24 hours in Kyoto
This week we bring you GO Kyoto, replete with our food/hotel tips, adventures, some great stores and beautiful photos. As incredible as Japan is, it’s a world away from English speaking culture and getting on the subway can be crazy intimidating, so we relied on an awesome travel agency, Black Tomato, to tell us how to do it right.
Getting There & Travel Notes
When making restaurant reservations, and for many of the temples, you almost always have to go through a travel agent or hotel concierge. Also, for many of the more coveted seats, like a few of the restaurants we list below, it’s best to book pretty well in advance.
Black Tomato’s Japan experts were super helpful with everything from getting reservations, to advance temple authorization in Kyoto and more—we’d totally recommend them if you’re planning a trip to Japan or elsewhere in the world. We also love that they send you a Japan-related novel to read on the plane.
Kyoto, Japan’s former imperial capital, remains the cultural capital of the country with countless World Heritage sites including a couple thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. These are only a small few.
You must write by post to visit the Moss Temple, or Saihō-ji, which still requires all visitors to trace Buddhist sutras (prayers) before being able to walk through the beautiful gardens.
The Silver Pavilion, aka Ginkaku-ji, is not actually silver, but was intended to be before construction was halted due to war and then eventually abandoned when its presiding Shogun Yoshimasa died.
Shogun: de facto rulers of Japan between 1192 to 1867, appointed by the emperor.
This castle, erected in 1626, was built as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. It’s massive and contains many beautiful paintings and the signature “nightingale” floorboards, which creak as you walk through so no one could sneak in. There are also some beautiful gardens to stroll through here.
Close to the Golden Pavilion and the Rock Garden is this restaurant where many monks from the temple across the street and others nearby come for the shojin ryori (vegan temple food). Little English is spoken here but you choose your menu through your travel agent or hotel when you book. The bento boxes are generously-portioned and well-priced for the amount and quality of the food—but for the full experience, go for the kaiseki, which includes the signature tofu skin, which many of the young monks eat when they are craving meat.
After lunch, experience old Kyoto by participating in a traditional tea ceremony. Tondaya, the perseved Machiya townhouse where the tea ceremony is held, belongs to descendants of its original family (who still live here) but has also become somewhat of a historical landmark in Kyoto, as it’s one of the only ones left of its kind—apparently it’s quite expensive to preserve and upkeep such a traditional structure. The lady of the house poses for us above. Notice how small the original doorways are, which you have to crawl through during the traditional ceremony.
Once you’ve crawled into the room (by dragging your lower body through the doorway with your upper arms), the tea ceremony begins with a couple of sweets. The woman in this photo removes the empty plate.
The Japanese tea ceremony, which stems from Zen Buddhism, is primarily concerned with the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha. Some more formal tea ceremonies are also accompanied by a kaiseki-style meal, which can last for a number of hours. This ceremony was just about matcha, which is served in artisan-made pottery. Once it’s placed in front of you, turn the bowl three times clockwise—if there’s a center pattern on the cup, that should end up facing out. Then, the tea should be drunk in approximately three sips, and on the last one, a slurping noise to finish is respectful.
Here’s an example of another tea ceremony, which took place upon arrival at the Hoshinoya Resort in West Kyoto.
Next, head to the contemporary kimono shop Omo. Stylist Motoko Morita who runs this cute shop will help you pick out everything you need to rock contemporary geisha style. If you can’t spring for the whole kimono (they are expensive) there are also shirts made from extra kimono fabric and shoes to choose from.
Continue shopping at
Opened a few years ago in the historic Gion district, Sfera may be Kyoto’s coolest shop. With a café on the first floor, furniture and furnishings on the second, including a variety of gorgeous Japanese pottery, and a gallery space and bookshop on the third. It’s a must for design lovers. Oh, and there’s also a bar (separately owned) on the top floor, which doesn’t get going until nighttime.
This stunning ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in the west of Kyoto is for those looking to unplug and relax. You get to the resort by boat, and the ride over on the river between the mountains is just breathtaking. Once you get to the resort, you’ll be greeted by a welcome song of chimes and led to one of the luxury ryokan style rooms overlooking the water. In the morning, have a Japanese breakfast in the room before joining in on breathing exercises by the water. This is a really unique place.
The Hyatt Regency is a modern and comfortable city hotel in a perfect location for getting in and out of the town center. The concierge and management here are really great for any kind of information on Kyoto you may need.
Pre-dinner drinks at
Have a drink at this discreet bar in the back of the Kanga-an temple. Rad.
Just opened a couple of years back, this tiny six-seat restaurant has already earned itself two Michelin stars. Run by a young husband and wife duo who are innovating the traditional kappo cuisine (fine food served over the counter that falls somewhere between a formal kaiseki and a casual izakaya), the food is incredibly fresh and seasonal, with a heavy focus on fish and veggies, many of which are grilled. Even though everything is quite simple and allows the flavor of the food to star, there’s something in every dish that is exceptional and unique.
An Evening with a Maiko
An evening with a maiko (an apprentice geisha) can be difficult and pricey to book (it’s even more difficult to book a geisha). But many teahouses, like the one listed here, are happy to offer these geishas-in-training for some traditional Kyoto-style entertainment. It’s truly special to sit next to one of these almost mythical young, painted women who sing, play instruments, and are educated in traditional Japanese dance and the art of conversation.
Snaps from Kyoto
And a Poem
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.
by Martha Postlewaite