It’s impossible to not fall in love with Japan. Kyoto, in particular, is beautiful. It’s a place where modernity mixes with traditional culture.
Everything in Kyoto seems picture perfect. Japan’s former capital may be much smaller and quieter than Kyoto, but many of the historical attractions have thankfully been preserved, making it a truly enchanting place to visit.
On a trip to Japan last summer, I spent two days in Kyoto, which was just enough time to fall in love with the city.
Getting to Kyoto
I came directly from Tokyo, taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) Nozomi early one morning. The fastest Shinkansen, costs ¥13,710 one-way (~$122), and can get you from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station in about 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s not cheap, but it’s quick.
You don’t need to worry about buying tickets in advance- trains run several times an hour and it’s easy to purchase tickets when you arrive at the station.
If you’ve only got one full day in Kyoto, I’d recommend taking the bullet train from Tokyo late night the day prior, and leaving on the first train out the day after your visit.
Staying in Kyoto
If you only have a night or two in Kyoto- stay somewhere central. I stayed in the Higashiyama district, near Maruyama Park, which I can’t recommend enough. Several of the things we wanted to do were walking distance from where we stayed, and for those which weren’t, we took buses or the subway.
The subway in Kyoto only has two lines, one runs north-south and the other runs east-west. Unfortunately, it’s limited and you’ll find it’s easier to take buses even though they take a bit longer. We avoided taking taxis whenever possible in Japan because we found it expensive in both Tokyo and Kyoto- think $50 USD for a 20 minute ride. Bonus: the below recos were created with taking Kyoto’s public transit in mind.
For travellers trying to pack in as much as possible, I’d also recommend renting a wifi device, like TEP, for your trip. Having access to Google maps makes it so much easier, and quicker, to hop from attraction to attraction.
Now, about that perfect day in Kyoto 🙂
Your morning starts early- really early.
Before I’d even started planning my trip to Japan, the bamboo grove had been on my list of places to venture to at some point in life.
A perfectly tailored bamboo forest, standing amid the stalks of bamboo is like being in another world. On a day with light wind, you can hear the stalks push against each other, crackling.
The bamboo grove is outside of the main attractions in Kyoto, but easy to get to and worth the trip. If you’re going to visit and want time alone in the grove, you need to go early- like super early. We arrived at 7:20 and had a half hour in the grove before other people started showing up. Come mid-day, the grove becomes extremely crowded with visitors.
To get to the grove, take the JR Sagano line to the Saga Arashiyama station. Then, walk ~10 minutes to get to the entrance of the grove. Location wise, it’s past the Tenryu-ji Temple, and to the left. You’ll reach a path with a few bamboo trees before you get to the grove- keep going. The first part of the path is pretty sparse, and you may think, this is a waste of time. Promise the trees get much denser as you keep going into the grove.
If you visit early like we did, you should be back in city center around 9-10 am, which is the perfect time to grab coffee and breakfast. If you’re ravenous, Mister Donut, a Boston-bred chain with locations all over Japan, sells excellent cake donuts in Kyoto Station.
Your next stop is % Arabica in Fujii Daimaru, Arabica’s main location is in the Gion district, but this one (inside a department store) is more central. Arabica is the best coffee in Kyoto, and one of the top lattes I’ve ever had.
If you’re hungry, head across the street to the Nishiki Market– a dream for foodies, housed in an alleyway with a beautiful glass roof. You’ll find plenty of traditional food here to try- pickled vegetables, Asian spices, tempura, seafood, sushi and plenty of soft serve. Also, don’t miss the cute animal donuts at Floresta (just outside the market).
Heading into early afternoon, head back toward Kyoto Station to hop on a train to Fushimi Inari Taisha– it’s a direct, quick journey.
Situated on the side of the Inari Mountain, there are thousands of crimson torii gates leading to the temple. At the top, the shrine is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice.
Each torii was donated by a business. Walking through the gates felt a bit surreal and kind of magical.
If you visit and there are a bunch of people in the lower region, just keep walking for a bit- it gets less crowded as you go further up the mountain. You won’t have time to go the whole way to the top, but you can easily spend an hour or two here and still have plenty of time for other activities.
One other thing to know: Fushimi Inari Taisha is open 24 hours a day, so it’s also a good place to visit early morning or late evening before/after other main attractions are open/closed for the day. I’m recommending coming early afternoon because other things you’ll be doing on your only day in Kyoto are more time specific.
Post torii gates, head back to city center for lunch. I don’t have a specific recommendation for you here- but, if it were me, I’d grab something on-the-go from 7-11 (which has great sushi and sandwich options in Japan) and head straight to the next destination.
If it’s mid-late afternoon by this point, perfect timing to head to Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple. When we went to the golden temple, we caught a bus from central station that dropped off a few blocks from the entrance.
Even if you’ve never heard of Kyoto, chances are you’ve heard of the golden temple. It’s so beautiful, it feels surreal. The outer walls of the temple are completely covered in gold, and the temple itself is surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens and ponds.
You can’t go inside the temple, but you can walk around the outer gardens. The temple becomes quite busy during the day, I’d recommend going early or right before it closes. We went ~45 minutes before closing time and although there were a few dozen people mingling about, it didn’t feel too crowded.
While you’re here, treat yourself to soft-serve (or soft cream, as it’s called in Japan). When we visited, I really enjoyed the green tea & vanilla swirl with gold flakes I got from the shop outside the temple.
Heading into evening, it’s time to relax and wander part of Kyoto.
The Gion district is a must visit if you want to see the atmosphere of ancient Japan. With preserved backstreets full of boutiques, it’s an area you don’t want to miss. In particular, Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka are two of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets. If you have a nice day, go for a walk in Maruyama Park.
Famed for its geishas, Gion is an area packed with bars, restaurants and teahouses. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a geisha in a back alley on her way to work right before the teahouses open for the evening.
Chances are, by this time, you’ve worked up an appetite. The good news is there are plenty of places to eat in the Gion district- my favorite is Okinawa (great for vegetarians), but Foursquare/Yelp can help you find a place serving what you’re in the mood for- or just pop into a place that looks good.
This part of Kyoto is also beautiful to wander at night- walk along the river, go inside a few shops, stroll down narrow alleyways- take everything in.
And, just like that, the day is over and it’s time to either head back to Tokyo or keep exploring Japan.
Have you ever been to Kyoto? What would you recommend as must-sees for first time visitors?