The questions I get asked most often is what are the must-see sights in Japan and how long I recommend spending in each place. Since Kyoto is on almost every traveler’s itinerary (deservedly so!) I decided to put together this 3-day itinerary to give you a rough guide for your trip to Kyoto.
I highly recommend spending two full days in Kyoto, although three days will give you an opportunity to explore it better as there is quite a lot to see and you will need some time to enjoy and take it all in. Kyoto is not as small as one might think and all the major sights are spread out in different directions. It definitely is not walkable and you will be relying heavily on the public transportation to get from one spot to another. Whether you follow my itinerary or your own, I highly recommend splitting your list into areas – east, central, south and west to target places clustered in each area to make your daily ventures more productive and efficient. From practical point of view, the best place to stay in Kyoto is around Kyoto Station, which is a central railway station in the city and a major transportation hub. It will be very easy to get to places from there, by bus or metro. It is also worth noting that metro system in Kyoto is not as sophisticated as that in Tokyo, so you will have to rely on bus to get to certain places. I advise you to get a bus, metro and city maps from the Information Center in Kyoto Station upon arrival to help you navigate.
Catch an early bullet train from Tokyo. The journey takes about 2 hours and costs around $120 one way (if you don’t have a JR Pass). After you arrive and check into your lodging, head out to explore. If you need to grab an early lunch, Kyoto Station has lots of nice and affordable options (both local and western cuisine) on the 11th floor.
Head to Fushimi Inari Taisha to wander through the mesmerizing vermilion tunnel of torii gates planted in the woods. If you didn’t already have lunch, then I recommend settling in one of the small mom-and-pop restaurants overlooking the forest. These are located at random rest stops along the trail. I enjoyed my bowl of udon while taking in the beautiful scenery through the floor-to-ceiling windows – it was quite memorable. Also note that the further up you go, less crowded the tunnel is and bigger the opportunity to take beautiful pictures without anyone in the frame.
Next, catch a bus to the iconic Kiyumizu-dera, or Pure Water Temple. One of Kyoto’s many world heritage sites and one of the most celebrated temples of Japan, Kiyomizu-dera is a sprawling complex which attracts thousands of visitors daily.
I recommend ascending from the Uedacho street, which is more of a cobble-stoned alley that will lead you to the iconic view of the Yasaka Pagoda.
Make a quick stop by the % Arabica Coffee whose owner and barista at the counter, Junichi Yamaguchi, took out first place in the world Coffee Fest Latte Art Championship. You will also be lured in by numerous souvenir shops, and quite frankly, Kyoto has the best souvenir shops in Japan. Call me biased, but I stand by these words and highly encourage you to indulge in shopping.
On your way back from Kiyomizu-dera, take a route via Nanenzaka street to enjoy the atmospheric ambiance of Gion.
At the end of this street you’ll find yourself at another noteworthy little shrine – Ryozen Kannon – with not so small statue of Kannon. It was erected in 1955 to commemorate Japanese soldiers who fell during WWII and is an example of Showa era art. Seeing her against the placid, ever-green mountain range of Kyoto was definitely worth a visit.
From there you can head to Nanzen-ji Shrine, once the most powerful zen temple in Japan, featuring red brick aqueduct.
Alternatively, you can get your zen moment at Kennin-ji Temple, the oldest zen temple in Kyoto. With scenic landscape and rock gardens, ancient wooden hallways and beautiful art, it quickly became my favorite place here.
For dinner, I could not recommend Hafuu Honten enough. Their wagyu beef is simply outstanding and well worth the splurge.
Wake up really early and head to Arashiyama – you will start the day browsing through the famous bamboo forest! I said early because the place gets packed later in the morning, so if you want to take beautiful photos of no one but you in the frame, you’ll have to beat the crowds and be there around 8 a.m.. After touring the Tenryu-ji Temple, its vast landscape garden and the bamboo forest, follow the trail on your left which will lead you to the river. You can have a leisurely stroll by the bank or take a boat ride. Either way, you’re bound to have a relaxing time.
For lunch I recommend stopping by ExCafé, whose traditional interior does not match its modern hipster name. Their bento box was delicious, although don’t leave without trying the dessert!
Catch a bus to the Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavillion. It is perhaps the most iconic spots in Japan. Sitting in the middle of the pond, the opulent gold-sheathed jewel-like Zen- Buddhist temple is absolutely breathtaking.
Afterwards, walk to the Ryoan-ji Temples, the most famous rock gardens in Japan. 15 solemn stones arranged in three groupings set in the gravel, but only 14 of them were visible from any particular vintage point in the garden. The rock garden is probably one of the most quintessential images of Japan, a sight for meditative contemplation or a riddle to train the mind. In the Buddhist philosophy, number 15 signifies completion and the message conveyed by the garden is that completion is not possible in this world. The garden is also an epitome of Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetics, which finds beauty in transience and imperfection. The clay wall, which is stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones, reflects “wabi” and the rock garden “sabi”.
After a full morning + early afternoon of exploring, change the scene and end your day in Nishiki Market to do some more souvenir shopping – ceramics, matcha products, knives. Beware that shops close around 5 PM though. It’s also a good spot to get yourself a reasonably priced dinner in one of the food stalls or numerous restaurants around the neighborhood.
If you didn’t have time to visit Nishiki Market the day before, this might be a good place to start. Then make your way to Nijo Castle and Imperial Palace if you are interested. Afterwards catch a bus to Ginkaku-ji Temple in the north-east part of the town to tour its stunning Japanese garden. You can take a relaxing walk along the Philosopher’s Path and grab a bite at one of the cute cafes along the canal.
You can spend your afternoon exploring Heian shinto shrine, and/or make your way to Yasaka shinto shrine, or both.
End your day walking along Shijo Dori street, a busy shopping avenue that leads to Pontocho where you can have a nice dinner in one of the restaurants overlooking the river.
Alternatively, you can spend your third day in Nara or move on to Osaka. This itinerary is intended for those in mind who like to explore and don’t shy away from a full day of sightseeing, with some breaks in-between. Naturally, it is for general guidance only, and can be adopted to meet your schedule and preferences. For additional reference, you can check out my Kyoto travel series: 10 Spots in Kyoto That Will Leave You Breathless, Kyoto Food Tour, Discover Kyoto Off The Beaten Path.
Lastly, another immensely popular question asked is where and how to meet Geisha in Kyoto. I had a very lovely evening at Gion Hatanaka where you have a kaiseki dinner and enjoy the performance and company of geisha and maiko. However, if you are looking for a more budget-friendly option, here is an informative guide I found for you.
I will also be publishing a post about best day trips from Kyoto next. Stay tuned, hope you find these helpful. As always, if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask in the comments or contact me directly!
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