Kyoto is a mere two and a half hours by bullet train from Tokyo, but it feels ages apart. While Tokyo pulsates in the future, Kyoto gladly embraces Japan’s past. It is the perfect place to enjoy the beauty of the gardens, parks, mountains, temples and indulge in a hot bath at a traditional ryokan, the Japanese-style hotel.
The Nozomi bullet train runs in 15 to 20-minute intervals from Tokyo to Kyoto and makes very few stops in between. You could go for a day trip, but try sleeping at least one night in the ancient capital. If you have more time, even better.
There are several Western-style hotels in Kyoto, some incredibly fantastic such as the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons or the Hyatt Regency. But since you are in a historic town, why not take the chance and embrace the Japanese culture by staying at a ryokan, where you will have the opportunity to sleep in a tatami and take those deep hot baths in the onsen.
I’ve stayed at the Ryokan Shinmonso years ago and liked it a lot. It was renovated lately, so I believe it is even better than before. The last time I chose the Yuzuya, a bit more upscale and better located (I was with my parents). Both were in Gion, the historic quarters of the city. But it does not matter the hotel since the Japanese are incredible hosts and cleanliness is the norm anywhere. There is one place that is not so central (because it is south of the train station) but incredibly cool, the Anteroom and next time I will definitely stay there (there is a great bar and several concerts at the hotel).
In Kyoto you have to be ready to walk a lot, so wear comfortable shoes. Ideally, you can rent a bike. Most of the attractions are temples that are quite far apart from each other and my must-sees are Sanjusangendo (for its 1001 Buddha statues), the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, the mountain temples of Kiyomizu-dera and the impressive roof of the Nijo Castle. There are many others, some quite impressive, others less so, and you can visit them all, depending on how much time and energy you have. However, another paramount visit is the Imperial Palace (this has to be booked in advance).
Start exploring the Gion area. Walk along the narrow streets and the canal. If you are lucky, you will see geishas walking around. The main street of Shijo-dori has traditional shops and restaurants on both sides and ends at the beautiful Yasaka Shrine. Across the river, running along its banks, you will visit Kiya-machi-dori with plenty of Japanese restaurants, many with breathtaking river views where you can experience a traditional kaiseki meal. The Kiln is a good choice.
The Nishiki Market is a bustling area with shops and restaurants of all kinds. It gets very busy, and I prefer walking its side streets for pleasant surprises. There are usually independent stores and small cafés a few blocks away from the main covered arcade. Little by little you start getting the hang of the city and will discover that there is plenty to see everywhere. Many of the stores from Tokyo have a branch in Kyoto, so do not be surprised to see Muji, Uniqlo, Takashimaya, Loft, Graniph and so on. Explore, walk, get lost and tell me what you find out.