As autumn lingers around the corner and the temperatures get lower, we can’t help but think of the Land of the Rising Sun for our next vacastion. From north to south, every city in Japan boasts something different. This time we’re landing at Kansai International Airport to embark on our adventure to Kyoto. Here’s where to eat, drink, play and stay in our guide to the historic city of Kyoto.
As we made ourselves comfortable in the Japan Airlines seat, awarded World’s Best Economy Class Airlines for three years, we were already looking forward to the next trip to Kyoto. The old capital of Japan has endless options to offer, whether that be choices for restaurants, bars, or activities. Some parts of the city look like any large metropolitan city with shopping malls and brandname shops, but other areas look like they’ve been frozen from a century ago.
What is Kyoto famous for? This heritage town is filled with more than a thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. It’s also the centre of geisha, the traditional female performance artists in colourful kimonos.
Those are just the tip of the iceberg. The adventure in the thousand-year capital can take days or weeks, and you’ll still find new reasons to stay longer. For starters, consider these hotels, restaurants, bars, and attractions as part of your first itinerary in Kyoto.
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Kyoto travel guide: Where to eat, drink, play, and stay in Kyoto
Where to eat in Kyoto
Koyo in Japanese refers to the colourful leaves during autumn, and that’s pretty much the star of Koyo teppanyaki. Behind the chef who will be flipping his spatulas in front of your counter seat, you will see the mesmerising view of the red, yellow, and orange leaves in the garden of Dusit Thani Kyoto in the autumn. The intimate dining ambiance is enhanced with the delicious set of the teppan omakase dinner, comprising of sautéed golden sea bream, baked lobster, wagyu beef sirloin, and more.
This one-Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant serves Kyoto cuisine in omakase style during lunch and dinner However, the seats are not easy to secure, given that it has only 13 seats in total and was run by the famous chef Masato Miyazawa. As a seasonal kaiseki restaurant, Godan Miyazawa serves different dishes on different days, but their exclusive rice served on three separate bowls is what is raved about the most.
If you need a reason to eat Thai food when you’re in the centre of Kyoto, this is the restaurant that the duo behind Bo.lan devised the concept for. Chefs Bo and Dylan, known for their commitment towards authentic Thai flavours and sustainable cooking, helped build Ayatana, located underground at the Dusit Thani Kyoto. This is where authentic Thai flavours meet Japanese traditions. The rice is a combination of Thai jasmine and Japanese rice. The presentation is delicate. The panang is no-joke spicy, herby, and fragrant. It’s the kind of Thai food you won’t find at home.
Where to drink in Kyoto
Ranking at the 44th spot on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023, Bee’s Knees is a speakeasy fully inspired by the Prohibition era of America. The innocuous yellow door with the bee hides away a world with great cocktails under dim lights. A lot of 1920s influences are also incorporated in the cocktail menu, along with the use of Japanese spirits and organic ingredients.
Once inside L’Escamoteur, you will see all the mixologists and bar staff with high hats. L’Escamoteur often reminds customers of the magic world of Harry Potter, with the idea of the alchemists experimenting, mashing up some mysterious potions for you. Kyoto’s local ingredients such as yuzu, matcha, and regional spirits, are dominant among the menus. Amid the random decor with books, bikes, and hats, live music also takes place on certain days.
In one private and quiet corner of Kyoto, you wouldn’t expect to find an upscale cocktail bar. Den is hidden from the bustling streets of the city and offers only the most creative cocktails amid the mysterious and enticing atmosphere of Dusit Thani Kyoto’s underground floor. With curved ceilings, a dark ambience, and limited seatings, it’s the perfect hangout spot for anybody looking to escape the crowd.
What to do in Kyoto
Though Sanzen-In Temple is located an hour away from central Kyoto, the serenity and greenery inside this sacred place is worth the trip. Sanzen-In Temple is located on the hills of Ohara, where Buddhist sutra chanting known as Shomyo was born. It’s an important temple, as some imperial family members used to serve their priesthood here. The walk up onto the hill, with several adorable miscellaneous and souvenir shops is also an important part of the journey.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Located in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari Shrine is the most important shrine that is dedicated to inari. According to Japanese belief, inari is the Shinto god of rice who is often depicted as a fox. Across the shrine with thousands of red torii gates, you’ll find different gigantic fox statues. The shrine is also famous for its mountain hiking trails.
Gion, also known as the geisha district, is one of the must-visit cultural districts in Kyoto. The area is packed with only traditional wooden machiya merchant houses, and some while serve as residences, a lot are restaurants, bars and teahouses. If you’re lucky, your casual stroll may coincided with a geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices).
Where to stay
This long-familiar Thai hotel brand has opened its first outpost in Japan with the Dusit Thani Kyoto. Surrounded by historic streets in the Gojo area, the hotel also sits very close to two important temples: Higashi Hongan-ji and Nishi Hongan-ji. It’s defined as an urban sanctuary that prioritises privacy and intimacy, shielded from the outside world with a beautiful wooden lattice. Even if your trip has zero itinerary, staying inside Dusit Thani Kyoto alone boasts a range of activities, such as joining the tea ceremony, watching the maiko performance, and relaxing at Devarana Wellness.
Asai Kyoto Shijo acts as a cosy rest point that supports your everyday endeavours in Kyoto. Located in the friendly neighbourhood near Shijo station, the hotel combines locality, functionality, and comfort in its design, from the lantern-inspired lighting to the in-room slippers that resemble the traditional Japanese sandals, geta. Taking a break from the bustling city outside, guests can stop to dine at Soi Gaeng Thai Curry Bar, which serves a range of Thai side dishes paired with Thai-style cocktails, local craft beers, and wines.
In order to enjoy a truly inclusive Kyoto experience, consider booking a ryokan. Ishibekoji Muan is a luxury ryokan with only three different suites. Go for the Hanami if you want that traditional tatami-mate sleeping style. With its location in the Higashiyama neighbourhood, it’s a perfect place if you plan to explore the dining scene and nightlife of Gion.