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A First-Timer’s Guide to Navigating Kyoto Like A Pro

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Nurlina  •  Dec 30, 2015

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Want a slice of traditional Japan that is rich in history and culture? Kyoto is your answer. There is a reason why it is also known as Japan's ancient capital, and not only because the title is historically accurate. With its unique mix of modernity and tradition, the beautiful city has successfully captured many travellers' hearts (and tummies with its yummy halal Japanese food).
Credit: giphy That also means that it is packed with tourists almost all year round (which is why you should start planning for your trip to Kyoto during the Cherry Blossom season now!). Here's a few things to keep in mind that will give you the upper hand in navigating around the city efficiently:
1. Orient yourself with the directions
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Credit: turkey-visit Look at the Kyoto city map. Notice something? Kyoto has a grid-like layout. This makes it quite easy to navigate around the blocks. The blue line that runs almost perfectly straight from North to South is the Kamo River. Quite a number of attractions are a short walk away from the river, and the riverbanks itself is a popular hangout for locals and travellers alike. [caption id="attachment_4505" align="alignnone" width="1024"]
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 The view from one of the many bridges crossing Kamo River. If you're lucky you might be able to enjoy live music and performances, especially at night.[/caption] So when you find yourself at Kyoto Station Central Exit, you can be sure that you're facing North. Kyoto Tower is generally South from downtown area, like Nishiki Market and Nijo Castle. The Subway can get you to the middle of the city, but not to the outskirts like Arashiyama or Fushimi Inari Taisha. That brings us to the next point: transportation. 
2. Transportation: a.k.a know your choices
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And we haven't even include the bus lines yet...[/caption] Credit: youinjapan Kyoto is run by various train lines, subway and buses. The public transportation system might be less dense than, say, Tokyo, but it is just as effective. Most stations and bus stops comes with a list of train or bus that will pass each place, time, and a small map with local attractions highlighted. The best part is, you only need to get the ICOCA IC Card to pay for your fares on all public transport (and shopping!) 😊 [Get the ICOCA IC Card preloaded with 1,500 yen credit here!] However, you have more options than just public transport: Cycling and walking. No, really. Kyoto is great for cycling, given the layout of the city and the mostly flat terrain. Daily rentals of bicycle can be as low as 500 yen and up to thousands of yen for an electric model. 
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And walking is a great way to experience and discover a new place, especially if you like to compulsively walk down a narrow alley just because you saw a cute statue in front of a cafe nearby. We know, we've been there.
Credit: giphy Maybe you'll find Totoro while exploring on foot? :)
3. Promotions
As a popular travel destination, there are a lot of packages and passes you can choose to make your travel easier. For example, if your itinerary requires boarding local buses multiple times in a day, consider buying a 1 Day Bus Pass. If you are also travelling to nearby cities like Osaka and Kobe, Kansai Thru Pass is a good choice to consider. 
Credit: giphy Luckily for you, the good people of Japan Guide has compiled a comprehensive list of passes offered to tourists. You can compare and decide accordingly based on your needs. Have a look at it here!
4. Plan your itinerary by area
 We know, you have limited time in the city. Naturally you would want to visit as many attractions as possible during your travel, right? [caption id="attachment_4549" align="alignnone" width="1024"] 
Fushimi Inari Taisha should definitely be in your must-visit list!
Fushimi Inari Taisha should definitely be on your must-visit list![/caption] Here's a simple tip: get a map and mark down all the places that you want to go. Yes, bookmarking in Google Map is okay too. This visual itinerary can help you plan your transportation and time accordingly. For example, instead of using the 1 day bus pass to go to Ginkakuji and Nanzenji, consider going to one of those temples by bus, then walk along the Philosopher Path to the next destination. Walking is a great way to experience Kyoto! [caption id="attachment_4507" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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You can start from Nanzen-ji and go up, or vice versa. Be on the lookout for many cute houses and shops along the path![/caption] Credit: "Philosophers Path GIS3006F11" by Toivo Voll - Own work (Assignment as part of GIS3006F11 class at the University of South Florida). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons  You can also spend the morning at Nishiki Market, afternoon at Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park (picnic, anyone? 😉) and walk along the many charming alleys to catch sunset at Kiyomizu Temple. [caption id="attachment_4508" align="alignnone" width="1024"]
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 The scenery is breathtaking at Kiyomizu Temple[/caption] With careful planning, you can reduce your reliance on public transportation, which is a winning point during commuter rush hours. 
5. When in doubt, ask for help
In general, there will be signs and direction guides in both Japanese and English all around Kyoto. But sometimes you just want to ask around to be extra sure that this narrow and steep alley really leads to a famous temple and not a dead end. In that case, feel free to approach the nearest shopkeeper or stranger on the street. (Note: at any other places, this advice might not be applicable. But hey, it's Japan we're talking about now.)
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 Cat got your tongue? Write down the name of the place you want to go, and add frantic-looking question marks at the end. Or don't, whatever you want 😉 In general, Japanese are known to be very helpful, but also can be shy when trying to talk in English. Never mind that! Ask away in your broken Japanese or ask fully in English. When the locals themselves are not sure how to best give directions, it is not uncommon for them to whip out their own smartphone to look up the directions to the place that you wants to visit. Sometimes other passerbys might even stop by to offer their help! So be brave and ask away! And because we're feeling nice, here's two extra tips for you: #HHWT Tip 1: When you first arrive at Kyoto Station, head to the Tourist Information Centre on the second floor and get a copy of the local map. There are a lot you can choose from; some maps also include the public transportation guide, free wifi spots guide, and even bus lines specifically for the 1 Day Bus Pass. #HHWT Tip 2: If your accommodation is far from Kyoto Station, ask your hotel/hostel/airbnb host if they can get you a copy of the local map. Most places would be more that happy to do so. Hopefully this guide will make your travel smoother and more enjoyable. Once you've mastered the basics, you can go on to exploring Kyoto like a local 😉 Happy planning!