Kyoto is probably Japan’s second most-famous city after Tokyo and was the country’s capital for more than 1,000 years. It was also the centre of politics, religion, art, culture and cuisine, and this wonderful history is reflected in its offering to residents and visitors today. Temples, shrines and palaces dominate the architecture, all immediately different from Tokyo’s aesthetic when you step off the Shinkansen train.
Kyoto hotels cater for travellers on all budgets. Many visitors stay in ryokans or traditional Japanese inns – lots of the best are here. Those on a tight budget, who are keen to experience something different, should consider staying in one of the local temples, where you earn your keep by helping out with the daily chores.
Kamogawa Nijo-Ohashi Hotori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-0902
The Ritz-Carlton has just opened in Kyoto and is the group’s fourth in Japan. The 134-bedroom property uses traditional Japanese design to reflect the city’s history; it has been described as a ‘modern luxury ryokan’. The hotel is centrally located near Zen temples and offers views of the Kamogawa river. There is even a Pierre Hermé pâtisserie.
7 Aketacho Higashi-Kujo Minami-Ku Kyoto
Having just been voted one of the top 100 hotels in the world by design magazine Casa Brutus, Hotel Anteroom includes a hotel, art gallery and apartments for artists. The rooms are spacious, clean and have an ‘industrial’ edge. It is one metro stop from the city centre; you can also cycle into town on one of the hotel’s bikes.
Toyoko Inn Kyoto Gojo-Karasuma
393, Gojokarasuma-cho Karasuma-dori Matsubara-sagaru Simogyo-ku, Kyoto
The Toyoko Inn chain has properties all over Japan and is an excellent choice for travellers who want a no-frills stay at a good price. The clean rooms are a perfect pit-stop: think Holiday Inn or Travelodge but with far better decor and service.
Eating out in Kyoto offers a glimpse into the cultural heritage of the former capital. From kaiseki or multi-course dining to ramen, yakitori and okonomiyaki, the city caters to all budgets and tastes. Like Tokyo, it is nearly impossible to eat badly here, and we’ve highlighted a few favourites.
Yamatoojidori Shimbashi Higashiiru,
Head to Yata for a traditional kaiseki meal. The restaurant is in Gion, the older part of the city, where you can still spot geishas scurrying between buildings. Ask someone to guide you there as the restaurants look similar and their signs are in Japanese. You remove your shoes upon arrival, before being led to the dining room where you sit on tatami mats.
653–1 Bantoya-cho, Higashinotoin,
Nishikikoji higashi iru, Nakagyo-ku
We’ve already mentioned Kyoto Ramen Koji but it would be remiss not to give space to Ippudo Ramen. For those familiar with New York’s ramen scene, Ippudo always has queues, and is opening in London soon. It started in Kyushu in 1995 and its Kyoto branch is popular with locals and tourists alike. Make sure you order a portion of gyoza.
Nishiki Koji-dori, Nakagyou-ku, Kyoto
A visit to Kyoto’s 400-year-old food market is imperative. The 126 covered stalls sell everything from fresh vegetables to oysters and takoyaki. Try the tofu doughnuts, the fu (wheat gluten) lollipops and also check out the knife selection at Aritsugu (cash only).
We accidentally stumbled across this eight seater yakitori den that only serves beef. As well as the usual cuts you can order stomach, intestines and Adam’s apple. It is is so small it doesn’t seem to have an address. If you can find it, it is worth a visit.
In Kyoto, it is easy to find an izakaya for a cold Asahi with a frothy, frozen head; or a perfect negroni in small funky, cocktail bars. Here are three bars we checked out.
Sfera Bar Satonaka, Kyoto
Sfera Bar Satonaka
17 Benzaiten-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Sfera Bar Satonaka is regarded as the most hip watering hole in the city. The sophisticated service and decor of dark wood and black lacquer make it perfect for a post-dinner drink. Check out the Japanese whisky collection.
Touzan Bar at the Hyatt Regency
644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari, Higshiyama-ku, Kyoto
We tend to shy away from hotel bars while travelling, but five-star hotels in Japan have bars that are always worth popping into, especially if you are interested in seeing how hospitality should be done. Touzan offers Japanese whiskys, Kyoto beers and more than 30 kinds of sake, including local ones. Take a minute to admire the lobby.
Kyoto matches Tokyo when it comes to retail. The city is a good place to buy traditional goods including washi (Japanese paper) and ceramics. Here are three of our favourite shops.
Ichizwa Hanpu, Kyoto
Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu
602 Takabatake-cho, Higashiyama-ku Kyoto, 605-0017
We are all familiar with Porter Yoshida and its excellent collection of Japanese bags, but the offering at Ichizawa Hanpu in Kyoto is special. The handmade canvas totes and weekend bags are both practical and beautifully made. It is next to impossible to buy them outside Japan (though Trunk Clothiers in Marylebone stocks a small selection) and they are not sold online. Pick up a few canvas aprons, which make great gifts.
79 Tachiuri Nishi-machi, Shijo-dori,
Takakura nishi iru, Shimogyo-ku
Daimaru is one of Kyoto’s largest department stores and, like all such stores in Japan, offers an exquisite customer experience. As well as being a great place to buy gifts, this also has one of the best food halls in the country.
Wagaminomise Morita Washi
1F Kajinoha Building, 298 Ogisakaya-cho,
Higashinotoin-dori, Bukkoji agaru, Shimogyo-ku
Stationery in Japan is in a league of its own and ‘washi’ shops, which specialise in traditional Japanese paper, are very famous. The choice here is mind-blowing, and makes you wonder why we have nothing like it in London.
Buy a JR Rail Pass in London. This will allow you to travel on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto at a reduced price.
Taxis in Kyoto are far cheaper than in Tokyo
The regional word for ‘thank you’ in Kyoto is Okini.
You must take your shoes off when visiting temples, shrines and some restaurants
Explore Kyoto Station