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2 days in Kyoto Itinerary for an epic weekend

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Kyoto or “Heiankyo” was once the capital of Japan in 794 AD, and was said to have been created for a specific reason in a specific location. The Buddhists of that era wanted all the elements of the four God’s namely, Tortoise, White Tiger, Red Phoenix and finally Great Dragon God to be represented, which has made Kyoto today a perfect legendary spot. Here is a perfect 2 days in Kyoto Itinerary for you to discover this

Located on the island of Honshu, Kyoto has been the hub of religious acclaim since the eight century. Many of the superbly landscaped gardens have been based on designs dating back to hundreds of years.

Slow and deliberate in pace, there are hundreds of things to see and do in Kyoto, long considered as the historic and cultural centre of Japan. Though there are many prefectures and cities worth a visit, Kyoto has always remained the eternal favorite with visitors to this country.

Wandering around this gorgeous city, popping in and out from one temple to another while walking through countless Zen gardens, statues and shrines is an unforgettable experience.

Trying to explore such an incredible place in just two days is not a simple feat, but thanks to the city’s excellent public transportation system, this efficiently planned itinerary will guide you smoothly through all the important and elegant blend of traditional and urban settings Kyoto has to offer.

Beautiful Daigoji temple with colorful tree and leaf in autumn season Kyoto Japan
Beautiful Daigoji temple with colorful tree and leaf in autumn season Kyoto Japan

With regards to weather and closure of attractions, there is no such thing as a bad time to visit Kyoto. That said, the spring and summer seasons are the most expensive and crowded, which might not make it possible to do all things recommended in this Kyoto itinerary.

Perfect 2 days in Kyoto Itinerary

Trip preparation

It is not nice to talk about any trip with a lecture, but Kyoto has seen an explosion of tourists in the last five years. So be respectful and courteous of the locals, as this living and breathing city has witnessed much disrespect by visitors.

There are a number of ways to get to Kyoto, but I assume you would be taking a flight. Your port of call will be Kansai international airport in Osaka. From there catch the Haruka Train which takes about 80 minutes to reach Kyoto station. Other options are by bus(100 minutes) or door-to-door shuttle (2.5 hours) to get you to your hotel room in Kyoto.

If you have a week or more and intend to visit multiple cities in Japan then consider getting a Japan Rail Pass which will give you unlimited access to all JR trains, ferries, buses and airport transfers for the period booked.This pass is one of the biggest discounts on Japanese public transportation one can avail of.

When autumn colors are at their peak, Kyoto will see the most crowds between the middle of November and December. The next busiest time is when the cherries are in full bloom from March to mid April.

When visiting Kyoto it is important to remember the names of the streets. The Imperial Palace forms the centre, with those running from east to west named Ichijo and Nijo, while those from north to south as Dori(meaning street).

If you are planning to visit Kyoto for two days there is every possibility that some things may be left to the last minute. Without experiences you could not possibly fulfill in a lifetime, you will thank yourself for planning beforehand. Kyoto has a mountainous layout, which can result in a lot of time wastage if you are unaware of where you are headed.

For information on Kyoko travel details the best sites are KKday, Klook and Get Your Guide as they offer the widest selection at the best price 

Getting around

Kyoto’s transportation system is world class, but of absolutely no use if you cannot understand a word of the local language. It is very easy for the visitor to get confused by the bus schedules and the trains leave you at some distance from the nearby attractions. Your best option is therefore to use the underground system along with the buses to save time and money.

Where to stay in Kyoto

It is very important to consider your hotel accommodation and location for making the most of your two days in Kyoto. You can usually reserve a room with no upfront payment at booking.com and pay when you check out and with free cancellation too. 

Downtown Kyoto, all things considered, is the best place in the city to base yourself as you will be within walking distance of scores of bars, restaurants, shops, subway and two train lines. Moreover, two of the main sightseeing areas, Northern and  Southern Higashiyama are also a stroll away.

Our top hotel recommendations in downtown Kyoto are:

  • Hotel Okura-Luxury
  • Iori Machiya Stay-Vacation rental
  • Tawaraya-Ryokan
  • Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel-Mid-range
  • Oike Fuyacho-Budget

If you want to stay near the Kyoto Station, which is best if you are planning to visit other parts of Japan by train or by bus, then our top Ryokan and hotel suggestions are:

  • Hotel Granvia Kyoto-Luxury
  • Izuyasu-Ryokan
  • 22 Pieces-Mid-range
  • Sakura Terrace-Budget

Friendly advice! Accommodation in Kyoto gets booked months in advance for the busy March, April and the fall foliage season in November. So book well before time if you are planning to visit during these months.

( An interesting service is offered by many hotels-rental of mobile phones.The client just needs to pay for the service of the cell provider. Perfect for those on short visits)

Tour recommendations

Kyoto is best discovered on foot, and while the top attractions are on every tourists radar, some of the hidden alleys and backstreets are worth visiting.

A walking tour of Kyoto focuses on the history of the city, which incidentally dates back to the 6th century. A part of Kyoto’s alternative aim is to increase inbound tourism and stimulate the economy of the locals is by a culmination of a number of different arts projects which take place across different prefectures.

There is no doubt that Kyoto receives a large number of visitors, there are many other places which find it difficult to feature on the tourist radar. Activities like a guided three hour guided food night tour to Gion showcases the street vendors and the local restaurants.

Again, since your time in Kyoto is not much or if you don’t like to walk, then it is s advisable to opt for a guided tour which will cover the highlights like the Dera Temple, Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama and the Golden Pavilion all in a single day.

Before embarking on a trip to Japan it is important to know when to go as your two day limit can make an impact on the entire trip. The off season, from spring to fall, will allow you to to explore all the top spots of Kyoto without having to struggle through the crowds.

Two day itinerary

Since you have just two days to see as much as you can of this lovely city, you have no option but to pick and choose, as you can’t fit in everything in the limited time you have. This two day itinerary will help you discover the highlights of Kyoto in a planned manner.

Day One-Morning

Assuming you are staying in Downtown Kyoto, start your first day Kyoto itinerary with a healthy buffet breakfast at Miyako Yasai Kamo.This is a wonderful all-you-can eat joint for only ¥500!!

As your visit is really short, I recommend you tick off one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto straightaway.The 1000 gate famous Fushimi Inari shrine located in the southern part of the city.

Take the Keihan Main Line to Fushimi Inari railway station. The way to the shrine is clearly marked from the station, from where you go left and up the hill after crossing the railway tracks.

The shrine is a mega tourist draw and tends to get very crowded, so it is suggested to go there early in the morning so as to reach there before 8am. Dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, Inari, getting there involves a three hour long hike up to Mount Inari, a distance of 4km.

The area between the train station and the temple gates is lined with shops selling excellent locally made ceramics at reasonable prices. Worth spending some time here for souvenirs, However, if you hate crowds stay clear.

Remember to carry enough water as the climb is a bit tough. There are plenty of vending machines and shops enroute, but they tend to become expensive the higher you climb.

Your trip will take up the majority of your first morning, so grab something to eat on the way down at the local market just outside the gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Stalls selling fresh local delicacies are very popular here.

You will need some rest at this point of time, so you should return to your hotel by taking either the Japan Railway line of the Keihan Line, depending upon where you are putting up in Kyoto.

Day One-Afternoon

After finishing your lunch, take a train from Inari station for Kiyomizu-Gojo, a ride of approximately fifteen minutes, to explore Kyoto’s best preserved historic site, the Geisha district of Gion.

Here visitors will find shops, restaurants and traditional teahouses, also known as ochayas where guests are entertained till today by Maiko and Geisha. Ladies on this tour can don a traditional kimono and pise for photographs as a memorable reminder of their visit to Kyoto.

Having said that, tourists tend to urge the Geisha and Maiko( Geisha under training) to take photos which overall seemed to spoil the atmosphere of the place.

A leisurely walk will take you past the highlights of this beautiful district and uncover other temples such as Kodaiji Temple,Kiyomizu-Dera temple, Shirakawa and Yadaka Pagoda. At the end of the walk you will come across the most scenic street in Kyoto, Pontocho Alley, lined with upscale clubs and restaurants.

Day One-Evening

Getting in any of the joints in Pontocho Alley is not an easy task, unless you have some good Japanese connections. I strongly recommend having dinner here itself before wandering off to spot some more Geishas and Maiko at night.

This part of Kyoto has a great selection of restaurants to have dinner.The best traditional food market here is Nishiki Market, also referred to as ‘Kyoto’s Pantry’.There are over one hundred outlets here selling everything from seafood, pickled vegetables to consumer products. My strong advice is to try the sweet fish, known as fried ayu.

In fairness,Nishiki Market is a fun place to wander, but it has narrow corridors in places, wide enough for just a few people to pass.Tourists inexplicably carry their luggage inside leading to chaotic congestion which forces one to slow down.

After dinner, check out the Kyoto Tower ( not in the same class as Tokyo Tower), but it still provides beautiful views of the city. There is a viewing platform about 100m high from where on clear nights you can see as far as Osaka.

Day Two-Morning

Indulge yourself on the last morning with a sumptuous breakfast served in a traditional Japanese home, Hyotei. Their cuisine is Kaiseki style, where delicious dishes are served in small portions, one after another.This meal will cost you upwards of ¥4,500 but is well worth the money.

Your second morning of sightseeing should ideally begin with a trip to the Golden Pavilion and Arashiyama, home to the famous bamboo grove and the nearby. Your choice of transport, taxi, train or bus will depend on where you are staying and your willingness to take a taxi which you should, given the short time you have in Kyoto. If you come by train, then from Arashiyama Station it is fifteen minutes walk to the grove.

First explore the beautiful Tenryu-ji temple, making sure you go through the main hall and the expansive garden. Leave from the north gate, head left and you will soon come across the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The place is always busy, but once you stand among the tall bamboo shoots, you will feel transformed into a different world. Walk uphill leisurely and take in the magical atmosphere of the place. Arashiyama looks absolutely spectacular, just as in the pictures, and when seen in real life it was beautiful as imagined.

Once you arrive at the top of the bamboo grove you will come across the entrance to the lovely villa named Okochi-Sanso, home of a former rich Japanese film star. As you explore the garden, use your ticket to enjoy a refreshing cup of green tea with a sweet thrown in for good measure.

Keep two things in mind when visiting Arashiyama. First, do not forget to bring mosquito repellent and secondly, if you want to see the place at its best, get there as early in the morning as you possibly can, preferably 7am. By the time you finish a couple of hours later, you will find yourself wading through crowds to find the way out.

(Arashiyama is also home to a number of shrines and temples that are worth exploring. Some notable ones are Tenryu-ji and Nisonin, but remember they close around 430pm, so plan accordingly if you want to look inside)

Return to central Arashiyama to enjoy a simple, but delicious lunch of noodles and rice in any of the shokudo outlets lining up either side of the main street. A small snack booth on the way to the grove sold some seriously fresh mango juice-perfect for a tiring morning trip.

A fifteen minutes walk from the bamboo grove is the Iwatayama Monkey Park over the famous Togetsukyo Bridge(moon crossing). A twenty minutes climb up the hill will bring you to Monkey Park. Here you can enjoy great views, especially during the cherry blossom season and in autumn.

Day Two-Afternoon

Take a taxi to the famous Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaky-ji Temple, as no other mode of transport is available here. It will put you back by about ¥2000, but is the fastest way to get to northwest Kyoto where the temple is located.

Many people here agree on one thing that how spectacular the pavilion looks today in spite of it having been completely burned down by a mentally retarded person in 1950.

This Zen Buddhist temple’s name is derived from the gold leaves that adorn the exteriors. They are said to have powers to mitigate any negative thoughts or feelings towards death. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this is one place you absolutely must visit on any itinerary to Kyoto. The only drawback is the pavilion and the garden are literally crawling with tourists.

Again, there is no good transport available at the Golden Pavilion, so the taxi is the only option. Another ¥2000 will bring you to the Daitoku-ji Temple, but you can also skip this and head straight instead for downtown Kyoto or Kyoto station by bus from Kinkaky-ji stop.

Once you are done with Daitoku-ji, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Shijo station. The subway will bring you to downtown Kyoto in just a few minutes.

It is now late afternoon, so rest at your hotel, as you will certainly need some energy from the hectic morning activities.

Day Two-Evening

Try out dinner once more from the great selection of restaurants in downtown Kyoto. To taste fresh ingredients deep fried in crispy batter, the Tenyu restaurant next to the Kyoto Shiyakusho Station serves some of the best tempura in Kyoto.

For vegan lovers head to Ain Soph Journey, right next to the Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade, where the food is great and the desserts are even better.

Day trip suggestions

Kyoto enjoys a prime location and is as such close to many beautiful places which make for an excellent day trip from the city. The two most accessible cities from Kyoto are Nara and Osaka and there are ample reasons to visit them.

Osaka is not only known for its fresh fish but for its exceptional street food and vibrant nightlife. On a perfect day one can explore Osaka Aquarium, Osaka Castle, Dotonbori and Universal Studios. Moreover, getting to Osaka from Kyoto is cheap(¥560 approx) by the Japanese Railway Kyoto line and fast(23 minutes).

Your JR pass is good for this journey to save some money.

Nara is close both to Kyoto and Osaka and therefore is also popular for day trips. From Kyoto, the JR Nara Line or the private Kintetsu line brings you to Nara between 40-70 minutes. JR pass holders travel free, while others have to pay ¥710 for a one way ticket.

Some top rated tourist attractions in Nara are:

  • Nara Park
  • Kofuku-ji Temple
  • Isuien Garden
  • Kasuga Grand Shrine
  • Nara National Museum
  • Hase Temple

While Kyoto is a great base for the Kansai region there are few other places which can be reached by Shinkansen in under two hours:

  • Nagoya-home to museums, restaurants, skyscrapers and the popular Railway Park.
  • Kobe-the port city of Kobe is renowned for its melt in your mouth beef steaks.
  • Himeji-internationally famous for the Himeji Castle, the National treasure of Japan.
  • Hikone-another castle city on the shores of the largest lake in Japan, lake Biwa.
  • Uji-famed for tea plantations and shopping around Byodoin Temple, the main draw here 
  •  Yoshiminedera-technically a part of Kyoto, this is a spectacular temple. However, it can only be accessed by bus which runs once an hour.

Packing tips

Your Kyoto, Japan, packing list should include things that will improve your experience, right from a long haul flight to walking miles per day to see the different shrines and temples. It is suggested to include these travel accessories to your luggage while planning your two day trip to Tokyo:

  • Passport: with at least one empty page and six months validity.
  • Visa: many nations are exempt from visa in advance, but it is best to check ahead in the country of origin.
  • Flight tickets: there are multiple airlines flying to Japan so better to compare prices beforehand.
  • Japan Rail Pass: if you have seven days and wish to travel around the country, buy this before you enter Japan. This can be done at Voyaging.com
  • Travel Insurance: Japanese healthcare is excellent but also expensive. Apart from health, there could be issues like lost luggage, missed flights, theft etc.
  • Maps: The Periplus Tokyo map is the best map in English for Kyoto.
  • Luggage: a daypack and a suitcase with wheels will suffice for your trip.
  • Clothes: this depends entirely on the time of the year you go to Kyoto. The classic advice is to pack layers of breathable fabrics for the summer months. Avoid denim as it holds moisture and is heavy. Pack xonfirtat walking shoes, a lightweight fleece,quick drying towel and use travel cubes for packing everything.
  • Toiletries and accessories: gel, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses.
  • Medication: Diarrhoea pills, painkillers, cold and flu medicine, tampons, sanitary pads.
  • Cellphone and charger: bring a universal adapter and a power bank. A data-only sim card can be easily purchased for your phone which is far cheaper than using your phone on roaming.

So what should you wear in each season in Kyoto!

  • March: 

 ….      Layers, thick pants, a warm coat 

            a skirt with warm tights for women.

  • April and May: Jacket and long sleeve shirt with a sweater.
  • Other items: Some warmers for mornings or a thin wrap around shawl.
  • Summer: breathable clothing, short sleeve dresses for women and a hat for sun protection.
  • Autumn: jacket and sweater for mornings, long sleeve shirt and pants with an outfit which could be adaptable should the weather change.
  • Winter : Woolen coat, gloves, scarf as temperatures can plummet all of a sudden. Since public transport is heated, wear layers that are easy to take off whenever needed.

Safety

Not only Kyoto but the whole of Japan is considered to be a very safe place to visit. In fact, your chances of getting robbed or scammed are practically nil. The main risks are the frequent typhoons and earthquakes which are quite common. 

Check the exit points of your hotel and download offline maps for navigation within the city in case of any emergency.

The most important piece of travel advice one can offer is purchase good travel insurance.This should cover you from injury, theft, cancellations and illness.

Kyoto, in general, is perfectly safe for both female and male visitors, but it is still advised that common sense should prevail when it comes to keeping an eye for your belongings, as the flow of visitors may attract thieves. 

So long as you take care of your stuff, do not accept food from strangers and avoid carrying large amounts of cash, you can enjoy your stay without any trouble.

Budget

Even if you are a backpacker, you will find that Kyoto can be quite expensive, between $65-$75 a day the bare minimum. This also if you are staying in a hostel dormitory. For something luxurious, like eating in high end restaurants and enjoying unlimited drinks, expect to shell out $220 per day.

While the above prices may seem on the higher side, there are other ways and means to lower the costs by shopping at the 100 Yen stores and eating pre-set meals from the 7-Eleven Family Marts.($1.15-$3.75 for a cheap meal option).

On an average, you should budget for about $92 or ¥10,350 to spend in a day for your vacation to Kyoto. This will take into account your accommodation, transportation, meals, wifi rentals and admission fees assuming you adjust accordingly as per your travel habits.

Additional information

Kyoto is a rewarding city which one must visit at least once in a lifetime. It may sound biased, but it is easy to say that this is the most fulfilling single city to visit in the whole of Asia.

But before you outline your daily itinerary plans don’t miss out on using a selection of useful phrases to interact with the locals on a polite manner.They will come in handy not only to enjoy the nightlife but find your way back to the hotel after the revelries are long over.

  • Do not approach Geishas and Maiko for taking a photograph.
  • You will need to swap shoes for slippers in all shrines, so carry a good pair of socks.
  • Keep an eye for cash only outlets, as cash rules the roost in Kyoto.

Were two days enough?

As you all are aware that Kyoto is expensive and a long trip over a week can set you back by a few thousand dollars  Therefore, it is important to make sure you don’t overstay and have a perfect itinerary.

The simple answer is: as much time as possible.Two days in Kyoto are definitely short, but still they give you the bare minimum time to see the main landmarks of the city, providing you plan right.

If you have more time, a four day trip is recommended, but if there are time constraints, then spending two days for a general traveler is enough to get a perfect first impression of Kyoto.

Conclusion

The two day trip to Kyoto was indeed a revaluation.The city’s beautiful attractions and rich history left me completely overawed. It was amazing to see how well the landmarks were preserved, right from the period of 794 through 1868 when Kyoto was under the rule of the Emperor till date. 

So much has changed before I came and I hope will continue to improve long after I have left. While two days were on the lesser side, it was enough to get a good impression of the city. Kyoto is referred to as the spiritual home of the Japanese and therefore without knowing Kyoto, it will be well nigh impossible to understand the true essence of the country.

Access more Weekend Trip Guides here

About the Guest Writer: Jo is the creator of the travel blog WanderwithJo. She is a globetrotter based in India. Follow her adventures on Instagram

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