I’m Lalisa from the Instagram account @lalisakim. Welcome to my travel guide on the best things to do in Kyoto – the spiritual heart of Japan. Before I tell you all about this incredible destination, let me introduce myself.
My dad is a professor at a university. He often travels to other universities around the world, namely Japan and France. On the off chance that my university break aligned with his trips, I was fortunate enough to tag along and visit a new city. My love for travel has been instilled in me ever since.
I also remember that my dad always had a Nikon film camera. He loved taking photos at every opportunity. After I finished university, he gave me my first DSLR camera and I began to teach myself how to use it. I asked my friends to be “models” and learned from more experienced photographers.
Six years ago, Clarzzique Photo & Video hired me as a wedding photographer. Suddenly my passion turned into a side gig. I owe a lot of my composition, style and success in all things photography to this team.
In 2016, I took a break to pursue my passion in travel and photography. My partner and I packed our bags and moved to London. Over two years, we visited many European countries with Iceland being our favourite. We came back to Sydney with fond memories and full hard drives.
Inspiration to Visit Kyoto for the First Time
Before visiting Kyoto, I heard nothing but positive things about this city. My dad always raved on about how amazing Kyoto was and it’s always been his favourite place to visit on business trips. Funnily enough, I never got a chance to go with him in my younger years which was disappointing.
However, when I decided to book my ticket to Japan last November, I made sure Kyoto was top of the list. It was on my bucket list for over 10 years. This was my only visit to date but I plan on returning one day soon. I would love to come back for cherry blossom season. I’ve heard so much about it!
A Wonderful Two-Week Journey through Japan
Kyoto surpassed my expectations even when the bar was set very high from the start. In November last year, my partner and I travelled to Tokyo and met up with a couple from London who we met during our time there.
Over the two-week trip, the four of us went from Tokyo to Hakone, to Lake Kawaguchi, and made Kyoto our final destination. During the day, we ticked off a lot of the iconic places such as Kinkakuji, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Gion and Philosopher’s Path.
After dark, we navigated through the narrow streets along the river in search of the best restaurants (which was not hard!) and tried our hands at karaoke. Being Pokemon fans, we visited the Kyoto Pokemon Centre and bought some souvenirs which were exclusive to the city.
Aside from Kyoto city, we did a day trip to Nara to visit the famous deer park and even took an impromptu trip to Osaka (thanks to our Japan Rail Pass) for dinner one night. One place I wish we visited was Nyan Nyan Ji which translates to Meow Meow Temple. It’s a temple that is staffed by cats.
Also, I wish we visited the quaint fishing town of Ine, located a few hours north of Kyoto. We just didn’t have enough time. Another experience we missed was a boat ride down the river in Arashiyama. I guess now I’ve got plenty of excuses to visit again sometime soon in the future!
Favourite Place in Kyoto: Fushimi Inari Shrine
My favourite place in Kyoto was the beautiful Fushimi Inari Shrine where 10,000 torii gates pave the way to the top of the mountain. You can find torii gates scattered across the country, but having 10,000 gates in one place is something you can’t find outside of Kyoto.
To avoid the crowds, we woke up before sunrise to make it to the gates before dawn. There were a few budding photographers who had the same idea, but there were less people than if we visited at any other time.
At the shrine, most people would stop halfway up the mountain and turn back. However, we decided to keep going all the way to the top. This meant that we had the gates mostly to ourselves. It was a special moment to experience this popular destination in the early hours of the morning.
Seeing the first rays hit the orange gates was a sight to remember!
Top 10 Things To Do in Kyoto
1. Admire the Sunrise at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Visiting the torii gates at sunrise was the best decision we made during the trip. You get the place to yourself and can enjoy each and every one of the torii gates without crowds rushing past or getting in your photos.
The experience becomes more serene rather than just another popular tourist destination. This is the perfect way to start your trip to Kyoto!
2. Walk along the Lovely River of Arashiyama
Arashiyama has plenty more to offer than just the famous bamboo forest. We visited in early Autumn, so the leaves (apart from the evergreen bamboo) were slowly turning into a bright shade of red. This made walking along the river a colourful and visual experience.
You can easily walk towards the river from the bamboo forest. There are a few viewpoints in between that offer beautiful views of the river. You can also hop onto one of the wooden boats for a scenic trip on the water.
3. Visit the Golden Buddhist Temple of Kinkakuji
As Kyoto was the last destination on our trip, we didn’t want to be “templed-out” so we only chose a few temples to visit during our stay.
Kinkakuji is the most picturesque temple and nothing like I have ever seen before. As you enter, the temple sits right behind a large pond that, on a non-windy day, provides a perfect reflection of the golden architectural masterpiece. If you want a postcard perfect shot of Kyoto, this is it.
4. Wear a Kimono/Yukata in the Gion District
If you want a unique way to explore the Gion district, hire a kimono and step back in time for the day. This is an experience that, in my opinion, is unique to Kyoto and should be experienced by everyone once in their life.
Be warned: the slippers are quite difficult to walk in so you will be walking around in baby steps most of the time. I recommend booking the kimono hire in advance and getting the first slot of the day. The process of getting dressed can take up to an hour which can eat into your time.
After getting into your kimono, make your way towards Kiyomizu-dera which is a temple that sits on top of the hill. You’ll find many alleyways and steps during your ascent to the temple. Although Gion is a busy district, you’ll still find corners all for yourself even in the middle of the day.
5. Eat Oysters at Nishiki Market in Downtown Kyoto
Make sure you go to Nishiki Market on an empty stomach as it has so much to offer. From oysters the size of your hand, to smoked duck pieces, to matcha soft serves – this is the place to go to satisfy your appetite.
6. Try Omurice at the Famous Kichi Kichi Omurice
Kichi Kichi is famous for their omurice (omelette fried rice). This is not only because it tastes amazing but the entire experience of being crammed into a tiny restaurant, sitting at the bar facing the open kitchen with only a few others, and watching the cooking show makes the visit unforgettable.
Motokochi, the owner and chef, will take you through the process of making the fried rice and the omelette. He does this all while performing various trick shots involving big flames and food being thrown around.
The highlight is when he puts the omelette on top of the rice and slices it. You are left in awe of how the egg magically bursts into the perfect texture, completely covering the rice beneath it. This is a once in a lifetime experience that you definitely have to book in advance for.
7. Sip Tea at a Matcha Teahouse in Kyoto
The Kyoto region is known for their matcha (finely ground powder of green tea leaves). There are many matcha tea houses you can visit in Kyoto. Most of them will be able to provide you with a traditional teahouse experience.
8. Sing your Hearts out at a Kyoto Karaoke Bar
Before we travelled to Japan, we made a deal to spend at least one night at a karaoke bar. In Kyoto, karaoke is in private rooms and you pay per hour. You can order drinks and sing as much as you want within the time limit.
Navigating through the Japanese karaoke system was a bit of a challenge, but that’s what made the experience even more authentic.
9. Take a Day Trip to Nara to See the Deer Park
Nara is only a short, 40-minute train ride away from Kyoto and is home to a large deer population in Nara Deer Park. The deers are used to human interaction and you can buy biscuits for them from the local shops. Be aware that not all deers are friendly – some may hustle you for that biscuit!
10. Go on a Shopping Spree in Kyoto
I’m not usually a fan of shopping while on holiday but Japan has been one huge exception. In Kyoto, you will find large shops such as Yodobashi Camera which (despite having the word “camera” in the name) sells everything tech you can think of from massage chairs to hair curlers.
We also visited Tokyu Hands, a homewares store that takes homewares to the next level. If you are a Pokemon fan, stop by the Kyoto Pokemon Centre as they have exclusive products you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
Apart from the big shops and department stores, you can always find smaller boutique mom-and-pop shops that sell items such as handmade combs, incredibly sharp knives and matcha mochi all in the city centre.
Immersing in the Rich Culture of Kyoto
Similar to the rest of Japan, everyone in Kyoto we came across was extraordinarily friendly and helpful. We didn’t have much of a chance to meet locals in the area as we stayed in the more touristy side of town.
The most authentically local experience we had was on our last night. We stumbled upon a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant where there was a large queue out front. We decided to join the queue, waited just over an hour and had what was possibly one of the best meals of the trip.
All of the staff spoke very little English, the majority of the menu was in Japanese and we just ordered whatever was recommended by the waiter. They even helped us cook and introduced us to some new drinks.
Our experience of getting into a kimono was a great insight into the effort that goes into putting on this traditional outfit too. This is something that is truly unique to Kyoto and allows you to immerse yourself in the traditional Japanese culture and step back in time. It’s an absolute must-do!
Of course, the food in Japan is a massive part of their overall culture. I still stand by the fact that a majority of the time, you can’t get bad food in Japan. Kyoto was no exception to this rule. Every restaurant and cafe we went to did not disappoint! They left us wanting more after each visit.
The restaurants I recommend would be Kichi Kichi Omurice (for omurice), Aje Kiyamachi Donguri (for teppanyaki), Juugo (for soba noodles) and don’t miss the Nishiki Market to eat the biggest oysters of your life.
Where to Stay in Kyoto: The Pocket Hotel
We stayed at The Pocket Hotel which is located near the Nishiki Market. If you prefer to spend less on accommodation and spend more on food like myself, I highly recommend this place as an alternative to capsule hotels.
The location was super convenient and a lot of iconic destinations were either in walking distance or a short train ride away. The check-in process was very easy and everything was so clean and well thought out.
Bathrooms are shared but they give you a “shower basket” which contains your towels, pyjamas and all other necessities. There’s even a tablet in your room that shows you if the showers are occupied or not!
Reminiscing on a Fantastic Trip to Kyoto with Friends
Whether it was struggling in our kimonos trying to find a quiet corner of Gion or strolling around alleyways looking for the best teppanyaki in town – my experience in Kyoto was made better by my company.
Reuniting with friends from the other side of the world is never easy, and travelling together for the first time can, at times, be a challenge. However, the trip just wouldn’t have been the same without them.
Together, we tried new food we’ve never seen before, drank too many whisky highballs, were always in awe of 7/11 breakfast options, sang our hearts out at karaoke and created memories that will stay with us forever.
What you Need to Know Before you Go
Kyoto is perfect for those who are new to travelling and also for those who are seasoned travellers. It’s easy to see why Kyoto is a popular destination for all. Because of its popularity, a lot of places get crowded with local and international tourists. But that’s just part and parcel of travel.
One of my tips would be if you want to experience a destination for yourself, go as early as possible. If you would like to dine in and experience the legendary Kichi Kichi Omurice, book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Lastly, not all destinations are right near each other – some are on the opposite side of town. Make the most of your days by planning and visiting destinations on one side of town, then spend the next day on the other.
Kyoto has so much to offer that there’s never enough time to experience everything. But I can assure you the city will leave you wanting more. You will be planning a return trip to Kyoto the day you leave!