Kyoto Gay Travel
wolfyy’s Kyoto gay travel guide to the best hotels, restaurants, gay bars, clubs, & things to do.
The Gay Travel Experience: Kyoto, Japan
With some of the most photographed sites in Japan, Kyoto has limitless options for travelers seeking tranquility. But, even in peaceful Kyoto, there still happens to be some LGBT action! The town surely has some rainbow flair.
Most importantly, Kyoto is certainly not an off-the-beaten-path destination. While you won’t find too many Americans or even Europeans in Kyoto, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of tourists. Visitors from all over Asia crowd the popular sites, primarily from China.
I always felt safe and comfortable traveling through Japan as a gay guy. While exploring Tokyo, I was with my partner Michael. We did not have any negative interactions concerning being gay.
Although it is not common for anyone to show public affection in Japan, the casual kiss on the cheek or brief handhold didn’t turn any heads.
In this Kyoto gay travel guide, I’ll let you know which sites are most crowded, which temples to visit, where to find the gay bars and which places you should visit despite the crowds.
Gay Kyoto: Hotels & Where to Stay
Where is the best place to stay in Kyoto? The answer is anywhere with great access to public transport! Unless you plan on taking a cab to every site you visit, easy access to the Metro is ideal.
The most convenient place to stay in Kyoto is within a 5 to 10-minute walk to Kyoto Station. As is the case in Europe, we normally associate areas around train stations to be the more run-down areas of town. Here in Kyoto, this is not the case.
I stayed at 22 Pieces Hotel with my partner Michael and loved it! 22 Pieces is modern, clean, and gets all the basics just right. This hotel was a perfect and cozy landing pad for us to rest our heads when we weren’t out exploring Kyoto.
Kyoto Hotels I Recommend
Here are a few fantastic hotels for gay travelers in Kyoto that are highly rated, centrally located, and affordable.
Kyoto Experiences for the Gay Traveler
Japanese grocery stores have tons of interesting products. On my first night in Kyoto, I grabbed some groceries with my partner Michael. This normally mundane task quickly became a fun shopping spree when we saw all the things we wanted to try.
Have some fun scanning grocery store labels using the Google Live Translate App to see what some of the strange-looking products actually are! The things I saw in the Japanese grocery store were very different from what you’d find in Southeast Asia or Europe.
The Roots of All Evil was nice for some gin-based cocktails. This little bar is in a food-court type area, but it was still nice for a quick stop.
While we were there, I noticed that a few of the gin bottles in front of us said they were produced at Kyoto distillery.
Since it was too late for us to book a tour, I didn’t visit. But I’d definitely check out the Kyoto Distillery Website to arrange a tour.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is physically stunning. The enormous shoots of bamboo are incredible. However, I must say that the forest trail is so overrun with tourists that it’s difficult to enjoy.
In my opinion, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of many world attractions that suffers from over-tourism, fueled by Instagram and the presence of social media.
Everyone wants to show that they’ve visited a cool place. I’m no exception. I simply wish that these places could at least be enjoyed with more respect. But, all was not lost!
The positive side of this is that the trails just beyond the bamboo forest are magnificent and quiet. Walking down to the Katsura River with Michael and sitting in the rain is without a doubt my favorite memory of Kyoto.
To see the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest without the crowds, prepare to wake up very early! Between 5 AM and 7 AM is generally the quietest time in the forest.
If you arrive as the sun rises, you may just get that perfect shot of the trails with no tourists in the background.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha is huge! Before visiting, I had no idea that it takes about two hours to reach the actual peak. I did not climb to anywhere near the top, but I certainly enjoyed the sea of iconic, orange gate-like structures along the pathways.
Michael and I visited Fushimi Inari-Taisha at night. Since this shrine is so popular with all tourists, we figured we could have a more authentic and relaxing experience by going a couple of hours after dinner. I’m glad we chose this time because we only saw a couple of people. I recommend you do the same!
Fushimi Inari-Taisha is free to enter. It is open 24 hours a day, so you can visit as early as you like. Meander the paths as the sun rises or explore under the cloak of darkness.
Kyoto's Geisha District
A walk through Gion is a must for gay travelers in Kyoto. This is the city’s famous Geisha District.
The Geisha District is a tranquil part of Kyoto. The pathways are beautiful and you will pass plenty of traditionally dressed men and women walking about. There tend to be many Geishas walking the streets in the late afternoon.
Kyoto's Best Temples & Castles
I visited the To-ji temple on my first night in Kyoto. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and a designated National Treasure of Japan. I went after sundown following the recommendation of my hotel’s concierge.
The landscape was incredibly lit, with upward-facing lamps bringing out the vivid fall foliage color.
The To-ji temple complex has several buildings with incredible ancient sculptures to view. These are also open after sunset when you can see the sculpture’s gold foil glisten in the dim lighting. To-ji wasn’t too crowded at this time in the evening, either.
Nijo Castle was another famous Kyoto attraction I visited. The highlight of the Nijo Castle was definitely the flowers and gardens surrounding the actual buildings. I visited in November, but the gardens will certainly be more colorful in the spring.
You can walk through the many rooms of the palace. We did this, but it was not so thrilling. The interior of the palace was not nearly as intricate as the exterior. The castle fortifications though are quite impressive. Spend a few moments taking in the beauty of these massive walls.
The Kinkaku-ji, known as the Golden Pavillion, is one of the most popular and famous temples to see in Kyoto. Stunning in its own way, it’s hard to decide if The Kinkaku-ji Temple is more beautiful than other temples!
The landscape surrounding this wonderful structure is breathtaking. I’m so glad I visited on a clear, sunny day. Catching the gleaming temple roof under a blue sky was awesome.
Given the Kinkaku-ji Temple is one of the most famous, expect quite a raucous tourist crowd. Photos of the temple all appear peaceful, but the experience is less so. There will definitely be herds of selfie-stick-wielding tourists!
My most memorable meal in Kyoto was at Guilo Guilo Hitoshina. The restaurant is small and offers a traditional Japanese set-dinner menu.
I had been stuffing myself full at every meal, so it was wonderful to have various smaller portions spaced out.
Aside from being portioned well, the flavors were delicious and their hot sake was just what we needed after walking outside in the cool air all evening.
I often ate at typical ramen restaurants between visits to temples or on my way to the hotel to rest. These places are great. They are authentic, delicious, and filling.
My favorite part is getting the meal ticket after selecting my food from a machine that has photos of all the meals. You grab this ticket and bring it to the counter. Simple!
Make sure not to miss the Japanese dinner time window if you’re a late-eater. After 9 PM, many restaurants will quickly close up shop as soon as their customers have finished.
If you end up looking for dinner after 10 PM or so, you may end up at a convenience store! This is of course a general rule. Some places could be open later.
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Restaurants in Kamiyacho & Nabeyacho
We noticed some cozy-looking establishments on the second floor of the low-rise building across the street. Their windows faced the shallow Kamo River that passes through this area. We wanted to get up into one of those cute hangouts!
Once you cross the pedestrian bridge over the river, you enter the Kamiyacho area. Through this stretch of a few blocks is a fun alleyway where you will surely see some locals enjoying their evening.
Michael and I found an amazing Japanese bar in this alley called Milk Hall. It’s not a place you will find on google. We noticed Milk Hall’s elegant interior through their window from across the street.
Milk Hall is a small bar run by a man with his wife. It was the most authentic Japanese experience of my entire trip to Japan. As we walked in, a group of Japanese men who were eating some soup welcomed us and cleared their things off a nearby couch.
The owner made conversation with us and made us feel completely at home. We eventually got to it in that cozy set of chairs we saw from the street below.
Kyoto Gay Bars
There are several gay bars in Kyoto, most of which are small, quiet establishments. Kyoto gay bars have a more intimate vibe than any gay bar I had ever been to. The experience is akin to spending time in someone else’s living room with a few acquaintances.
If there are not enough people are inside, a solo traveler may feel a bit intimidated. Try not to worry about this. Everyone in these small Kyoto bars is friendly.
You simply must enter with the expectation that you are not going to find go-go dancers hanging upside down from poles while circuit music blasts. It’s not that kind of vibe!
Apple is one of the official Kyoto gay bars. The establishment is not what you would imagine a typical gay bar to be like. I would describe the Apple Kyoto gay bar as more of a private lounge. It’s not a place where large groups congregate.
Instead, Apple is a bar or you can have a drink by yourself, listen to some music, and chat with the friendliest bartender you will ever meet.
Apple is on the third floor of a building near the Kamiyacho district. It felt a bit awkward approaching the entrance since there was no one walking through the hallway.
Michael and I popped our heads in and were met with the stares of three friendly men who were enjoying their evening.
We stared at one another and said “well, why not?” Although Apple was not the experience I expected, I’m very glad I went.
Kyoto Gay Clubs
Pop Kyoto was a fun spot to pop in for a drink while exploring the nearby area. While sitting at a table in this bar, we saw too extravagantly dressed Japanese drag queens run toward us from the sidewalk outside, through the bar, and into a back door.
We looked at each other with surprise and then discovered that the club downstairs has a big gay clientele, although it’s not officially a Kyoto gay club.
This underground Kyoto party spot is called World Kyoto. The scene is mixed and I imagine the relative percentage of gay guys there fluctuates.
Kyoto Gay Travel Tips
Traveling to Kyoto from Tokyo? Prepare for an expensive ride! The Shinkansen super-fast train is not cheap, so account for these tickets in your travel budget.
I suggest comparing airlines with Expedia while browsing flights to Japan. You can filter not only by airline, but also according to how much luggage you’ll bring, as well as if the airline charges change fees.
Kyoto Tourist Crowds
I’ll tell you about the tourist crowds only to temper your expectation of Kyoto. The sites in this serene Japanese town are indeed beautiful.
Many, however, are not as peaceful in person as advertisements or Instagram make them seem. Some attractions are overloaded with screaming tourists taking selfies.
I personally think such over-tourism is unfortunate. However, there is only so much one can do about it. To avoid the crowds in Kyoto, you must either visit early in the morning or after sunset.
You must plan an early visit to places like the Bamboo Forest that close in the late afternoon. You can visit other sites that are open around the clock, like the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, during the night.
Train Tickets in Japan
JR is Japan’s regional train service, linking cities across the nation. If you’re planning on traveling to other cities in Japan, buying a JR Rail pass is the most cost-effective option if your trip crosses regional boundaries.
Using Kyoto Public Buses
Reaching tourist attractions in Kyoto is often much easier by bus. Google Maps is not so exact regarding where transit actually stops, so remembering a few tips about Kyoto buses will save you some time and stress.
In my experience, Google Maps often directed me to the center of an intersection in order to catch a bus. The buses however do not stop within the area of the intersection. They stop a few hundred feet before/after the intersection at a bus shelter.
A letter is assigned to each bus shelter in a specific intersection. If there is only one bus route that stops there, you may only find bus shelters A and B. When more lines stop, you may find shelters A through F.
To find where to go, check any bus shelter map for the bus destination matching what Google Maps displays. The bus line direction will be under a specific bus shelter letter. Go toward this bus shelter.
See wolfyy’s complete collection of gay travel guides for more gay destination ideas around the world.