Kyoto is a true must-see city during any visit to Japan. The country’s ancient capital, Kyoto’s rich past, historic architectural charms and mix of stunning temples and shrines offer a dizzying array of places to visit that could keep travellers occupied for weeks - or even months. Indeed, the likes of Nijō Castle and the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji are just two of the 17 separate sites to have been designated of global importance, having received UNESCO World Heritage Status. But what do you do if you’ve only got limited hours in which to explore this stunning cultural centre? This three-day and two-night itinerary will give you some helpful suggestions on just some of the places you may wish to explore during your brief stay.
1. Day 1, 10am - Shimogamo Shrine
What better way to kick-start your Kyoto break than with a visit to the Shimogamo Shrine, one of oldest Shinto shrines in the whole of Japan - and one of the 17 different historical monuments dotted around the city that are collectively recognised as world heritage sites by UNESCO. The shrine itself, which is thought to date right back to the sixth century, has been visited by numerous emperors during its history. For the modern day visitor, the shrine’s stunning design has much to offer and, if you have time, the neighbouring shrine of Kamigamo is also worth a visit.
Address: 59 Shimogamo Izumigawacho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Shimogamo Shrine
2. Day 1, 12pm - Pass through the Kamo river and head towards Sanjo
Nature fans will love the next part of the activities - a leisurely stroll towards Sanjo along the banks of the Kamo River, which is a hugely popular spot among residents and tourists alike. Time your trip right and the ranks of cherry blossoms which line the river will be in bloom - making for a riot of colour to delight the senses. There are also plenty of restaurants along the route, many of which open balconies overlooking the river during the warmer summer months. And if they don’t tempt you then fashionable cafes in the Sanjo area may very well -so why not stop off for a bite or two?
3. Day 1, 1.30pm - To Nanzen-ji
This temple is noted for the impressive rock gardens and internal artworks of its hōjō, as well as for its beautiful sanmon, which was erected in the early 1600s to replaced a structure destroyed more than 260 years earlier. As well as its striking view the sanmon is linked to a key scene in the late 19th century play Sanmon Gosan no Kiri, so any visit here will appeal to culture vultures and fans of natural beauty alike.
Address: Nanzenji-Fukuchi-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-city
Website: Nanzen-ji temple
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4. Day 1, 2.30pm - Yasaka Shrine
Of central importance to the famous Gion Matsuri, the Yasaka Shrine is a popular feature of Kyoto and boasts a rich history that dates right back to 656. When its mikoshi paraded the city in 869 in an attempt to ward off a plague, they set in motion a tradition which led to the Gion Matsuri. This festival, which runs through July and culminates in a huge parade with floats and traditional dress, and is one of the highlights of the city calendar. The shrine is also a popular stopping off point on the way to Maruyama Park every April to enjoy the cherry blossom.
Address: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto
Website: Yasaka Shrine
5. Day 1, 3.30pm - Kiyomizu Temple
Another of Kyoto’s impressive world heritage sites, the Kioymizu-dera temple dates back to 778 and offers super views out across the city from its large veranda. Pilgrims who catch and drink the water from the waterfall on the site are believed to have their wishes granted. And those seeking their love may wish to try walking between a couple of so-called love stones. It is said that if you can traverse the 18 metre (60ft) gap with your eyes closed then you will find your true love.
Address: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto
Website: Kiyomizu Temple
6. Day 1, 4.30pm - Explore Gion
This famous geisha district - though the geishas of Kyoto are actually known as geiko - is full of streets that still preserve much of their traditional architecture and culture. Indeed, the city recently restored some of the streets and the area is designated as a historical preservation district. Gion is also home to numerous traditional Japanese tea houses, which will appeal to those seeking a little local culture. The district’s wide range of modern bars, restaurants and nightspots are also very popular.
The impressive fortifications of Nijō Castle are a world heritage site and date back to the start of the 1600s. Built by the powerful Tokugawa shogun as a way of demonstrating their prestige and power, the building’s impressive moat and gates still convey that sense of awe. Head inside and there is much to see and do. There are numerous Japanese art masterpieces to enjoy, and the palace is also home to the famous ‘nightingale floors’ - which squeak when walked upon to prevent any intruders from making a stealthy entrance.
Address: 541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Nijō Castle
8. Day 2, 10.30am - Kinkaku-ji
From one stunning world heritage site to another! After leaving the castle, the next stop on this whirlwind tour is Kinkaku-ji. This famed Temple of the Golden Pavilion’s 600-year history is rich and has seen it survive war and fire to become one of Japan’s most popular buildings. The gardens surrounding the pavilion are a delight in and of themselves and date back to the Muromachi period - a golden age for garden design in Japan. The temple’s present pavilion was built in the mid-1950s - an exact reconstruction of an earlier structure that was consumed in a fire just a few years earlier.
Address: 1 Kinkakujicho, Kita, Kyoto
9. Day 2, 12.30pm - Ryōan-ji
Those looking to check out Japan’s famous zen or rock gardens will want to make a beeline for Ryōan-ji - the Temple of the Dragon at Peace. Indeed, Its garden is considered to be among the finest examples and features 15 stones of varying sizes surrounded by carefully raked gravel - the meanings of which have sparked all manner of theories over the centuries and still influence garden design today. The temple, another of the city’s world heritage sites, is also noted as being the mausoleum of numerous emperors.
Address: 13 Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, Ukyō-ku, Kyoto
10. Day 2, 1.30pm - Ninna-ji temple
This important temple - which is the main site for Buddhism’s Shingon sect - features a host of stunning buildings and impressive gardens. Indeed this world heritage site’s Golden Hall is regarded as an official National Treasure by the Japanese government. The site is also home to a striking five-storey pagoda and an orchard of cherry trees, which will reward onlookers with a beautiful display if they time their visit to coincide with their verdant blossoms. Other impressive sights include the temple’s sublime decorated screen walls.
Address: 33 Omuroouchi, Ukyō-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto
11. Day 2, 3pm - Arashiyama
A beautiful setting from which to enjoy the cherry blossom season or the rich and vibrant colours of autumn, the Arashiyama area - on the western fringes of the city - has been a popular place to visit for the past 1000 years. As well as the well-known landmark of the Togetsukyo Bridge and the popular Iwatayama monkey park, the area is arguably most famous for its stunning bamboo grove. This natural forest of bamboo is an iconic landscape of Japan, and the various paths which wind their way through it are a popular draw for tourists and locals alike. The area is also home to a number of tea houses and popular souvenir shops in which to pick up a memento of your visit.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Address: Japan, 〒616-0004 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto
Website: Iwatayama Monkey Park
12. Day 3, 7.30am - Fushimi-Inari Taisha
From one iconic image of Japan to another. Day three starts with a setting every bit as visually striking as the bamboo grove of Arashiyama the day before. In this instance it’s the myriad of colourful torii gates at the famous Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine. These vibrant orange gates number in their thousands and the winding path they snake through the hills around the shrine have made the site one of the most popular shrines in the country. The shrine, which is dedicated to the god Inari, is also open 24 hours a day, enabling this early start to your itinerary. The main hall and approach are also lit up a night, should you decide to visit at a different time during your travels.
Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi-ku, Kyot
Website: Fushimi-Inari Taisha
13. Day 3, 9.30am - Teradaya Inn
Follow in the footsteps of one of Japan’s most romanticised historical figures with a visit to the Teradaya Inn in Fushimi. Sakamoto Ryōma, who lived during the middle of the 19th century, was a famed reformer who sought to end Japan’s feudal system. He played a key role in negotiating peace between the provinces of Chōshū and Satsuma and united them against the last feudal military government of the time - the Bakufu. His efforts made him a target for assassination, and one such attempt was made at the Teradaya Inn in March 1866. Ryōma managed to flee the inn after it was raided by enemy agents, although he sustained sword injuries to his hands. But his luck did not hold, and he was killed a little over a year later while staying at the Ōmiya Inn, also in Kyoto. But his cultural impact lives on, inspiring a screen of TV drama series, films and novels centred around his life. The Teradaya Inn, which features a sword cut reproduction in one of its pillars, gives tours to visitors eager to learn more about this fascinating figure.
Address: 〒612-8045 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto
Website: Teradaya Inn
14. Day 3, 10am - Uji River boat ride
After a brief stop at the Teradaya Inn, it’s onto a charming boat ride along cherry tree-lined banks of the Uji River that will make for a breathtaking sight if you time your visit for the blossom season. The boat is also a fascinating piece of living history, reproducing the transport vessels which once plied these waters during the Edo period. The river banks themselves are also a fine spot to enjoy a leisurely stroll and enjoy the foliage of the trees.
15. Day 3, 12pm - Kyoto Tower
Hop on a train back into the city and no visit to Kyoto is complete without a visit to its tallest building - Kyoto Tower. Planning restrictions on building heights - which are aimed at preserving some of Kyoto’s ancient charms - mean that the tower has an unobstructed view of the entire city. It rises 131 metres (430ft) above the streets below, and has an observation desk 100 metres (330ft) off the ground that simply has to be visited before concluding your Kyoto stay. Beneath the tower sits a hotel and a commercial shopping complex that will make for a great spot to grab a bite to eat and a few souvenirs before crossing the road to Kyoto Station - the main transport hub for the city - for onward travel elsewhere.
Address: 7 2 1 - 1 Higashishiokojicho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto
Website: Kyoto Tower
Why not stick around a little longer?
While this itinerary will come in useful for those on a flying visit to Kyoto, the myriad charms of these and other sites mean you could spend weeks exploring Japan’s ancient capital if you so desire. And with no fewer than 17 different locations forming the ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto’ UNESCO World Heritage Site alone, there’s certainly plenty of scope for extending your rewarding stay in this fascinating and beautiful corner of Japan.
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