Kyoto is one of the top destinations for tourists in Japan. But, that makes it the most crowded. I’m giving you the perfect itinerary to avoid crowds and make the most of a short visit. This is the BEST way to spend a day in Kyoto!
Arashiyama is well known for its lush bamboo forest and cobblestone streets lined with the Kyo-machiya homes and businesses.
If you’re like me and hate tour traps, don’t be deterred! For I have a way for you to beat the crowds. Head here first thing in the morning, roughly before9:30am. You won’t have it completely to yourself, but you will beat the caravan of tour buses packed with crowds of foreigners.
Enjoy the scent of the dense bamboo, and the sound of swaying stalks in the wind. It can be one of the most tranquil experiences you will have; as if time is standing still.
After the forest, feel free to roam the streets, experience a photo-op at Kimono Forest, and stroll across the Togetsu-kyo Bridge.
If you are still there around 11am (when lunch typically starts) try the Nishiki Arashiyama restaurant for a traditional, kaiseki, 7-course meal.
Otherwise, head over to one of Japan’s most intricate, and confusing, stations… Kyoto Station.
You could literally spend ALL day at Kyoto Station. Whether you’re shopping, photo-opping, or just plain getting lost (the station is so old, but they have built ontop, beside and all around the foundation, to the point that it has become quite the labyrinth).
The skywalk gives you views of Kyoto Tower, and takes you to an open-air terrace where you can enjoy a little UV.
If shopping is your jam, then visit The Cube, or my favorite, Isetan (one of Japan’s most popular department stores).
For lunch, be sure to head to Murasakino Wakuden on the 11th floor of Isetan. Here you can enjoy kaiseki sets starting at 3-courses for 2700 ¥. The service (like every restaurant in Japan) is superior, but it also comes with an amazing sky-view. It opens at 11am for lunch, but it is VERY popular among locals, so you may want to cue up around 10:30am.
Tip: To sit by the window use the phrase “Madogiwa ni suwatte mo īdesu ka”. Also, if you want sake to cleanse your pallet, turn the bamboo cup right-side-up.
Once your belly is ready to pop after your multi-course meal, walk it off at Nishiki Market. There really is no good time to visit here, as it’s always crowded! But this is a great place to grab some souvenirs and taste-test all those food items you have been curious about, if you still have room in your stomach.
My favorite spot to have an afternoon-cap and snack, is the Sake Pub near the Nishiki Shrine.
You will be able to locate it by the wooden barrels full of colorful, pickled veggies outside the store.
It sounds like a weird combo, but pickles and sake truly complement each other!
The next stop is the famous Gion District which is home to “the most beautiful street in the world,” Geisha Alley and Yasaka pagoda. Evenings are best here because tourists that have hired Geisha garb for the day will be returning them, and out of the streets. Also, Geisha don’t come into the area until the tea houses open around 5pm, so you might catch a glimpse of a real Geisha as she enters her assigned establishment.
Personally, I think paying $150 to go to a tea house (which you can’t even take photos in) to see a Geisha (again, you can’t take a photo of) is overrated. It’s usually for businessmen (kind of like the US taking clients to a steak house, or in some situations a strip club). No, the Geisha to not undress, they do not “escort” the men… they simply serve them tea, drinks, food, etc. and usually perform a traditional dance. (But here is an example of what you can see and where)
In leu of a Geisha house, my favorite place in Gion is the Gallery Café. It is truly a hidden gem from tourists. Here you can enjoy tea, or my suggestion: white coffee, and a light dessert. But this café’s allure is the front-row view of the famous Yasaka-no-to Pagoda.
You can take your tea out to the small courtyard while viewing this national treasure.
Kyoto is not the best town for sunrises (because it’s surrounded by mountains) but the sunsets are epic!
Head up toward Kiyomizu-dera temple. This monumental structure sits on top the hill and looks out over all of Kyoto.
Tip: Best time to see sunset here is during the winter because of the temple hours. But you can still enjoy sunset at the entrance.
Of course, there are sooo many temples and sights to see in Kyoto, but I will be frank: most of them are overrated.
What to skip in Kyoto & Why
This castle will be a bit underwhelming if you have visited more, grandiose castles, such as Himeji.
Yea, the 1000 tori are visually captivating (as evident on EVERY travel bloggers IG page) but it’s overdone and there are tons of other, more convenient places in Japan to see tori.
This is a very sought-after zen garden. The benches are packed full of viewers, and unfortunately, many gaijin don’t keep quiet. Which completely negates the reason for going. A better option is the Tenjuan Garden, which offers both a dry and walking garden.
If you want a super-insider scoop on where to visit that NONE of your friends have been to in Kyoto, check out this video: