Kyoto is affectionately known as the heart of traditional Japan, its historical and cultural centre. The second biggest city in Japan is built around several famous temples, a castle, palace and dozens of museums. Some old areas of the city dating from the Edo period are well preserved and still lived in, often popular with tourists by day and drinkers by night.

By shinkansen its going to cost you around 15,000yen, but you’ll be there in 3 hours from Tokyo.
Local trains will take forever, and at 10,000yen its not much of a saving
Night buses are perhaps the best public transport option. These cost between 5,000 – 9,000 yen depending on the type of seat. You could try “cocoon”, where each seat is in an individual pod and reclines almost horizontally. Although you get some privacy and it was very quiet, the cocoon seats may be too small for tall travellers. Its the most expensive way to travel but might be worth it for a good night’s sleep, or just for the ergonomic space-travel style of the pod.
Much cheaper, but less cool, are the standard seats. These usually recline a little. I paid 6,000 yen for one, and was surprised to find slippers, an eye mask, bottled water and facial wipes provided free of charge!

Kyoto will have something to offer all year round. It is most popular during hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and koyo (autumn leaves viewing) so expect crowds during May and November. Summer will be hot and humid, but the winter may be milder than in Tokyo.

Where to stay
As you’d expect Kyoto has a ton of hotels and hostels to suit all budgets. These range from huge concrete megaliths to rooms available in the temple’s monks quarters. The famous landmarks are scattered throughout the city, so first decide whether you’d like to be near the train station, in the middle of the nightlife, or next to a well known temple.

What to do
Kyoto is full of temples, especially in the north-eastern side of the city where they’re lined up along the Philosopher’s Walk. The most famous one include Kinkakuji (with the beautiful Golden Pavilion which seems to levitate over a tranquil pond), Ginkakuji, and Kiyomizu with its high veranda offering a commanding view. Temples can occupy a lot of space, with a Zen garden or lake and several smaller shrines on the same site.
I’d suggest leaving a lot of time for each of the major temples, and expect it to be busy – on my visit to Kinkakuji there were busloads of Junior High school students

It can be refreshing to visit much smaller or less well known temples too, often within a few minutes walk of the major attractions but extremely quiet.
Budget around 600yen for entrance to the famous temples, many of the smaller ones are free to visit but please leave a small donation in the box outside

Nijojo (Nijo Castle) is a wonderfully restored gem near the city centre. Manicured gardens and canals seperate it from the busy roads, and its easy to imagine it during the ______ period where the Toshigawa shogunate ran all of mainland Japan from within its elaborately decorated walls. High points include the screen paintings inside, the corridors of nightingale floors, and the gardens, which were carefully planted to ensure one plant or tree looked its best in each month.

The Imperial Palace is preserved from when the Japanese Emperor resided in Kyoto (the Emperor now lives in central Tokyo)

Gardens are another huge draw to Kyoto. These range from the small but World Heritage certified Ryoanji zen garden, to large painstakingly maintained gardens with snaking paths and multiple viewpoints. Ryoanji is an enclosed dry garden, in which gravel and rocks serve as metaphors, possibly for islands in a vast ocean, although there are many interpretations of it. Although this part is well known, it is surrounded by a wider garden featuring a large lake, forested parts, and several flowering plants. Even people with no interest in gardening can be surprised by the level of dedication it takes to keep these gardens in peak condition – gardeners may pick up leaves individually, or clip the moss on rocks using nail scissors.
Ryoanji’s walled garden is probably the most famous Zen garden in Japan, although the atmosphere of tranquility and meditation can be diluted by swarms of tourists. Try and go during off-peak times to get a better impression

Traditional areas are just fantastic. There’s Gion, the geisha district, with two-storey wooden houses where geishas and their apprentice maikos live and continue traditional arts, such as dancing, plays and playing instruments. There are several walking tours of Gion offered in Japanese and English, and are well worth checking out to gain more knowledge of the area and how geishas lived.

Its more lively neighbour, Pontocho, is a series of inviting narrow streets lined with bars and restaurants, lit by the red lanterns of izakaiyas. Go by day to notice the old style guttering and architecture from when these were houses of working people, or in the evening to really enjoy the nightlife. Or go twice.

Traditional arts are still widely practised in Kyoto. If you can afford it, you can see geisha or maiko performances, attend a tea ceremony, try on a kimono, or try akebane flower arranging.