Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world” ~ Gustave Flaubert.
Why spend 4 days in Kyoto?
Many people visit Kyoto and skim over a handful of sights in around 48 hours, but in 4 days we can cover so much more (including Kyoto’s hidden gems) and not feel rushed. This is the perfect amount of time to visit many attractions in this intriguing city in a relaxed and enjoyable way. Here’s why!
With its lush bamboo groves, beautiful Buddhist temples, stunning geishas and remarkable history, spending 4 days in Kyoto should be at the top of your itinerary for a visit to Japan. Whether you’re staying for the first time or you’re a regular visitor there are over 1600 temples in this old capital city (amongst many other attractions) so you’ll never be lost for things to see and do!
I was completely blown away by Kyoto’s magnificent history and how beautifully many attractions have been preserved. From 794 through 1868, the Emperor lived in Heian-kyō (Kyoto today) so this was considered Japan’s capital city. It’s very humbling to realise during your visit that so much has happened here before you and will continue to happen long after you leave.
How should I best spend 4 days in Kyoto on a mid range budget?
For any trip, staying in a centrally located hotel is of utmost importance if you want to maximise your travel experience. In Kyoto it means you’ll spend less time getting around and more time exploring UNESCO World Heritage sites, wandering the tranquil bamboo groves and enjoying the culinary delights that make Kyoto world-famous. The hotel I’ve recommended below is for travellers with a mid range budget, in the heart of the city centre (Gion) and only a few moments walk to train stations.
Also, make use of Shinkansen – Japanese Bullet Trains. They are the most efficient way to get to and from Kyoto. I’ll discuss these in more detail at the conclusion of this Kyoto itinerary.
This dedicated Kyoto guide is part of my full 2 Weeks in Japan Itinerary. My most popular post to date and tailored especially for mid range travellers visiting for the first time, you can view this complete itinerary right here.
Go feed your cat, grab yourself a beverage and get ready! 🍵
Here are the highlights of Kyoto I’ll be explaining in further detail below:
Where to stay in Kyoto?
Kyoto Hana Hotel, Gion 京都 花ホテル [公式]
Kyoto Hana Hotel couldn’t be in a better location: It’s 5mins walk to the traditional geisha district of Gion ぎおん and numerous restaurants and shops. About 200m walk from Sanjo Keihan Metro 三条京阪駅 Station and 2mins walk to JR Sanjo 三条駅 Station which makes getting around Kyoto very easy. A convenience store is right next door.
My travel buddy and I stayed on the 5th floor and the room was much bigger than we expected, being towards the back of the hotel made it very quiet. The only complaint I would have about the room was there weren’t many power points and the fridge was a bit noisy but that is being picky. Staff spoke English, were friendly and helpful so I would definitely recommend!
Where to eat in Kyoto?
Manzara-Tei on Pontocho 先斗町 was brilliant. Sit at the bar in front of the kitchen and watch the Japanese chefs work their magic ✨ Also, any restaurant in Gion alleyways (Geisha district) will be a great culinary experience.
What to do for 4 days in Kyoto?
DAY 1: Getting There & Downtown Kyoto
Getting to Kyoto from Tokyo:
The journey is 2h20 from Tokyo Shinagawa 品川駅 Station on Nozomi のぞみ shinkansen. But, what’s a Nozomi versus other train types? Should you bother with the JR Pass? Don’t worry, I’ve explained it all here in my full 2 Weeks in Japan Itinerary!
Cost: Adult Nozomi ticket JPY 13,910 ea
You can find the Japan Rail (JR) shinkansen timetables used for this itinerary here: Westbound from Tokyo.
Things to do in Downtown Kyoto:
As it’s likely you’ll arrive in the afternoon from Tokyo, spend what’s left of your day exploring downtown Kyoto 京都 to get your bearings and walk along the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge 三条大橋 at dusk. This “Great Third Street” bridge spans the Kamo River and its first historical reference dates back to 1590. It is said to have been linked to an eastern highway between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. Also, be sure to wander over to the Sanjo Shopping Arcade 三条会 – there are 7 kilometres worth of shops to discover. Seriously!
DAY 2: Northern Kyoto
Things to do in Northern Kyoto:
Start your day at Arashiyama 嵐山 Bamboo Grove. This mesmerising setting is where you’ll be able to capture your postcard-worthy photos of this iconic Kyoto attraction!
Getting to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove from Gion:
30mins from Sanjo Station 三条駅 (Tozai Line), switch trains at Nijo Station 二条駅 to San-In Line. Stay on board until you reach Saga-Arashiyama 嵯峨嵐山駅 Station. From there, the Bamboo Grove is an easy 15mins walk.
From the Bamboo Groves, make your way over to Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens 祇王寺. These gardens are easily overlooked by other travellers (see why below) so it’s likely you’ll have them to yourself during your visit. The temple itself is quite small but the magnificent moss blanketing the grounds are truly stunning. You’ll feel relaxed just looking at it! Certainly worth a visit.
Cost: Adults JPY 300
Getting to Gio-ji from Arashiyama Bamboo Grove:
TIP: Gio-ji is approximately 3.2kms from Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. My travel buddy and I walked about 40mins to get there (it looked closer on the map, I swear! 😣) Perhaps hire a bicycle and ride there instead if you’re not up for walking that far. Kyoto Option bicycle rental shop is 1min walk from Kyoto train station.
Also in the Arashiyama neighbourhood, Adashino Nembutsu-ji 化野念仏寺 is a lovely little shrine that’s worth your attention. Each stone represents a person who died without a next-of-kin. These people are remembered once a year with a small ceremony. What a beautiful idea!
Cost: Adults JPY 500
Getting to Adashino Nembutsu-ji from Gio-ji:
Approx 10min walk from Gio-ji Temple & Moss Gardens.
After all that exploration and discovery in Arashiyama, finish the day at the famous Kinkaku-ji Temple 金閣寺. This Golden Pavilion is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is perhaps Kyoto’s biggest drawcard. Our taxi driver mentioned to us it’s rumoured that 20kgs of gold leaf was used to cover its façade!
Cost: Adults JPY 500
Getting there: 20mins in a taxi from Adashino Nembutsu-ji (approx. JPY 2,400).
TIP: If you love Japanese art by locals, don’t miss the gift shop. I picked up some gorgeous and unique hand-painted watercolours to commemorate my visit to Japan.
DAY 3: Central Kyoto
Things to do in Central Kyoto:
Begin your day at Maruyama Park 円山公園 and bask in the glory of it’s famous giant cherry tree, it’s 15mins walk from Kyoto Hana Hotel.
From the park make your way through Gion ぎおん neighbourhood by wandering the preserved backstreets and admire boutiques with unique Japanese gifts. Maybe you’ll even see a geisha or two! In this traditional area ensure you don’t miss Sannen-zaka & Ninnen-zaka – arguably two of Kyoto’s most attractive streets with restaurants, shops and teahouses lining the way up to Kiyomizu-Dera 清水寺 a UNESCO World Heritage site. Meaning “Pure Water Temple” this iconic site dates back to 780 AD and is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan.
Cost: Adults JPY 400
Getting to Kiyomizu-Dera from Gion:
It’s an easy 15 minute walk to Kiyomizu Dera as described above.
NOTE: Until March 2020 Kiyomizu Dera has some construction work being completed on its roof. Check here for updates.
Spend the afternoon at Fushimi Inari Shrine 伏見稲荷大社 (Thousand Torii Gate), a UNESCO World Heritage site you’re sure to recognise. TIP: Admittedly, I hadn’t done thorough research into this site as I did with other shrines throughout Japan so my travel buddy and I didn’t realise you could spend at least half a day here hiking up the mountain… Oops! However, we ended up walking around 2 hours to get a decent glimpse of this historic site. Just keep in mind it’s not something you can quickly skip though during your visit.
Getting there: From Kyomizu Dera it’s a 20min walk back to town to Kiyomizu-Gojo 清水五条駅 Station. Take the Keihan Line for 7mins until you reach Fushimi Inari Station 伏見稲荷駅 then it’s an easy 5min walk from there. If you prefer to grab a taxi that is also an option.
TIP: This shrine literally sits on the side of a mountain. Be prepared for loads of walking because the sign at the start is NOT to scale!
DAY 4: Eastern Kyoto
Things to do in Eastern Kyoto:
Start the day off at stunning Daigo-ji 醍醐寺 temple & gardens. Due to its isolated location in the southern outskirts of Kyoto, travellers often overlook this beautiful gem. You’ll find a pond with a gorgeous Japanese bridge and small temple. If you visit during Autumn you can expect the entire pond to be surrounded by hues of red and orange as the cooler weather changes the leaves 🍂 You can also explore the grounds further up the mountainside. Keep your eye out for turtles in the pond!
Cost: Adults JPY 1,500 yen (March 20 – May 15 & October 15 – December 10) JPY 800 during the rest of the year.
Getting to Daigo-ji from Gion:
Approx 35mins from Sanjo to Daigo Metro stations on Tozai Line, then an easy 15min walk from Daigo Metro to the temple.
When you’ve finished at Daigo-ji, head to Nanzen-ji 南禅寺 Gardens. Nanzen-ji dates back to the 13th century and features a massive working aqueduct. It’s regarded as one of the most important Zen temples in Japan.
Cost: Adults JPY 500
Getting to Nanzen-ji from Daigo-ji:
From Daigo-ji, walk back to Daigo 醍醐駅 Station and take the Tozai Line until you reach Keage 蹴上駅 Station (15mins). Nanzen-ji is about 8mins walk from Keage Station.
Finally, spend the afternoon strolling the beautiful Philosopher’s Path north to Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺 This ‘Silver Pavilion’ is said to be the little brother of Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and in my opinion had the more exquisite gardens and stunning views over Kyoto! After today’s massive walk you may want to take a taxi back to your hotel (around 15mins, approx. 1,500 JPY).
Cost: JPY 500
Getting To Ginkaku-ji from Nanzen-ji:
From Nanzen-ji, follow Shishigatani-dori until you reach the Philosopher’s path, 15mins walk. The length of the Philosopher’s Path from here to Ginkaku-ji is approx a 20min stroll. Along the way, stop and take a break at some of the nearby cafes or treat yourself to a green-tea ice cream from a nearby vending machine!
BONUS: One night during your stay be sure to check out “Gear”, an incredible non-verbal performance exclusive to Kyoto. The characters really come to life and tell a story through music, magic tricks, various choreography routines and colourful lighting. It’s very enjoyable!
Things to keep in mind
JR Railpass and Shinkansen (Bullet Trains):
Contrary to popular belief, you DO NOT need to buy a JR Railpass before you visit, especially if you’re travelling with a mid range budget! Find out why in my 2 Weeks In Japan itinerary.
If you prefer to catch taxis between each attraction and you’re curious about how much they cost, take a look at this cool little Taxi Fare Calculator for Kyoto here.
Concluding 4 days in Kyoto
I’m not sure why people only spend only 1 or 2 days in Kyoto when there are so many sights to explore! Take the extra time, add another day or two to your Kyoto itinerary and allow yourself to really experience this awe-inspiring city in the way it deserves. Why rush? You’ll thank yourself for it later!
As I’m sure you’ll agree, there was al LOT of walking in this itinerary, but it’s handy to know that Kyoto’s extensive public transportation options are always nearby if you wish.
Although it may look like my travel buddy and I crammed a lot into Kyoto, I can honestly say we never felt rushed. Because we were prepared it allowed us to leisurely stroll between many attractions and enjoy taking our time uncovering the wonders that make this beautiful city so unique. Travelling The Invisible Tourist way is about being efficient and making the best use of your travel time.
What about the language barrier?
If you’re worried about the language barrier, don’t be! I detail exactly why in my complete Japan itinerary here. And, if you’re adventurous and would like to know how I learnt Japanese fast for travelling, you can find out here. You’ll be saying “こんにちは” (konnichiwa) before you know it!
Until next time,
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