One of the most common questions I get asked (via email and private messages on Instagram) is what to do in Japan. I’ve previously shared more off-the-beaten-path Japan experiences on my blog, but I decided it was time to start sharing my advice on what to do when visiting Japan for the first time.
So. If you’re planning your first trip to Kyoto, Japan, I’ve put together a 4 day Kyoto Itinerary, just for you!
If you think of Tokyo as a modern city, Kyoto is like it’s older, more traditional sibling. If you’re after cultural experiences – temples, old architecture, beautiful Japanese gardens and Shrines, well Kyoto is for you. Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in Japan, so if you were to ask me how many days you should spend here, I’d reply by asking “how long is a piece of string?”
Buttttt, most people, find that 4 days in Kyoto is enough. It IS possible to spend fewer days in Kyoto (though I wouldn’t recommend it). So read on for my 4 day Kyoto Itinerary, filled with ideas of places to visit in Kyoto!
Day 1 – Downtown Kyoto
First days always have the potential to be time wasters if you don’t plan. If you’re anything like me, the first day is always filled with “oh noes, what do I do now???” after I’ve dropped off my luggage at my hotel or hostel. If this is you too (YAY LETS BE FRIENDS) I’ve put together a half day itinerary to make settling in easier!
Downtown Kyoto is your first port of call. Filled with arcades, museums, and laneways for you to explore, downtown Kyoto is also a great spot to explore on a rainy day. My top suggestions are:
Markets are always a great way to experience the culture of a country you’re visiting, and Nishiki Market is no different. I loved browsing the different foods and fresh ingredients. It was lots of fun to wander through here. The market is undercover, so if it’s raining, this is a great place to spend a bit of time!
Teramachi shopping arcade
I stayed just down the street from this area, so it was my go-to area for stocking up for souvenirs. The Teramachi Shopping Arcade is a little touristy (think tourist stores and places you can stock up on cheap knick-knacks). It’s a great place to spend some time if you like shopping, but you don’t want to step foot into a large department store.
This area is one of the best places in Kyoto to experience the traditional architecture of Kyoto. Think narrow streets and small wooden shop fronts. The most popular (and photographic spot!) is between the Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine. The busiest time to visit the Higashiyama district is during sunset when the area is filled with keen photographers (professional and amateur alike!)
Day 2 – Fushimi-Inari Shrine & Kinkaku-ji temple
The Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine is one of the most well-known spots in Kyoto for tourists. This Shinto Shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. It’s famous for the thousands of torii gates, donated by individuals and local businesses. It costs 400,000 yen (approximately $3,500 USD) for a small sized gate, and the cost increases to over one million yen (roughly $8,800 USD) for a large gate!
When visiting you may spot fox statues on the shrine grounds – this is because foxes are said to be Inari’s messengers. This shrine is one of my most favorite places in Kyoto to visit – the rows of torii gates are a sight to behold, and the hike up Inari mountain is peaceful and has sweeping views of Kyoto. You can spend a couple of hours climbing Inari Mountain, so it is worth visiting as early as possible to avoid the crowds and crowds of tourists.
No visit to Kyoto is complete with visiting the Kinkakuji Temple or the “Golden Pavilion.” This Zen temple is famous for being covered in gold leaf and overlooks a large pond. The temple has been burned down a couple of times during his history, twice during a civil war and again in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. It was rebuilt to its current structure in 1955.
I’ve visited the Kinkakuji Temple twice, and am always surprised at how beautiful and grand the temple is. The gold covered temple is a sight to behold, and I’d recommend first-time visitors to Kyoto to visit! It’s hard to avoid crowds at the Kinkakuji Temple, as this is a ticketed location. Your best bet is to visit as soon as they open, or a bit before they close. Off-peak tourist seasons are best, and avoid weekends if possible!
Day 3 – Arashiyama District
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is arguably one of the most photographed spots in Kyoto. The general area of Arashiyama is very popular, as the surrounding area has many beautiful shrines and temples. If you’re keen on photographing the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, make sure you visit early in the morning and pack insect repellant if you’re visiting in the summer. The crowds start to pick up at 9-10 am! Also, make sure to avoid visiting during public holidays or weekends. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is incredibly popular, amongst local Japanese and tourists alike!
A short walk from the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is the Tenryuji Temple – one of the most famous temples in the Arashiyama district. This temple is registered as a world heritage site and is also the head temple of its school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism. The reason why most tourists visit, however, is its beautiful gardens which are still in their original form. Make sure you check out the pond with the backdrop of the Arashiyama Mountains!
Rent a rowboat
If you’re visiting during the warmer months, make sure you rent a rowboat to escape the crowds. This is especially a must if you’re visiting during the Cherry Blossom season or during Fall – the colors are spectacular from the Hozu-gawa River! You can find a couple of boat rental spots if you walk from the Togetsu-kyo Bridge on the north side of the Hozu-gawa River. Make sure you take plenty of photos (but be careful with your electronics!)
Other things to do
You can definitely spend an entire day in the Arashiyama district. My recommendation would be to pick another temple you’d like to visit (there are SO MANY to choose from!) or visit the Monkey Park Iwatayama. There are also some great food options in Arashiyama too – our favorite was Arashiyama Yoshimura (located along the river) the lines can be long, but the soba is 100% worth the wait!
Day 4 – Kiyomizu-dera temple & traditional Kyoto
Most people who visit the Kiyomizu-dera remember it as the beautiful temple with a grand wooden stage looking out across the hillside. This temple is not only beautiful but also attracts many visitors seeking views of fall leaves and cherry blossoms. This temple is one of the most visited temples in Japan and is also a UNESCO world heritage listed site.
My favorite part of visiting Kiyomizu-dera was visiting the Tainai-meguri. This underground area is dark and symbolic of entering the womb of a female bodhisattva. Make sure to follow the handle in the darkness, and make a wish by spinning the rock.
Note: Kiyomizu-dera is undergoing construction at the moment, and part of the main hall is covered up. You will still be able to visit (construction started in Feb 2017 and will finish March 2020), however, if you have plans to photograph the main hall, you may not find what you expect when visiting. Similar to Kinkakuji temple, this is a ticketed tourist site, so it will be hard to avoid the crowds. If this is a priority, make sure you visit as soon as they open or a bit before they close. During certain dates in the spring and winter, there are extended opening hours, and you can even visit during sunset!
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts Fureaikan
This was one of my unexpected highlights in Kyoto! I visited on my third trip to this city and was so glad I did. The museum has free entry (bonus for budget travelers!) and is filled with bucket loads of information about Japanese arts and crafts. You’ll learn how the material of kimonos are made, there are even live demonstrations, and they have a great gift shop filled with traditional Japanese crafts! This museum was one of my highlights of Kyoto.
Gion is famous for being Kyoto’s geisha district. A short walk from the Higashiyama District; the area is perfect to visit in the evenings. Filled with shops, restaurants, and teahouses, this is where Geisha and Miko (Geisha apprentices) entertain. Architecturally, the streets are filled with narrow wooden houses and lit by paper lanterns in the evenings. Gion comes alive in the evenings, which is when other tourists and visitors to Kyoto also flock to the area.
Day trips from Kyoto
Day trip to Nara
Nara is often mentioned when people talk about visiting Kyoto. It is by far one of the most popular day trips from Kyoto.
Honestly, I feel like Nara deserves it’s own blog post (this one is getting slightly out of hand!) Quickly, my top tips are:
- Nara gets super busy with tourists (especially on the weekends and during Cherry Blossom season), so make sure you start your day as early as possible.
- One of the main attractions is Todaiji or the “Great Eastern Temple” which is home to one of the largest bronze Buddha statues in Japan – a can’t miss if you’re in Nara. Todaiji is about a 30-45min walk from the JR Nara Station – a worthwhile walk if you want to spot some of the deer from the Nara Park!
Day trip or half a day in Uji
I’m not going to lie; I only heard about Uji purely by chance. I left my passport on a train when traveling to Nara, and when the AMAZING train station staff located it, it turns out someone had handed it in at the Uji train station. Once we found out, we hopped on a train to Uji, and lo-and-behold, we were introduced to MATCHA HEAVEN.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I love all things matcha flavored, so Uji was a dream come true. Like Nara, it deserves its own blog post, but my ultimate must-dos when here include:
- The Byōdō-in temple: this is the temple that’s pictured on the back of the Japanese 10 yen coin, and is 100% worth a visit when you’re in Uji. The inside of the temple is incredibly beautiful, and the grounds have a lovely tea house and garden.
- Check out the various matcha cafes and shops: you need to buy matcha when you’re here (YES!) and also make sure you try matcha flavored soba too!
- Matcha tea ceremony: there are various Matcha Tea ceremonies available in Uji, some require bookings. If you haven’t made a booking, make sure you visit the Uji Tourist Information Centre, where you can pay 500 JPY per person for a basic tea ceremony (includes one cup of Matcha and a Japanese cake/sweet). The tea house is right next door to the information center – the staff were incredibly friendly, even though their English is limited. They will explain what you need to do in the tea ceremony, and you are free to take as many photos as you like (but no video!)
- Walk along the Uji river: Very few tourists venture out this way, but there is a small island in the middle with a pagoda that is worth checking out if you are already in the area for your Matcha Tea Ceremony.
Uji is definitely worth a visit if you love matcha (and everything matcha flavored). For me, Uji was such an unexpected surprise, and by far my favorite day trip from Kyoto.
I’d love to hear from you – are you planning a trip to Japan? Or have you been to Kyoto previously? Leave me a comment and let me know if you have any questions!