Our honeymoon started out with five wonderful days in Tokyo, but planning our time in Kyoto was one of the more confusing parts of the itinerary. I had difficulty deciding which temples we should visit and the most organized path for hitting the various disconnected areas of Kyoto in only two days. Based on my research and experience in Kyoto, here’s the best two day Kyoto itinerary to see all of the main attractions.
Day 1: Higashiyama and Fushimi-Inari
We used our JR Pass (click here to purchase) to take an early morning train to Kyoto to start the next chapter of our honeymoon. We arrived at Kyoto Station around 10:00am. It was a quick subway ride and a little bit of a walk to the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto (check out my review here!) where we were able to leave our bags and hit the ground running.
Southern Higashiyama is Kyoto’s prime sightseeing destination with many temples, shrines, and charming streets. We started at the Buddhist temple Kiyomizu-dera. The temple was founded in 778 and the buildings we see today were originally constructed in 1633. The temple gets its name from a nearby waterfall as kiyomizu means “pure water”. We visited during the fall so the place was swarmed with tourists but this was still one of our favorite stops. The view of the fall foliage from the main temple lookout was breathtaking.
After Kiyomizu-dera, we walked down Matsubara-dori to two popular tourist streets, Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka. The area right outside of Kiyomizu-dera was incredibly crowded, but fun to walk around.
Then we walked to Maruyama-koen Park. I hate to say it but the park didn’t feel very special after our visit to Kiyomizu-dera! Our next stop was Chion-in. This temple is the headquarters of the Jodo sect of Buddhism. The temple is free to enter but there is a fee for the gardens.
We continued our walk north to Nazenji, the head temple of one of the schools within the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. It is free to enter the temple grounds but there are fees to enter different buildings. The main attraction is the large brick aqueduct that was built during the Meiji Period.
Our next stop was Eikando, a temple of the Jodo sect of Buddhism. Eikando is famous for its fall colors and it did not disappoint. The main buildings of Eikando are connected by a wooden walkway so it’s easy to get around.
Eikando is near the southern end of the Philosopher’s Path which we walked up to get to our last stop in Higashiyama, Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion). This Zen temple had the most peaceful gardens. It was built in 1482 as a retirement villa for the shogun, Ashkiaga Yoshimasa. It was modeled after Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion which was his grandfather’s retirement villa. While Kikaku-ji is gold, Ginkaku-ji is not actually silver. The villa was converted to a temple in 1480 after Yoshimasa’s death. A highlight Ginkaku-ji is the walking path through the moss garden.
At this point we had walked three or four miles, so we hopped in a cab to get to our last stop, Fushimi Inari Shrine. This free shrine is famous for the thousands of orange Torii gates leading up Mount Inari. I’ve seen this countless times on Instagram but I couldn’t believe how big this place was! If you’re feeling up for it, you can hike all the way up the mountain. After walking around the Torii gates, we headed to Inari Station and used our JR Pass to get back to downtown Kyoto.
We freshened up after our long day and had a leisurely meal at a Spanish restaurant called Antonio. After almost a week in Japan, we needed something a little different!
Day 2: Northwest Kyoto and Arashiyama
Day 2 was another early morning as we headed for Northwest Kyoto and Arashiyama.
We spent the first part of our morning exploring a Zen temple called Ryoan-ji. This temple is most famous for its rock garden so we made a beeline for it before it got crowded. We spent the rest of the time meandering around the lake.
We then walked about a mile to Kikaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). I chose to start at Ryoan-ji since it opens at 8:00am and Kikaku-ji opens at 9:00am. I figured it would be nice to be one of the first ones at Ryoan-ji. The Golden Pavilion was a retirement villa for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and was converted to a temple after his death in 1408.
We grabbed some dango outside of the Golden Pavilion before catching a cab to our next stop.
Another cab ride later and we were at the entrance to the Arashiyama Monkey Park. I was on the fence about doing this since it seemed so touristy but it was a highlight of the day! The monkeys are at the top of a hill about 10-15 minutes from the ticket booth. The monkeys are free to roam around. If you want to feed them, you can go inside the structure and feed them through the caged walls. It’s like the opposite of a zoo where the humans are the ones inside a cage!
After the monkeys, we walked across the Togetsukyo Bridge to the main street of Arashiyama. I couldn’t help myself and had to stop for a treat at Miffy Sakura Bakery.
We walked about five more minutes to Tenryu-ji Temple. It costs 500 yen to access the complex, but it’s an additional 300 yen to enter the temple buildings. We chose to stick to the gardens which were peaceful despite the crowds.
We exited the temple on the opposite side and found ourselves in the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The bamboo is impressive but it’s nearly impossible to get a good picture here due to the crowds.
We walked through the bamboo forest and arrived at Okochi Sanso Villa. For a small entrance fee, you can tour the grounds of the villa of the late actor Okochi Denjiro. The gardens and views are stunning and admission includes a cup of matcha at the tea house.
Next, we walked about 15 minutes to the JR Arashiyama Sagano Station and took the train back downtown.
We made it to Nishiki Market by late afternoon and took our time exploring the exotic offerings.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try tako-tamago, which I believe is candied octopus with a quail egg stuffed in its head. Yum!
We then strolled over to Pontocho, a narrow alley packed with restaurants one block west of the Kamogawa River. We weren’t ready for dinner yet so we kept walking across the river to Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district.
We walked around Gion checking out the traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. We walked down the popular Hanami-koji Street and also checked out the Yasaka Shrine, which was cool to see at night. One of the fun parts of walking around Gion is trying to spot a geisha slipping to her next appointment and we’re pretty sure we saw one!
I know it’s bad to we kept avoiding Japanese food, but we ended our night with a delicious meal at Pizzeria Da Naghino.
Optional Day 3: Day Trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima
If you can stay in Kyoto an additional night, you might decide to take a day trip to Hiroshima and the nearby island of Miyajima.
After we got back from Hiroshima, we headed back over to Gion for one last dinner at Teppanyaki Manryu.
Kyoto was so different from Tokyo and gave us a whole other perspective on Japan. With over 1,600 temples, you could spend weeks in Kyoto and not see it all. While two days is enough time to hit the main attractions and get a feel for the city, I felt somewhat rushed. I would love to go back to Kyoto and enjoy some of the other temples at a more leisurely pace.