Kyoto is one of my favorite places in the world. No visit to Japan is complete without seeing this ancient capital and epicenter of traditional Japanese culture. But Kyoto is literally packed to the brim with ancient temples. How do you decide which ones to see? Lucky for you, I went there and compiled this list of all the places I visited. While I didn’t make to every temple, I wouldn’t make a single change to this itinerary if I did it all over again.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
No visit to Kyoto is complete without spending some time in nearby Osaka. Many visitors choose to spend their nights in Osaka and then make the 30 minute to 1 hour commute into Kyoto for the day. Osaka is known for night markets so it does make a lot of sense to spend the evenings there. The only downside is that Kyoto is best at dawn and dusk when tourists are mostly non-existent. The first trains out from Osaka leave at 6 am. This normally is not an issue except in the summer when the sun rises closer to 5:30 am. Spending the night in Osaka can make it almost impossible to see a Kyoto sunrise in the summer. This may disappoint some, but the temples will still be almost completely empty until around 8 am so taking pictures of Fushimi Inari without anyone to block the view won’t be an issue.
When I was in Osaka, I stayed at Hotel Wasabi literally right in the center of all the action. Wasabi is a pod style hotel kept impeccably clean by hard working Japanese staff. The best part – during the week its only $13 a night. I think I most enjoyed their free miso soup machine in the common area.
How to Get from Osaka to Kyoto
Traveling between the two Japanese cities is actually quite easy. I would take the local Osaka subway to Kitahama Station along the Keihan Main Line which is the commuter train running between the two cities. Make sure to get on an express train and transfer back to a local train if necessary to get where you’re going. The express trains between Kyoto and Osaka save a bunch of time, and the maps inside the train clearly explain where the trains stop for transfers between the two.
There is no simple way to just “go to Kyoto” as the temples are in various parts of the city so my best suggestion is to use Google Maps and type in where you want to go. The transit function will give you accurate directions on how to ride the trains to various parts of Kyoto. Google Maps will also tell you how much you need to pay for a journey which is important in Japan because you will need to prepay for your ticket by selecting the fare. When I used the payment console, I couldn’t choose my destination, but rather I had to choose a fare. If I didn’t know the exact fare, I needed to use the complicated reference maps beside the payment consoles.
The total journey is about $5 each way so jumping back and forth between the two cities can start to add up. For those on an extreme budget, given that hotels are around $13 a night, staying in Kyoto could save some extra cash.
Sights in Kyoto
Sagano Bamboo Forest
Get there early! This bamboo forest is absolutely beautiful and was one of the main highlights of my trip to Kyoto. Even though it is a major tourist location, nothing about it was overrated.
After checking out the bamboo forest, make your way to the nearby Tenryu-Ji to see a truly ancient Japanese temple and gardens. There are actually two separate places to visit here – the gardens and the temple. Both have their own tickets. I would strongly suggest the garden!
This area of Kyoto is called Arishiyama. Check out this interesting guide for more things to see in this neighborhood.
Honke Daiichiasahi Ramen
If you’re like me, you got up late and now you’re a little hungry for lunch. My best suggestion is to head over to Kyoto Main Train Station and eat like the Japanese do. This small ramen joint a few blocks from the central station is one of those local spots where you’d be hard pressed to ever find a foreigner. And its so popular with the locals that around lunchtime there is always a line outside. But don’t worry – the line moves fast.
After lunch, I walked over to another beautiful temple on the eastern hills of Kyoto. Kiyomizu Dera is know for its colorful orange pagodas and sweeping views of the city below. You’ll often see Japanese girls dressed up as geishas for professional photo shoots at this temple. If you’re lucky, you can ask for a picture with some of them.
Next head over to Shinto Shrine in Maruyama Park to see some more traditional Japanese architecture. Take the time to stroll throughout this park walking up into the hills to see some of the even lesser known temples hidden away from most tourists.
If you’re still not exhausted go over to Gion Shirakawa for a look at traditional Japanese city life. Maybe if you’re lucky, you will see a real geisha making her way to one of her many appointments in various tea houses in the Gion area. Click here to learn more about geisha spotting.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Finally saving the best for last, do not make a trip to Kyoto without seeing he famous Fushimi Inari Taisha. My personal suggestion is to save this one for the following day. Get up early and make sure to arrive before the crowds. This temple complex is essentially a long loop walk up into the mountains constantly through orange Japanese toriis. The most picturesque (and crowded) portion of the walk is right at the beginning. After a short time, the gates and crowds begin to thin out making for a nice quiet walk through the mountains. The park signs seem to suggest this walk takes about two hours, but I easily did it in under an hour.
Another place I did not visit, but seems to be quite popular is the Kinkaku-ji Temple. Make a visit if you have the time!
Lastly, if you get hungry, check out my list on the top ramen places in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo. Let me know if this guide helped you in the comments below!