48 Hours In Kyoto

In my travels around the world, Kyoto as a city stands out from almost every other place I’ve visited. It’s a historical and cultural marvel. With 1000’s of temples and shrines, stunning zen gardens and restrained natural beauty, you’re guaranteed to fall under its alluring spell.

Attempting a 24 hour layover visit to Kyoto (in my opinion) is a crime against traveling. The sheer breadth of what there is to see and do in this incredible place means you’ll definitely be missing out on a lot of amazing experiences. I spent 5 days here, and still left wanting to see more.

Below is my attempt at a 48 hour itinerary for Kyoto, listing what I think are the absolute must see attractions.

Itinerary

Day One

The first day will be focused on some of my favorite sites in Kyoto.

Starting with Fushimi Inari and its seemingly endless path of vibrant orange torii gates leading up Mt. Inari. The Images of the orange torii gates are some of the most famous from Japan.

After that I recommend a visit to Tofokuji Temple ( a large Zen temple with gorgeous gardens ) that should be seen during the autumn season when autumn colors are in full bloom.

Finally wrap up the day with a visit to Gion to walk around the Higashiyama district and marvel at the stunning Kiyomizu-dera temple.

Fushimi Inari: My absolute favorite site in Kyoto is Fushimi Inari. This is an iconic shrine that’s dedicated to the Shinto God of rice and sake, but derives its fame from the thousands of torri gates that line the side of Mount Inari. I don’t know how to fully explain what it felt like to explore the shrine grounds, walk the endless passages of orange and red torri gates that climaxed with a mountain top view overlooking the city. I could use up all the adjectives I know and still fail to do it justice.

Being one of the top tourist attractions in the country, the shrine grounds gets crowded, especially around key junctures in the torri gate path. Good luck trying to take a clear picture with no people in it. But if you get in early enough you may escape the worst of the crowding.

Directions: The shrine is free to visit and is accessible via JR Inari Station on the JR Nara subway line.

Tofukuji Temple: Down the street from Fushimi Inari is Tofukuji Temple which has an incredibly beautiful garden. During the fall this is one of the most popular temples in Japan. The rich autumn foliage around the temple attracts visitors from all around Japan. I was lucky enough to be there during that time and it took my breath away. Below is a video from that visit.

Lunch At Issen Yoshoku: At this point, after the hike up Mount Inari, you’ll more than likely have worked up an appetite. Head back towards Gion, a famous district with a lot of attractions. Before you start exploring, lets stop for some brunch at “Issen Yoshoku”.  This is a small no frills place that serves only one dish, okonomiyaki.

The only way I can describe okonomiyaki is to say its a monster pancake / egg omelette that’s stuffed with just about everything you can imagine. The portion size is HUGE and you WILL refuse to share with anyone. I don’t say this lightly, but I almost guarantee you’ll have one the best foodgasms of your life. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video from my visit to Issen Yoshoku enjoying this choice meal.

Explore Gion:  After gorging yourself with food, its time to work off some of those calories. From Issen Yoshoku we are going to explore the district of Gion. This is a magical district that’s famous for its historic streets, charming tea houses and wooden ryokans. It’s one of the few places where (if you’re lucky) you might catch a glimpse of a Geisha shuffling between tea houses on wooden sandals. Contrary to western belief, the Geisha is not a prostitute – she’s an entertainer. Hired at dinner parties and banquets to sing, dance and provide company.

Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring this area. Just make sure that you cover the following:

  • Higashiyama Area: While technically not part Gion, Higashiyama is great area to spend an hour or two. It’s filled with preserved traditional wooden buildings, stores selling traditional crafts and of course the famous Kiyomizudera Temple (with panaromic views of Kyoto) and Yasaka Shrine.
  • Hanami-koji Street: This street runs from Shijo Avenue to Kenninji Temple. This is popular area to explore with lots of great (upscale) places to eat. It also has a number of ochaya teahouses where guest are entertained by maiko and geiko (Geisha’s).
  • Visit the smaller temples and shrines: While walking through Gion and Higashiyama make sure to explore side streets and keep an eye out for some of the smaller temples and shrines. These tend to be less trafficked and may contain beautifully landscaped zen gardens.
  • Gion at night: Since I’ll be recommending you dine in Gion in day 1, I highly recommend you tour this area again at night. The buildings, temples, lanterns and gardens are light up, giving this area a different feeling.

Shabu Shabu For Dinner: I will recommend that you try Shabu Shabu or Sukiyaki at “Shabuzen”, which is conveniently located in the old Gion district – on the main road, not far from the river. It can be a bit tricky to find, as the restaurant is on the basement level.

If you’ve never had Shabu Shabu, you’ll be given a menu with a selection of meat (from local to high end kobe beef) that will be cooked at your table which has a gas burner installed in it. Don’t worry, if you’ve never cooked it before they will show you the steps and its surprisingly easy. This was one of the best meals I had in Japan. The meat just melted in my mouth. I absolutely loved it.

Itinerary

Day Two

The second day will be focused on Arashiyama a beautiful town neatly tucked away on the western outskirts of Kyoto. This scenic little town boasts ancient temples, sublime gardens, and peaceful river rides.

Kinaku-ji Temple: The first stop for the day will (again) be one of the most popular destinations in Kyoto,  Kinaku-ji Temple the Golden Pavilion. It’s swathed in golden leaf and shines in the sunlight overlooking the glassy surface of a mirror lake. This is one of the most photographed buildings in Kyoto, and for good reason. The main problem is the hordes of crowds that you’ll have to fight to get a good view of the temple. I visited early in the morning, which is supposed to be a less busy time, and was shocked by the crowds. Regardless, this is a must visit temple.

Kinkaku-ji Temple is also known as the golden pavilion. photo credit: Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺 via photopin (license)

Explore Arashiyama: Next up is Arashiyama, an idyllic neighborhood that’s blessed with incredibly beautiful nature, mountains and hosts some of Kyoto’s most iconic landmarks. Arashiyama has a lot to see and do. Try not to rush yourself through it, but walk at your own pace. Enjoy the magnificent beauty that will surround you.

Plan on spending most of your day here, some highlights include:

  • Tenryu-ji Temple: a sprawling Zen temple with one of the finest gardens in Kyoto and wonderful mountain views.
  • Bamboo Grove: walking through this grove, under the towering bamboo stalks, is a powerful experience. The bamboo sways in the sky while the sound of the rustling leaves fills the air. Even though the path is short and the site is packed with tourists, this is still a unique experience.
  • Iwatayama Monkey Park: across the river in Arashiyama is the Iwatayama Monkey Park. To reach it you’ll need to take a 20 minute hike up a mountain path. Once you arrive you’ll get to spend time with over 100 Japanese macaques monkeys that freely roam between visitors. You can also buy monkey treats and feed them from inside an enclosure.

Lunch With A View: For lunch I recommend you visit “Arashiyama Yoshimura”. This is a two story restaurant with perhaps the best views of scenic Arashiyama. This place is actually two restaurants: the one in the front specializes in soba while the one in the back in tofu. This is a great place to enjoy excellent noodles and tempura while taking in the stunning views of Arashiyama and the river.

Be warned: This is a popular restaurant and there will likely be a long wait for a table. But trust me, its worth it.

Soba Noodles For Lunch

Traditional Performance At Gion Center: A great way to end your visit in Kyoto is to catch a traditional performance by maiko dancers. These nightly shows are held in the Yasaka Hall and are a great way to see a geisha’s performance without paying exorbitant amounts of money. The shows last about 1 hour and cost $25 USD, which is a steal. The maikos dances are extremely colorful and are skillfully performed.

For schedule and ticket information check the official site for Gion Corner.

Nightly performance in Gion Corner photo credit: Maiko performing in Kyoto via photopin (license)

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