Your Japan trip can not be completed without visiting Kyoto.
Located in the Kansai region, Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan and overflows with ancient temples, exquisite Japanese gardens, historical landmarks, refined cuisine, art, and crafts. The area is home to an astonishing 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Kiyomizu Temple, Golden Pavilion, Silver Pavilion, Nijomon Castle to name a few.
Kyoto can be easily accessed from Tokyo and will only take about two and a half hours on JR Shinkansen (you can use your JR Pass ). Once you arrive in Kyoto, take advantage of the local subway system (JR pass cannot be used)or the local bus system to get around. If traveling with three or more people, taking a taxi can be a cost-effective and time-saving way to traverse the city.
A compact city, Kyoto is well suited to walking and biking and, the perfect way to depart from the main streets and discover the back alleys, small shops, and cafes. Kamo (Duck) River is just a few minutes from the downtown district and a scenic backdrop for relaxing in the sun and enjoying your favorite Matcha beverage.
Kyoto is a place I have visited many times with clients and group tours, and below is a sample three-day itinerary from those experiences. I hope you enjoy this amazing city as much as I do!
Day 1: Philosophers Path, Silver Pavilion, Kiyomizu Temple, Kawai Kanjiro’s House, and Kaiseki Dinner
Philosopher’s Path and the Silver Pavilion
Philosopher’s Path was named after a famous Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro who walked this path from his residence to Kyoto University where he was a professor.
On the first day at 9 am, take a taxi or walk to the Philosopher’s Path near Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion). Ideally, start your morning journey about 15 minutes (by foot) away from Silver Pavilion so you can walk along the beautiful river path to the entrance of the Silver Pavilion.
You should arrive at Ginkakuji, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site, about the time it opens to the public. Ginkakuji was a retirement villa built-in 1400 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa and is surrounded by a well-groomed Japanese garden of the sand garden, waterfall, moss-covered grounds, and forest. As with many other famous attractions, Ginkakuji can get crowded during peak seasons and I highly recommend visiting Ginkakuji early in the morning during the weekdays.
Kiyomizu Temple and Kawai Kanjiro’s House
It is hard to say good-bye to the natural beauty of the Silver Pavilion, but our next stop is the popular Kiyomizu Temple, a Buddist temple and another UNESCO World Heritage Site which is located 10 minutes away from Ginkakuji by car.
Kiyomizu temple was found in the Heian period (778) and was reconstructed in 1633 to the current style and structure. Kiyomizu temple has a wide veranda where you can see a stunning view of the hillside and the city. In Japan “think as if you are jumping from the platform of Kiyomizudera” is a widely used phrase, meaning “take a plunge” or doing something without a safety net.
Next, I have a couple of options depending on your interests. If you have an interest in Japanese potteries, walk down on “Chawan Zaka” a Pottery Hill, and head to Kiyomizu Ceramic Center where you can purchase locally made pottery and jewelry for souvenirs.
Along this same route is Kawai Kanjiro’s house and studio and is a recommended place to visit. Kawai Kanjiro was a poet, potter, artist and one of the important figures in the folk art movement in Japan. Besides being a great artist, he is known for his compassion and humbleness. His house and studio recently opened to the public and here you can see work of arts throughout his life and his famous Noborigama ‘climbing’ kiln.
Now is a good time to take a short break for some coffee and sweets and I recommend a visit to the Ichikawa Cafe, a much-needed oasis in a traditional Kyoto style house with its narrow entrance and garden inside.
However, If you’d rather head straight to Gion to shop and then walk back on “San-nen-Zaka” and “Ni-nen-Zaka”. It’s about a 25 minute walk to Gion from Kiyomizu Temple. Yazaka Shrine is a starting point for Gion and here you’ll find many Geisha teahouses.
Gion, Maiko Performance and Kaiseki Dinner
If you are lucky, you may get a glimpse of Geisha walking the streets of Gion in the evening. I highly recommend making a reservation at a teahouse in Gion to see a dance performance by a Maiko and experience a traditional kaiseki dinner. The beautiful kimonos, unique makeup, and formality are guaranteed to capture your attention.
A private dinner offers a rare opportunity to speak and ask questions (you must hire a translator as they usually do not speak English). In the near perimeter is Gion Hatanaka, a traditional Ryokan (hotel) which also offers traditional Kaiseki dinner with a performance by Maiko for those staying at the hotel. If your budget allows, it is worth it.
Day 2: Roketsu/Indigo Dye Studio, Arashiyama, Bamboo Forest
Roketsu/Indigo Dye Workshop & Textile in Kyoto
Long been a tradition here in Kyoto is the ancient method of applying liquid wax onto fabric. The fabric is then dyed in indigo blue highlighting the design where the wax was applied.
Visiting and taking a roketsu zome workshop at Roketsu Yamamoto is an excellent cultural activity everyone can enjoy. The workshop takes about 2 hours and you will immediately get drawn to the process of making art.
If you have an interest in textiles, here are a few more recommendations.
Located near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Tezomeya offers natural dye using Chinese herbal medicine. The fabrics and threads dyed in herbal medicines are earthy, warm with vivid natural colors.
Located near Sanjyo Street. This small museum offers shibori exhibits and workshops.
Nishijin Textile Center
Often overlooked at Nishijin Textile Center is the museum located on the third floor. It has an extensive collection of Nishijin fabrics, looms, and other historical artifacts. This is also a great place to get an understanding of the history and process of making Nishijin Textile. They also offer weaving demonstrations and 10-minute Kimono Fashion Show for no charge.
Arashi Yama, Trolly Ride, Bamboo Forest
From the Roketsu Dye Studio, Sagano-Arashiyama and Bamboo Forest are not too distant. This area was discovered during the Heian era as a retreat for nobility and has kept its charm today.
You can get to Saga-Arashiyama JR then walk across the street to Torokko Saga Station where you hop on a 30-minutes trolley ride along Hozu-gawa river. The trolley can be very crowded especially during sakura season and on weekends but the view is spectacular. Also, equally recommended is the Hozu-Ogawa River Boat Ride. Instead of taking the trolley back, why not enjoy the thrill and fun of rafting down the river. Tickets can be purchased for 4,100 yen. There are many cafes and restaurants at the entryway to the Bamboo Forest where you can stop for a quick lunch or tea.
Day 3: Nishiki Market, d47 Kyoto, Gekkeikan Brewery, Inari Taisha Shrine
Nishiki Market, d47 Kyoto, Lorimer Restaurant
You must check out the local food scene at Nishiki Market before you depart Kyoto. Nishiki Market was built in 1615 and consists of 126 stores. It is called the “kitchen town” of Kyoto and you will find almost all kinds of food from Kyoto and the surrounding region. Pickled vegetables, noodles, seafood, meat, kitchen tools, you name it. If you are looking for a kitchen knife to take home, make sure to stop at the Aritsugu knife shop. It is the oldest sword (no longer selling swords, though) and knife shop in Japan.
Side Notes: The red, yellow and blue patterned roof of the kitchen town is a trademark of Nishiki Market.
Near Nishiki Market is d47 Kyoto, owned by D & D Department ( a lifestyle brand and magazine) where they showcase made-in-Japan artisan products and food. Unlike its flagship store in busy Shibuya, Tokyo, this shop and restaurant/cafe here is located inside Bukkoji Temple.
Take your shoes off and sit on tatami mats to enjoy Japanese style lunch, tea or sweets.
For lunch, stop at Lorimer Kyoto on your way to Kyoto Station. Lorimer Kyoto is owned by a Japanese chef (who became a chef in the United States along with two other New Yorkers) and operates multiple Japanese restaurants in New York and Japan. Enjoy the long-standing formula of simple Ichi ju san sai, one soup three (or five) sides with rice.
Fushimi Sake District, Gekkeikan Museum & Chokenji Temple
After lunch take a local train heading south to go to Fushimi Sake District of Kyoto (about 25 minutes train ride from Kyoto Station) to go visit the world-famous Gekkeikan Sake Brewery.
Fushimi district is located along the Fushimi River on the south side of Kyoto. There are small canals and natural springs making the area ideal for sake production and trade of sake and rice. There are about 40 breweries in this area and many buildings preserve their traditional appearance of wood and plaster-white walls.
Gekkeikan (the name means “Crown of laurel”) was built in 1637 by Jiemon Okura and this preeminent sake is widely known not only in Japan but internationally. Although there are about 40 breweries in the area, Okura Gekkeikan museum is one of the few places that are open to the public for tours and sampling.
A standard self-guided tour of the museum is 400 yen and comes with a bottle of Gekkeikan’s original sake (yes, they give you a bottle of sake to take home, which tasted great by the way) and sampling of three kinds of sake. However, if you are interested in observing the fermentation of moromi and unrefined sake, make a reservation for the Optional Tour.
Especially during the Sakura Blossom season and nice autumn days, I highly recommend a walk along the Go canal (two minutes from the museum). This tree-lined canal was once used to transport and trade sake between cities of Kyoto and Osaka. You can take Jikkokubune Canan Cruise, flat-bottomed boats for a 45-minute cruise.
Chokenji Temple is located along the canal and worth a stop as well. This small but well-kept neighborhood temple is dedicated to Benzaiten, the only female member of Japan’s seven lucky gods who was primarily as a patron of water and trade.
Also, if you are interested in the history of the Meiji Restoration, check out Teradaya Inn and Former Site, and Ryomadori.
Back at the station, take a north-bound train to the Fushimi Station (or you can take a taxi). To go to Fushimi Inari Taisha, get off the train at Fushimi Eki Station and walk a couple of minutes to the entrance of Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head of Kami Inari and sits on the base of a mountain. There is a famous Torii trail that leads you on an hour hike to the top of the mountain. Highly recommended.
Note: Another recommendation for a sake brewery visit is Matsui Sake Brewery located near the Kamo River on the northern side of downtown. Started in 1726, Matsui Sake brewery makes highly regarded sake and served as a purveyor for Kinkakuji (Golden) and Ginkakuji (Silver) Pavilion. Call ahead for a brewery tour. No reservation is necessary for a sake tasting.
Where to Stay in Kyoto:
Brighton Hotel Kyoto ($$$)
Five minutes walk from Kyoto Imperial Palace and has 4 first-class level restaurants on the premises. Free shuttle bus to downtown.
Congrats Hotel Kyoto ($$)
Ten minutes’ walk from Kyoto Station and Lorimer restaurant. This hotel has a cozy Japanese style bar offering local sake and whiskey along with an assortment of tofu and pickles from nearby shops.
Jisuco Hotel Kyoto ($$-$$$)
Located one block from Kyoto Imperial Palace. First level rooms offer private access to small Japanese gardens.
Sowaka Hotel ($$$-$$$$)
Located in the heart of Gion. This former tea house was remodeled to hold luxury guest rooms and a restaurant. Each room is uniquely designed combining traditional tatami and modern beds. Enjoy delicious meals at its La Bombance restaurant.
Following Etiquettes and JR Pass:
- Spring and fall are the busiest seasons in Kyoto with increased traffic from tourism. Please respect the culture by following local customs and etiquette as the increase in tourism has created a few problems with loitering and vandalism.
- When traveling, visit popular attractions as well as less known attraction sites to avoid crowds. Ask locals and hotel concierge for their recommendations.
- Kyoto can be overwhelming with so many places to see and visit. If you have a limited time, have a focus and interest then pick an area or two where you would like to visit. Hiring a guide would save time and assure smooth travel.
- JR Pass can only be used on JR Lines and not to be used on the subway system and other privately run transportation. There are fewer JR options in Kyoto and Kansai regions as the private rail system has more power which is not a part of the JR Pass system.
Plan ahead because accommodations can be expensive during spring and fall and can fill up quickly.
Take Advantage of Duty-Free:
If purchasing gifts such as local pottery and artworks to bring back home, check the store and see if they offer duty-free pricing. Present your passport and get a discount on local taxes. Most places only accept the actual passports and not a photo or digital copy.