Of course, Kyoto can keep you occupied for a week, or even a lifetime. However, if your time in Japan is limited, and you want to visit more places during your stay, choices have to be made. In this post, you will learn how to maximize your sightseeing in Kyoto and pack the highlights in just two days. To make it work, an early start on both days is essential. It might be a good choice to stay central, with easy access to public transport and breakfast at an early time or on the go.
Our first stop of the day is the beautiful zen garden of Ryōan-ji. The garden opens at 8 a.m., making it an ideal first stop as its best experienced with as few people as possible. Although this is true for most sites.
From Ryōan-ji, it’s either a 20-minute walk or a 10-minute bus ride to Kinkaku-ji. Kinkaku-ji is where you find the famous golden pavilion and since it opens at 9 a.m., with a bit of planning you can also be one of the first there. Enjoy this last bit of quiet sightseeing since it will be the last of the day. The Golden pavilion date back to 1397. Sadly, the current building is a 1955 reconstruction. The original structure burned down in 1950 when a monk tried to commit suicide by burning himself.
When you are done at the Golden pavilion, take the bus to Kitanokakubaicho station and from here take the Keifuku Dentetia line via Katabinanotsuji station to Arashiyama station. It’s a short walk from the station to Tenryū-ji temple complex. Here you can enjoy some more zen gardens which date back to the 13th century.
Depending on the time and your appetite, you could now get something to eat at Shigetsu. This restaurant serves some of the best vegetarian food in Kyoto. Otherwise continue onwards through Kaneama Koen and maybe eat your bento box of lunch here. Or continue towards the Sagano road of bamboo forest.
At the Arashiyama bamboo forest you can join the hundreds of other tourists trying to capture this photogenic piece of road. We personally found it too busy to be able to enjoy it, so don’t expect a leisurely walk through a forest. Follow the road to the end and head towards Saga-Arashiyama station.
Take the train back to central Kyoto and get off at Nijo station. From here it’s just a short walk to Nijō-jō, the opulent castle of Togugawa Ieyasu. The castle was built to show the emperor that a new leader of Japan had emerged. The shoguns castle is filled with beautiful golden gilded screen doors and paintings.
A short bus ride will bring you to Yasaka shrine. In July, this shrine hosts the Gion Matsuri, one of Kyoto’s biggest spectacles. Highlight of this festival is the parade on July 17, when richly decorated lantern-lit floats parade through central Kyoto. Afterwards walk through Marayami Park and make your way towards the Heian shrine.
It’s hard to miss the entry to this shrine since it’s marked by an enormous torii. Heian shrine was built after the move of the capital to Tokyo to underscore Kyoto’s illustrious past as imperial capital. The main attraction is the garden in the back.
It’s almost time to treat yourself so make your way towards Kyoto station.
Depending on the time and your energy levels there is one more site to visit.
Just south west of Kyoto station lies To-ji. The main feature of this temple complex is its five-story pagoda. With a height of almost 55 metres (180 feet), it’s the highest pagoda in Japan. The complex is linked to Kūkai (also known as Kōbō-Daishi) who was put in charge of the complex in 823, earlier he had founded his first monastery at Koyasan. Every 21st of the month the Meido, where Kōbō-Daishi is said to have lived, opens its doors to visitors. On this same day, there also is a famous flea market on the temple grounds.
We end our day at Kyoto station. Marvel at the modern architecture, watch the crowds and have dinner at the food court. The restaurants with the longest lines are the hip and happening ones, so join the queue and wind down for the day. Read on to see what to do on the second day in Kyoto.