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.
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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 5-8 days in the Kansai region of Japan, depending on how fast or slow you like to travel. 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.
Roam 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. There are several ochaya (teahouses) and oikya (geisha houses) here. If you are here between the hours of between 17:30 and 18:00, you might catch a glimpse of the maiko (geisha in-training) and the geiko (geishas) walking from their homes to their place of work.
Minamiza Kabuki Theater
The Minamiza Kabuki Theatre 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 combines drama, dance, and music in an extremely stylized manner. Aside from kabuki plays, concerts, rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) performances, and sometimes even geisha performances are held here.
This market is housed in a narrow, five-block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. Nishiki Market is where you go for all things food-related, spanning from knives and cookware to fresh produce and seafood. 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. 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.
Pontocho is a narrow alleyway packed with restaurants, bars, hostess clubs, karaoke establishments, and traditional teahouses. There are restaurants on both sides offering a wide range of dining options from affordable yakitori-style dining to traditional and modern 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
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 for 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 upwards on the walking path.
After finishing your exploration and/or hike, leave the way you came. 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 is one of the most celebrated and beloved temples of Japan. It also boasts absolutely gorgeous views in the spring and fall. I went during the fall, and the eruption of 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). 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.
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.
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. 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.
Read More: Japan On A Budget: The Ultimate How-To Guide
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 great for its incredible garden landscapes and mountain views, and if you visit during peak foliage, the changing leaves are truly a sight to see. 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 with their mothers… the sight is to die for. 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.
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. There is a small entrance fee to the temple, but well worth a visit.
Arashiyama Boat Rental (Optional)
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 – NARA / KYOTO
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.
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 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 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. You can buy snacks from vendors around the city and feed them if you like. A day trip to Nara should take you no more than six hours.
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:
- Participate in a tea ceremony with a geisha or maiko
- Walk around with kimono
- Visit the Eikando Zenrinji Temple
- Walk down the Philosopher’s Path in Arashiyama
- 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 – OSAKA
Today is the day where you get to eat your way through Osaka. Take 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!
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 that happens on the 21st and 22nd of every month in Shitennoji. If you’re in town and enjoy treasure hunting, definitely check it out! There were so many 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). 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!
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. After you’re done shopping, head to the Dotonburi District for dinner and a stroll. 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 Tokyo.
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!
THINGS TO EAT IN KYOTO AND OSAKA
- 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, there are tons of green tea stores and shops serving 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.
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.
Hope this Kyoto itinerary has helped you better plan out what you want to do with your time in Kyoto, Japan. Safe travels abroad!