The Sweet Spot: Kyoto, Japan

by  Christina Garofalo | Updated on Jan 15, 2020
Kyoto / SeanPavonePhoto/iStock

Tokyo is Japan’s frenetic, futuristic capital, but Kyoto is its intellectual center. It's also one of the best places to experience formal Japanese traditions, including kaiseki dining, tea ceremonies, geishas, and prewar machiya townhouses.

With more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, plus impressive palaces and gardens, Kyoto is ripe with things to see and do -- it’s no surprise the city attracts millions of visitors per year. Here’s how to make sure you choose the best time to go, so you’re not at the mercy of crowds and inflated costs.

The Perfect Time to Visit

Late May and late September

Kyoto’s peak seasons -- late March through April (cherry blossoms/sakura) and October and November (fall foliage) -- offer postcard-worthy photo opps. But they come with staggering room rates and hoards of tourists that make sightseeing unenjoyable.

To score good deals and dodge the crowds, hold out until after Golden Week, which takes place the first week of May, and visit in late May, or plan your trip for September, just before the leaves start to turn. You’ll still enjoy pleasant weather around the mid-70s (though early September can still be a bit hot). May actually has the most days of sun all year.

The Cheapest Option

December to February, June and July

Prices and crowds are at their lowest in summer and winter.

If you don’t mind the cold, airfare is cheapest in December and January, and even Kyoto’s coldest months have an average high of 40 degrees. The city does get snow, but very rarely does it stick and precipitation levels are still about half that you'll find in the rainy season. Plus, there is still tons to do despite the cold, with exception of the New Year (late December into early January), when most businesses are closed. However, we might suggest swapping out your hiking plans for some extra time in the onsens and hot springs.

Bonus: Plum trees start to blossom in mid-February and make for an electric landscape that rivals the cherry blooms.

It’s also possible to score great deals from mid-June to late July. This is the rainy season (June is the wettest month, with an average of 9.45 inches of rain), but it doesn't rain every day and it's still possible to travel. And honestly, we experienced significant rain during sakura in spring, too. However, be warned that July does come with heat and humidity -- an average daily high around 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Smart Place to Stay

If you can snag one of the 13 rooms at hip design hotel The Screen, you won't be disappointed. Located in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance from downtown, the hotel's spacious, well-appointed rooms are all non-smoking (more on that later). We found rates as low as $176 per person, per night, based on double occupancy. We recommend booking early, since the hotel tends to sell out months in advance (after all, there's only 13 rooms). 

If you’re the type of traveler who likes to experience local living, consider a stay at Kohaku-an Machiya Residence Inn, where you can rent Japanese townhouses, which all feature spacious accommodations, sleek interiors, and modern amenities. Since the houses can host anywhere from three to ten guests, these homes make for an incredibly economical option for large groups or families. Rates from $120 per night, depending on the season. 

Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo is located in the Teramachi Shopping Arcade, and is just a short walk away from shops, restaurants, Nishiki Market, the Kamo River, and Gion (Kyoto's entertainment district). Additionally, the hotel is is complete with an onsite restaurant and a 7/11 -- perfect for grab-and-go snacks. Rates from $54 per night, depending on the season.

In Japan, smoking is still permitted in many hotel rooms, and because the windows don't open, the rooms can be rather unpleasant. When you book a room, make sure it indicates non-smoking. If there is no designation, it's safe to say people have smoked in there, and you may want to inquire about whether there's an air purifier (or, just play it safe and book elsewhere).

What to See and Do

Kyoto is home to some of Japan’s most iconic sights: Kinkaku-ji (a Buddhist temple); The Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine (which is home to 10,000 Torii gates); and the winding Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Tip: To avoid crowds, plan your visit for a weekday rather than a weekend, and arrive either early in the morning or just before closing. Other famous temples to visit include Chion-in (also known as the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism); Nanzen-ji; and Tenryu-ji, which has one of the best gardens and mountain views in all of Kyoto..

Also, watch the geishas walk around in Gion. Two of Kyoto’s most important geisha dances, the Miyako Odori and the Kyo Odori, are held in April to coincide with the cherry blossoms. Kyoto is also home to a number of exciting festivals and events. There is usually at least one a month, so you can likely catch them any time you visit. Two of the largest occur each year on October 22: the Jidai Matsuri, a parade of people dressed in attire from all the major Japanese historical periods; and the Kurama Fire Festival, where teams of shouting men carry huge flaming torches through the streets of Kurama, a rural mountain town about an hour away from the city center. 

Kyoto is a hiker’s paradise: mountains surround the city, and there are dozens of trails just minutes from downtown. The short hike to Mt. Daimonji-yama (a little less than a mile, round-trip) offers the best views of Kyoto. Alternatively,  for a full-day jaunt, hike the trail from Takao to Hozukyo, which starts at two temples and follows a river.

When it comes to food and drink, you must try kaiseki, a traditional haute meal of small dishes that highlight seasonal ingredients, for which Kyoto is known. Before you skip town, be sure to attend a tea ceremony. There are plenty of places to do so in the city, but, if you're feeling adventurous, take the 30-minute train ride from Kyoto to Uji, which is famed for its green tea. In Uji, head to Tsuen Tea, the oldest tea house in Japan, for an unforgettable tea ceremony.

Tips to Save Even More

Most shrines and temples offer free admission, though some Buddhist temples charge a very small admission of 300 to 600 yen (approximately $2.80 to $5.55). At those that do charge, you can often access the gardens for free. For example, Kiyomizu-Dera temple -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- charges an entrance fee, but you can opt for a free pass to explore the surrounding gates and gardens. For an afternoon pick-me-up, cafes around town with gardens will give you access to their oasis, a cup of tea, and a sweet for around 500 yen (about $4.60 USD).

Kyoto has an easy-to-use subway and bus system. A daily bus pass costs 600 yen per adult (approx. $5.55 USD) and will pay off quickly if you’re trying to hit temples in different areas of the city. Or, consider purchasing more comprehensive Kyoto Sightseeing Pass. (1,400 yen, or around $13 for a two-day pass). The pass can be used on city buses, the subway, and other buses operated by the Kyoto Bus company. Tip: When you arrive at Kyoto Station, take the escalators to the top of the tower for a 360-degree view of the city for free. Additionally, Kyoto is one of the best biking cities in Asia. Rent a bike and explore the city from about 1,000 yen (about $9) per day. Some hotels also offer free bike rentals. 

Sure, kaiseki is great, but it’s pricey. However, if you go for lunch rather than dinner, you'll get (almost) same experience for nearly half the price. In Japan, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find good food. For a few bucks, you can cook and eat delicious okonomiyaki (savory pancakes filled with seafood and vegetables), or load up on skewers of meat and vegetables at any of the lively izakaya (Japanese pubs).

Here, you'll find that convenience stores have fresh and inexpensive food. Pick up a bento box or a few onigiri (rice balls) before heading to Demachiyanagi (where Imadegawa-dori crosses the Kamo River) for a riverfront picnic. Additioanlly, Kamo River is also a great place to catch a free live musical performance, as many of the local musicians gather here to practice.

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