The beginning of our 1-Day ‘Best of’ Kyoto, Japan Itinerary is basically just why you should not use it. In that diatribe, we promised this itinerary, a superior option that would offer fewer of the greatest hits, but better balance between popular and hidden-gem temples.
We’re dubbing this alternative touring plan the Brickers’ 1-Day Perfect Kyoto, Japan Itinerary because that’s exactly what it is–how we (Sarah and Tom Bricker, for those who are new to the site) would spend a single day in Kyoto if that’s all we had. It’s not theoretical, either–we’ve done this itinerary or variants of it countless times.
Going in, we want to warn you that even if you do 100% of this itinerary, you will skip several ‘consensus’ top 10 Kyoto temples and shrines. Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji, Tenryuji, and Toji Temples–just to name a few–are all skipped. In their place, several relatively unknown temples and shrines are included, and we think your experience will be all the better for this careful and deliberate curation.
We also want to warn you that you should not do 100% of this itinerary. Aim for 75%. Accomplishing everything on this Kyoto touring plan is possible in a single day, but it won’t give you much of a chance to savor each stop.
On days when we do the variants of this itinerary, we average about half the stops, but we also take a leisurely pace and make methodical stops for a surplus of photos. If it’s your only day in Kyoto, you’ll definitely want to move faster.
Fushimi Inari – We have a half-dozen posts about Fushimi Inari (see below for the main one), so at this point we’re going to forego our normal effusive praise and just say it’s our favorite place in all of Japan. This shrine is open 24/7, so the earlier you arrive, the better. To make the most of this day, we’d recommend no later than 7 a.m.
Start at the front and bypass the normal senbon torii loop to see the Secret Bamboo Forest of Fushimi Inari. After you’ve done that, re-join the normal route up to the top of Mt. Inari. This is an awesome no-crowds experience, the chance to experience Fushimi Inari as it’s waking up for the day–and get photos without other tourists in them–is something special. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Forest Animal Treasures Hike (Optional) – Once you reach the summit loop trail at the top of Fushimi Inari, you’ll have a choice to make: take the same route back down, or venture off the beaten path. Our Hiking Kyoto Trail: Fushimi Inari Shrine to Tofukuji Temple post covers everything you need to know, and the steps for taking this easy route.
Even though it’s your first time in Kyoto, and hiking through the woods on trails only marked in Japanese might sound intimidating, we’d recommend the latter option. This tranquil trail will lead you past the snake, horse, and mossy fox sub-shrines on your way to the next two stops–and this all downhill hike is more efficient than retracing your steps towards Fushimi Inari’s main entrance, anyway.
Komyoin Temple – This garden is so under the radar that it’s unattended. We mean that in the literal sense–that’s no attendant outside collecting admission fees; you deposit them into a bamboo coin drop on an honor system basis.
Don’t let the lack of popularity discourage you from visiting. Komyoin Temple features an exemplar of Japanese karesansui (dry landscape) gardens. The design utilizes many rocks to evoke Buddhist motifs, and is quite serene.
Tofukuji Temple – Less than 5 minutes from Komyoin is Tofukuji Temple, which is one of the more noteworthy places in Kyoto during the fall colors season. Tsutenkyo Bridge is one of the most beautiful foliage spots in all of Kyoto. If you’re visiting another time of year, Hojo Garden is a must-see.
From Tofukuji, Kiyomizudera Temple is a short ride on the Keihan Main Line. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Tofukuji Temple.
Kiyomizudera Temple – Even with the other stops, you should (hopefully) arrive at Kiyomizudera Temple before 11 a.m. The earlier the better, as this temple and the surrounding Higashiyama District becomes heavily congested later in the day.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site has excellent variety: an iconic main hall, pagoda, shrine, famed waterfall, great views into downtown Kyoto, and stunning seasonal cherry & maple trees. It’s all beautifully-situated on a mountainside, making for an incredibly photogenic temple. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kiyomizudera Temple.
Kodaiji Temple (Optional) –From there, stroll through the Higashiyama District and down Ninen-zaka. This lane is one of the most iconic, pedestrian-only streets in Kyoto, and it’ll lead you to Kodaiji Temple.
Kodaiji Temple’s highlights are its distinct architecture, landscape design, and intimate bamboo forest. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kodaiji Temple.
Convenience Store Lunch – Up near Kodaiji, you’ll find Slow Jet Coffee, which is a solid option for hand-drip coffee. There are also a couple of snack spots here, which make for an easy grab and go lunch.
About a block over, there are also 7-11 and Lawson convenience stores, which have surprisingly delicious prepared foods. Whatever you do for lunch, make it quick.
Maruyama Park – It’s an easy walk to Maruyama Park, where you’ll find both Yasaka Shrine and Chionin Temple. These are both good free (optional) stops on this itinerary. We like them both, but they’re not must-dos.
Mayurama Park itself is a great spot for a picnic; it features ponds, statues, and is popular among locals. The centerpiece of the park is a giant weeping cherry tree, which is the city’s show-stopper during sakura season.
Nanzenji Temple – From Maruyama Park, walk northeast. You’ll pass the Westin Miyako and Keage Incline, with the next stop being Nanzenji Temple, another exquisite temple with free public areas.
Nanzenji’s feature include a Sanmon gate, main hall, shrines, rock gardens, tea rooms, pond gardens, fusuma, and an aqueduct. That aqueduct is the main draw. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple.
Eikando Temple (Optional) – The next stop is only about 2 minutes from Nanzenji, and is also convenient to Philosopher’s Path. Despite this, Eikando Temple is frequently overlooked–we’d encourage you to make a stop here and give it a chance.
During autumn, Eikando is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful fall foliage spots. Even though admission costs more in November and December, it’s a must-do that time of year. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Eikando Temple.
Philosopher’s Path – This quaint stone walkway winds along a canal connecting Nanzenji Temple in the south to Silver Pavilion in the north with a variety of temples and shops along the way.
Path of Philosophers is beautiful year-round, but especially pretty (and crowded) during sakura season. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Philosopher’s Path.
Yoshida Hill Temples & Shrines (Optional) – About halfway up Philosopher’s Path, you’ll walk due east to reach Yoshida Hill, which is home to a trifecta of our absolute favorite temples and shrines in Kyoto: Kurodani Temple, Shinnyodo Temple, and Yoshida Shrine. All of these are free and all are hidden gems of Kyoto.
Visit Kurodani first, exiting up by side street at the pagoda to Shinnyodo, the main entrance of which is directly down the street from one of Yoshida’s entrances. This shrine is part of Yoshidayama Park, which is one of Kyoto’s best green spaces.
Afternoon Fresco Break – Leaving the Yoshida Hill area, you’ll pass by Fresco Shirakawa. Fresco is a supermarket chain, and one of our favorites in Japan.
We’re suckers for the sushi here, but they have all sorts of good and inexpensive prepared items. Grab enough to tide you over until dinner, and some caffeine to power through the rest of this itinerary.
Honenin Temple (Optional) – Continuing west, you’ll pick up the Path of Philosophers once again. Pretty much right away, you’ll see signs for Honenin Temple.
Honenin Temple is a “hidden” gem of Kyoto that’s overlooked by the masses. It features two beautiful sand mounds, bridges, mossy gate, and more. The quiet setting imparts a sense of serenity that few other temples in Kyoto can match. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Honenin Temple.
Silver Pavilion – At the northern end of Path of Philosophers, you’ll reach one of Kyoto’s most famous attractions: Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple). It features numerous temple buildings, a meticulously-manicured dry sand garden, and moss garden spread across forested grounds.
We love doing sunset here and if you wait around long enough, that’s what you’ll experience. The loop around the garden provides great views into the city, the fading light makes the sand gardens glow, and crowds generally clear out just before closing. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Silver Pavilion.
Enkoji Temple (Optional) – Call this one a “stretch goal.” We love Enkoji Temple and consider it a hidden gem, but it’s a 30 minute walk north of the Silver Pavilion, and admission ends at 4:30 p.m. That means you’d need to finish at Silver Pavilion by 4 p.m., at the latest.
The upside, if you need one, is that the overlook at Enkoji is arguably the best spot in the city for sunset, and once you’re inside the temple, you’ll have ample time (~45 minutes) to explore the grounds before staff will close up shop and send you towards the exit. The other upside is that it’s surprisingly easy to take the train from Enkoji back to Gion. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Enkoji Temple.
Wander Gion & Higashiyama at Night – Take the train to Gion-Shijo Station, and start your evening exploration. Known as the geisha district, Gion has so much more to offer than just that. Have a nice meal, wander the quaint streets, or do some shopping. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Gion.
From there, continue south into the familiar territory of the Higashiyama District. You were here earlier in the day, albeit with heavy crowds. Stop for photos along Kiyomizu-zaka, Sannen-zaka, and Ninen-zaka, and make sure to capture the view of Yasaka Pagoda from the narrow lane. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Higashiyama District.
That wraps up what should be one long and exhausting day in Kyoto, but if you still have the energy, the party doesn’t have to end here. Not because Kyoto has great nightlife or anything, but because there are a few cool places open late. You’ve already visited Fushimi Inari, but that shrine is even better at night. Museums have late openings on select nights. Kyoto Station always has something to do. The possibilities are not endless, but there are a lot of them–might as well get as much bang for your buck as possible! In any case, hopefully we’ve armed you with some tips and strategy necessary for you to have a perfect day in Kyoto, Japan.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit.
If you’ve been to Kyoto, do you have any feedback on our “perfect” 1-day itinerary? Are we skipping any must-dos? Focusing too much on Eastern Kyoto? Getting too ambitious with the schedule or not ambitious enough? If you’re a first-timer to Japan, do you need further clarification about any of this? We know it’s a lot to digest, so if you have additional questions, we’ll do our best to answer! Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!