From Kyoto’s tranquil temples, wooden teahouses, and historical charm, there’s simply too much to see and fall in love with in this laidback Japanese city.
Compared to fast-paced Tokyo, Kyoto feels like a real vacation–a place where you can find empty streets to get lost in, where you can witness locals doing what they do best, where you can really soak in the longstanding tradition that’s weaved into every fiber of this fine city.
The sheer amount of fun, culture, and activity in Kyoto, Japan holds is truly endless!
In this sample itinerary of the Kansai region of Japan (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara), I’ll share exactly where my family and I went during our last visit to Japan. This itinerary was a part of our larger 2-week trip to Japan.
Prior to our trip, I had done a ton of research spanning multiple weeks. Yes, you heard it right. A few weeks of constant research to learn as much as I could about this foreign country!
That means all the heavy lifting has been done for you, so discovering and deciding on all the things you want to do in Kyoto will be a breeze.
This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful and free content. Thanks a lot!
Table of Contents
KYOTO IN A NUTSHELL
Here’s a quick overview of all the useful info you need to plan an awesome trip!
When To Go: Spring (March to May) for cherry blossoms, Summer (June to August) for festival season, Fall (September to November) for epic fall foliage.
Where To Stay: If you’re doing a lot of sightseeing, stay near the Kyoto Station area. We like Richmond Hotel Premier Kyoto Ekimae. For a traditional ryokan experience, go with Nazuna Kyoto Gosho — this one’s definitely a splurge, but it’s the perfect home base to pair with your Kyoto experience.
Nearest Airport: Kansai International Airport (KIX) and Itami Airport (ITM). While KIX is further from Kyoto than ITM, it is a larger airport with more international flight options.
How to Get Around: Public transportation all the way. Don’t even think about renting a car in Kyoto! If you plan on traveling across Japan, a Japan Rail Pass can save you a lot of money on transportation. The pass allows unlimited travel on Japan Railways (JR) trains, buses, and ferries for a set period of time.
Must-Do’s: Visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine and Kiyomizudera Temple, stroll through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, experience a traditional tea ceremony, explore the traditional streets of the Miyagawa-cho District, and eat all the matcha desserts you can fit in your stomach!
Before You Go: Order your JR Pass so you can pick it up once you get to the airport! The JR Pass can only be purchased outside of Japan and must be ordered online before your trip. After ordering, you will receive an exchange order that you can exchange for the actual JR Pass at a JR Pass exchange office in Japan. It’s important to note that the JR Pass is NOT available for purchase in Japan and cannot be obtained once you arrive in the country.
‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ in Japanese:
- Hello: こんにちは (Konnichiwa) or おはようございます (Ohayou gozaimasu) in the morning or こんばんは (Konbanwa) in the evening
- Thank You: ありがとうございます (Arigatou gozaimasu)
Currency: the Japanese yen (¥) – click for current conversion rates
WHERE IS KYOTO, JAPAN?
Kyoto is a city located in Japan’s Kansai region in the central part of the Japanese island of Honshu.
It is about 30 miles (50 km) away from Osaka and 26 miles (42 km) from Nara. From Tokyo, Kyoto is 284 miles (456 km) away.
Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for more than 1000 years, and as a result, the surroundings you see to this day reflect that.
Kyoto is known for its traditional atmosphere, as well as its numerous historical sites, temples, shrines, and gardens, which is what makes it a popular tourist destination!
KYOTO ITINERARY OVERVIEW
This trip covers the highlights of Kyoto (with a few off-the-beaten-path attractions sprinkled in) and is ideal for first-time visitors in Kyoto, Japan. This itinerary also works well for return visitors who want to revisit their favorite spots and discover some new activities.
I’ve included two separate day trips to nearby cities worth visiting–Nara and Osaka. In total, this post will give you enough ideas of things to do to fill 5 to 8 days in the Kansai region of Japan, depending on how fast or slow you like to travel.
You’ll be able to experience all of the following during your 5 days in Kyoto:
- Gion District
- Miyagawa-cho District
- Fushimi Inari Taisha
- Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
- Nijo Castle
- Pontocho Alley
- Nishiki Market
- Kiyomizudera Temple
- Various traditional + preserved streets
- Osaka day trip
- Nara day trip
- and so much more!
So let’s get right into it!
MAP OF THINGS TO DO IN KYOTO, OSAKA, AND NARA
DAY 1 – KYOTO: GET YOUR BEARINGS
Land at Kansai Airport (KIX)
Pick up bags, go to JR ticket offices to buy train tickets to get from the airport to Kyoto. Buy an Icoca IC Card (convenient transportation card for JR subways, trains, and buses) and the Haruka ticket (to get from Kansai Airport to Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe/Nara area).
You will be buying tickets for the JR Haruka limited express train to get from the airport to Kyoto. The IC card will be the card you use for transportation throughout your entire trip.
Take the train to Kyoto, which takes approximately 77 minutes via JR Haruka limited express train.
Check into your Airbnb or hotel
Freshen up, unpack, and relax. Chances are at this point, you will be jetlagged, meaning you will either be tired or might not be able to sleep. Do your best to adjust to the time shift and don’t plan any paid attractions on your first day.
You’ll want to start your trip off with a light stroll around Kyoto! Below are some highlights that I visited on my first stroll through Central Kyoto.
Let’s start by roaming around one of the six major entertainment districts in Kyoto. Miyagawa-cho is a large entertainment district on the banks of the Kamo river, almost as large as Gion.
For first-time visitors, the Miyagawa-cho district is a great place to begin. This charming neighborhood is located just east of Kyoto Station, and it is known for its traditional shops and restaurants.
Visitors can stroll down cobbled streets lined with traditional Japanese houses, or browse the wares of local artisans. There are also several temples in the area, including the picturesque Sanjusangen-do temple, which is home to 1,001 statues of Buddhist deities.
There are several ochaya (teahouses) and oikya (geisha houses) here. If you are here between the hours of 5:30 and 6:00pm, you might catch a glimpse of the maiko (geisha in-training) and the geiko (geishas) walking from their homes to their place of work!
How to get there: Miyagawa-cho is located in Higashiyama Ward, from Miyagawa-suji 2-chome to 6-chome.
Minamiza Kabuki Theater
The Minamiza Kabuki Theatre (Kyōto Shijo Minami-za) is Kyoto’s most famous theatre and one of the city’s must-see cultural landmarks in Gion. It is the birthplace of kabuki, one of Japan’s most renowned performing art forms.
Kabuki, for those new to Japanese culture, is an art form that combines drama, dance, and music in an extremely stylized manner. Kabuki plays are often based on traditional stories or myths, and they are usually performed by male actors.
The theater was founded in 1610 as Shijō Minami-za, and it has been used for kabuki performances ever since. The current building dates from 1929, and it remains one of the most important kabuki theaters in Japan!
Kabuki performances are still held at the theater several times each month, so if you are interested in seeing a kabuki performance, be sure to add the Minamiza Kabuki Theater to your Kyoto itinerary and do a little bit of research ahead of your trip to see if there’s a show playing.
Aside from kabuki plays, concerts, rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) performances, and sometimes even geisha performances are held here.
The theater also features a few restaurants, where guests can enjoy traditional Japanese cuisine while watching the kabuki performance. You may also eat and drink at your seats during the intermission. In addition, the theater offers a variety of souvenirs for sale, including kabuki dolls and scrolls.
Nishiki Market is where you go for all things food-related, spanning from knives and cookware to fresh produce and seafood.
This market is housed in a narrow, five-block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. If you’re looking to discover Kyoto’s gastronomic specialties and culinary delights, definitely don’t miss this market!
It’s a great place to pick up some sweets, dried seafood, picked goods, and even sushi. Some of the shops will give out samples and some of the food stands will sell small dishes and skewers meant to be eaten right then and there. There are also a few small restaurants within the market.
Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. It is famous for its ornate architecture, and for being one of the most popular sites for hosting traditional Japanese festivals.
This shrine is well known for its summer festival, the Gion Matsuri, which is celebrated every July and is quite possibly the most famous festival in all of Japan.
In front of the shrine sits a stage decorated with hundreds of lanterns that get lit up in the evenings. Admission is free so be sure to stop by to appreciate the tranquil atmosphere here!
You can explore the shrine grounds while marveling at the intricate architecture, or take part in traditional activities like writing wishes on ema prayer boards.
Next up, head over to Pontocho Alley, one of my favorite spots to eat in Kyoto!
Pontocho is a narrow alleyway packed with restaurants, bars, hostess clubs, karaoke establishments, and traditional teahouses.
Many of the buildings in Pontocho date back to the Edo period, and the alley has a distinctly traditional feel–it’s got all the old-timey Kyoto vibes.
Pontocho Alley is the perfect place to experience Kyoto’s traditional atmosphere, and it should definitely be visited at least once during your 5 days in Kyoto.
The restaurants offer a wide range of dining options from affordable yakitori-style dining to traditional and upscale Kyoto cuisine. Most of the restaurants on the east side of the alleyway have a view of the Kamogawa river. Some even offer a dining platform over the river.
Whether you’re looking to spend a few bucks or an arm and a leg, there is something here for everyone, making it an ideal place to grab dinner!
Don’t have enough time to see all of the above spots in one day? No worries, jot them down on your itinerary for later–these spots are super central so it’ll be easy to pop back over on any following day of your trip.
DAY 2 – KYOTO SIGHTSEEING
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Start your second day in Kyoto with the ultimate torii gate experience! The Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine in Kyoto famous for its thousands of orange torii gates that seem to go on forever.
The trails here lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari. If you’re looking to get a quick bout of exercise in, this is your chance (sightseeing while hiking? Yes! Killing two birds with one stone).
If you’d rather skip the hike, not a problem–most people just come here to see the torii gates.
Arrive bright and early, ideally before 7:30am if you want to avoid throngs and throngs of tourists. Personally, I would recommend arriving at 6am. No joke, the Fushimi Inari Shrine brings crowds like I’ve never experienced before.
If you’re looking to take a light stroll and snap some photos, feel free to stay near the entrance of the torii gate-covered hiking trail (where all the other tourists tend to huddle). However, if you want to get away from the crowds, keep walking upward on the walking path.
After finishing your exploration and/or hike, leave the way you came.
Take some time to peruse the souvenir stalls by the entrance and grab some breakfast/snacks around the area before heading to the next must-see landmark.
You’ll find hot dogs, pancakes, and an assortment of snack stalls lining the path to the shrine. Interestingly, we found lots of “western” options being offered at these stalls.
Pro Tip: If you want to get your hike on, do note that you will be climbing up a mountain, so dress accordingly (or just be prepared to sweat in your day clothes). The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours, however, you can turn back at any time and return the way you came. Don’t forget to bring bug spray.
Kiyomizudera, or the “Pure Water Temple”, is one of the most celebrated and beloved temples in Japan. It also boasts absolutely gorgeous views in the spring and fall!
In the spring, it’s a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms. I went during the fall, and the eruption of seasonal colors I witnessed among the trees was breathtaking!
Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall. This stage will give you stellar views of the surrounding trees as well as the cityscape of Kyoto.
While you’re here, don’t miss the Otowa Waterfall, located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams you can drink from, each said to have a different benefit (success, love, and longevity).
You’re going to want to just drink from one stream, because drinking from all three is considered greedy!
While strolling through the temple grounds, you’ll also find the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda and the Jishu Shrine (dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking).
If you’re here during the autumn season, Kiyomizudera also has special illuminations during the second half of November.
Explore The Higashiyama District
Around the entrance of Kiyomizudera, you’ll find busy streets lining the Higashiyama District, perfect for strolling and exploring!
Make sure to visit some shops in the area, selling products ranging from pottery and ceramics to local sweets to souvenirs.
If you’re interested in bringing home a little lucky cat, this is a great place to get one!
Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka Preserved Streets
Steps away from Kiyomizudera, you’ll find a set of traditionally preserved streets that are both charming and relaxing to stroll through. They are by far Kyoto’s most attractive streets, in my opinion!
These pedestrian-only streets are lined with beautifully restored wooden-facade cafes, teahouses, and shops selling locally made crafts and souvenirs. The traditional atmosphere makes for one of the most peaceful strolls in the entire city.
The shops and restaurants tend to open around 10:00 and close around 5:00pm or 6:00pm.
Pro Tip: If you’re not interested in shopping or eating, it would be a much less-crowded experience to go early in the morning. You’ll be able to get that perfect shot of the empty, tranquil streets without crowds of tourists everywhere.
Walk along Philosopher’s Path
If you enjoy being among nature, one Kyoto itinerary must-do is taking a walk along Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku No Michi). This pedestrian path is lined with cherry trees and leads to one of Kyoto’s most iconic temples, Nanzen-ji.
The path got its name from the philosopher Nishida Kitaro who was known to take walks along this very path to think and reflect on life.
The best time to visit is during cherry blossom season when the trees are in full bloom, but the path is also lovely in autumn when the leaves change color. Either way, a stroll along Philosopher’s Path is a great way to appreciate the natural beauty of Kyoto!
Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
After exploring the preserved streets to your heart’s content, head over to Kinkaku-ji Temple— one of Japan’s most iconic buildings. This temple was originally built in 1397 as a residence for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
Known as the Golden Pavilion because of the fact that it’s completely covered in gold leaf, this is a must-see while you’re in Kyoto!
It’s another super-crowded landmark, but it’ll be easy to snap a few photos without other people in view.
There’s a path that will take you around the pavilion and through some peaceful garden areas. The park is a beautiful place to walk around and admire, so make sure you have at least 1-2 hours to just stroll around.
There is also a little courtyard with ice cream, snacks, and bathrooms.
If you’re looking for an intro to the many art forms of Kyoto, head to Gion Corner, where you can catch a 1-hour display of seven traditional performing arts, including a tea ceremony and a dance by two maiko.
The event also highlights floral arrangements, comical theatre, puppetry, koto musical instrument, and court music.
Performances are usually scheduled for 6pm and 7pm. Go early to secure your tickets and get good seats (seats are not tiered, so you’ll want to sit in the front).
After the show, you can wander around the narrow alleyways of the Gion District. Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko and maiko entertain.
There are a few different experiences you can have while you’re in Gion.
The shopping streets between Sanjo and Shijo are where most people go in the evenings for bar hopping in Gion.
If you’re looking for the more quiet, traditional lanes lined with teahouses – try Hanami-koji and Shirakawa-Minami dori.
DAY 3 – ARASHIYAMA / KYOTO
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of the most photographed sights in the city. A visit to this bamboo forest is best paired with a visit to the Tenryu-ji Temple. They are two popular attractions located literally right next to each other (more on that below).
The best time to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is early morning or late on weekdays, as you’ll find much fewer visitors.
Since I had trouble finding detailed steps on how to get there for my own trip, I’m sharing more detailed instructions here.
To get to the bamboo grove, just pretend you’re heading to Tenryu-ji Temple. If you’re interested in visiting, feel free to explore here first. To get to the bamboo forest, exit the north gate of Tenryu-ji Temple and take a left into a path that leads into the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
You’ll then walk for less than 5 minutes in order to reach the forest. The path isn’t clearly marked and the grove doesn’t start immediately at the street, but just keep walking and you’ll run into it. Once inside the forest, you can walk for a bit until you come across a shrine.
You’ll need about 1-1.5 hours for this excursion.
This temple was ranked first among the city’s five great Zen temples and is now registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Tenryu-ji Temple is renowned for its incredible garden landscapes and mountain views, and if you visit during peak foliage, the changing leaves are truly a sight to see.
The temple complex includes several buildings, including a main hall and a five-story pagoda, but the highlight is the garden, which is considered to be one of the finest examples of a Zen garden in Japan.
There is an entrance fee, but you can get tickets for just the garden, just the temple, or both. As always, get here early!
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Disclaimer–I have an obsession with monkeys, so this just had to be on my Japan itinerary (any chance I get to be steps away from monkeys, I’m in!).
The Iwatayama Monkey Park is home to over 120 Japanese Macaque monkeys. This is not a sad zoo, as the monkeys are free to roam in their natural habitat in the countryside. It’s truly a sight to see and be among their presence, especially if you love monkeys!
Not to mention the dozens of baby macaques hanging out happily with their mothers… the sight of them is too cute to not see for yourself. There is a feeding hut, where you can buy food to feed the monkeys from inside the fenced hut. It is such a fun experience!
Allocate about 2 hours for your visit. Do note that you’ll have to briefly hike up to the top to where the monkeys are, so dress appropriately.
Togetsukyo Bridge and Shopping
After visiting the Arashiyama landmarks, stroll along the Katsura River and enjoy the view of this historic wooden bridge. Walk across the bridge, where you can enjoy amazing views of the river, mountains, and hills surrounding you.
When you’re across, you’ll find a ton of various restaurants, shops, and ice cream booths selling matcha soft-serve. Spend an hour or two perusing and eating up all the soft serve you can fit in your belly.
Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street
If you still have energy after all the walking you’ve done today, I’ve got more for you. Walk north to the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street.
You guessed it, it’s a preserved street (from the Meiji period), lined with traditional townhouses that have since been converted into souvenir shops and restaurants.
This charming street offers a historic glimpse of what a merchant town would have looked like in the Meiji period. Most of the thatched-roof buildings here are now restaurants serving kaiseki (Kyoto haute cuisine, which is expensive and a luxury experience).
Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple
Adashino Nenbutsuji is located at the end of the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street. The temple was founded in the early 9th century and was meant to be a temple dedicated to the repose of souls who have died without families to remember them.
Today, the temple grounds are covered by hundreds of stone statues to commemorate these souls. In the back of the temple, a short path leads through a bamboo forest.
There is a small entrance fee to the temple. If you don’t want to pay it, you can still visit and enjoy the peaceful and lush grounds.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
A ten-minute walk north of the Adashino Nenbutsuji, the Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is famous for its 1,200 stone statues of rakan, devoted followers of Buddhism, each with a different facial expression!
In addition to its beautiful statues, the temple also features a stunning garden with a pond and a waterfall. The garden is particularly lovely in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
There is a small entrance fee to the temple, but it’s well worth a visit.
Arashiyama Boat Rental
Boat rentals are a favorite for couples or families with kids. Not only are they a good way to get away from the crowds that flock to Arashiyama, but you can also get a different perspective of the landscape, from the river!
I highly recommend getting out there on the water if you have the time to spare, especially on a nice and sunny day.
Boat rentals can be made from either side of the river. Rentals are by the hour. A small boat fits three people and costs approximately 1400 yen/hour.
At this point, you’ve done a lot for the day. Head back to Kyoto for dinner before kicking your feet up and hitting the sack.
DAY 4 – DAY TRIP TO NARA
Kyoto Free Walking Tour
Start your day off with a free walking tour of Kyoto. Tours typically start at 10:30-11am daily and last approximately 3 hours. Tours are tip-based, so tipping at the end is common ($10-15/person is good).
Tour companies such as Kyoto Free Walking Tour hold specialized tours with specific topics spanning from the “Gion & Higashiyama Tour” to the “Fushimi Inari Night Tour”.
Others like Kyoto Localized, are more generic and will give you an overview of all of Kyoto.
If you’re up for a day trip, then visiting Nara is a no-brainer. Nara is a great day trip from Kyoto, as it’s only about an hour away by train.
Nara was the first capital city in Japan, so with that significance comes a lot of historical landmarks, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples. Dedicate a few hours to exploring a few of the shrines located within the city.
A must-visit landmark is Todaiji, a large temple that houses the largest statue of Buddha in Japan, and Nigatsudo at sunset, offering one of the most beautiful views in all of Nara.
Visit a few more shrines and temples of your choice before heading to Naramachi, the former merchant district of Nara, for some souvenir shopping. Here you’ll find boutiques, shops, cafes, restaurants, and a few museums lining the narrow streets.
The most popular spot in Nara is probably Nara Park, which is home to over 1,000 tame deer. You can buy crackers to feed them, but be warned that they can be pretty aggressive!
The famous deer that inhabit the city can be found all over the place, so don’t worry about adding them as a specific activity. They’ll be in the parks, outside the temples, near shopping streets, literally everywhere.
A day trip to Nara should take you no more than six hours.
Grab dinner back in Kyoto
At this point, you can head back to Kyoto for dinner and dessert. If you’re a fan of matcha or green tea, now is your chance to eat up as many green tea desserts as you can!
OTHER KYOTO ACTIVITIES
Got an extra day or want to swap out a few activities from the itinerary above? Here are a few other activities that might pique your interest:
- Take a half-day guided bike tour of North Kyoto with lunch
- Experience a traditional tea ceremony – you get the chance to wear a kimono
- Participate in a tea ceremony with a geisha or maiko
- Toei Kyoto Studio Park
- Visit Nijo Castle
- Stroll around Maruyama Park – a great place for a picnic!
- Walk around with kimono
- Visit the Eikando Zenrinji Temple
- Visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum
- See cherry blossoms at Maruyama Park (seasonal)
- Hike from Kurama to Kibune (+ outdoor baths at Kurama Onsen)
- Take a Japanese ramen cooking class
- Day Trip to Hiroshima & Miyajima
DAY 5 – DAY TRIP TO OSAKA
Today is the day when you get to eat your way through Osaka. You’ll be taking the 30-minute train ride from Kyoto to Osaka to explore this hustle and bustle of a city. Come with an open mind and more importantly, come hungry!
A little bit about Osaka: Osaka is known for its food and lively atmosphere. It’s a very different feel compared to Kyoto!
If you’re starting your trip from Kyoto, take the first train of the day to Osaka station. From there, let’s get to exploring Osaka!
Shitennoji Flea Market
I love local activities, so naturally, I went out of my way to find an activity that only locals knew about– the Shitennoji Flea Market which happens on the 21st and 22nd of every month in Shitennoji. If you’re in town during these dates and enjoy treasure hunting, definitely check it out!
I saw so many gorgeous kimonos for sale, as well as wooden sculpture antiques, porcelain, and many other goods splayed out on tables (many that wouldn’t have fit in my luggage, sadly).
It was a lot of fun to peruse the isles of treasures and you can find things there for bargain prices!
Be sure to head to the food stalls when you get hungry. Now’s your chance to get your first taste of regional specialties such as takoyaki (octopus dumplings) or okonomiyaki (savory pancakes).
HEP FIVE Shopping Center
HEP FIVE is a quirky, whimsical shopping mall aimed at teenagers and younger adults. Even if you don’t end up shopping, it’s great for a quick visit to see the enormous red whales hanging in the atrium area!
There is also a Ferris wheel on the roof that you can ride. We came here specifically to have lunch at the Gudetama Cafe on the 7th floor. We love Gudetama and his eggy-ness, so it was only natural that we got to eat him. The taste of the food was just okay (as expected), but the cuteness factor of the cafe and the food was through the roof.
Amemura, or the American Village, is another lively and youthful area in Osaka. It’s full of Japan’s take on American culture and therefore makes for great people watching and window shopping.
Here, you will find dozens of shops catering to fans of urban apparel, hip-hop wear, as well as lolita, goth, and punk clothing. There are lots of cafes, bars, and restaurants in the area too.
If you’re missing “international” food, you’re in luck, because you’ll find a high density of pancakes, burgers, pizza, and artisan coffee here!
Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade
Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade and the surrounding Shinsaibashi area is Osaka’s premier shopping area.
Spanning 600 meters long, the Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Arcade is the quintessential shotengai (covered shopping arcade). This huge shopping area combines chain retail stores and trendy boutiques with expensive department stores and designer fashion labels.
While the main arcade can be quite overwhelming (you better have some shopping stamina), it is worth taking a peek to see what’s on sale. If you have more in you, wander off to the side streets to explore the smaller, quieter mom-and-pop shops!
After you’re done shopping and taking in the sights for the day, head to the Dotonburi District for dinner and a stroll.
Dotonburi is an explosion of color, neon, entertainment, and food. One of Osaka’s most popular tourist destinations, this street runs parallel to the Dotonbori Canal. It’s what people picture when you talk about the city of Osaka.
At night, it is lit by hundreds of neon lights and mechanized signs, including the famous Glico Running Man sign and Kani Doraku crab sign. While there are plenty of restaurants along Dotonbori to choose from, street food is the real highlight!
If you haven’t had it yet, don’t miss trying local specialties like okonomiyaki and takoyaki.
After the food and neon light overload, train back to Kyoto for a good night’s rest before you move on to the rest of your Japan itinerary or fly home.
OTHER OSAKA ACTIVITIES
To truly experience Osaka, you’ll need at least a few days to even scratch the surface. For my next trip to Japan, I’m going to dedicate at least 3 days to Osaka. I found that one day was simply not enough. There’s too much I want to eat there–it’s really a foodie’s paradise!
If you’re lucky enough to have a day or two extra, I would recommend spending more time in Osaka. Here are a few other fun activities to do in Osaka:
- Osaka Castle
- Cup Noodles Museum
- Street Go-Kart Group Tour in Osaka
- The Pokemon Center
- KFC All-You-Can Eat Restaurant
- Bar hopping at night
- Nightlife Osaka Food Tour
- Deep Backstreet Osaka Tour
- Universal Studios Japan – you can’t miss Super Nintendo World!
- Shinsekai and the Tsutenkaku Tower – this popular district was built to resemble both New York and Paris!
WHERE TO STAY IN KYOTO
When deciding where to stay, there are a few things to consider. Kyoto is a large city, and it can be difficult to navigate if you don’t know your way around. Here are two areas I recommend staying in.
If you’re planning on doing a lot of sightseeing, you may want to stay near the Kyoto Station area. Kyoto Station is centrally located and easy to get to from the airport. This is nice because it means you won’t need to lug your bags through town too much!
It’s also adjacent to many of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, including the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle. Here are my top hotel recommendations by Kyoto Station:
- Henn na Hotel Kyoto Hachijoguchi – “Henn na” means “strange” in Japanese, and upon check-in, it’ll be quite apparent why this hotel is called that. The front desk is “staffed” by two animatronic velociraptors! This hotel is quirky and a ton of fun.
- Richmond Hotel Premier Kyoto Ekimae – Located just 2 blocks from Kyoto Station, this hotel offers comparatively larger rooms than other hotels. The breakfast buffet is also great here!
- Mimaru Kyoto Station – If you’re looking for an apartment-style hotel, this is an awesome option. The ultra-modern, clean, and comfortable rooms are perfect for families.
If you’re looking for a more traditional experience, there are a number of ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in Kyoto that offer guests a taste of traditional Japanese culture.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, typically featuring tatami floors, futon bedding, and communal baths. A stay at a ryokan can be a truly unique experience, offering visitors a chance to disconnect from the outside world and immerse themselves in Japanese culture.
Guests are free to relax and enjoy the amenities of the ryokan, which may include gardens, hot springs, or tea ceremonies. In the evening, a multi-course meal is served in the guest’s room or in a shared dining area. The dining experience is usually quite amazing.
Many of these ryokans are located in the Higashiyama district, which is known for its centuries-old temples and shrines.
If you’re open to a different type of lodging experience, these are good ryokan options to consider:
- Ryokan KANADE – Traditional Japanese ryokan with some nice modern amenities. Use of the rooftop onsen is typically included in the room rate.
- Yuzuya Ryokan – This one’s definitely a splurge, but it’s a lovely ryokan with the perfect location, right in the heart of Gion. The food is exceptional (you should opt for both breakfast and dinner).
THINGS TO EAT IN KYOTO
- Kaseiki – fine dining, multi-course haute cuisine. A must-do experience, if you can afford it!
- Matcha Desserts – green tea was first introduced to Kyoto from China in the early 9th country, tea became popular across Japan. Today, many green tea stores and shops serve different kinds of green tea products (matcha, sencha, ryokucha, etc). You definitely need to grab yourself a green tea parfait as well as lots of green tea soft serve!
- Nishin Soba – herring cooked in soy sauce and sugar served with Japanese buckwheat noodles.
- Obanzai – an assortment of small dishes using fresh local vegetables in Kyoto. Kyoto is famous for its fresh vegetables, so this regional specialty is a must-try!
- Sabazushi – cured mackerel sushi. Due to the lack of fresh fish in the past, Kyoto developed a unique variation of sushi known as kyozushi – or Kyoto sushi – made with fish cured with salt or vinegar.
- Takoyaki – street food snack made of octopus, ginger and green onions mixed into a batter and fried into bite-sized balls. You’ll find takoyaki stalls almost everywhere in Osaka.
- Okonomiyaki – a savory pancake with cabbage, slices of meat and whatever else you want to add, drizzled with various sauces. Okonomiyaki quite literally means ‘whatever you want, grilled’.
- Kitsune Udon – udon made with hot dashi stock and topped with deep-fried tofu. Though famous all over Japan, this dish actually originated in Osaka!
- Fugu – blowfish served sashimi style. Fugu is a special delicacy in Japan, usually eaten raw. You don’t need to worry about its reputation for being dangerous, because all fugu chefs are specially trained in its preparation for three years before they can qualify for a license to serve.
- Kushikatsu – skewered kebabs of meat, seafood, or vegetables deep-fried and served with a variety of dipping sauces.
GOT AN EXTRA DAY TO SPARE? KYOTO VS OSAKA
If you’re planning a trip to Kyoto, chances are you might also be visiting Osaka too. If you’ve got an extra day or two to spend in Japan and are deciding where to spend that extra time, it’ll likely come down to choosing between Osaka or Kyoto. Here’s a quick breakdown of each city.
- Osaka is more modern, while Kyoto is traditional.
- Osaka has a more youthful and down-to-earth vibe, while Kyoto has more history and old-world charm.
- Osaka has a much better drinking and food scene, while Kyoto has better attractions and landmarks (temples, shrines, and teahouses).
- As Kyoto is more touristy, prices will be more expensive than in Osaka. There will also likely be more crowds in Kyoto compared to Osaka.
Bottom line: If you prefer bustling city life, neon lights, food, and nightlife, spend your extra day in Osaka. If you’re more interested in temples, shrines, gardens, geisha culture, and nature, spend your extra day in Kyoto.
JAPAN: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
- Japan Rail Pass | If you’re staying within the Kansai region, the Kansai Area regional pass makes sense. If you’re traveling across Japan (like to/from Tokyo), the national pass can be worth the money.
- Icoca (IC) Card | Super-convenient rechargeable cards that can be used on all major trains, subways, and buses throughout Japan. You can even use them to pay for stuff at the konbini (convenience stores)! Cards can be purchased from train station ticket vending machines or ticket offices.
- Pocket WiFi | If your phone carrier does not provide free international data, you’ll probably want to avoid those exorbitant roaming fees. Get around that by renting a pocket WiFi. Many hotels offer this as part of your stay, but in the case that they don’t, you can rent your own.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great landmarks of Japan. The last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Travel Adapter | If you’re traveling internationally, you’re going to need one. This one here is tried and trusted. It allows for a normal plug and has two additional USB ports.
- Jet Lag Prevention | Chances are you will be jetlagged during your first few days in Japan. Don’t let the long flight and time change weigh you down! Here are a few preventative options that’ll help:
- Comfortable Walking Shoes | You will be doing a lot of walking in Japan.
- Cash and credit cards
- Important travel documents | Passports, visas, flight tickets, medical cards
- Lastly, be sure to save space in your luggage for souvenirs and snacks to bring home!
HOW TO GET TO KYOTO, JAPAN
Flying Into Kyoto
Fly into either Osaka’s Itami Airport (ITM) or Kansai International Airport (KIX).
From there, take the JR Haruka Limited Express train to Kyoto Station. The JR Haruka Limited Express takes around 70 minutes to get from Kansai Airport to Kyoto and there are departures every 30 minutes. The earliest Haruka service from Kansai Airport is at 6:30 am (6:40 am on weekends and holidays) and the latest is at 10:16 pm.
This is the quickest train option and the method I use to get from the airport to the city of Kyoto (and vice versa) every time I visit. The best part is that it’s covered by the Japan Rail Pass (both the Kansai Area regional pass and national pass).
For those without either of the passes, tickets cost 2,850 yen (for non-reserved seats) and 3,500 yen (for reserved seats).
Coming From Tokyo
Kyoto is located 456 kilometers (284 miles) from Tokyo, which means that the journey to get to Kyoto can take some time. The best and most efficient way to get to Kyoto from Tokyo is by shinkansen bullet train, which can make the trip in as little as 2.5 hours.
If you’ve got the national Japan Rail Pass, good news! Some of the bullet train options will be covered with the pass!
Learning about Japan’s train systems took me hours and hours, so I’ve tried to drill down the info for you as easily as possible. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know.
- Tokyo and Kyoto are connected by the JR Tokaido Shinkansen (the bullet train).
- There are different train classes, Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama.
- To reach Kyoto from Tokyo: Nozomi trains = 140 minutes (fastest), Hikari trains = 160 minutes, Kodama trains = 4 hours (slowest).
- The Japan Rail Pass is valid on Hikari and Kodama trains, but not on Nozomi trains. Last time I visited, I took the Hikari train with my JR Pass.
- The regular one-way fare from Tokyo to Kyoto is 13,320 yen (non-reserved seat) or 14,000 yen (reserved seat). A 7-day Japan Rail Pass costs about the same as a regular roundtrip ticket.
You can also fly from Tokyo to Kyoto, but this is generally more expensive than taking the train.
Taking the bus is a cheaper option (ranges from 3,500 to 10,000 yen), but the one way trip from Tokyo to Kyoto by highway bus takes about 7-8 hours.
What is the JR Pass? Is it right for you?
For those unfamiliar with the JR Pass, this is a powerful multi-day transportation pass that covers unlimited travel on most high-speed, limited express, express, rapid, and local JR train services.
Now I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too when I was planning my trip to Japan. The JR pass is not cheap. Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but train fares in Japan are particularly expensive in comparison to other countries in the world. There’s no way around it!
Despite the high cost that travelers will have to pay for transportation, the JR Pass can actually save you money, especially if you plan on doing a lot of traveling throughout Japan.
For perspective, the cost of a 7-day Japan Rail Pass is roughly the same as a round-trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto. And yet, by paying just a little more for the JR Pass, you’ll unlock seven full days of unlimited train travel all over Japan, versus just that one round-trip ride.
Pro Tip: The best way to buy your pass is from an authorized vendor before leaving for Japan. While it’s possible to buy the pass when you get to Japan, it’s actually cheaper when bought from outside the country. Passes can only be purchased up to 6 months in advance of the date you plan to use them.
Not sure if the JR Pass is right for you and your travel needs? Check out the free fare calculator on the JR Pass website to map how much your trip would cost and determine if you’re actually going to save any money with it.
HOW TO GET AROUND KYOTO
Once you’re in Kyoto, there are a number of ways to get around. Kyoto is a great city to explore on foot, but there are going to be times where you want to get from one district to another. In these cases, you can take the subway (train), the bus, rent a bike, or taxi.
If you have the JR Pass (either the one that allows for unlimited nationwide travel or even the Kansai Area pass), I recommend taking the train when you can.
Even if you don’t have the JR Pass, I still recommend using the train if you can. It’s the easiest and most straightforward way of getting around town!
The city also has an extensive bus network–you can get almost anywhere by bus if you know where to board and which bus to board. However, most travelers find the train and subway systems to be faster and easier to use.
Getting around by bike is also a popular option, and if that’s your thing, bikes can be rented from many hotels and shops.
Taxis are easy to find and reasonably priced in Kyoto. While taxi-ing around usually is the most expensive option, this option could be a good deal when you have three or four people in your group. Taxis also allow you to reach areas that aren’t well served by public transportation rather quickly.
RENTING A CAR IN JAPAN
In Japan, the steering wheel is on the right side. Make sure you obey traffic laws and drive safely.
Need a rental car for your trip? To find cheap rental cars, I recommend using Rentalcars.com. Their search tool is one of the best I’ve found!
Their comparison tool does all the heavy lifting for you, so there’s no need to have 15+ tabs open trying to figure out which company is the most affordable. You can even save up to 70% using their tool.
JAPAN TRAVEL INSURANCE
This is a no-brainer. When traveling internationally, be sure to get yourself some travel insurance.
I’ve heard of too many unfortunate experiences where friends and family have had baggage lost/stolen, hotels canceled, or have had unexpected medical emergencies while traveling where they’ve had to cut their trips short. My partner even had his shoulder dislocated while surfing in Mexico, resulting in a huuuge emergency room bill!
Without travel insurance, you would have to pay out of pocket for these mishaps. This is why I get travel insurance for all my international trips now!
One of the best budget-friendly travel insurances for those traveling outside their home country is SafetyWing.
SafetyWing Insurance provides coverage for unexpected illness or injury, including eligible expenses for hospital, doctor or prescription drugs. This means that if you get ill or injured, they will cover the medical expenses.
In addition, it provides emergency travel-related benefits such as emergency medical evacuation (much needed if you like to go hiking / trekking in the wild), travel delay, and lost checked luggage.
Hope this 5-day Kyoto itinerary has helped you better plan out what you want to do with your time in Kyoto and its surrounding areas. Safe travels abroad!