What to do in Kyoto
Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and so is full of history. This Kyoto Itinerary seeks to showcase some of the top Kyoto attractions to visit while you’re in this amazing city. Firstly, you need to get there and we arrived in Kyoto on the ‘Thunderbird 9’ express from Osaka. It only takes 30 minutes so it’s easy to visit Kyoto on day trips from Osaka. In fact, I’ve included it as part of my 3 Days in Osaka Itinerary which you can check out here. Here I’m going to show you all the things to see and do in Kyoto and also give you some practical information.
- Kyoto Station
- Nijo Castle
- Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Railway Museum
- Imperial Palace
- Sento Palace
- Manga Museum
If you arrive by train then you will start your Kyoto seeing at the station. Indeed, the station in Kyoto is a tourist attraction in itself. We got to explore it quite well as it is also difficult to find an exit. We found our way up to the roof garden on floor 12 which has some great views of the city. There is also an observation deck on floor 11. The roof of the main station is a huge glass and metal dome structure and there is a skywalk going right across it so you feel like you are walking about in the roof. It also has some great views over the city from all sides. You can even get married here. We also found a wedding pavilion and there was even a wedding in progress.
In contrast to the older building in the city, Kyoto station is a modern building constructed of steel and glass. It’s also huge and you can spend quite a bit of time exploring it. Once you’re up in the roof area you really don’t know you’re in a railway station at all.
Isn’t it wonderful to be able to get some fresh air while you wander around the station and wait for your train? At Kyoto station, you can head up to the roof and spend time relaxing in these lovely gardens. It’s a tranquil oasis that is unlike any other railway station I’ve been to. Don’t forget to take in the views across the city while you’re up here.
Kyoto Station also has an entire section dedicated to restaurants. It’s the ideal place to grab some lunch before you head out to explore the city. Or some dinner when you finish a tiring day sightseeing! We discovered that the Japanese have a great way of queuing if a restaurant is full. Outside each restaurant here there is a row of chairs leading to the door and in order to join the queue you sit in the next available seat. As people are taken into the restaurant, everyone then moves to seats closer to the door.
It is all very orderly (as is everything in Japan) and although a few individuals do try to circumvent the system they are politely pointed towards the end of the line. We decided on a pizza and pasta restaurant and had the set meal for 2 – tomato salad with quiche, cheese & tomato pizza, spaghetti with crab and coffee. It was a very Japanese take on pizza and pasta but very nice and served with lots of bowing and hand wipes. Everyone is so polite here – despite the vast numbers of people, Japan is like one big oasis of calm – perhaps it is because everything runs so smoothly. Whatever it is, I love it.
Firstly, some history. Nijo castle was specifically built for one of the leaders or shoguns of the area, Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was very powerful and because he was given control of the area of Kyoto by the Emperor. The castle was built in 1603 and his family went on to live and rule from here for another 250 years.
Today Nijo Castle is one of the major tourist sights in Kyoto. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like, Osaka castle, it is more of a grand house with gardens than what we would call a castle but it is very impressive. The cherry blossom was fantastic here also. I know a lot of people travel to Japan especially for the cherry blossom but it wasn’t something I was too interested in before we arrive. However, once I saw it I realised why everyone loves it so much. It really is particularly beautiful.
The main house where Tokugawa Ieyasu and his family lived is Ninomaru Palace. You can go inside and tour the palace by following the self-guided tour route. You have to take your shoes off during your visit and leave them in the storage racks provided. This was actually quite nice after walking around during the day in my shoes. You can then walk around the house in bare feet or socks. The floor of the corridor running throughout the castle is what they call a Nightingale floor due to the noise it makes. It is constructed to make a constant creaking noise like a bird to alert those inside when someone is coming. It doesn’t really sound like a Nightingale but it does make a really cool noise as you walk on it.
The castle is really much larger than it appears from the outside and there are lots of large rooms for meeting visiting dignitaries etc. They are all adorned with paintings and panels dating back to the 17th century. The palace also has a fascinating history. It became the property of the Imperial family in 1884 but was donated to the city in 1939, when it was renamed Nijo castle.
Practical Information for Nijo Castle
October to June: 8:45am to 5pm
July and August: 8 am to 6pm
September: 8 am to 5 pm
Castle grounds and gardens: 600 Yen (£4)
Ninomaru Palace: 400 Yen (£3)
Nijojo-mae station on the Tozai line (Brown)
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine just on the outskirts of the city. It’s famous due to the thousands of torii gates which stretch up the Mont Inari, winding through trees and shrubs. The shrine is over a thousand years old and attracts a lot of visitors so don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
Firstly, we walked up through the shrine area. Here you can see the vermilion painted buildings. The Torri gates are painted the same colour because it’s an auspicious colour said to ward off evil. In fact, there is more than one shrine here and you can wander around and look inside. Although they do not like photographs being taken inside. For more details about the shrines and their history, you can visit the official website.
Afterwards, walk towards the back of the complex and you will see the Torri gates. In the photo above you can see them snaking up the hillside, through the trees. You walk through the gates in a kind of tunnel.
We found that the crowds thinned significantly once we started on the steeper uphill steps. The pathway forms several loops, some shorter ones and a longer one which goes to the top of the mountain. We walked uphill for what seemed like ages and were convinced we had reached the loop shown on the map at the bottom. Unfortunately, it turns out that the map is not to scale and we had barely walked up a 1/3 of it. Fortunately, there are loops back at various points and we headed back down through the temples to the bottom. It was lovely walking up through the gates and you can spend a lot of time here if you want to do the full climb.
As you walk down the hill, you will also see lots of smaller shrines.
Don’t be put off visiting because it is slightly outside the centre of Kyoto. It’s really easy to get to and only takes about 5 minutes on the train from Kyoto station. Get off the train at Inari station and you’ll see the shrine right across the road.
Practical Information for Fushimi Inari Shrine
How to get there
Take a local train from Kyoto Statoin on the JR Nara line to Inari.
The Kyoto Tower stands right opposite the railway station and you can get a good view of it from the roof gardens. Built in 1964, the tower is also the tallest building in Kyoto at 131 metres tall.
The viewing platform is actually 100 metres from the ground but it offers great views right across the city. Underneath the tower, there is also a shopping and hotel complex and there is even a public bath in the basement. You can also stop by the Kansai Tourist Information Centre for local tourist informattion.
Practical Information for Kyoto Tower
9 am to 9 pm
770 Yen (£5.50
Kyoto Railway Station
Kyoto Railway Museum
Of course, as you know, I love travelling by train and anyway, no trip to Japan would be complete without a closer look at their amazing trains. While there’s no substitute for taking a train trip yourself you can find out a lot more about Japanese trains at the Kyoto Railway Museum.
The museum opened in 2016 so it’s relatively new still and it has several floors of exhibits including 53 actual trains. You can see all kinds of paraphernalia relating to trains here, from uniforms and flags to furniture and mechanical items. They even have a fabulous miniature train system on display. It’s quite mesmerising.
Kyoto Railway Museum: Practical Information
10.30 am to 5 pm
Closed on Wednesdays
600 Yen (£4)
Umekoji-Kyotonishi Station on the JR Sagano Line
Kyoto Imperial Palace
As I said earlier, Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan before Tokyo. So, it should be no surprise that it has its own Imperial Palace. Located in Kyoto Imperial Park, you can also spend time exploring this beautiful open space.
Until a few years ago you had to make an appointment to view the palace. However, now, you can just turn up and you don’t even have to pay a fee.
Kyoto Imperial Palace: Practical Information
9 am to 5pm from April to August
Early closing at 4.30pm from September and March and at 4pm from October to February
Closed on Mondays
Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma Subway Line
Also located in Kyoto Imperial Park is Sento Palace. This palace was built in 1630 as a retirement palace for Emperor Gomizuno. However, this is not the building you see today as the original one was destroyed in a fire many years ago. A new palace was built in the late 19th century and this is where the current prince and princess stay when they are in Kyoto.
Unfortunately, it is not as easy to visit as the Kyoto Imperial Palace but it is possible. You can arrange a guided tour if you book in advance. Although they are narrated in Japanese there is an audio guide in multiple languages so you can hear the dialogue. You can download it here.
Tours take place 5 times a day except on Mondays. To book your place go to the Household Agency’s office in Kyoto Park the day before. You will need to show your passport so don’t forget to take it with you. It may also be possible to book a spot on the day by turning up at the palace gate so give it a try if you’re in the area. Additionally, a limited amount of online booking is available via the Household Agency’s official website. Scroll down to the bottom and you will see the link. This website is also great for information on the Imperial family.
Kyoto Manga Museum
In case you don’t know, Manga is a form of Japanese comic book. This new museum is dedicated to Manga which is considered something of a Japanese art form.
Although it does have a section dedicated to foreign-language titles, if you read Japanease then you will be mainly looking at the pictures. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. A lot of the appeal of manga is visual anyway. And this is no stuffy museum where everything is locked away in glass display cases. Here you can touch, pick up a book or magazine and flick through. It’s a great concept and a lot of un.
Kyoto Manga Museum: Practical Information
10 am to 6pm
Closed on Wednesdays
800 Yen (£6)
Karasuma-Oike Subway Station on the Karasuma Line and Tōzai Line