Kyoto is the best place to visit if you’re looking for a little slice of Japanese history, away from the skyscrapers and craziness of Tokyo and Osaka. I’d say you need at least 4 days in Kyoto to see the highlights. Our trip was seriously busy but we managed to cram in loads – from temples and tea ceremonies to beautiful gardens and some great restaurants. Prepare yourself now, this post is a long one, you might want to get a cup of tea and get comfy – luckily I’ve included about a million pictures so if you like you can just look at those to get you through to the end 🙂
Whilst there are many amazing temples and shrines to explore, Kyoto is a surprisingly modern city in many ways considering it’s only a few kilometres down the road from Osaka. When you do find those centres of calm like the quiet roads around the Arashiyama bamboo forest or perhaps on a visit to Yasaka shrine late at night, make sure to soak up the atmosphere. Whilst it’s a city packed with treasures and by far the best way to get an understanding of Japanese history and culture, Kyoto can be hectic to say the least.
Kyoto can also be pricy, and this goes for accommodation, food and sightseeing. You’ll need to be prepared for 4 days in Kyoto to suck up a fair proportion of your budget, but it’s definitely well worth it. When we started looking for our accommodation, during what was predicted (but turned out not to be) the height of cherry blossom season, only 12% of options on Booking.com were still available a couple of months before our visit. I appreciate this is a busy time of year but being organised and seeking out deals ahead of time will definitely help you to visit Kyoto on a tighter budget.
Luckily getting around the city is pretty easy and not too expensive. Subways and buses operate around the city and surrounding areas and typically cost around 180-350 yen per journey, so not too expensive if you plan your time out well. I have to admit that we splashed out on a couple of taxis to help us see as much as possible. On the topic of transport you’ll be walking A LOT if you visit Kyoto, whether you use this 4 day itinerary or any others. My all time top piece of advice would be to plan in plenty of stops to enjoy the food and drink on offer and to have a rest between temples and other sightseeing spots. If you spend 4 days in Kyoto, chances are you’ll be pretty exhausted by the end of it so give yourself a break when you get a chance!
Sadly the first of our 4 days in Kyoto it was tipping down with rain, and by the time we’d navigated from the metro to our apartment we were freezing cold and soaked through. Not wanting to waste any time in the city we decided to have a cultural (indoors) day exploring some museums and other places we wouldn’t get rained on again.
First up and a brilliant place to spend a couple of hours was the Nishiki Market which was a stone’s throw from where we were staying and was a great escape from the weather. Once again I didn’t expect to be impressed – we have seen SO many markets on our travels – but once again, I was. Japanese markets are packed so full of weird and wonderful food that a lot of the time you don’t even recognise what you’re looking it. Half the fun is trying to work out exactly what the different foods are and seeing which ones you’ve tried. From the notorious pufferfish to other tasty looking fresh seafood, sushi and cooking displays of local ingredients there’s loads to see at Nishiki Market.
As it was Sakura Season there were plenty of cherry blossom themed treats on offer, and whilst it was very busy, the atmosphere was great. There are also a lot of good little cafes and restaurants in the surrounding streets so it’s worth ducking into one of these for some lunch if you haven’t filled up too much on snacks from the market.
Kyoto National Museum
It’s just a short walk from Nishiki market to Kyoto National Museum, our second stop for the day and a chance to get an insight into the history of the area.
Dating back to the late 19th century, this Museum is one of Japan’s most famous art museums and houses collections based on local archeology and fine arts, including calligraphy. The audio guide is well worth investing in to get a better understanding of the exhibits and it provides an interesting insight into Kyoto’s culture during various period of Japanese history.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
This one’s more of a niche museum for sure, and we visited mainly because Rob’s a massive fan of Manga and was really keen to see what was on display. The museum houses literally thousands upon thousands of books of manga from all over the world, and a few interesting pieces around the history and development of manga culture both in Japan and internationally.
The weirdest and most unexpected thing about this museum was that it was packed with people sitting in every available space reading and enjoying manga. I had no idea it was such a big thing and it was kind of inspiring to see so many people enjoying it. You’d never see a library so full of people reading for fun in the UK that’s for sure!
On day 2 of our 4 days in Kyoto we were headed to one of the places I was most excited for – the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. I’d seen about 3 million pictures on Instagram before we visited and couldn’t wait to see what it was like for real. Best of all, we had great sunshine so I had high hopes for our photos – try and see this part of Kyoto on a sunny day if you can!
It’s simple to get to – just take the train from Shijo-Omiya and it takes around half an hour to reach the small train station in Arashiyama where there are several places to check out.
Tenryuji Temple and Gardens
This was our first stop and whilst we couldn’t justify the temple entrance fee, the gardens were amazing. It’s worth bearing in mind that most temples charge an entry fee and there are a huge number in Kyoto so you may want to pick and choose which ones you decide to pay for.
The first of Kyoto’s ‘Five Mountains’ and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, even just the gardens are seriously impressive. The garden is in the traditional Japanese style with peaceful ponds of koi carp and delicately pruned bonsai trees. With the wooded mountainside in the background, it’s a really beautiful spot and really no surprise that it’s classified as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
After the temple gardens it’s the point I’d been waiting for and luckily the path through Tenryuji took us right there. I have no idea how people take those iconic pictures where they’re standing alone surrounded by towering bamboo, but you can expect the forest to be packed with people unless you get there first thing in the morning.
Happily the bamboo forest didn’t disappoint in spite of the crowds and we were quite taken by the mystical and atmospheric feel of walking through the path in the midst of all the bamboo. The way the sunlight shines through the bamboo is really striking and gives the whole place an amazing appearance. Pictures don’t really do it justice but obviously we tried our best!
If you turn right at the end of the bamboo forest there’s a pathway that takes you to a peaceful area full of quiet streets. There are a few shops selling tasteful souvenirs, some restaurants and plenty of smaller temples that you can pay to visit and have a look around. On the advice of Lonely Planet we chose to take a quick look around Gio-ji temple and weren’t disappointed. It’s only a small temple but the gardens are well maintained and very beautiful.
Gion & Yasaka Shrine
Our final stop on day 2 of our 4 days in Kyoto was a trip to see Gion and the Yasaka shrine by night. Whilst we were too late to spot any Geisha, (normally 5.30pm to 6pm is the best time to see them between appointments), we loved seeing Gion by night and wandering around through the historic streets of this neighbourhood. It’s the old heart of Kyoto and many buildings are reconstructed and maintained in historic Japanese styles.
Here you’ll find Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that dates all the way back to 656 and is a great place to explore, especially by night when the ancient cherry trees are illuminated and many street food sellers are in the area.
By this point we were halfway through our 4 days in Kyoto and quite alarmed by how much we had left to see! I think it was this day that we decided to take a few this to cut down journey times and fit in as much as possible. Our problem is that we’re not the best at getting up early so it doesn’t help us when we’re trying to see a lot in one day!
First on the list and a short walk away from the apartment was Nijo Castle. Built in the 17th century it’s a large complex that was designed as a residence for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Whilst much of it has been reconstructed the wall paintings and large traditional wooden buildings are still very impressive and worth the entrance fee to wander round for an hour or so. The gardens and viewpoint of the city are particular highlights. I think I might have to write a post about our favourite Japanese gardens as whilst they’re not my usual style they are so beautiful.
Our next stop was one of the top rated attractions in Kyoto – Fushimi Inari and it was one of our favourite spots. Again, very busy so we probably should have arrived earlier, but a beautiful set of over 10,000 torii. The vermillion gates are set in a pathway all the way to the top of Inari mountain, and it takes around 2 hours or so to reach the summit, especially if you’re stopping for plenty of pictures.
A bonus here is that there’s no entry fee and you can visit at any time. The shrine is another place where you really feel a special kind of atmosphere and learning about the traditions behind the gates gives a great insight into Japanese history.
Just 10 minutes walk away is the Tofuku-ji temple which couldn’t be more of a contrast to Fushimi-Inari. This was one of our favourite temples we saw on our 4 days in Kyoto as it was just so quiet, especially after the busy paths through the Inari gates. It’s a complex of enormous wooden structures and the main gate is the oldest one of its type in Japan and considered to be a national treasure.
You guessed it, time for another temple! We headed back to Gion for a booking we’d made and had a little time beforehand to visit this temple. Sadly this part of Kyoto was unbelievably crowded and whilst we enjoyed a quick wander around and some beautiful views of the city we weren’t inclined to wander for too long.
Traditional Tea Ceremony (& Higashiyama)
The engagement I mentioned was actually a traditional tea ceremony. Many people said it was one of their favourite experiences in Japan and we really wanted to try one while in the ancient heart of the country. The location of the one we chose gave is another great excuse to wander some of Kyoto’s oldest streets in the Higashiyama area of the city. If you find yourself in this area do explore the old streets and especially around the Ninenzaka and Sannensaka steps which we found one of the nicest areas we visited.
The tea ceremony itself was pretty interesting. Sadly I really don’t like Matcha tea so it wasn’t the most enjoyable thing I’ve done but it’s worth doing, and if you like the tea you’ll love it even more I’m sure!
Our final day of our 4 days in Kyoto came around so quickly and we had to see some sights that we hadn’t yet fitted in. We had a tip off from the friendly owner of our apartment about some cherry blossoms that had come into bloom early so seeing these was also a priority!
Kinkaku-Ji Temple (The Golden Temple)
One of the most iconic spots in Kyoto and definitely one of the most beautiful, we headed to this temple to check out the golden structure and the surrounding gardens. Another place towards the top of most tourist’s lists, it was very busy as expected but still an amazing place to explore for an hour. The temple itself is stunning and it’s location on the lake with a backdrop of mountains and forests makes it all the more beautiful. Alongside the temple, the gardens were also amazing and we even saw a wedding taking place which was pretty special. I love seeing people getting married in these awesome settings around the world.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Our next stop and the scene of our first fully flowered cherry blossoms was the Imperial Palace where we spent a couple of hours in the gardens. There are some beautiful old cherry trees here and the blossom was just awesome, so we took about a million pictures and just sat and admired them for a while. This was our first taste of the madness of Sakura season in Japan – as there were hundreds of other people doing the same as us and everyone seemed overjoyed to see some cherry blossoms in full bloom!
Not too far away from where we had our tea ceremony the previous day, we made our way to the famous Philosopher’s Path for a final ramble around this area of Kyoto. It’s a stone path that travels alongside a small canal and is where one of Japan’s most famous philosophers was said to carry out daily meditation whilst walking along the path to the university in Kyoto. There are lots of cafes and small souvenir shops and it’s a peaceful area of the city.
It’s one of the best spots to visit during cherry blossom season as the banks of the canal are lined with hundreds of trees that bloom each spring. Sadly we were a week or so early as a result of some unexpected cold weather, but the path was still a lovely place to explore.
This was the last temple we visited on our 4 days in Kyoto and we were pretty happy to go out on a high! We got there shortly before sunset and had a great time wandering around before some amazing city sunset views. This is known as the silver pavilion and is a Zen temple, built in the 15th century. The garden here is another highlight with both a traditional moss garden and an unusual dry sand garden. There are a few temple buildings but we found the gardens the main attraction.
A Summary of our 4 Days in Kyoto
It’s only writing this post that I’ve realised just how much we did in our 4 days in Kyoto! You’d hardly believe that by the time we left we still felt that there was loads more we hadn’t seen. I’m happy that this itinerary includes what we felt were the main highlights and we really loved our time here while exploring Japan, but I’m desperate to go back!
All in all my main advice is:
Make sure you spend at least 4 days in Kyoto as there’s so much to see
Be prepared to jostle with plenty of others at the main attractions, especially at busy times of year
Expect to walk a lot – even if you use taxis and public transport the city needs a lot of walking to see properly
Eat as much as you can, like the rest of Japan we found the food here was incredible
Budget plenty as it is an expensive place, especially if you want to visit lots of temples and eat out like we did
Have fun and we hope you love Kyoto as much as we did!