I was lucky enough to visit Japan on a business trip and I, of course, took the opportunity to extend my stay and explore the country. I spent a few days in Tokyo and built a flexible itinerary that included a day trip to Kyoto. The draw of Kyoto is evident as soon as you arrive. It’s the cultural epicenter of Japan which is why tourists, like me, flock to Kyoto by the trainload. Kyoto is the historic, imperial capital of Japan and the Emperors ruled from Kyoto until 1869. That’s why if you’re looking into day trips from Tokyo, Kyoto should be at the top of your list. It was a must-see Tokyo day trip for me! This is what I found in Kyoto and how you can plan your own day trip to Kyoto.
Why I decided to go to Kyoto
I had been visiting Japan on a business trip, and I had already spent a weekend in Tokyo. I wanted to explore Japan beyond its modern capital. Kyoto is considered the cultural capital of Japan. It served as the actual capital for over a millennium during the medieval era, and was spared from the bombing of World War II. There are many Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, palace and gardens throughout this beautiful city. One could spend several days in Kyoto, but my trip only afforded me a single day, which is enough to sample a few of Kyoto’s cultural wonders.
How to get to Kyoto from Tokyo
Kyoto is just over 2 hours by train from Tokyo. That might be a bit far for a day trip for some, but the train between Tokyo and Kyoto also offers spectacular views of Mt. Fuji. Trains depart Tokyo starting before 6am, and the last trains back to Tokyo depart at about 8:30pm.
The Shinkansen high-speed trains depart from Tokyo Station near the Ginza neighborhood and Shinigawa Station in southern Tokyo. If you are staying in Shibuya or Shinjuku, it may be easier to take the metro to Shinigawa rather than going across to Tokyo Station.
In Kyoto, all trains arrive and depart at Kyoto Station in the southern part of the city. Kyoto has an extensive subway and bus network. Like much of Japan, the different modes of public transit are operated by different companies, so be careful if you buy day passes. You can buy individual tickets, or sightseeing passes that cover both networks for 900 yen (8 USD).
What to do in Kyoto
There is so much to do in Kyoto, but there are three places that were must-sees for me.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the “Golden Temple” is probably the most famous site in the city. The temple sits in the northwest of Kyoto, and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. The temple and its grounds are beautiful, and I recommend either starting or ending your day here to avoid peak crowds that can make it difficult to enjoy its serene beauty.
Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, is probably the most Instagrammed part of Kyoto. The famed orange gates guard the paths climbing the mountain, and can be filled with selfie sticks and slow-moving tourists, but it is an incredible experience.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is an impressive sight towering over the eastern hills of Kyoto. The temple sits above narrow paths that are lined with shops and food stalls, making it one of the least contemplative temples in Kyoto, but the views and experience are worth it.
If you love temples and shrines, there are many more around the city, such as the Ginkaku-ji Temple (Sliver Pavilion) and the Chion-in Temple. And there are other attractions like the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and some great modern shopping and dining options in the main city.
Tips for visiting Kyoto in One Day
The three main sites I visited are stretched across the city, and the bus will be the easiest way to get around, but if you take side trips from the main sites the metro may become easier for you.
Starting your day in Kyoto
I recommend starting your day at the Kinkaku-ji temple. From Kyoto station take the number 205 bus to Kinkakuji-michi. This is the famed Golden Temple and is easily the most impressive site in Kyoto. This temple dates back to the 14th century, but the current pavilion was actually rebuilt in 1950 after it was burned down by a novice monk. The reconstruction tried to replicate the original pavilion, which was also covered in impressive gold leaf. Walk around the grounds so that you can see the pavilion in its splendor, especially as it reflects off the water of the pond.
Midday and lunch in Kyoto
From here the remaining sites are all on the other side or Kyoto, so this would be a good time to have an early lunch in modern city center. If you want to know what to eat in Kyoto without going broke, I’d recommend the Nishiki Market. It has been a food market since the early 14th century. It started as a fish market, but today it is packed with vendors and is more geared to tourists than locals. At the same time, it is a great option to explore and graze on Japanese cuisine, and everyone can find something they will love. To get here from Kinkaku-ji, take the number 101 bus to Shijo Karasuma station, and walk a couple minutes.
Post-lunch Kyoto sightseeing
After lunch, we will be walking through the sites of the Southern Higashiyama district. It will be about a 15 minute walk from Nishiki Market to Yasaka Shrine, which will serve as the entrance to beautiful Marayama Park. This park is famous for its cherry blossoms, and is most beautiful in April when they bloom. If you have time, you can walk to the north and explore the Shoren-in and Chion-in Temples. Shoren-in is an often-overlooked temple, but is beautiful and will be one of the few places where you will not feel surrounded by tourists. Chion-in is also known as the “Vatican of Japanese Buddhism”, and the large bell in the center is famously rung on New Year’s Eve.
Whether or not you explore these temples, you will walk up the famed paths of Nene-no-Michi and Ishinbe-koji as you walk up from the park to Kiyomizu-dera temple. The path is lines with shops and stands selling all kinds of goods and food, and the walk may be packed with people hiking up to the temple. But it is an experience as you wind up the path and emerge at the temple. This hike will be a good opportunity to get some cheap and fun souvenirs from your visit. The temple itself is impressive and presents amazing views of Kyoto and the area.
Finishing your day trip to Kyoto
After the temple, walk back down the hill towards the river, and the Kiyomizu-Gojo station. This train will run to the Fushimi Inari station, and our last stop at the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. The shrine is open all day, and is impressively lit at night, but we recommend going during the day. The shrine itself is a massive grounds and a path that can take two hours to hike in total. The beauty of the shrine comes from the famous orange torii gates that line the paths. As you explore the shrine, you will find hundreds of foxes around the grounds. The shrine is dedicated to Iniri, the god of rice, and the foxes were the god’s messengers.
At the end of the visit to the shrine, you can return to Kyoto Station to return to Tokyo, or you can head into downtown Kyoto for dinner before your train.
Final thoughts on Kyoto
Kyoto is a wondrous city with so much to see and do. Unfortunately I only had a day to explore, so I visited Kyoto as a day trip from Tokyo. Visitors could stretch out their time and do a few days if possible. However you get there, you will love Kyoto! Leave a comment below and let me know what you think of Kyoto once you see it.