Photo Courtesy Austin Rea
Truly two days in Kyoto is not enough, but it will only take part of a day for Kyoto to take you in its fold and make you never want to leave! The first time Blaine and I visited Kyoto was in autumn and it was ridiculously beautiful. We visited the last weekend in November, which apparently was perfect timing. The leaves were at peak color, the weather was crisp and comfortable, and the sky was clear blue the entire time. It was super crowded of course (March – May, and November are Kyoto’s most crowded months) and most of the visitors were Japanese. I’m always surprised that I don’t see more foreign tourists when traveling around Japan, but the truth is the Japanese love touring around their fabulous country just as much as the rest of us.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Downtown Kyoto is a very central neighborhood within walking distance of the Gion district. The most notable sights in Downtown Kyoto are Nishiki Market, also known as Kyoto’s pantry, and Pontocho Alley, a beautiful narrow street packed with restaurants along the Kamo River.
Southern Higashiyama is known for the Gion district, a popular area for evening entertainment and geisha spotting, and Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which sits on a hill overlooking Kyoto and the surrounding mountains.
Central Kyoto is home to Nijo-jo Castle and the Kyoto Imperial Palace (apparently the Imperial Palace Park is more interesting than the Palace).
Kyoto Station Area is convenient for train and bus travel throughout the region. The station is an impressive modern structure welcoming tourists into Japan’s historic capital. I highly recommend stopping by the Kyoto Visitor’s Center in Kyoto Station as soon as you arrive. They are incredibly helpful, can help you plan your itinerary and transportation, and they speak fluent English (as well as a handful of other languages I’m sure).
Arashiyama is a very scenic region of Kyoto known for the Bamboo Grove, Tenryu-ji Temple, and the Okochi Sanso Villa.
Where to Eat in Kyoto
Pontocho Alley is just across the Kamo River from Kyoto’s Gion district. There’s a good mix of traditional Japanese cuisine and modern cuisine along Pontocho. In the spring and summer months the restaurants build kawadoko (wooden dining platforms) along the river for picturesque outdoor dining. This was the first place Blaine and I saw a geisha in Japan! It was also the area I had the best tofu and tempura (Kyoto’s versions are supposed to be the best in Japan) in the country.
Nishiki Market has been supplying Kyoto’s restaurants for hundreds of years. This Conde Nast Traveler article on the market is exceptional and has a great map of the market’s streets and vendors.
Depachika is the Japanese word for department store basement and in Japan depachika are food wonderlands! The first time Blaine and I found the Takashimaya depachika in Nagoya we were blown away. They have a large selection of prepared foods, fresh baked bread, alcohol, produce, fish, meat, and the notorious hundred dollar melons (I still have no idea why they’re so expensive, but you’ll see them). Check out the Daimaru and Takashimaya depachika in Downtown Kyoto and enjoy!
Shojin Ryori is traditional Zen Buddhist cuisine. It’s all vegetarian and you can find it throughout Kyoto from the Michelin star Ajiro near Daitoku-ji Temple to inside the Tenryu-ji Temple grounds at Shigetsu.
Kyo Kaiseki is traditional Kyoto style multicourse meals. Kyo kaiseki are often served at ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).
What to See and Do in Kyoto
With over a thousand temples and 300 shrines, Kyoto has no shortage of historic sights. But if you only have two days in Kyoto, these are my top recommendations.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Fushimi Inari is the Shinto shrine to the gods of sake and rice. As soon as you get off the train at Fushimi you’ll see the large orange torii gates marking the path to the shrine. The tunnel of vermillion shrine gates snakes its way up Inari Mountain beside evergreens and past ponds. The entire hike takes a couple hours. Blaine and I only did part of it to save time, but it was otherworldly. The Fushimi district is also known for sake breweries, so after you hike up Inari go sample some sake.
Kinkaku-ji is The Golden Pavilion, one of Kyoto’s best known sights. The pavilion is coated in gold leaf and sits on Kyoko-chi (Mirror Pond). After taking photos and admiring Kinkaku-ji follow the path behind the pavilion and pay the ¥500 for matcha (powder green tea) and a sweet red bean paste dessert in the lovely tea garden. Kinkaku-ji was the most crowded of the Kyoto sights we visited in November, but I would not have traded seeing it for a less crowded sight. It’s phenomenal in person and I loved every bit of our time there.
Kiyomizu-dera is my favorite temple in Kyoto so far (there are over a thousand temples, so I still have a lot to see). We walked from Gion to Chawanzaka (Teapot Lane), a steep street lined with shops selling snacks, lacquer ware, and tapestries that leads directly to the base of Kiyomizu. We timed it perfectly for sunset, thanks to the staff at the Kyoto Visitor’s Center in Kyoto Station*. Kiyomizu-dera sits on a hill with views of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains. The red-orange Japanese Maples that surround Kiyomizu-dera were completely stunning. It’s still my favorite view in Japan!
The best known sights of Arashiyama district are the Bamboo Grove and Tenryu-ji Temple. The lesser known Okochi Sanso Villa is also a must see. It was once the home of film actor Okochi Denjiro, now you can tour the grounds and gardens and enjoy tea and dessert for a ¥1000 entrance fee.
The Philosopher’s Path (哲学の道 )
Tetsugaku-no-michi is a scenic path along a cherry blossom lined canal. The path passes some of Kyoto’s most famous sights including Ginkaku-ji, The Silver Pavilion, and ends very close to Nanzen-ji Temple. The path also has offshoots to many quiet shrines, teahouses, and shops.
This castle was the stronghold of Japan’s renown shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who built the castle to prove his power over the Imperial family. The castle’s intricate woodwork, painted sliding doors, and gold leaf ceilings are well worth a visit.
Inside Kyoto is the best resource I’ve found for planning a trip to Kyoto.
*I highly recommend making the Visitor’s Center in Kyoto Station your first stop. The staff speaks fluent English and they are incredibly helpful. We told the man exactly what we wanted to see and he showed us exactly how to get to each destination and in what order to see them!
For more on Kyoto:
What do you most want to see in Kyoto? If you’ve been there, what was your favorite sight?