The best Kyoto itinerary
Kyoto is a city with a lot to offer, so it’s hard to come up with the best Kyoto itinerary without knowing a person’s preferences. This post will cover some places to definitely include on your Kyoto itinerary—and what you can skip if you’re a nature lover.
Before we get to the recommendations for your Kyoto itinerary, let’s get some other things squared away to help you plan your trip.
The best time to travel to Japan
Every year, over 50 million people visit Kyoto. It’s a city famous for historic Kyoto castles and temples, gardens, cherry blossoms, and momiji (fall foliage). If you’re thinking of traveling to Japan, you might be wondering about the best time to visit Kyoto.
The best time to visit Kyoto is the same as the best time to travel to Japan: fall and spring. These two seasons make up the best time of the year to visit Japan because they offer distinct and unique Japanese experiences.
The Kyoto autumn brings the beautiful fall foliage. It’s a sight to behold as you walk the grounds of the temples sheathed in red and yellow leaves—or see a riverbank framed with fall-colored trees.
In the spring, cherry blossoms make for a lighter, brighter view of Japan. The best part is when you are walking on the street, and the spring breeze blows some cherry blossom petals past you. It feels like you’re in the midst of an anime movie or something…so surreal and beautiful!
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Which Kyoto hostel should I stay in?
If you’re traveling to Japan on a budget, you might be looking to stay at a Kyoto hostel. Japan is so clean that some of their hostels have very high standards for cleanliness! I stayed at a Kyoto hostel called Mulan Hostel. It’s located in the Arashiyama neighborhood of Kyoto.
Arashiyama is your place to find a favorite Kyoto shrine or temple if you don’t like the long waits to get into some of the places in the city center. This is due to the fact that many of the best temples in Kyoto can be found on the hills of Arashiyama—away from the crowds. We’ll get more into this later in the article.
Mulan Hostel itself is a great place to stay if you love nature because this Kyoto hostel is steps away from the famous Togetsu-Kyo Bridge. There are so many beautiful sights near this hostel. You can wake up early to beat the crowds to the popular tourist spots in this area. For example, if you go around 8 am, you can enjoy walking through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forrest with very few people in your way. It’s great for a morning walk!
The hostel was very clean, full of sunlight, and well decorated to make you feel comfortable. I booked my room through Booking.com, and the booking came with free daily breakfast which included pastries, jams, butter, coffee, and tea.
If you’re looking for a good Kyoto hostel to stay in, you can check it out.
Cross off Gion district on your Kyoto itinerary
Gion Kyoto is very popular with first-time tourists to Kyoto—and it does have its charm. Gion Kyoto is a geisha district with many shops to peruse. Women can rent kimonos for a day to help them get into geisha character and walk around Gion in the shoes of a geisha.
To be honest, I hated Gion because I went there in April, which was a high season for visiting Kyoto. The throngs of people made it very difficult to navigate to the shops I wanted to look at.
It felt like one big tourist trap. If you love the outdoors then you might hate crowds. If this is the case, cross off Gion Kyoto on your Kyoto itinerary. If you don’t mind the crowds, it would be worth it to check out some of the shops there.
How does Kyoto compare to Tokyo?
Well, Ky-o-to is To-ky-o if you mix up the order of the syllables. All kidding aside though, Kyoto’s history is interesting because it was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. It escaped World War II bombings because of its rich historical value. This is why many of Kyoto’s ancient shrines, temples, and historic structures still exist today.
Kyoto also has an impressive array of gardens and natural spaces that showcase beautiful cherry blossoms as well as the famous fall foliage (momiji).
If you want to compare Kyoto to Tokyo, here is a good way to think of it: Tokyo is the modern, big city, bright lights of Japan. Kyoto is the city that helps you step into the past via its many temples and historic structures.
If you’re into nature and history versus big city life, you’ll probably like Kyoto more than Tokyo. It’s also close to Osaka and Nara,Japan, two other cities that have much to offer visitors.
This makes the Kyoto region very travel-efficient because you can visit many different cities within a short train ride.
What is there to do in Kyoto besides Kyoto castles and temples? What is there to do in Kyoto in the morning?
After you’ve seen enough of the famous Kyoto castles and temples, you might be wondering: what else is there to do in Kyoto?
If you want to see some cute shops and buy some tax-free items at department stores, check out downtown Kyoto. There are international high street brands mixed in with local brands, bookstores, restaurants, and boutiques.
You can also visit Arashiyama, a district in western Kyoto, for some beautiful nature and temple sightseeing. This area is a must-have item on the Kyoto itinerary of a nature lover.
Both Kyoto downtown and Arashiyama have crowds that are likely more manageable than what you’d find in the city center.
Is Arashiyama worth it?
Totally! If you’re into nature, it’ll be the best part of Kyoto for you to visit. I was there as part of my Kyoto November 2018 trip, and the views alone were worth the trip.
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Arashiyama Kyoto itinerary
Arashiyama has been a popular travel destination since the Heian period (794-1185). Back then, the nobles would travel to Arashiyama in search of its scenic natural landscape.
To visit Arashiyama, you can take the train to this area and start your day at Togetsu-Kyo Bridge. It’s a wooden bridge that’s an iconic landmark in Arashiyama due to its breathtaking views of the Arashiyama Mountain nearby and the Katsura River running beneath it.
Togetsu-Kyo Bridge was a popular spot for moon viewing parties in the Heian period and its name means “moon crossing” in Japanese.
This moniker came from a legend of the Emperor Kameyama during the Kamakura period, who attended a boating party during a full moon. There, he saw a luminous moon rising across the bridge as if the moon itself were crossing the bridge.
The bridge offers spectacular views of the changing leaves on the trees lining the Arashiyama Mountain and hills nearby.
During the spring, cherry blossom trees that line the Katsura River brightens up the mood in this area.
Nearby the bridge are pleasure boats that are available for rent to cruise along the Katsura River.
The interaction of the running river, hills of changing colors, trees lining the river, and the floating boats gives Togetsu-Kyo Bridge a lovely relationship with nature.
Next to the bridge is the Arashiyama Park Nakanoshima Area. It’s a riverside park that houses many cherry trees. There are many food stalls and a couple of restaurants in this area.
You can try things such as candied sweet potatoes, roasted chestnuts, grilled marinated squid, and different types of Japanese sweets at the food stalls.
The only item I liked eating was the grilled squid. Everything else didn’t taste that fresh.
There are benches along the riverbank where you can sit, eat, chat, and watch the throngs of people on the Togetsu-Kyo Bridge above the Katsura River.
After you’re done with that, you can cross the bridge and take pictures of the water cascades from the bridge.
Once you make your way across the bridge, walk left along the Katsura River. There’s a riverboat tour that you can take from the Katsura River.
It’s a beautiful view if you’re into boating and river views.
As you walk along the path, you can see some boats floating about on the river. During the fall,
For the more romantic souls, you can stop for a while to take in the view of the river from there. Then once you’ve had your fill of the momiji + river view, continue up the path until it comes to an end and forces you to turn right
When you get to the Kameyama-Koen Park area, follow the signage to the famous Arishiyama Bamboo Grove (also known as the Kyoto Bamboo Forrest). Once you get to the Bamboo Grove, you have a decision to make.
If it’s a high season and you didn’t get there early in the morning, chances are, it’s packed. You can make your way through the crowd slowly, or you can do what I did: take a picture of the grove, then take the fork in the road to the quieter temples.
There are many quiet and non-crowded temples if you hike up the path from the Bamboo Forest. My favorite one was Adashino temple way up on the hill.
Adashino temple is known for its 8,000 stone statues to commemorate those who died without kin. It also has great fall foliage throughout the grounds of the temple.
Since Adashino is so far up the hill, many visitors never go all the way up there because they’re probably really tired from all the crowded temples they had already visited by then.
This makes Adashino relatively empty even in the midst of the high season. You can walk the grounds and sit on one of the benches to take in the momiji views.
It’s a great spot to have some quiet time and just to sit and enjoy the fall foliage.
What are the best things to do in Kyoto at night?
According to many websites that I visited before going to Kyoto, one of the best things to do in Kyoto at night is to do a night viewing of the temples.
Many temples will light up their grounds and visitors get a view of the beautiful structures and momiji from a different atmosphere and lighting.
I didn’t do that, so I don’t know if it would be worth it. Here’s what I did do, which I thought was pretty worth the time and money spent: I went shopping at Takashiyama department store (in downtown Kyoto) for some new shoes.
After trying on over ten pairs of light gray ankle boots (who knew there were so many choices!), I finally bought a pair and wore it
We dined at a nearby restaurant in downtown Kyoto and had some wagyu beef. It was delicious. There are many good wagyu places in Kyoto, so it’s tough to go wrong.
If you’re looking for wagyu places, just search for “yakiniku” near you and it should bring up a list of places you can try in Kyoto.
Yakiniku means grilled meat, so these restaurants will serve all kinds of different grilled meat besides wagyu beef as well. Lots of savory choices there.
What are the best things to do in downtown Kyoto?
You can walk off that wagyu with a stroll through downtown Kyoto. Walk through the small alleys to find cute boutiques selling anything from high-end men’s streetwear to crafts and gifts.
If you’re into streetwear, the cult streetwear brand BAPE has a flagship store in downtown. They have many items that are sold exclusively in Kyoto, so if you happen to buy one of their Kyoto exclusive items, you’ll get a complimentary branded “Kyoto Exclusive” bag that you can take home to brag about to all your friends!
BAPE fans can also walk up to the 3rd floor of the store to the BAPE Gallery, where some artwork alongside BAPE merchandise is displayed in a gallery setting. It’s pretty neat.
I was taking a sewing course at the time, so I stopped by Nomura Tailor to get some nice Japanese fabrics. I ended up buying some green silk, grey felt fabric, and lightweight white fabric for dressmaking. Takashiyama, BAPE, and Nomura Tailor all offer tax-free shopping for tourists who bring their passport.
Remember to bring yours if you’re going shopping! There are so many nice shops in downtown—especially the smaller boutiques on the main street and in the alleys—that you can spend a whole day or two just peeking around the many stores to shop here.
It’s a great place for gift shopping because there is everything from niche products to mainstream items like H&M and Uniqlo. I highly recommend taking a break from the Kyoto castles and temples by going downtown to shop and hang out!
What are some other places to go in Kyoto? What are some non-touristy things to do in Kyoto?
If you happen to love art and architecture, the Garden of Fine Arts is definitely worth a visit. It is an outdoor museum that was designed by the famous architect Tadao Ando and features a pathway across European paintings on ceramic tiles and next to water cascades that
The Garden of Fine Arts features near-life-sized reproductions of famous European paintings such as Monet’s “Waterlilies” and Michaelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” on porcelain panels. It is built of glass and concrete and has a walkway winding through the structure to lead visitors to the different parts of the building that houses the artworks.
In broad daylight, you can enter the museum, then walk onto the pathway across a water basin, and pass by many water cascades that give a serene atmosphere to this concrete “garden”.
The mixture of natural light, cascading water, and the light that bounces off the glass and water in the building gives it a very playful and grounding ambiance to experience the artworks.
If you walk all the way to the back, you can peek over at the botanical garden right next door to view the greenery exposed through the open space between the two structures.
Tadao Ando is a famous Japanese architect who won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest distinction, in 1995. He is known for work that incorporates concrete, natural light, and a strong engagement with nature and open space.
Ando is highly influenced by the Japanese Zen value of nothingness and simplicity, so he highlights that throughout the structures he designs. In Ando’s vision, this offers visitors ample opportunities to interact with nothingness.
Tadao Ando started his career in boxing, but after seeing the Imperial Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, he ended his boxing career to pursue self-study in architecture. He took on apprenticeships, night classes, and visited famous buildings around the world to immerse himself in architecture.
He opened his firm in 1969 in Osaka. Ando achieved fame very quickly and won his first major award in 1979, the Annual Prize of the Architectural Institute of Japan, for his Row House in Sumiyoshi.
The botanical garden next door to the Garden of Fine Arts is also worth a visit in April. You can see many cherry blossom trees there and take pictures of the walkways covered in cherry blossom petals.
Aside from the cherry blossoms, there are also a variety of flower blooms and greenery inside. You can wander along the pathways through the garden and sit on one of the benches to enjoy the natural setting.
It wasn’t crowded at all, even though I went there during high season (April). A very nice way to spend some outdoors time away from the crowds at the temples.
So there you have it. Those are my recommendations for things to do in west Kyoto and beyond.
What other questions do you have about Kyoto? Share your thoughts below.
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