Kimono-clad geishas emerging gracefully from one corner, crisp air surrounding ancient Zen temples, and towering bamboo groves. All that, you can find in the lovely city of Kyoto.
Known for its cultural and historical significance, Kyoto is a stark contrast from the futuristic metropolis of Tokyo. The former capital city of Japan is home to no less than 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is adorned with more than 1,500 stunning temples and natural scenery.
Many consider Kyoto to be the cultural heart of Japan and, understandably, this makes it one of the most must-visit cities in the country. So, after some meticulous thought and more matcha green tea than we really need, we’ve created this 4D3N itinerary just for you!
Without further ado, here’s how to make full use of your time in Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto.
When to visit and how to get there
The best time to visit Kyoto is during the spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) seasons. However, since Kyoto is one of the top places for Hanami, the annual cherry-blossom viewing festival, expect a larger crowd during spring.
The closest international airport is Kansai International Airport in Osaka. A direct flight would take about six and a half hours and costs in the region of RM1,500 with a budget airline. If you are planning an extended stay in Japan, we recommend including nearby cities such as Osaka, Nara, Ise, Uji and Amanohashidate in your overall itinerary as well.
Thanks to its efficiency, the best way to get around Kyoto is via public transport (buses and trains). Consider getting a JR Pass if you are travelling beyond the Kansai region. Not only will it be more convenient to hop between cities, but it’ll also be cheaper.
Kyoto has a wide range of accommodation options ranging from hotels, traditional ryokan guesthouses, and cosy hostels. To find one which suits you, it’s important to first know that Kyoto’s main attractions can be divided into five parts: Central Kyoto, Southern Kyoto, Eastern Kyoto, Western Kyoto and Northern Kyoto.
For this itinerary, I highly recommend staying in the Gion District in Eastern Kyoto. This is because it provides the best cultural experience and also easy access to most of the top attractions.
Some options I can recommend are Kyoto Hana Hotel, Kiraku Inn, Gion Ryokan Q-beh, and Gion Guesthouse Yururi. However, if you’re travelling during the peak season and can’t find accommodation here, I recommend staying in Central Kyoto.
The cost of low-range lodging starts from 4,000 JPY (RM150) per night. On the other hand, the cost of mid to high-range accommodation starts from 8,000 JPY (RM300) to 15,000 JPY (RM550) per night.
Day 1 (Southern Kyoto): Toji→ Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine→ Kiyomizu-Dera → Strolling at Higashiyama District (Old Kyoto)→ Soba Dinner → Night Viewing at Yasaka Shrine
Unless you can afford to rent a car, your sightseeing days in Kyoto will involve a lot of walking. So, make sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring along enough water to keep yourself hydrated for the day!
We will start the day in Southern Kyoto by visiting one of Kyoto’s oldest temple and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, To-ji (East Temple). The temple was built as a guardian temple for Kyoto shortly after it was established as the imperial capital in 796.
Its magnificent five-story pagoda is the tallest wooden tower in Japan and if you’re lucky to be there on the 21st of any month, make sure you stay for the vast Kobo-ichi Market with hundreds of stalls selling antiques, souvenirs and food. The admission fee is 500 JPY (RM 18.50).
To get here, simply take the train from Gion Shijo and alight at Kyoto Station. Alternatively, you can take the Kyoto City Bus #100 or #206 from Gion. To-ji is only 20 minutes away from Kyoto Station.
Then, make your way to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha (free admission), the largest shrine in Japan dedicated to the god of grains and protector of crops, Inari. Two large, elegant kitsune (fox) guard the shrine entrance, as the fox is considered to be the guardian and messenger for Inari in Shinto mythology.
Here, you’ll see over 10,000 vermillion-coloured torii gates connecting several religious buildings. These torii were paid for or donated by individuals and businesses in exchange for success and prosperity. Its vermillion colour is believed to serve as protection against calamity.
Once you reach the summit of Mount Inari, you will be able to enjoy a breathtaking view of Southern Kyoto. The hike will likely take you 3 hours (return trip) but don’t worry, there are several vending machines along the way and even an outdoor canteen at the midway point.
After all that walking, grab some lunch at Kyoto Station before you proceed to the next destination. Apart from being a massive transportation hub, Kyoto Station is also a shopping complex, so there are many options you can choose from depending on your budget.
Next, we are going to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kyoto. To get here, take bus #100 or #206 at Kyoto Station and alight at Kiyomizu-michi. The temple, which is located in Mount Otowa, is a 15-minute walk away from the station.
Founded in 780 and constructed in 1633, this temple is dedicated to Kannon, the god of mercy and compassion. Thanks to its location on the eastern edge of Kyoto, it offers scenic views of Eastern Kyoto. Admission fee is 400 JPY (RM15).
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is exceptionally popular for a number of reasons. First, it is home to Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking, Enmusubi. The ritual here is to walk between two stones that are 18 metres apart while blindfolded. And if successful, according to folklore, you will find true love. Better than Tinder, apparently!
Kiyomizu-dera is also home to the sacred Otowa Waterfall. Supposedly, the waterfall, which splits into 3 separate streams, improves 3 aspects of life: success, longevity and love. However, you can only choose one stream to drink from, as choosing all three signifies greed.
If you have no problem being in pitch-black darkness, then you might want to consider the Tainai Meguri (Pilgrimage of the Womb). This experience brings you to an underground trail, which symbolises the womb of Bosatsu, a female Boddhisatva who can grant any wish.
You’ll be walking in silent darkness with only a large Buddhist rosary handrail to lead you before you reach a dimly-lit chamber with a stone. Make your wish as you spin the stone before you head out. No guarantees that your wish will come through though!
After all the temple and shrine-hopping, it’s time to stroll around ‘Old Kyoto’ and soak up the vibes. Head for the streets in Higashiyama District. There, we’ll be exploring four streets: namely Sannen-zaka, Ninnen-zaka, Ishibei-koji and Shinbashi-Dori.
The cobbled pedestrian streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka are lined with 60 or so traditional wooden shops selling crafts, tea and food. So, expect green tea ice cream and mouthwatering local pastries! You’ll also find plenty of teahouses, cafes, and restaurants here. So, if you want to experience Kyoto’s famous tea ceremonies, this is the place to be.
Then, make your way to Ishibei-koji, dubbed as the most atmospheric street in Kyoto. This 200-metre lane has plenty of alleyways and narrow corners, so you’ll have fun strolling and marvelling at the preserved machiya (traditional wooden townhouses) that are rapidly disappearing in modern Kyoto. Here, you’ll also see machiya that have been turned into restaurants, bars and guesthouses.
From Ishibei-Koji, we will then walk to Shinbashi-Dori for a change of scenery. The cherry and weeping willow trees along the stone-paved path make it one of the most picturesque streets in the city. The nearby Shirakawa Canal, which connects several places in Kyoto, is a hidden spot for sakura-viewing as well.
By now, your feet must be sore from all the walking. So get some rest in your hotel before you can head out for dinner in Gion. I recommend trying Kyoto’s speciality cuisine, Nishin Soba (buckwheat noodles topped with simmered dried herring). One of the best places to eat this is at Matsuba, the inventor of Nishin Soba. The restaurant is just 4 minutes away from Shinbashi-Dori.
Just after your dinner, make your way to Yasaka Shrine (free admission), a 24-hour shrine which is brightly-lit at night. The shrine is dedicated to Susanoo, a great god in Japanese mythology, Kushinadahime (his princess) and Yahashira (one of his eight children).
The shrine is full of large paper or wooden lanterns, projecting a lovely ambiance that’s perfect for a stroll. Locals frequent this temple for weddings and for blessings for their newborns.
Also known as Gion Shrine, the temple hosts the annual Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival), one of the three most important festivals in the whole country. So, if you’re here around July, don’t miss this festival! Spend some time here admiring the night scene and taking some photos before calling it a night.
Continue your adventure by reading part 2 of our 4D3N guide!