Friends asked me for a sample itinerary for Kyoto so tada! There will be plenty of walking but there are directions for public transport as well. There are also options for every budget so feel free to mix and match.
DAY 1 – HIGASHIYAMA DISTRICT, EAST KYOTO
This area contains some of Kyoto’s iconic landmarks. Here you’ll experience the traditional side of Kyoto. Enjoy the sights as you walk past preserved buildings, narrow lanes and historic temple.
My preference to explore this area is by walking. There are maps for references but you can easily use public transport.
My starting point: My hostel is close to Shichijo Station (Five-minute walk to Sanjusangendo
The temple is famous for the 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Sanjusangendo’s temple hall is the longest wooden structure in the Japan.
Notes: You cannot take photos inside the temple.
Directions: From Kyoto Station, take bus number 100, 206 or 208 and alight at Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop. Alternatively, it takes about twenty minutes to walk there from Kyoto Station.
Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00 (9:00 to 16:00 from November 16 to March 31), No closing days
Admission : 600 yen
The temple is a Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple is one of the most popular sites in Kyoto. I’ve written about more about this trip in my Kiyomizu-dera post.
Visit traditional shops and houses in the preserved streets of Sannenzaka-Ninenzaka as you walk up to Kiyomizu-dera.
From Kyoto Station: 10min walk from Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi Bus Stop, Kyoto City Bus 100 or 206 from Kyoto Station
Walking from Sanjusangendo:
Opening hours: 6:00 to 18:00 (until 18:30 on weekends and holidays from mid April through July and everyday in August and September) , No closing days
Admission: 400 yen
Feeling hungry? Let’s then head to Kyoto’s pantry and enjoy the gourmet delights Nishiki offer. It could be crowded at some parts of the day but the chance to experience some of Kyoto’s delicacies and market scene would make the visit worthwhile. Find out how my market visit went in my Nishiki post.
Directions: Access the market from Shijo Station (4 minutes on foot) or 10 minute walk from Gion area.
Walking from Kiyomizu-dera:
Opening hours: Most stores are open from 9:00 to 18:00, some stores also close on Wednesdays or Sundays
A great place to take a break after lunch. Meditate in one of the rooms overlooking the Zen garden or check out the painting of two dragons painted on the ceiling of the temple’s Hodo Hall.
Directions: Less than 10min walk from Gion Shijo Station
Opening hours:10:00-17:00pm, last entry 16:30 from March-October
10:00-16:30, last entry 16:00 November-February , Closed Dec 28-31
Admission: 500 yen
Tea houses of Gion: Don’t miss the opportunity to try different kinds of wagashi (Japanese sweets) while you are in Kyoto. Gion is brimming with tea-houses hence a perfect opportunity to try these traditional sweets with a cup of Japanese tea (matcha, sencha or gyokuro)
I strongly recommend on trying various Japanese tea while in Kyoto. Aside from matcha, there are many kinds of tea that may seem surprising and at the same time, refreshing to the palate. Speaking of tea, shops selling beautiful and affordable tea wares are also abundant in the area.
Click this link for some recommended tea shops!
Laneways: One of the things that I love the most in Kyoto is walking around the narrow lanes of Gion. It is certainly popular and a crowded area in Kyoto but you can explore and discover your own secret places, after all there are many hidden lanes in this area. It is especially beautiful at night when the streets are lit up, maybe you would be lucky enough to see a geiko or maiko. You can also choose to join a walking tour (less than $10) to learn about the geisha’s way of life.
Check out Inside Kyoto’s post for a comprehensive guide to walking in Gion
Still got the energy? Get out of your comfort zone and hang out with the locals at this sake place. I’ve had some of my most interesting experiences in Kyoto here. Not many can speak English but everyone is nice and Hana-san (the owner) is a wonderful lady. You can try sake from Shiga here. Don’t get too drunk like me though.
Address: 203 Sendocho Shimogyo-ku Kyoto Kyoto
Operating Hours: 18:00- 24:00
DAY 2 – TEA CULTURE IN UJI & WAZUKA, SOUTHERN KYOTO
Starting point: Kyoto Station
Note: It would be tricky to cover the three areas in one day if you are using public transport so I highly recommend renting a car for this day.
Kyoto’s Uji area is a famous tea producing region in Japan. You’d find shops with every tea goods you can think of (ice cream, biscuits and other food products with tea). You can also visit some of Kyoto’s beautiful temples: Byodo-in here and Japan’s oldest shrine Ujigami.
Matcha factory tour – The visit to Marukyu Koyamaen’s matcha factory was one of the highlights of my Kyoto trip. It was quite interesting to see large scale production of matcha. For a price of Y500 ($5.00), you get a tour and a cup of matcha. Make your booking in their page
By JR Line train: Take the JR Nara line from Kyoto Station and get off at Uji Station
By Keihan Line train: Take the Keihan Main Line south toward Osaka, get off at Chushojima and switch to the Uji Line and get off at Uji Station
Opening hours: 9:00 to 16:30, No closing days
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:30 (entry until 17:15) , Treasure house from 9:00 to 17:00 (entry until 16:45)
No closing days
Admission: 600 yen (another 300 yen for a tour of the Phoenix Hall)
Wazuka tea fields
Wazuka is approximately a 30-minute drive from Uji. This small town is also famed for the quality of its tea. In fact, this area is Kyoto’s biggest matcha producer. I was in Wazuka as a tea tour guest in Obubu (Read here) then as a winter intern in Obubu. I’m telling you now that the scenery in this area is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful ones.
You can visit Wazuka on your own (slightly tricky) or by a tea tour.
Directions: Catch a JR Nara train and get off at Kizu Station. At Kizu, transfer to JR Yamatoji Line bound for Kamo. Once you reach Kamo, take a Nara Kotsu bus from and get off at Wazuka Yama-no-Ie . The Wazuka Cha Café is 3-minute walk from bus stop.
Lots of ceramic homewares, tea wares and tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog). This is another gem in Kyoto especially if you like ceramics. This is also the most amusing experience I had in Kyoto. I’ve never seen so much tanuki in my entire life.
Note: Shigaraki is an easy drive from Wazuka (30 minutes) but if you choose public transport, there would be lots of transfers.
The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park has this comprehensive guide for public transport access
DAY 3 CLASSICS OF NORTHERN KYOTO (NORTHWEST)
Note: Since travel between northwestern Kyoto and northeastern Kyoto could be a bit time consuming. Options include: 1.) Proceed to Arashiyama from Ninna-ji, 2) Concentrate only on one side or 3.) Visit each side on separate days.
The golden pavilion is beautiful but for me it was not exactly a worthwhile experience.
It was hard to connect with the temple with hordes of people pushing you plus you just walk through the temple, that’s it. You can’t even enter the pavilion. I had second thoughts in putting it here but this is still one of Kyoto’s iconic landmarks so I will leave it up to you.
Directions: For direct access, take bus number 101 or 205 (40 minutes). Alternatively, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes) and take a taxi from there to Kinkakuji.
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00, no closing days
Admission: 400 yen
I prefer spending more time here than in Kinkakuji. The rock garden is quite interesting sight alone but this is also a wonderful place to relax and meditate.
Directions: Ryoanji is a five minute bus ride or 20 minute walk west of Kinkakuji.
One of Kyoto’s oldest temple, expect to see beautiful halls and an elegant garden. A hidden gem in Kyoto, you can easily explore the temple in peace.
Directions: Walk west from Ryoanji
Note: You can go to Arashiyama from Omuro Ninnaji Station. You have to transfer at Katabiranotsuji for Arashiyama line.
CLASSICS OF NORTHERN KYOTO (NORTHEAST)
Kamigamo & Shimogamo
These two shrines are not as well known to international tourists but it doesn’t erase their signifance in Kyoto’s history. Explore the shrine grounds or take a walk in the surrounding forest for a truly relaxing day.
Directions from Kyoto Station:
Take a JR Nara train and alight at Tofukiji. Transfer to Keihan line for Demachiyanagi.
Shimogamo Shrine is a 15 minute walk from Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Line. Alternatively, take bus number 4 bound for Kamigamojinja-mae and alight at Shimogamojinja-mae bus stop directly beside the shrine.
Kamigamo Shrine Walk for 30 minutes from Demachiyanagi Station or take the bus no. 4 from Shimogamo Shrine. Get off at the last stop, Kamigamojinja-mae.
Directions from Ninna-ji (if you decide on traveling from Northwest to Northeast end)
I got a little too adventurous and went to the northeastern side from Ninna-ji. I took two buses in the process. Your bus journey will take around 47-50 minutes for Kamigamo Shrine. It would look like this:
To Shimogamo from Kamigamo: Take bus no. 4 and alight at Shimogamojinja-mae bus stop directly beside the shrine.
Opening hours: 5:30 to 18:00 (summer), 6:30 to 17:00 (winter), no closing days
Opening hours: 5:30 to 17:00, no closing days
Shugakuin Imperial Villa
Walk back to Demachinayagi Station to travel to Shugakuin.
Shugakuin Imperial Villa is home to one of Kyoto’s most impressive gardens. The site is only accessible to through guided tours. For bookings, apply in advance with your passport at the Imperial Household Agency’s office in Kyoto Imperial Park (Monday to Friday from 8:45-12:00 and 13:00-17:00).
Directions: Demachiyanagi Station (10 minutes). From there, take the Eizan Railways to Shugakuin Station (7 minutes).
Free tours of Shugakuin Imperial Villa are held five times per day except on Mondays (or the following day if Monday falls on a national holiday).
After a full day of visiting places of interests, what better way is there to end your day than a dip in hot springs? Kurama onsen is the nearest onsen to Kyoto. Relax your tired muscles in the natural, hot springs or even spend a night in one of the ryokans.
From Shugakuin Station, take the Eizan line and alight at Kurama station.
There are couple of options to get to Kurama onsen from Kurama station:
3min free shuttle bus ride from Kurama Station, Eizan line
10min walk from Kurama Station, Eizan line
DAY 4 ARASHIYAMA, WESTERN KYOTO
Starting point: Kyoto Station
Without a doubt, this is tied with Wazuka as my no. 1 favorite places to visit in Kyoto. I keep on going back here whenever I visit, no matter how crowded it gets. I made a comprehensive list of things to do in Arashiyama in my post here.
As in the case of Kyoto’s most popular landmarks, it is best to visit in the morning. Start the day with a stroll in the nearby bamboo forest. Take your time and enjoy the breeze. Make your way then across the Togetsukyo bridge. You can visit Tenryuji after a short visit to the bridge.
Kyoto is vegan and vegetarian friendly, you will be spoiled for veg choices especially in Arashiyama. I highly recommend trying Kyoto’s shojin ryori while in Arashiyama. Shojin ryori or Buddhist cuisine are meals which consists of tofu and fresh vegetables. This makes up for a filling and healthy lunch.
After lunch, take the bus and travel through some more of Kyoto’s hidden gems* in Arashiyama. See some cheeky statues of Buddha at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. After that walk through another preserved district and visit Adashino Nenbutsu-ji where another bamboo forest and more Buddha statues await you.
Directions to Arashiyama: The a train by JR Sagano Line from Kyoto Station to Arashiyama . Alight at Saga-Arashiyama Station. From Saga-Arashiyama Station, walk for about 10-15 minutes to reach the major places of interest.
*Directions for Hidden Gems: Take “Kyoto Bus” # 64, 74, 84 and 94 bound for “Kiyotaki”. Get off at “Otagidera-mae”. Find the bus stops at Hankyu Arashiyama Station, Kyoto Sanjo Sta., JR Kyoto Sta. and near Saga-Arashiyama Station’s south exit.
Places of Interest (Arashiyama)
Opening hours: 8:00-17:00
Admission: 300 yen
Opening hours: 9:00-16:30 March-November, 9:00-15:30 December-February
Admission: 500 yen
Opening hours: 8:30 to 17:30
Admission: 500 yen (another 300 yen for entrance into the temple buildings)
The Tokugawa shoguns resided in Nijo-castle at the height of their power. Kyoto was the seat of power back then. The castle also served as a grandiose display of the shoguns’ power during the Edo period. Revisit this part of history as you see several Japanese, art masterpieces in the castle.
Nijo Castle is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Directions From Arashiyama: Take JR Sagano line and get off in Nijo Station. Transfer to Tozai Line and get off in Nijojomae station.
Opening hours: 8:45 to 17:00 (admission until 16:00), entry to Ninomaru from 9:00 to 16:00
Closed: Tuesdays in January, July, August and December (or following day if Tuesday is a national holiday), December 26 to January 4
Admission: 600 yen
DAY 5 SOUTHERN KYOTO
If this is your last day, are you feeling sad? When I first came to Kyoto, I found it very hard to leave. I was just so charmed with the city especially with its history and laid-back lifestyle. For me, this is the place that I would never tire of visiting. There is so much to see here.
Starting point: Kyoto Station
You can’t leave Kyoto without visiting these vermilion torii gates. Like Kinkakuji, this is also one of the most popular spots in Kyoto so best to visit as early as you can. You can walk through the whole route for about an hour and 45 minutes.
Directions: Fushimi Inari Shrine is located just outside JR Inari Station. You can easily take the train from Kyoto Station (JR Nara line).
Another highlight in my Kyoto trip. This is my favorite temple to visit because of its scenery, history and the art in Sanboin. Daigo-ji is a large complex with a lower and upper ground. You can easily spend half a day here to visit all parts or concentrate your visit in one part. I written more of my Daigo-ji trip here
Directions: Take JR line to Kyoto and get off at JR Rokujizo and transferred to the Tozai subway line. From there, you can travel to Daigo station.
Sanboin, Shimo Daigo and Reihokan Museum (lower Daigo)
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (until 16:00 from early December through February), no closing days
Admission: 1500 yen (from March 20 to May 15 and from October 15 to December 10)
800 yen (during the rest of the year)
Kami Daigo (upper Daigo)
Opening hours: 9:00 to 16:00 (until 15:00 from December through February), return to the base of the mountain by 17:00
Admission: 600 yen
The shrine grounds are free to enter and you can recreate that Lost in Translation moment.
Directions from Daigo-ji: Take the Tozai Line for Uzumasatenjigawa and alight at Higashiyama Station. From there the shrine is a ten-minute walk.
Opening hours: 6:00 to 17:30 (closing time varies seasonally by half an hour)
A hidden gem in Kyoto, Murin-an has an elegant garden where you can view the Higashiyama mountains in the garden scenery. They call this as shakkei where the mountain appears like an extension of the garden. There is notable Western influence in the garden as well.
Directions from Heian Shrine:
Opening hours: 8:30-17:00
Admission: 410 yen
I always think of Shoren-in as my sanctuary in Kyoto. Most tourists who visit Kyoto often overlook this temple. Shoren-in is one of five Monzeki Temples in Kyoto. The temple has a lovely landscape garden where you can sip green tea and relax. It is also interesting to learn about monzeki temples where members of the Imperial family served as head priests.
Directions from Murin-an:
Opening hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (18:00 to 22:00 during spring and autumn evening illuminations) , No closing days
Admission: 500 yen (800 yen for seasonal evening illuminations)
Phew! This is probably the longest article I’ve written so far. Now, I kind of want to be in Kyoto. I hope this would help your planning. You can follow the itinerary as it is or you can mix/match your destinations. It will all come down to your preferences, travel style, budget and time. Final advice? Don’t stress, eat dangos and enjoy what Kyoto has to offer :).