Kyoto Travel Guide
Visit Japan and one of the first things you’ll notice is the country’s intense cultural duality. High-speed trains, flashing neon lights and a futuristic skyline set the scene in Tokyo, the country’s mecca of modernity. In stark contrast, Kyoto remains the cultural capital of the archipelago, perfect preservation of traditional Japan. Here, elegant geishas amble along cobbled roads before disappearing into wooden teahouses. Fragrant incense wafts from within centuries-old temples. Tranquil Zen gardens provide moments for relaxation and contemplation. It’s classical Japanese heritage in a nutshell—and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. Given Kyoto served as Japan’s historic capital for over 1,000 years, this cultural cred doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Neither, then, should Kyoto’s vibrant local cuisine and thriving arts and crafts scene that showcase Japan’s globally admired flavours and handicrafts. And while Kyoto might keep one foot rooted in the past, the city has a significant gay community that follows suit with Japan’s reputation as a leader for gay rights in Asia. Discover the best of this spellbinding destination with our ultimate gay Kyoto guide.
The best hotels in Kyoto
From peaceful, tatami-mat adorned ryokans (Japanese inns) to modern hotels with Western amenities, any stay in Kyoto promises a memorable encounter with omotenashi—Japan’s unique approach to hospitality. There are, however, a few hotels that stand out from the rest and must be included in any Kyoto gay city guide. One such is Suiran, a Luxury Collection Hotel tucked away in scenic Arashiyama on the western outskirts of Kyoto. Natural wooden accents, shoji screen doors and healing hot spring baths (onsens) showcase authentic ryokan characteristics, while marble-topped vanities, oversized walk-in showers, and complimentary high-speed wifi ensure a five-star luxe getaway. Many of the 39 guest rooms also feature lovely mountain and Hozu river views. For an even more traditional getaway, Yoshida-sanso is the obvious choice. This expertly preserved piece of Japanese architecture dates back to 1932 when it was constructed as the imperial home of Prince Higashi-Fushimi. Today, the family-run guest house retains the building’s original grandeur while offering a veritable ryokan stay, complete with customary futon bedding, tatami floors, and sweeping Mt. Daimonji views. Attention to detail is next-level, from the welcome sweets and tea to the hand-written calligraphy notes to the perfectly manicured rock garden.
Hotel Kanra Kyoto translates to ‘experience Kyoto,’ a title perfectly befitting this elegant 68-room hotel
Hotel Kanra Kyoto translates to ‘experience Kyoto,’ a title perfectly befitting this elegant 68-room hotel. The design is inspired by machiya, a Kyoto architectural style similar to wooden townhouses. Each room at Kanra Kyoto varies in style, but all are chic spaces with mosaic tiles, cypress tubs, and local Japanese pottery. Of particular note are the copper-topped Tamatebako, in-room gift boxes filled with local crafts and sweets. A worthy splurge is the Kanra Spa, where classic Japanese methods and ingredients take centre-stage. In the heart of sought-after Gion, Kyoto’s famed geisha district is The Celestine Kyoto Gion. An elegant mezzanine descends to a smart reception, where contemporary design elements take the limelight. Rooms are minimalist but comfortable, with made-in-Japan Imabari towels and yukata robes. Instead of a spa, hit up the public onsen, open until 2 am.
A much-anticipated addition to the Kyoto hotel scene, the stunning Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel Kyoto Premier sits alongside the Kamogawa River, just steps from both downtown Sanjo-dori Street and lively Pontocho Street. The decor is modern Japanese with top-quality details, and rooms are quite large given the hotel’s prime location. Of particular note is the gorgeous garden designed by world-renowned Mr. Kazuyuki Ishihara, an idyllic spot to reset after a day of Kyoto sightseeing. A public bathhouse and Japanese-French fusion restaurant round out the offerings.
Tofuku-ji is one of Kyoto’s largest temples, a timeless oasis of moss-covered walls that radiate serenity and calmness
Things to do in Kyoto
Home to 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, visiting sacred architecture is a must on any Kyoto travel guide. The harder question then becomes choosing which of the temples and shrines to prioritize. Start at one of the most famous, The Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji.) This iconic Kyoto landmark gets undeniably busy, but the shimmering gold pavilion reflecting in the tranquil pond below is a genuinely stunning Kyoto point of interest. Tofuku-ji is one of Kyoto’s largest temples, a timeless oasis of moss-covered walls that radiate serenity and calmness. The temple is particularly magical when colourful autumn leaves adorn the backdrop. Ryoanji Temple is famed for its puzzling rock garden, of which the origins remain unknown. Before you’re full “templed-out,” hop on the train to Fushimi Inari Taisha to encounter thousands of vibrant orange torii gates snaking their way through the forest and up into the mountains. From here, head to The Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, easily one of the oldest art museums in all of Japan. Extensive renovations terminating in 2020 will combine the storied past of the museum with modern, state-of-the-art features. In addition to extensive Japanese exhibitions, the museum also regularly hosts free performances and shows.
Kyoto is as charming as can be any time of year, but for a captivating look at how Kyoto’s rich past lives on today, plan your visit around one of the city’s dozens of festivals. One of our favourites is Toka Ebisu, held every 8th-12th of January. During these days, locals pray to Ebisu-san, the god of prosperity, by ringing bells and banging their fists. It’s thought Ebisu-san is hard of hearing, so expect a riotous good time trying to get the god’s attention. Then there’s the Gion Matsuri Festival. Dating back to the 6th century, the festival originated as a way to purify the city and thus escape fires, floods, and earthquakes. The festival lasts all of July, culminating with parades of exquisitely decorated floats and local musicians, accompanied by lines of food stalls serving up treasured street snacks.
Traditional tea ceremonies remain a vital component of Japanese culture, fusing the art of omotenashi with “The Way of Tea”
Traditional tea ceremonies remain a vital component of Japanese culture, fusing the art of omotenashi with “The Way of Tea.” One of the best ways to take part in the ritual is via Tea Ceremony Koto, just a stone’s throw from The Golden Pavilion. Here, tea master Rie Kuranaka takes guests on a journey of the five senses with an in-depth matcha tea demonstration, culminating in the opportunity to try your hand at the cherished custom. Many tourists amble around Gion in hopes of spotting a red-lipped geisha strolling past, but a much more rewarding experience is a private dinner with geisha entertainment. Far removed from a kitschy tourist trap, this is a captivating encounter with a geisha artist in a tea house that is typically inaccessible to the general public. A bilingual translator ensures you depart from the upscale experience with a deep appreciation for these long romanticized entertainers.
What to see in Kyoto
We get it—after exploring Kyoto’s barrage of temples, you’re ready to mix things up a bit. But don’t forgo one last architectural wonder: Nijō Castle. This UNESCO World Heritage site and grand palace dates back to 1603 and is considered one of the best examples of Japan’s feudal era. While strolling the castle grounds and manicured gardens, it’s easy to imagine Nijo Castle as home to Tokugawa Ieyasu—at one time the country’s most powerful man. Now, let’s mix things up a bit with one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric streets: Pontocho Alley. The gorgeous street lies parallel to the Kamo-gawa River and is lined with mom-and-pop shops, long-established Japanese restaurants, and trendy clubs.
When nature beckons, take a breather at Kyoto Gyoen. One of Japan’s three National Gardens, this massive park extends across a whopping 5% of central Kyoto. Kyoto Gyoen surrounds the Imperial Palace and Sento Gosho, but there’s no fee to slowly stroll the lush paths dotted with weeping cherry trees and plum arbors. Another scenic natural area and quintessential Kyoto experience is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Here, vibrant green bamboo stalks soar overhead, creating an otherworldly atmosphere that isn’t diminished by the hordes of photographers trying to capture the area’s palpable magic. Arashiyama is home to several temples and shrines, of which Kyoto-gozan is of particular note.
For a nearby day trip, hop on the train to the quaint rural towns of Kibune and Kurama. Kibune is particularly lovely during the summer months when restaurants build platforms over the river for an al-fresco waterfall dining experience. Even better, the town feels far removed from the well-trodden tourist trail. Kurama is considered the birthplace of Reiki, but most visit for the famed Kurama Onsen, one of Kyoto’s most accessible hot springs. Soak in the outdoor tubs while admiring the surrounding forest and mountain views, then grab a bite at the long-established on-site restaurant. Important note: Tattoos are typically forbidden in onsens, and while some baths are trialling tattoo covers, Kurama Onsen is not one of those places.
Kyoto is not just the cultural heart of Japan, it’s also the epicenter of traditional Japanese cuisine—rich in flavour and history, unwavering in quality and service
Where to eat in Kyoto
Kyoto is not just the cultural heart of Japan, it’s also the epicentre of traditional Japanese cuisine—rich in flavour and history, unwavering in quality and service. The first word you need to know before heading out to eat is kaiseki. This intense foodie experience typically features up to a dozen masterful dishes; plan on around two hours to fully savour the sensory adventure. One of the best spots to try kaiseki is Hyotei, a centuries-old restaurant that combines haute cuisine with the wisdom of generations-old recipes. The design is minimalist but timeless, allowing the dishes to take centre stage. Hyotei’s Michelin-star doesn’t hurt, either. Tucked back on a hillside with lovely views of Kyoto is Kikunoi, where celebrity chef Yoshihiro Murata serves exquisite menus worthy of its three Michelin star reputation. The menu is influenced by the changing of the seasons, where fresh and local ingredients shine through. Expect creative dishes that, even when surprising, pay tribute to time-honoured Japanese recipes.
Do as the locals do and wait in line at Honke Owariya for what is arguably one of the best bowls of soba (buckwheat noodles) in Kyoto. The venerable restaurant is hidden on a quiet street near the Imperial Palace, where 16th generation shop owner Honke Owariya continues to serve mouthwatering noodles and confectioneries. Another staple in Japanese cuisine is Yakitori, typically associated with street vendors and small, smoky, no-frills eateries. That was until Sumibi-Torito arrived on the scene, an “haute yakitori” restaurant that grills up impressive takes on otherwise tiresome meat skewers. A variety of side dishes make it a full meal. You haven’t truly enjoyed tempura until you’ve tasted it in Japan, and Kyoto’s old-world Yoshikawa Tempura Inn is the place to indulge. Grab a seat at the counter for groan-worthy aromas as the tempura gets fried on the spot. Don’t forgo the sauce (tentsuyu); each tempura house makes their own, and each claims theirs is the best. Eat like royalty at Shoraian, a stunning tofu restaurant burrowed in the mountains overlooking the clear running waters of the Katsura river. As expected, the view is fantastic, but the showstopper here is the humble soybean. Carnivores need not worry—tofu might be the restaurant’s pièce de résistance, but meat dishes feature in the tasting menu. Whatever you do, wash down the meal with locally-brewed sake and a healthy dose of plum wine.
Kyoto might not boast oceanside eateries, but many regard the city’s sushi to be some of the finest in all of Japan. For an elegant Kyoto experience that won’t break the bank, Sushi-Kappo Nakaichi is an intimate sushi bar founded over 50 years ago. As the name would suggest, sushi is served ‘kappo’ style, with one sushi portion on each plate. To watch the chef in action, grab a seat at the L-shaped cypress sushi counter. Of course, any gay Kyoto travel guide would be careless if it didn’t mention Nishiki Market, a buzzing shopping street dotted with over one hundred shops and restaurants. Aptly nicknamed “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” what was once a fish market is now the spot to elbow with locals while taste-testing Kyoto’s beloved specialities. Keep an eye out for pickled vegetables and tofu donuts, just two of the markets must-tries.
Nowhere in Kyoto evokes the time-honoured art of handicrafts quite like Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu
Shopping in Kyoto
Nowhere in Kyoto evokes the time-honoured art of handicrafts quite like Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu. Much more than a bag shop, a visit to Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu is a raw, sensory experience. Each and every bag here is hand-made in Kyoto—many on machines dating back to pre-WWII. You won’t find this esteemed, century-old label outside of Kyoto; don’t miss the rare opportunity to select a beautiful and functional bag that will last a lifetime. Another time-honoured artisan shop is Tachikichi, whose roots date back to Kyoto’s Edo Period. Over the centuries, Tachikichi has proven its Japanese tableware can stand the test of time. The pottery and ceramics are the definition of understated elegance, allowing the quality and craftsmanship to shine through. From here, hop over to Zohiko, Kyoto’s premier lacquerware shop. High-end Japanese lacquer has long been considered some of the finest on Earth, and Zohiko does an excellent job at proving why. Whether you admire the museum-worthy pieces or make an investment in one of the works of art, Zohiko is a worthwhile stop to experience next-level lacquer work.
While Mr. Hudson typically wouldn’t recommend a department store, Japan knows how to take the typical cookie-cutter experience and elevate it to an entirely new level. And this is perhaps no better proven than at Takashimaya. The opulent Japanese department store might boast branches around the globe, but its inaugural shop dates back to Kyoto in 1831. Today, you’ll find Japan’s top fashion brands and labels on prominent display in the extensive menswear floor. When hunger strikes from all that shopping, Takashimaya has a world-class food court worth checking out. For a more boutique experience, SOU SOU Kei-i is the answer for creative and comfortable Japanese menswear. Self-described as clothing for “men who take the road less travelled,” SOU SOU Kei-i celebrates “kabuita hito,” or people who dress differently and act carefree. It’s an attitude we can totally get behind, made even better by the on-point offerings. Whether you’re a vintage hunter or simply a smart shopper, PASS THE BATON is a curious yet wonderful store based on the concept of a “modern select secondhand shop.” High-quality used items are given a new life, displayed for sale with a photo and profile of the previous owner, expertly weaving together the tapestries of past and present. It’s a recycle shop with a layer of storytelling, and we absolutely love it.
Ask anyone in the know where to sip sake, and they’ll say Sake Bar Yoramu—the spot where Israeli owner Yoram Ofer wows Japanese and foreigners alike with his extensive sake expertise
While Kyoto has a vibrant, welcoming gay community, most of the nightlife happens over in nearby Osaka. That said, there are a handful of low-key Kyoto gay bars and clubs worthy of any Kyoto gay scene guide. One such is Apple, a male-only, foreigner-friendly gay bar. It’s small but cosy and makes a good place to start your evening with a casual conversation over a few well-priced drinks. For something a little more exciting, Club Metro might not be an exclusively gay venue, but it is the home to the ever-so-glittery “Diamonds are Forever”—a drag queen night that doubles as Kyoto’s unofficial ongoing gay event. Come for the boisterous fun that is sometimes ridiculous but always riveting.
Ask anyone in the know where to sip sake, and they’ll say Sake Bar Yoramu—the spot where Israeli owner Yoram Ofer wows Japanese and foreigners alike with his extensive sake expertise. With only nine seats, the bar ensures a highly-personalized encounter with the famed rice wine and charismatic owner. After discovering the nuances of each sake, you’ll leave with a new appreciation for the delicious liquor that far too often takes a back seat to other trendier cocktails. Another uniquity is Calvador, a somewhat hidden bar claiming to have the world’s most extensive collection of French apple brandies. A handful of bottles date back to the 19th century, exemplifying Hiroyuki Takayama’s unofficial calvado ambassador status. We recommend the tasting flight for an oh-so-satisfying sample that won’t break the bank.
For a sip of some of Japan’s finest libations, L’EscaMoteur is a delightfully unexpected cocktail bar hidden on the second floor of an unpretentious brick building. Once inside, the gorgeous ambience recalls old Paris, with notable steampunk and vintage European decor. Perhaps even more interesting though is the owner and chief bartender, Christophe Rossi, a trained magician taking his wizardry skills to the world of mixology. (Aptly, L’EscaMoteur gets its name from the French word for a magician.) All theatrics aside, the cocktails are damn good, and the bartenders seasoned pros at their craft. Gin lovers unite at Nokishita 711, a whimsical bar featuring—you guessed it—all the gin cocktails. The small bar is popular with tourists, but that doesn’t take away from the experimental flavours and expert presentation. Bamboo, black sesame, truffle honey, and smoked tea are just a few of the ingredients you’ll find. Finally, while rooftop bars are typically associated with concrete jungles with little where else to turn, in the Moon is a lovely hidden gem with jaw-dropping 360-degree Kyoto views. Come for the dazzling sunsets, stay for the great music, boozy mojitos and relaxed vibes.
Photo: Will Schulenberg
Photo: Tuan Nguyen
Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu
Photo: Match Sumaya
Geisha | Photo: Philippe Verheyden
Photo: Falco Negenman