Kyoto is a must stop while in Japan! The city with ancient temples, shrines, traditional houses, great food and spectacular views will create memories that you won't forget. I was looking forward to this part of our Japan trip as it promised the must see sights and also a more traditional atmosphere of Japan. We had 3 full days in Kyoto. I planned the days in quite detail to make the most of our stay here. If you are looking for inspiration on how to spend your time in Kyoto, check our travel guide below! Just to let you know- we walked a lot and started days quite early 😊
Day 1: Southern Kyoto & Southern Higashiyama.
Sights and places visited: Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Yasaka Koshindo Temple, Maruyama Park, Nishiki market.
Day 2: Arashiyama & Northwest Kyoto.
Sights and places visited: Bamboo Grove, Arashiyama Park Kameyama Area, Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashiyama Monkey park (Iwatayama), Kimono Forest, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Ryoanji Temple.
Day 3: Northern Higashiyama & Central Kyoto.
Sights and places visited: Ginkaku-ji Temple, Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi), Kyoto Gyoen (Kyoto Imperial Palace Park), Nijo Castle, Nishiki district, Pontocho district, Gion district.
Day 1: Southern Kyoto & Southern Higashiyama
We started in Southern and Eastern parts of Kyoto, including the Higashiyama area. The Higashiyama area is probably the most important part of Kyoto for sightseeing with many beautiful temples, shrines and traditional streets. You can easily spend a day in this area alone. The Southern Kyoto has fewer sightseeing places but the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha with ten thousand torii gates is located here. Our accommodation was located between these two areas so we decided to start with the Fushimi Inari Taisha and then move to the Southern Higashiyama area.
1. Fushimi Inari Taisha
We started the day early and were at Fushimi Inari Taisha at 8am. We were greeted with the first large torii gate just outside the local train station (Nara line) and crowds of tourists. The entrance in the morning was already packed with visitors. No surprise as it is one of the must see sights in Kyoto and probably in whole Japan. It is something that you won't experience or see anywhere else!
The sight is famous for thousands of vermillion torii gates winding up the mountain. It is also one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto. The shrine is devoted to the god Inari, the god of rice and business, and is at the top of the mountain. While walking up the mountain you will see many statues of fox. Foxes are being considered as messengers of god Inari.
The torii gates have been donated by various Japanese individuals and businesses. On the back of every torii gate you can see the name of the donator and the date they made their contribution. We saw some inscriptions written in English as well. The cost of the torii gate varies from 180,000 to 1,300,000 yen (£1,300-£9,500) depending on size. We saw that some gates were being repaired or replaced. They are made of wood and exposed to elements so no surprise that after some time they begin to deteriorate.
The torii gates form a trail going up the mountain. The hike through the torii gates is around 4 kilometres and can take up-to 2 hours one way. The way up is not very difficult or steep but highly recommended. The top is only 233 meters above the sea level but there are many steps. While going up you can stop at several viewing points for a panoramic view of Kyoto. Couple small restaurants and shops are on the trail to enjoy a drink or lunch. They are open dawn to dusk. As you go higher the crowds get smaller. I suggest to spend at least 4 hours at the sight, if hiking to the top. Almost forgot to mention- it is free!
2. Kiyomizu-dera Temple
We took a bus from the Fushimi Inari Taisha thinking that the bus would be covered by Japan Rail Pass. Wrong bus! Luckily, we had our Passmo cards, which we used in Tokyo, with credit on. You can also pay the bus fare with cash. It was a flat fare of 230 yen (around £1.70).
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a historic monument of ancient Kyoto. The temple originated in 778 but the central building, the Hondo, was built in 1633. It is free to walk around the site but entrance to the Hondo is 500 yen (around £3.60). The Hondo is famous for ''Kyimozu-dera stage'', an imposing veranda supported by 168 tall wooden pillars with wooden braces running through them crosswise and lengthwise. The veranda had panoramic views of Kyoto and surrounding gardens standing out with autumn foliage. At the time of our visit the main hall was covered up for the renovation of its roof. The renovation is expected to finish in March 2020 but you still can enter the main hall.
In addition to the Hondo you will also see a three story pagoda, one of the tallest in whole Japan, bell tower, and Otowa waterfall. We spent about an hour visiting the Hondo and walking around the site.
3. Yasaka Shrine & Yasaka Koshindo Temple & Maruyama Park
After the visit to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, we continued via Kiyomizu-michi street to the Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka streets. These streets are lined with restored traditional wooden houses and are pedestrian-only. It is probably the closest to the pre-modern Kyoto that you can experience. After stopping at couple shops and getting a puff pastry filled with macha flavour cream we reached the Yasaka shrine. The walk is short, without stopping just around 15 minutes, but very crowded with visitors. The Maruyama Park, a public park, is just behind the Yasaka shrine. It is another spot for enjoying the autumn colours.
Wondering through the streets we stumbled across a small and probably the most colourful shrine in Kyoto, Yasaka Koshindo Temple. It is unique as worshipers write their wishes on multi-colourful soft balls called “kukurizaru”. The soft ball talisman is made of cloth, representing the good faith monkeys. It is believed that your wish will come true, if you give away one of your greeds. A very fair exchange I think.
We also visited the Yasaka shrine late in the evening. It was lit up at night. We tracked our steps through the Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka streets towards the Kiyomizu-dera temple. The streets were empty and it was lovely to walk without crowds. The Kiyomizu-dera temple was closed after sunset.
4. Nishiki Market
The famous Nishiki market is open from morning till around 6pm. It is a five block-long covered market street with various weird & wonderful food stalls. Nishiki market is boosted as one of the best places in Kyoto to get famous seasonal products, high-quality cooking products, and some distinctively Japanese tabearuki “eat while you walk” snacks. Most of the stalls give free samples to try before you buy unfamiliarly looking food. It was a great place to get some souvenirs of real Japanese taste.
We reached the market just before 6pm. Some of the stalls started closing down around 6pm and some stayed open a bit longer. Although the market closed around 6pm, the surrounding Nishiki area was full of shops, restaurants and cafes open till late. Many restaurants had menu in English and some places clearly stated having no english menu. After spending some time in this area and finding some food we retracted our steps through the Yasaka shrine and old streets to our hotel. At late evening streets buzzing with life during the day were completely quiet and empty. It felt strange to see such a contrast and maybe a bit uncomfortable a first. But Kyoto, actually Japan in general, is very safe.
Day 2: Arashiyama & Northwest Kyoto
Our second day was spent exploring main sights in West and Northwest of Kyoto. The highlights included the popular Bamboo Grove in the Arashiyama area, the Golden Pavilion and the Royan-ji temple with the famous rock garden. We explored other places as well, so the day was very eventful. The sights in the Arashiyama area are within a walking distance. We took a train to get to the Northern Kyoto from the Arashiyama station. It may seem odd but actually the plan worked very well for us.
1. Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama district is best known for the Bamboo Grove. It is a Unesco World Heritage site. The Bamboo Grove and Fushimi Inari Taisha are my two the must see sights in Kyoto that give the feeling of the mystical and magical Kyoto. Although it was stunning, I expected the Bamboo Grove to be larger. Nevertheless, the feeling of being surrounded by these tall bamboo stalks is one to cherish. We were at the entrance to the Bamboo Grove at 9am and it was already busy with visitors. The entry is free. It was only 15 minutes walk from the Saga Arashiyama station (JR Sagano line covered by Japan Rail Pass). I suspect the area looks even better later in the day whit sun rays playing between the bamboo stalks.
Bamboo grove after sunset
After seeing some spectacular pictures on social platforms with illuminated Bamboo Grove we decided to return to the area after sunset. Oh it was fun! It was pitch black! Complete darkness. I am serious. Later I have found out that the Bamboo Grove is illuminated with open air lanterns during the Hanatorou festival only (12th-21st of December). This reminded me of our crushed expectations of Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo. In that case we also thought to see the bridge illuminated with different colours, hence the name, but were faced with reality for it being true only on special occasions.
While walking in the Arashiyama area we saw some flyers stating that 100+ bamboos from the grove were found to be defaced with carvings in English, Chinese and Korean alphabet. Understandably, this caused a lot of anger and sorrow as damaged bamboos would need to be chopped down. If this irresponsible and disrespectful behaviour continues, the number of trees will decrease steadily and the amazing site will be lost. Personally, I do not understand the need to carve names on trees or any other landmarks. Is taking a picture not enough to commemorate the trip? Just a reminder that when travelling you need to be respectful of local cultures and norms.
2. Arashiyama Park Kameyama Area & Togetsukyo Bridge
After visiting the Bamboo Grove we followed signs towards the Kamaeyama park and Togetsukyo bridge (take left at the end of the Bamboo Grove). The park was just next to the Bamboo grove, less than 2 minutes. Surprisingly, it was very quiet. It was nice to escape the crowds in the Bamboo Grove. The park had several observatory decks for the best view of Oi River with a backdrop of autumn foliage. There were benches to sit and rest or have a quick snack.
The area had a good signage in English, so it was easy to find steps to get down to the promenade and walk alongside the Oi River. It was a beautiful autumn day, so the walk towards the Togetsukyo bridge was pleasant. Also, it is not far away from the park. You can also board a boat for a cruise down the river.
The timeless Togetsukyo bridge, 155 meters length, is a very famous landmark in the area. The name of the bridge translates to “Moon-Crossing Bridge". A bridge with a very poetic name has also been painted by a famous Ukiyo-e Artists, Hokusai Katsushika. Ukiyo-epaintings, Japanese woodblock prints, depict scenes from people's everyday life and things. The genre was established during the Edo period. The word "ukiyo" (this life) also means "modern," and Ukiyo-e refers to Fuzokuga, in which paintings depicts the manners and customs of the day.
The bridge dates back over 1,000 years with the first construction completed in 836. The originally built bridge was vermillion coloured and situated 200 meters upstream from its present position. The bridge was repeatedly damaged by floods and required continuous restorations. Hence, the present day bridge has been built using concrete in 1934. The bridge is a popular filming location for periodic Japanese movies and also for engagement and wedding photo shoots. During our visit the river was at low tide.
3. Arashiyama Monkey park (Iwatayama)
After crossing the bridge, we followed signs towards the Monkey park. Enter the park through the orange torii (shrine gate) of Ichitani-jinja. The entrance fee is 550 yen (around £4). The park is open from 9am-4:30pm during the summer season and until 4pm during the winter season. The park is on mountain Arashiyama and inhabited by a troop of over 140 Japanese macaque monkeys (or snow monkeys). You need to climb a lot of quite steep steps to reach the area where monkeys are. The path is made of concrete and natural steps. During our visit (early-mid November) the surrounding trees were still green with only few dressed in autumn colours.
While walking up you will see several warning signs how to behave in the park. The macaque monkeys in the park are familiar to humans but they are still wild animals. For instance, don't stare at the monkeys, don't touch them, don't feed them, keep a distance of more than 3 meters, and don’t crouch while taking pictures.
At the top you are greeted by monkeys and park personnel. The area has benches to rest and a viewing deck of the surrounding city of Kyoto. You are not allowed to feed monkeys but there is a rest house. In the rest house you can buy food for monkeys (banana, apple, peanuts) and feed them from the house. Amusingly, humans feeding monkeys were in the cage and monkeys roamed free!
It was great to see little and big monkeys in their natural habitat. They seemed to be quite used to humans and mostly ignored us. At the time of the visit there were quite a lot of very playful baby monkeys. You can also walk away from the rest house to see monkeys climbing and jumping trees or even having a bath in a small pond. The visit, including the hike, took about 2 hours. It really depends how much time you want to spend at the top.
4. Kimono Forest
The Bamboo Forest is the highlight of the Arashiyama area but there is actually another 'forest'- Kimono Forest. It is one of the most dramatic entrances to a train station I have seen! It is located in the Randen Arashiyama station, just off the main Arashiyama main street, and is FREE. Around 600 cylinder-shaped and 2 metres high pillars are clustered like a forest. Each pillar contains a piece of textile dyed in the traditional Kyo-yuzen style. There are a total of 32 different colours and patterns displayed in the pillars. Interestingly, the textile used for the installation were created by Kamedatomi, a long standing textile factory whose history dates back to Taisho period (1912-1926). The factory is still operating. Between the pillars you will also find a small pond called Ryu no Atago or Pond of the Dragon. It is a guardian of the train station ensuring safe travels.
Try to visit the train station during the daylight and at sunset. From sunset till 9pm the forest is illuminated with LED lights installed in each pillar, creating a spectacular sight.
5. Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
The Kinkaju-ji temple or the Golden Pavilion is a Zen temple and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is actually a sub-temple of Shoku-ji temple but is very famous for its golden reliquary hall. The top two levels of what might seem as simple structure is covered in gold leaf. The current building was rebuilt in 1955 after it was torched by a fanatic monk in 1950. The restoration has been based on detailed historic paintings and thus the current structure represents the 500 year-old original design. You can view the building from across the pond and walk around.The reflection of the gold leaf in the mirror pond is much adorned. In November the surrounding garden was in red and yellow colours of autumn. It is an iconic building of Kyoto and thousands of tourists visits the site, so it can be very crowded. The entrance fee is 400 yen (around £3).
How to get here from Arashiyama?
To get to the Golden Pavilion from Arashiyama we took Randen train to Kitano-Hakubaicho station (change at Katabiranotsuji station). There was a flat fare of 220yen (around £1.60) one way or a day pass for 500yen (around £3.60). You can pay by cash or by using IC card like Passmo to pay the fare on the train. The Golden Pavilion was only 15 minutes walk from the station. Randen train lines are not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
6. Ryoanji Temple
Ryoanji Temple was originally a country house before becoming a Zen temple. As Kinkaku-ji temple it was also destroyed by fire in the Onin war and was rebuilt in 1499. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple is most famous for a Rock Garden. It is thought that the garden dates back to the 15th century. The rectangular Zen garden (25m x 10m) has no trees, only fifteen rocks and white gravel. Try to count the rocks! Interestingly, at least one rock is not visible from any viewing point. You can sit by the garden and enjoy the peacefulness surrounding it. After visiting the rock garden, visit the rest of the site including park and pond. The entrance fee is 500 yen (around £3.60).
Day 3: Northern Higashiyama & Central Kyoto
The last day was more relaxed with morning walk through the Philosopher's path and afternoon spend in the central and downtown of Kyoto. The highlights of the day were the Ginkaku-ji temple, Nijo castle and spotting geishas in the Gion district.
1. Ginkaku-ji Temple
The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and dates back to 1482. The entrance separates the temple grounds from the rest of Kyoto as you pass through 50 metres long hedges made of stones, bamboos and camellias lining both sides. In the grounds you will see a Kannon-den, also known as Silver Pavilion. The two storey wooden pavilion is not covered in silver like the Golden pavilion is in gold. The Silver pavilion is a fine example of the wabi-sabi style, which demonstrates a tranquil simplicity and sense of refinement. In other words, simple is beautiful.
The sight also stands out with its beautiful white sand garden and moss carpet covering the foot of the garden. The sand garden has a sand sculpture in a shape of a cone, which is two metre high. One of the stories tells that the sand sculpture represents the Mount Fuji. Walking through the gardens you could see that the moss was wholly covering the ground. In Japan moss is a symbol of age, harmony and tradition.
At the top of the hill you will see a panoramic view of Kyoto and the temple's garden. In November the garden was stunning with autumn foliage. This was one of the best spots for seeing autumn foliage.
The entrance fee is 500 yen (around £3.60). The ticket itself is supposed to be a good luck charm. Don't bin it but keep it as the charm for good fortune and keeping your family safe.
2. Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi)
The Philosopher's path starts just outside the Ginkaku-ji temple and ends at Nanzen-ji temple. The stone path follows a canal and is around 2km long. It was named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. There are hundreds of cherry plants along the path, so it will be spectacular (and busy) during the cherry blossom season. Unfortunately, during the autumn it did not have great autumn foliage colours. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant and peaceful walk. Grab ice cream or puff pastry from many small shops and cafes along the path.
3. Kyoto Gyoen (Kyoto Imperial Palace Park)
After the Philosopher's path walk we walked towards the central Kyoto. Initially we did not include a Gyoen park in our plans but it was on our way to a Nijo castle. It is a huge park that surrounds the Imperial Palace and it is free to enter. The park is criss-crossed with wide boulevards and narrower pathways. The park has several cherry blossom trees, so will be a good spot to visit during the cherry blossom season. We walked through the park and viewed the Imperial palace from outside but did not enter it.
4. Nijo Castle
Nijo castle was a residence to the famous leader Tokugawa Leyasu, also known as the unifier of Japan. The castle construction started in1601 and took 25 years to finish. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is open to the public to visit (fee 600 yen; around £4.40). The castle has three distinct areas: the Honmaru (main circle of defense), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense) and some gardens that encircle the Honmaru and Ninomaru. We have seen several gardens while in Kyoto but only in few places were allowed to go inside the buildings. In this castle you are allowed to enter the Ninomaru Palace (note: from April 2019 additional fee of 400 yen (around £4) will be added for entering the palace). The palace is a one-storey building, actually several buildings connected with corridors. The palace served as an office and living quarters of the shotgun during his visits to Kyoto. The most interesting feature of the palace was elegantly decorated ceilings and beautifully painted sliding doors. Although the displayed painted sliding doors were reproductions, they still looked very impressive. Each room had a different design paintings depending on the room use.
The last entrance to the grounds is 4pm and the castle closes at 5pm. Give yourself at least an hour to visit the site. Also, at the dusk the castle is lit up from outside.
5. Downtown Kyoto
End the day of visiting temples and shrines in the downtown Kyoto! We went back to visit the Nishiki market (open till 6pm), the traditional food market in Kyoto. After the market you can stroll through the Nishiki area, which has plenty of shops and dining places open till late. Then visit the buzzing Shijō Kawaramachi Intersection which runs parallel to the the Kamo River on the eastern side of Kyoto. It is between the Nishiki and Gion areas. After walking and dinning at one of the sushi restaurants we went to the Pontocho Geisha district and Gion district. These areas are popular for their teahouses, restaurants, beautiful wooden houses, and a chance to see a real geisha (called "geiko" in Kyoto).
Geishas in Kyoto
Geiko is a Japanese women of art who performs traditional arts of dancing and singing. The western fascination with geishas comes partially from their distinctive traditional costumes and white make-up. They are unique and special part of the Japanese culture. Some are saying that it is a dying tradition and numbers of geishas in Japan are reducing.
It was already late and streets were empty so we did not expect to see any geiko. We were lucky. We saw lots of taxies coming in and stopping at one of the streets in the area. We waited for a bit and saw quite a few geiko and maiko (geiko apprentices) emerging from taxis and rushing back to their home (Okiya). At the time I did not know but "geiko hunting/spotting" is a real thing! There are lots of blogs with tips on the best area and times where to spot geiko and maiko in Kyoto. At the same time the complains about disrespectful paparazzi tourists are increasing. So if you spot geiko or maiko, don't act like a crazy paparazzi. Also, worth nothing that there are "fake" geiko and maiko in Kyoto. What I mean is that tourists can dress up and wear make-up to look like authentic geiko or maiko. There are several specific attributes like hairstyle, make-up, kimono that distinguishes authentic geisha from a tourist dressed up. If you are interested to learn more, check this detailed blog on how to distinguish real geisha from a fake.
If you don't spot a geiko or maiko, you can book an evening at an ochaya (tea house). It will definitely not be cheap, but certainly the most authentic geiko experience. Alternative and a bit cheaper option is the Gion corner. In this theatre you can see shows with geiko or maiko performances. It opens nightly from 6pm.
Where to stay in Kyoto?
We stayed close to a Tofukuji station. It was a walking distance from the Kyoto train station and close to the Southern Higashiyama area. If you are planning to spend couple days in Kyoto, it will be the best to base yourself not too far from the Southern Higashiyama area where most sights are located. This will save you time and money on local transport. Also, being a walking distance to the Kyoto station is handy as it is the main station to get in/out Kyoto. I found this blog, describing each area of Kyoto, useful when deciding where to stay.
What type of accommodation? We stayed in a hotel room during our stay in Kyoto. You know that we like Airbnb but the choices of Airbnb were not great in Japan. A new law for private lodging services in Japan was released in summer 2018 which resulted in dramatical drop of listings on Airbnb. You can also stay in Ryokan, a traditional Japanese house. We tried it in Tokyo but better ones tend to be more expensive than hotel rooms. Either way don't expect spacious rooms, rooms in Japan are much smaller than the ones you get in Europe.
Getting in and around Kyoto
We arrived to Kyoto from Tokyo. It was very easy, you just jump on the shinkansen bullet train (covered by Japan Rail Pass) and in around 3 hours you are in Kyoto. The Japan Rail Pass had limited use in Kyoto. Kyoto has only two Japan Rail train lines: Sagano and Nara. You can use Sagano line to get from Kyoto station to Arashiyama to visit the bamboo grove. Nara line was useful for visiting the Fushimi Inari Taisha. Some specific bussed are covered by Japan Rail Pass but we didn't use them. Click here for more details on what is included and not in the Japan Rail Pass while in Kyoto.
We actually walked a lot! The cheapest and the best way to explore the city is on foot😉 However, we needed to use couple buses and trains not covered by Japan Rail Pass.
Is 3 days enough?
Yes! We had amazing 3 days in Kyoto and loved every minute of it. The decision to spend 3 full days and 4 nights in Kyoto was a very good one. We managed to visit the main sights and even more. Of course, if you have more time, spend more days here as there are so much to see and do. If you have only couple weeks in Japan like we had, we would recommend 3 days in Kyoto. Our experience of Kyoto like other places in Japan was very positive. Safe city, clean streets, welcoming and friendly local people. Hope this 3 day travel guide will give you some ideas for your visit to Kyoto. Happy travels and we next move to Hiroshima with Miyajima!