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Kyōto was the capital of Japan for over a millennium, and carries a reputation as its most beautiful city. However, visitors may be surprised by how much work they will have to do to see Kyoto's beautiful side. Most first impressions of the city will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station, which is itself an example of a city steeped in tradition colliding with the modern world. Nonetheless, the persistent visitor will soon discover Kyoto's hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city center, and find that the city has much more to offer than immediately meets the eye. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in Kyoto
Kyoto offers an incredible number of attractions for tourists, and visitors will probably need to plan an itinerary in advance in order to visit as many as possible.
Japan National Tourist Organization's self-guided "Kyoto Walks" pamphlet is available in a ready to print PDF format here . The guide enables first time visitors to tour the city with ease and with minimum fuss by providing bus numbers, names of bus stops and clearly marked walking routes. There are a variety of self-guided walks in different districts to sample Kyoto's various sites. If you see the browser's dialog box popping up, just click on it till the entire PDF document opens.
World Heritage Sites
In 1994, 17 historic sites were inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List under the group designation Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Fourteen of the listed sites are in Kyoto itself, two are in the neighbouring city of Uji and one is in Ōtsu.
Listed by location, the fourteen World Heritage Sites in the city of Kyoto are:
- Northern Kyoto: Kinkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji, Ninna-ji, Kōzan-ji, Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine
- Central Kyoto: Nijō Castle, Nishi Hongan-ji, Tō-ji
- Eastern Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkaku-ji
- Western Kyoto: Tenryū-ji, Koke-dera
- Southern Kyoto: Daigo-ji
Imperial Palaces and Villas
Stroll through the regal retreats of the Imperial Palace or one of the two Imperial villas with gardens and teahouses managed by the Imperial Household Agency. These are the Imperial Palace (京都御所 Kyōto-gosho) and Sentō Imperial Palace (仙洞御所 Sentō-gosho) in Central Kyoto, Katsura Imperial Villa (桂離宮 Katsura-rikyū) in Western Kyoto, and Shugakuin Imperial Villa (修学院離宮 Shugaku-in-rikyū) in Northern Kyoto. All four of these sites are open to the public by reservation through the Imperial Household Agency. The gardens located within the precints of each palace and villa are at their most scenic during spring cherry blossom season and autumn where a riot of colors enchant visitors. Each property is still used from time to time for official state functions or for private visits by the current royal family members.
The Imperial Household Agency maintains a quota on the number of visitors to each site per tour. Admission is free. English guides are available at the Imperial Palace; however, tours of the Sento Imperial Palace, Katsura Villa, and Shugakuin Villa are conducted in Japanese only (English pamphlets are given at each destination upon entry and books are available for purchase if you'd like to know more). Overseas visitors can apply online to the Imperial Household Agency in English here . On its website are write ups and videos in English for interested visitors to gauge which ones they would like to visit before making an online application. Please note that advanced applications first become available on the first day of the month, three months in advance of the applicant's preferred touring month. For example, if your preferred date of visit falls in the month of April, you can begin applying on January 1. As these visits are over subscribed by the Japanese and overseas visitors, the Imperial Household Agency has to draw lots to pick the successful applicants. All applicants are notified on the status of their applications whether they are successful or otherwise within a week after closing date. Most applicants to the Imperial Palace are accepted, and early reservation is not usually necessary; however, those planning to visit the Sentō Imperial Palace, or either of the Imperial Villas should apply on the first available day of application as they are highly competitive and entire months of tours often become full within the first few days. Winter tours are typically much less competitive, but be aware that the gardens will not be as beautiful as other times of the year.
If an applicant is not successful, they can still go direct in person to the Imperial Household Agency Kyoto Office to enquire whether there are vacancies, as they typically save a few spots for walk-ins. Many people are able to do this successfully for the Imperial Palace, but it can be more of a risk for the others, so go early. Address: Imperial household Agency Kyoto Office, 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, 602-8611, tel: +81-75-211-1215.
Nestled among the mountains of Western Honshu, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the Emperor from 794 until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. During its millennium at the center of Japanese power, culture, tradition, and religion, it accumulated an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines, built for emperors, shoguns, and monks. Kyoto was among the few Japanese cities that escaped the allied bombings of World War II and as a result, Kyoto still has an abundance of prewar buildings, such as the traditional townhouses known as machiya. However the city is continuously undergoing modernization with some of the traditional Kyoto buildings being replaced by newer architecture, such as the Kyoto Station complex. Kyoto is also home to Japan's second most prestigious university, Kyoto University.
Kyoto's city planners way back in 794 decided to copy the Chinese capital Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) and adopt a grid pattern, which persists to this day in the city core. West-east streets are numbered, with Ichijō-dōri (一条通, "First Street") up north and Jūjō-dōri (十条通, "Tenth Street") down south, but there is no obvious pattern to the names of north-south streets.
Public baths have been a cornerstone of the society for centuries in Kyoto. The first public baths, or sentō, were documented in the 13th century. Soon they became one of the few places in society where social status was irrelevant. Noblemen shared baths with commoners and warriors. Today over 140 bath houses remain in Kyoto. Funaoka Onsen is the oldest of these and dubbed "king of sentō", but newer bath houses and super sentō are just as much part of the Japanese bathing culture. If you have the time, make your way to one of the many public bath houses Kyoto has to offer.
- Funaoka Onsen (船岡温泉), Kyoto, Kita Ward, Murasakino Minamifunaokacho 82-1 (take bus line 206 from Kyoto station), ☎ +81-75-441-3735. 15:00 - 01:00. Funaoka Onsen is one of the oldest public bath houses in Kyoto still in operation. It's classic building is an excellent example of bath house architecture of the beginning of the 20th century. Funaoka Onsen is popular with both locals and visitors and is a must if you have an hour to spare. ¥410.
Well known for its abundance of historical sites, Kyoto often draws visitors eager to experience traditional Japanese culture. Buddhist meditation sessions are one of the most popular of these activities, and multiple options are available. In Northern Kyoto, Taizo-in and Shunko-in (both sub-temples of Myoshin-ji) offer authentic Zen meditation sessions, complete with explanations of the meaning and significance of such meditation. Reservations are necessary.
Kyoto is arguably the most well known place in the country to view cherry blossoms, and there are certainly no lack of options. On the Official Top 100 cherry blossom spots list, three are in Kyoto (Arashiyama, Daigoji, Ninnaji).
Eastern Kyoto is particularly popular during the cherry blossom season. A walk from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji along the Philosopher's Path, lined with cherry trees, is enjoyable, as there are a variety of temples and shrines to stop at along the way. The garden of the Heian Shrine, not far from the Philosopher's Path, features colorful pink blossoms, which is a nice contrast to the white blossoms you'll see on the Philosopher's Path. The famous cherry tree in Maruyama Park is often the center of attention in the evenings when it is lit up. Vendors line the pathway leading up to it, creating a festive atmosphere. Kiyomizu-dera and Kodai-ji have extended hours during the first few days of this season offering visitors the opportunity to view them at night, lit up against the blossoms. Blossoms can also be seen along the Kamogawa River. The entire area literally blossoms in the spring!
In Central Kyoto the northern section of the Imperial Park is home to a variety of different types of cherry blossoms. Nijo Castle hosts its own Nijo Light-Up, in which visitors can walk the grounds of the castle at night among the cherry blossoms (typically for 10–14 days). You cannot enter the castle during the light-up, so those who want to enter should visit during the day to see the castle and the blossoms. Just south of Kyoto station, the grounds of Toji Temple bloom beautifully below the towering pagoda.
In Arashiyama, a large portion of the mountainside is bright with cherry blossoms, along with the area around Hankyu Arashiyama Station. During the day, many people enjoy viewing the blossoms on the mountainside from the "Romantic Train" that travels through Arashiyama. At night, the area is lit up and food stalls are set up with a variety of delicious snacks.
Northern Kyoto offers cherry-blossom scouts worthwhile experiences at Hirano Shrine and Kyoto Botanical Gardens, and a walk inside the large grounds of Daigo-ji in Southern Kyoto is certainly made memorable when all the blossoms are in full bloom.
Although they are less well-known to foreign tourists, who tend only to focus their attentions on seeing cherry blosssoms, for those with plans to visit Kyoto from mid-February through mid-March, plum blossom viewing makes for a great alternative. Kyoto has two popular plum blossom locations; Kitano Tenmangu and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, both in northern Kyoto. Kitano Tenmangu has a large grove of plum trees just outside the shrine entrance that, with a ¥600 fee, you can stroll about. Within the shrine grounds, there are many more trees (viewable for free). The shrine even hosts annual performances by geisha amidst the plum blossoms. Plum blossoms have a very pleasantly distinct fragrance. These Japanese ume trees are actually more closely related to apricot trees. However an early mistranslation by the Japanese resulted in these trees being called "plum" trees instead.
Festivals and Events
- Setsubun (February 3 or 4) A large bonfire and Shinto ceremony is held at Yoshida Shrine.
- Cherry Blossom Season (April 1–15; days vary depending upon the weather) Although viewing the blossoms is enough for many, special events are often held throughout the city. (See "Cherry Blossoms" above)
- Aoi Matsuri (May 15) Beginning at Kyoto Imperial palace, a large procession dressed in Heian Period garbs walks to Shimogamo Shrine and finishes at Kamigamo Shrine.
- Gion Matsuri (July 17) Many Mikoshi are paraded through the streets. It is considered to be one of the top three festivals in Japan.
- Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (August 16) The hillside in Northwestern Kyoto is lit aflame in this festival honoring one's ancestors. Candle lanterns are floated out in Hirosawa Pond.
- Jidai Matsuri (October 22) People dressed in traditional garbs parade to Heian Shrine.
MeetUs Kyoto offers various cultural activities hosted by locals. The project is organised by university students, and they will translate between English and Japanese during the tour (usually locals don't speak English.) More than 15 things to do are listed and each has specific available dates (Japanese hairstyle arrangement and Kimono, for example, is not available on Monday). See MeetUs Kyoto for more information.
If you've just stepped off the train and the first thing on your mind is a bite to eat, there are several restaurants on the tenth and eleventh floors of the Isetan department store attached to Kyoto station. Most of the offerings are Japanese, including a veritable Ramen village, with a few casual Italian cafes as well.
Kyoto, and the nearby city of Uji, is well known for its matcha (抹茶 maccha) or green tea, but visitors don't just come to drink the tea; there are a wide variety of matcha-flavored treats. Matcha ice cream is particularly popular, and most places selling ice cream will have it as an option. It also shows up in a variety of snacks and gifts.
Yatsuhashi (八ツ橋) is another delicious Kyoto snack. There are two types of yatsuhashi; baked and raw. The hard yatsuhashi was originally made using cinnamon, and tastes like a crunchy biscuit. Today, while the biscuits remain the same, you can also buy hard yatsuhashi dipped in macha and strawberry-flavored glazes.
Raw yatsuhashi, also known as hijiri was also made with cinnamon, but the cinnamon is mixed with bean paste and then folded into the hijiri to make a triangle-shape. Today, you can buy a wide variety of flavors, including macha, chocolate and banana, and black poppyseed. Many of the flavors are seasonal, such as the sakura (cherry blossom) yatsuhashi available in the spring and mango, peach, blueberry, and strawberry, available from May to October.
Although yatsuhashi can be purchased at most souvenir shops, the best place to purchase raw yatsuhashi is the famous Honkenishio Yatsuhashi. While other stores may carry yatsuhashi, this is the place to find all of the seasonal flavors, as well as free samples. Most of these shops are located in Higashiyama. The most convenient for tourists is probably the one on Kiyomizu-zaka, just below the entrance to Kiyomizu-dera.
While many tourists find raw yatsuhashi to be a delicious (and highly affordable) souvenir, be aware that it only lasts for one week after purchase. Baked yatsuhashi on the other hand, will last for about three months. Consider this when deciding what gifts to take home with you.
Other Kyoto specialities include hamo (a white fish served with ume as sushi), tofu (try places around Nanzenji temple), suppon (an expensive turtle dish), vegetarian dishes (thanks to the abundance of temples), and kaiseki-ryori (multi-course chef's choice that can be extremely good and expensive).
Kyoto's night scene is dominated by bars catering for local needs, most of which are located in Central Kyoto around Kiyamachi, between Shijo and Sanjo. This area offers a wide variety of drinking options for all types of people. You'll also have no trouble finding the host and hostess bars, courtesy of the staff pacing around out front trying to entice visitors. There are plenty of options beyond this street in other regions, but with such a large concentration of bars along in the same area, its easy to locate a place where you feel most at home to relax for the night.
If you're looking for nightclubs, Kyoto has a few options, but it is not a city known for its thriving dance clubs. Those hoping to experience that part of Japanese nightlife should consider taking a train to Osaka where many of the clubs are hip and wild enough to rival any Tokyo club.
Some of Kyoto's most famous sake comes from Gekkeikan Brewery in the Fushimi area of Southern Kyoto. A 400 year old brewery that still produces great sake, Gekkeikan offers tours of its facilities.
There is a nice selection of reassuringly non-tacky traditional souvenir shops around Arashiyama station in Western Kyoto, selling fans and traditional sweets. More tacky stores can be found in Gion and the approach to Kiyomizu Temple, selling keyrings, cuddly toys, and garish ornaments. Other traditional souvenirs from Kyoto include parasols and carved wooden dolls.
More unconventional but colorful (and relatively cheap) souvenirs are the wooden votive tablets produced by Shinto shrines, which bear an image relevant to the shrine on the reverse. Visitors write their prayers on the tablets and hang them up, but there's no rule that says you can't take it with you.
Manga and anime enthusiasts should visit Teramachi Street, a covered shopping street off the main Shijo-dori, which boasts a large manga store on two floors, as well as a two-story branch of Gamers (a chain of anime stores), and a small two-story anime and collectables store.
Many ATMs in Kyoto do not allow non-domestic credit cards to be used, but ATMs in post offices and Seven-Eleven usually do. So if you find your card rejected or invalid in an ATM then try and get to a post office (郵便局 / yuubinkyoku or JP (in orange letters)) to use their ATMs instead. Look for the PLUS or Cirrus logos, whichever you find printed on the back of your ATM card. Another option is Citibank, which should work, too. There is an old standby international ATM at the top floor of Takashimaya Department Store at Shijo/Kawaramachi in the "Cash Corner." The bank of ATMs in the basement of the Kyoto Tower shopping center (across the street from JR Kyoto Station) also includes one machine where international cards may be used.
In the shopping areas adjacent to Kiyomizudera (on the other side of the Kamo River), it is possible to purchase samurai swords and top of the line kimonos. Do not be surprised if the prices for either item exceed ¥3,000,000.
Kyoto incense is also famous. It usually has a very delicate yet fragrant bouquet. Incense is relatively agreeable in price (¥400-2000). You will be able to find it between Nishi and Higashi Hongwanji.
Damascene, a special metal created by imbedding other metals, originated in Damascus, Syria over 2000 years ago and was first introduced to Japan in the 8th century. Since then, it has ceased production worldwide with the exception of Kyoto city, which continues producing it even today. The technique used to create Kyoto's damascene is quite complex, as it must be corroded, rusted, and boiled in tea, along with inlaying many layers of metal to produce the final product. Today, visitors can purchase a variety of jewelry, as well as vases, tea utensils, lighters, and other accessories made using this technique.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Kyoto on Wikivoyage.