Off-the-Beaten-Path Guide to Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto attracts hordes of tourists for a reason. Between the array of stunning monuments, incredible food and traditional neighborhoods like Gion, the city promises an unforgettable experience. My advice: Kyoto is best enjoyed off-the-beaten path, away from the overwhelming touristic areas. Wander around at your leisure to discover the real Kyoto, quieter, more peaceful and quintessentially Japanese.
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Where to stay
A traditional ryokan, in a 100 year old building.
Ace Hotel Kyoto
A classic Ace offering, this hotel converted the Kyoto Central Telephone Office Building into a hip and arty hotel.
Park Hyatt Kyoto
Hotel, restaurant and farm with a hip L.A.-meets-Bali vibe.
$100 food / beverage credit.
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Things to do
Downtown Kyoto offers the best of shopping, coffee shops, and eateries. A great place to roam around when you first arrive.
Then, discover the more traditional side of the city across the river, in Gion and Higashiyama. You’ll walk along locals dressed in the most colorful kimonos, transporting you to a different time. Head over to Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka to soak in the beautiful old streets and explore authentic teahouses; it’s touristy but definitely fun to see.
At the gold temple of Kinkaku-ji, the crowd is thick but the sight is impressive: The shrine covered in gold leaf is simply stunning. For a quieter moment, head over to Ryoan-ji, a buddhist temple and zen rock garden, where you’ll be able to reflect and wander in peace.
Another spot beloved by tourists, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is filled with thousands of bamboo trees. The huge crowd makes it tricky to take good pictures, but it’s stunning nonetheless. You also won’t be alone at the Fushimi Inari Taisha, but the Tori gates cannot be missed. Whether you choose to climb to the top is up to you: The crowd thins the higher you go, but the view is actually not that special.
While it’s a bit of a trek to get there, the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama is worth the thigh burn during the twenty-minute walk up the hill. The snow monkeys run loose, and you can feed them with peanuts and apples. Prepare to be delighted.
The best shops are located in the downtown area, near Nishiki Market. Here are a few favorites:
Urban Research: A clothing store for men and women featuring a nice selection of Japanese brands.
Blue Jeans: This men’s denim store is worth a look if you have a little space in your suitcase.
Kapital: Wacky and fun to browse, but probably not the best shopping destination for those with a more classic style.
Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka: The place to go for souvenirs, cute tea shops, and more fun browsing.
Places to eat & drink
Coffee & breakfast
Hygge: Savor your first cuppa of the day in this beautiful spot.
% Arabica: One of the best lattes to be had in Japan, complete with a Brooklyn feel.
Lorimer Kyoto: Head there for a refined twist on traditional Japanese breakfast foods (fish, miso soup, rice, egg cake, etc.). The beautiful decor makes it a great place to kick off a day of sightseeing.
Cafe Blue Fir Tree: If you’re in the mood for traditional Japanese pancakes (super thick but light and fluffy meringue cakes), this is the perfect, quiet spot.
Lunch & dinner
Nishiki Market: The crowd might feel overwhelming, but the market is well worth a visit to soak in the atmosphere and taste the freshest, most delicious fish right from the source.
Takocho: An unforgettable experience awaits at this Higashiyama restaurant, where you might be the only tourists at the fifteen-seat counter. The chef serves oden cuisine, meaning that everything is boiled in a pot/basin together. It’s considered to be Japanese soul food.
Teuchisoba Kanei: Highly recommended for an authentic soba experience in a traditional Japanese building, where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor. Highlights include the pickled vegetables, the soba tofu, the kake soba (hot plain soba), kamo seiro (cold soba with hot duck broth) and, of course, the sake. Go early before they sell out! The neighborhood is quiet but worth exploring after your feast.
Aje Kiyamachi Donguri: A casual, rowdy barbeque restaurant where you cook your own cuts of meat and offal on a flame in front of you. The food is delicious, and even better enjoyed surrounded by the Japanese cool kids, as it’s not very touristy.
Hachi Record Shop and Bar: A craft beer bar that doubles as a vinyl record store. Tiny and very cool.
Sour: Enjoy delicious and refreshing drinks at this funky spot.
Pontocho Alley: Wander down this fun street and hop around its many hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants.
Need to Know
Be sure to check opening days and times for restaurants and bars, since they can be closed at random times. Many fish places close on Wednesdays (when the fish market is also closed). Tabelog is a helpful website for restaurant hours, addresses, and to check whether reservations are needed.
Taxi drivers are incredibly nice, but many are older and not so tech savvy. Have Google Maps open to show them the exact route at the start of the ride. There is a taxi app called Japan Taxi, but it’s not super reliable.
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