You arrive in Japan and for some reason you have only two days in Kyoto? It’s not much, but definitely something to work with!
But how to decide what’s worth seeing in such a short time?
Kyoto is a stunning city with over 2,000 temples and countless museums, galleries, historic sites and buildings that are amazing to behold. Where should you even start?
Well let’s start here: If you have two days in Kyoto, you can get a decent look at the city!
You can fit in many of the most beautiful and important sites in Kyoto if you know how to plan your time correctly. And what’s more – you can even fit in a visit to a few hidden beauties!
So without making it too long, let’s see where we can visit in two days in the city:
Dividing the days
Kyoto can be roughly divided into an eastern part and a western part, between which flows the Kamo River (Kamogawa). If you have only two days, it’s worth splitting them into a day in the east and a day in the west. Of course it doesn’t have to be that way, and I highly recommend keeping an open mind and thinking out of the box. But if we divide the trip the classic way, this is what it’ll look like:
A day in eastern Kyoto
I recommend starting the first day at the northernmost point in the east, and moving south from there. It’ll save travel time and is generally more logical.
The Silver Pavilion - Ginkaku-ji
This spectacular pavilion built at the end of the 15th century is one of the only original structures preserved from this period in Kyoto. It belonged to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was not a great leader, but a great patron of the arts.
Even though the temple isn’t painted with silver, it’s one of the most beautiful sites in Kyoto. The thing that makes the place so special is a large moss garden, and the combination of dry garden and wet garden.
It’s not just the temple itself that’s charming. The road to it is interspersed with local stores, restaurants, cafes and little houses. If you’re there during the cherry blossom season, then don’t miss the enchanting Philosopher’s Path, where you’ll walk alongside a gorgeous canal shaded by cherry trees. It’s a sight straight from the legends!
In 1895 Kyoto marked 1,100 years since its founding as Japan’s capital, and prepared a grandiose celebration. Okay, 1,100 years since the city’s founding was actually in 1894, but at the time Japan was busy with a war against China, so the festivities were postponed by a year.
The celebrations included Japan’s fourth industrial exhibition, which had many stalls and exhibits. The most impressive exhibit was a 5/7 scale reconstruction of the original emperor’s Kyoto palace. This reconstruction is the Heian Shrine. Although it’s called a shrine, its main attraction is the giant, incredible garden that everyone visiting Kyoto must see.
Tip: If you get a chance, I recommend going to Heian Shrine on a weekend. In Okazaki Park next door to the shrine, there are sometimes markets on weekends, and so it’s worth trying to come on a Saturday or Sunday.
Hidden spot: Murin-An
If you see that you still have some time, or you feel like going somewhere quieter and calmer, I highly recommend visiting Murin-An. It belonged to Yamagata Aritomo, who served twice as prime minister of Japan. Apart from the soothing garden, it has an interesting architectural history. At the site you can visit two houses – a traditional Japanese house and a western house from the end of the 19th century. The two houses demonstrate the Japanese duality of tradition and progress that is so characteristic of Japan.
A quiet and highly recommended spot!
One of the prettiest spots in the city! The temple of pure water is built on the eastern mountain of Kyoto and looks out over the entire city.
Apart from the lovely temple, the road to it which passes through Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka Streets is simply breathtaking! The traditional buildings, cafes, stores, floor tiles and gorgeous scenery – there’s nothing else quite like it in Kyoto. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve come to Kyoto for two days, 24 hours or half a day – you’ve simply got to visit the Kiyomizudera Temple.
One of the most beautiful paths in Kyoto, and one of the most popular too. It’s the most famous Shinto temple in Japan, and with good reason. It has thousands of torii gates which continue across the whole mountain, creating a magnificent path through nature.
The temple is open 24 hours a day, so try to get there after 5 PM to avoid crowds of tourists (but also in time to see something before it’s completely dark).
By the way: Fushimi Inari is the temple where some scenes of “Memoirs of a Geisha” were filmed, for fans of the film.
In the evening: Gion!
Kyoto’s old entertainment district.
They say that geisha work in Gion, but that’s incorrect: there are geiko, the term for Kyoto’s geisha, and mostly maiko, apprentice geiko.
You’ll see quite a lot of people roaming the famous Hanamikoji Street, but Gion has a far prettier and quieter area. Search from scratch on Google for the wonderful Gion Shin Bridge. You won’t regret it!
A day in western Kyoto
The lovely market is situated in the very center of Kyoto, so it’s easy to get to from anywhere in the city. Even if you don’t feel like trying all kinds of foods, just seeing the locals’ food goes a long way toward understanding Japanese culture.
The market is long and narrow: it’s around a kilometer long, and is all roofed, so rain isn’t an issue. If you eat everything, there’ll be a wide selection for you, and if you’re vegan, there’ll be a wide selection for you too. I’m sure you remember the post I wrote about Nishiki Market for vegans. There’s plenty to eat, so make sure you have space in your stomach.
Note: If you plan to do the route in the order written in this post, I recommend starting the market visit on Teramachi Street, at the market’s eastern entrance, and finishing on Takakura Street at the western entrance. From there it’ll be easier to continue to Nijo Castle by bus or taxi.
The castle of the Tokugawa shogun from the 17th century. And honestly, one of my favorite places in the city.
This castle has a piece of history everywhere you look, especially if you’re a details person. The castle itself is made entirely of wood, and contains spectacular paintings. And when you’re finished touring the castle, you can go out to the garden and explore the castle grounds.
All of the castle’s architecture is insane – from the floor to the roofs, sliding doors etc.
A must-see for anyone interested in Japan’s samurai period.
Hidden spot: Shisen-en Garden
If you still have some time and are keen to see somewhere truly special that isn’t so well-known, visit Shisen-en Garden, which is near the castle. The garden is built like the emperor’s garden was built when he lived in Kyoto, or in other words: magnificent!
Although the garden is tiny, entrance is free and it’s a terrific place.
The Golden Pavilion - Kinkaku-ji
There’s no way you’ve never heard about this amazing place (it only appears on every Japanese postcard and poster).
Originally constructed in 1397, it was the home of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu – Yoshimasa’s grandfather. He wanted a quiet place near the city’s western mountains. Although the original building burned down in 1950, it was rebuilt in 1955. Thanks to how well maintained it is, it always looks sparkly and impressive.
Once you’ve seen the golden building, you can experience some other beautiful spots in the temple grounds: the old pine tree, the small waterfall and the tea house.
*From the Gold Pavilion it’s a relatively short distance to Ryoanji (around 20 minutes on foot or 5 minutes by taxi).
While Ryoanji has quite a big compound, the most interesting part is a small rectangular garden containing mostly gravel and stones.
What’s so special about this garden?
In order to explain in depth, I’d need to write a whole other post on Zen Buddhism (and maybe I will).
In short, I’ll say: different elements of the garden are revealed and concealed according to the viewer’s point of view.
The garden is a gateway to a rich and interesting philosophical world and I highly recommend visiting it. I can also recommend devoting some time to the temple grounds with the big, pretty pond.
Afternoon-evening: Arashiyama and the bamboo forest
My favorite area in western Kyoto. Arashiyama (which in Japanese means: mountain of storms) is a great area in Kyoto which the lovely Katsura river passes through. It also has one of Kyoto’s most beautiful attractions: the bamboo forest!
The area attracts loads of visitors, so I recommend going there toward evening. After all, the bamboo forest doesn’t have closing hours 😉
Even though Arashiyama’s main road is wonderful, I recommend going to places that are less crowded. Let yourself get lost and go inside all kinds of temples (there are loads!). One of the most famous and wonderful temples in Arashiyama is Tenryuji, which I can highly recommend visiting, especially in spring. However, I also recommend checking out other temples if you have time. Note that most of the temples close at 5 PM!
Some final tips
- If you’re really pressed for time and don’t want to sit down for lunch at a restaurant, I recommend bringing along your own food. In eastern Kyoto you can sit down for a lunch break in Maruyama Park. In western Kyoto you can find a lovely little spot in Arashiyama in Kameyama Park. Just make sure that it won’t be raining that day.
- As for public transport: to get more out of your trip, as a rule of thumb, I’d say that if you’re debating whether to take a bus or a taxi – go with the taxi. Between a train (subway) and a taxi – a train is better.
- Plan your route in light of the weather forecast. For instance, if you see it’s going to rain in the afternoon, try to go to Nishiki Market or Nijo Castle during those hours.
- Don’t try to run from place to place. Make the most of everywhere you go and enjoy it to the full.
While there are countless places to see in Kyoto, Japan’s most beautiful city (and I’m not at all biased 😉), you can see a lot of them even if you’ve come for a limited time. You can make the most of two days in Kyoto by following the route and tips in this post, and of course – make your own adjustments.