Kyoto was the capital of Japan from the year 794 until 1869, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. Famed for its cultural significance, Kyoto has influenced Japanese dining, arts, music, literature, and forms of worship for centuries. Home to more than 1600 different Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, hundreds of parks, gardens and cultural sites, three palaces, the world famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, an incredible castle, and endless luxury, Kyoto is one of Japan’s most fascinating, complex, and inviting cities for discerning travelers interested in exploring Japanese culture and history within this Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide.
Out of all of the breathtaking, fascinating, and enchanting cities we visited during our first visit to Japan like Nara, Nikko, Tokyo, Himeji, Kurokawa Onsen, Osaka, and many others, Kyoto tied with historic Nikko as my favorite place in all of Japan. This Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide is full of the best temples, shrines, gardens, museums, and fine dining in Kyoto, as well as useful cultural notes, ideas for day trips to nearly a dozen nearby cities, and advice on what to wear, how to spend rainy days, and much more. Travelers with distinguished tastes will immediately be drawn in by Kyoto’s many Michelin Star restaurants, cultural events and learning opportunities, luxury ryokan, and traditional crafts.
About Kyoto & Its Culture
Kyoto is one of Japan’s oldest and most culturally significant cities. The former capital city has been around for more than 1,200 years, and is an incredible cross-section of Japanese history and culture. The older districts of Kyoto, like Gion, showcase beautifully preserved traditional wooden Japanese houses, and the city is covered in small and large scale gardens, set in various styles reflective of the time period in which they were planted. Some gardens have been maintained for hundreds of years to preserve the unique gardening style of the year they were planted.
One of the most famous and easily recognizable facets of Kyoto is the presence of Geisha, women who spend years perfecting the arts of music, dance, tea ceremonies, conversation, and entertaining. Geisha, called geiko in Kyoto, are easily recognized by their white painted faces, jet black, ornately styled hair (which is sometimes a wig), and elaborate kimono. In Kyoto, there are quite a lot of faux geisha, which are people who aren’t actually trained in the same arts as a geisha, but who use the fame of genuine geisha to profit off of tourists. Authentic geisha are not prostitutes, contrary to popular belief, and are usually only accessible by wealthy individuals with existing connections to their okiya, or the teahouse that they work for. I will create another post all about the fascinating world of geisha (or geiko) in another post, as an addendum to my Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide.
Kyoto is a popular tourist destination, and therefor most things are in both English and Japanese. Of course, it’s important to learn some basic Japanese phrases to be polite and more independent, but visitors won’t have a difficult time navigating the city if they can only understand English.
How to Get To Kyoto
Kyoto is one of Japan’s 10 largest cities, and is easily accessible from any major city via shinkansen (a bullet train that travels up to 375 mph, but usually closer to 275mph) or other train routes. From Osaka it’s approximately one hour by train, or a 3.5 hour shinkansen ride from Tokyo, which is 500km or 310 miles from Kyoto. It’s possible to arrange for a private car ride via a rise share or taxi, but keep in mind this will be significantly more costly than a train ride.
Best Times to Visit Kyoto
We visited Kyoto to create this Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide during the height of Cherry Blossom season, and it was positively magical. The weather was a bit rainy when we visited in April, but that made for even lighting in photographs, dramatic views around the city, and helped to make popular tourist attractions like Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine not as busy, since few people ventured out in the rain. Every spring, on May 15th is one of Kyoto’s most popular festivals, the Aoi Matsuri Festival, also called the hollyhock festival, has a long parade of participants wearing Heian period traditional clothing, traditional dances and shrine festivities that are popular with visitors and locals alike.
In the summertime, head to Kyoto’s historic Gion district to find the Gion Matsuri Festival, which celebrates purification and healing from disease, and takes place in July. It is one of Japan’s most popular festivals. The summertime is generally hot and humid, which can make going outdoors or on long hikes difficult, but not impossible.
Autumn sees Kyoto’s stunning surroundings set ablaze with beautiful oranges, yellows, and deep reds as Japanese maples and other trees turn colors in the fall. The weather is generally cool and rainy. The Jidai Matsuri Festival happens each fall on October 22nd, and is considered to be one of Kyoto’s three most important festivals (the other two mentioned above). The main event of this festival is the five hour long parade, in which volunteers recreate historical events of Kyoto’s 1200+ year history down to even the most minute details. Volunteers meticulously research and utilize traditional techniques to create their techniques, even down to the type and process of creating specific dye and weaving fabric for their costumes in the exact same way that would have been done during the time period they represent.
Winter in Kyoto is cold, and it occasionally snows. During the new year, geisha travel together to great local businesses and visit shrines, praying for favor and success, among other things for the near year. From January 1st-3rd, hundreds of thousands of people visit Kyoto to make their first shrine visit of the year, which is a tradition amongst Japanese people dating back thousands of years.
Where to Stay in Kyoto | Luxury Ryokan and Beyond
Our favorite aspect of Kyoto’s accommodations were the representation of the rich traditions of Ryokan, which are traditional Japanese inns. Some of the most gorgeous and conveniently located ryokan in Kyoto are Hiiragiya, which has been owned and operated by the same family for six generations, Gion Hatanaka which is located between two shrines in the historic Gion district, Yuzuya Ryokan, which is one of the highest rated ryokan in the city, and Kyokoyado Muromachi Yutone, which is one of the most beautiful ryokan in all of Japan. When staying at a ryokan, embrace the traditional, multi-course cuisine that is served by ryokan in traditional, handmade-in-Kyoto lacquered dishes. These meals may take 2-3 hours to enjoy, but the rich history and traditions are something you can’t miss on your trip to Kyoto!
The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto was the first place we stayed during our time in Kyoto. Known the world over for its luxury, we adored our stay here, as it was conveniently located along the Kamo River, in downtown Kyoto, with convenient access to the city center. The Ritz expertly blends Japanese simplicity and tradition with western sensibilities to bring the best of both worlds to visitors of Kyoto and make visitors feel immediately at home.
Located in Kyoto’s Arashiyma neighborhood, near the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, is the stunning Suiran Boutique Hotel. Away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Kyoto, this hotel offers stunning tranquility and peace while still staying near famous sites like Tenryu-ji Temple and the Hozu River. 17 out of their 39 guest rooms offer private hot spring onsen, Japanese baths, outdoors.
Where to Eat in Luxurious Kyoto
As of 2020, Kyoto has 8 3-star restaurants, which is the highest ranking Michelin gives restaurants, 22 2-star restaurants, and 78 restaurants with one star, giving Kyoto a total of 108 restaurants with a Michelin star rating for excellence. We didn’t have a single bad meal in all of Kyoto, so it’s easy to see why so many resultants have earned such high international regard on the culinary scene. As this is a Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide, I will be focusing on fine dining establishments in the city.
Kyoto is famous for its kaiseki dining, which uses seasonal ingredients, prepared artistically and served on small, lacquered trays. These dishes and the food on them are generally very brightly colored, and served in multiple courses. The first course typically contains miso soup, as well as 3-5 very small dishes, that act as an appetizer. Subsequent courses may include rice, fish, seasonal vegetables, pickled or preserved foods, and mild desserts that aren’t overly sweet.
Kyoto is also well known for its regional specialties like Hamo (Congur Eel), Matcha (in any form you can imagine from tea and ice-cream to matcha rice and soups), tsukemono (pickled cucumbers, usually green or bright purple), and vegetarian Buddhist fare.
Below are some of my favorite fine dining establishments in Kyoto:
$450 USD+ per person
This restaurant has earned itself 2 Michelin stars, and held onto them for several years. Just as the below restaurant, no photography is allowed inside, and diners are expected to arrive early, looking their best. The sushi here is the freshest I’ve ever had, and the luxury full course meal will be one of the most incredible meals you eat in your lifestime. If you’re going to spring for a fine dining meal in Kyoto, let it be this one. Select the “luxury B or C course” option in order to have your meal positively shine. This is truly a once in a lifetime dining experience!
Kikukoi Main Restaurant by Chef Yoshihiro Murata
$150 USD+ per person
This fine dining restaurant fully embraces traditional Kaiseki dining, and does not allow guests to take pictures anywhere within the restaurant. It was one of the most incredible dining experiences I’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying. Children younger than 16 years old are not allowed to dine here so as not to disturb other guests. Dress nicely, in business casual or nicer. Shorts, tee shirts, tank tops and workout wear are not allowed.
Kyoto Kitcho Hana Kitcho (Gion)
$120 USD+ per person
Filled with handmade art from local artists, moss gardens, and gorgeous modern-meets-traditional surroundings, this elevated fine dining establishment is sleek, sophisticated, and as modern as can be. I highly recommend their hotpot, tempura, and full course meals. We ate here twice during our time in Kyoto, and it was phenomenal each and every time.
Above image courtesy of Kyoto Kitcho.
$100+ USD per person
The Shouju option is the most elaborate, and is by far the best investment at this unassuming restaurant. Tucked away in Arashiyama, this beautiful eatery offers stunning views, outdoor dining, and the staff are exceedingly helpful to visitors with dietary restrictions.
What to Do in Kyoto
Japan’s former capital city is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than any other region of Japan, which further underscores the city’s tremendous cultural impact on the rest of the nation, and the world. There’s no shortage of incredible things to see and do in the city that is considered by many to be the cultural capital of Japan, so here’s a list of my favorite things we saw and experienced in Kyoto, organized within this Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide in no particular order.
Walk through famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Enjoy one of Japan’s most pristine and expansive bamboo groves. It’s truly a site to behold. Try to arrive around sunrise (which is early!) to beat the crowds, or visit on a rainy day when crowds aren’t as present.
Visit Nijo Castle
Built in 1603 as the first Shogun of the Eno Period’s residence, this grand castle and its lovely traditional gardens are a site to behold. Enjoy gold leaf topped matcha flavored ice cream inside the castle’s café, and walk through the castle’s famous “singing halls”, where the floorboards’ squeaks sound like birds singing.
Visit Kyoto’s Temples & Shrines
Kyoto is considered the cultural and spiritual center of Japan, and is home to more than 1600 temples and shrines, most of which have their own walkable gardens and souvenir shops. Read all about temple and shrine etiquette in this guide. My favorite shrine in Kyoto that I’ve visited so far was Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine and its thousands of red torii gates, but there are hundreds more I hope to visit one day.
Other popular temples and shrines include Kiyomizu-ji, Ryoan-ji Temple, Ginkaku-ji Temple, Tofuku-ji Temple, Myoshin-ji Temple, Kinkaku-ji, Nanzen-ji, Tenryuu-ji, Daitoku-ji, Eikan-do, Ninna-ji, Kifune Shrine, Toji Temple, and Daikakuji, which was the original home of Ikebana, or the Japanese art of flower arranging. The temple I’m most excited to visit on my next trip to Kyoto is Kōinzan Saihō-ji (Kokedera) Temple, which has a stunning moss garden with more than 120 different types of moss. What can I say, I’m a huge botanical nerd!
A more “off the beaten path” shrine was Yasaka Koshin-Do (Daikoku-san Kongo-ji Koshin-Do) which is dedicated to love and romance. Visitors take one of the colored balls and write their wish, or the name of the person they love, on the ball. They then promise to work on themselves and leave behind one of their bad habits. If visitors are able to do this and sincerely make an effort to improve themselves, it is said that their wish will come true.
This museum temple houses 1,001 life-size statues of the Shinto Goddess of Mercy Kannon, and has been maintained for nearly as many years.
Hit up The Museum of Kyoto to learn more about Kyoto’s history, and art forms that are popular in Kyoto, such as video game creation, manga illustration, ikebana, calligraphy, and more.
The Samurai and Ninja Museum in Kyoto houses dozens of authentic suits of samurai armor, samurai swords, and history. This museum, like many in Kyoto, offers tours in English.
Visit a professional kimono dresser and rent a kimono for the day, and explore the city in traditional fashion. Especially in the traditional Gion district, you’ll see as much as 80% of locals and visitors alike wearing kimono!
While in Kyoto, I received dozens of requests asking how to book a geisha, or if we were doing to do so. It is very difficult to book actual geisha as a foreigner, as you must have a connection to someone who has already booked with a geisha before in order to have your request considered. Some luxury ryokan and some 5 star hotels can help introduce guests to geisha, but be aware that an evening with geisha that involves dinner, drinks, dancing performances, and singing can cost anywhere from $10,000 – $50,000USD or more. Scroll down a ways in the Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide to read more about hiring a geisha.
How to Navigate Kyoto
Kyoto was easy to navigate on foot, as most things are very close together. The city’s bus system has signs in English, and departs regularly at the scheduled times, making it a reliable form of transportation. Be aware that most buses do not have the ability to give change, so you must have the exact fare in Japanese Yen prepared.
If you have a JR Rail pass (which I talk all about in my guide to Tokyo), you will be able to navigate the more far flung reaches of Kyoto easily and without incurring additional fees. For short distance travel, rickshaws are available for hire, and are very popular amongst locals and the Japanese visitors dressed in kimono, however we did not participate in this, as it seemed a bit disrespectful to expect people to pull us around when we are perfectly capable of walking.
Day Trips from Kyoto
Just as Kyoto itself is easily accessible, so too are numerous surrounding cities of great cultural, historical, and culinary interest to the discerning traveler.
30 Minute Bus Ride from Kyoto City Center
An outlaying neighborhood of Kyoto, this neighborhood is much more “out of the way” and relaxed than downtown Kyoto. Visit the Arshiyama Bamboo Grove, the Kimono Forest, and walk the family owned shops, gardens, and forest paths of this idyllic neighborhood.
1.5 Hours via JR Rail System
Home of the beautiful Himeji Castle, this day trip is made easy via the JR Rail system, roughly 1 hour 30 minutes from Kyoto.
1.5 Hours via Shinkansen Bullet Train
The international city of peace, where the first of two atomic bombs was dropped on Japan during WWII, this city today stands as a reminder and a promise that nothing so horrific will ever happen again, anywhere on Earth. Explore the thoughtful museums, gardens, temples, and shrines that encourage peace and love to all on Earth.
30 Minutes via Shinkansen Bullet Train
This mountainous harbor town is famous for its high quality, highly-prized Kobe Beef, natural beauty, and ancient Ikuta Shrine, one of the oldest in Japan.
Miyajima aka Shrine Island
1 hr 40 Minutes via Shinkansen Bullet Train
Famous for its seaside shrine and vibrant orange torii gate that becomes partially submerged during high tide, this beautiful island city is perfect for nature lovers, those who enjoy visiting ancient temples and shrines, beach goers, and forest hiking.
35 Minutes via Shinkansen Bullet Train
Visit Nagoya, Japan’s 4th largest city, and explore Nagoya Castle, Atsuta-jingu Shrine & Cypress Forest, Toganji Temple, Climb to the top of Nagoya TV Tower, or visit during July to see the Nagoya Sumo Tournament. While in Nagoya, be sure to sample the city’s unique cuisine, like Miso Udon, Tenmusu Rice Balls, and Ebi Furai (shrimp fritters).
45 Minutes via Shinkansen Bullet Train
Famous for the former capital city’s population of tame (yet wild) deer who bow to visitors in exchange for nutritionally dense biscuits, Nara is a beautiful city to learn about nature and Japan’s various religions. Be sure to visit Nara Deer Park, Syoka Teori-Sushi Restaurant located inside a former samurai house, and Kasuga Taisha shrine, which has more than 3,000 lanterns on display.
15 Minutes via Shinkansen Bullet Train
Osaka, Japan’s 3rd largest city, is home to Universal Studios Japan, Spa World, Osaka Castle and its peach, plum, and cherry trees, Umeda Sky Building, and the Dotonburi shopping and nightlife district, which is where the famous Glico Running Man Neon Sign is located. Osaka is famous for its cuisine, like takoyaki (fried squid balls) and okonomiyaki (cabbage patties fried “as you like it” with a variety of toppings like mayo, seaweed, bacon, and more).
Kyoto is a city steeped in tradition, and residents expect visitors to have a good understanding of their cultural norms and societal expectations. Be sure to bookmark the Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide and refer to it often to avoid social faux pas.
Since formality and tradition aren’t just reserved for special occasions in Kyoto, a visit to this city is the perfect occasion to visit a professional kimono stylist and rent a kimono for the day. There are even a number of kimono resale shops, so for around $500 USD you can purchase your very own kimono to take home as an incredible, sentimental souvenir. Buy your own kimono, or rent one, hire a professional to help you put it on properly, and explore the town in style. About 80% of visitors and locals alike in Kyoto’s Gion district wore kimono, while about 25% in the downtown area of Kyoto wore kimono, so you can feel at ease knowing you’ll fit right in.
Kyoto is home to nearly 2,000 temples and shrines, and visiting these beautiful architectural and cultural wonders are a wonderful way to explore Japanese culture, and learn about the history, art & architectural styles of the time in which the temple or shrine was built, and a wonderful way to see some beautiful views and Japanese gardens. Read my guide to Buddhist Temple & Shinto Shrine etiquette so that you know what to do (and what not to do) when visiting these staples of Japanese society, and refer to this Kyoto luxury travel guide to to learn which of the popular temples and shrines you should visit first.
As I mentioned above, Kyoto is home to more geisha than anywhere else in the world. If you see geisha on the street, do not pester them, attempt to touch them, or follow them around. According to the hotels we stayed in, it’s okay to take a quick photograph of them if they agree to it, but they are working professionals, usually traveling to or from a work engagement, so they don’t have time to stop and pose with visitors or participate in impromptu photoshoots, or else they’d never arrive at their destinations. Plus, geishas are paid well for their time, so if they gave out performances or allowed their photograph to be taken in a professional photoshoot, their professional standing would diminish. Always be respectful and keep your distance, and remember that they, like you and I, are people who deserve to be treated respectfully. We never saw anyone harassing them, but we heard horror stories of rude visitors being obscene or harassing them, which is abhorrent. If they ask you not to take their photograph, you should respect their wishes, and refer to this Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide on tips to book a geisha to perform for you and your group.
Tipping in Kyoto is seen as particularly insulting, as though the person receiving the tip is pitied by the person giving the tip. If you come from a country where tipping is the norm, this may feel strange, but simply offer a heartfelt “arigatou!” or “ookini” as is common in Kyoto, and be on your way. Never tip anyone in Kyoto, they will most certainly be offended by it.
Don’t touch things or buildings unnecessarily. Many of the buildings in Kyoto or more than 1,000 years old, and some of the objects on display in museums, gardens, or other galleries can be even older. Don’t touch them for any reason. Oil on the fingers can transfer and damage items. If everyone touched things, they’d be ruined very quickly, so keep your hands to yourself and don’t touch anything. This also goes for geisha you may see on the street. They don’t want to be grabbed or stopped. If all visitors are respectful, it will help preserve the sites and surroundings as described in this Kyoto luxury travel guide for generations to come.
Kyoto is a very safe city overall. Stay away from train tracks, keep valuables nearby, and pay attention when walking the narrow streets, especially when walking around corners, because many streets are shared by pedestrians and cars. Move out of the way for other people and motor vehicles.
I hope this Kyoto Luxury Travel Guide helps you shape the trip to Kyoto of your dreams!
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