Friday, 21 Sep 2018

Where to stay in Kyoto, Japan: a neighbourhood guide

The cultural heart of Japan lies in the ancient city of Kyoto.  It’s here, through the veins of cobblestone streets where artisanal shops lead to historic machiya townhouses, bright vermillion torii gates, castles, zen gardens, golden pavilions, and temples. It’s here that you can get closer to understanding the Japanese way of life, there’s no better place to wander, discover, and get lost.

Choosing where to stay while planning your trip to Kyoto can be confusing, but we’re here to help you break down the various neighbourhoods and choose the best place to stay based on your travel style.

Here is where to stay in Kyoto:

  1. Where is the best place to stay in Kyoto?
  2. Kyoto Neighbourhoods
  3. Where to stay in Kyoto for budget travellers
  4. Best Neighbourhood in Kyoto for staying off the beaten path
  5. Best Neighbourhood in Kyoto for food
  6. Best Neighbourhood in Kyoto for being close to the outdoors
  7. Best Neighbourhood in Kyoto for shopping
  8. Best Neighbourhood in Kyoto overall
  9. How to get around Kyoto’s Neighbourhoods

Where is the best place to stay in Kyoto?

Well we’re glad you asked!

As you can tell, Kyoto is broken into many different regions, each with their own unique characteristics and features that make them drastically different and exciting. Even within the various neighbourhoods, some can be broken down further so it’s good to do your research to narrow down what appeals to you.

There are a wide range of accommodations, for a wide range of prices, available in the city that are geared towards visitors from abroad. Depending on your travel style, your needs, and budget, there are also different neighbourhoods to fit the bill.

Kyoto Neighbourhoods

Located in the Kansai region of Japan, Kyoto is a city of close to 1.5 million people and can be broken down into 5 primary districts or neighbourhoods.  These are generalised neighbourhoods that can be further broken down into wards or ku but for the purposes of this guide, we’re keeping it simple.

1. Central/City Centre (Downtown Kyoto)

Anchored around Nij? Castle and Kyoto Station, you’ll find quite the contrast here between the palace grounds, beautiful scenery, and shrines blended with the youthful vibrancy of the shops, restaurants, and nightlife.

Officially the Central district covers a large area that includes both Downtown Kyoto and Kyoto Station.  Its core is a vibrant and young neighbourhood with remnants of its traditional roots.  Roam around and you’ll come across new shopping and entertainment complexes intertwined with famous craft stores, a giant castle, traditional ryokans, and bars frequented by locals.

Notable Highlights:

  • Nijo Castle – One of Kyoto’s most impressive sights, definitely a must-see.
  • Kyoto International Manga Museum – Housed in a former elementary school and always entertaining.
  • Kyoto Station – A train station straight out of the future that features Isetan department store, a shopping arcade, restaurants, public spaces, and rooftop plaza
  • Shin-Puh-Kan – A telephone company converted into an open stage for concerts, and filled with shops and restaurants
  • Nishiki Market – A large local market full of traditional foods
  • Pontocho Alley – Kyoto’s most famous street for nightlife

where to stay in Kyoto - Kyoto Station

Kyoto Station

2. Higashiyama (Eastern Kyoto)

This is the district between the Kamo River and the must-visit temples that line the mountains of Higashiyama.  This is where you’ll undoubtedly spend most of your time in Kyoto.  The geisha district of Gion can also be found here.

East of the Kamo River is Higashiyama. It boasts the largest number of unmissable temples and shrines in the city.  Walk along the perfectly preserved lanes that truly give you sense of what it was like to live in Japan during the Edo period.  Temple and shrine hop while you’re here and pick up souvenirs and snacks along the way in the many stalls that line the alleys.

The famed geisha district is also here.  This is your chance to catch a glimpse of a real-life geisha in the evening, just don’t expect them to pose for you if you’re trying to take a photo.  If you come here, make sure not to miss a street called Shimbashi-dori, it follows the canal and is said to be one of the most beautiful streets in all of Asia.

Notable Highlights:

  • Kiyomizu-dera Temple – A large iconic temple with a great view of the city down below.
  • Kodai-ji Temple – Often less visited but equally beautiful with its garden and tea house.
  • Chion-in Temple – A massive Buddhist temple that features a grand san-mon gate and main hall.
  • Maruyama-koen Park – The perfect place to take a break as you’re exploring the area.
  • The Kyoto National Museum – If you’re interested in Japanese art, make sure to spend some time here.
  • The Path of Philosophy – This path follows a stream and is lined with cherry blossom trees.  Come here for a relaxing stroll and visit one of the several cafes
  • Gion – The traditional entertainment district where you’ll find geisha silently shuffling through.  It is especially fascinating to walk through after dinner

where to stay in Kyoto - Higashiyama

Higashiyama

3. Arashiyama (Western Kyoto)

At the outskirts of the city and set against tree-covered hills, this is the area made famous by its tall bamboo groves, monkey park, and Hanami cherry blossom viewing vistas.  It is also an area rich in historic wonders that aren’t on most people’s itinerary

Arashiyama is on the western outskirts of Kyoto and tucked along the base of the Arashiyama Mountains.  It’s not somewhere that’s walkable so you’ll most likely have to take a train out here.  The trip is worth it though as it is packed with incredible sights.

None is as famous as the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove where you get a chance to walk along a path while surrounded by stalks of bamboo that soar to the sky.  Once you’re done here, you can get up close to monkeys at a hilltop park, eat a traditional Buddhist meal, pick a few temples to wander through, or even rent a boat.

Notable Highlights:

  • Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – A photogenic and awe-inspiring trail that will have you looking to the sky the entire time.
  • Tenryu-ji Temple – A sprawling temple with a gorgeous zen garden and breathtaking mountain vistas.
  • Kameyama-koen Park – A great way to get away from the tourist crowds and hang out with a few monkeys.
  • Arashiyama Boat Rental – One of the best ways to see Arashiyama is by drifting down the riverbank in a row boat.
  • Shigetsu – Inside the grounds of Tenryu-ji Temple, Shigetsu is a great place to try traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine, also known as shojin-ryori.

where to stay in Kyoto - Arashiyama - bamboo

Arashiyama

?: @thevisualiza

4. Northern Kyoto

Leafy landscapes, majestic temples, and zen gardens characterise this part of Kyoto.  The star of the show is the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji.  Originally built as a retirement villa for a shogun, it was later converted to a temple his son.  Gilded in gold, it is quite the striking sight to see it perfectly reflected by the lake in front and in between the delicate moss garden.

A short walk away is Ryaon-ji which is a nice pairing to Kinkaku-ji and quite the contrast.  Here, you’ll find 15 carefully placed rocks on a sea of gravel in this rock zen garden.

Beyond these sights, this district boasts some of the city’s best hot springs and family-run restaurants so once you finish at the crowded Kinkaku-ji, find your own corner of harmony in an area mostly for locals.

Notable Highlights:

  • Kinkaku-ji – Te-ple of the Golden Pavilion that is worth seeing even if the crowds are heavy
  • Ryoan-ji Temple – If there’s one zen garden you need to see, it’s this one
  • Enryaku-ji – High up on the north east corner of Kyoto is this gem of a monastery located on Mount Hiei that you have to hike to see
  • Kyoto Gosho (Kyoto Imperial Palace) – The Emperor’s official residence in Kyoto that has been meticulously reconstructed

where to stay in Kyoto - Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji

?: @diklein

5. Southern Kyoto

The most notable sight you’ll want to see here is Fushimi Inari, which has routes that are heavy with tourists and others that are more off the tourist trail. Come here to enjoy nature, explore the outdoors, pay your respects, and get your steps in.

This region covers the far southern end of the Higashiyama Mountains and it’s here where you’ll find the mesmerizing Fushimi-Inari-Taisha shrine dedicated to the Japanese fox goddess. Stretching 230 meters up the mountain are thousands of red torii gates that create visually stunning tunnels that are photogenic no matter what angle you take.  Hike up the mountain in a choose-your-own-adventure path to eventually get to the summit for awesome views of the city.

Beyond this wonderland of torii shrine gates, there’s also the Tofuku-ji Temple which has the advantage of not being as crowded and has plenty of subtemples to explore.

Notable Highlights:

  • Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine – Memoirs of a Geisha was filmed here and is absolutely stunning to walk through
  • Tofuku-ji Temple – Large temple complex with many beautiful gardens that surround it.  Connected to the Fushimi Inari grounds which make it an easy companion to the famous shrine.
  • Sennyu-ji Temple – A hidden temple in the mountains that is worth visiting if you have time in Southern Kyoto

where to stay in Kyoto - Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine

Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine

 

Where to stay in Kyoto for budget travellers

If you take a look at the map of hostels in Kyoto, most of them are clustered in the Central part of the city. A majority of these are closer to the Kyoto Station area.  This makes the hostels super convenient to get to and to travel around from. Central Kyoto has a variety of property styles, each at a great price; there are traditional hostels, traditional Japanese inns called ryokans, guest houses, pod hotels, and bed & breakfasts that start as low as $20.

Check out Piece Hostel Kyoto for a beautiful place to stay, at an affordable price, with tons to do all around around, just a short walk from Kyoto Station.

where to stay in Kyoto - Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle

Best neighbourhood in Kyoto for staying off the beaten path

If your goal is to be away from the hordes of tourists and somewhere that’ll make you feel like you’re living more like a local, Northern Kyoto is a great choice as it puts you in the same district as Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji Temple, site of the famous zen rock garden. While the main sites can be crowded, there are many more sights to see beyond these two highlights; spend some time discovering the lesser known shrines and temples. Rent a bike or take a local bus and start exploring! This area is also primarily residential which means you’ll be dining with locals and you might have to work on your Japanese.

Hostel WASABI Kyoto Machiya Soba is the perfect hostel to get away from the tourist traffic and have a relaxing, authentic experience in a remodelled Japanese home.

Best neighbourhood in Kyoto for food

No surprise here, Central is your best bet for food.  More specifically, Pontocho Alley is quite the star attraction that runs parallel with Kamo River along the western bank.  With an impressive line up of bars and restaurants, there is a lot to choose from.  If you can’t find something you fancy there, Kiyamachi street or near the Kawaramachi-Shiji Dori intersection will have what you’re looking for; it isn’t called the Downtown Kyoto sub-district for nothing!

A few favourites to check out are Ippudo Ramen for some world-famous ramen, Toriyasu for oyako-don (chicken and egg on rice), Kane-yo for unagi (eel), and Ganko Sushi for reasonably priced sushi.

The Prime Pod Kyoto is perfect for all the foodies as it’s only a short walk to Pontocho Alley and all the delicacies that accompany it ?.

where to stay in Kyoto - Pontocho Alley

Pontocho Alley

?: @florian_jg_pagano

Best neighbourhood in Kyoto for being close to the outdoors

Fushimi Inari in Southern Kyoto is a great place to situate yourself if you’re a lover of the outdoors. The thousands of vermilion torii gates stretching in front of you like a tunnel is the single most impressive sight to see in Kyoto and is also pleasantly uncrowded. Mount Fushimi is a fantastic place to hike and the secondary trails are a great way to take the path less travelled. Tofuku-ji Temple is also nearby and offers a relaxing zen rock garden.

Mosaic Hostel Kyoto is the place to be if you’re after green space instead of city sprawl.

Best neighbourhood in Kyoto for shopping

It should be no surprise that central, more specifically Downtown Kyoto, is where all the shopping action is.  Be on the look out for Shinkyogoku which is a typical Japanese covered shopping arcade filled with everything from souvenir shops, mega department stores, enchanting cafes, boutiques, and outdoor concert spaces.

Something you don’t want to miss is Nishiki Market which is often referred to as “Kyoto’s pantry”.  Here you’ll find the best traditional food in the city and locals selling everything from just-fried foods, dried fish, and fragrant spices.

Don’t be afraid to fan out from the main Shinkyogoku area as the shopping continues in another arcade called Teramachi, and giant department stores, Daimaru and Takashiyama.

Centurion Cabin & Spa Kyoto is a luxury hostel near Shinkyogoku that offers great access to shopping and other central amenities. You’ll be right in the action!

where to stay in Kyoto - Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market

Best neighbourhood in Kyoto overall

You’ve probably noticed a pattern at this point.  Ultimately, staying as close to transit, restaurants, and nightlife as possible is going to make your life a lot easier.  It is really hard to beat being close to the train station in the Central district.  This means that you’ll be able to walk to your accommodations once you get off the Shinkansen bullet train, and you’ll also be walking distance to the main bus terminal which is incidentally also right outside the main station.

Since cabs are expensive, you’ll be either relying on your feet or public transit.  What’s great about being by the train station is that almost all trains start and end there so the chances of getting lost are low. You’ll also be in the middle of the city, so you’re not far off from all the attractions of Kyoto.

Staying close to the train station also means that you’re close enough to the action in Downtown Kyoto without living right along the main drag.

where to stay in Kyoto - Kyoto Palace

How to get around Kyoto’s Neighbourhoods

Kyoto has numerous transportation options to get you from any part of the city you want to get to. Public transit is fast and efficient and since the city doesn’t have too many changes in elevation, it’s also a very walkable and bikeable city as well. Similar to any other big city, things can get a little confusing when it comes to getting around so it’s best you know your options to help you decide which mode of transportation to take.

1.Trains

From bullet trains to local trains, there’s are a multitude of lines that run through the city.  For this guide, let’s focus on how to visit some of the main attractions once you’re in the city already.

Arashiyama is one of the neighbourhoods that is further away from central Kyoto, making the train the ideal way to travel there. If you have a JR Pass, you’ll want to use the JR Sagano-San’in Line which connects Kyoto with Arashiyama.  Alternatively, there’s also the Hankyu and Keifuku Line which are separate, private train companies that pass through Arashiyama Station.

Southern Kyoto is also a bit further out but worth the trip to see Fushimi-Inari-Taisha and Tofuku-ji. Keihan Line is your best bet to get you down there!

Note that if you’re taking a private line train, the stations will not be at the main Kyoto station which is serviced by JR.  This is an advantage because you can find a stop that’s even more central in the city.

where to stay in Kyoto - Train Kyoto

2. Subways

This may add to the confusion but Kyoto also has it’s own underground subway.  There are only two lines and so the reach is limited but if you need to go north-south and east-west, this may be a great option for you.

If you plan wisely, subways can really save you a lot of money and time.  They’re also much easier to figure out than the buses and trains and certainly cheaper than taxis.

Review the English PDF of the Kyoto subway to see where all the stations are overlaid with the JR train lines.

Note that JR passes are accepted in the subway as well.

where to stay in Kyoto - Subway Kyoto

3. Buses

Kyoto’s bus system is extensive and thorough in coverage throughout the city.  The challenge is that they’re not the easiest to figure out on the fly because of the lack of English.  Our recommendation is to make use of the English bus route map which breaks down the main sights and what bus numbers to take.

The main takeaway for buses is that you’ll need to do your research beforehand.  Getting on at Kyoto Station is the easiest because all the buses pass by it and there will be plenty of people to answer your questions in case you’re lost.

4. Taxis

Taxis are always available in a pinch.  As you’d expect, prices for cabs are a bit higher in Kyoto, but if you are able to split it between 3 or 4 people you can get decent value.  Where they have the advantage is in efficiency as you can cover ground quickly and get directly to where you need to go without transferring.

Having the names of the places you want to go in Japanese ahead of time will be very helpful so that you can show your taxi driver on paper or on your phone.

5. Bicycle

Kyoto is an extremely bike friendly city because of how flat the terrain is.  Bicycles are readily available to rent in the city and can be a great way to explore the city.

where to stay in Kyoto - Bikes Kyoto

6. Walking

Last but not least are your own two feet.  If you stay around the central neighbourhood of Higashiyama you will be more than capable of walking to all the major sights, in fact you’ll probably get more out of your experience if you walk! Again, the city is mostly flat so you don’t have to worry about getting stuck climbing a massive hill,  just make sure you have a map with you so you don’t get lost!

So there you have it, all the neighbourhoods of Kyoto broken down, highlighted, and explained by travel preferences. With a countless number of cultural heritage sites scattered all over the city’s distinct districts and each with their own distinctive flavour and ambience, there’s really no wrong answer to where you should explore and where to stay in Kyoto.

Find a cheap hostel in Kyoto

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Will is the Chief of Awesome over at Going Awesome Places which is focused on his off-the-beaten-path and experiential travel. His true passion lies in telling stories, inspiring others to travel, writing detailed trip itineraries to help others plan their own trips, and providing helpful tips and tricks to travel better.

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