The former capital of the country, Kyoto is the heart of Japan’s ancient culture and heritage and one of the best places in the world for solo female travelers. In just one day in Kyoto, you can explore the historic Gion District, taste great Japanese cuisine, and learn about important Japanese traditions from tea to calligraphy in unique hands-on experiences.
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Best Time to Visit Kyoto
The delicate beauty of Japan in the springtime is unparalleled. Late March and early April is the best time to visit Kyoto when the country’s iconic cherry trees erupt into pale pink blooms. There is a special charm to cherry blossoms in Kyoto’s historic Gion District.
How to Get to Kyoto
Tokyo to Kyoto
The Shinkansen or Japanese bullet train is the fastest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, and travelling on a bullet train is a worthy experience by itself. The Hikari Shinkansen takes about two and a half hours to get from Tokyo to Kyoto and is included in the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). There is another bullet train, the Nozomi Shinkansen, which is a little bit faster but is not included in the JR Pass. Bullet train stops are as rapid as their travelling speed, so make sure you are on the platform and prepared for the scheduled departure time. In most cases, you will not have to reserve a specific seat. Trains leave from Tokyo Station.
If you are on a shoestring budget, book an overnight bus from Tokyo to Kyoto by going to any JR ticket window for assistance.
Osaka to Kyoto
Osaka and Kyoto are much closer together than Tokyo and Kyoto. Travel between the two cities is very convenient with four rail services connecting them: Keihan Railways, Hankyu Railways, JR Kyoto Line and JR Shinkansen (the bullet train). The Shinkansen is a 15-minute ride from Osaka to Kyoto. Alternatively, you could take a special rapid service on the JR Kyoto Line from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto and arrive in about half an hour. Both of these are covered by the JR Pass.
How to Get Around Kyoto
Downtown Kyoto and the historic Gion District in particular are very easy to walk around. If you book accommodations close to downtown Kyoto attractions, you’ll have little need for other transportation. When you do need it, though, there are a number of public buses and two subway lines. The Karasuma subway line runs north to south and the Tozai line runs east to west. It’s a simple system and not too hard to navigate, but because there are only two lines you should plan your day in Kyoto carefully and make sure you don’t lose time waiting on trains.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
There are plenty of hostels for budget travelers in Kyoto. I stayed in Guesthouse Origami where a bunk in a 10-bed dorm cost me about 1500 yen or $13.50 USD per night. The beds had privacy curtains and the facilities were clean, but otherwise unremarkable. If you are only spending one day in Kyoto, however, there is no need to be fussy about accommodations – clean and safe will fit the bill!
Kyoto is very deeply rooted in Japan’s cultural heritage, so a great way to get the most out of your day in Kyoto is to stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. There are many ryokans in Kyoto ranging from more traditional to more modern and simple to luxurious. The average nightly cost of a ryokan is 15,000 to 25,000 yen or $135 to $225 USD. It’s steep for a long stay, but worth the splurge for one night in Kyoto.
No matter what kind of accommodation you book, it’s best to stay close to downtown Kyoto or the historic Gion district so you can walk to restaurants and attractions.
Tips for Solo Female Travelers in Kyoto
Kyoto like most of Japan is one of the safest places in the world for solo female travelers. Just use your common sense as always.
Many restaurants around Kyoto are friendly to solo diners. It is safe to walk at night, but be vigilant as you would anywhere and walk in populated, well lit areas.
Kyoto is pedestrian friendly and easy to navigate with lots of fun things to do, especially if you are looking to connect with Japan’s history and ancient culture. For that reason, I think Kyoto is an even better destination than Tokyo for solo female travelers.
Your biggest risk as a solo female traveler in Kyoto is getting lonely. It’s a very easy city to explore alone, but if you’re feeling more social than reflective, you should look for specific opportunities to meet locals and other travelers. Join a Kyoto tour, sign up for cultural experiences, or check out the Kyoto International Community House where locals come to meet visitors and practice their English.
What to Pack for One Day in Kyoto
You can see everything I travel with in my full solo female RTW trip packing list. These are a few must-have items for your Kyoto 1-day itinerary.
Comfortable walking shoes
You’ll be walking all over the Gion District in the morning and down the five block Nishiki Market at lunch. Wear comfortable shoes! I wear Tieks in cities like this.
Anti-theft day bag
Crime rates in Japan are low enough that you may not need all the hefty anti-theft features of this TravelOn day bag, but I find it is the perfect size for an urban day trip and has a pocket for a water bottle.
My secret to staying on budget when I travel: this tiny Moleskine notebook. It’s so little it can fit in practically any pocket, so I can record expenses as I make them.
I’ve had this Envirosax tote for years. It’s pretty durable, deceptively large and hardly takes up any space when folded up. Nishiki Market is a great place to pick up souvenirs like kitchen knives, engraved chopsticks and special Japanese ingredients. It helps to have ‘room to grow’ when you’re out for a full day.
What to Do with One Day in Kyoto
Explore the Gion District
The Gion District is the historic center of Kyoto and home to the city’s near-mythical geisha past. Admire the neighborhood’s traditional Japanese architecture on your own, or join a walking tour of Gion for more historical information.
If you expect to see geishas today, you may be disappointed – the days of hostesses specially trained to entertain men with music, dance and conversation are largely in the past. There are some special tours that will allow you to meet geisha, but they are terribly expensive and there are many more affordable ways to meet locals and learn about Kyoto’s history out there. If you do get lucky and see a geisha out in the Gion District, be respectful – they are people, typically on their way to an appointment, and do not exist for tourist photo ops. It’s also worth noting that some tourists dress up in geisha kimonos and makeup, so you may or may not be meeting an actual geisha!
Another thing to do in the Gion District is rent a kimono from one of the many shops offering them in Kyoto. Kyoto Kimono Rental Wargo is a major company with stores all over the country. Gina Bear has a great, in-depth review of them based on her kimono rental experience in Osaka. Make a reservation in advance and expect to pay about $25 to $30 USD.
Daytime walks and evenings in Gion are very different experiences, so if you have the time, bookend your day in Kyoto with an exploration of this iconic neighborhood.
Attend a Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
One of the best things to do in Kyoto is attend a tea ceremony. This time honored tradition of old Japan is mesmerizing to watch. Because of the sacred nature of preparations, photography is only allowed at certain times during your experience, but you won’t miss the camera as you focus on the practiced movements of your hostess while she prepares the instruments with careful precision.
I booked a small group experience at En, a teahouse near the Gion District. Reservations are recommended for each 45-minute ceremony, which begin on the hour every hour from 10am to 6pm. A seat at a group ceremony is 2500 yen, or $22.74 USD, but groups are small so it will still feel like an intimate experience. In addition to En, there are numerous teahouses that welcome visitors to traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
Eat Your Way Across Nishiki Market
The best affordable lunch in Kyoto is Nishiki Market – a five-block stretch of over a hundred shops and restaurants. Fill up on some of these Japanese street foods:
- sesame dumplings
- roasted chestnuts
- tako tamago (baby octopus with quail egg)
- senbai (rice crackers with various flavorings)
- tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet)
- asasuke (lightly pickled cucumber)
- fish cakes
- chocolate croquettes
- soy milk doughnuts
- matcha daifuku (mochi with green tea and cream filling)
Nishiki Market is open daily and free to enter. There are also a number of walking tours where you can learn about the market’s centuries old history and get expert tips for what to eat.
Learn the Art of Calligraphy
Continue your day tour of Kyoto with another quintessential cultural experience: calligraphy. Japanese calligraphy is thousands of years old and there are a few varieties of this artistic writing. Kanji come from Chinese symbols, while katakana and hiragana are scripts that reflect the syllables of the words they represent.
At a 90-minute workshop, a master calligrapher will share some of the history of calligraphy in Japan, demonstrate the techniques and then help you practice the various strokes before you write the kanji symbol of your choice. (I made a ‘tea’ symbol for my tea cabinet at home.)
At the time of my visit, the calligraphy class I booked was called KAFU but it seems to no longer be operating under that name. Instead, try Ami Kyoto – I recognize the same instructor I worked with in the photos.
You must book your calligraphy workshop at least 2 days in advance and there are limited dates and times available so plan ahead. The class costs 5000 yen or $45.49 USD. This unique Kyoto tour is the kind of special hands-on experience that will help you meet other people as a solo female traveler and connect more deeply with Japanese culture.
Sit Down to a Tonkatsu Dinner
Kyoto is home of one of the best meals for solo female diners: tonkatsu. Digging into these juicy breaded pork cutlets is as much an experience as it is dinner.
Katsukura is a chain with several locations in Japan, but it is originally from Kyoto and many consider it the best tonkatsu in Kyoto. You can order a fixed price menu for about $20 USD that includes a pork loin cutlet, barley rice, miso soup and a pile of thinly shredded cabbage just begging to be doused in citrusy yuzu dressing. At the table, you’ll crush toasted sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle to form the base of a thick and tangy dipping sauce.
Katsukura has several locations in Kyoto alone, but I recommend going to the original Sanjo Main Shop, which is just a few blocks away from Nishiki Market.
What to Do with More Than One Day in Kyoto
Kyoto is a rich cultural destination with so much more to offer than you can experience in one day. If you are able to extend your visit, consider trying some of these other great things to do in Kyoto.
Tour Japanese Temples
There are tons of temples and shrines in Kyoto. Some of the most popular are Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple), Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Temple) and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. There are even temples within a stone’s throw of Kyoto Station like Higashi Honganji Temple (pictured above). These selections are just the tip of the iceberg. You could fill an entire day just exploring Kyoto’s many beautiful temples and learning about Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
Enjoy a Nature Walk
There are many places in Kyoto to relax and enjoy its natural beauty. Kyoto is one of the best places in Japan for cherry blossom viewing in the spring, but if you are visiting for hanami you should plan more than one day in Kyoto so you can wait for peak bloom if needed. A few spots that should be on your radar (cherry blossom season or no): Kamo River which runs through the middle of the city; Philosopher’s Path, a pedestrian pathway between Nanzen-ji and Ginkaku-ji; and Maruyama Park, a popular picnic spot east of Gion and north of Kodaiji Temple.
Browse the Manga Museum
A must-do for fans of Sailor Moon and Pokemon, the Kyoto International Manga Museum is the ultimate tribute to Japan’s popular style of cartoon illustrations.
Day Trips from Kyoto
With more time in Kyoto, you can explore some of the beautiful sites just outside the city.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
The Fushimi Inari shrine is one of the most visited places in Japan, famous for its iconic lines of bright red-orange torii gates that stretch up a pair of twin mountain trails. The complete hike to the summit and back takes two to three hours, but you can walk any length you please before turning back. Fushimi Inari is about 5 minutes from Kyoto Station, just two stops down the JR Nara Line. Admission is free and the grounds are open 24-7 but it’s best to plan your walk during daylight hours.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
One of the most Instagrammable places in Kyoto, Arashiyama is home to a tranquil bamboo grove where dense green stalks stretch as far as the eye can see. Inside Kyoto has a detailed self-guided walking tour of the bamboo forest. Admission is free and the forest is open 24-7. To get to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, you’ll take a 20-minute train ride from Kyoto Station on the JR San-In or JR Sagano Line, to Saga-Arashiyama Station. From there it is about a 15 minute walk to the bamboo grove.
One of the most charming day trips from Kyoto is the sacred deer park in Nara. Hundreds of wild deer are free to roam the park and you can buy special deer crackers from street vendors to feed them. Admission is 500 yen or $4.55 USD. There are also many beautiful shrines and temples in Nara. Nara is a 45-minute train ride from Kyoto on the JR Miyakoji Rapid Service.
Is One Day in Kyoto Enough?
In my opinion, absolutely not. Between all the wonderful temples, the once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences and the excellent day trips readily accessible, you should spend at least three days in Kyoto. But if you are visiting several places in Japan and trying to make the most of limited time, one day in Kyoto will give you a fantastic glimpse at Japan’s rich cultural heritage and more than a few priceless memories.
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