06 December 2016

KYOTO: 3 Day Itinerary

Kyoto is a city with a huge amount of history and so many incredible sights, that sometimes it's hard to know where to start, especially if you've only got a limited amount of time. I visited Kyoto on a handful of occasions when I was staying in Osaka earlier this year, and then returned for a 4-night stay in October. I still haven't seen everything the city has to offer, but the below is what I would recommend as a 3 day itinerary to see the best of the city.

Day 1: AM

Spend the morning temple-hopping in Northern KyotoIf you see just one temple in Kyoto, make sure it's the Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. This Zen temple looks amazing all year around with its majestic golden glow and reflection in the water. It looks even more impressive when the autumn leaves turn red.


This is a 20 minute walk from Kinkaku-ji, and also a Zen temple. It's most famous for its rock garden. The garden is located in the head priest's former residence, and you can sit on the edge of the walkway that surrounds the building, and admire the rock garden for a few moments of contemplation. The rest of the garden is worth a walk around too, with lots of other little things to admire, including a lake, pine trees and statues.

Buddha statue in the garden of Ryoan-ji

This is a 10 minute walk from Ryoan-ji. Unlike the other two temples, this belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. You can walk around the grounds and see various gates, a five storey pagoda and the main hall. The temple contains a cherry tree grove, so is particularly popular during the cherry blossom season.

Path to the main hall at Ninna-ji

Day 1: PM

Spend the afternoon in the district of Arashiyama. You can read more about it in my blog post here. Top sights in the area include the bamboo grove, Okochi Sanso villa, a monkey park, and Tenryu-ji, a Zen temple with beautiful landscape garden. You probably won't be able to do it all in one afternoon, so if you have a longer stay in Kyoto, I recommend spending a whole day in Arashiyama.

The garden at Tenryu-ji

Day 2: AM

If you're on holiday in Japan, you can see a lot of temples, shrines and castles, so sometimes it's nice to go visit something a little bit different. The Kyoto Railway Museum opened earlier this year and I had a fantastic time visiting it. I didn't know much about trains prior to visiting, but the technology of trains in Japan is actually quite fascinating, particularly the shinkansen (bullet train). 

There are lots of different trains and carriages to look at, both inside and outside the museum, ranging from the shinkansen to old steam trains. There's even a train carriage you can sit inside to enjoy one of the popular train bento boxes for lunch. There's plenty of train memorabilia, plus explanations of technical aspects, and even a huge model railway.

Make sure you go to the Sky Terrace at the top of the museum, whic acts as a viewing area for trains going in and out of Kyoto station. When I went I spotted the elusive Doctor Yellow, the shinkansen test train that monitors the conditions of the tracks and overhead wires, contributing to the safety record of Japan's bullet trains.

Cute train sign

Whole trains can be found outside the museum

The awesome miniature railway 

If you prefer art over technology, then the Kyoto National Museum is a fantastic alternative for a museum trip. The impressive permanent collection focuses on traditional Japanese art, and the museum also houses different special exhibitions.

Kyoto main station itself is also worth checking out due to the architecture, designed by Hiroshi Hara, the same architect who designed the unique Umeda Sky building in Osaka. Take the escalators up to get a closer look at the steel matrix roof and access to an observation deck.

Roof of Kyoto Station


Kyoto's most famous shrine is located just a few stops away from Kyoto's main station. Dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, this shrine features thousands of vermillion torii gates. You can read about it in more detail in my blog post here.

Miniature votive torii


These two temples, Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji, are located within a few blocks of each other in the centre of Kyoto. Higashi Honganji is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto and amongst the largest in the world. Nishi Honganji's buildings contain many Buddhist images and statues.

Located a stone's throw away from these temples, Kyoto Tower is a must-visit if you enjoy getting the best view of a city. It's the tallest structure in Kyoto and has an observation deck at 100m from ground level.

Higashi Honganji temple grounds

Kyoto tower is visible from Higashi Honganji

Spend lunchtime exploring the various delicacies and oddities at this under cover market. Kyoto is famous for its pickles, and you can see all kinds of vegetables being pickled whole. You can buy various snacks to eat as you walk, from fried fish cakes to tako tamago (baby octopus filled with a quail's egg) for the more adventurous.

Pickled vegetables: daikon, cabbage etc

Fried snacks

Tako tamago


Spend your final afternoon in Kyoto wondering around the scenic Maruyama Park. Also visit Yasaka shrine which is located next door to the park. It's the location for Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's best known festivals, which takes place every July with a procession of huge floats carried by participants.

Maruyama Park

As the day draws to a close, head over to the neighbouring district of Gion, the famous geisha district, whose streets are lined with beautiful old-fashioned wooden houses. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to see a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) on their way to an appointment: the perfect ending for your time in Kyoto.

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