Asia | Destinations | Japan

Japan: 2 days in Kyoto – what to do and what to see

10 November 2019

Planning a short trip to Japan? You are at the right place! In this article, we share our itinerary to visit Kyoto in two days. That way, you can optimize your time and see the best of the Kyoto.

Is it really possible to visit Kyoto in two days? Yes it is!

We actually did it in one day and half, without any kind of frustration, and loved it! Of course, we cheated a bit and took a few cabs.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

 

Gion

 

Why this trip?

 

Kyoto was the first stop of our honeymoon in Japan and French Polynesia. We had dreamt about visiting Japan for a long time and had a lot of fun planning this trip. It combined culture, history, scenic places, incredible landscapes, gastronomy and relaxing time. In our view, the perfect honeymoon combo for a trip around the world.

When you think of traditional Japan, you don’t know it but you imagine Kyoto! This city was our favorite one in Japan. We really enjoyed all it had to offer. Its rich culture and history, its tiny photogenic streets, its fantastic food scene … All of it and we are thrilled to share some of our favorite spots with you in this article.

Soon, we’ll tell you about our experience at Gora Gadan, a luxury traditional ryokan in the mountains.  And about our three days in the vibrant Tokyo.

 

Arashiyama

 

In a nutshell

 

Day 1

 

  • Kinkaju-ji (golden pavilion), Arashiyama bamboo forest, Nishiki Market, Pontocho Alley at sunset

 

Day 2

 

  • Fushimi Inari, Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, Philosopher’s Path, Gion district, Kiyomizu-dera

 

Fushimi Inari

 

 

Day 1

– On the map and in details –

 

Don’t pay attention to time indicated on the map (this itinerary includes taxi rides)

 

First day of our honeymoon! After landing in Osaka and activating our JR Pass, we took the Hello Kitty Express train (you can’t make this stuff up!) to Kyoto. The ride takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

 

Kyoto Station

 

From the Kyoto train station, we went straight to the hotel (not far away) and dropped off our luggages. At that point, we would have enjoyed a nap to fight the jetlag. But we decided to push ourselves to stay awake all day, to make the most of our time in this beautiful city.

We had lunch just a few blocks from our hotel at Gyoza Chao Chao (recommended by Lonely Planet). It is a tiny restaurant, that is everything but fancy, but the food was excellent and the staff very welcoming.

 

Kinkaju-ji (the Golden Pavilion)

 

We took a cab and headed north to reach Kinkaju-ji, a.k.a the Golden Pavilion. It is one of the only monuments in Kyoto that has an entrance fee.

 

 

I’ll be blunt: we had the worst time at Kinkaju-ji. The pavilion itself is all covered in gold and looks nice. But you can only see it from outside and the place is terribly packed. Walking like a bunch of sheeps in the garden with screaming tourists … No thanks! This first visit was a real disappointment.

 

 

 

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

 

 

Second stop: Arashiyama and its bamboo forest. We took a cab to get there. It’s fairly far from the city center and not easy to reach with public transportation from the Golden Pavilion. The first steps in the forest are not that impressive and after our not-so-pleasant time at Kinkaku-ji, we really thought that we were about to experience our second disappointment of the day. But we were very wrong. As we progressed deeper into the forest, the atmosphere changed and the bamboos became truly impressive. In the end, we really enjoyed Arashiyama. The place itself is incredibly peaceful and inspiring. And we were lucky enough to have the place almost to ourselves.

 

 

Nishiki Market

 

We rode the cable car to go back to the city center. We were tired but it was a little bit early to have dinner. Therefore, we decided to walk across the Nishiki Market. It goes without saying that it would have made more sense to see it in the morning time. Yet, even at 5pm, we found lots of shops and restaurants that were open (most of them actually) and a very vibrant atmosphere.

 

 

We walked inside the very long corridor in the center of market, from West to East. At the end of the market, we found a beautiful temple.

 

 

Pontocho Alley

 

 

Kyoto may be the “postcard”, epitomizing Japan, but Pontocho Alley is, in our view, the postcard epitomizing Kyoto! This is exactly the picture of Kyoto I had in mind prior to coming here. We absolutely loved walking in this traditional neighborhood at sunset, before it got too crazy around dinner time. We were almost alone (convenient to take pictures) and found Pontocho Alley so charming! It was like we had been sent back to a different age. We even got to see some geishas! Try to go when it is empty.

 

 

To end this great day, we had dinner at a sushi restaurant. The place itself was nothing special but we really wanted to go where the locals go and the crowd was 95% Japanese.  For ideas on where to eat, see the dedicated section below 😉

 

Verdict

– Day 1 –

 

Golden Pavilion aside, we had the best time on our first day in Kyoto. It was the perfect mix between the vibrant atmosphere of Nishiki Market, the peaceful walk across the bamboo forest and a taste of old Japan on Pontocho Alley. It’s impossible to say what we preferred but we really liked the mix of all of these experiences.

 

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Day 2

– On the map and in details –

 

Morning

 

Afternoon

 

Fushimi Inari Taisha

 

In Kyoto, the best things belong to those who wake up early! We had been told again and again to visit the different places and landmarks early in the day or late at night. It was such a great piece of advice that we are now giving it too. To avoid the crowd and enjoy your time in Kyoto – especially if you don’t have a lot of it – go early!

Following this recommendation, we arrived very early at Fushimi Inari, the largest Shinto shrine in Japan. There is no entrance fee and it is an absolute must. Picture it: 10,000 of these red torii gates along a narrow path that goes all the way up the mountain. Magical when it’s empty, hell otherwise.

 

 

If you are in a rush, you may be happy seeing just the first hundred meters. However, we strongly encourage you to walk all around the sanctuary (2 hours total). Sure, it goes up a bit but it is very reasonable and you’ll be rewarded with incredible views. It is difficult to describe really. I guess you must live it to understand how incredible this experience is. In the top 3 of our most memorable moments in Japan for sure.

As we were going back down, we saw hundreds and hundreds of tourists that had started the visit and were going up. Frankly, I am not sure that they enjoyed the shrine as much as we did. We insist: go before 8am ! You’ll thank us later 😉

 

 

 

Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum

 

From Inari station, we used our JR Pass and headed to Momoyama Station (6 minutes). We then walked about 15 minutes to reach the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. If you follow us on Instagram, you know that we love wine! And whenever we travel, we always try to stop for some wine tasting. Monsieur Chéri loves saké too so, this time, we decided that we had to go sake-tasting… There is an entrance fee but they give you two mini bottles of sake so it’s a zero sum game. It’s a self-guided tour which is quite short although rather interesting. At the end of the tour, you get to taste three different kinds of sake. It’s a shame that don’t speak English because we would have loved to get some more information on each of them. Go only if you have time: not sure we would rate it as a must.

 

 

We took the train and headed back North. It was lunch time and Monsieur Chéri, who is in charge of restaurants, took us to Omen for some Udon noodles. We really enjoyed the food and the restaurant itself (very charming).

 

The Philosopher’s Path

 

The start of the Philosopher’s Path (North>South) is just a minute walk from the restaurant. This pedestrian path along a canal is famous during the cherry blossom in the Spring. At the end of September, it was slightly less impressive but we enjoyed this walk (30 minutes) and all this green in the middle of the city.

 

 

From the Philosopher’s Path, we walked across what I would call the “real Kyoto”. Meaning the part of the city where there is nothing “special” to see. Just regular streets, regular houses and regular people. That was quite pleasant and a different way to experience Kyoto. Our itinerary (see above) also made us walk by the Kyoto zoo, Maruyama park as well as several temples and shrines.

 

 

Gion

 

Have you ever seen pictures of Kyoto? If you have, then you probably have already seen Gion, Kyoto’s traditional neighborhood and prime spots for tourists. Unfortunately walking around Gion can quickly feel like Disneyland on a public holiday. It is packed and it’s very annoying. It’s a shame because those streets (in particular Nineizaka and Sanneizaka) are extremely charming.

 

For tea time or if you need a break from the crowd, go to Kasagiya (Nineizaka). This tea house is so tiny that it only has a few tables. Inside, you’ll find what felt like the quintessence of the Japanese spirit. I loved that place which, cherry on top of the cake, was totally empty when we walked in.

 

 

 

Kiyomizu-dera

 

After a nice matcha tea, we went to Kiyomizu-dera, a gigantic temple overlooking the city (great views). You can visit it (for a fee) but because of the renovation work, we decided not to queue. I think that was the right way to go because it was crowded and you seeing it from outside is already very beautiful.

 

 

Verdict

– Day 2–

 

We fell in love with Fushimi Inari ! You absolutely have to go if you are ever in Kyoto. We also really enjoyed our tea break in the cozy atmosphere of Kasagiya in Gion. Gion is a beautiful neighborhood which we recommend that you see early in the day.

If you want to follow our itinerary but make it shorter, I would remove the walk on the Philosopher’s Path (not the right season to appreciate it fully). And maybe also the Sake museum, although we’re glad that we went.

 

Where to eat

 

Sushi, udon noodles, wagyu beef and gyozas … this is the culinary journey that we suggest! All are good options and two were very very good.

 

– Day 1 –

 

Lunch

 

Gyoza Chao ChaoWe were too tired to take pictures but I loved that place. The gyozas were so yummy!

 

Dinner

 

Musachi Sushi. Nothing fancy but it was nice to experience a sushi restaurant in the middle of the locals. Good although we’ve had much better.

 

 

 – Day 2 –

 

Lunch

 

Omen. Just a few steps away from the Silver Pavilion and the Philosopher’s Walk. Try to ask for a table downstairs if you want to enjoy your udon noodles in the most charming part of this establishment.

 

 

Tea time

 

Kasagiya for a warm matcha tea and a gigantic bowl of shaved ice (with a matcha flavor of course!). I had never seen anything like it and the place itself was beyond adorable.

 

 

Dinner

 

We had dinner at Yakiniku Yazawa Kyoto, not far from our hotel. This restaurant serves Wagyu beef, that is grilled in front of you on your own individual grill at the center of the table. Everything was simply exquisite! We highly recommend it!

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Practical aspects

 

Getting there: From the airport in Osaka, take the JR Limited Express Haruka to Kyoto (75min) – 2 per hour. You can use your JR Pass.

When? This itinerary was done in September. Beautiful and warm weather (25-28°C).

Hotel : Enso Ango Fuya II, Fuyacho-dori Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto.

Not far from the train station, this hotel is brand new and located in a neighborhood that is calm, full of very nice restaurants and walking distance from the heart of the city. Good value for money. Good bedding. However, breakfast is a joke, check-in was painful. We were also disappointed that they have no special attention for couples on honeymoon or for members of the Small Luxury Hotels Club. The service was disappointing and although this place is a good option if you are in Kyoto, it is not at the level of a member of SLH.

 

 

Tips:

  • Most places do not accept credit cards. Make sure to have some cash.
  • Buy a JR Pass before coming to Japan and activate it at the airport. You’ll be able to ride the trains operated by Japan Railways for free (reservations are recommended). Be careful though, as a few shinkansens are not covered by this pass.
  • If you can have a router or a phone with a data plan, it’s good. In Japan, Google Maps will be your best friend and will help you with taxi drivers who do not speak a word of English.
  • Pack some sneakers: you’ll walk a lot!

 

We went to Kyoto in September 2019

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