Four Perfect Days in Kyoto on a Trip to Japan

Travel tips

Kyoto skyline at dusk, Japan

Kyoto is a city that embodies all that people imagine when it comes to Japan. On the surface, its name immediately evokes serene temples with immaculately maintained gardens that seem almost frozen in time. Yet Kyoto can also seem as futuristic as any other city in Japan, even before you step out of its cavernous train station, which reflects the country’s ever present cutting edge. Mix in the stately shadow of Nijo Castle, an atmospheric bamboo grove, and a market filled with Japanese culinary specialties, and you have a city that’s sure to satisfy and intrigue a wide variety of visitors on a trip to Japan.

It can also be maddening to navigate – at least by Japanese standards – if you haven’t properly planned your day. Like most big Japanese cities, Kyoto boasts an excellent public transit network, but unless you want to splash out for a private driver or taxis, having some idea where you’re going and when can make all the difference. These four one-day itineraries keep things easy to navigate, while offering enough variety to stave off “temple fatigue.”

The Best of Gion and Geisha 101

Many first-time visitors to Kyoto opt to stay in the Gion entertainment district, which manages to retain a refined, traditional feel despite its popularity. It’s also an ideal base for exploring many of the city’s most famous temples and shrines. Today keeps things close to Gion, so you won’t need transportation. Get an early start up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera, which has watched over Kyoto from above for over 1200 years. Make your leisurely descent through historic Higashiyama, and if you’re doing well for time and energy, pop into nearby Kodai-ji.

Lunch options at all price points abound in Gion, so rest and recharge before wandering up Shiro Dori to Yasaka Shrine. You won’t need long to explore here, but it’s a nice walk on your way to Chion-in. After lengthy renovations, this massive temple’s revitalized main hall will finally shed its scaffolding in March 2019, inviting visitors to the heart of Jodo Buddhism, which has millions of followers in Japan.

Sanmon Gate at Chion-in Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Sanmon Gate at Chion-in Temple

Gion has been Kyoto’s home of entertainment since the Middle Ages, and that makes it a place to spot geisha – or geiko, as they’re known in Kyoto. If you do glimpse one of these legendary performers, consider yourself privileged. As of 2017, fewer than 300 maiko and geisha are thought to be working in Kyoto and their services are in high demand. Not surprising, when you consider the varied skill set these women must develop, one that includes music, dance, singing, flower arranging, teaching and playing parlour games, and conversation. Those who perform in the elaborate makeup westerners typically associate with geisha are in fact maiko, or apprentice geisha. Mature geisha prefer a more subdued look unless they themselves are performing.

Your chances of spotting a genuine geisha – rather than a tourist who’s paid to be put in costume – improve dramatically around 5:30 to 6pm, when most are hurrying to an appointment. Geisha are well aware of the fascination they hold for visitors on a trip to Japan, and taking a quick photo is fine, but they’re also busy professionals on their way to work. The odd, clueless tourist has been known to obstruct or even chase a geisha in pursuit of the perfect photo – a definite no-no. A real geisha will never stop to pose for photos. In addition, genuine maiko makeup normally covers the entire face including the neck, while the “tourist costume” edition more typically leaves most of the neck unpainted. With these tips in mind, keep your eyes peeled and good luck! Even if you aren’t successful, a stroll around Gion is a pretty nice way to spend the twilight hours.

Maiko geisha walking on a street in Gion District, Kyoto, Japan
Maiko geisha walking on a street in Gion District

It is possible to make a geisha experience part of your Kyoto visit without breaking the bank. Geiko appear at many of the city’s popular festivals, particularly in the spring. In Gion, you can pay a visit to Gion Corner, where you’ll see many of Japan’s traditional arts in practice, including those of the geisha. For a slightly more authentic experience without the “authentic” price tag of a private performance, you can join a small group of fellow travellers for dinner, hosted by several geisha.

Reflecting on Pavilions of Silver and Gold

This is a busy temple day, but also one that gives plenty of time for reflecting on the beauty and history of Kyoto. Begin at either Nanzenji Temple, famous for its magnificent aqueduct, or the Eikan-do temple complex, where the gardens explode with colour, particularly in the fall. Either temple is a short walk from the famed Philosopher’s Path. Lined by cherry trees planted alongside a canal, the 2 kilometre walk has a place of reflection and meditation for centuries. It ends at Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion, with one of Kyoto’s most beautiful hillside gardens.

Why is it known as the Silver Pavilion? A clue lies at your next stop, Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famous Golden Pavilion. With its top two floors covered in shimmering gold leaf, the main pavilion of Kinkaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s most recognized icons, serving as the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu until his death in 1408, when it became a Zen temple. The temple inspired the shogun’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa to commission a similar structure, this time covered in silver. Those decorative plans never came to fruition, leaving the bare but beautiful Ginkaku-ji “Silver Pavilion” we see today.

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan
Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) Zen Buddhist temple

Kinkaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s most popular temples for a reason. You will never forget your first glimpse of the pavilion, reflected perfectly in the temple’s lake. The surrounding gardens aren’t a bad place to spend an hour or two either. If you still have time and energy, go on to Ryoanji. This understated temple is most famous for its rock garden, with 15 large rocks meticulously laid out on beds of moss. Key to the garden’s fame is its very lack of explanation, and the uncertainty as to its history.

Having formed your own theories about one of Kyoto’s great mysteries, it’s time for dinner and some classic Kyoto nightlife. The Pontocho district is the city’s beating heart after dark with some of its most atmospheric restaurants. It’s located just across the Kamo River from Gion.

Pontocho District at night, Kyoto, Japan
Pontocho District at night

Awe-Inspiring Shrines and Glimpses of the Future

This itinerary mixes Kyoto’s single most popular attraction with some of its lesser known treasures. Arrive early at Fushimi Inari Shrine to get ahead of the crowds. Nothing spoils the atmosphere of that seemingly endless path of red torii gates than having to push past your fellow visitors. If you’re feeling energetic, you’ll also want time to hike the lengthy path in relative solitude, in addition to exploring the main buildings of the shrine. This is the most important of all shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Look for statues of foxes throughout the grounds, each holding a key to Inari’s rice granary in its mouth. When you’re done, hop the train to Shichijo Station and take a stroll to Sanjusangendo Hall. Japan’s longest wooden structure stretches 120 metres, and features 1001 statues of the goddess Kannon.

Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Fushimi Inari Shrine

After a morning steeped in tradition, leap into the future at Kyoto Station. The brainchild of architect Hara Hiroshi, the station interprets classic Kyoto through a modern aesthetic, creating a structure unlike any other on earth. Come lunchtime, options are endless, but perhaps the most distinctive (and very budget-friendly) option is Kyoto Ramen Street, a “noodle theme park” located on the 10th floor. If you’d prefer something a touch more fancy (and varied), go up one floor to The Cube Gourmet Street. Naturally, you can reach almost any part of the city from this transit hub. If you can’t get enough classical Japanese beauty, devote the rest of your afternoon to Kyoto Imperial Palace. If you’d rather dive into a more modern Japanese obsession, drop into the Kyoto International Manga Museum.

For dinner, or just some retail therapy, graze your way through the fresh delights of the Nishiki Market. You’ll have to come during the day to catch the market in full swing, but it’s still an excellent place to sample a wide range of Japanese street food and favourite snacks. Alternatively, book a more refined evening at one of Gion or Pontocho’s mid to upscale restaurants.

Food snack display in Nishiki Market, Kyoto, Japan
Food snack display in Nishiki Market

Arashiyama and Nijo Castle

Bamboo Grove at Arashiyama, Kyoto Japan
Bamboo grove at Arashiyama

Arashiyama is a little ways west from where most visitors choose to stay in Kyoto while on their trip to Japan, but it’s easily reached by train. Begin your Arashiyama day at Tenryuii Temple, the first among Kyoto’s great Zen temples, and one with a history scarred by fires and conflicts. Tenryuii’s garden however survives in its original form. It’ll put you in the right frame of mind to appreciate the serenity of Arashiyama’s much loved Bamboo Grove. Be ready to stop a few times to let (or help) others take photos. Afterward, cross the Katsura River and prepare yourself for the short, extremely worthwhile hike up to Arashiyama Monkey Park. Its cheeky residents will happily pose for photos, and the view of the city may be the best in all of Kyoto.

Arashiyama is an extremely pleasant district to wander at your leisure, so take your time finding a lunch spot, or if you haven’t already, hop the train back to Nishiki Market for Kyoto’s best assortment of street food and local specialties. Fully sated, pay your respects to the shoguns at Nijo Castle. Built in 1603, the castle isn’t quite as old as some of Kyoto’s other highlights, but it has much to reward the curious visitor. It’s also a great place to break up any “temple fatigue” while immersing yourself in imperial history.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan
Nijo Castle