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Kyoto - Gion
Photograph: Unsplash/SorasakKyoto - Gion

Kyoto Guide: Best things to do, eat and stay

We explore post-pandemic Kyoto and uncover new gems that are worth your trip

Dawson Tan
Written by
Dawson Tan

Kyoto stands as a city of timeless beauty. What was once the capital of Japan is now a place where ancient traditions and modern wonders coexist. Hike across the picturesque landscapes of Arashiyama, jaunt the labyrinthine streets of Gion, discover hidden shrines and enchanting gardens, or journey the sacred paths once walked by emperors and poets. Whatever you do, Kyoto calls upon your spirit to embark on an unforgettable journey.

Whether it’s your umpteen time or the first time visiting, here's our post-pandemic guide to the best things to do, eat, and drink in the Eternal City. 

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Best things to do

Journey west to Arashiyama

Start early with a brisk hike in one of Kyoto’s unmissable sights, the Arashiyama Bamboo Groove. Immerse yourself amongst the towering stalks of bamboo and clean fresh air. Along the Sagano walking path, you will soon stumble upon Nonomiya Jinja, a small shrine with plenty of history.

Here, you will find many native Japanese couples or singles coming to seek a blessing for love. After all, it enshrines Shirafuku Inari Daimyōjin, a matchmaking deity. Meander around the property and you might uncover a charming moss garden around the back away from the crowds.

Don’t miss out on Tenryu-ji Temple, which is right around the corner. Ranked first among the city's five great Zen temples, the world cultural heritage site houses a legendary painting of a striking cloud dragon on the ceiling of the Dharma Hall. Head out back and you’ll find yourself in the alluring Sogenchi Garden, one of Japan’s oldest gardens kept unchanged since the 14th century.

Flanked by Mount Arashi as the backdrop, the lush landscape makes it one of the best sights to witness, especially during spring and autumn. Consider walking the sacred grounds where you’ll be treated to verdant greenery and dainty flora and fauna.

Explore the streets of Gion

Touted as the Geisha district, Gion is a time capsule that reminisces the best of old Japan regardless of night and day. It is studded with many interesting souvenir shops, snack stops, and of course, traditional ryokans (small Japanese inns). The busy Hanamikoji Street is where you’ll find some of the most exquisite dining experiences while the Shirakawa area offers dreamy canal views flanked by willow trees.

For the Yasaka shrine and pagoda, you’ll need to traipse along Higashiyama District. There you’ll also find the world’s first and only Tatami-floored Starbucks hidden in one of the Machiyas (traditional Japanese houses). As for the chance encounter with geishas, it goes without saying to be respectful and avoid harassing them for photos.


Enjoy tea and wagashi in a traditional tea ceremony

Ground yourself for a zen-induced tea ceremony session at the stately quarters of Yuuhisai Koudoukan. The wooden structure dates back to the Meiji era and today, it has become a learning institution that honours the way of tea. Tea Master Toru-san journeys you into his peaceful moss garden where you’ll set foot on stone paths to a bamboo waiting alcove. The ceremony is set to impart the ways of tea to all guests with wagashi (assorted handmade treats) as accompaniments.

Each drinkware is specially picked by Toru-san as he shares the lineage of each cup. Who knows? You might very well be using the same cup Roger Federer, David Beckham or even the Queen of England used when they were here.

Enjoy a leisurely hike at Fushimi Inari Taisha

One of Kyoto’s most beautiful sights to see, this ultimate Torii gate destination is home to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. The main shrine area is a spectacle in its own right so make a stop to wander the grounds before embarking on the forest trail upwards Mount Inari. Expect massive crowds and a sea of cameras at the beginning of the trail where the Torii gates are densest.

As you ascend, you’ll find souvenir shops, teahouses, and restaurants until you reach the Yotsutsuji intersection where there is a beautiful viewpoint of Kyoto city. Those looking to reach the summit can continue with the circular trail where you’ll immerse yourself in the true tranquil nature of the forested area of the mountain.

Rule of thumb – the farther you go, the lesser the crowd. There are moments when you’ll be in the company of a skulk of fox statues (Inari’s messengers) and no one else. After, hit up Vermillion cafe at the end of the trail to refuel with artisanal coffee overlooking lush greenery.


Catch the perfect sunset at Kiyomizu-Dera

If there is one sight-seeing spot you can’t miss, it is this. And don’t let the 400 yen (S$3.90) entry fee dissuade you. Known as the pure water temple, the magnificent Kiyomizu-Dera is built on a cliff without the use of a single nail and dates back to 778 AD. Make a quick prayer in the main shrine and head to the viewpoint that offers mesmerising aerial views of Kyoto city, especially during sundown. The leisurely trail will then take you downstream to Otowa Waterfall where you can drink from and is said to bring good fortune.

Plan a pub crawl in Pontocho Alley

Venture into the cobblestoned alley of Pontocho, where ancient wooden facades and lantern-lit doorways beckon you to immerse yourself in its spirited embrace. Follow the melody of glasses clinking, and salivate over the alluring char from sizzling yakitori joints leading you into the vibrant tapestry of izakayas, cocktail bars, and hidden joints – all amidst the cackle from the inebriated.

In summer (May to September), restaurants on the Eastern bank will open up the Kawayuka (temporary platforms) overlooking the Kamo River for guests to enjoy some alfresco dining as well as to beat the heat.


Channel your inner artist practising the art of Ikebana

There’s no better place to practise the over 500-year-old art of Ikebana than at its birthplace. At the Ikenobo headquarters, adjacent to Rokkakudo Temple, one-time sessions start from just 6,000 yen (S$58.20). Get in touch with the history and different styles of Ikebana (Rikka, Shoka, and Modern Free Style) that evolved through time. Your canvas isn’t just about using up those lovely flower bouquets, it includes the use of even the buds, branches, and leaves. All you need to do is to surrender your consciousness to your creativity and find your flow. The rest will follow.

Best places to eat


Escape from the bustle of the busy Hanamikoji Street of Gion and retreat into the tranquil quarters of Tsudaro. Here, an unforgettable traditional kaiseki meal awaits you. Indulge in peak-season seafood and vegetable produce artfully presented in a nine-course series. The spring harvest is best represented with the Hassun (tray of assorted starters) which features firefly squid, sea bream roe, sweet snap pea, fruit tomatoes and baby peaches.

The course segues into heartier plates that include the must-have Kyoto yuba (beancurd skin), fresh sashimi, grilled seafood, steamed vegetables, soup and of course, dessert. What’s left to say? There’s really nothing like indulging in a traditional kaiseki meal in Gion, Kyoto.

AFTER And if you’re still harbouring thoughts over a second dessert, head around the complex to Kyo-Kinana, an artisanal Kinako (soybean) ice cream shop for one of the best parfaits in Japan.

Kyo Unawa

A stone's throw away from Nishiki market, this eel specialist is one not to be missed. And reservations are a must. The garden entrance with lush foliage screams Kyoto but quickly turns modern with booth seats in the comfortable dining hall. Here, Kansai-style grilled eel is served which means it doesn’t involve steaming.

Everything is done by the grill and the result is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Each eel order comes fresh and meticulously prepared to ensure you get clean-tasting meat without a muddy funk. It also comes with a set of the tastiest pickled radish that helps to refresh the palate for the next bite. For the brave, there are grilled eel offals to tickle your fancy.

AFTER Check out Nishiki Market or do some souvenir shopping in the Sanjo-kai Shotengai Shopping Arcade.



This unassumingly understated soba shop is one that most would simply walk past without batting an eyelid. But what lies inside is a stand-and-eat dining experience unlike any other. Inspired by the owner’s trip to the Kanto region, the intentional unfinished space gives a rustic feel with two giant unevenly sculpted structures anchoring the space. And yes, you’ll be eating on those structures.

The soba here comes silky soft coupled with a delicate dashi-based soup flavoured with kelp and bonito. The extremely slurp-worthy bowls all come with unique seasonal toppings from springy Nameko mushrooms to a plump tempura crab stick. Definitely reach out for the housemade tangy harissa chilli to add some spice and tickle your tastebuds.

AFTER Cross the river to explore Gion at night and look out for geishas.

Grill Hasegawa

Possibly the most authentic Japanese hamburger steak experience you’ll find in Kyoto. Make your way to the peaceful Kita District and you’ll find a line outside this popular Western Japanese restaurant favoured by locals. Orders are taken at the door where the queue starts. The rustic tavern is known for its quick but warm service and you can most certainly ask for an English menu.

Once seated, your plate will promptly arrive like clockwork. Sink your teeth into a perfectly charred hamburger with a soft juicy centre while the tangy tomato sauce awakes your tastebuds. Crunch into strips of pork cutlets or giant shrimp on the side. The accompaniments are a simple fare of pasta, rice and salad but they are no less satisfying.

AFTER Head across the street to a hole-in-a-wall coffee shop, Wife and Husband, for a cup of coffee. And if it is crowded, take a leisurely stroll along the Kamo River.


Nishiki Market

You would think to hit up Kyoto’s Kitchen bright and early but you won’t have to. After all, it only comes alive after 10 in the morning. Start your day off with a sumptuous breakfast as you snack and stroll along the 400-metre-long foodie haven packed with over 130 vendors. Feast to your heart’s content with the abundance of fresh seafood, pickled assortments, dried goods, and sweet treats.

A few must-visit spots include Sengyo Kimura, the oldest stall in the market known for marinated fish sticks, Uoriki to try the fried pike conger from this small seafood shop that opened in 1919, and Yubakichi, best known for Kyoto yuba and tofu products.

AFTER Continue feasting at Takashimaya Depa-Chika (department store basement floor)

Where to stay

Hilton Garden Inn Kyoto Shijo Karasuma

One of the best things about this brand-new property is its close proximity to popular tourist attractions from Nishiki Food Market to Gion (both 10 minutes on foot). A savvy choice for time-pressed travellers or those who have a long bucket list to check off.

The stylish property boasts 250 spacious rooms in nine different configurations that are fitted with every modern amenity you’ll require. As you step into the bright yet cosy space, fret not about not knowing a single word of Japanese as you’ll be greeted by a cheerful team that is fluent in English, French, German and Mandarin.

The interiors of the property are locale-inspired featuring intricate Japanese wood details, soft-coloured walls with green accents, and art installations that mimic the beauty of Matsubara pine trees. Then there’s the interconnectivity of the lobby, restaurant and bar which welcomes guests with an inviting sense of openness.

At Together & Co, the all-day dining restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the streets of Karasuma. Perfect for people watching during meal times over tasty creations made from seasonal Kyoto produce paired with local libations.

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