The Sweet Spot: Kyoto, Japan
by Christina Garofalo | June 22, 2017
bucket list food & wine hotel tips & strategy

The Sweet Spot: Kyoto, Japan

Bringing you the world’s best travel destinations — and when you should visit them for the best value.

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 new design hotel The Screen, you'll not 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 prices for a midweek stay for as low as 16,000 yen (approximately $144 USD) in June and July; but even in the popular fall foliage season -- if you book early -- prices are just slightly higher, at 17,000 yen (about $153 USD) -- hard to beat for the quality of stay. Tip: Book early; the hotel often sells out months in advance.

If you’re the type of traveler who likes to experience local living, Machiya Residence Inn Kyoto added several new properties to its fleet of Japanese townhouse rentals last spring. All come with modern amenities, including wifi, a full kitchen, a cypress wood bathtub, a Japanese-style tatami living room, a washer/dryer, and a small private garden. A daily cleaning service is included, as are toiletries, so you still get the benefits of a hotel stay. Since the houses can host anywhere from three to ten guests, the rates -- which start at 20,000 yen (about $180 USD) per night in September -- make for an incredibly economical option for groups or families, and reasonable for couples as well. Even in high season during sakura, we found rentals for just $221 per night.

Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo opened last year in the Teramachi Shopping Arcade. Within a few minutes’ walk from shops (including Kyoto's anime/otaku shops), endless restaurants, Nishiki market, the Ponte-cho river, and Gion, you cannot beat the location. The hotel has free coffee and bread in the mornings, a on-site restaurant, and a 7/11 downstairs for grab-and-go snacks. We found rooms for a midweek stay in September as low as $89 per night, compared to $239 in November during peak fall foliage.

Tip: In Japan, smoking is still permitted in many hotel rooms, and because the windows don't open, the rooms that do allow it can be rather unpleasant. When booking a room, always make sure it indicates non-smoking; if there is no designation, it's safe to say people have smoked in there and you'll 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 Temple (the “Golden Pavilion”); the thousand-torii-gate hike to Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine; and the winding Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Due to the popularity of these sights, plan your visit for a weekday rather than a weekend and arrive first thing in the morning or just before closing -- especially if you’re there during busy season. Otherwise, you’ll be moving through a mob of wall-to-wall tourists.

Other famous temples to visit include Chion-in, the Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism; Nanzen-ji; and Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which has one of the best gardens in Kyoto and mountain views. All are lovely spots for fall foliage.

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 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 village.

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 view over Kyoto. Or for a full-day jaunt, the trail from Takao to Hozukyo starts at two temples and follows a river -- great for taking a dip in the summer months.

For bites and drinks, eat kaiseki, the traditional haute meal of small dishes that highlight seasonal ingredients, for which Kyoto is known. And attend a tea ceremony. There are plenty of places to do so in the city, or take the 30-minute train ride from Kyoto Station to Uji, famed for its green tea, where you can sit in on one at Tsuen, the oldest tea house in Japan and possibly the world.

Tips to Save Even More

Most shrines and temples are free to enter. Some Buddhist temples charge a very small admission of 300 to 600 yen (approximately $2.70 to $5.40 USD). At those that do charge, you can often access the gardens for free. For example, UNESCO World Heritage Site Kiyomizu-Dera temple does have 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 $4.50 USD).

Kyoto has an easy-to-use subway and bus system. A daily bus pass costs 500 yen (about. $4.50 USD) and will pay off quickly if you’re trying to hit temples in different areas of the city (a one-way ticket costs 230 yen). Or, spring for the more comprehensive Kyoto Sightseeing Pass. It is 1,200 yen ($11 USD) for a single day, and 2,000 yen ($18 USD) for two days and can be used on city buses, the subway, and on many other buses operated by the Kyoto Bus company.

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.

Kyoto is one of the best biking cities in Asia. Rent a bike and explore the city for about 1,000 yen (about $9 USD) per day. Some hotels offer free bikes to guests, too.

Sure, kaiseki is great, but it’s pricey. If you go for lunch rather than dinner, you can usually get almost the same experience for less than half the price. However, 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) at Warai; or load up on skewers of meat and veggies and Kirin at any of the lively izakaya (Japanese pubs).

Convenience stores also have amazingly fresh and inexpensive food. Pick up a bento box or a few onigiri (rice balls) and head to Demachiyanagi (where Imadegawa-dori crosses the Kamogawa River) and have a sunset picnic on the banks of the river. Kamogawa River is also a great place to catch a free live musical performance, as many of the local musicians gather here to practice.

Alternatively, you can fill up for free on generous samples while touring the basement-level food floors at department stores, like Daimaru.

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