Kyoto for first-timers

Kyoto is not really a busting supercity like Tokyo or Osaka. While there still are high rises and department stores, Kyoto is best known for its cultural treasures.

Think of it as a place of culture; traditional houses, geishas in elegant kimonos, and amazing food. Alll these things are celebrated in a city that has no fewer than 17 UNESCO World Heritage sights.

Sketch of a Japanese Geisha walking through Kyoto at night
A geisha walks through a lantern lit street in Gion

Kyoto in a nutshell

So, where to begin, for people visiting for the first time?

Imagine geisha wandering through old quarters, escorting clients out of the cold and into warmly lit teahouses for fine dining.

On the outskirts are soaring bamboo forests, whispering in the wind high above, dark and silent and filled with wonder on ground level.

Kyoto is hemmed in on three sides by green mountains and tall forests. To the south is the mega metropolis of Osaka, only about an hour away. Nara is also an easy day trip (or even better, overnight!).

Many beautiful sights are located on the fringes of Kyoto city, so they are both easy to access, and still feel far away (these special places, like Fushimi Inari and Arashiyama are coming up in future posts).

What should I do for my first visit?

  • Hike to the top of Fushimi Inari, watching rays of sunlight spill between the thousands of torii gates to paint golden stripes on the stone steps
  • Mingle with geishas and do some shopping at Kiyomizu-dera
  • Take a picture of the golden temple of Kinkaju-ji, and its shimmering reflection dancing in the water below
  • Pass between the groves of towering green bamboo stalks at Arashiyama, cracking and swaying in the wind
  • Feed fruits to Japanese snow monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park
  • Escape the crowds and feel the serenity of the Jojakku-ji temples
  • Geek out on manga at the Kyoto international Manga Museum
  • Wander the massive wooden temple complexes of Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji
  • Wander the grounds at the Kyoto Imperial Palace
  • Discover how a shogun lived at Nijo castle

A walk through charming streets

Kyoto is the perfect city for walking.

Outside the city centre, suburbs of compact houses, local shrines and plenty of cyclists provide a grid of very walkable streets to explore. Our aim was to find Gion, home of Kyoto geisha culture. We passed by the city centre, busy shopping avenues and crowds and subway stations.

As darkness fell, we found ourselves surrounded by glowing red lanterns along Pontocho, a long, narrow avenue lined with tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants. There were some geishas here, arm-in-arm with clients, enjoying the atmosphere of the city.

Sketch of a woman in front of a traditional Japanese house in Gion
Cindy in Kyoto at night

On the other side of the river was Gion, where we found more geishas still, realising that most of the kimonos we saw were actually tourists in costume (You could examine the material, or the makeup, but the easiest way to tell the difference? Look for the presence of a selfie stick)!

Shirakawa Dori

We wandered around and got lost, and then, we stopped suddenly. This was no ordinary street, and we were all alone on it. Cherry blossoms, wooden teahouses (illuminated and glowing through the windows, with people dining on tatami mats), immaculately sculpted gardens, weeping willows, a low vermillion fence, and a whispering canal trickling beside us. It is called Shirakawa Dori, often considered one of the most beautiful streets in the world.

Sketch of customers ordering taiyaki desserts from a street food vendor in Japan

Eating well in Kyoto

For our dinner, we sat down at a sushi restaurant. Rather than the usual sushi train, this was a place with more talented chefs using huge knives to perfectly slice the salmon and unagi. An old chef prepared his sushi with great care, placing it not on a plate, but directly on the wooden bar in front of us, with a big glob of ginger.

With such an expensive dinner, we didn’t order a lot. So with plenty of room for dessert, we stopped at a stall selling Taiyaki, custard-filled cakes with a pancake-like batter, cooked golden brown in a fish-shaped mold. Within a minute, we finished them. We looked at each other, and read each other’s minds. Let’s go back for seconds!

What did you do on your first visit to Kyoto? Let me know what i’ve missed in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Kyoto for first-timers

  1. I loved Kyoto! There’s always something to explore that I missed out on previously…like getting to Gion…still haven’t managed to get there even though I’ve visited Kyoto three times…hahaha…this street looks so pretty too! I can just imagine how it was like…:)

    1. For a relatively small city, there’s ana amazing amount of things to see! Gion is worth a visit, but moving onwards to kiyomizu-dera to see some inpressive temples, and an old quarter with lots of cute shops

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