What to see and do in the city of Kyoto, Japan.
Mention Japan, and two quintessential cities would pop up: metropolitan Tokyo and traditional Kyoto. When I visited Japan recently, I knew I wanted to visit Kyoto. Just to get it out of the way – yes, I get it, you need to spend longer than two days in Kyoto. But I have other places to explore, and not much time to spare, so I’m just going to hit the ABSOLUTE MUST-SEES in Kyoto.
I want to call this an efficient itinerary, but it was actually a relaxing yet effective schedule. I think I hit the major highlights of Kyoto, and I didn’t feel exhausted – that is, no 6 am wake up calls were harmed in the making of this itinerary. This is what I did.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
At 9 am I made my way over to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, one of Kyoto’s most famous attractions. The place was crowded, but the up side was that you can’t get lost getting to it from the Arashiyama train station. Literally everyone who gets off there, is getting to the bamboo forest.
Though crowded, it’s still definitely a visit over. I consider it one of my highlights in Kyoto. Tall bamboo trees towering over you, filtering in just enough light – it’s an experience. There’s a lot of people, sure, but it’s still a peaceful walk through the bamboo forest.
Occasionally you get pockets of emptiness that just sends a calm over me as the pleasing scent of bamboo wafts through the air. I spent about one hour here, but if you have more time, you can walk further up and along and really explore the nooks and crannies of the bamboo forest.
Once I was done with the Bamboo Forest, I walked across the Arashiyama old town area for lunch and chanced upon the Togetsu-kyo Bridge. Built over the equally picturesque Katsura River and set amongst lush hills, this was one of the prettiest bridges I’ve ever had the pleasure to cross.
Arashiyama Iwatayama Monkey Park
A short walk beyond Togetsu-kyo Bridge is the Iwatayama Monkey Park. The monkey park is located on top of a hill, and requires a 20-minute hike up – a fact I didn’t know until I’ve paid the entrance in. Japanese Macaques or snow monkeys roam free and it was quite cool to walk amongst them… even though I’m not the biggest fan of monkeys. I did semi-enjoy the hike up I guess; the fresh air amongst mountains was a nice change of pace.
From the town of Arashiyama, I took a bus to Kinkaku-ji, which took some 45 minutes.
Kinkaku-ji is the Temple of the Golden Pavilion and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kyoto has many temples, and Kinkaku-ji is one of the more famous ones, with good reason. It’s a pristine gold-gilded temple set atop a beautifully manicured lake. It’s a marvel.
Due to its more compact location, this place felt a lot more crowded than Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. I took a quick photo, walked around (more like get pushed along with the crowd) and left as soon as I could – all wrapped up in 30 minutes. I’d imagine this site would be especially breath-taking in the early mornings sans crowd, but I was happy to leave.
Kiyomizudera Temple is another famous temple in Kyoto. By the time I got here, the sun was already setting. This is a bigger temple than Kinkakuji. The main temple is under construction at the time of visit, so you’re not going to get nice photos of the exterior, but you can get great views of Kyoto city from above.
I didn’t spend too much time within the temple grounds, because it wasn’t well lit. A piece of advice? Definitely visit while the sun is still up.
Surrounding Kiyomizudera is the historic Higashiyama district. I actually felt that this was a better attraction the the temple itself. This area is where you go for a taste of old Kyoto. Extremely charming and quaint, I loved just wandering the streets and admiring the traditional, well-preserved houses.
Ninnenzaka and Sannenzaka are the streets that you want to be looking out for.
Similar to Higashiyama is Gion. Located near to Higashiyama, I could most definitely have explored Gion as well. But one of Gion’s highlights in the evenings was geisha-spotting, and doesn’t seem so fun to me to want to take photos of people who really don’t want to be taken photos of. I was also told that Higashiyama would give a better representation of old Kyoto, so there’s that too.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
The insta-famous Fushimi Inari Shinto shrine was another spot on my Kyoto bucket list. Before checking out the next morning, I made my way to Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. It took me just some 15 minutes to reach here by the JR line, the shrine being right across the station. I arrived around 8am and it wasn’t crowded.
I had a great time exploring the shrine and walking up the torii gates with not much people around. You can climb all the way to the top to get an amazing view of Kyoto city, but my goal was just to hike enough so I can… take self-timed pictures without too many human disturbances. Priorities.
FYI, a little after 9 am, I left the shrine a little after 9am to head back to the hotel to checkout and encountered large groups of tourists at the entrance.
Shop at Kyoto Station
Many would begin and end their trip in Kyoto at Kyoto Station – but this is more than just a train station. I knew prior that there were food options at Kyoto Station, but I never knew it has some solid shopping as well.
My hotel was right by the station, which turned out to be a great decision. I arrived into Kyoto after a red eye flight, so I was a little worse for wear on the first day. After I checked in, i meant to do some exploring, but I was so exhausted that I ended up just shopping around the station.
Notable mentions: BIC Camera for tax-free electronics, Don Quijote for general tax-free shopping, and Avanti Shopping Mall for cheap clothes.
Getting to Kyoto
The nearest airport would be Osaka, but I arrived from Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair International Airport.
From Nagoya, there are two options to get to Kyoto:
- Shinkansen/Bullet train. This trip takes 30-odd minutes and would be the best way to Kyoto.
- Kintetsu Limousine Bus. I took this option somewhat by accident, but it ended up being not such a bad option. It’s a 2 hour and 40 minute ride and costs 400 Yen. Since I arrived into Japan early, an hotel checkin times are strict, I was happy to be able to get some rest on the very comfortable, almost-empty bus ride.
Getting Around Kyoto
There are day passes that you can get, but each card restricts to just buses, or just buses and subways, etc.
I chose to get the ICOCA card because I knew that I was going to have to take a range of JR trains, buses and subways, and no day pass seem to cover all three. It was easy to buy at the station itself via a machine. There’s a 500 Yen deposit, which I was able to get easily from the JR ticket office on the second level at Kyoto Station.
For directions, I used Google Maps. Extremely reliable, and straightforward.
Where to Stay
If you read this guide through then you know that I would highly recommend staying around Kyoto Station. Kyoto’s attractions are not exactly within walking distances to each other, for example Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari are on opposite ends of the city.
I liked that I could easily return to my hotel to rest or charge my devices in between visits without much hassle since a lot of public transport would go to the station. Gion and Higashiyama might be good places to stay too, but shops close rather early.
Hotel Vischio Kyoto by GRANVIA – This ended up being my favourite hotel in the entire Japan trip, save for my epic Ryokan stay. It’s a newer hotel with modern facilities and its rooms are slightly bigger than the standard rooms in major cities in Japan. The bed was extremely comfortable and bathroom glorious. It also has an in-house onsen bathhouse.