Who has never wanted to discover Japan? With its perfect balance between modernity and tradition, its video games and its geishas, temples with white lanterns and bullet trains. After spending a beautiful day in Osaka, our second stop was Kyoto, southeast of the archipelago and third largest city in Japan. Do you want to know more about this beautiful city? Keep reading, we’ll tell you everything we visited in the 5 days we were there!
Where to sleep in Kyoto
With the fairly high prices in Japan, we decided to stay at K’s Backpackers Hostel, very conveniently located at a 5-minute walk from Kyoto train station. This hostel has been voted the best hotel in Japan, the sixth best hostel in Asia and the tenth in the world! We chose a shared room with 4 other people, and as always everything went well. The hostel is also very well equipped, with two small separate buildings, fully equipped kitchen, sofas area with coffee and tea at will, high speed internet, washer and dryer, rental bikes, coffee shop and cheap restaurant. We recommend it if you are looking for a quiet and cheap place in Kyoto!
Visit Kyoto in 5 days
Here we present you with our 5-day itinerary for Kyoto. Keep reading!
Day 1 in Kyoto: Nishiki Market, Gion district and shopping areas
Our regional train from Osaka arrived in Kyoto at about 11am, which allowed us to use half the day to discover a good part of the city!
The Nishiki Food Market is a long, covered street in the center of the city where we find lots of different food. From fried crabs and sushi to tea in all its varieties, it’s a very surprising place! More than once we stopped and stared at the shops, trying to guess what food they were serving. While prices are a bit higher than in other less commercial areas, do not hesitate to try some specialties!
A few meters after the market, we went to eat at the Italian restaurant Daniel’s Sole (yes, it is not typical Japanese, but after three weeks in China we fancied something more “westernized”!). It was super good! Pizza and pasta with salads at a more than reasonable price. Recommendable!
With renewed energy after lunch we continue walking towards Teramachi and Shinkyogoku, two commercial arcades connected to each other. Lots of shops, disguised girls, vendors with huge posters, pachinkos (big slot rooms)… A small temple is timidly seen in a small street. The altar of Tenman-gu (of the Japanese religion Shinto) appears like a haven of peace. We stood there for a little while discovering the way believers pray (ringing a huge bell in front of the altar, clapping, bowing, caressing the statues, etc.). It was a nice break!
We continued our walk in the direction of Gion, one of the traditional districts of Kyoto, to explore Hanamikoji Dori street. It is a nice place full of wooden houses, restaurants and private homes, where we also saw a lot of traditionally dressed women. The street ends at Kenninji Temple, a temple built from black and white wood that you can visit for 500 Yen.
To end our first day in Kyoto, we visited Yasaka Jinja, a large sanctuary in the area between Gion and Higashiyama. It is in the Maruyama park and is a perfect place to rest for a while and enjoy the beautiful trees and the peaceful atmosphere.
Day 2 in Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Naisha, Kyoto Station and Higashi Hongaji
Our second day in Kyoto was dedicated to visiting the two most representative places of the city: the Kiyomizu-dera temple on the eastern hills and the famous Fushimi Inari Naisha with its thousands of orange torii.
To start the day, we climbed on foot to Kiyomizu-dera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded in the 8th century but the buildings that are preserved today are of the 18th century. And most surprising of all, not a single nail was used to build all this compound of wooden temples! Among many other superstitions (for example, people used to throw themselves from a 13-meter-high balcony to fulfill their desires), there are the stones of love! The legend says that if a person manages to walk the 18 meters that separate the two stones with closed eyes, you will find true love! Luckily, we do not need it any more 😉
We liked the place but we recognize that we expected something more impressive, especially knowing that it was named World Heritage.
After a break for a coffee, we set off again and ate at the VegOut restaurant, halfway to Fushimi Inari Naisha. It is a small vegetarian restaurant overlooking the river and typically Japanese decor, very nice is that sunny autumn day! We ate a Buddha Bowl (a rice base with a mixture of lettuce, peppers and aubergines grilled, super rich). We recommend it if you pass by!
Fushimi Inari Naisha
Our favorite temple to date in Kyoto was Fushimi Inari Naisha! Although it is a bit far from the city center, you can get there by metro and bus. It is possibly the most representative of the city, with its thousands of orange doors (called torii) that cross the mountain.
You can chop something to get strength before entering (there are several food stalls) and stop for a few minutes to contemplate the great main temple (no photos!). Then we climbed the slope of the mountain and walked the passageways formed by the torii. Each torii corresponds to the offering of a donor to the temple, and its prices amount to several million yen! It is a magical place that is worth visiting without a doubt! We also loved walking in the forest and enjoying the tranquility of the place.
Kyoto Station and Kyoto Tower
On our way to Higashi Honganji, we passed by the Kyoto station. It is a huge building with a terrace and views at the top. Lots of cafes and restaurants inside! And it is right next to the Kyoto Tower, so it deserves an express stop to make a couple of photos and have a coffee.
Our last visit of the day was Higashi Honganji, the largest temple in Kyoto (and also free)! We arrived a few minutes before the closing and we were able to visit it without tourists. The Japanese affectionately call this temple “the honorable lord of the east” (Ohigashisan). It is a spacious place with a set of large temples in black wood. We walked from one room to another and loved the atmosphere! We recommend you spend a little time there.
Day 3 in Kyoto: traditional streets of Higashiyama and Pontocho
For our third day in Kyoto we wanted to relax and take the opportunity to stroll quietly and enjoy a beautiful sunny autumn day. We headed to Higashiyama to tour the pedestrian streets between Kiyomizu-dera and Maruyama Park.
The streets are really beautiful, but as they are usually filled with people from 11, we recommend you arrive earlier to enjoy and visit some of the gardens hidden between shops and traditional houses!
Do not hesitate to go through the narrow streets and lose a little in the labyrinth of alleys, it is really beautiful! Of course, respect the privacy of the neighbors if you leave the commercial area, as many ask not to take photos of their homes and not to make noise.
The most beautiful areas for our taste were Sannenzaka, Ninenzaka and Ishibe Alley, although the smallest little streets are well worth it! It was a Zen moment of tranquility.
Shortly after we continued walking towards the Maruyama Park and found a temple (we could not find the name, sorry!) In the middle of a garden. It is a place away from tourists and where the Japanese from the neighborhood come to pray.
Then we passed through a part of Maruyama Park and ate at a small restaurant on Shijo Dori Street, halfway to Pontocho.
Pontocho is a narrow pedestrian street with endless restaurants and cafes. It is a very cool and very nice place! Strolling there during the day has nothing to do with the night! As it is right by the river, many restaurants have terraces. On the way back we walked along the river. A truly relaxing day out!
Day 4 in Kyoto: Philosopher’s Path, Momijigari and Keage Incline
Our fourth day coincided with Japan’s Culture Day (November 3), a day in which many museums are free, schools organize parties and small festivals are celebrated throughout Japan. We wanted to visit the Manga Museum and Nijo-ji, but neither of them were open! So we preferred to take advantage of the beautiful autumn sun to see a more natural part of Kyoto: the Philosopher’s Path.
Kyoto’s Philosopher Path is a beautiful pedestrian path that runs along a canal surrounded by cherry trees and oaks. Apparently, a famous Japanese philosopher (Nishida Kitaro) used to walk along this path during his meditations (hence the name of the place!).
We were lucky enough to be in Japan in the fall, the time when the trees begin to change color. Did you know that the Japanese use the word “momijigari” to say “travel chasing the red oak leaves in autumn”? It’s such a nice show that you have created your own word! Here we leave some photos for you to enjoy the colors of autumn. There we had a little sushi picnic!
Continuing south, we find Nazen-ji, a magnificent complex of temples that also runs an ancient aqueduct. We loved the place! The entrance is free and the colors of the trees under the autumn sun were beautiful!
A little further on we reach Keage Incline, an old train track converted into a park. We had already seen something similar in New York. This leaning railroad (15 degrees of unevenness) was actually a connection that allowed the old boats (carrying soy, potable water and rice) to reach the river. Now, Keage Incline receives thousands of visitors, especially in spring to visit its 90 “sakura” (cherry blossoms).
To end our day, we strolled through Maruyama Park from north to south, and we walked down the river to the hostel.
Day 5 in Kyoto: Arashiyama
We wanted to finish our stay in Kyoto by enjoying its surroundings. The options are varied, since the province of Kansai has beautiful places (Nara, Hiroshima, the mountains around Kyoto …). We chose to visit the Arashiyama area, northwest of Kyoto and accessible by bus (line 28 from Kyoto Station). Great success!
Arashiyama is the name of the mountain, and also of the adjacent district. We loved this area for its coolness, the river and the woods that surround it!
The most beautiful places of Arashiyama are the Bamboo Forest, the Tenryu-ji Temple (which we did not visit because its price is exaggerated) and the walk along the river. We started by visiting some small temples around Tenryu-ji and gradually went to the Bamboo Forest. The forest is really impressive, the bamboos are about 15 feet high and the shade they give is amazing! Beware of those who fear spiders there are many huge! Despite the fact that at the beginning of the road we found a lot of tourists (after all, Arashiyama is the second tourist area of Kyoto), little by little the place became more calm and silent. Walking among the bamboos was an extraordinary moment, and we do not think we can enjoy something like this anywhere else in the world!
Between the paths of the forest we discovered some small temples and very beautiful houses. Then we headed back to the river crossing the busiest streets (with its shops and restaurants).
After a picnic by the river and enjoying the autumn sun, we strolled along the riverbank for a while (a much quieter place as few people pass by here). There we saw the traditional boats go up and down. To the right of the walk we find a small path of stairs that went up the mountain. We decided to go up and explore the area a bit and … what a lovely surprise! Above, we find a viewpoint with a beautiful view over a wild area of the river, where the famous romantic train passes (an old train that now makes a short journey through the woods).
Our day in Arashiyama was quiet and very relaxing, a day in nature that suited us very well and marked a lovely farewell to this beautiful city! Yes, we can say that we were both delighted with Kyoto. We found it is a very interesting city, with hundreds of things to see and do, adapted to tourism and that has managed to retain its charm and history. Thank you Kyoto for these wonderful 5 days! Next stage, Tokyo!