You arrive in beautiful and serene Kyoto - one of Japan’s most historic and cultural cities - with 48 hours to see as much as you can. What should you do? Find out here!
This is the premise. You’re travelling across Japan using the Japan Rail Pass and arrive in Kyoto - the cultural and spiritual city often described as the Japan of your imagination. You have 48 hours to see as much as you can. What should you do? Where should you go? We’re here to tell you. Welcome to 48 hours in Kyoto, the latest in a series of new blog posts focussed on getting the best out of your time in Japan’s most special locations. Next up, Kyoto. We’ll give you our recommendations for the most unmissable things to see and do, the best activities and attractions, cultural highlights, and more, as well as how to get there with the JR Pass. Okay, let’s get started. We’ve got 48 hours so we better move quickly.
Top Ten Activities and Attractions in Kyoto
1. Kyoto’s temples and shrines
Kyoto has more than 4,000 temples and shrines so with just 48 hours in the city it’s going to be important to prioritise the very best and most important so you don’t spend too much time queuing. To help you, we’ll discuss a number of Kyoto’s key temples and shrines below, namely Fushimi Inari Shrine, Heian Shrine, Yasaka Shrine, Kodaiji Temple, and Toji Temple.
Founded in 711, Fushimi Inari Shrine is arguably the most significant and iconic of all the city’s Shinto shrines. It’s certainly the most photographed thanks to its 5,000+ beautiful, vermillion red Torii gates, which were featured in the 2005 film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine is a three-minute walk from JR Inari Station on the JR Nara Line and a five-minute walk from Keihan Railway Fushimi Inari station.
Built in 1895, Heian Shrine has a giant red torii gate as its entrance and features buildings based on the original Imperial palace from the Heian period, albeit on a smaller scale. The shrine is also the location of the Jidai Festival which takes place every October. Heian Shrine is a ten-minute walk from Higashiyama subway station.
Located in Gion and close to the historic Higashiyama district, Yasaka Shrine is an easy visit to include when exploring the Eastern side of Kyoto. Founded in 656, Yasaka-Jinja is commonly known as the Gion Shrine for organising the Gion festival every year. Many ceremonies are held during the festival but the most famous feature is the parade. To find out what it’s like, read our guide to Experiencing the Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto. Also look out for the iconic five-storey Yasaka Pagoda, reconstructed in 1440 and open to visitors.
Kodaiji Temple is a picturesque structure built in 1605 to commemorate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the wife of a famous politician. With beautiful landscaped gardens, a bamboo grove, and teahouse, these temple grounds are as pretty as they are serene.
The city of Kyoto is adored by travellers for its great history and wealth of major cultural landmarks. Toji Temple falls into both of those categories, easily making it one of the city’s most important attractions. This Shingon Buddhist temple is one of Kyoto’s oldest temples and rightfully one of Kyoto’s many proud UNESCO world heritage sites. The five-storey pagoda is also the tallest of its kind in Japan. You can read more about it in our guide to Why You Can’t Miss The Toji Temple in Kyoto.
For more on temples and shrines, read our guide to the Best Buddhist Temples in Kyoto to help you plan your visit.
2. Gion and Pontocho districts
If you only have 48 hours, you definitely can’t miss Gion. Kyoto’s famous Geisha district and arguably the best known area of its kind in Japan, Gion is not just home to Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko (Geisha in training), but traditional shops, tea houses, cafes, and restaurants. It is arguably Kyoto’s most photographed area and remains hugely popular among international visitors who want to experience ‘Old Japan’.
Pontocho is similar to Gion and definitely worth a visit during your 48 hours in Kyoto too. Established in 1670 and similar to Higashiyama for its traditional and authentic atmosphere, Pontocho is a small district consisting of a series of small alleyways located near the city centre of Kyoto, between Shijo-dori and Sanjo-dori, and close to the Kamogawa river. Like Higashiyama and Gion district, Pontocho is built of wooden traditional structures, like teahouses and, like Gion, is an established place for Geisha and Maiko. Although no theatres remain in the district, it is said to be the historic birthplace of Kabuki - traditional Japanese drama. The area also has a unique cuisine enjoyed in the open air along the Kamogawa river. This style of dining is known as kawayuka, and Pontocho is packed with restaurants. Find out much more about this area by reading our Guide to Pontocho. Both of these districts look beautiful after-dark too, so much so we’ve even written a blog on the subject, An Evening Stroll through Pontocho and Gion.
Kiyomizu-Dera is known for being one of the most beautiful and historic sites in all of Japan. The ‘pure water temple’ is especially renowned for its famous and iconic wooden stage which offers breath-taking views over Kyoto. This ancient Buddhist temple takes its name from the water flowing through the temple complex from Otowa Waterfall. Kiyomizu-dera literally means ‘clear or pure water’ and was founded in 778 during the early Heian period. Kiyomizu-Dera features more than 30 buildings and structures, but is most famous for its main hall and wooden stage, made from centuries old trees.
For everything you need to know about this famous temple in Higashiyama district, read our comprehensive Guide to Visiting Kiyomizu-Dera. Once you’ve explored the temple and its grounds, head out into nearby streets such as Sannenzaka, which is known for its free food samples. Also, look out for local specialities such as Kiyomizu-dera sweets, pickles, black sesame ice cream, and pottery known as ‘Kiyomizu-yaki’. There are also lots of great traditional shops and restaurants in the area. Find out everything you need to know in our guide to Kiyomizu-Dera.
4. The Philosopher’s Path
The famous and beautifully picturesque canal path takes its name from being the walking route of Nishida Kitarō, one of the most significant and influential Japanese philosophers. Starting at Nanzenji Temple, the path follows a small canal line with hundreds of cherry blossom trees, and passes a number of temples and shrines including Eikan do Zenrin-ji, Otoya Shrine and Honen-in, before ending around Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. The path is picturesque from beginning to end and especially so during the Sakura season. For more on this famous path read our guide to Walking The Philosopher’s Path while for more tips on visiting during Japan’s world-famous cherry blossom season check out our article on Everything You Need To Know When Travelling for Hanami.
5. The Silver Pavilion
The Silver Pavilion (Ginkajuji) is an elegant Zen temple found in the east of Kyoto that is home to some impressive temple buildings and pretty gardens. As we mentioned above, it was originally constructed in 1482 as a retirement villa for the aforementioned Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Named Ginkakuji, it was modelled after the Golden Pavilion, which was built for the Shogun's grandfather. The two-storey pavilion is officially known as the Kannon Hall and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It has several other temples on the grounds and two beautiful gardens, including the famous ‘Sea of Silver Sand’ garden. The two most common ways to get to the Silver Pavilion are by bus or on foot. The 5, 17 or 100 buses all run from Kyoto Station to the temple, taking around 40 minutes to get there. Another approach though is to take the Kyoto Metro to the Nanzenji Temple and then walk the popular Philosopher Path over to the Silver Pavilion Read our Guide to The Silver Pavilion for much more on this temple.
6. Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion of Kyoto
The Golden Pavilion, known as Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺) in Japanese, is one of the most famous Zen temples in the world, renowned for its two stories covered in gold leaf. Officially named Rokuon-ji, the temple today is one of the most visited attractions in Kyoto and designated as a world heritage site. You can find out more about the history of the famous temple, how to get there and more, in our guide to Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion of Kyoto.
An essential stop during your 48 hours in Kyoto, Higashiyama contains some of Kyoto’s most historic and well-preserved 15th Century buildings, alleyways, and landmarks (including many of the other picks on this list such as Kiyomizu-Dera and the Silver Pavilion. Higashiyama district has become particularly famous for the beautiful streets between Kiyomizu-dera temple and Yasaka Shrine, and many of its attractions are now UNESCO World Heritage recognised. It’s also well-known for its traditional shops and restaurants and since it’s not a huge geographical area, it’s ideal to explore when you only have 48 hours or less.
8. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Don’t miss this beautiful and iconic destination during your 48 hours in the city. Located between Tenryuji Temple and Okouchi Sanso Garden, this famous grove of towering green Bamboo has become another of Kyoto's (and Japan’s) most popular and photographed locations. Our guide to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: Jewel of the Storm Mountains will tell you everything you need to know and how to get there.
9. Nishiki Market
If you’re a foodie then you’re going to want to make sure Nishiki Market is part of your 48 hours in Kyoto. This historic market is hundreds of years old and features a huge variety of savoury and sweet street foods to try. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” this narrow 5-block street market is home to over 100 small shops and stands selling all kinds of (street-) food and kitchen related items. It’s easy to access Nishiki Market due to its location in central Kyoto. The area can be reached on foot within minutes from anywhere in Kawaramachi, Sanjou street or Shijou street. From Kyoto station the fastest option is to take the Kyoto subway to Sanjou station and walk from there. Alternatively, take any bus that stops in Sanjou street. This includes bus lines 4,5,17, 26, 206. In terms of food, try Kyoto’s Tsukemono (Japanese pickles) or Taiyaki – a very popular and iconic Japanese sweet treat in the shape of a fish that can be filled with everything from red bean paste to chocolate and custard. You’ll find Nishiki Market within five minutes of Shijo Station on the Karasuma Subway Line or Karasuma or Kawaramachi Stations on the Hankyu Line. Japan is paradise for food lovers of course and if you’re a fan, you should also read our Beginners Guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes for everything you need to know.
10. The Kamogawa River
Last but no least on our 48 hour tour of Kyoto is the Kamogawa River. Kyoto’s iconic river is lined with great cafes and restaurants to try. The riverbank is a wonderful place to walk and it’s equally good for people-watching while sampling the city’s traditional cuisine.
Kyoto has a huge amount to see and do, and with a limited time frame, you’ll need to be organised. Here are a few additional tips and recommendations:
- Once in Kyoto, the easiest way to get around the city is using public transportation, so you’ll want to invest in a prepaid travel card such as an ICOCA, PASMO or Suica card, as well as a Japan Rail Pass for getting around the rest of the country. Check out our Top 30 Tips for Using Japan’s Metros for advice and guidance on using the city’s subway network.
- Kyoto may not be as big as Tokyo or Osaka, but it can be very popular with tourists thanks to its 4,000 temples and shrines. As such, it’s a smart idea to invest in PocketWifi to stay connected and avoid any unwanted data charges if you happen to need directions or language advice while you’re on the move during your 48 hours in the city.
- If you’ve enjoyed reading about historic Kiyomizu-Dera and the other cultural and historic attractions on this list, you may also be interested in Japan’s other UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With the JR Pass, you could even plan a trip around them. You can find out more and start planning your journey in our guide to Japan’s World Heritage Sites You Can Visit With the JR Pass.