So, you’ve got a limited amount of time to spend in Japan, but you want to make every second count. You’ve picked your must-visit places in Tokyo, and maybe you’ve scheduled a day trip to Mount Fuji. Now, you’re wondering if you can somehow squeeze in a quick visit to Kyoto. The good news is, you can!
Boarding the Shinkansen bullet train, it’s more than possible to get to Kyoto and back within twenty-four hours. The question is, are you sure you want to do it? Most first-time travelers spend at least two or three days in Kyoto to get through all there is to see and do. Trying to jam just a few of these experiences in one day will be exhausting, and you'll miss out on a lot. However, if you've decided to march on with this plan, keep reading to find how how you can make the most of your one day in Kyoto.
Three bullet train lines run between Tokyo and Kyoto: Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama. Take note that the JR Pass doesn’t cover the Nozomi Line. Most people ride the Hikari Line because it makes the fewest stops and races at 320 km/h (199 mph). Getting from Tokyo to Kyoto takes two hours and forty minutes on the Hikari Line and four hours on the Kodama.
You can board the Hikari Line from either Tokyo or Shinagawa Stations. The first available train departs around 6:30 am and arrives in Kyoto Station at 9:14 am. The last Hikari train from Kyoto to Tokyo is 8:46 pm, while Nozomi and Kodoma run after 10:00 pm. Double-check your route before you leave as times can change depending on seasons and holidays.
It’s hard to beat Kyoto’s magnificent cherry blossoms and autumn leaves. Imagine exploring historically, culturally, and religiously significant sites surrounded by pink petals. Or walking through gardens as brisk breezes blow through trees exploding in reds, oranges, and golds. Late March to early April and early November to early December are easily the most beautiful months of the year.
They’re also the busiest times of the year. Anyone intending on going to Kyoto during these seasons ought to make bookings at least six months to one year prior. For a one day trip, you’ll want to adjust your plans accordingly. Buses tend to be crowded, and lines to sightseeing destinations can get long.
In this blogger's humble opinion, the top three shrines and temples to go here are Kinkakuji, Fushimi Inari Shrine, and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Kyoto is also one of the few cities in Japan where you can meet a geisha. You also can’t miss out on trying the regional specialties. How can you fit all of this in one day?
Unfortunately, during the cherry blossoms peak bloom and when the leaves change colors, it’ll be difficult. Since there are so many possibilities out there, we’ve prepared three suggested itineraries for getting around Kyoto in one day!
Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Pavilion)
It takes about thirty to forty minutes to get to Kinkakuji from Kyoto Station by bus. If you only want a quick photo-op, you can finish exploring here in about ten minutes. However, the garden is worth strolling through, and you can try matcha and Japanese confectionaries near the exit. Allow for an hour at most.
The bus route from Kinkakuji to Kiyomizu-Dera Temple takes about an hour, which might not sound ideal. However, the roads will take you through the lively downtown area. When you get off, you’ll walk through a shopping street where you can buy souvenirs. Give yourself about an hour and a half to shop and explore the temple.
Kaiseki Lunch in Gion Geisha District
Thankfully, the ridiculously long bus rides are over, and it only takes twenty minutes to get to Gion Geisha District. Geisha and maiko live here, and it’s an excellent place to stop for a kaiseki lunch. You’ll need to make reservations well in advance for this experience. A kaiseki meal is a parade of about ten or more dishes, and you might spend one or two hours eating.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Unlike Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Shrine’s grounds are open 24-hours. The bus ride here is twenty minutes from the Gion Geisha District. From the entrance, you can get through the main thrust of the thousands of torii gates in ten to fifteen minutes. Or, you can go for a hike up Inariyama Mountain, which takes around two hours to reach the summit.
Dinner in Pontocho
Before you get on the train back to Tokyo, you’ll want to grab dinner and perhaps a nightcap. Pontocho alley is an atmospheric nightlife area with classy cocktail bars and restaurants ranging in price and sophistication. From May to September, most of the establishments build temporary platforms you can dine on that overlook the Kamo River.
Instead of Kinkakuji, Go to Ryoanji - Ryoanji is a Zen temple with a mysterious rock garden. There are fifteen large stones scattered around the area. However, depending on your perspective, they pop in and out of sight. You can never see them all at once!
Instead of Kiyomizu-dera, Go to Kodaiji - Kodaiji is an impressive temple with multiple Japanese gardens. It's also the final resting place of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. You can see lovely lacquer work inside of the main hall and take a break at one of the teahouses.
Instead of Eating a Kaiseki Meal, Go to Nishiki Market - You can get a quick lunch in “Kyoto’s Kitchen.” The centuries-old market stretches for five blocks. Most of the shops specialize in fresh fare, but there are a few restaurants and street food stalls.
Instead of Fushimi Inari Shrine, Go to Gion Corner - Gion Corner is a small theater that showcases Japanese arts. Performances include short exhibitions of ikebana, tea ceremony, and bunraku puppetry. Maikos (apprentice geishas) put on traditional dances for the grand finale.
Instead of Pontocho, Have Dinner with a Geisha - Save your kaiseki experience for the evening. Some restaurants include entertainment by geisha and maiko to go along with your dinner. Your graceful hostess will keep the conversation lively with anecdotes, teach you games, and put on a musical performance. Note that you’ll need a well-connected third party like us to make such an arrangement.
If you’re going to see cherry blossoms in Kyoto, it’s essential to plan carefully. The sakura season starts around the end of March and lasts roughly into the first week of April. Unfortunately, because cherry trees have such a short flowering period, everyone flocks here at the same time. Fortunately, you can find them almost everywhere you go!
Those who take a day trip to Kyoto during cherry blossom season need to be extra strategic. You don’t want to risk missing your train back to Tokyo because you got caught in a traffic jam! Avoid public transportation when you can, and head to wide-open destinations like these.
The Philosopher’s Path
Hundreds of cherry blossoms line this pleasant stone path for two kilometers. Ginkakuji and Nanzenji Temples sandwich either end of the Philosopher’s Path, so you can easily add these to your itinerary. Keep an eye out for the grocery stores and bakeries so that you can pick up a picnic lunch.
After passing through Nanzenji Temple, head towards the Suirokaku Water Bridge. The road takes you down a slope with cherry blossoms growing on either side of old railway tracks. The Keage Incline was once a trolley route for transporting boats between Lake Biwa and other waterways. Now, it’s one of the most scenic places in the city.
If you remembered to pick up a picnic, this is where you can finally break for lunch. While foreigners dash between every tree snapping pictures, Japanese people like to take it slow when they see cherry blossoms. The 86,000-meter park becomes hanami central with street food, beer, and sake vendors. If you can, try to grab a table or find a soft spot on the ground.
You can find cherry blossoms everywhere in Kyoto, including downtown. Continue from Maruyama Park to Heian Shrine, and you’ll find yourself smack dab in the Gion district. Around 4:00 pm, you might get lucky and spot a geisha or maiko on her way to work. Remember, it’s forbidden to take their pictures, and the neighborhood cracks down on anyone who violates this.
Kyoto gets crowded when the leaves change colors, but it's a little less overwhelming compared to the cherry blossoms. The autumn leaves last from early November to early December, so the influx of people staggers a little. Still, you’ll want to stick to walking between sightseeing destinations that are easy to maneuver so that you can stay on schedule.
Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion)
The sister temple to Kinkakuji has maples throughout its grounds. If you follow the walking path up the hill, you’ll get a spectacular view of the city below. Ginkakuji is a much-loved destination, and you’ll want to go early to beat the worst of the crowds.
The Philosopher’s Path
The stroll through here is lovely in any season. During autumn, the cherry blossoms seem to have a second life as they turn magnificent hues of orange-red. Along the way, there are several cafes and restaurants where you can stop for lunch.
Eikando Temple is gorgeous by day and night. Depending on your schedule, you might want to save this as your last sightseeing destination. After sunset, the temple grounds stay open late and illuminate the maple leaves.
Nanzenji is a complex of several sub-temples. The main gate leads you to an expansive field surrounded by maples. The interior buildings feature gardens and painted sliding doors. When you leave Nanzenji, you’ll be within walking distance of the museums, Kyoto Zoo, and Shoren-in Garden.