When I wrote our quick guide to Kyoto, I felt like I had to keep it reasonably short– namely, limit the number of photos. But I can’t stress enough how photogenic Kyoto (and the rest of Japan) really is! Everywhere we turned was a potential snapshot, and it required little cropping or editing to get them to look beautiful.
You can spend many, many days in Kyoto without getting bored; with over 2,000 temples (many with gardens) it would take years to see them all. Whether you have years or only a few days, Kyoto is a must-visit, and Travel & Leisure agrees. We took our time in Kyoto; we didn’t rush to see absolutely everything, because I am partial to slow travel. So, without further ado…
Our 3-Day Kyoto Itinerary
Day One: Famous Temples, Shrines and Wandering
Our first stop was a Buddhist Temple known for its pure waterfall that splits into 3 streams. My favorite part of the Temple is actually just how large the area is. In order to get to the entrance, you wander uphill through a series of shops selling everything from teacups to fans to green tea ice cream. Once at the temple, we were high above Kyoto and were able to take fantastic photos. Another neat thing about the Temple was that its wood foundation has no nails! Imagine what genius architecture was required to make it last so long! Learn more about Kiyomizu-Dera on its official site.
Continuing on from the temple, we walked through a gorgeous little neighborhood (with a cool shrine!) to Arabica Cafe. Let me tell you: this is NO ordinary coffee shop; it’s not even an ordinary hipster third wave coffee shop. Why? Well, because the barista won an international award for latte art. That’s right– he’s a champ. (When our guide asked him in Japanese whether he won, he sheepishly nodded and smiled… so sweet.)
Anyway, this guy is amazing! He also made me the best latte I’ve had in a while (thanks to our broken espresso machine at home), so that was really refreshing. If you love– and I mean love— coffee, you have to visit this place! Here’s their Facebook page.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Refueled with coffee, we made our way to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha (shrine). This shrine is famous for its orange torii gate tunnels. Businesses are invited to donate a certain amount (starting at $10kUSD) in order to have a gate erected in their honor, and of course, to bring prosperity and success. This model has worked quite well for the shrine, as there are torii gates that line the side of the hill, creating a lovely pack for walking and jogging.
If you head to the shrine, go further in than most other tourists and it won’t be hard to find yourself relatively alone. It’s a lovely spot to wander and linger– and don’t forget to bring bug spray as this place is quite woodsy! Learn more about the shrine on their official site.
For lunch, we headed to Honke Owariya, a famous soba noodle spot with over 500 years of history (it was started in the 1400s!). Soba noodles are a delicious variety made of buckwheat flour– giving them a dark color and slightly grainy texture. Soba is often eaten with soba sauce– house-made, of course– which is a dark broth made from boiling bonito fish and other aromatics. It’s absolutely delicious!
I enjoyed the tenzaru-soba, which is basically chilled soba noodles paired with tempura! It was crunchy, cool, savory and satisfying. Honke Owariya is worth a visit if you’re in Kyoto; it happens to be located in an old traditional home which adds to its charm! Here’s its website.
We were then lucky enough to visit a lovely (100+ year old) home, where we got a tour and some matcha. Matcha green tea is a serious matter in Japan: it’s very high quality green tea powder that is whisked with a bamboo tool at just the right temperature in a matcha bowl. No messing around with this stuff: there’s a procedure to whisking, handing it to the guest, receiving the tea, and sipping. You’re supposed to finish the tea in 3 distinct sips, but of course we savored each sip carefully.
The home belonged to a man who once owned a fabrics business. There was a lacquerware table there with mother-of-pearl inlay that was absolutely stunning.
After tea, we headed to Nijo Castle, from which the shogun ruled Kyoto (and beyond). It was built nearly 400 years ago; and it has these amazing wood floors that make the sound of nightingales when you step on them. No photos allowed inside, so no photos posted here. Learn more about Nijo Castle on its website.
Kyoto at Night
We made our way back to our hotel to relax before heading out again for dinner. The downtown area because a bustling, exciting place starting at around dusk. Head to the Gion District if you’re interested in geisha spotting (we weren’t, really)– otherwise, check out one of the many lovely spots near the river and in the alleyways!
We had a reservation made at Obanzai Menami, which is a relatively difficult restaurant to locate. As I wrote here, Obanzai is local Kyoto cuisine, and it should be on your list of things to eat if you love food! Menami was small but very friendly, and we were able to order just fine by pointing, making motions, and keeping a good sense of humor!
And look at the riverside lights! Kyoto is definitely romantic in its own way.
Day Two: Gardens, Pavilions, Hurrah!
Ginkakuji Temple & Garden
Our second day in Kyoto started with visiting the Silver Pavilion. It was built in the image of the Golden Pavilion (which we will see next), except it was never painted silver. Instead, it stayed its original color, and is surrounded by one of my favorite Kyoto gardens that we saw.
Ginkakuji is less popular than its golden counterpart, but I think it’s totally worth seeing. It tends to be less crowded and has several beautiful quiet spots for relaxing and reflecting. Its garden combines zen (sand formations) with other traditional styles, and you can climb up to a high point and see all of Kyoto! After the not-so-exhausting climb, there’s matcha tea available for about $5. So worth it. Learn more here.
Kinkakuji: Golden Pavilion
The Golden Pavilion was a frenzied experience. It is really crowded, and I strongly suggest you take a cab to the entrance. However, the good news is that it’s not difficult to get a good photo of the Golden Pavilion (yes, covered with gold leaf) despite the crowds; it sits in the middle of a pond, and everyone can only ooh and ah from a distance. Probably a good thing. Golden Pavilion’s website is here.
Next, we made our way to Nanzenji, known for its lovely maple-lined path and Roman-style aqueduct. I loved this temple for how surprising it was– eastern and western at its very core. The other perk of this temple is that, for some reason, it’s not as popular as the others; more exploring and good photos for us!
Nanzenji is located in a really beautiful neighborhood, where many wealthy individuals own homes. You might enjoy strolling and admiring the traditional grandeur of the houses there. Then again, perhaps a bit creepy. 😉 Find out more about Nanzenji here.
Day Three: Arashiyama
Arashiyama is a gorgeous spot in Kyoto that can take all day! It’s a bit removed from everything else, so if you can, I suggest staying in Arashiyama for a night. (Spend the rest of your Kyoto nights closer to Downtown Kyoto!)
You can enjoy Arashiyama’s shops, temples and gardens pretty easily, without even taking a cab! However, there are lots of rickshaws– super buff guys who literally run you up the mountain in a carriage– who would gladly offer a ride. We declined, but on a hot day it was certainly tempting!
This temple has a gorgeous and grand entrance, but most people go for the lovely garden. I especially enjoyed strolling along the lengths of the pond (where we spotted a crane!) and up the hill where gorgeous hydrangeas blossomed. Personally I don’t think it necessary to pay the extra cash to enter the indoor section– but then again, we’d seen lots of tatami straw mats already at this point! Learn more about Tenryuji here.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Continuing from Tenryuji, we took the North exit to enter the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. This forest, as I wrote in this other post, gave me lots of grief. It was impossible to find the actual forest from the entrance many people take. The entrance itself looks like a bamboo forest, but is filled with electrical wires and random trees. If you enter the forest from the street, continue to make your way uphill. You’ll walk through a section that does not have bamboo, and then reenter the bamboo forest– where you actually want to be.
Hanging out on the river
Arashiyama is located on a part of the Oi river, which is a beautiful space to visit. There are plenty of places to sit along the water, and you can even rent a boat if you like! After wandering through the bamboo forest, we headed to Shoraian, a fantastic tofu kaiseki spot. (Read more about kaiseki cuisine here.) Shoraian was featured in the New York Times, so it’s popular and they’re used to non-locals visiting. That has done nothing to compromise the quality there, however; for $50 you can get one of the best meals in Kyoto! Check out Shoraian’s website here.
Further Resources on Kyoto
For my own basic travel tips, thoughts on budgeting, eating and staying in Kyoto, please check out my quick guide! For further reading, I learned a lot from Inside Kyoto (here), a fantastic blog on all things Kyoto.
If you’re visiting Kyoto in the fall, I have a new free guide & map on finding the best foliage!
We also really loved the book below– it focuses on “Old Kyoto,” and will tell you all about the shops, restaurants, teahouses, temples and gardens you’ll want to visit.
You can also consider purchasing a travel guide for all of Japan (since you’ll probably be making other stops on this trip). My favorite travel guides are the DK Eyewitness ones.
Whew, this post was really long! I’m sorry. I didn’t want to break up Kyoto because I wanted to show you how easy it was to find brilliant and beautiful sights and snapshots in this unparalleled city.