Japan Rail Pass, which provides unlimited access to the trains operated by Japan Railways for a consecutive time period of your choice - 7, 14, or 21 days. As comparison, the 7-day Rail Pass for Ordinary class costs about $360 - an excellent deal if riding the Shinkansen multiple times within this time period to get around Japan.
For us, we were making one overnight trip, then returning to Tokyo, so although the Rail Pass option would have benefited us slightly, it wouldn't have been the biggest savings. The information that helped me decide NOT to get a Rail Pass was the excellent package deals offered through the Japan Travel Bureau promotions, "Japan I Can". For an overnight trip to Kyoto including Shinkansen round trip tickets and a hotel cost ~$250/pp. The hotel alone would have cost at least $100/night/pp if we tried to book it on our own. The site offered many hotel options, including Japanese Ryokan style versus Western style. We ended up going with the western style Karasuma Kyoto Hotel for its walking distancd to the Gion District.
Our train/hotel package had us leaving Tokyo Station at 6:30 am, arriving in Kyoto at 9:15 am to get a full day of sightseeing in. We were scheduled to depart the next day at 2 pm, getting us back to Tokyo around 5 pm.
(Literally, dozens of different kinds of bento boxes are available to be eaten on the Shinkansen! This was my breakfast.)
Another transportation consideration is once you get to Kyoto, will you be sightseeing via public transportation, taxi, or join a tour group? There are over 1600 buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. Kyoto is a huge metropolis in a valley, flanked by 2 mountains. Many of the more significant sights are spread out throughout the city and into the hillsides, and getting from one place to another is challenging when under a time crunch. Public transportation is a great option if you have plenty of time to figure out the train and bus system, with time allowances for walking. Taxis are everywhere, but can be expensive, and can only seat up to 4 people. Group tours are a good deal, if you like a cookie cutter tour.
(We've arrived! Kyoto Station)
The best option with our limited time and group size was to hire a private taxi for the day to take us around Kyoto. I found a great deal. Mr. Naoki Doi is an owner of a taxi company - Doi Taxi, offering private tours in English for a group of up to 6 people! First of all, having a van for a taxi, large enough to hold 6 passengers is unheard of in Japan. We would've had to split up into 2 cars, otherwise. Secondly, the fact that Mr. Doi goes into the sights himself and provides a tour in English was outstanding. Thirdly, we were able to leave our belongings in the car throughout the day. Fourthly, the cost was very reasonable. At ~$70/hour, we hired him for 6 hours and were able to thoroughly see 4 sights with a lunch break in between, delivering us to the front steps of our hotel at the end.
(All six of us comfortable in our cab-for-hire)
4 sights doesn't seem like much in 6 hours, but the locations are spread out, and requires a lot of walking on the grounds of each of the temples and shrines. For our itinerary, we mixed it up by starting with a castle (Nijo-jo), then a beautiful golden temple (Kinkaku-ji), a zen rock garden at a temple (Ryoan-ji), then some nature by walking through the bamboo forest at the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashi Mountain. After being dropped off at the hotel, we rested our weary feet for a couple of hours, then walked about 15 minutes to the Gion District across the Kamogawa River for the evening in hopes of seeing some geishas (or geiko, as they are called in Kyoto).
A request by one of the group members was to eat a keiseki ryouri, or a traditional Japanese multi-course haute cuisine. An excellent place to try this would be in Kyoto where it all started about 500 years ago. First, most Japanese ryokan style lodging includes meals, and a form of keiseki cuisine would most likely be served for dinner. For the hotels without a meal plan, there are keiseki restaurants which usually require an advanced reservation and the high price tag of the meal is representative of the fresh and seasonal ingredients used - some ingredients which may not be entirely suitable for the American palate. Our group is food adventurous, but needing a reservation, the cost, and not knowing all the etiquette around a keiseki meal, we opted to leave our evening open for whatever restaurant interested us at the time.
Since we had some time the next day for a little more sightseeing, I made an appointment for the 10 am English speaking tour of the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds - an experience that many Japanese are unable to fulfill as it is closed off to Japanese nationals except for twice a year and by special request. To make advanced reservations for the free 1-hour tour, go to the official Imperial Household Agency site.
An excellent resource for English speakers is Kyoto Guide (www.kyotoguide.com) - a monthly magazine on up-to-date Kyoto travel and tourism information that has been around since 1987! A new issue is published on the 1st of each month, and includes: monthly highlights and events; info on English speaking day tours by bus or walking tours; places to shop, stay, and dine; detailed maps in English; transportation maps in English (bus, train, subway, taxi); recommended sightseeing routes; yseful tourist info on money, internet access, airport access, bicycle rental, shrine prayer etiquette, maiko/geiko district, etc.
NEXT POST: A Day Sightseeing in Kyoto
Click here to view more photos of Kyoto.