If you’re planning a holiday to Japan, Kyoto – without a doubt- deserves a spot on your itinerary. Kyoto served as the imperial capital city for over 1,000 years (from 794 to 1868) and is now considered the cultural heart of Japan. It is home to more than 1,600 historic Buddhist temples (some staggeringly old) and over 400 brightly coloured Zen and Shinto shrines. In this post, I share my suggestions and highlights for how you can spend a day in Kyoto.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I am a fan of slow travel and taking my time to explore a destination. It goes without saying that one day is not nearly enough time to see everything Kyoto has to offer. I would recommend spending at least two nights there to get a deeper, fuller picture of the city. However, let’s be real – Japan is an expensive destination and most of us can only visit the country for one to two weeks at a time. My time in Kyoto was unfortunately limited to one day, but I know I’ll be back and, in a city as beautiful and historic as Kyoto, a day is much better than nothing!
Your day will most likely start at Kyoto Station, a towering cluster of shops, restaurants, cafes and train lines. Immediately after exiting the station, we saw a big sign with various bus routes, with stop names in Japanese and English. Signage in English explained which passes can and cannot be used (you can use the Kyoto City bus pass, the Kyoto bus one-day pass, nationwide transit IC cards and the JR pass). We both had week-long JR passes, so it was great that we could use them to hop on and off any bus in Kyoto.
Visit Nijō Castle
To start off your day with a bit of history & culture, first head to the beautiful Nijō Castle, a short 15 minute bus ride from the main station. Nijō Castle was built between 1603-1626 and was once the former official residence of the powerful Tokugawa Shoguns. They were leaders who ruled Japan for over 250 years and used the castle to flaunt their wealth and status. It is now one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto which has been given UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It’s a sprawling complex, 275,000 square metres (68 acres) in size. Many of the buildings have the characteristic sloping wooden roofs, decorated with shimmering gold leaf and elaborate wood carvings. You can tour many of the buildings, such as the Ninomaru Palace and Honmaru Palace – pay attention to the deliberately squeaky wooden floorboards, which were introduced to prevent surprise attacks from enemies. Afterwards, stroll through the extensive and peaceful gardens, admiring the flowers and fountains. It will take around 3 hours to fully explore the whole complex without rushing.
Nijo castle tickets: 800 yen (5.50 euros) for the castle, combination ticket for Nijo-jo Castle/Ninomaru-goten Palace 1300 euros (9 euros). Open daily 8.45am – 4pm.
Grab some lunch at Nishiki market
After your visit to the castle, you will most likely be in need of some sustenance. My boyfriend and I were keen to explore Kyoto on foot, so we walked to Nishiki market. The walk from Nijo Castle to the market takes around twenty-five minutes and on route you can admire the Chōhō-ji (Rokkaku-dō) Buddhist Temple, as well as visiting the heso ishi (navel stone) said to indicate the centre of ancient Kyoto.
When you reach Nishiki market, you’ll be greeted by vendors serving a wide variety of delicious delicacies, such as yakitori, tempura, tamagoyaki (a slightly sweet and custardy omelette made from rolled layers of egg), and insane amounts of fresh seafood. One of the most unusual things we saw were tako tamago – tiny octopuses on sticks with quail eggs stuffed in their heads!
If you want something a bit more substantial in a sit-down setting then there are also plenty of restaurants nearby. We ate at Nishiki Warai, which serves delicious okonomiyaki – a must-try food in Japan that is hugely popular in the Kansai region.
Though very busy, we found the market to be very clean and calm, and a lot of fun to walk around trying different things. You could easily spend an hour there, especially as there are many little souvenir shops to browse.
Explore Gion and southern Higashiyama
With your belly now sufficiently full, it’s time to explore southern Higashiyama. This area boasts some of the most beautiful, pristine, and traditional scenery in Kyoto and makes you feel like you are back in feudal-era Japan.
As Kyoto is the birthplace of geisha (or geiko in Kyoto) culture, make sure you first head to Gion, the city’s main geisha district in the northwest end of Southern Higashiyama. Although the area is full of tourists dressed up as geishas in rented kimonos, you may spot a genuine and immaculately-dressed geisha rushing to her next appointment. If you do, please be respectful and don’t follow them around like zoo animals (something many tourists do). One of the most famous spots to see geisha is Hanami-koji, a historic street known for its traditional architecture.
From here, take a leisurely stroll towards the Yasaka pagoda (Hokan-ji temple) – one of the most photographed sights in Kyoto. The surrounding area is full of picturesque, sloping lanes, lined with wonderfully restored traditional shophouses, restaurants, tea shops, and artisans selling handmade products. Perfect for souvenirs or gifts for family and friends! While there are dozens of stunning streets to get lost in here, some of the must-sees include Ninenzaka, Yasaka-dori, and Sannenzaka.
Sample some matcha products
While in this area, you should stop off at one of the many tea shops to try some matcha. It is a finely ground powder made from high-grade green tea leaves. Kyoto is known for having the finest quality matcha in Japan, full of cafes offering a variety of hot and cold matcha drinks, as well as delicious matcha flavoured desserts like cakes, biscuits, and ice creams. You can also purchase matcha tea gift sets.
Head up Kiyomizu-dera and enjoy the views
From Sannenzaka shopping street, you can quickly reach Kiyomizu-dera, an iconic three-storied Buddhist temple. The original temple was built in 780, during the early Heian period of Ancient Kyoto. The current building was constructed in 1633. Interestingly, no nails were used in the entire structure of the current temple. Don’t worry, it’s very sturdy! The temple offers spectacular views across Kyoto from its large veranda terrace which juts out over the hills. We were in Kyoto in November; a fantastic time of year to watch the leaves change. The red, orange, and yellow leaves on maple trees were the perfect complement to the warm-coloured shrines and temples.
Kiyomizu-dera is named after the nearby Otowa Waterfall (Kiyomizu means clear or pure water). There’s a separate shrine for the waterfall, with three streams of water to drink from. They represent success, love, and a long life. If you drink from one of those streams, you might just be blessed with one of those (I would glug from all three for the best odds!).
If you’re looking for love, visit the nearby Jishu Shrine dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a god of love and matchmaking (a Japanese cupid!). Legend has it that if singletons walk through a set of love stones with their eyes closed, they will find true love! If you want to double your odds, you can buy okimujis (random fortune cards) to find out if you’ll find your soul mate in that year. In the same complex, you can find Koyasu Pagoda, a vibrant bright red, three storied pagoda which is dedicated to Koyasu Kannon, a goddess who blesses the safe delivery of children.
Kiyomizu-dera tickets: Adults ¥400 (2.80 euros).
Opening times: 6 am to 6 pm (extended in the summer for a 9pm light installation show)
Having seen the stunning views of Kyoto from above, it is now time to end your day in this magical city. It may already be getting dark, so you might even get a chance to experience the dimly lit atmospheric streets on your way back to Kyoto main station.
If you’re able to stay in Kyoto overnight, look for a room in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) or machiya (townhouses) for a glimpse into old Kyoto. If you want a nightcap before bed, look for a sake bar. Sake has been made in Kyoto since the 16th century and you can find many sake breweries in the Fushimi neighbourhood.
I hope this post has given you a lot of ideas about how to spend one very memorable day in Kyoto. If you have any questions or recommendations to share, please leave them in the comments!
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow