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Solo Traveller’s Guide to Kyoto, Japan

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Located in the Kansai region of Japan, Kyoto was once the capital city of Japan and was home to several emperors. As one of the largest cities, Kyoto has an abundance of historical temples, shrines and zen gardens. While all the historical monuments are well-preserved, modern buildings are popping up everywhere.

Kyoto’s zen and beauty has captured my heart. I can’t help but want to share everything I know about one of my favourite cities in Japan.

Whether your itinerary can only accommodate a few days or a few weeks, you will not be disappointed by the city of Kyoto.

 

 

 

 

Why Kyoto is great for a solo female traveller

Japan is notoriously known for its safety. And Kyoto is no exception. The city is super safe during the day and night. I never once remotely had an incident or any issue. Everyone I interacted with was warm and friendly. I felt completely comfortable even walking around with my headphones on. But of course, like any metropolis city, be careful with your belongings when you are in busy touristy areas. But otherwise, Kyoto is a very safe city for any solo female travellers.

Kyoto is rather large, and all the attractions are all over the city. But the good news is that transportation (bus, subway, train) is very efficient. And with all the signages and infographics, it is pretty easy for any solo travellers to discover Kyoto.

 

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Kyoto Transportation

 

How to get to Kyoto

You will most likely arrive at Kansai International Airport if you are flying into Japan. Or you may already be in Japan and will be coming from Osaka or Tokyo. Here are some options for getting to Kyoto.

 

From Kansai International Airport to Kyoto

  • Haruka Airport Express Train
    • stopping at Tennoji Station and Shin-Osaka Station 
    • frequency: 30 round trips every day starting from 5:46 to 20:15
    • time: 75 minutes 
    • cost: about ¥2,750 (covered by Japan Rail Pass)
    • check for schedule and fare

 

From Osaka to Kyoto

There are many ways to get to Kyoto from Osaka. Below are three great options:

  • JR Kyoto Line
    • Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station
    • time: rapid service takes 29 minutes
    • cost: ¥560 (covered by Japan Rail Pass)
  • Hankyu Railways
    • Umeda Station to Karasuma Station or Arashiyama Station
    • time: 44 minutes
    • cost: ¥440
  • JR Shinkansen
    • Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station
    • time: 15 mins
    • cost: ¥1,420 (covered by Japan Rail Pass)
  • click here for all the railway options from Osaka to Kyoto

 

From Tokyo to Kyoto: 

  • JR Tokaido Shinkansen (Nozomi, Hikari or Kodama)
    • Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station to Kyoto Station
    • time: from 140 mins to f4 hours
    • cost: from ¥13,080 (Japan Rail Pass covers Hikari and Kodama)
    • click here for timetable

 

 

 

How to get around Kyoto

Get an IC card when you arrive either at the airport or when you come to Kyoto. The IC card is a rechargeable card where you can put in money and take public transportation (including train, subway, and bus).

Icoca is the prepaid IC card for the Kansai region including Kyoto and Osaka.

If you already have a Pasmo or Suica card from Tokyo or other IC cards from different regions in Japan, just top up your card and use it in Kyoto.

You can use your IC card to take several public transportation systems including bus and railway systems (Hankyu, Keifuku, Keihan, Eizan and Kintetsu)

Also, if you have limited time in Kyoto, pick up a Kyoto City Bus One-day Pass at Kyoto Station so you can quickly hop into any of the subway and bus and visit all the sites within the same day.

 

 

Things to do in Kyoto

Kyoto is a big city and has attractions are everywhere! Even if you are taking public transportation, you will have to do a bit of walking between sites. So bring a pair of comfortable shoes with you.

All the top things to do in Kyoto are pinned in the interactive map. You can find more information about each attraction by clicking on the individual pin.

 

Must-see attractions in Kyoto

There are so many things you can see in Kyoto. To pick the best of the best is quite a task. If you have limited time in Kyoto, check out my must-see attractions in Kyoto and make it part of your Kyoto itinerary. And for those of you on a budget, there are many free things to do in Kyoto

 

Kinkaku-ji

The Golden Pavilion is iconic to Kyoto. After you pay 400¥ at the entrance, you will be immediately be blown away by the grandeur of the zen temple. But beware of the large crowd in front of the large pond taking photos. The entrance fee includes a walk around the premise surrounding the gold-leafed temple so you can marvel from it from all sides. And there’s a teahouse and spot for souvenirs. Kinkaku-ji is one of the most beautiful temples I’ve ever seen, ever! But the downside is, everyone wants to go there too! So go first thing in the morning – you won’t regret it!

 

 

 

Gion

A visit to Kyoto must include strolling around Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. Teahouses, restaurants and shops are behind the facades of the traditional houses which line the streets of Gion. Many tourists visit Gion to hopefully spot a geisha, or rent a kimono or yukata for a few hours and take photos. You can even hire a photographer and take pictures of you as you roam around Gion and other scenic areas in Kyoto.

 

Kiyomizudera Temple

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the “pure water temple” is set high up on a hill. Follow the path at the entrance, and it will bring you to directly to the shrine. For a minimal fee, you can participate in omikuji, which is a tradition at the temple where you shake thin sticks out of a cylinder box to get your fortune. The stick will have a number on it, and the person behind the counter will give you the corresponding paper with the meaning for the number. If you get a lucky fortune, bring it home with you. But if you didn’t, tie your paper to a designated area and leave your bad luck behind. Even though the fortune is in Japanese, there is a simple legend to indicate whether you receive a good fortune or not.

 

Arashiyama 

As the second most visited place in Kyoto, you can easily spend a few hours in Arashiyama and sample their tofu cuisine. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is simply breath-taking. And the short hike up to Arashiyama Monkey Park is rewarding. Not only do you get to feed the monkeys but you can see Arashiyama from above. And make sure you check out Tenryuji Temple and the shops along the way. The best time to visit Arashiyama is during cherry blossom season where beautiful pink flowers are in full bloom.

 

Fushimi Inari Shrine

As one of the most important Shinto shrine in Kyoto, visitors from all over the world come here to visit the shrine and the thousands of orange torii gates. When you are there, make your way up to the top of the hill. The whole journey will take about two to three hours, but it is totally worth it. You can see Kyoto from the top and the further you go, the fewer people there will be, i.e. no one photobombing your photos!

 

Teramachi Street

One of the covered shopping is located in the middle of downtown Kyoto. Teramachi Street is a great place to look for clothing and souvenirs. And if you want to take a break, there are many coffee shops, dessert and food stalls. And Nishiki Market is not too far away.

 

Nishiki Market

If you want a quick summary of Japanese food and Kyoto specialties (Japanese sweets, pickled vegetables, etc.), then you must visit the Nishiki Market. The long narrow street is full of vendors selling Japanese food. Try a baby octopus on a stick, fresh seafood, and other delightful treats. Some vendors will even give you a free sample. Even though the covered market is busy most of the time but it is still worth visiting.

 

Pontocho Alley

One of the most beautiful streets in Kyoto and runs parallel to the Kamo-gawa River. The quaint alley has many traditional shops and mid to high-end restaurants. You might even spot a Geisha roaming the alley in the evening.

 

 

 

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Other attractions in Kyoto

After seeing all the must-see attractions, there are still plenty of amazing highlights in Kyoto that you shouldn’t miss. Some of them include:

  • Kyoto Station – the modern hub that links all transportation modes and has lots of restaurants
  • Maruyama Park – a public park with beautiful cherry blossom trees
  • Yasaka Shrine – also known as Gion Shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto
  • Chion-in Temple – a vital temple for Japanese Buddhism
  • Kodai-ji Temple – an elegant temple with a beautiful rock garden and Tsukiyama style garden
  • Sanjūsangendō – the temple has 1001 statues of the goddess of mercy called Kannon and the temple hall has the longest wooden structure in Japan
  • Kitano Tenmangū – a temple famous during the fall as the autumn colour fills the garden. There is also a flea market on the 25th of every month
  • Gingkaku-ji Temple – also known as the Silver Pavilion, is modelled after Kinkaku-ji. It is another great example of a zen temple with beautiful zen gardens in Kyoto
  • Hōnen-in Temple – beautiful during spring (cherry blossom) and fall (autumn foliage)
  • Tetsugaku-no-michi – also known as Philosopher’s Path. It is the prettiest when cherry blossom is in full bloom
  • Ryoan-ji Temple – the temple has Kyoto’s most famous rock garden
  • Ninna-ji Temple – like other temples in Kyoto, Ninna-ji has an immaculate rock garden and zen garden
  • Kyoto Imperial Palace – was the residence of Japan’s imperial family until 1868
  • Sentō Imperial Palace – is the secondary palace across from Kyoto Imperial Palace and was home to retired emperors
  • Nijo Castle – the tall castle and surrounding gardens were built with several types of defence mechanisms including surrounding stone walls and moats

 

 

 

 

Art & culture in Kyoto

Whenever I travel, I always include some art and culture in my itinerary. And Kyoto has a few noteworthy museums:

  • The Museum of Kyoto – a fascinating museum that focuses on art and culture of Kyoto
  • Kyoto National Museum – the large museum has a large display of Japanese art in both the original building and the new modern building
  • Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (MOMAK) – a modern building that showcases Japanese-style painting, photography, prints, sculpture and arts & crafts

 

Want some unique tour ideas in Kyoto? Take a look at these tours:

 

 

 

Day trips from Kyoto

Kyoto makes an excellent city for day trips. You can visit many different places as a half-day excursion or full-day trips. There are many awesome day trips from Kyoto and here are some of them.

 

Fushimi Sake District

The Fushimi Sake District is a small town just south of Kyoto and is part of the Sake brewery district. As an important town that produces Japanese rice wine, you can sample all 17 local sake in a sample flight. Sake sampling is a serious business! And while you are there, check out Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum as well.

 

Mount Kurama

Located in north Kyoto, the hiking trail for Mount Kurama is easily accessible by Kyoto’s efficient train system. You can take the train to Kurama Station, complete the path and hop back on the train at Kibune-guchi Station. The easy hike will take about two to three hours, and you will experience nature and culture along the way.

 

Uji

When you arrive at Uji, stroll through the main street and cross the Uji-gawa River where you can start your hike. You can reach Daikichiyama Observation Deck and see several temples on the hill. And on the way back to the main street, you can sample various green tea treats which is what Uji is known for. But make sure you visit the Byōdō-in Temple. It is an elegant temple with beautiful gardens. And it is the same temple on the ¥10 coin.

 

Nara 

A day trip to Nara is made possible by the efficient rail system from Kyoto and Osaka. Spend the day roaming the park, getting lost in the town’s small streets and snacking on traditional Japanese food. And if you want an up-close and personal photo with a deer, buy some crackers and feed them the yummy treats. And check out the famous Tōdai-ji Temple as it is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan.

 

Himeji

Himeji is known for the spectacular Himeji Castle, also known as the White Heron Castle. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle certainly does not disappoint. And make sure to visit Engyoji Temple in Mount Shosha. Both are worth visiting during your day trip to Himeji.

 

 

 

 

Where to eat in Kyoto

The city centre has the highest concentration of dining options. There are so many options that you would need many days to discover all the food Kyoto has to offer. And if you visited all of the major attractions in Kyoto, it means your pedometer is off the charts, and you have worked up an appetite.

Below are some budget, mid-range and high-end food suggestions. You can find more information about each location in the attached google map by clicking on the individual pin (see interactive map above).

 

Budget restaurants

  • Nishiki Market – one of the highlights of Kyoto where you can sample typical Japanese food. You can pick up a snack or even get a full meal here.
  • Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi – a cozy little restaurant that serves a wide array of gyoza. The restaurant is quaint, and the staff is friendly and helpful. Enjoy their traditional gyoza along with a Japanese highball (whiskey & soda)
  • Ramen Sen No Kaze – a favourite ramen noodle shop in Kyoto! Don’t be afraid of the long line-up; it is worth the wait!
  • Yayoiken Shijo Karasuma – a cheap and cheerful everyday Japanese restaurant where a set meal costs less than ¥1,000, and you can fill up as many bowls of rice as you like!

 

Mid-range restaurants

  • Kyoto Katsugyu – a small restaurant that serves wagyu beef cutlet with rice
  • Tendon Makino Kyoto Teramachi–  a restaurant off the shopping street serving delicious tempura shrimp and vegetables over rice.
  • Arashiyama – try one of the restaurants in Arashiyama. The area is known for their silky tofu. You’d be surprised to know how many different ways they can serve tofu.

 

High-end restaurants

  • Taka – a fantastic restaurant that serves delicious izakaya (small Japanese dish or snack). Even though it is standing room only, you won’t even know that you are standing the entire time. The atmosphere is cozy, and the food is mind-blowing! Try the raw chicken sashimi!
  • Pontocho Alley – there are many mid to high-end restaurants lining Pontcho Alley. Some restaurants even face the Kamo-gawa River. Choose a restaurant that serves kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) for an authentic Kyoto experience.

 

 

 

Coffee shops

  • Vermillion – after hiking up Fushimi Inari, you will want to hang out at this little coffee shop to either catch your breath or just simply enjoy an espresso
  • Starbucks Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya – this is no ordinary Starbucks. The interior resembles a traditional Japanese home. Enjoy your usual Starbucks coffee on one of their tatami seats.
  • Arabica Coffee – there are several locations for this coffee chain. Both Arashiyama and Higashiyama serves strong ice lattes.
  • Akatsuki Coffee – a cute little coffee shop with simple, Scandinavian style interiors. But don’t bring your laptop, they won’t let you work there.

 

Other food options

  • Daimaru Kyoto – Japanese department stores have a food centre at the basement level. You can find sushi, tempura, bread, pastries and other wonderful Japanese food.
  • Takashimaya Kyoto – another popular department store that has high-end food options in the basement level
  • Isetan Kyoto – the supermarket is quite busy as it is located at the Kyoto train station. Commuters pick up food from the supermarket and or prepared food at the basement level.
  • Aeon Mall – there are several locations in Kyoto. They each have a supermarket on the main floor and a food court on the upper level. They have inexpensive udon noodles and beef over rice
  • 7-Eleven / Family Mart / Lawson – Japanese convenience stores are great options for picking up a quick snack or an entire meal
  • Hankyu Oasis Saiin – a grocery store that has a good selection of prepared food

 

Where to stay in Kyoto

Kyoto has a variety of accommodations. You can find modern and clean hostel beds for a cheap price tag or luxurious high-end Japanese Ryokan type of accommodations as well. But no matter what your budget is, the best places to stay in Kyoto is near Gion or Nishiki Market area. Alternatively, accommodations near Kyoto Station is another great option.

 

Budget accommodation

  • Cost: up to 5,000¥ per day
  • The Millennials Kyoto in Japan
    • A modern hostel that is super close to Pontocho Alley. The upscale hostel has mixed dorms where you sleep in a modern “smart pod” and store your belongings underneath.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda
  • Centurion Cabin & Spa Kyoto
    • A centrally-located hostel with modern, private sleeping pods. You can use their artificial hot spring as well.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda
  • Piece Hostel Kyoto 
    • Located close to Kyoto Station, the modern and clean hostel has bunk beds with privacy curtains and a private room.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda

 

Mid-range accommodation

  • Cost: from 5,000 – 10,000¥ per day
  • The Hotel Kiyomizu Gion
    • The 4-star boutique hotel is located in Higashiyama, near Gion and Kiyomizu-dera. A standard room has modern beds in a Japanese interior.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda
  • Hotel Vista Premio Kyoto Nagomitei
    • A 4-star boutique hotel is located near Nishiki Market. The standard room is clean and modern. The hotel has laundry facilities as well.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda
  • Sotetsu Fresa Inn Kyoto Hachijoguchi
    • Located just south of Kyoto Station, the modern hotel has everything you need. A standard room is compact and has a Japanese washroom.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda

 

 

 

High-end accommodation

  • Cost: over 10,000¥ per day
  • Granbell Hotel
    • Situated on the east side of Kamo-gawa River, the high-end boutique hotel has traditional Japanese design with modern touches. The Japanese bedroom is spacious and minimal in design aesthetics.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda
  • Kyoto Ryokan The Kinoe
    • If you want to experience a traditional Japanese hotel experience, try a Ryokan. The Japanese style room has tatami mats for the sitting area and also for sleeping. Also, a separate shower and bathtub are included.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda
  • Hotel Ethnography Kikokunomori
    • Located north of Kyoto Station, the 4-star boutique hotel has high-end modern finishes with clean, minimal Japanese interiors. The superior room comes with modern beds, a sitting area and modern washrooms.
    • Check prices & reviews: Agoda

 

Long-term accommodation

  • Cost: up to 4,000¥ per day
  • If you are slow travelling through Japan, Kyoto is a great spot to settle for a while
  • I stayed at an Airbnb apartment near Saiin Station and another near Nishioji Station. Both apartments have either a bed or futon mats, compact Japanese washroom, small kitchenette, a dining/working area and laundry facilities
  • There are many Airbnb options near Kyoto Station
  • Airbnbs in Gion area will cost more, but you are paying for convenience and proximity to many attractions and dining options
  • And if you are not part of Airbnb yet, please use this code to claim your $35 Airbnb discount.

 

 

 

 

Recommended itineraries for Kyoto

Whether you stay for one week in Japan or up to a few weeks, you must include Kyoto on your Japan trip itinerary. Below are some sample itineraries if you only have a few days in Kyoto.

 

If you only have one day in Kyoto

Take advantage of your entire day in Kyoto by waking up early and visit the following places:

  • beat the crowd by starting your day early and visit Kinkaku-ji at 9:00 am
  • hop on the bus and train and make your way to Arashiyama to see Tenryuji Temple, Arashiyama Groove, and Arashiyama Monkey Park 
  • have lunch in Arashiyama – the area is known for tofu
  • get back on the train and visit Fushimi Inari and make sure you go all the way to the top
  • jump back on the train and make your way to Kiyomizu-dera
  • grab a coffee at Arabica Coffee or Starbucks Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya
  • walk over to Gion and see if you can spot a Geisha in the area
  • walk to Nishiki Market and sample Japanese snacks
  • browse through Pontocho Alley and have dinner at one of the restaurants by Kamo-gawa River 
  • stroll through Teramachi Street to pick up some souvenirs from Kyoto
  • stay near Gion or Nishiki Market 

 

If you have two days in Kyoto

Day 1 (blue pins)

  • start your day early and visit Kinkaku-ji bright and early so you can beat the crowd
  • walk over to Kitano Tenmangū
  • hop on the bus and train and make your way to Arashiyama to see Tenryuji Temple, Arashiyama Groove, and Arashiyama Monkey Park 
  • have lunch in Arashiyama – the area is known for tofu
  • take the train to Kyoto Imperial Palace and Sentō Imperial Palace
  • take the bus over to visit Gingkaku-ji, Hōnen-in Temple, and walk along Tetsugaku-no-michi
  • take the bus back to Gion for dinner
  • stay near Gion or Nishiki Market 

 

Day 2 (purple pins)

  • start your day early and visit Fushimi Inari and hopefully, you will miss the crowd
  • hop on the train and go to Sanjūsangendō
  • also, visit nearby Kyoto National Museum 
  • either take a bus or walk towards Kiyomizu-dera and have lunch
  • visit Kiyomizu-dera
  • grab a coffee at Arabica Coffee or Starbucks Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya
  • walk over to Maruyama Park and enjoy the scenery and visit Chion-in and Yasuda Temple 
  • walk over to Gion, and if you are in luck, you can see a Geisha in Gion
  • walk to Nishiki Market and sample Japanese snacks
  • browse through Pontocho Alley and have dinner at one of the restaurants by Kamo-gawa River 
  • stroll through Teramachi Street to pick up some souvenirs from Kyoto before you go home
  • stay near Gion or Nishiki Market 

 

 

 

If you have three (or more) days in Kyoto

Follow the two-day itinerary and do the following for the third day:

day 3 options

  1. Do a day trip and spend the day in Nara
  2. Visit Uji in the morning and have lunch there. Then take the train to Fushimi Sake District in the afternoon. And finish the day by visiting other sites in Kyoto
  3. Take the train to Kurama and Kibune and hike the surrounding area. And end the day by visiting other attractions in Kyoto

Phew! That is a lot of information for Kyoto! I hope you find this post useful for planning your trip to Kyoto. And if you like this post, share it and pin it!

 

 

 

For more travel planning resources, check out my Amazon picks:

 

 

Where to go in Japan

Check out my guides to the best cities to visit in Japan, including:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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last update: April 17, 2019

About Author

Hi, my name is Queenie, and I've been a solo traveller for 18+ years and currently based in Hong Kong. Follow me on my adventures through Instagram and my blog!

1 Comment

  • […] I took the free walking tour (the only one on TripAdvisor) and learned a lot from our Ukrainian guide Yuri who has been living in Japan for 11 years. As we walked through Kyoto, he explained the history of the city and of the geishas. For a more in-depth guide to Kyoto and to getting around in the area, check out Ms. Solo Traveler’s Kyoto guide. […]

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