Kyoto Travel Itinerary: How to Spend 3 Perfect Days in Kyoto

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With plenty of historical sites to explore, beautiful natural scenes to admire and traditional experiences to enjoy, Kyoto is one of Japan’s must-visit cities. As a cultural hub and a destination that’s surrounded by nature, it’s the perfect place for travelers and tourists hoping to immerse themselves in Japanese history and tradition and escape to nature.

Just imagine walking through towering bamboo forests, setting foot in ancient temples and traditional teahouses, and soaking up the natural beauty of cherry blossoms or autumn leaves. A trip to the former capital of Japan can be a real dream come true.

And you can explore this city in three magical days. So I’ve created this 3-day Kyoto travel itinerary to help you plan the perfect three days in Kyoto.

Whether you’re following Japan’s “Golden Route” and visiting Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, or you’re just visiting Kyoto, this Kyoto travel itinerary can help you plan your trip to perfection. Even if you’re spending longer than three days in this city, this itinerary will give you an idea of some of the best things to do during your stay.

Kyoto Day 1 Itinerary

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

You’ve no doubt seen pictures of this famous forest, and the pathway that winds its way through the towering bamboo stalks. The Arashiyama bamboo forest is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful sights — it’s a retreat into nature, in the middle of the city.

So why not start your first day in Kyoto with a breath of fresh air by taking a relaxing walk through this stunning forest?

The earlier in the morning you can get to the bamboo forest, the quieter it will be. So if you’re hoping to avoid the crowds, take perfect pictures, and enjoy the serenity of the forest, I’d recommend arriving as early as possible — definitely before 9 am, or if you don’t mind rising early, a sunrise trip is definitely worth it.

At sunrise, you’ll see the changing colours of the bamboo forest as the sun starts to filter through the bamboo stalks. But if you arrive after the sun is already in the sky, you’ll experience the beautiful green colour of the bamboo grove.

The Arashiyama bamboo forest is a short walk from the JR Saga-Arashiyama station. After walking for about 15 minutes through the bamboo grove, you will come upon Tenryu-ji temple.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Tenryu-ji temple is a world heritage site and one of the main Zen temples in Kyoto. Although the temple dates back to the 14th century, many of the temple buildings have been destroyed in fires, and compared to other Japanese temples, Tenryu-ji is now fairly minimal.

However, the temple is surrounded by mountains and forest, and the temple gardens alone are well worth a visit. Japan is well known for its careful garden designs, but the Tenryu-ji gardens have a much more natural feel, and they’ve remained the same for many centuries.

After exploring the garden of Tenryu-ji temple, another 15 minutes through the bamboo forest will bring you to the Arashiyama Monkey Park.

Arashiyama Monkey Park

If you’re hoping to encounter some Japanese wildlife on your trip, you’ll want to visit Arashiyama Monkey Park, also known as Iwatayama Monkey Park. Don’t be put off by the term ‘park’, all of the monkeys here are wild, in fact it’s humans that are in a cage at this park.

As you venture into the park you’ll follow a path that leads you up the mountain, and as you approach the summit you’ll officially be in monkey territory. Over 120 Japanese macaque monkeys live in this area, so keep an eye out for these mischievous little beings — if you’re lucky you may even spot some babies. Just make sure you follow the rules which will be written on signs around the park. The monkeys are used to being around humans, so they won’t hurt you as long as you stick to rules like staying at least two metres away and avoiding eye contact.

At the end of your hike through the park, at the top of the mountain, you’ll be greeted by staff and the welcome sight of benches. Here you can stop for a much-needed rest while enjoying one of the best views of Kyoto. You can enter an enclosed, caged area where you can look out over Kyoto and feed monkeys safely from behind the cage.

To enter the park you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of 550 yen. And if you want to feed the monkeys you’ll need to buy food for 100 yen.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari shrine is an important shrine in Kyoto, dedicated to ‘Inari’, the Shinto god of rice. The messengers of the god are thought to be foxes, so you’ll spot many fox statues and emblems throughout the shrine grounds. But this shrine is most famous for the thousands of torii gates lining the paths behind the shrine. These red vermilion gates have made these paths one of the most popular photography spots in Kyoto. As the sun shines, paths are illuminated in red and orange, or if you opt for an evening visit, the atmosphere at the Fushimi Inari Shrine at night is quite something, with the illuminated orange gates casting dramatic shadows.

If you choose to follow the paths until the end, you’ll be walking for around 2-3 hours until you reach the top of a mountain. However, most visitors don’t get this far. Most people will simply walk a little through the paths before turning around, and some will walk to the halfway point, where the paths open up into a clearing, halfway up the mountain. Here you can relax on benches overlooking Kyoto. If you find yourself getting a little peckish or thirsty, there are several places to stop for a drink or a meal along the path.

The further along the path you walk, the quieter it will be, and the better photo opportunities you’ll get. However, past the halfway point you’ll start to less of the iconic red gates.

After walking through the Arashiyama forest in the morning and the Fushimi Inari shrine paths in the afternoon, you’re probably going to be pretty tired and ready for a break. So this attraction marks the end of day 1 in Kyoto.

Kyoto Day 2 Itinerary

Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion)

Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion)

I’d recommend you start your second day in Kyoto with a trip to the Eastern side of the city to see Ginkaku-ji, the 15th century Silver Pavilion, also known as Higashiyama Jisho-ji temple.

This beautiful pavilion was modeled on Kinkaku-ji (The Gold Pavilion) and named the Silver Pailion not because when the temple was first built it was originally covered in a dark finish which reflected silver in the moonlight.

The pavilion is surrounded by a number of other temple buildings and beautiful gardens, including a moss garden and a dry sand garden. The sand garden, also known as ‘The Sea of Silver Sand’, is symbolic of Zen concepts and peacefulness. It leads to a silver cone, designed for moon-gazing and reflection. The moss garden also embodies Zen ways of thinking in its slow growth to beauty. There are a number of ponds and small bridges in this garden. The intricacy of the moss garden perfectly contrasts the simplicity of the sand garden.

Tetsugaku No Michi (The Path of Philosophy)

Tetsugaku No Michi (The Path of Philosophy)

From Ginkaku-ji, you can go for a wander through Tetsugaku No Michi, also known as the Path of Philosophy or the Philosopher’s Walk. This is a 2km long ancient stone path between Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji temple.

The path runs alongside a canal and is lined with cherry trees. In spring, this path makes for a stunning walk and it’s one of the best places in Kyoto to enjoy the famous cherry blossoms.

If you want to walk the entire length of the path, you can also visit Nanzen-ji temple. However, you don’t need to walk the entire 2km to appreciate the beauty of this walkway.

Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)

Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)

Kinkaku-ji is the sister temple and original inspiration for Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion). In contrast to Ginkaku-ji, Kinkaku-ji holds true to it’s name and appears gold at any time of day. The top two floors of the temple are covered in gold leaf.

Kinkaku-ji is famously picturesque in all seasons. The temple is set at the edge of a large pond with a colourful forest backdrop and on clear days the temple reflects perfectly in the still waters of the pond. In spring, the cherry blossoms perfectly frame the temple, and in winter, the gold of the temple glistens against the snow.

The entry fee for Kinkaku-ji is 400yen. It only takes a short time to see all the temple grounds have to offer, but the grandeur of the Golden Pavilion makes it an absolute must-see.

After visiting Kinkaku-ji a good transition into the afternoon and evening is a visit to the entertainment and dining district of Gion.

Gion, Kyoto’s Geisha District

Gion, Kyoto's Geisha District

Gion is the perfect place to end your second day in Kyoto. A visit to this district, which is well-known as the Geisha district, can feel like stepping back in time. This is where Geisha culture comes to life — you’ll see Geisha (Japanese women trained in traditional arts) walking between traditional wooden houses, teahouses, shops and restaurants.

In Gion, you can dine in restaurants serving both traditional Japanese cuisine and international food, and attend cultural shows.  A cultural show is held every day at the end of Hanami-koji Street to showcase a range of traditional Japanese arts, including tea ceremonies, flower arranging, dancing and comic plays. This is a great way to experience traditional Japanese culture.

Kyoto Day 3 Itinerary

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle, Kyoto

During the Edo period, Japan was governed by the Tokugawa shogunate, a military dictatorship founded by the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, also known as the unifier of Japan. And for many years, Nijo Castle was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s main residence.

The castle was built in 1603 and has remained largely intact since the Edo period. Today it’s one of the best examples of Japanese architecture from this period. The Castle has two rings of fortification, each one built as a line of defence. These two areas are surrounded by Japanese-style gardens and ponds. In the centre of the fortress, you’ll find the most impressive building: Ninomaru Palace. For those interested in Japanese history or architecture, this castle provides a unique insight and understanding.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu Temple

Dating back to 778AD, Kiyomizu-dera Temple offers a glimpse into Japan’s ancient history. It was built mostly from Japanese cypress and entirely without nails, and it’s one of the oldest temples to remain in its original form.

The temple is well-known for its wooden stage, which is 13 meters high and protrudes over the mountainside, offering a panoramic view of the beautiful landscape.

Kiyomizu-dera quite literally translates to Pure Water Temple — it was named because it’s located beside the Otowa waterfall, where pure water flows. The water has been re-directed through the temple grounds and it is possible to drink this water from a ladle. To drink the water is said to give good fortune and success. You’ll often see school students gathering to drink the water before sitting exams.

Nijo Castle and Kiyomizu Temple are both keystones of Japanese history and have been preserved exceptionally well. Visiting both of these beautiful sites will give you an insight into Japanese history, architecture, and culture. And you’re sure to get some incredible photos too.

What Did You Think of this Kyoto Travel Itinerary?

I hope you’ve found this guide useful! I created this Kyoto travel itinerary to help you plan an incredible three days in this wonderful Japanese city, packed with temples, castles, shrines, and gardens.

If you follow this itinerary I’d love to know how you found it, or if you’ve already visited Kyoto, what would you do differently?

Hannah Collerson I’m Hannah, a traveller, writer and founder of this site.

I live in the UK, in the country’s most uneventful city, where the most interesting story in the local paper is about banning dressing gowns in supermarkets.

I travel and I write, because surely there are more interesting stories than that to write about and share.

Hannah Collerson

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