As difficult as Tokyo can be to cope with, Kyoto is easy. Shopping is breezy, the city is simple to navigate and the visuals really make you feel like you are in Japan. All the big department stores and multiples have a branch here, but there are scads of little shops featuring foodstuffs, crafts, accessories and hair doo-dahs, antiques and all the other goodies you came to buy.
Kyoto is a city where part of the experience of your visit is to visit the shrines. Even if your favorite shrine is the 100 Yen Shop, pull on your obi and get out your wallet… it’s time for a feast. As the capital of Japan for ten centuries, and as a city that was not heavily bombed during World War II, Kyoto is the fairyland where you step back into time.
Thanks to the bullet train from Tokyo Station, you can be in Kyoto in two and a half hours. While technically you can do this as a day trip, don’t go that route. There’s so much to do and see and shop in Kyoto that you need to spend at least one night and preferably seven. You may just want to move here.
The price of your train ticket from Tokyo is based on the speed of the train—the fastest of the fast trains is called the Nozomi and fare is approximately $150 per person each way. Since there are about ten trains from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station in an hour, you shouldn’t have much trouble booking one. We asked the concierge at the Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo to get our tickets, but it would have been easy to buy them at Tokyo Station.
Enroute to Kyoto, we passed through beautiful countryside and mountains and paddies and even saw the sea once past Yokohama. We got out at Kyoto Station and immediately fell into one of the retail stores in the station -- it was so cute and so crammed with attractive merchandise that we needed and gained a quick fix.
After a drive through beautiful downtown Kyoto , we arrived at the Okura Hotel Kyoto. I’ve stayed at this hotel on all of my visits to Kyoto because of its perfect location—walking distance to just about everything, just down the street from the main shopping districts and right above a metro station. I’d say there is not a more perfect place. Rooms are large and there’s free Wi-Fi. The hotel has a grand lobby and many restaurants. If you don’t have breakfast included in your room rate, note that there is a café, The Cascade Café, in the sub-basement that makes the best croissants outside of France. Next to the Cascade there’s a mini-mart so you can get bottled water and snacks for your room.
More hotel options:
While several of the big name chains have hotels in town, most of the choices are perhaps names you don’t recognize. I’ve heard from others that the Regency Kyoto Hyatt is considered a glam choice, with a famous Japanese restaurant on premises. . The Japanese upmarket hotel chain Nikko does have a hotel here; this is the Hotel Nikko Princess, right in the heart of town. The ANA Hotel Kyoto is a large modern hotel right near the Castle—some rooms have castle views—with lovely touches that make this a good choice. There’s a free shuttle bus to and from the train station and there are several restaurants on premises. I compare this hotel to an InterConti although they are not really related. This is not a brilliant location for strolling and shopping, but is central enough for getting around easily. Note that Peninsula, Four Seasons and InterConti do not have hotels in Kyoto
There are also assorted Japanese style inns, which many people find is part of the charm of a visit back in time. Kyoto is one giant tourist destination and hotels do sell out, especially at peak vacation times. Book as far ahead as possible.
You can walk to most places in Kyoto and most hotels will hand out free walking maps. Sensible shoes are to be encouraged. Note that if you are wearing geta (Japanese platform flip-flop sandals) you will not be able to walk very far.
Taxis are slightly less expensive than in Tokyo. Once you get to the old parts of town, there is a one-way system that may make you feel that your driver is cheating you.
The subway system is easy to use and efficient, although it may not get you everywhere you want to go or you may have to walk a good deal to get to a station and to your destination from a station. Look for a hotel that is convenient to a subway stop, just to cover the bases.
EATING IN KYOTO
Like all of Japan, Kyoto is expensive. It’s also touristy. All hotels have restaurants; there is also a large district of bars and cafes near the bridges on the western side of town. Note how popular Indian food is.
Pizza Salvatore - We had an unexpectedly great meal at Pizza Salvatore on the day when we couldn’t stand to eat Japanese food any more. It’s right near the Kamo River, one block from the Okura Hotel. This pizza place is famous and has another branch called Kitchen Salvatore above the train station.
Teppanyaki Restaurant Tokiwa - We had one of the best meals of the trip in this steakhouse in the Okura Hotel. If you’re craving teppanyaki, look no more... We ordered a combo dinner and total tab per person (including a glass of wine) was about $100.
Loft Noodle - The real name of this fabulous noodle cafeteria is in Japanese; I call it Loft Noodle because it is quite close to the Loft department store on the main shopping street. When you enter, you get in line—you can watch noodles being made as you move forward. Then you point to the way you want the noodles, the soup and what you want in it or on top of it—there’s veggies or tempura choices and seasonings. You carry your own tray to the rear to sit down to eat and bus your tray when you are done. Lunch per person is less than $10. This is a must do place in a great shopping shopping location right on Kawaramachi Street.
Tomorrow: Shopping Kyoto