Kyoto is Japan´s heartland for culture, arts and cuisine and the shining diamond of the country. It boasts infinite opportunities to experience both traditional and modern Japanese lifestyle, shaping your understanding of this nation. You will feel and learn their harmonious ways of integrating natural spaces in urban areas; balancing functionality with aesthetics; and using advancements without deceiving traditions. Kyoto is a very special city to experience and although 48 hours is not enough to see all it offers, it is enough to feel its vibe and get a first impression. Most often than not, a weekend is all we have to explore other cities.
HOW TO GET TO KYOTO
Located in the Kansai province near Osaka and Nara, Kyoto is very well connected to international destinations by airplane and Japanese cities and rural areas by air, railway and road.
By Air – Osaka International Airport is the closest to Kyoto, about 45 Kilometres away. However, despite its name, it only serves domestic flights. The Itami-Airport Limousine Bus connects Kyoto in 1 hour. Alternatively, you can combine this bus to Shin-Osaka Station with a 14-minute train ride on the Tokaido- Sanyo Shinkansen Line to reach Kyoto Station in 50 minutes.
Kansai International Airport is the closest international airport serving major airlines and international destinations. It is about 100 Kilometres away from Kyoto with good train, bus and road connections. You can reach Kyoto in an hour and half by car or the Airport Limousine Bus. For the later option, please purchase the ticket before getting on the bus. The JR Haruka line directly connects the airport with Kyoto Station in 1 hour 20 minutes with departures every half hour.
By Train – There are many train stations in Kyoto serving private railway and subway lines and only a few stations catering for the The Japan Railway (JR) lines. Kyoto Station is the main central station and only stop of the Shinkansen bullet train in Kyoto.
HOW TO MOVE AROUND KYOTO
Public transport in Kyoto works well and on time. You will be able to get anywhere you want by using the subway, railway or bus. Although, I always recommend walking everywhere when visiting a city for the first time to soak in every corner, you will need to use public transport in Kyoto a few times so as to maximise your 48 hours.
To simplify Kyoto´s extended transport network:
- Only 2 Subway lines: Karasuma line (green colour with symbol “K”) going North to South and Tozai line (brown colour with symbol “T”) crossing East to West.
- Only 2 JR lines: Local line (grey and white dashed) and the Shinkansen line (blue and white dashed)
- 12 Private Railway lines covering all of Kyoto (take this Subway and Railway Map with you).
- A very large municipal bus network with bus stops all around Kyoto. See the Bus Map.
Be aware that in Japan you need to get on the bus through the rear door and exit through the front door where you pay for the bus fare in cash with exact change. If you think, you will use the bus several times within the same day, I recommend purchasing a Kyoto City bus One-Day pass. A similar One-Day pass is also available for the Subway. Please note your JR pass can only be used in JR lines and not in the private railway lines.
WHEN IS IT BEST TO GO TO KYOTO?
Japan lies in the Northern hemisphere with four seasons clearly defined. The months of December to March are the coldest and driest with occasional snowfall. The proceeding two months are probably the most beautiful in Kyoto with beautiful Sakura everywhere (the famous cherry blossoms) and mild temperatures. The hot and humid summer lasts from June to September and experiences the highest annual rainfall. The longer daylight hours are an advantage to maximising the 48 hours in the city. The autumn months are drier and milder with winter really kicking in only in December.
Kyoto´s high season is during spring and autumn when the pretty pink and white flowers and red and yellow leaves, respectively, fill the city with plenty of colour.
I visited at the end of September just on time to catch the beginning of autumn and avoid the summer crowds. Next time, I would love to go during Sakura time.
WHAT TO DO IN 48 HOURS IN KYOTO
Once Japan´s capital, Kyoto has plenty of historical and religious sites to visit, some of which are UNESCO heritage sites. There is only so many of them you can visit in 48 hours and honestly, after visiting so many temples in one day, you will want a change of scene.
TEMPLES NOT TO BE MISSED
Kinkaku-ji – Also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, it is a Zen Buddhist temple dating from the late 1300s when originally belonged to the military commander in chief Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. The pavilion was burnt down in a fire in 1950 and got reconstructed 5 years later, covering the top of this three-story building in gold leaf. Relics of the Buddha are kept in its interior. The Golden Pavilion is surrounded by beautiful classical Japanese gardens and a pond where its image is reflected. It is a UNESCO heritage site.
Ryōan-ji – Also known as the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, it is a Zen Buddhist temple dating from the 11th century. In the late 1400s, the temple was rebuilt again after it had been destroyed years before. The temple served as a mausoleum for seven emperors. This temple complex is particularly famous for its Zen garden, consisting in large rocks arranged neatly over carefully selected polished pebbles.
Ninna-ji – It is a Buddhist temple built in the 9th century and declared a UNESCO heritage site. As most buildings in Kyoto, it got burned down during the Ōnin War ( civil war in 1467-1477) in the Muromachi period and got reconstructed in the 1600s.
Fushimi-Inari Taisha – It is a religious complex with thousands of red lacquered gates placed closely together delineating a path up Inari Mountain, mausoleums, shrines, bronze and stone foxes. The complex serves the God of rice, sake and prosperity (Inari). It is one of the most popular sites of Kyoto and Japan. There is a hike going all the way to the top of Mount Inari and a good view of Kyoto.
Ginkaku-ji or Temple of the Silver Pavilion – a Zen temple dating from the mid 1400s when the military commander in chief, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, planned to build his retirement villa and gardens in Kyoto´s eastern flank. After he became a Buddhist monk and passed away, the site became a Zen Buddhist temple instead. It is referred to as Silver Pavilion because of the initial idea to use silver foil to cover the exterior.
Honen-in – Buddhist Temple built in 1680 and surrounded by a bamboo forest and pretty garden.
Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji – Also known as the View of Eternity Hall, it is a temple reconstructed in the 15th century.
Nanzen-ji – it is a temple complex nestled in the forest of the eastern foothills. Originally, it belonged to Emperor Kameyama and in the 15th century, it became one of the most significant Zen temples in the country. Today, it is used to teach monks.
Shoren-in – This temple was last rebuilt in 1895 but preserves beautiful paintings and doors from the 16th century. The stroll through the garden is very peaceful.
Chion-in – It is a Buddhist temple dating from early 1600s. It is popular among visitors because of its large gateway and heavy bell inside the temple.
Yasaka Jinja – This shrine dates from the 7th century and is believed to bring good luck to businesses. Many locals and visitors stop here to offer their lucky charms for financial and business success.
Kiyomizu-dera – It is a religious complex with great gates and pagodas nestled in the forest of one of Kyoto´s mountains, offering a great view over the city. Originally built in the 8th century, it was reconstructed in the late 1600s.
PARKS AND GARDENS NOT TO BE MISSED
Kyoto Gyoen Park – Beautiful city park in Kyoto where the Imperial Palace and Sento Imperial Palaces are located. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the residences of Nobility were located around these palaces also. Once Kyoto was abandoned as imperial capital, all these houses were destroyed.
Konchi-in – A beautiful Japanese garden dating from the 15th century. It is claimed to be one of the prettiest of Japan.
Maruyama Park – Very popular in Spring for viewing the Cherry Blossom Trees.
PALACES & CASTLES NOT TO BE MISSED
Kyoto Imperial Palace – The Emperor of Japan ruled from this palace until 1869 when the capital shifted to Tokyo. The palace suffered several fires and reconstructions, the last one being in 1855. For both the Imperial Palaces, advanced permission and booking are required unless you are visiting with a guided tour of the Imperial Household Agency.
Nijo-jo – It is a castle built in the early 1600s by the military commander-in-chief Shogun Ieyasu as a social statement of his power over the Imperial court.
STREETS & NEIGHBOURHOODS NOT TO BE MISSED
Pontocho Alley – This narrow street with handing lanterns all along is one of Kyoto´s most charming and authentic places.
Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka streets – These two cobbled narrow streets are preserved with Old Kyoto´s architecture and style. Wooden buildings, restaurants and handcraft shops are found along their winding path up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera.
KYOTO DAY ITINERARIES
Get the Kyoto Itineraries Map and have it handy during your trip.
Today you will have a full day exploring the Kinkaku area, Central Kyoto and Iraniyama.
- Kinkaku-ji (known as the Golden Pavilion). Reach by opening hours (9am) to avoid the crowds later.
- Walk for 20 minutes to Ryoan-ji and visit.
- Walk for 15 minutes to Ninna-ji and visit.
- Take bus number 59 outside Ninna-ji towards Kyoto Imperial Palace. Get off at Karasumaimadegawa bus stop and walk for 5 minutes to the entrance of Kyoto Gyoen Park. Stroll around the park and visit both Kyoto Imperial Palace and Sento Imperial Palace from outside. If you are really interested in visiting the interiors, ensure to apply for permission online in advance time. Exit the park to Karasuma Dori.
- Walk for 30 minutes to Nijõ Castle and visit.
- Walk around 2 Km (30 mintutes) to Nishiki Market. Stroll through he food market at leisure and perhaps grab a bite if you haven’t eating lunch yet. It is known to be Kyoto´s kitchen.
- Walk for 20 minutes to Shōsei-en Garden and visit.
- Walk for around 10 minutes to the Kyoto Tower if you want to visit during daylight. If not, walk for less than 20 minutes to Sanjusangen-do to visit a hall with 1000 golden statues of Kannon Bodhisattva (Lord of Compassion).
- Take bus number 5 from Shiokojibashi stop to Inaritaishamae bus stop or take the Keihan Main line from Shichijo Station to Fushimi-Inari Station. From there walk to the entrance of Fushimi Inari Taisha. You can visit the shrine if is open at that time. If not, just head towards the Torri Gates and begin your walk up to the Yotsutsuji intersection (30-45 minutes). Time it so you arrive for sunset here. The trail continues to Mount Inari but you can turn back here.
- Take the Keihan Main line from Fushimi-Inari station to Gion-Shijo Station and walk for a couple of minutes to Pontocho alley to finish off your day by grabbing a nice drink and dinner at one of the many restaurants and bars.
Today you will have a full day exploring Eastern Kyoto, mainly on foot.
- Start your day by visiting Ginkaku-ji Temple or Silver Pavilion.
- Walk down the road towards the river for 3 minutes to start your stroll along the Philosopher´s Path to Honen-in Temple (about 10 -15 minutes) and visit.
- Continue walking for 20 minutes to Eikan-do Temple and visit. Along the way, there are a few shrines to see.
- Next stop (10 minutes walk) is the beautiful Nanzen-ji temple complex and park. You can grab a light snack or lunch around here.
- Walk for 20 minutes to Shoren-in Monzeki Temple and visit.
- Another 5 minutes and you will reach Chion-in Temple and visit.
- Walk for 3 minutes to Maruyama Park. Walk through the gardens, take some rest or a snack. You will slowly start noticing Geishas around.
- Head towards Yasaka Shrine, 3 minutes walk from the park.
- You can visit the Kōdai-ji temple (10 minute-walk) or start your walk along the pretty streets of Old Kyoto Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka. Take your time to go inside the handcrafts shops, soak in the atmosphere and maybe try a matcha ice-cream.
- At the end of Sannenzaka, you will reach Zenkojido temple and the hill heading towards Kiyomiu-dera. Visit them both and take in the beautiful view of Kyoto from this high vantage point. Ideally, you could time it to see sunset from here. If it is too early, then you can head to Kyoto Tower for sunset (instead of visiting it during daylight on day 1).
- From Kiyomiu-dera, you can walk for 30 minutes towards the Kamo river passing through Gion neighbourhood until you reach Kiya-machi Dori. This is your final stop of the day where you can grab a drink and a nice dinner in one of the many bars and restaurants. Alternatively, you can take bus number 207 from Simizumichi bus stop to Gion bus stop (just before crossing the river) and walk the Shijokamogawa bridge on foot until you reach Kiya-machi Dori.
If you would like to do some shopping, you can walk along the main shopping street, Shinkyogoku street. You could fit it after visiting the Nishiki Food Market on the first day or before dinner on the second day.
MORE SUGGESTIONS FOR LONGER STAYS IN KYOTO
For longer stays, I suggest exploring Western Kyoto. If you are here in spring or autumn, take time to especially enjoy the Bamboo Grove. Some sites you could include in your itinerary are: Togetsukyō Bridge, Tenryu-ji (temple), Adashino Nenbutsu-ji (temple), O-Kouchi Mountain Villa and Sagano Bamboo Grove.
WHERE TO STAY IN KYOTO?
Kyoto is a good place to try a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style accommodation. There are many around the city, offering more secluded or centrally located services. For a short 48 hour-stay, I recommend staying as centrally as possible to avoid additional transport time. I had a great stay at Ryokan Cinq Petite Chambre on Gokomachi Dori, minutes away the commercial area . It was nothing fancy but functional, extra clean and impeccable service. Its restaurant had very tasty food also.
WHICH LOCAL DISH NOT TO MISS IN KYOTO?
Kyoto´s cuisine places importance on the quality and flavour of the ingredients themselves rather than the additional sauces. Bento lunches and vegetarian meals are very popular. You cannot miss Kyoto´s superb Tofu! It is so fresh and deliciously cooked!