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What To Do In Kyoto (Anytime But Winter)

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I recently took an around-the-world trip from NYC (with a stay at the new Park Hyatt New York) and then on to Tokyo for 62,500 AA miles and $5.60, with award seats on American’s A321 first class JFK-San Francisco (SFO) and JAL’s Boeing 777-300ER first class SFO-Tokyo Haneda (HND). I hadn’t visited Tokyo for a long time, but it took me no time at all to fall back in love with the city during my stay at the Andaz Tokyo.

Following Tokyo, I headed to Kyoto, a beautiful, fascinating city…that I wouldn’t recommend visiting in the winter. Despite the fact I was freezing the whole time, it was still a fun, memorable experience, and I plan to head back someday to enjoy the city in warmer temperatures.

I fell in love with Kyoto, and I would love to return when it's warmer!
I fell in love with Kyoto, and I would love to return when it’s warmer!

A Little Bit About Kyoto

Kyoto is located in the Kansai region of Japan, in the eastern section of the mountain-covered region known as the Tamba Highlands. The area is known for hot summers and, as I previously mentioned, very cold winters. It’s a good 10 degrees colder here than it is in Tokyo, which makes a lot more difference to your fingers and toes than you might think. 

Kyoto is known as the City of a Thousand Shrines
Kyoto is known as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines—though there are more like 2,000

Way back in the year 794, the Emperor Kammu built a city named “Heian-Kyo,” which means “Capital of Peace”; today, Heian-Kyo is known as Kyoto, and it’s still pretty darn tranquil. Though it’s often called the City of Ten Thousand Shrines, there are actually more like 2,000 around town—but still.

Kyoto is also home to 17 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites, and there’s plenty of culture to be found around town, from the Maiko (geisha) tradition to flower arranging, Waka (Japanese poetry) and Noh (Japanese lyrical drama), the theatrical world of Kabuki, tea ceremonies, and even swordsmanship. You can also find some amazing ramen and some gorgeous seasonal cuisine. 

Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train) could hardly be easier.
Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train is both easy and inexpensive.

Getting to Kyoto

From Tokyo to Kyoto, I took a two-hour, 20-minute ride on the high-speed Shinkansen (or bullet) train, which travels at a head-spinning 200 mph. Walking to and from the bathroom involved teetering along the aisle, gripping the seats as I went, but once I was sitting in the train’s comfortable Green Car (the train’s version of first class, with a 40-degree reclining seat and an integrated radio set), I really enjoyed the experience.

On the Shinakansen train, upgrading to the comfy Green car is the way to go.
On the Shinakansen train, upgrading to the comfy Green car is the way to go.

It’s also possible to fly near Kyoto, if not actually to it—the city doesn’t have its own airport. The closest airport is in Osaka (ITM), about 50 minutes away by airport limo bus (¥1,310/$11 US). Another option is the airport in Kansai (KIX), which is about 75-90 minutes from the Kyoto city center by the same bus service (¥2,550/$21) or by train. You can also connect to both of these airports from Tokyo, as well as from other destinations in Asia.

Kyoto has several transportation options, but personally, I wouldn't recommend the rickshaws in winter.
Kyoto has several transportation options, but personally, I wouldn’t recommend the rickshaws in winter.

Getting Around—and What To See

Despite the nasty weather, I still managed to enjoy some of Kyoto’s best attractions, many of which are actually outside. The city’s pretty walkable because it’s relatively flat and has well-marked streets (in Japanese, anyway—a good excuse to load up the Word Lens app on your smartphone) but in winter, especially, the bus and subway make it really easy to get around. In warmer weather, you could rent a bike or book a cycling tour from the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project, which is only a three-minute walk from the Central Exit of the Kyoto train station; rentals start at ¥1,000/$8 US a day, and include a handy cycling map of the city. 

The Bamboo Forest is stunning and best visited during a warmer season. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Bamboo Forest is stunning and best visited during a warmer season. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

If you’re looking to get away from the city center, the western Arashiyama district is a great place to wander around. That said, my first stop was to the area’s usually enormously popular Sagano Bamboo Forest, a sprawling, relaxing park full of immense bamboo”trees.” The only real positive to visiting the forest in the dead of winter is the zen-like vibe of having the place almost to yourself; I’ve heard that in spring and fall, it can be absolutely mobbed. If you plan on visiting during sunnier periods of the year, make sure to head over in the early morning or later on in the evening to avoid swarms of people.

The Sagano Steam train offers beautiful views in spring, summer and autumn. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Sagano Steam train offers beautiful views—but only in spring, summer and autumn. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Lewis Tse Pui Lung.

Just outside of the forest you’ll find the the amazing Tenryu-ji temple, a UNESCO site originally built in 1339 and one of the five largest shrines in Kyoto. If you’re not in the city—and Arashiyama—in winter, you could take a boat ride on the nearby Hozu River or hop on the scenic (and reportedly romantic) 30-minute Sagano Steam Train. If you’re looking for a family adventure, kids will love the Arashiyama Iwatayama Monkey Park, which houses about 120 wild Japanese Macaque monkeys.

I enjoyed seeing the sites of Kyoto, but it was frigid outside!
I enjoyed seeing the sites of Kyoto, but it was frigid outside!

In the Fushimi district in southern Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is by far the city’s most important temple. Dedicated to the rice god Inari, it’s situated at the base of the Inari mountain—and if it looks familiar but you’ve never been, you may have caught a glimpse of it in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. While you’re here—and again, if it’s warm—you can also head up the mountain path to find some smaller, lesser known shrines.

The zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Other Kyoto shrines worth a visit are the Kiyomizu-dera, which dates back to 778, and Kinkaku-ji, which is often called the Temple of Gold. If you love pushing around those small sandy zen gardens, you can check out a life-size one at the temple and garden of Ryoan-ji. This rock garden is created out of large rock formations placed upon small pebbles. 

I enjoyed taking a tour of Kyoto's royal palace—especially the little slippers they gave me to wear.
I enjoyed taking a tour of Kyoto’s royal palace—especially the little slippers they gave me to wear.

A Little Help From TPG Readers

To get some help planning my Kyoto trip, I reached out to my followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and I got some amazing reader suggestions, including these favorites:

  • Nikishi Market: a five-block long retail and food market (hat tip to TPG readers Jimena, Sheree and Tayo)
  • The Philosopher’s Walk: a 30-minute, cherry tree-lined route passing a number of temples and shrines such as Hōnen-in, Ōtoyo Shrine, and Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji (hat tip to TPG reader Marco)
  • A Sake Tasting: some popular spots for this are Gekkeikan, KizakuraMatsumoto (home to the Kametaya and EH-shuzou breweries), Tamanohikari or Fujioka (hat tip to TPG reader Jennifer)
  • Suntory Tamazaki Whiskey Tour and Whiskey Library (hat tip to TPG reader Pam)
  • Ni-Jo Castle: An UNESCO World Heritage Site worth a visit (hat Tip to TPG reader Hamo)
The final supper: a 3 hour tasting menu "kaiseki" hosted by Kyoko (pictured) who has owned the restaurant for 41 years. She joked around with the American giants as we sat on the floor at the traditional Japanese table (with heated floor!) and savored all of the Kyotoan delights. This city is gorgeous and so are its people!
I loved our three-hour “kaiseki” tasting menu hosted by Kyoko (pictured), who has owned the Ryozanpaku  restaurant for 41 years. She loved joking around with me, calling me an “American giant.”

Where to Eat

I was really excited to try out the Japanese gourmet cuisine of kaiseki, a multi-course meal prepared in an artistic style that balances not only the taste but also the textures, colors and appearance of seasonal ingredients. Traditionally, kaiseki long included only a bowl of miso soup and three side dishes, but these days, you can find more elaborate tasting menus that include an appetizer, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed dish, plus anything else the chef feels like adding.

I was really excited to dine at the two-Michelin-star Ryozanpaku, where chef Kenichi Hashimoto specializes in fresh, delicious fish and accompanying whiskey flights are a specialty. Here, we enjoyed a three-hour tasting menu while sitting around a traditional Japanese table on a heated floor—probably the warmest experience of the whole trip! 

My soup, sashimi and eel at Hana Kyoto
My soup, sashimi and eel at Hana Kitcho

Hana Kitcho has one Michelin star and is another great spot for kaiseki-style dining, but be aware that its chic, modern decor and fresh, artfully prepared cuisine will set you back about $100 US a person for lunch.

If it’s tofu you are in search of, try the small Tofu Jaya Restaurant. As it has only 21 seats, get there early to enjoy the house-specialty tofu and yuba (soy milk skin). For a traditional Geiko experience, try the Maiko Evening, which offers dramatic entertainment in addition to dinner. A Japanese tea ceremony is another great way to indulge in the culture, or you can create your own blend at workshops offered by Ippodo Tea.

I loved my stay at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.
I loved my stay at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto

Where to Stay

The Japanese version of bed-and-breakfasts, ryokan guesthouses offer traditional Japanese hospitality. A favorite form of lodging for centuries, ryokans don’t generally have the modern conveniences of a five-star hotel, but they make up for it with heaps of cultural charm. You’ll typically find spare, peaceful Japanese decor like tatami floor mats and low wooden tables, as well as a special area for taking off your shoes before entering the main room. Often times, a ryokan won’t have central heat or the newest technologies, so make sure to do some research before to book to make sure your particular ryokan will work for you. Some highly-rated ones are Kikokuso, Togetsuti and Hiiragiya.

If ryokans don’t seem like your cup of tea, know that I loved my stay at The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, a gorgeous, serene property with great service (review to come). Other options that will allow you to use points are the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and the Crowne Plaza Kyoto.

Gion, Kyoto
I stumbled upon some lovely ladies in traditional dress in the Gion district

All in all, I loved exploring Kyoto and I can’t wait to visit again during warmer temps. A big thanks to all the TPG readers who offered amazing tips on what to do and see!
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