There is a song by the 90s whimsical electronica French duo Air called “Alone in Kyoto.” It’s a haunting melody of beauty and raindrops and hope and getting lost at dusk in a Shinto cemetery and meeting spirits and actually not being alone at all.
The song, even without words, seems to describe Kyoto perfectly.
Kyoto is a city of 1.5 million, located in the Kansai region, about 37 miles away from big sister city Osaka and 300 miles south of Tokyo.
To get here, fly into Kansai Airport (KIX) from San Francisco on United Airlines. Located right outside the Kansai airport are train ticket counters and automated machines, to help you get where you need to go. Trains are the way to go here in Japan. You should familiarize yourself with how trains work before arriving. When you purchase a train ticket, you pay for two things: the base ticket price, and your seat fare (unreserved or reserved, first class or coach). You can also purchase tickets or special passes before you arrive.
The JR Haruka line will get you to Kyoto in an hour and a half. Kyoto Station is a modern marvel in such a traditional city. Fifteen stories of glass and metal, housing a department store, hundreds of shops, a movie theater and hotel, besides platforms to catch trains, buses, subways and the shinkansen.
Now that you’re here, it’s time to eat. And eat you will, because you’ve never tasted anything like a steaming hot bowl of ramen or a perfect little bento box from a tiny Kaiten-zushi spot in the station.
Let’s start with sushi. Right inside Kyoto Station is a wonderful little spot called Musashi Sushi. Go there. Get everything. Take a photo of your plate pile.
My favorite place to stay in Kyoto is called Capsule Ryokan Hotel, just four blocks from the station. Almost brand new, this is the perfect blend of traditional and modern. Tatami mats and capsule bunks, with free green tea and free wifi and cultural activities for guests almost every night. Only $35 per night for a capsule bunk, or $80 for a full hotel room for two.
After a quick rest, venture out into the streets again. It’s probably evening, and misting slightly, and suddenly you realize that this is magic. Listen as friendly bicycles ring their bells at you, and wonder as you see tiny old women in traditional kimono tip-toe past. A couple of salary men, holding each other upright, stumble out of the bar and for a brief moment you hear the blare of karaoke, then, silence. Another few blocks and all you hear is the electric buzz of a Suntory soda machine, sitting happily on the street corner, alone.
The next morning, ask at the front desk for bakery suggestions. You will inevitably be pointed in the direction of a steamy, sweet-smelling little shop, full of delicious, mysterious things. But this is Japan, and you can’t go wrong. Pick out two or three treats and try them all, or wrap them up for a picnic later.
There are so many amazing shrines, temples and castles in Kyoto, and it’s hard to see everything in one visit. My favorites: Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion) in the northwest part of the city, Kitano-tenmangu Shrine in central Kyoto and Ginkaku-ji Temple off to the east. Check out Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace as well.
It’s super easy to get around Kyoto on foot, bike or by public transportation. I usually choose to walk, and with the easy grid pattern of the city, it’s almost impossible to get lost. Download Ulman Pro’s CityMaps2Go when you have wifi, and you’ll have a fully loaded Kyoto map on your iPhone or tablet while you wander about.
One thing I should point out: Being fluent in Japanese is not necessary here, but knowing a few phrases helps out and shows respect and humility to the lovely people of Japan. I downloaded an app called Learn Japanese Phrases from Bravolol which is amazing. Learn hello, excuse me, thank you, and how to count to ten. Also: “Nama biiru, kudasai!“
There’s really no wrong way to do Kyoto. The countless ramen restaurants, flower shops, ancient shrines and the wonderful people who live in this magical city will greet you on every corner and down every friendly alley, making you wonder if this is real life or a dream. But Kyoto is real, and ready to be explored.
Let’s go explore.
Join Kara and Celessa as they take on The Flight Attendant Life’s first international jumpseating adventure in Japan November 1-7! Follow @TheFALife and @TheEverydayJumpseater on Instagram for constant updates as we journey to the Land of the Rising Sun.