Kyoto was the city I was most excited to visit in Japan.
Known for having a plethora of pretty shrines and historic Japanese architecture, I was expecting it to be the perfect destination for photography-obsessed travellers like myself.
I wanted to get stunning photos of all the iconic attractions (those ones you’ve probably seen on Instagram with no-one else in the frame), but as Japan’s tourism numbers have grown rapidly since 2013, I was a little concerned that the city would be overcrowded. It was likely that I’d be competing with thousands of other people trying to do the same thing.
I definitely noticed hoards of tourists stopping in at all the city’s major attractions during the trip; cashed-up Chinese visitors were touring the city by the busload. However, there was only one attraction (the bamboo forest) where I didn’t manage to get a good photo because of all the people.
Kyoto is a big city and there are ways to avoid the crowds. I travelled in late June which is outside peak season (peak season being March-May and September-November), and although it was hot, the level of tourists was bearable. I also travelled independently (not on a bus tour), which meant that I could arrive at most of the major sites before or after the biggest influx of tourists. This meant my time in Kyoto was a pretty enjoyable experience.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, here are my suggestions on how to see the best of Kyoto in 2 days!
Where to stay:
We stayed at The General Bukkoji Tominokoji – a boutique hotel near Kawaramachi station. The location was really great – it was away from the tourist hotspots (like Gion) but near enough to everything to be convenient. The room was tidy and the hotel offered a free basic breakfast each morning. I would definitely recommend this place or one of its sister properties for your stay in Kyoto.
Start your first day in Kyoto by visiting the star attraction (in my opinion) – Fushimi Inari Shrine. This ancient Shinto shrine is what you’ll often see featured in advertisements for tourism in Kyoto. This is a very popular spot, so it’s best to arrive at the shrine before 9AM. We caught the metro to Fushimi Inari station and got started on the walk by around 8:45AM.
This shrine features thousands of red torii gates that line a path leading upwards through forest on Mount Inari. Many tourists come here in tour buses and take their photos right at the entrance (there was already a crowd gathered by the time we arrived), so it’s best to move past this spot as quickly as possible. The crowds thin out as you walk further up, giving you much more space for photos.
The mountain path is not particularly difficult, but it is quite long and involves a fair amount of stairs – we did the entire loop, which took about 1.5 hours. You can also choose to do this hike on a Fushimi hidden route tour. The paths on the higher part of the mountain are also covered by the torii gates, and the setting is even more lovely in beautiful dense forest. There are also tiny shrines along the way with very few tourists and some small shops for you to buy drinks or snacks.
After you’ve finished with Fushimi Inari, catch the metro north to Gion Shijo station. We found a tasty lunch at Musubi cafe where I ordered a stellar green curry! The cafe has a bunch of healthy meals including some vegetarian options on the menu.
Spend the afternoon in Gion – a historic district in east Kyoto where you’ll see many old houses, shrines, temples, and people walking around in traditional kimonos (you can even rent a kimono for yourself!).
We started by walking up the hill towards Kiyomizu-dera temple. This 8th century Buddhist temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers fab views over Kyoto.
Afterwards, take a few snaps at a pretty location that Rob and I dubbed the ‘white girl insta spot’ for obvious reasons. This picturesque street is lined with historic houses and looks down towards a 5-level Buddhist pagoda.
Next, stop in at the most Japanese Starbucks ever. I’m usually impartial to this coffee chain, but the Stackbucks in Gion is unique in that it’s set in a gorgeous old Japanese house. Once you’ve ordered your drink (try the iced matcha latte!), take it upstairs to enjoy in the Japanese-style tatami seating area.
Continue on to Yasaka Shrine, which is located in a big city park. We found it fascinating to watching the locals do their Shinto prayer ritual at this shrine.
Pop over the Kamo River for dinner at Gyoza ChaoChao. We enjoyed this place so much that we went there twice! The Japanese fried dumplings are just so incredibly good, and there are plenty of vegetarian options. This casual restaurant can get pretty busy, but it’s worth the wait.
The Arashiyama bamboo forest is another of Kyoto’s best-known attractions. There are a few ways to get to the bamboo forest – we took the train to Arashiyama station and walked the 15 minutes to the bamboo path.
I have to say, I found this spot to be extremely touristy. If you’re going for the photo ops, you’d better plan to arrive very early in the morning (maybe on this early bird Kyoto tour which arrives before the tour buses). We arrived mid-morning and the crowds made it impossible to get any good pics, but I did spot some bamboo trees in the Sogenchi zen garden at Tenryuji Temple. The entrance fee was 500 yen, but it was worth it to be in a quiet spot where there weren’t nearly as many people.
It would be easy to spend the entire morning here as there are plenty of things to do in Arashiyama. The town has souvenir shops and restaurants on the main street, and hiking paths, gardens, temples, and shrines scattered around the area. Rob and I did a short hike through Kameyama Park which had a gorgeous vista of the mountains and river, then wandered along the main street where we shared a strawberry shaved ice treat.
Due to the Buddhist communities, Arashiyama is actually a good spot for vegetarians. There are a handful of tofu restaurants in the area, though we were told by one of them that unfortunately they use fish stock in most of the meals.
We ended up eating at a famous vegetarian restaurant, Shigetsu, which is inside the Sogenchi zen garden grounds. At first I was a tad concerned about the price (33,000 yen per person for the set buffet) but the Shojin Ryori (traditional Japanese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) was really great. Sitting on the tatami mats while practicing mindful eating was a truly peaceful and unique Japanese experience.
After lunch, head back to Kyoto and hop off the metro at Kawaramachi station. This area is known for gorgeous tree-lined streets, shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.
Walk to Nishiki Market, which has hundreds of stalls selling seafood and other snacks. As someone who doesn’t eat fish, this was a pretty weird experience though I still found it interesting to be among the locals shopping for their dinner ingredients. If you want to explore this place in more detail, you can do a Nishiki Market food tour.
By late afternoon you should be ready for a rest, so sit down and try some local sake! We walked over the river to Jam + Sake Bar, which was pretty quiet in the afternoon but had loads of tasting flights with different grades of sake.
If you want a more immersive experience, try a sake brewery tour where you can learn how sake is made and try a few tastings.
Sober up by taking a stroll down Kiyamachi-dori. There are loads of restaurants along this street, many of which feature a balcony out the back with seating facing the river. We stopped in at an Italian restaurant, Amore Kimiyachi, where the food was fairly good and the atmosphere was lovely.
On another night we went out to Pettirosso Kyoto which was nearer to our hotel. This restaurant has fish, vegetarian, and vegan options. The owner and his wife are an Italian-Japanese couple and their unique menu reflects this interesting mix of cuisines.