Last month, we were lucky to spend two days in beautiful Kyoto after spending three days in Tokyo. This traditional Japanese city really honors Japan’s past and revolves around the thousands of shrines and temples built eons ago. I expected to love Kyoto when we visited, but I was truly blown away by how amazing it was. In this post, I will walk through everything you need to do during a two-day stay in the city, which is about as much time as you need.
Just a few practical pieces of information: Kyoto is very accessible to get to from Tokyo, so if you are visiting Japan for the first time, it definitely makes sense to see both cities on the same visit. For a $115 train fare, you can take a train from Tokyo Station (they leave about every ten minutes) and two hours and forty minutes later you’ll be in Kyoto. The most popular times of year to visit are autumn, when the leaves are spectacular shades of red, orange and yellow, and the spring for cherry blossom season. These are also the most expensive times to visit, but at least in our experience, it was worth every penny.
With only two days in Kyoto, we really wanted to maximize our time so that we saw all of the must-see shrines but also left some time to happen upon things. Before we went to Japan, I took the time to map out all of our “musts” on Google maps, and then created an itinerary based on proximity so we could be efficient. We traveled around Kyoto solely using their subway and public bus system because that was the fastest way to get around. We highly suggest you do the same and get an all-day pass for public transit which will cost around $12 per day.
Fushimi Inari: We started bright and early at one of Kyoto’s busiest shrines—Fushimi Inari, which is dedicated to the goddess of rice. You’ve probably seen the hundreds of iconic orange gates on Instagram, but they are all the more beautiful in person. While we meant to get here for 7 a.m. to avoid the massive crowds, sleeping in felt too good, so we got here closer to 9:30 a.m., which was a mistake, but we made the most of it.
After getting into the main section, which is flooded with travelers making it virtually impossible to get a good solo photo without people in the background, my boyfriend found a genius hack that was a shortcut that allowed us to walk in the woods next to the shrine and get in front of the crowds so that we could get some amazing shots. All in all we spent about an hour here before heading to the next location.
Ginkaku-Ji: So, our next location was a happy mistake and one of the highlights of the first day for me. We took public transit to what is called Philosopher’s Path, and ended up at Ginkaku-Ji, which is also called the Silver Pavilion. It wasn’t until we paid admission and hiked part of it that we realized that we were not on Philosopher’s Path, but the scene was so beautiful we didn’t even mind that our itinerary hadn’t been stuck to.
When you walk in there is a stunning temple and gardens that were bright shades of red and orange because the leaves were pretty much at peak levels. What we enjoyed most was this amazing trails up and around the temple that provided the most spectacular views and vantage points. This can get a bit crowded at times, but we still got amazing shots. The walk takes about 40 minutes or so.
Philosopher’s Path: From the Silver Pavilion, we walked to Philosopher’s Path, which is a tree-line street next to a little canal that takes about twenty minutes to walk. It’s very scenic and quick and worth taking a stroll on. I loved the little shops and restaurants lining it, and popped into a tiny soba spot for lunch, which allowed us to cross another type of cuisine off of our food list (yay!). It was called Omen and we highly recommend it. It was very quick and super cheap and just what we needed to fuel a long day of sightseeing.
Kinkaku-Ji: Next we visited another iconic sight in Kyoto, Kinkaku-Ji or the Golden Pavilion. This temple is painted in actual gold leaf and is truly resplendent. It was the home of a shogun and is a glittering tribute to his own power. We loved how the temple was set among these lush trees that had changed color and how it reflected on the water surrounding it. It is crowded here, but manageable, which made me happy that we visited later in the day. A photo I took is at the very top of the post.
Ryoanji Temple: Next we walked about twenty minutes to Ryoanji Temple, which wasn’t on my itinerary, but my boyfriend had been on a prior trip and remembered it being beautiful. I’m so happy he suggested it because it was another unplanned highlight of the day. This temple is in the middle of an amazing botanical zen garden filled with Japanese plants. It was eerily quiet here and wasn’t swarmed by tourists, meaning we could explore it at our own pace. It is home to one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens.
After a very full day of sightseeing, we headed back to our hotel to shower and change before our kaiseki dinner at Gion Namba, which is a Michelin-starred traditional multi-course dinner. We’ll get into it in a separate food-dedicated post.
On day two, we explored the Western region of Kyoto, starting with Arashiyama. A practical note – it’s hard to see both sides of Kyoto in one day, so it makes sense to break the day up in the way we are describing. The Arashiyama region is home to the famous bamboo forests and such, so it’s worth adding to your itinerary. It is just about 45 minutes from where most people stay in town, so allow time to get there. Here was our itinerary while there. Also, we used a tour guide which was a total waste of time and our one regret from Kyoto was not doing this on our own.
Tenryu-ji Zen Temple garden: We began the day that Tenryu-ji Zen Temple garden which is considered the most important temple in the region and is a world heritage sight. This temple is just a ten minute walk from the train station, so it makes sense to begin your day here. They have a famous rock garden and other sights and can be done in 30 minutes or so.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: Next, we went to the bamboo garden, which is what I was most excited about for the day. You should manage your expectations, though, because the gardens are absolutely swarmed with tourists. But, the bamboo is beautiful and I loved just looking up and watching the trees sway and hearing the noises that it made. This is not the place to get a great photo of yourself among the bamboo because it’s too crowded. Later on, I’ll tell you where to get that shot.
Gio-Ji Temple: I really wanted to visit a moss garden while in Tokyo and Gio-Ji exceeded expectations. There is a temple with a fairytale-like thatched roof and then the lushest green moss garden with hundreds of varieties of moss covering it. The leaves had fallen off the trees so the moss was interspersed with red, orange and yellow leaves. It’s truly a spectacular sight and worth adding to your itinerary. It will take around 40 minutes.
Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple: This temple is dedicated to the souls who have died without families to remember them and it is stunning. It is a very somber place with 8,000 stone figurines throughout the temple representing the souls. You aren’t supposed to take pictures of the grounds, but we did because it was so stunning.
Bamboo Grove near Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple: So, we couldn’t get the perfect photo at the Arashiyama bamboo grove which caused us to head to a different grove that had almost no other people on it. This bamboo-lined staircase is beautiful and not overrun and worth the detour. It is right near the temple that we loved, so could easily fit into your itinerary.
After Arashiyama, we headed back toward the central part of Kyoto for Niko castle. At this point, we were completely temple, shrine and castled out and just wanted a glass of wine and food. I’m sure Niko Castle was beautiful, but I think we had reached our limit. So, we did it as quickly as possible and then headed for some non-religious fun.
Nishiki market: We headed to this famous 400-year-old traditional market loaded with Japanese ingredients such as dried fish and other delicacies that I was too nervous to peruse very closely. It’s super crowded and narrow, but worth strolling for 10 minutes to say you saw it. We found a ramen spot on the outskirts of it for sake and ramen.
Yamatoya: Before dinner, we went to a bar that came highly recommended by friends (and the New York Times). This jazz bar has a sleek red bar and a classic record player with thousands of records the owner plays while you sip Japanese whiskey or mixed drinks. It was a really different vibe even if my dirty martini was a bit odd. We had yakitori (new food!) for dinner this night at Torito, which I will get into in our food post. It is walking distance to Yamatoya.