If you’re coming to Japan for the first time, I can almost guarantee you’ve put Kyoto somewhere on your itinerary. First off, great idea! Japan’s ancient capital is full of interesting things to do and beautiful places to see, so you certainly won’t be left scratching your head.
In fact, your experience is probably going to be the complete opposite! So that begs the question, “How long should you spend in Kyoto?”
We spent a total of 2 days in Kyoto, and I’ll tell you right now that it wasn’t anywhere near long enough for us. I’ll wait until later in the article to talk to you about this more, but if you can’t be bothered to read it, just know that from my perspective, 2 days isn’t long enough to truly understand what this city offers. Granted, we were only working with about 2 hours of sleep the first night because of our… Interesting night bus from Tokyo. Anyway, that’s a story for another time!
6 Things to Do in Kyoto on Your First Trip
Before we talk about how long you should spend in Kyoto, let’s talk about some of the things could do with your time here. I’ll probably make an entire article on this subject in a while, but for now, I’ll tell you some of my favourite things to do in Kyoto if it’s your first trip to the ancient city. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but these are great options you should consider to fill your time with.
1. Explore and Get Lost
You’ll find this suggestion in practically every one of these kinds of articles on this website. There’s nothing more exciting than stumbling across something unexpected on your trip to Japan. And in big cities like Kyoto, that’s never too far away!
The video above is one I shot on the first day we got to Kyoto after arriving at about 6 o’clock. The roads were still relatively quiet, hardly anyone was out and about, and the sun had only just begun its ascent into the sky. So I picked a direction from Kyoto station which happened to be a pretty direct journey to the Kamo river and documented along the way. We passed temples, tiny streets, and beautiful gardens (though the one I wanted to go to was shut!).
2. Visit Higashiyama District
A lot of you have probably seen the Hokan-ji Pagoda in travel books and on the internet but have not realized where it is until now. Higashiyama district is a fantastic place to come if you’re looking for a bit of that old Japan vibe. You’ll be walking uphill (on the way to our next attraction on the list), and will have a huge amount of shops to dip in and out of if you need a break.
I would highly suggest visiting either early in the morning or just before the sun goes down (golden hour) to catch the most beautiful hues of gold, red, and yellow falling upon the street. When visiting Hokan-ji Pagoda and the streets of Higashiyama, I’d advise you to make the decision of getting up early to avoid the crowds (potentially earlier than the shops open), or going later in the day but having more people around.
Quick Tip: I normally don’t recommend visiting international food and drink chains when you come to Japan, but if you get the chance to visit the Starbucks in Higashiyama I highly recommend it. It’s by far the coolest one I’ve been to since living in Japan with tatami flooring, incredible interior design, and only the smallest hint of branding throughout. You’d barely know you’re in a Starbucks, it’s fantastic!
It’s worth noting we’ve been in Japan since before the borders opened and we’re living relatively close to Tokyo. Kyoto, and specifically Higashiyama, have been the busiest areas we’ve visited by far. I’ve always known they were busy areas, but just be prepared that they’ll probably look like the picture I took above when you go as well. That’s especially true if you’re going during Autumn or Spring when domestic and International travel is usually at its highest.
3. Visit Kiyomizu-dera
At the very top of Higashiyama District is the kiyomizu-dera temple. You don’t have to pay anything to get into the first bit of the temple, but to get to the back where the really famous photos are taken, you’ll have to hand over a few hundred yen. We didn’t, hence the fairly bog-standard photo above!
Even still, you get some wonderful views over the city and if you come up at golden hour, it’s pretty magical. It’s a stunning temple and in my opinion, it’s well worth a visit because you can pair it with Higashiyama street. I mean if you’re there already, why not!?
During our second day in Kyoto after visiting Kiyomizu-dera temple, we took a gentle walk back to the station and stumbled across another few temples. The key here is to walk in the general direction you need to go in but really take your time. If you see a different street to the one you took trying to get here, take it! If you see something interesting, follow it! Japan’s public transport infrastructure is so good that you’ll rarely be further than 15 minutes from any station unless you’ve really wandered into the bamboo wilderness! It turns out that the first place we stumbled across was called Yasaka Koshin-do, a fascinating little temple that’s sadly more popular for Instagram photos than it is for its history.
The second temple was much larger, though sadly I was living so much in the moment that I can’t remember what it was called. Luckily, we seemed to have arrived on the one day a week they set up an outdoor market, so that was really fun to see!
4. Yodobashi Camera
Ok, I’m probably only indulging a very select group of people with this next one, but about 5 minute’s walk from Kyoto station is Yodobashi camera. I’ve been to the one in Akihabara which is almost always horrendously busy, and this one honestly felt a lot calmer which gave me a lot longer to look around the floors at my own leisure. To be fair, I think the Akihabara Yodobashi camera is technically bigger, but because of the lack of people in this one, it was a far nicer experience.
If your trip to Japan doesn’t involve going to Tokyo, I definitely recommend going to this store even if you don’t love tech. With about 7 floors jam-packed with electronics, I promise you won’t regret it!
5. Sit in a Riverside Cafe
The only day we had to visit the Kamo river and its cafe-lined banks was the first day we got there. Ideally, I would’ve liked to have visited a few more, but just visiting one was enough for me to take an hour or so and chill out while watching the world go by. With epic views like this, you can’t really go wrong with any of them, just make sure you go to one!
Ours was a vegan cafe called Veg Out where we both had a matcha latte and tempeh BLT. Seriously tasty, so If you’re looking for a recommendation, this is mine!
6. Explore Kyoto Station
As far as Japanese train station architecture goes, this is one of my favourites. High ceilings which let the light fall in all the right places while giving it an open and airy feel work incredibly well in what are normally purely utilitarian buildings. In case you were unaware, the majority of city train stations in Japan are actually shopping centres as well. Great if you got a few hours to kill, but not so great if you’re trying to find a specific train and you’ve never been there before!
How Long Should You Spend in Kyoto?
Ok, let’s get down to why you’re here and answer the question “How long should you spend in Kyoto?”. Bare in mind that my answer does to quite a high degree depend on what it is you want to explore in the city. While I think everyone should spend a longer rather than a short time in the city, time restraints and budgets do of course come into play.
Are 2 days in Kyoto enough?
If you’re travelling from Osaka to Kyoto mid-morning and getting the train back around dinner time, 2 days in Kyoto is not enough for you to truly appreciate what it has to offer. To really get your teeth into the bones of what Kyoto is all about, it’s just too short. If you’re staying in Kyoto and can fully commit to two days, then it might be, depending on what you want to do and see.
That said, if you only want to see the main city, then two full days is probably enough for you. If you want to take a deep dive and explore the ancient cities’ beating heart and soul, 3-5 days is going to be ideal. If your itinerary includes seeing Kyoto’s main area, Arashiyama bamboo forest, Fushimi inari Taisha, Higashiyama District, Gion, and the Iwatayama monkeys, then you’re going to need closer to 5 days.
I would suggest staying in Kyoto if you can, which should let you see a lot more while wasting less time travelling. Of course, I love train journeys more than just about anyone, but if you’re pushed for time then staying directly in Kyoto is your best bet.
If you’ve booked your trip and only scheduled a single day here, don’t worry! I’d highly recommend Higashiyama or Arashiyama which can both take an entire day. Sure, they’ll be busier because they’re so well known, but you’ll definitely have a great time there and you’ll come home with fantastic memories even though you haven’t seen too much. Plus, what a great excuse to come and visit again 😉