Famous for its ancient temples, serene gardens, gorgeous ponds, and cherry trees in full bloom, Kyoto, located on the island of Honshu, was once the capital of imperial Japan. Even today, the city is recognized as the cultural heart of Japan, since a great number of the country’s unique traditions originated within its walls. Approach the city with a healthy dose of reverence and an open mind and experience true Japan in a big city with a subdued, small-town feel.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT KYOTO?
The weather in Kyoto is predominately temperate, which means that you can visit the city at any time of year. The rainy season lasts for close to a month and a half, from mid-June to late July. However, since it does not rain every day, even this period doesn’t prevent you from travelling. In general, the best time to visit Kyoto is in spring or fall, i.e. either in March/April/May or in October/November. In spring, you can enjoy the sight of cherry blossoms bringing the city to life, while in fall, you can see the gardens surrounding the Kyoto temples explode in a golden rhapsody of colors.
If you have a choice, you may want to plan your visit around one of the numerous festivals in the city, to make your one day in Kyoto truly memorable. During the first three days of January, every Kyoto shrine, with Yasaka-jinja Shrine, Fushimi-Inari-taisha Shrine, and Heian-jingu Shrine being the most popular ones, receives its first shrine visit of the New Year. This is called Hatsumode. Soon after, on January 15, Kyoto temple Sanjusangen-do hosts Toshiya, a famous archery contest. During the first week of May, the majority of Japanese workers are on holiday, called the Golden Week holiday.
You may want to avoid visiting Kyoto during this time since all the Kyoto attractions are extremely crowded and the hotels are significantly more expensive than usual. The biggest festival of the year is Gion Matsuri, on July 17, with a huge procession with festival floats marching through the streets of downtown Kyoto. Shogatsu (New Year’s) is also a pretty big deal in Kyoto and a good time to visit.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT KYOTO
The modern city of Kyoto is the capital of Kyoto Prefecture in Japan’s Kansai Region. For more than a thousand years, Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan. Originally, the city was named Heiankyo, meaning “Capital of Peace”, but it was later renamed to Kyoto, meaning simply “the Capital”. Today, Kyoto is the sixth largest city in Japan, even though it was one of the most populous cities in the world for many centuries, reaching half a million people by the 16th century. In addition to three palaces and a castle, the city of Kyoto is home to more than 30 universities and colleges, and endless beautiful parks, gardens, and museums. Kyoto is also famous for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In an unrelated fact, the headquarters of video gaming giant Nintendo is located in the city, and its first game was launched here as well. You simply cannot visit Kyoto without hearing about kaiseki cuisine, the Japanese “haute cuisine”. The highest, most refined version of this exceptional facet of Japanese gastronomy is called shojin ryori.
If you are not sure what to do in Kyoto, visiting some of the city’s numerous temples might be a good start. A word of warning, though: with more than 1600 temples in the city, choosing which temples to visit on your one day in Kyoto will not be an easy task. This Kyoto itinerary covers all of the most recognizable ones, as well as the shrines you simply must see in Kyoto.
ONE DAY IN KYOTO ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the best of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Kyoto.
Start Your Day Early and Visit the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
When it comes to Kyoto shrines, you absolutely have to see the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine on your one day in Kyoto. The main shrine of Inari, the Shinto god of rice, this shrine is located at the base of a mountain and famously has as many as 32,000 sub-shrines (bunsha (分社) all over the country. Visiting the shrine early in the morning is recommended, since it will give you a chance to avoid some of the crowds that are common later in the day, and you may even get a nice clean picture of the shrine’s traditional gates it’s famous for. The rows of these gates, known as Senbon torii, are the real highlight of the shrine, with more than 10,000 of them along the main path. The torrii were all donated by Japanese businesses starting with the Edo period (1603 – 1868), since Inari was also traditionally worshipped by manufacturers and merchants as the patron of business.
Explore the Kiyomizu-dera Temple
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of the most visited temples in Kyoto, with an unparalleled hillside location that offers breathtaking views of Kyoto and the surrounding valley. The Kiyomizu-dera Temple was built as a place of worship for Kannon, the goddess of mercy. From the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, you can hop aboard the Keihan Main Line (railway) northbound from the Fushimi-Inari Station across the bridge west of the shrine. Exit the train at the Tofukuji Station (2nd stop) and then take a short 3-minute walk east until you reach the bus stop across the street from the Red Cross Hospital. Board bus 202 and ride for 6 stations until you reach the Kiyomizu-michi bus stop. From there, it will take you about 10 minutes to get to the temple. You will pass a number of charming shops along the way with assorted sweets, food, and souvenirs.
Go for a Walk Along Philosopher’s Path
After the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, go back to the Kiyomizu-michi bus stop and take the bus number 206. Ride the bus north for 6 stations, until you reach the Higashiyama Nijo Okazaki Koen Guchi Bus Stop. Then switch to bus 32 and ride it for 8 stops. Exit at the Honeninmachi Bus Stop. The nearby Philosopher’s Path is a pleasant stone path that follows a small stream with a number of interesting stops. On a sunny day, it is the perfect place for a walk, with beautiful cherry trees and old houses on the side. It is one of the best places to visit in Kyoto in April when the trees explode with color. All in all, the Philosopher’s Path is very mellow and, surprisingly, not overrun by tourists. The Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is a quaint little site with amazing views and gardens near the northern end of the path. It is worth a short visit if you happen to be nearby.
Grab a Bite to Eat
To save on time, you should take a short lunch break in one of the restaurants on the Philosopher’s Path. The Omen Ginkaku-ji Head Shop and Juugo stand out as two of the best options. The Omen Ginkaku-ji Head Shop serves some amazing Udon noodles, and the place itself feels very authentic, welcoming, and relaxing. However, if you to go for Soba noodles (and know the difference!), then check out Juugo for the finest fresh Soba made to order. Minimalist, yet friendly and in a nice location, the whole restaurant is run by just one man (seating for 8).
Take the Bus/Taxi to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
After lunch, take a short 5-minute walk west of the Philosopher’s Path until you reach the Shirakawa Dori (street). Take bus 204 from the Jodoji Bus Stop to the Kinkakujimichi Bus Stop (23 stops). From there, it’s only a short walk to the Kinkaku-ji Temple, one of the city’s most famous attractions. The structure, built in 1397, is also known as Golden Pavilion, since it was once completely covered in gold leaf. Kinkaku-ji served as the retirement villa of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, a 15th century shogun. The Silver Pavilion near the Philosopher’s Path was built by his grandson decades later and is modelled after Kinkaku-ji.
Take a Taxi to Arashiyama District
Although perhaps you wouldn’t have guessed as much, there are other places to visit in Kyoto apart from the numerous temples and shrines. Among them is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – one of the top sights in Kyoto. The best way to get there is by taxi. A taxi ride from Kinkaku-ji to Arashiyama shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. At the price of approx. 1900 JPY or close to 17 USD, it is absolutely worth it, since it will save you from spending an hour or more riding the city’s buses and trains. As a side note, most travelers prefer taking the taxi – and you should too, especially if you’re struggling to make sense of the city’s public transport system.
Explore the Arashiyama District
The Arashiyama District is located on the western outskirts of Kyoto, named after the Arashiyama Mountain (meaning Storm Mountain) across the Ōi River. The district is definitely one of the most interesting places to see in Kyoto, with the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove being its star attraction. A tranquil scenic spot, the grove is, in essence, a narrow pedestrian walkway bordered by tall bamboo plants. Only 10 minutes away, you will come across the Tenryuji Temple and the gorgeous Sogenchi Garden surrounding a quaint little pond.
Pick One of the Museums in the Nakagyō Ward
After the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, take a taxi to downtown Kyoto, more precisely, to Nakagyō-ku, one of the city’s eleven wards. Its name means “central capital ward“, and the businesses there mostly revolve around shopping, tourism, and entertainment. Among the numerous museums and galleries in the city center, three stand out in particular: the Samurai & Ninja Interactive Museum and Show, The Museum of Kyoto, and the Kyoto International Manga Museum. All of them close relatively late. The Manga Museum is open until 6 PM, the Kyoto Museum until 7:30 PM, and the Samurai/Ninja Museum until 8 PM. The Kyoto International Manga Museum is a great place for a brief visit if you appreciate the art. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you can still admire the comic books.
The Museum of Kyoto is mostly focused on the city’s history, art, and crafts. Our top recommendation, the Samurai & Ninja Interactive Museum and Show, features a fun and informative tour that will help you learn about the ancient arts of the Ninjas and the Samurai, and they’ll even let you try to throw stars and use blow darts. It is a great place to see if you are visiting Kyoto with kids, but adults will love it just as much.
Instead of visiting museums, you can go for a Japanese Tea Ceremony Experience Kyoto, a cultural experience where you can learn everything about the Japanese tea ritual while wearing traditional kimono robes.
Check Out the RAN Theatre
The RAN Theatre Kyoto, very close to the Samurai & Ninja Interactive Museum and Show, is certainly one of the top Kyoto attractions. With a great selection of drinks and some quality local food, you can watch five really talented performers play authentic Japanese music with a modern twist. The place is rarely crowded, so it feels almost like a private show, and they will frequently ask the audience to participate.
Consider Your Options for a Night on the Town
If you feel like you have enough energy for partying after the RAN Theatre, here are a couple of suggestions to give you a taste of Kyoto’s nightlife. SURFDISCO, only 4 minutes from the RAN Theatre towards the Kamo River, is a trendy place with a great selection of cocktails. Its big draw is the fact its open until 5 AM. To the north, Bar Cordon Noir is the place to go if you want to sample fine (and expensive) Japanese whiskey, with a selection that’s out of this world and friendly, knowledgeable staff. To the south, L’EscaMoteur Bar, while small, is a world-class bar that serves amazing drinks, similar to classical western cocktails, but always with a peculiar Japanese twist.
WHERE TO STAY IN KYOTO?
Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel Kyoto Premier
A completely new property, Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel Kyoto Premier opened in 2017. It is located along the Kamo river, in the immediate vicinity of the Sanjo Station on the Keihan Line. The comfortable rooms are air-conditioned and come with a flat-screen TV, sofa, deposit box, electric kettle, and bottled water. Several of the hotel’s rooms have unrestricted views of the Kamo River. There is a public bath on site, as well as an excellent restaurant, with additional dining options and charming cafés nearby.
Hotel Kanra Kyoto
Located near the Kyoto Station, this nonsmoking hotel is distinguished by its particular blend of modern, Western, and traditional Japanese décor. All of the guest rooms in Hotel Kanra Kyoto come with Japanese tatami flooring, traditional Kiyomizu-yaki ceramics, and a typical Japanese seating area. The private bathroom is a particular highlight with its wooden bathtub and quality complimentary toiletries. In addition to Teppanyaki cuisine, guests can opt for Italian food, with both Japanese-style and Western menus available for breakfast. If you are primarily interested in Kyoto temples and other historic places to visit in Kyoto, then Hotel Kanra Kyoto is the right choice for you.
R Star Hostel Kyoto
Another property that opened in 2017, R Star Hostel Kyoto is located in the Shimogyo Ward district in central Kyoto. In addition to comfy air-conditioned rooms, guests are free to use the hostel’s shared kitchen area and laundromat. A number of popular restaurants and convenience stores are within easy reach, while both the Heian Shrine and the Tofuku-ji Temple are less than two miles away. It takes only 15 minutes to reach the Kyoto market (Nishiki Markets Kyoto) on foot.
WeBase Kyoto is an affordable, modern hostel located in the Shimogyo Ward district, only 1.4 km from the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Other Kyoto attractions, such as the Nijo Castle and the Samurai Kembu Kyoto are also relatively close. The hostel’s facilities are modern and clean, with comfortable beds and a designated seating area in each room. As an extra perk, WeBase Kyoto has a lounge stacked with interesting reads and several informative guides to Kyoto.
KYOTO DAY TRIPS
Northern Kyoto Prefecture: Amanohashidate, Ine & Miyama from Kyoto
One of the more picturesque and colorful tours in Japan, this fun day trip to Amanohashidate, Ine and Miyama from Kyoto is all about sightseeing some of the best preserved cultural and architectural artifacts in Japan. While Amanohashidate and Miyazu Bay boast unparalleled natural beauty, Ine no Funaya is quaint little coastal town famous worldwide for its traditional wooden boathouses. Another area, Miyama, charms visitors with its thatched roof farmhouses strewn all over the mountainous terrain, showing a completely different side of Japan. Definitely one of the best day trips from Kyoto.
Nara Afternoon Tour of Todaiji Temple, Deer Park and Kasuga Shrine from Kyoto
Although Kyoto was the capital of Japan for centuries, it wasn’t the only one during the country’s long and rich history. Nara, first established in the 8th century, is another ancient capital of Japan and, very much like Kyoto, it is also filled with gorgeous temples and shrines, including the Todaji Temple, listed among the oldest temples in the country, and the Kasuga Shrine, with more than 3,000 bronze and stone lanterns. This day trip from Kyoto also includes a stop at Nara Park, a massive reserve with more than 1,000 deer roaming freely in an area covering 1,250 acres.
Day Trip by Bus to Kyoto, Nara and Kobe from Osaka
If you don’t have the time to spend on exploring Kyoto or if you find the idea of navigating the city’s streets on your own too daunting, the best way to experience all of the key places to visit in Kyoto is to embark on a Kyoto day trip from another city. If you are in Osaka, then this is the trip for you, since it covers not only Kyoto, but also Nara, the Tenryuji Temple and the Todaiji Temple (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites), and the Kobe MOSAIC, a modern shopping mall with a number of entertainment and dining options in the city’s port.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING KYOTO
In case you are coming to Kyoto from abroad, you will first land at the Kansai International Airport, 100 km away. The best way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto is by bullet train, which takes a bit more than 2 hours.
If you want to make it easier to get around Kyoto, you can purchase the Kyoto Sightseeing Card for 1200 yen (adult price). The card guarantees unlimited rides on the city’s subway and the buses.
If you don’t have a place to stay in Kyoto, for example, if you are just passing through and don’t want to drag all of your luggage with you while sightseeing, you can use the lockers at the Kyoto train station or the ones at Porta to keep your luggage safe.
Japan is known worldwide as a very safe country.
If you need to call emergency services in Japan, here are the numbers: 110 for the police and 119 for an ambulance, with support in multiple languages.
Cell phones with foreign numbers usually do not work in Japan.
Smoking in public in non-designated areas is a serious offense, and it could cost you a hefty fine.
In case you decide to eat in a restaurant with traditional Japanese low tables and cushions on a tatami floor, remember that you have to remove your shoes or slippers before you step on the tatami.
In Japan, tattoos are still kind of taboo and frowned upon.
Avoid behaviors such as pointing at things/people with your finger, raising your voice in public, taking pictures of other people without their permission, drinking or eating in public, etc., since those behaviors are seen as impolite or worse.
The majority of the country still relies on cash as a preferred method of payment. In general, you may be surprised by some “low-tech” aspects of Japanese culture that seem almost out of place.
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If you have any other propositions for this One Day in Kyoto Itinerary, feel free to share them in the comments below!