Golden Pavillion)
- Let’s face it, it’s the equivelant of the Golden Gate Bridge in SF. You have to take your obligatory photo here.
- This is a cool shrine. It houses the world’s most famous rock garden build 500 something years ago… if not longer. I don’t remember.
- There are 15 rocks in the garden, but at any one point on the pagoda where you stand you can only count 14. It is said that the person that reaches Enlightenment can see all 15.
- The largest and highest temple in Kyoto. It is in the SE section and has amazing views at night. I recommend coming at night.
- Eikando & Philosophers Path
- Great for Fall leaves or Cherry blossoms. This is also near the Philosopher’s path so after going here, be sure to walk the Philosopher’s path
- Overrated (Fushimi-Inari)
- This place is overrun with tourist and it’s small paths are packed with Chinese tourists that push you out of the way. If you must go, just climb up for 15 min then turn around. It’s all the same. Also, lots of mosquito’s here. Wear Bug Spray.
- Honestly, if temples are your thing you need to go on trip advisor and just pick them out. There’s honestly too many here and after these temples, they all kind of look the same.
- Bamboo Forest / Arashiyama River
- This is the famous bamboo forest. It is a bit underwhelming as it is very short. But go for the obligatory photos then get over to Arashiyama river which is right next to it.
- There is a spot next to or near the Coffee Spot (Arabica Coffee) best coffee in Kyoto, that has boat tours. You want to rent the long boat by the shore and ask for the tour guide “Nasa-san” He will paddle the boat up Arashiyama and at the end you will get the chance to dock with a food boat that is grilling all sorts of goodies and cold beer. Not a bad way to rest sore feet and take in the sites.
- I also included a Soba shop near by that has amazing Soba.
- Arabica Coffee
- Gion is where the old Geisha Quarters are. In Kyoto they are referred to Maiko (trainee) and Geiko (senior).
- This is where there is a lot to see at night. You will see the Maiko / Geiko going to or from their clients at tea houses. DO NOT grab them, pose with them, or even try to take pictures of them ( if you do, please do so very discretely) It is considered rude especially if you have not paid for their services. This is a very common occurance at night, and often tourists wait at the entrances of these tea houses (members only) to try to snap a photo. If you want to see them, go off the main street and into the back alley ways. Once again, best to see them live and in person then be the jerk trying to creep and snap a photo.
- There is an amazing restaurant/bar here. Probably my favorite Restaurant in all of Japan. It is called Gion Niti . Amazing Italian food made by Kazuki-san, and owned by Michito & Aoi Santonaka. Be sure to tell them Curtis sent you. There is a seating fee of $10/ person but it is well worth it. Order the Arabiata Pasta / Wagyu Appetizer / and any of the amazing Whisky’s there. If you couldn’t make it to the Yamazaki Distillery, now’s your chance to try the Hibiki 30. Please be respectful and not too loud. They do speak English so don’t be afraid to start a dialogue. You will often see Geisha here with their clients.
- Gion Corner is where you can buy tix to see the Maiko and Geiko perform in a large theatere. Short of paying for your own Geisha ($500/hr) this may be your only chance to see them perform.
- Lots of shopping here. Very cool craft and unique stores. I will build out this section later, but best to spend your time wandering around.
- Kuruma Onsen is located in the Northern Mountains of Kyoto. You can take a train from Demachiyanagi station that will take you there. It’s 30 min away by train but a very scenic ride. Please be mindful of covering your tattoos.
- For those that ride, you can rent a motorcycle provided you have your Intl License. Rental 819. I would take the road leading up towards Obama and take in the country side of Kyoto.
Restaurants – Bars – Coffee etc.
I won’t go into detail on each one, what’s the fun if I ruin the surprise. I’ll just say what type of food it is.
- Gion Niti *(Italian)
- Smile Burger * (better than in-n-out) Tell Tomo Curtis Sent you.
- Kanei Soba (1 Michellin Star and $10)
- Arabica (There is one in Arashiyama, and this one is near Kiyomizu-dera)
- Soto *(Japanese Lunch Spot)
- Com Ngon (Vietnamese Legit)
- Yoshikawa Inn (Tempura)
- e-fish Cafe *(Cafe right on the river)
- Dean and Deluca (Coffee Meets Bank Vault)
- Smart Coffee (French Toast)
- L’accau Instagram * @cafe.laccu.kyoto (best German Baby Pancakes)
- Cafe Bibliotec (Old Building Great Coffee and Pastry)
- Les Deux Garcon *(Amazing Authentic French)
- Pound Kyoto (yakiniku)
- Vermillion (Cafe)
- Sowgen (antiques and coffee)
- Khanty * (Amazing Food)
- Gion Niti *(Japanese Whisky) ask for Aoi – Tell her Curtis sent you
- L’Esca Moteur *(French Magician Cocktails) ask for Christophe. Tell him Curtis sent
- Bar Kya *(hidden Japanese Bar in old home)
- K6 *( if you love Japanese Whisky… there’s a secret members bar near here.)
- Sfera (dark. future. hidden)
- Zipangu ( no link. hidden. Where did Nobunaga die?)
- Before9 (craft brewery)
- Yamazaki Distillery (surely you can make it here)