On my trip to Japan, no city stood out to me like Kyoto. The prevalence of historical buildings and of Zen Buddhism in the city give it a really relaxing vibe. It’s one of the few places left in the world where you can see real geishas and the food is simply spectacular.
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in the former capital of Japan, and if you only have two days to visit, you must plan ahead. This travel guide will walk you through your 2 days in Kyoto, so that you can maximize your short visit!
Brief City History | Kyoto, Japan
The length of time that Kyoto has been inhabited is not fully certain, but their are archeaological reigns in the area dating from the before the Bronze age. Recorded history in the area begins in the 500 A.D. timeframe, when the famous Shimofamo Shrine was established.
This city rose to prominence during the 8th century when Emperor Kanmu relocated the capital of the island there. The city took on the name Heian-kyo at that time, which means “tranquility and peace capital.” The city remained the capital for over 1000 years! It was not changed until 1869 when the Tokyo was named as such during the Imperial Restoration.
Like any city, Kyoto went through periods of growth and decline. The most destructive time took place during the Onin War, a civil war that took place from 1467 – 1477. The city stayed in a state of disarray until the late 1500,s when the Imperial Regent Japan at the time, Toyotomi Hidyoshi, reconstructed and modernized the city.
The city began to flourish at that time, and continued to do so throughout the Edo period. This was a time that is marked by great internal growth and stability within Japan, but also of isolationism from the rest of the world.
One little known fact about Kyoto is that it was one of the original targets of the atomoic bombs during WWII, as it was an important intellectual center in Japan. The U.S, Secretary of War ultimately convinced the presendential administration to elect Nagasaki instead. Since the city was saved, today it is one of a few Japanese cities that have prewar buildings. This make it a great place to visit if you love learning about history, like me :).
Know Before You Go | Kyoto
Lodging & Logistics
The two primary methods of traveling to Kyoto are: 1) Train and 2) Plane. The reason why I’ve listed travel by train first is because the city does not actually have its own airport. Kyoto station is the major train station of the city that can pretty much connect you to the rest of the country. On the speedy Japanese bullet trains, it is about a 3 hour ride to/from Tokyo, and only about a 20-40 minute ride to nearby Osaka.
The closet airport to Kyoto is the Osaka Itami Airport (ITM). This is a domestic airport, which many airlines offer free fare to if you fly with them to the Narita airport in Tokyo. To get from this aiport to Kyoto, you have a few options:
- Airport Limosene Bus: This is the easiest way to get to Kyoto, as it provides direct access from the airport to Central Kyoto, for a 55 minute ride. The ride is 1310¥ or roughly $12. The first departure is at 8:10AM and the last is at 10:05PM.
- Monorail / Train Option 1: Go to the Itami Airport Monorail Station, then take the monorail to the Minami-Ibaraki station (all-stops service). Once at that station, change to the Hankyu local train to Kyoto or Takatsukishi. Once at Takatsukishi, change to the train heading to Central Kyoto. This ride is about 59 minutes and costs 730¥ or ~ $7.
- Monorail / Train Option 2: If you have a JR Pass, this is the option for you. Take the Osaka Monorail to the Hotarugaike Station (one stop), then transfer to the Hanku Takarazuka Line Railways for Umeda Station. From there, take the JR Kyoto Line to Kyoto. This method of transport will also take you about an hour, and will only be 220¥ (~$2) if you have the JR pass. Without the JR Pass, the cost is an additional 560¥ (~$5).
There are two other airports that are relatively close to Kyoto:
- Kansai International Aiport (KIX) – The main internatinal airport of Osaka
- Chubu Centrair Japan International Airport (NGO) – This is the main airport for Central Japan (the Chubu region of the country).
Both airports are about 90 minutes away from Kyoto by train, so the Itami airport is the best bet if you want to save travel time. I will note, what’s cool about both of these aiports are that they are based on man-made islands.
Where to Stay:
There are a few neighborhoods in Japan that are certainly worth your exploration if you plan to visit the city:
- Gion – This neighborhood has been made famous as the “geisha district” and houses many traditional homes and historical sites. It was my absolutely my favorite part of the city, and gave off some Westworld Season 2 vibes ;). This is the area of the city where we stayed, and we were fortunate enough to stay within an old and beautiful geisha home.
Book your stay at the Kumo Machiya Fudocho Villa now!
- Arashiyama – This area is located on the outskirts of the city, and is a really cool place to explore. Here you can visit the bamboo forests, hang out with local monkeys, and experience many of the other tourist delights that have been set up here.
- Fushimi – Situated in southern Kyoto, this area is most famous for the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which you will likely know by the Torii gate, or the rows and rows of orange gateways. As this area is situated on a hill, you can catch awesome views of the city here.
Kyoto, like most major cities in Japan, is well-connected by both metro and bus. The great thing about transportation throughout the country is that you just need to buy one IC Card (the transportation card), and that works on all trains, metros, and buses – in EVERY city! You can purchase your card at any train station – it’s a reloadable card, so you can just fill it as you go.
When to Go:
The weather in Japan is more or less similar to what you’d experience in most of the US. This means that you get all four seasons. For the best weather, it’s advised to go in Late spring (March – May) and late autumn (September – November), to experience the changing of the seasons and avoid heavy rainfall, winter snow, or summer heat.
The official language of Japan is – you guessed it – Japanese. English is not as widely spoken here as in some other tourist-friendly countries, so it is helpful to learn a few basic phrases while visiting. Click here for a list of the phrases you should know!
At the time of writing this post, the exchange rate from USD to Japanese yen was $1 = 109.95¥. For the latest exchange rates, click here.
Have no fear about drinking any of the water here! Japan is one of the cleanest countries in the world, and that applies to the quality of the tap/drinking water as well.
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The Itinerary | Kyoto in 2 Days
Day 1 | Getting to Know Kyoto
As I’ve mentioned in nearly everyone of my posts, its best to start your journey to a new city with a city tour. I have two excellent options for you, so you can select the one that best suits your preferences:
- Kyoto 5-Hour Walking Tour – If you are interested in experiencing a tour a bit off of the beaten path, this is definitely the option you should take. This tour will take you to the following locations:
- Higashi-Honganji Temple
- A few Shinto Shrines
- Gojo-Rakuen area (former Geisha area)
- Workshop experiences for things like pastry and pottery-making
- Tea in a traditional tea house
Note, this tour does not occur in the winter months of December – February, and only occurs on Monday Wednesday, and Friday, so plan accordingly.
- Half Day Small-Group Kyoto Cultural Tour – This 3.5 hour tour takes you to several key areas around the city, and you’ll travel on foot and via train to get to the various neighborhoods. On this tour you’ll:
- Explore and learn about the Geisha district of Gion
- Visit the Zen Tokufuji temple
- See the Fushimi Inari shrine
- …and more sights in between
I took this tour while on my trip in Kyoto, and found it to be very insightful into the history and culture of the city.
After your morning tour and (hopefully lunch), head to the Golden Temple or the Kinkaku-ji Temple, as it is officially known. This temple dates back to the 14th century, when it served as a villa for the Saionji family. It was purchased by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397 and transformed into a temple after his death. As the name shows, it is a BEAUTIFUL building, and one of the city’s world heritage sites.
To get there, you must travel by bus to the Kinkaku-ji stop. Note, if traveling from Kyoto Station, you can reach the area on bus #205 (but NOT the rapid bus). All #101 buses make this top as well.
Nishiki Market – This is a shopping district most famously known for the fresh food sold there. There are a few sit down restaurants where you can try out many different types of food. In addition to food, you’ll find various shops selling clothing and souvenirs too. Note, this is not a late night market, and is open from 9AM to about 6PM. Additionally, the market is mostly closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.
After you are done shopping head to Musoshin for some excellent Ramen. This place is set up like a food bar, and you place your order by machine when you come in. The fried chicken is AMAZING here!
Day 2 | Become a Samurai & Hang with Monkeys
One thing that you must do in Kyoto, if you do nothing else, is an go to an authentic Samurai Experience. In this experience, you’ll learn how to use a REAL Samurai Katana (sword), using the proper grip, posture, and form. You’ll also learn how to use the sword by practicing on a wet bamboo map. After your lesson, take in some tea and then practice Zen meditation, just as the samurai’s did to calm their minds during battle.
To get there, you’ll have to visit the Hankyu Railway Omiya (大宮) Station. The tour guide will meet you at exit #1 to walk you to the entrance of the Samurai house (> 5 minute walk).
After you officially become a samurai :), head over to the Arashiyama area of the city. As mentioned above, this area of the city is located on the outskirts, west of the city. It is worth a visit due to the number of attractions you’ll find here. The most famous attractions of the area is the Bamboo Forest – it’s truly beautiful and kinda otherworldly to explore.
Another famous attraction is the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where you can spend time hanging with the local monkeys. There are several temples and shrines in the area, as well as delicious eating spots.
If you did visit the Samurai experience first, getting to Arashiyama is easy! Right by the Omiya Metro Station, you’ll see the Shijo-Omiya Tram Station (the first stop on the line going to Arashiyama). You’ll ride for 13 stops and land right in the middle of all the things happening at Arashiyama.
Spend your final evening by experiencing some Japanese Wagyu – which is the most delicious steak that you will ever try! I recommend eating at Ryu-An, it was sooo good! It’s a bit different than your regular steak, as it is cut very thin, and served very similar to Korean barbecue.
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Kyoto 2 Day Itinerary Map
To easily navigate the city and get bearings on your surroundings, here is a city map of Kyoto, with each of the location mentioned above called out:
- Higashi-Honganji Temple
- Zen Tokufuji Temple
- Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Kinkaku-ji Temple
- Nishiki Market
- Samurai Experience (Meeting Point)
How Many Days in Kyoto is Enough?
I spent two days in Kyoto, not realizing that it would be my favorite city in Japan, and really wish I spent at least another day or two here. With an additional day you can add to your agenda, or just slow down your travels a bit to soak in the city more. But I will say that with two days, you do get a really nice taste of what the city has to offer, and hey, it’s better than just one day, right?
Additional Ideas if You Have More Time
If you do have additional time in the city (lucky you!) here are a few additional activities you could check out:
- Learn to Make Ramen From Scratch – This dish is pretty much as common as sushi and is a Japanese staple! Get the skills you need to impress your friends when you return home.
- Maiko & Traditional Performance – If seeing Geishas perform has been on your list for a while, you can actually get a chance to do it! (This is a big deal as these shows were typically saved just for elite business men).
- Tea Ceremony Experience – Learn the wonders of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony as well as different methods of making tea.
Final Tips | Kyoto Itinerary 2 Days
In summary, I’d like to close with a few final tips for visiting Kyoto / Japan:
- Learn some basic Japanese words, especially Thank You (Arigato), which is said ALL the time.
- Be polite. The Japanese people are some of the most polite that I have ever met, so you should do your best to be the same. Making a slight bow when greeting or saying goodbye to someone is always appropriate.
- Try all the foods. Japanese street food, restaurants, deserts, even McDonalds – it’s all good!
- Get an IC Card. Buy one of these things as soon as you arrive to Japan. It is the most valuable thing you’ll hold as you travel throughout the Kyoto and throughout Japan.
- Things close early. Kyoto is not a party city by any means. Aim to eat dinner by 9PM or you may have a hard time finding an open restaurant.
- There is no uber in Kyoto. You’ll have to hail a taxi if you are trying to avoid public transportation. If you are having trouble finding a taxi to hail, you can ust the Japan Taxi app.
Hope you found this guide helpful! If you’ve visited Kyoto before, let me know if I’ve forgotten anything in the comments below :).