For many travellers and locals alike, Kyoto is considered the pinnacle Japanese city. For centuries the ancient capital played host to Japan’s elite rulers and aristocrats that forever imprinted themselves in the nation’s history. The undeniable spirituality and powerful cultural influence of the city have had a lasting effect on the greater nation. Kyoto also holds more treasures than any other, boasting some of the most iconic images in all of Japan. In a city with so much to offer, it would take months to tick everything off the list. When time is of the essence, choosing which sites to visit becomes a daunting task. So here’s the perfect itinerary on how to hit the biggest highlights in Kyoto over just 4 days.
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Kyoto has long been considered as the nation’s spiritual and cultural centre, and there’s little wonder why. The city is known for having a truly staggering number of temples, around 1600 in fact! It would literally take you months to see each one! Though that isn’t the only thing that’s appealing about Kyoto. The city has an immense amount of history that runs through its widespread districts, with an unbelievable total of 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites! And amongst the castles and palaces, it’s truly where fairytales are made.
No matter how long you’d be in the city, you’d never be able to see everything in the city. Particularly as most of us are working on a tight schedule. However, it would be easy enough to see the city’s biggest highlights in a matter of days. So let me show you the only Kyoto itinerary you’ll ever need!
One day should be dedicated to travelling the southeastern edge of the city, which happens to have some of the city’s biggest highlights! I highly recommend starting the trip as early as possible, even before sunset if you can! Trust me, it’s worth it!
Your Kyoto itinerary begins with not only the greatest and most recognisable highlight in the city but one of the most iconic attractions in all of Japan! Fushimi-Inari is made up a thousand crimson red torii gates winding up through the forest-covered trails of sacred Mount Inari towards the main shrine at the peak of the mountain. The Shinto shrine built in 794 has become the inspiration for over 40,000 other shrines scattered across the country.
Each torii gate has been donated by individual’s/company’s, whose names and dates of donation have been inscribed upon them. Along the way, the seemingly neverending tunnel is broken up by many smaller sub-shrines across the mountain trail. It’s best to arrive as early as possible, not only to beat the crowds but to experience the sunrise beaming through the gates as you ascend the mountain.
Take the Keihan Main (Red) Line from Fushimi-Inari Station to Shichijō Station. Alternatively, from Inari Station take the Nara Line to Tofukuji Station. You can also take bus number 5 from Inari-Taisha-mae to 七条京阪前 (バス). Otherwise those keen on walking can do so in about 30 minutes.
We come to the first temple of your Kyoto itinerary, and definitely won’t be the last! Inside the dimly lit main hall of Sanjūsangen-dō amongst clouds of earthy incense, crowds shuffle along a succession of 1000 identical statues of Kannon that flank a central figure of the same diety. The monstrous figure at the centre is said to have 1000 arms and 11 faces, to better see the suffering of man and enough arms to help fight against it. Unfortunately, like many Japanese temples, photographs aren’t allowed inside.
It’s next door to the temple.
Kyoto National Museum
Though the city has many museums, this one would have to be the best. Kyoto National Museum is not only one of the oldest in the country but is also one of Japan’s top 4 museums. Inside, the museum is home to several permanent and rotating special exhibitions such as archaeological relics, statues and paintings. It’s a nice change of pace adds deeper history to your time in Kyoto.
You can take bus numbers 92, 100, 202, 206 or 207 from Higashiyama Nanajo to Gojozaka then walk for another 15 minutes. You can also reach there if you’re willing for an uphill walk of about 30 minutes.
Of the many temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera is likely the most significant on your itinerary. Founded under the Hosso sect of Buddhism (one of the oldest) in 780, it’s also one of the oldest temples in the city. The best-known feature of this UNESCO World Heritage site is a wooden stage that stretched out from the main hall, where you’ll be able to see Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms.
The temple grounds also has other quirky attractions, such as the Jinshu Shrine, a dedication to the deity of love. It’s a popular spot for young lovers to bring luck to their future relationships by trying to walk from one stone to the other with their eyes shut. The waterfall next to the main hall, for which Kiyomizu-dera gets its name, is also a popular spot. Visitors are encouraged to drink from the three streams, each coming with its own benefit including longevity, a successful love life and success in your career. Just make sure you don’t drink from all three, as it’s considered greedy!
It’s right in front of the temple.
Just in front of Kiyomizu-dera are some examples of the best-preserved historic streets in the city. The collection of traditional wooden buildings and visitors sauntering around the alleyways in their rented kimonos succeed in retaining the culture and authenticity of the area. Like the rest of the Higashiyama District, the streets are home to traditional machiyas, restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops, giving a change of pace to your day.
Another day should be spent on the opposite edge of Kyoto in the northwest. This stage of your trip will be spent exploring the popular region of Arashiyama and exploring some of the city’s best temples!
Any Kyoto itinerary would be incomplete without a visit to Arashiyama! The area popular amongst nobilities of old is a perfect escape from the sprawl of the city. Without a doubt, the areas biggest highlight is yet another iconic image of Japan, the Bamboo Groves. The path that carves through thick emerald groves of upward stretching bamboo has been the focus of countless artists, photographers and poets. Nothing beats visiting on a breezy day when the bamboo waves to the will of the wind, releasing a gentle chorus of creaks.
The region also shows Kyoto’s love of temples with plenty scattered across the region, such as Daikakuji Temple, Jojakkoji Temple and Nisonin Temple. The best of which has to be UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryuji Temple and the gardens that surround it, which is also one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto.
From Arashiyama Station you can take bus number 11 to Yamagoe Nakacho and take bus number 59 to Omuro. From the same station, you could take bus number 73 to Katabira no Tsuji before changing onto a train along the Kiefuku line to Omuro-Ninnaji Station. Alternatively, you could take a tram along the red line to the same station.
Here is yet another one of Kyoto’s very best temples! Ninna-ji is the head temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and has had a member of Japan’s imperial family as the head priest since it was founded. The temple’s highlight is the Goten, the former residence of the head priest, as well as several national treasures and cultural artefacts. Ninna-ji is also famous for its late-blooming cherry blossoms that extend your chance of seeing Japan’s favourite flower!
Take bus number 59 for a couple of minutes down the road from Omuro to Ryoanji-mae. You could also walk for a short 10 minutes.
Who would have guessed, another temple! Ryoanji Temple has the distinction of housing Japan’s most famous rock garden. The 15 rocks on placed on small islands of moss brings a lot of debate on what they represent. Some believe they’re islands in the ocean, others think its a tiger carrying her cubs. You decide!
Get back to Ryoanji-mae and take bus number 59 to Kinkakujimichi. Otherwise, you can take a 20-minute walk.
Next stop on your itinerary is one of Kyoto’s best highlights? Known as the “Golden Pavilion“, Kinkaku-ji is another nationally famous Zen temple that was once the retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. The gold leaf-covered main hall surrounding a tranquil pond represents the extravagant aristocratic cultures of Kyoto at the time.
Sadly, it’s only a reconstruction, as the original structure was burned to the ground by an obsessive monk. Visitors aren’t even allowed in the hall itself! Instead, you can only view from the edge of the lake where you can catch glimpses of the seated Kannon and golden phoenix held within.
This will be the easiest stage of your itinerary. You’ll mostly be in the centre of the city and won’t need as much travelling. However, you won’t be sacrificing quality, as you’ll be experiencing a little bit of everything.
Today’s itinerary starts with an attraction that has one of the most extensive histories in all of Kyoto. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once the official residence of the shogunate rulers until 1867 and became an imperial palace after that. Along with beautiful gardens and the remains of an old, five-storied castle, the real highlight is found deep within its walls.
The Ninomaru Palace is where the shogun would live and work during his time in Kyoto. Visitors can see areas that only a few lucky individuals had the privilege! These include the shogun’s main audience room where he commanded his subordinates and the living chambers of his and his female “companions“. Take note of the “nightingale floors” which squeak while walking across them, a security measure to alert of any intruders.
From Horikawa Marutamachi you can take bus numbers 10, 93, 202 or 204 to Karasuma Marutamachi, though its almost as fast just to walk!
At one time, Kyoto’s Imperial Palace was the official home of Japan’s Imperial family until the capital was moved to Tokyo. The palace even played host to several enthronement ceremonies for the country’s Emperors! At the centre of Kyoto Imperial Park, it’s amongst a scattering of smaller temples and even a tea-house on the edge of a koi filled pond.
The easiest way is to travel along the green line from Imadegawa Station to Shijō Station. From Karasuma Shimo Dachiuri take bus number 51 to Sakaimachi Oike. Otherwise, you can take bus number 59 from Karasuma Imadegawa to Shijokawaramachi Bus Stop. You could also go from Karasuma Marutamachi on bus number 10 to Shijokawaramachi. It’s just as fast to walk!
The next stop on your Kyoto itinerary is one for the foodies! Known locally as “Kyoto’s Kitchen“, Nishiki Market is a collection of narrow shopping streets with a history that spans generations of store owners as far back as 1310 when it began as a humble fish market. Today it remains an important attraction for both tourists and an important source of specialised foods for locals. It’s the perfect chance to explore the culinary side of Kyoto.
From Shijo Takakura take bus number 5, 15 or 17 to Karasuma Nanajo. You can also leave from Shijo Karasuma on bus number 26, 73 or 76 to Karasuma Nanajo. Or just walk for about 20 minutes to get there.
Another day, another temple! Well, two actually! Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji temples are two separate UNESCO world heritage sites. They both act as the headquarters of the Jodo-Shin sect of Buddhism, one of Japan’s largest with over 10,000 sub-temples across the country.
Nishi Honganji (West) was built after the sect’s former head temple in Osaka had been destroyed. Higashi Honganji (East) is a few street blocks away and arguably the most impressive. Its main hall is Kyoto’s largest wooden structure and dedicated to Shinran, the sect’s founder.
From Karasuma Nanajo take bus number 205 to Nanajo Omiya Kyoto Suizokukan. You can also leave from Shimogyoku Sogo Chosha-mae take bus number 19 to Kujo Omiya. You can also go from Shiokoji Takakura on bus number 16 to Toji Nishimon-mae.
Can you believe Kyoto has yet another UNESCO world heritage site to include on your itinerary?! To-ji Temple was founded just after the capital was moved to Kyoto in the late 700s, and acted as the capital’s guardian temple. It became one of the most important Shingon temples in Japan after Kobo Daishi, the founder of the sect, was appointed as it’s head priest.
One of the temple’s best features is the five-storied pagoda. Erected by Daishi in 826, its the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan, and has become a symbol of both the temple and Kyoto alike. If you’re there at the right time, you might be lucky enough to visit the popular market which happens on the 21st of each month.
Get ready for a long day. The final leg of your Kyoto Itinerary is going to leave you exhausted. Today is all about Kyoto’s speciality, temples. You’ll also be experiencing one of Japan’s most iconic cultural icons, so get excited!
Just like Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji is another former shogun’s retirement villa, built with an equal lack of modesty. However, instead of being covered in gold, Ginkaku-ji was originally intended to be covered in silver. Though the imagined décor never coming to fruition, it gave the villa its name; the “Silver Pavilion“. And just like Kinkaku-ji, the villa later became a Zen temple.
Ginkaku-ji became the centre of the aristocratic Higashiyama culture at the time. The villa had a wide influence on the country’s development of art, garden designs and tea ceremonies.
It’s just a short walk away and round the corner.
The stone path that runs parallel to a canal lined with cherry trees gets its name from one of the country’s most famous philosophers; Nishida Kitaro. Along here is where Kitaro would practice his daily meditation on his way to Kyoto University. Today the canal is lined with a succession of restaurants, cafes along with several temples, the most important temple of which is Honen-in. Naturally, the most scenic time of year is during spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
You could leave from Jodoji on bus number 5 to Nanzenji Eikandomichi. Your other option is going from Ginkakuji mae on bus number 100 to Higashitennocho. You could follow the Philosopher’s Path to the end and a little further for a total of about 20 minutes.
At the base of Kyoto’s forested Higashiyama mountains, is one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan. Nanzen-ji is yet another retirement villa that was later converted into a Zen temple. Through the monstrous Sanmon entrance gate (built for the soldiers that died in the siege of Osaka Castle) is the Hojo, the former head priest’s residence and the temple’s main hall. The rock garden beside it is said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing through water.
About 10 minutes away from the temple, bus number 5 leaves from a Nanzenji Eikandomichi towards Jingumichi. You could also take bus number 100 from Higashitennocho towards Jingumichi. Or just walk 20 minutes to get there.
Another temple for your Kyoto itinerary! This time, Chion-in is the head temple of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, one of the most popular in Japan. Like Nanzen-ji, this temple also has a Sanmon Gate, which is the largest wooden gate in Japan standing at 24 meters tall. The huge temple complex has a number of other unique attractions. Within the grounds is a huge bell that at one point was the largest in the world!
The temple also shows great respect to the man who founded the Jodo sect, priest Honen. Inside the temple’s enormous main hall is his statue, which has become the temple’s main object of worship. There’s also a nearby mausoleum which contains his ashes.
The temple is in the next attraction already!
As you’re already in the park you might as well pass through! Surrounding Chion-in on the edge of the Higashiyama District, Maruyama Park becomes a hot-spot during the first half of April when the cherry trees are in full bloom. During that time it becomes one of the popular tourist spots in the whole city!
It takes 4 minutes to walk there.
That’s right, you guessed it, Kyoto has another temple to add to your itinerary. This time it belongs to the Rinzai sect of Buddhism. Kodai-ji was constructed in the memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his faithful wife Nene, which would later become the final resting place for them both. Once covered in gold, these days the main hall has been replaced with a more modest construction after it was burnt down.
The grounds of the temple include beautifully interconnected structures, zen gardens and even a miniature bamboo grove. There’s also the memorial hall where Nene would pray for her late husband and a mausoleum designed with rich powdered gold and silver.
It’s right next to it.
Here’s a hidden gem that isn’t included on many must-do lists. Directly next to Kodai-ji is Ryozen Kannon, a temple complex dedicated to the fallen on both sides of the Pacific War. The notable centrepiece is a 24-meter high figure of the Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy) which overlooks the temple’s courtyard. Inside the figure is a collection of eleven different images of Kannon each with its own separate shrines. Whilst exploring inside, the hollow centre of the statue resonates with the blissful chanting of the faithful devotees in the temple beneath.
The truly unique feature of the temple is placed beside its main hall. The small chapel-like structure has a central altar dedicated to the fallen of the war, as well as having series of filing cabinets full of documents detailing each victim (both Japanese and otherwise) that died on Japanese territory. There’s also a display that contains samples of soil collected from each allied cemetery that took part in the Pacific War.
It takes 5 minutes to walk there.
Though pagodas aren’t in short supply in Kyoto, it’s the location of Hokan-ji which makes it special. The 46-meter high pagoda is right in the middle of the popular Higashiyama District, providing some beautiful scenes in an already beautiful neighbourhood. Perhaps not a surprise to find out that it was built by someone who was inspired by a dream.
Again, 5 minutes to walk there.
You may be glad to hear by now that this is the last temple on your itinerary, but luckily it’s one of the finest in Kyoto. The oldest Zen temple in the city was founded by the Buddhist monk that introduced both Zen Buddhism and tea cultivation to Japan after he visited China. Its also one of the main temples of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, and another one of Kyoto’s five great Zen temples.
Visitors can explore the main buildings and the immaculate Zen gardens that surround them. The interior sliding doors have some amazing examples of decorative artwork with images of dragons and the gods of wind and thunder. Though just as striking is the spectacular mural of twin dragons which adorns the roof of Dharma Hall, a commemoration to the temple’s 800th anniversary.
You’re able to join the main street of Gion at the entrance to Kennin-ji.
Hanamikoji Street (Gion)
Your last stop on your Kyoto itinerary might be the very best! Beginning as nothing more than a handful of tea-houses, for centuries the streets of Gion have been the home of pleasure and entertainment. The authentically preserved 17th century-style streets are home to one of the most recognisable pieces of Japanese culture; the mysterious and allusive geishas. This is the birthplace of the art form and where the highest congregation of these highly trained entertainers remain to this day.
The streets are home to a collection of lantern-lit restaurants and ochayas (teahouses) where the geishas and apprentice maikos gather to entertain paying guests. Many tourists gather here at night to catch a glimpse of an authentic geisha scuttering their way to their next appointment. Though this is not an easy task! The window of opportunity is slim, only really possible between 5:30-6 pm. However, those hoping to see performances should get ready to pay a fortune.