The Best of Kyoto, Japan: A 2 – 4 Day Kyoto Itinerary + Day Trips
Out of all the places in Japan, Kyoto was the place I wanted to visit most during my time there. I love traditional Japanese culture and am obsessed with shrines and temples, so naturally Kyoto would be the place for me. During the four months I spent in Japan, I ended up visiting Kyoto on a couple of different occasions (one of which happened to be during Golden Week – a string of holidays in Japan and also a very popular travel time). For your convenience, I’ve condensed my adventures down to one, easy-to-follow 4 day Kyoto itinerary!
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- Kyoto 4 Day Itinerary
- Shortened 2 Day Itinerary
- Day Trips from Kyoto
- Transportation within Kyoto
- Getting to Kyoto
Kyoto 4 Day Itinerary
Kyoto Itinerary: Day 1
This is probably one of the most expensive activities out of this entire 4 day Kyoto itinerary, but in my opinion, it’s so worth it. Although kimono typically aren’t worn on a day to day basis anymore, they are still often worn for festivals and ceremonies. It’s a very iconic part of Japanese culture, and renting a kimono gives you a chance to experience that tradition first hand.
NOTE: Day one of this Kyoto itinerary involves a decent amount of walking, so if you aren’t comfortable doing a lot of walking in a kimono, you could rent kimono on any of the other days of this itinerary. However, Fushimi Inari (Day 2) and Arashiyama Grove (Day 3) are best experienced first thing in the morning before it gets too crowded. If you choose to rent kimono first, you may not beat the crowds. You may want to find out more about renting a kimono in Kyoto before deciding which day to rent them.
This is one of the places I visited during Golden Week, so not surprisingly, it was a little crowded when I went, but it’s still a cool place to visit. The garden is absolutely beautiful. When I think of a Japanese Garden, this is exactly what I picture. The combination of stone, water, bridges, and greenery make for a really peaceful place. I lucked out because I actually got to see one of the workers raking the stone garden, making the patterns they’re so famous for. A little further back in the garden around the temple is a hill that you can climb that gives you a pretty cool view of the city and the temple.
Honen-in also has a really pretty garden. There are quite a few trees here and I personally felt like I was hidden away in a forest somewhere. It’s places like this where it’s easy to forget that the city is right next door.
Anrakuji or Philosopher’s Path
When planning my own trip to Kyoto, Anrakuji wasn’t originally on my list of places to visit. However, there is a certain street in Kyoto that has several temples in a row. I was on my way to Nanzenji (the next temple on this itinerary) when we passed by it and decided to stop. It’s not as impressive as some of the other temples in the area, but since you’ll literally be passing right by, it’s worth adding to this 4 day Kyoto itinerary.
Alternatively, you could take a stroll down philosopher’s path, famous for being a meditation spot for the philosopher Nishida Kitaro. With the canal running next to this pleasant stone walk-way and trees overhead, it’s easy to see why people would seek out its beautiful tranquility.
Nanzenji is probably most memorable for the really big gate that leads into the compound. If you want, you can pay to go to the second floor of the gate and get decent pictures of the surrounding area. However, I chose to pass because I felt that there were better places to get a good view without paying any money.
Shoren-in is probably one of my favorite places of day 1 in this 4 day Kyoto itinerary, if only because it has the traditional architecture of Japanese houses which I love so much. It has the tatami mats, the shoji (paper) sliding doors and engawa (a strip of wood that makes a walkway around the outside of the house). It is also cool simply because of the sheer size. I had been in other buildings with the style of a traditional Japanese home, but this was the biggest one I had ever been in. In the area surrounding the building, there were also ponds and gardens, and even a bamboo forest.
Kyoto Itinerary: Day 2
If Kyoto was the place I wanted to go most in Japan, then Fushimi Inari was the place I wanted to see most. It’s easily tops my list of best shrines and temples in Kyoto. There are several steps that lead to the top of the mountain, taking you by or through 1,000 red torii gates. It’s an absolutely amazing sight, but also a popular one, so I suggest visiting early in the morning before it gets super crowded. Also, I suggest wearing good shoes as exploring this shrine requires a decent amount of walking.
Along the path are also several traditional Japanese restaurants. If they are open when you go, I highly suggest stopping for a bite to eat. They have the traditional low tables, so you sit on a cushion on the floor instead of modern chairs. Plus, many of them have really good food.
Fushimi Momoya Castle
Fushimi Momoya Castle is not your typical castle, and unfortunately it’s not open to the public. However, you are still able to walk around the outside, and I think it’s one of the coolest looking castles I’ve seen in Japan.
Personally, I felt like the cool pictures made it worth adding to this 4 day Kyoto itinerary. However, for those who aren’t in love with photography or architecture, it may not be worth the trouble. I went when it was 90°F (32°C), and it’s an uphill climb from the nearest train station. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth the effort.
Kyoto Itinerary: Day 3
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
One of the most photographed locations in Kyoto, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a must for any Kyoto itinerary. It has a very serene feel, different from the tranquility of most Japanese gardens or shrines and temples. This feeling is amplified if you go early in the morning before it gets crowded.
Sagano Scenic Railway
Unlike some of the other major cities in Japan, Kyoto doesn’t have an extensive railway system, and although the Sagano Scenic Railway will get you from point A to point B, it’s designed more for sightseeing. Unlike traditional trains, it is completely open on the sides (save for some railings), giving you an unobstructed view of Kyoto’s natural beauty.
I’ll admit, when I first got on the Sagano Scenic Railway, I was a little annoyed, because all of the scenic views on the railway were on the left side of the train while I was sitting on the right side. I kept thinking that I was going to be really mad if I could only see a rock wall for the entire trip. However, much to my delight, the scenic views did come my way after a few moments. In the end, it won’t matter which side of the train you sit on, as both provide spectacular views.
You can buy tickets for the Sagano Scenic Railway in advance from Klook.
Daitokuji is a temple complex that consists of several sub-temples. It’s probably the easiest way to see a lot of traditional Japanese temples, as well as many zen gardens, within a short amount of time. It’s not one of the more popular tourist destinations, so it’s a great place to go if you’re looking to escape the crowds.
Unfortunately, you have to pay for each of the subtemples separately, so it can get quite expensive if you plan on visiting several of them. Also, some of the sub-temples are only open during certain parts of the year, so make sure to check their opening times before you go.
Probably one of the most famous temples in Kyoto (and possibly Japan), it’s known for its color. The shrine is made of gold and reflected off the water of the pond that surrounded it (making for a really cool picture). However, because of it’s popular, it can also be quite crowded, especially during Golden Week.
Kyoto Itinerary: Day 4
Personally, I don’t feel like Kyoto Tower gets enough credit. I often see it left off of Kyoto itineraries, and I don’t understand why. The observatory at the top provides great views of the city, and on the bottom floors are several souvenir shops. Plus, it’s right next to Kyoto station, so it’s often on the way to wherever you are going next.
You can buy tickets for the Kyoto Tower Observatory in advance from Klook.
In comparison to some of the other attractions that have been listed on this 4 day Kyoto itinerary, Daigoji is a little out of the way. However, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, which makes it worth the trip, if only because of its cultural significance. The five story pagoda within the temple grounds is the oldest verified building in Kyoto. Plus, the various museums that are also within the temple grounds store and display various historical documents and works of art.
If Daigoji is a little bit out of the way, then Byodo-in is really out of the way (but don’t worry, we’ll make it back to downtown Kyoto after this). When I went it was crowded, which wasn’t surprising considered I went during Golden Week, but I was surprised to find that I seemed to be the only foreigner there. I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but it’s a good off-the-beaten path spot to get a more authentic feel for a Japanese temple.
Kiyomizu-dera is absolutely amazing. There are big orange gates that serve as the entrance to the area, and from atop the main shrine, you get a spectacular view of the city below. If you walk a little ways down the path, you can get another good picture of the temple with the city in the background. Back on the lower ground there is also a fountain with three streams that you can drink water from. One is for luck in your studies (school), one is for luck in health, and the last is for luck in love. This one another one of the places I visited during Golden Week, so there was a long line for the waterfall and I decided to simply watch other people as they took their turns instead of trying it for myself.
NOTE: As of right now (the time of writing this article), Kiyomizui-dera is open to visitors, but the main hall is covered up for renovation. You can check Japan Guide’s list of construction and renovation for further details.
Samurai Kembu Theater
At Samurai Kembu Theater, you can learn all about Kembu, the traditional sword art practiced by the ancient samurai. You can watch various demonstrations by those who train in Kembu there at the studio, and take samurai lessons after the show so you can try your hand at Kembu. Depending on what package you choose, you can even try on hakama, the traditional robes worn during Kembu.
Time is Limited: The 2 Day Itinerary Version
Personally, I could have easy spent closer to 7 or 10 days in Kyoto simply because I just loved the city so much and there was so much I wanted to do. Unfortunately though, Kyoto probably isn’t the only place you plan on visiting in Japan, so if you are limited on time, it’s possible to cut the above 4 day Kyoto itinerary into a 2 day itinerary.
I love shrines and temples, and it’s one of the things Kyoto is famous for. However, I will admit that after a while, they can sometimes all start to seem the same and sort of blur together in your memory. If you’re looking to cut things out of your Kyoto itinerary, I’d start with some of the smaller shrines and temples or the ones that are a little further away. Once it’s all said and done, your Kyoto 2 day itinerary might look something like this:
- Fushimi Inari
- Samurai Kembu Theater
- Sagano Scenic Railway
- Kyoto Tower
Day Trips from Kyoto
While I actually recommend spending 2 days in Osaka, it’s also possible to make a day trip there. Osaka has some traditional shrines and temples as well as Japan gardens like Kyoto does, but it’s more well known for its downtown district. There, you can do all sorts of shopping while eating some delicious view. You can also get a pretty amazing view from Umeda Sky Building.
Nara is probably most known for its wild, people-friendly deer. It’s not uncommon to see a deer wandering around the temple grounds or just walking down the street. Many of them will even walk right up to you looking for food. It’s also well known for Todaiji, which houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue.
The most noteworthy attraction in Himeji is Himeji Castle and the accompanying garden. It’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site and often considered one of the top castles in Japan. Some of the other castles in Japan have been turned more into museums on the insides with display cases and carpeting, but Himeji castle still has the original castle like structure.
Kyoto Transportation: Getting Around Kyoto
In comparison to most other cities in Japan, Kyoto’s train and subway network is rather limited. For most of the attractions on the above 2 and 4 day itineraries, it would be a long walk from the nearest train or subway station. On the flip side, Kyoto has an extensive bus system, with stops at most of the attractions on these itineraries. For day 1 and 3 of the above itinerary, the Kyoto City Bus Pass will likely save you some money on bus rides, since the pass allows you to pay ¥500 and then ride as frequently as you want. For days 2 and 4, some of the attractions are outside of downtown (and you will find yourself riding the train more often). The Kyoto City Bus Pass may still be useful depending on whether you need to catch a bus to/from your hotel, etc. but I would do some additional research first.
If you choose not to get the Kyoto City Bus Pass (or you are only using it for some of the days), I recommend getting an IC Card such as Suica or ICOCA, as it will be easier than trying to bus individual bus or train tickets. The alternatives would be to take a taxi or rent a bicycle.
Getting to Kyoto
From Tokyo to Kyoto
By Shinkansen (bullet train): This is probably the easiest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. If you have a JR Pass, you can ride the Shinkansen at no additional cost (see if the JR Pass is worth it for your trip). From Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station, it takes about 2 hours.
By Plane: This is probably the fastest way to get to Kyoto from Tokyo. From Haneda Airport to Osaka airport is about an hour long flight. From there, you would have to catch a train to Kyoto. However, once you add in the time it takes to get through check-in, going through security, etc, it probably takes just as long, maybe even longer, than taking the Shinkansen.
From Osaka to Kyoto
By train: The easiest and most common way to get from Osaka to Kyoto is by train and takes about half an hour. There are several JR Trains that run between Kyoto and Osaka (meaning you can use your JR Pass), including the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line and the JR Thunderbird.
From Nara to Kyoto
By Train: The JR Nara Line is the easiest way to get from Nara to Kyoto and takes about an hour. There are also some other available routes with private railways like the Kintestsu-Kyoto Line.
What do you think of this 2 and 4 day Kyoto itinerary? Did you find it useful? Is there anything else you think should be added to this itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!
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