On our trip to Japan we had limited time and we had a lot to fit in. So we only stayed one night in Kyoto. We got the Shinkansen – or bullet train down from Tokyo which took about two hours. The tickets were expensive but it was so worth it to see even some of this beautiful city.
I honestly think that to see everything you’d need at least five days. But I thought I’d wrap up my highlights from our 48 hours there.
This area was the most traditional part of Japan I saw. It’s quite a way out of Kyoto but easy to get to on the metro, and there is so much to see!
If it isn’t enough to wander round and watch the man-powered rickshaws, ladies in beautiful kimono’s and boats sailing down the river, Arashiyama is also home to my two favourite sites in Kyoto.
Arashiyama Monkey Park
If you’re prepared to walk a relatively gentle trail up a mountain side (it takes about 20 minutes) then you’re in for a real treat when you get to the top. These cute little guys – Japanese Macaques – are larking and swimming about in a haven built just for them. There is a small hut where you can feed the monkeys and observe them. They are still wild animals so no touching though! But it really is a spectacular experience.
I’ve talked more about this here But the Bamboo Grove is such a stunning natural scene. It’s easy to walk through, and there are more temples and shrines along the way. Again, it gets busy as its popular with tourists. If you only do one thing in Kyoto – make it this!
Kyoto’s old town is the perfect place for an evening stroll. Everything is in immaculate condition, and has been kept true – there is no trace of Starbucks or Macdonald’s down these little alleyways and side streets. If you’re really lucky you might get to see a Geisha leaving or heading to work – but always ask before you take a photo – it’s polite, and I did see a few people get a stern telling off for getting snap happy without asking!
There are lots of beautiful looking traditional restaurants in the area as well but they are very expensive so be prepared to spend a little more if you want a traditional experience.
Getting around Kyoto is not an easy task. Not very much is in English so portable wifi and google maps will be your best friend. Our wifi was provided with our Tokyo airbnb and we brought it to Kyoto with us (we were still technically the occupants of our airbnb we didn’t just steal it!) but they are really easy to get at most technology stores in Japan.
You can use Japan’s equivalent’s of the oyster card all across Japan so my Suica card came with me and I used that on the metro but buses only accept cash!
It’s quite a sprawling city so be prepared to spend a good hour travelling between destinations – and for this reason I recommend planning routes before you go so you can visit things in similar areas at the same time rather than travelling backwards and forwards across the city.
Where to Stay
As we had Airbnb’d the rest of our trip we decided to splash out a little in Kyoto and booked into a traditional Ryokan up in the heart of Maruyama Park. It was absolutely the perfect way to spend a night in such a historic and traditional city.
We stayed in Yoshimizu Inn , and it had paper walls, sliding doors, futons which you made yourself before bed, and traditional Onsen baths in the shared bathrooms. We were also treated to traditional Japanese breakfast in the morning which was delicious.
The location was perfect, a short walk from Gion the old town, and set in the most beautiful park – you had to walk through the incredible Maruyama shrine to get anywhere which was an added bonus, and so much fun to explore the park at night as well!
Temples and Shrines
Even if you stay nowhere near Maruyama I highly recommend a visit to the shrine. It’s made up of lots of smaller shrines, and the park surrounding it is absolutely beautiful
THE GOLDEN PAVILLION
I almost didn’t go to the Golden Pavillion, it was late in the day, far away, and I felt it probably wouldn’t live up to the hype. But it certainly did. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen. It does get busy so best to go early – as with any of the places in this guide! It’s also set in the most beautiful gardens, and in a more suburban area of town so perfect for exploring like a local.
FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA
These famous red gates are possibly one of the most iconic images of Japan. Again it’s best to get there early before the crowds start descending. The gates go all the way up a small mountain and back down again – but you don’t have to go the whole way. There are lots of smaller shrines on the journey where you can take a break too!
The area of town this shrine is in is so buzzy. There’s street food, and loads of souvenir shops, and places to stop for an ice cream when it’s crazily hot! We had crab sticks and sweet potato tempura from the street food stands for lunch and both were delicious and much cheaper than any other eatery we found in Kyoto!
I wrote about this temple in more detail here. It is so perfect, and right by Kyoto station. It isn’t as big or fancy as some of the others but definitely worth a visit if you have a spare hour or two.
As with any guide I put up – if you have anything to add please leave a comment!