When we were planning our trip, I read in several places that a trip to Japan should at least include Tokyo and Kyoto, as Tokyo is a modern megatropolis and Kyoto is more of the old, traditional Japan. After visiting each city, I’d say this is largely accurate, though Kyoto still feels very modern, too. I loved Kyoto – any first-time trip to Japan would be incomplete without Kyoto on the itinerary!
We stayed at the Aranvert Hotel – I was just going to add a link to their website and found that, unfortunately, due to COVID-19, they have closed permanently. How sad. I really enjoyed our stay there – it was affordable, clean, and comfortable, and the women’s onsen was lovely, with a beautiful view over the city. The location was ideal too – we were able to walk there from the train station pretty easily, even with our luggage after first arriving in Japan, and it was easy to access the subway and bus lines too. We spent much of our travel time in and near Kyoto on a train or subway – we got a multi-day subway pass that made it easy to hop on and off without fumbling for new tickets each time. The subways were clean and organized, and like all transportation in Japan, they were always on time. Using our pocket wifi, we were able to easily find routes from sight to sight, and navigating Kyoto was never a problem!
We flew into Tokyo when we arrived in Japan, but our itinerary started in Kyoto. I had wondered about how this extra travel would impact us after a long international flight, but it was more cost-effective, and I would definitely recommend it as an easy option. Getting on a clean, comfortable, quiet train from Tokyo to Kyoto felt like an upgrade from the airplane, and we were able to relax for a couple of hours before we arrived in Kyoto. We even glimpsed Mount Fuji from the train! One perk of traveling to Asia from America is that when you arrive, it’s night! I am always miserable when I don’t get any sleep on a plane, and slogging through the first day of international travel when you go east instead of west is always brutal, but in Japan, we got to check into our hotel and go straight to bed – perfect.
Day One: Our first morning in Japan, we woke up at 5am and it felt like we’d slept until noon – another perk of traveling west. Our trip to Japan was in July and it was hot, hot, hot most days, so we tried to start out as early as possible each morning. On Day One, that early start got us to the gates of Kinkaku-Ji before it even opened. The guidebook recommended going to the Golden Temple early because it got very crowded later in the day, so our timing was perfect.
We decided to spend our first morning in Kyoto exploring a few temples that were all in walking distance of one another. We took a bus from Kyoto Station to Kinkaku-Ji. We waited outside the gates of the temple grounds with a few other tourists and a couple Japanese school groups (always so distinct in their uniforms!). When they opened the gates, they only allowed us to go so far into the park, where we could view the golden temple across the pond. At first we were confused by this, but then we realized they were allowing everyone to photograph the temple unencumbered by crowds – a nice touch. Everyone’s cameras clicked and clicked, and soon we were able to continue down the path.
Kinkaku-Ji was built as a private retirement villa in 1397 for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and it became a Zen Buddhist temple in the 1400s. Like many buildings in Japan, it has burned down a few times since, and this structure only dates back to the 1950s. The gold (yes, real gold leaf) that covers the upper two stories is really extraordinary. (As an English teacher, I have to site my source and say that I used Japan-Guide.com to do a little background research on the sights we saw in Japan. Three years later, I didn’t remember much about the historical context, so my dates and facts in this post are courtesy of their helpful site!) You can’t go in the temple itself, but you can explore the garden and grounds – the garden is still designed as it was in the temple’s original days. One of the highlights of this trip were the Japanese gardens we admired in city after city. Their precision and tranquility is unparalleled, and this garden was lovely.
After Kinkaku-Ji, we walked about twenty minutes to Ryoan-Ji, home of the most famous rock garden in Japan. We wandered the gardens and grounds and then entered the Hojo, where the priest once lived. Like Kinkaku-Ji, Ryoan-Ji is a Zen Buddhist temple that began as a private villa and became a temple in the 1400s. Ryoan-Ji was very different, built with natural wood and traditional materials instead of gold, and it was peaceful and quiet. This was our first experience leaving our shoes at the door and walking around barefoot on smooth boardwalks – an experience we soon got used to in Japan. I’ve seen warnings in guidebooks about crowds here too, but we were able to comfortably view the rock garden and explore the grounds without feeling squeezed by other people.
After Ryoan-Ji, we continued just a little further down the road to Ninna-Ji, a less famous temple complex, but one with an impressive five-story pagoda. I remember this area being very quiet – we certainly weren’t fighting crowds here. Ninna-Ji was orginially founded in 888, but the oldest buildings that survive there now date back “only” to the 1600s. The feel of Ninna-Ji was similar to Ryoan-Ji, but not as lush and with simpler grounds. If you only have time for one, definitely choose Ryoan-Ji.
After exploring three temple grounds, we were ready to get some rest and try something new. The weather had been overcast all day and rain was threatening, so we decided to head to Nishiki Market. Boy, was this the right call. By the time we made it back on the bus and into the market, it started POURING. We’re from the midwest and used to a good thunderstorm, but this rainstorm was no joke. I was so grateful the rain held off until we’d finished our temple walk – it would have been pretty miserable to have been caught in that downpour.
A coworker of mine recommended that we try the okonomiyaki in Kyoto, so that’s what we had for lunch. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake topped with all sorts of things, grilled the pancake on a griddle built right into your table. We ate at Nishiki Warai right by the market, and it was tasty! After lunch, we stayed dry by wandering the Nishiki Market. I don’t think we bought anything to eat, but it was still a feast for the senses – so many shops and stalls selling all sorts of Japanese food and treats.
That evening, we returned to the hotel to freshen up and then spent some time exploring Shijo Street, a busy shopping district near our hotel. We ate our first conveyor-belt sushi at Musashi Sushi – it was great! Conveyor-belt sushi certainly isn’t the fanciest sushi, but it’s a fun experience that we enjoyed a few times.
Day Two: We started early the next morning, this time using our rail pass to take a train out to Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine that is perhaps one of the most famous sights in Japan. The weather was warm and drizzly, so we brought umbrellas and wore comfortable clothing for our hike.
Hiking at Fushimi Inari Taisha was my favorite experience of our entire trip. I’m not sure I expected it to be, but the endless vermillion torii gates and the quiet shrine was otherworldly and beautiful – it’s a can’t-miss experience if you are going to Japan, period.
When you enter Fushimi Inari Taisha, you first visit the shrine itself before reaching the hiking paths. The shrine is beautiful, with several buildings boasting intricate vermillion architectural details. Inari is the god of rice, depicted as a fox, and there are many fox statues throughout the temple. Beyond the shrine itself, the hiking trail is split into two paths, each lined with torii gates.
The gates are sponsored by individuals or businesses, and there are literally thousands of them that line the hiking path. Some stretches are lined so densely with gates that the path feels more like a vermillion tunnel; in other areas they are more spread out. Along the trail, there are stopping points with statues and the occasional place to buy something to eat (but we were there on an early weekday morning and I’m pretty sure those cafes were closed). The entire hike to the top of the mountain and back apparently takes 2-3 hours. I’m not usually one to do something half-way, but we actually didn’t go all the way to the top. There’s an intersection on the hike where the torii gates fade out, and by the time we got there, the light drizzle had become a steady rain, so we decided to head back down the mountain. The rain generally wasn’t a problem – if anything, it kept the crowds at bay and added to the atmosphere. We only passed a handful of other hikers, and it was a mesmerizing, magical place. I loved it.
After our morning at Fushimi Inari Taisha, we traveled back to our hotel, dried off, and had some lunch. We made a bit of a spontaneous decision to spend the afternoon in Himeji, a nearby city with a famous castle. We’d wanted to see the castle but weren’t entirely sure if we’d make it work in our schedule. After our damp morning hike, a little downtime on the train sounded pretty nice, so we plotted out our route and used our rail pass to travel to Himeji. It took about an hour and fifteen minutes each way from our hotel, so it was totally manageable as an afternoon trip.
Himeji Castle is one of the few castles in Japan that has not been destroyed by fire or war, and it is over 400 years old. Entering the castle requires walking through a series of long paths and gates – apparently this helped slow down approaching enemies. Once you are inside, there’s not much by way of furniture – I did wish that there were some furnished spaces to make it easier to imagine how people would have lived inside. As you travel up each level of the castle, the space gets smaller, and the views get more and more spectacular. There’s a shrine at the very top of the castle too.
I don’t feel as much like this was a can’t-miss sight, but I’m glad we saw it. The castle is so graceful and lovely, and it’s hard to believe it’s really so old. Even mostly bare, it was interesting to see the interior, and the views over Himeji were stunning.
After leaving Himeji, we cleaned up at the hotel and walked over to Omen for dinner, near Shijo Street and the Gion District. I think this is a chain restaurant, but it was recommended several places, and we enjoyed a delicious noodle dinner.
We spent the evening hours exploring the Gion District. Famous for its geishas, the district houses restaurants, shops, and teahouses where highly-trained geishas have entertained guests for centuries. While they say the Gion District offers your best chance to spot a geisha, we were never so lucky. We did enjoy wandering the tiny alleys and walking along the canal. We didn’t spend a lot of time in this area, but I’m sure it would be a wonderful place for a nice dinner out.
Day Three: On our last day in Kyoto, we got up early again and headed out on the train to Arishiyama and the bamboo groves. Arishiyama is a district on the outer western edge of Kyoto famous for its natural beauty. Locals and tourists have traveled here to relax in nature for centuries, and it was a lovely place to visit. To get to the bamboo forests, we walked through neighborhoods that felt very local – it was a taste of what seemed to be a comfortable life in Kyoto. It was another quiet weekday morning and we were ahead of the other tourists.
When we got to the bamboo groves, at first I wasn’t sure what it would really be like, but they were beautiful. They weren’t as vast as I imagined, but once you wandered in a little, the bamboo was totally immersive. It certainly was an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had anywhere else. Beating the crowds was a huge plus here – I’ve seen photos of this area packed with tourists, but when we were there, we passed only one other family and then one other young woman, who kindly took a photo of the two of us that now hangs in a frame in our house. We enjoyed the peace and quiet for a little while, and then we video chatted with my parents, a spontaneous little hello that let them see our surroundings in real time (thanks, travel wifi!). Don’t worry, nobody else was around to be bothered!
We then left the bamboo groves to explore more of Arishiyama. In retrospect, I would have enjoyed spending more time here. We could see that it was a fun tourist district with a resorty feel that almost reminded me of a ski town or national park in the US. One popular sight is the monkey sanctuary, where you can hike up a mountainside to see monkeys roaming free. In the moment, we were hot and tired and didn’t have it in us to walk up the (small) mountain to the sanctuary, but now I wish we’d done it – I love animals and it would have been fun! But we still enjoyed ourselves walking along the river and seeing all the little Japanese river boats for hire, probably busy and constantly moving at peak times.
On our final afternoon in Kyoto, we tackled what felt like the most touristy experience of our trip thus far. We took a bus (again, manageable to navigate through Kyoto but this time less pleasant – or maybe it was just hot and crowded!) to the Hashiyama District, a historic neighborhood near the Kiyomizudera Temple – both definitely a must-see.
When we arrived in Hashiyama, it was CROWDED. Other than our time in Tokyo, this was the biggest crowd I remember. It was also hot and sunny, and while I felt a bit weary, I still enjoyed exploring the narrow, winding streets lined with souvenir shops and restaurants.
One thing that I didn’t know – local female tourists (or perhaps travelers from other Asian countries too) sometimes dress up as geishas when visiting this area of Kyoto in particular. I had no idea this was a thing, but it’s a whole experience – first you book the geisha makeover, and then you tour around historic streets while dressed up in a lovely colorful kimono. Maybe a little silly, but probably also fun!
Eventually we made our way over to Kiyomizudera, a large temple complex that is famous for its views over Kyoto. The temple complex is large with lots of shrines and smaller monuments to explore. While we were there in 2017, it was under a major restoration and the main building was totally covered in scaffolding. This was removed in March of 2020, so it would look quite different today.
We enjoyed standing on the famous wooden platform of the main hall, which looks over Kyoto from an impressive height. We also enjoyed our interactions with other tourists there, particularly a group of Japanese middle school students who had been assigned to find some English speakers to practice speaking with. It was a toasty afternoon, but we made the most of it, and I’d definitely count this unique destination as part of can’t-miss Kyoto.
When we finished exploring Kiyomizudera, we also wandered through Marayuma Park (this was definitely one of our 25,000+ step days!). We had a late lunch in a nice little restaurant where we took our shoes off and sat on the floor in the booth – a fun traditional Japanese experience. After lunch, we walked to Shoren-In Temple and Garden, similar to Ryoan-Ji, but still lovely and worth a visit. By this point we were pretty exhausted and needed to rest our feet a bit, so we hopped on a bus and headed back to our hotel.
When we got back to our room, we promptly crashed for a nap. I remember waking up at about 7:30pm, not really hungry for dinner, but knowing that future Anna would be annoyed if I didn’t get out of bed and spend my evening doing something fun in Japan!
We walked down to Kyoto Station and ended up having a really fun evening exploring the station itself. In Japan, train stations are more than just stations – they are often huge shopping centers too, with shops and restaurants and cool architecture and multiple stories above and below the ground. Kyoto Station has its own ramen food court of sorts – on one of the upper floors there is a cluster of ramen restaurants where you stand in a queue like you’re boarding a roller coaster and then order your dinner from a kiosk. We picked a slightly shorter queue and were thrown off by the kiosk that didn’t seem to have an English option. In a blur, a woman appeared from inside the restaurant and placed our order for us. We enjoyed hot bowls of ramen with pork and hardboiled eggs for dinner at about 9pm, so I was right when I dragged myself out of bed earlier in the evening – there was more adventuring and delicious ramen to be had!
The next morning, we headed out of Kyoto, so for now, I’m wrapping up here. In short, Kyoto is a spectacular city. It’s a must-do for a first trip to Japan – I would argue even more so than Tokyo. I’d love to return – the city is sprawling and quirky and lovely and I know we’d find so many more fun things to do. I think our three-day itinerary gave us a chance to have quality time at each of the main highlights we wanted to see, but our days were jam-packed and we walked and walked and walked. If you wanted a slightly more leisurely pace or even just more time at each spot, I would definitely recommend a fourth day in Kyoto if your itinerary has room for it. We had a wonderful experience, and you will too!