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Kyoto

Golden temples, imperial palaces and Geisha shuffling down winding lamp-lit streets...Japan's ancient capital is a treasure chest of culture.

Don’t be fooled by the concrete-chic railway station; Kyoto is the city that best conjures the Japan of the imagination: magnificent Vermillion temples and perfectly pruned gardens, with the country's refined cultural arts still firmly rooted here - tea ceremony, Kabuki theater, Zen, and Tantric Buddhism., Yes, there are modern malls and tacky souvenirs, but wander a while and you’ll soon stumble upon street corner shrines or kimono-clad locals haggling at markets.

Thanks to its cultural credentials, it sometimes swarms with an almost intolerable number of visitors, especially during the spring blossoms and autumn turn. However, we actively prefer to visit in the winter, when the city is quieter – and at its most authentic and you might just get to see the glittery golden pavilion of kinkaku-ji rising from a sea of snow.

Kyoto INFORMATION

Population:  1.5 million

Highlights:  Gion & Pontochō geisha quarters / Ryōan-ji - zen rock garden / stay in a ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn / Kyoto's nightlife & fine Japanese dining experiences

Access:  The nearest international airport is Kansai (Osaka), the closest domestic airport is Itami. Kyoto is expediently and easily connected to Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet-train) - only two to three hours. Access to the ski resorts of the Japanese Alps is also best served by the rail network.

Suggested Itineraries featuring Kyoto

These suggested itineraries will give you a starting point for what your ski holiday to Japan could entail. Sometimes we combine ski resorts and we often cherish the opportunity to explore and experience Japan beyond the ski slopes. We hope these itineraries will inspire, excite and inform you as we begin the planning process. They’re not set departures or tours, as every holiday we plan is completely tailor-made for you - treat them as inspiration only.

The Japanese Ski Safari

Niseko - Tokyo - Nozawa Onsen - Kyoto

Duration: two weeks

The best powder snow, a bit of culture, the mountains, onsen and the capital! We can't improve on this - the perfect ski holiday to Japan.

from £2,884 per person, including flights

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Geisha, Onsen, Snow & Sake

Nozawa Onsen - Takayama - Kyoto - Hiroshima

Duration: two weeks

Explore old Japan – the temples, the shrines, the ryokan, the Geisha & the onsen. Ski in Japan's prettiest, most authentic ski village.

from £2,540 per person, including flights

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The Japanese Alps Explorer

Tokyo - Nozawa Onsen - Hakuba - Kyoto

Duration: two weeks

Bullet-trains, snow monkeys, atmospheric villages, shrines, geisha and vibrant neon cities. Oh...and some of Japan's best skiing.

from £2,498 per person, including flights

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Prices are indicative only and include accommodation (low season), lift passes, transfers and – because we are ATOL-bonded – your flights from the UK. Different Snow can also include ski hire, backcountry and off-piste tours, rail passes, private transfers, English-speaking guides, cultural excursions and activities.

Accommodation

Kyoto has many options - beyond all the temples and outside of the historic districts, it's a large Japanese city like any other. There are historic ryokans, small guest houses and luxury hotels, and pretty much everything in between and here we’ve listed a handful of our favourites, but we have plenty of other suggestions if none of these take your fancy.

Tawaraya Ryokan

This 300-year-old inn is the oldest and still the finest of all Kyoto’s - indeed, Japan's - ryokans.

It has been run by the Okazaki family ever since it opened; perhaps that’s the secret to Tawaraya’s long-standing reputation for unfaltering service, deeply luxurious wabi-sabi rooms and exquisite private gardens that allow you to forget the chaos of the city in a heartbeat. Service goes above and beyond that of which is expected - guests who stay at Tawaraya will come to understand true Japanese hospitality, and will feel more like royalty than customers. 

The austere rooms enjoy mellow lighting, one-off antiques, and soothing Japanese baths made of fragrant cedar. Dinners are kaiseki, served in the comfort of your room as is tradition; many courses of delicate meat, fish and vegetables, perfectly balanced and prepared with the attention to detail of the very best restaurants.

There are no rough edges at Tawaraya. There are almost no edges at all. There is only silence, peace and tranquility. 

Kanra Hotel

A modern design, respectful of traditional Kyoto architectural style. Outstanding rooms.

Without doubt this should be considered a modern design hotel, one that would grace any chic urban centre. However, it doffs its cap to Kyoto’s local tradition throughout, not least in the amazing guest rooms which have traditional tatami mats covering the living-room floors. These long rooms are utterly seductive, from the extra-wide beds, cushiony sofas and bathrooms that feature tubs made of Japanese cypress, and many of the independent, glass-walled showers feature small rock gardens.

The Kitchen Kanra restaurant is also in symbiotic interaction with the city in which it sits, offering traditional obanzai cuisine, tapas-style, along with seasonal char-grilled vegetables.

Watazan Ryokan

A mid-range traditional Japanese inn, in a wonderful central location.

With a wonderful central location, traditional Japanese rooms with tatami mat floors, fine dining on offer and a charming little onsen hot spring within the ryokan ... then the Watazen is quintessentially Japanese in every respect, having served guests for over 170 years in the heart of central Kyoto.

The rooms are traditionally Japanese – tatami mats flooring, on which futon beds are laid for the night. They also serve the most wonderful Japanese cuisine, including fine Kyoto-style kaiseki dining in the evening (if you wish to include it, we need to book in advance).

Citadines Karasuma Kyoto

Apartment-style rooms, more than a hotel. A perfect base from which to explore Kyoto.

Studio apartments in a central location, each room with stylish living areas, fully equipped kitchen and an en-suite bathroom. After an exhausting time skiing elsewhere in Japan, the freedom and practicality of having your own affordable apartment in downtown Kyoto is appreciated by all. There is also a lounge, in which you can opt to  include breakfast.

This block of serviced apartments is centrally located in Gojo, just steps away from a major subway station, and one stop from the main Kyoto station. It is a short stroll away from the tourist and entertainment belt, where dining, drinking and shopping options abound.

Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura

Two ryokans - the Honganji & the Urushitei - that are affordable, authentic and well-located.

Sukura offers a great value alternative to some of the more up-market ryokans. There are two options – both modern takes on the Japanese Inn, though traditional in all respects – and it's hard to pick between them. They have a few Western rooms in both, both most want to experience the futon beds on tatami mats. It’s worth upgrading to one of the larger rooms, which have more space and some have lovely private gardens. Bathrooms are small but functional, and there is no restaurant – though both serve breakfast.

Vista Premio Hotel

Our mainstay in Kyoto, as it ticks every box - location, value, style & comfort.

Since a dramatic refurb several years ago, this hotel has now become our most frequently used hotel in Kyoto. This is in part down to it's unbeatable location, within walking distance of the main shopping areas as well as the Gion Geisha district, Nishiki food market and well....everything!

And once inside, its a great mid-range hotel. Rooms feature nice Japanese touches such as shoji screened windows and there is a pleasant restaurant called Mokumoku which serves a hearty buffet breakfast, which perfectly sets you up for a days' sightseeing.

Excursions

We suggest a few days in Kyoto to truly appreciate its wealth of offerings. Major sights such as Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple), Nijo Castle and Kiyomizu-dera are relatively easy to navigate with a guidebook, an understanding of the transport network and good shoes, and you can while away hours happening upon charming pockets of the city.

The main sights in Kyoto are rather spread out - you'll need to become well acquainted with the train network to tick off all the main temples. Alternatively, hiring an bike is a great way to cover the distances, even in winter.

Dinner with a Geisha

The quintessential Kyoto experience, either private dinners or afternoon tea with a Geiko or Maiko.

Nothing encapsulates Japan’s exquisite ancient culture more than the image of the Geisha, or Geiko as they are known locally. Whilst they are notoriously elusive, utterly discreet and shrouded in mystery, we do have a few experiences which will introduce you to their unique culture and the throw light on the important role they have played in Kyoto society.

It all depends on how deep your pockets are - Geiko (or 'Maiko', essentially an apprentice Geisha) are expensive and to have one host and entertain you during a private dinner is an expensive affair, whether you are Japanese or foreign. It is an experience like no other, though we do need to organise a guide / translate to accompany you also.

For more affordable options, then we can organise a walk through the geisha districts, where your guide will explain the history as well as the present situation of the flower and willow world of Kyoto before stopping at a private, members only ochaya (geisha teahouse) where you will have matcha green tea and Japanese sweets in the company of a Maiko or Geiko.

Group Tours of Kyoto

An affordable way to tick -off the sights, we can organise either half or full day tours.

Limited time? Whilst Kyoto is navigable under your own steam many of the main temples, shrines and major sights are spread throughout the city and a a group tour - with an English-speaking guide, a coach and a few like-minded overseas guests can prove to be a cost-effective and pragmatic solution.

Tick off the Imperial Palace, Kinkaku-ji Temple, Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu Temple and the Higashiyama district - morning tours (and afternoon tours) last four hours and achieve much, full days tours last 10 hours, include lunch, and achieve more.

Private Guides in Kyoto

Visit temples, shrines, gardens...but then also back-alleys and in to areas most tourists miss.

Get under the skin of Kyoto with your private English-speaking guide. The itinerary can be adapted to meet your own preferences and pursue your own interests - just be assured that this city has so much to offer, so having a local show you around, explaining what you see, helping you negotiate the public transport and leading you away from the crowds is money well spent.

Many like to simply focus on the Higashiyama ('Eastern Mountain') district of Kyoto, which contains many of Kyoto’s most important temples, shrines, gardens and museums. Obviously, as it is just you and the guide, so you can venture off-piste following your interest, but the route works well and sticking to it provides a remarkable insight in to Kyoto – the 'must-see' sights and the backstreets and narrow pathways, including some hidden gems that most tours miss.

The Philosopher’s Path

Half day walking tour on a pleasant stone path through Kyoto's Higashiyama district.

The two-kilometre path follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees, beginning around Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and ending in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. There are many small temples and shrines to stop off along the walk.

This is a half day tour with a private guide, we'd suggest in the morning though you can head out in the afternoon also.

Kyoto Cookery Classes

In a classic Machiya style wooden house, try your hand at cooking Japan's delicious cuisine.

A half-day course (either morning or afternoon) providing the opportunity to learn the finer points of Japan’s Kappo-style cuisine in a workshop within a classical ‘Machiya’ – wooden house. Traditional green tea tasting and bit of saké are both essential parts of the experience.

Morning classes will focus on creating a Bento style lunch – a typical boxed style lunch set, very popular with office workers and also frequently seen on the trains. The closest equivalent would be our packed-lunch, but the culinary experience is transformed and significantly enhanced in Japan. You will make up to six dishes and complete a full bento box...and of course you will have the chance to try your tasty creations afterwards.

Opt for the afternoon class, and you'll learn how to cook traditional izakaya-style. First, you will cook several dishes...and then eat them up. Then you will return to the kitchen and learn two or three more and once again tuck in...etc - by this method you learn a variety of dishes in cosy atmosphere just like in an izakaya (Japanese tapas-style pub).

Day Trip to Nara

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan and has eight Unesco World Heritage Sites to explore.

Only 28-miles (45-minutes) from downtown Kyoto, you can visit Nara Visit under your own steam, as part of a group tour or with your own guide. It is a place second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan’s cultural legacy, and has a different atmosphere - the same ancient ambience of Kyoto, but without the hustle and bustle.

Wandering around, you’ll find beautiful temples and art works, the most famous of which is Todai-ji Temple – the largest of the seven great temples of Nara – home to a giant bronze Buddha. Many of the temples are dotted through an attractive area of parkland which makes for a lovely stroll – and you can even purchase food to feed the resident deer.