If you plan on visiting Kyoto during your first trip to Japan (or if you're unfamiliar with the Japanese bus systems), the thought of just hopping on a bus could send anyone panicking. Here, I'll explain the very easy process of getting to all the sightseeing destinations, without going broke paying for taxis.
The best place to start from is Kyoto Station. It is the largest bus stop in Kyoto. The buses pull in right in front of the main building. You can't miss it! Hundreds of people, both Japanese and tourists, will be forming multiple lines beneath signs that may be a bit confusing.
The first step: DON'T BE INTIMIDATED. It's very easy to get the hang of!! And to make the process even easier, all stops are announced in both Japanese and English!
Facing Kyoto Station, you will find a small building to the left of the bus stops. It will be labeled "BUS TICKETING AND INFORMATION." For the best bang for your buck, (or perhaps, yank for your yen!), head to the furthest counter and purchase an all-day bus pass. For only 500 JPY (or about $5), you will be able to ride the city busses for unlimited trips, so long as you don't venture too far into the suburbs. On this ticket, you will see pictures of two different busses - a green bus and a pink flowered bus. This ticket is good for either types of these busses. The pink flowered bus is better if you're headed to the regular tourist stops - it will only stop at the major sights, instead of every bus stop on the way like the green bus.
Second Step: Find your bus stop. Let's say you would like to go to Kiyomizudera Temple. Head towards the bus stops and then look up. You will see signs with destinations. The sign for your destination will most likely say "SANJUSANGENDO GION KIYOMIZUDERA". That means this bus will stop at Sanjusangendo Temple, Gion district, and Kiyomizudera Temple. (Sometimes the name of your destination may be a bit altered due to translation issues - for example, Fushimi Inari Shrine becomes "Inari Taisha", but just make sure the name contains at least part of your destination.) Directly beneath the sign, you will see a four-sided post. This post will digitally display the time the next bus is expected, and if there is more than one bus due to arrive.
Third Step: Once the bus arrives, look on the side. There will be a scrolling sign that should also bear the name of its destination. If you are headed to Kiyomizudera Temple, make sure the bus says so. It should match the sign above your head. (We made the mistake of hopping on a bus without checking the scrolling sign first - and wound up about an hour outside of town!) If the bus does indeed go to your intended destination (or nearby area), hop on.
Once on the bus, you will notice an electronic board in the front of the bus, near the ceiling. Keep an eye on this board. Especially during rush hour, the busses get crowded and noisy, and you may not hear the announcement. This board will display (in Kanji and English) the next stop.
Fourth Step: Once "Kiyomizudera" is announced and displayed, head to the front once the bus has stopped. If you have purchased an all-day bus pass, all you need to do is show the driver your ticket. If your ticket has not yet been stamped with the date, just stick it in the machine sitting next to him and grab it when it pops out. If you did not purchase a ticket, simply throw your fare into the box next to him and get off. Tadaaa! You have arrived!
Once you have finished seeing the temple, head back to where you were dropped off. Then scan ACROSS the street for another bus stop - you need to get back on the bus from the other direction of traffic if you want to get back to where you started from. Seen how you started from Kyoto Station, you will want to wait for the next bus bearing the sign "KYOTO STATION". Get on this bus and repeat the same process.
Easy enough, wasn't it?
A few tips: If you don't purchase an all-day bus pass, most of the busses headed to the tourist spots are a flat-fare. This means no matter where you get off, you pay only one fare. At the time of our travel, this fare was 220 yen. (Roughly $2.20). Very cheap! HOWEVER, fare MUST be paid in EXACT CHANGE ONLY. There are machines to make change located next to the driver, but it will only make change for up to 1000 yen - so be sure to carry the smallest bills or change if you intend on taking the bus. One poor tourist wasn't aware of this, and was embarassed when the irritated driver had to announce over the PA that she needed someone to make change for her large bill! Through the generosity of locals, the now red-faced lady was able to pay her fare.
Busses get PACKED during rush hour. You may wind up standing if it is during morning or evening traffic. As a common courtesy, it is expected that you give up your seat to an elderly passenger that boards - if you are young and without handicap.
Not every stop is listed on the bus signs - so don't panick if you make an unexpected stop. (Which you probably will.) As mentioned earlier, the pink busses don't stop at every stop along the way like the green busses do, so hop on a pink bus if it's not too long of a wait.
Now you're ready to grab your ticket and hop on a bus! Go see some temples!!