Our 1-day Northern Kyoto Itinerary features temples, an imperial villa, hiking, an onsen in the mountains, a scenic railway journey, and more. This touring plan offers strategy for efficiently having a jam-packed day, and a step by step plan of attack for Northern Kyoto that will be almost entirely crowd-free.
I was going to title this my Cool Kyoto Itinerary (or “Koolyoto”) because it goes to some places that I think are among the coolest in Kyoto, and also tend to be the coolest in terms of temperatures. I was advised that I was laying it on a bit thick with the dad humor, but I stand by that name as being very clever. I guess Northern Kyoto is just as apt, more descriptive, but far less…cool…of a name.
In any case, this is the fourth day of our multi-day Kyoto touring plan. See our Western, Central, and Eastern Kyoto Itineraries for the first three days. This is Day 4 (Option A), with a few itineraries coming that will include Southern Kyoto, Nara, Ohara, etc. Those plans will be alternatives to this one or additional days, depending upon how much time you have in and around Kyoto. (You could treat the itinerary in our Himeji, Japan City Guide as another alternative.)
If you refer back to the “Things to Do” section of our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan you’ll notice that only one of the things on this itinerary is on that list. In fairness, it is the #2 spot overall. A couple of other locations would be in the top 30, and one thing that shouldn’t be overlooked here is that you’re almost guaranteed a low-crowds experience. It’s also worth noting that the whole experience of this itinerary is more than the sum of its parts.
Specifically, one highlight of this touring plan that is not listed as a line-item is the transportation. For this itinerary, you’ll almost exclusively be using the Eizan Railway, which departs from Demachiyanagi Station and covers this region of Northern Kyoto with various lines.
No matter the season, Eizan Railway is a gorgeous ride. Both in terms of pricing and seating (we recommend the Panoramic Train “KIRARA”), Eizan is as much an attraction as it is a form of transportation. One-way journeys on the train are not cheap, and you might consider taking the bus from Demachiyanagi Station instead of Eizan Railway. This is a mistake.
Instead, purchase the Eizan Railway 1-Day Unlimited Pass. It costs ¥1000, which might seem steep, but we think it’s very much worth the money. Passing through the famous Momiji Tunnel, a stretch of nearly 300 maple trees, is breathtaking. Other mountainous stretches are likewise pretty, and Eizan Railway provides a relaxing journey in comfortable trains. (After the strenuous hike from Kurama to Kibune, you’re pretty much assured you’ll fall asleep on the train back to Central Kyoto–I’ve taken a nap or two on this train in my day!)
With that said, let’s get to the stops on our “Cool Kyoto” Itinerary. Since we don’t yet have full posts for several of these stops, we’ll include a bit of our rationale as to why you should visit all of these stops. For the few about which we do have full posts, click the link following each temple or other point of interest to read and see more about it in a new tab…
Shugakuin Imperial Villa – This is one of Kyoto’s imperial properties that is only accessible via guided tours that require advance reservations. That’s the bad news. The good news is that these tours are free and headsets are provided with English audio guides. The other good news is that this is the least-popular of Kyoto’s imperial properties, and you can usually book the 9 a.m. tour time as little as a week in advance (go here to check availability and book the tour).
The 9 a.m. tour time is the one you’ll want for the purposes of this itinerary. It’ll last a little over an hour, and cover the Upper, Middle and Lower Villas, which feature a range of architectural and gardening styles while taking you up the foothills of Mount Hiei. If you can’t score the 9 a.m. tour or this doesn’t interest you, start this itinerary with Enkoji Temple (still followed by Sekizan Zen-in Temple.)
Sekizan Zen-in Temple – Located a short walk from Shugakuin Imperial Villa, this is a really lovely temple hidden in the woods. It has a lot of character thanks to little statues and quiet subtemples scattered around, which makes it enjoyable to wander. It’s also quite photogenic, especially in the fall when ablaze in fall colors or when the trees start to blossom in the spring.
From Sekizan Zen-in Temple, it’s about a 20-minute walk south to Enkoji Temple. (Alternatively, if you start at Enkoji, it’s a 20 minute walk north to Sekizan Temple–still followed by an Eizan Main Line commute to Iwakura Station.)
Enkoji Temple – This is one of the most underrated temples in all of Kyoto, and I’d probably rank Enkoji among the top 25 things to do in the city. Its range is impressive, dotted with cherry blossoms in the spring, vibrant greens in the summer, fiery red leaves in autumn, and a snow-covered landscape in winter. Then there are the characteristics of the temple itself, which include numerous buildings, serene gardens, a small bamboo forest, beautiful fusuma art, and a scenic overlook of Northern Kyoto.
There are a handful of other highly-regarded temples around Enkoji (including Manshuin and Shisendo), but I think they’re all overrated. After Enkoji Temple, you’ll want to walk to the station and catch Eizan Main Line to Iwakura Station.
Former Retreat of Iwakura Tomomi – The first stop once arriving at Iwakura Station is the Former Residence of Iwakura Tomomi, which was once the home of a politician who was influential during the Meiji Restoration. The home is Designated as a Place of Historic Value and is both culturally-significant and charming.
We had an exceptional visit to the Former Retreat of Iwakura Tomomi thanks to the staff working at this villa. Once we were done looking around the villa, they invited us inside a heated room for tea and coffee. From what I could surmise, this is fairly standard, but I’m not totally sure. Even without this added touch, we’d recommend making a quick stop at the Former Retreat of Iwakura Tomomi.
Jisso-in Temple – I really struggle with whether to recommend Jissoin Temple in the first place. The temple is most famous for its lacquered black floor, which reflects the colors of the changing seasons in its garden outside. You can see photos on the official Jissoin Temple website, and it looks even prettier in person. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside and this rule is strictly enforced via a surplus of security cameras.
In addition to being intrusive to the visitor experience, the security cameras and the necessary cables to power them and transmit their footage are an eyesore. Maintenance at Jissoin is not the best, and the clumsy installation of security cameras just confounds the sloppy appearance of the temple. On the other hand, the temple’s second garden (the Heart Garden) is quite pretty and is a superb example of borrowed scenery.
Even if you don’t visit Jissoin Temple, it’s worth wandering back to this area, as there are a couple of other (free) small shrines and temples, and a hidden waterfall. None of these are mentioned in guidebooks, but clear signage will direct you to them. We would highly recommend heading back to Iwakura Station before 1 p.m. as you’ll want as much daylight time in Kurama and Kibune as possible.
Kuramadera Temple – This entire itinerary is written around Kuramadera Temple, our second-favorite spot in Kyoto. After falling in love with this mountain temple last winter, I was determined to return and find a way to craft a full-day itinerary around it. Quite simply, Kuramadera is one of my favorite places anywhere in Japan, and would be deserving of a day-trip even without everything else. With several temple buildings spread from the base of the mountain to its summit, you could easily spend a couple hours exploring Kuramadera Temple.
In that sense, Kurama-dera is a place of discovery. During the long hike from the train station below to the main buildings perched atop Mount Kurama, you’ll encounter plenty of shrines, statues, waterfalls, and other stunning natural beauty. All of this encourages you to venture further, with a new “reward” around almost every turn of the hike. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kurama-dera Temple.
Hike to Kibune – Once you get to the main plaza of Kuramadera, you’ll see a courtyard with the Honden (Main Hall) in its center. Behind this to the left is a small trail that winds through the woods on an up and downhill (mostly down) trail that leads to Kibune. This is all clearly pictured on the map provided at the entrance to Kuramadera Temple (which is also scanned into our post about the temple), with this path containing stops 30-41.
This hike is excellent. The subtemples and manmade details are thoughtfully integrated with their natural surroundings, and keep the first stretch of the hike engaging. The second stretch is lined with towering Japanese cedar trees that are simply awe-inspiring. All told, this hike will take around 30 minutes and is fairly easy since it’s mostly downhill.
The problem once you’re done in Kibune is that you will need to retrace your steps and do the moderately strenuous uphill hike (be sure to save your Kuramadera entrance ticket so you can re-enter) to return to Kurama Onsen. If you’re physically fit, this is what we recommend doing as it’s a gorgeous hike that’s worth repeating, but you can also walk 2km down the road to Kibuneguchi Station and catch the Eizan Railway either back to Kurama Station or Demachiyanagi Station in Kyoto.
Kifune Shrine – The approach to Kifune Shrine is iconic: a long flight of stone steps with a seemingly-endless line of red lanterns. Seeing this is really impressive, and you’ll likely spend a good amount of time taking photos here. (I certainly did.) Once you get past that, Kifune Shrine is okay, but not particularly noteworthy.
What really impresses here is the scenery around the shrine, and that environment is just as impressive outside the shrine, too. The point here is that you shouldn’t fixate too heavily on the shrine at the expense of the riverside village itself. Kibune is a gem, and it’s worth just wandering up and down its main thoroughfare, marveling at the waterfront ryokan and restaurants (and stopping for some food!) before you make the return hike to Kuramadera Temple.
Kurama Onsen – Okay, so I have not done this one personally and have zero interest in doing it. The first time we visited Kurama, Sarah went to the onsen while I went hiking and I met her at the onsen afterward for lunch. By this point, I had already discovered that onsens are “not for me” but Sarah raved about the beautiful mountain scenery around the onsen and called this the best onsen she’s been to in Japan. (She recommends paying more for the indoor/outdoor option that includes the towels and yukata.)
If you’ve never done at onsen, it’s an experience that you should try at least once (as you might be able to tell from our reactions, they’re very polarizing) and there’s no better time to relax in the hot spring waters of an onsen than after a strenuous hike. Kurama Onsen is open until 9 p.m., making it a great spot to decompress during sunset and dusk after a long day on the mountain.
Ultimately, this is an itinerary that should be simultaneously taxing and relaxing. Parts of it are physically-demanding, but you’re rewarded with low crowds at almost every single spot, and some locations that are among the most tranquil and soothing in all of Kyoto. This is really underscored by the Kurama locations, which will have you climb to the top of a mountain temple, followed by a visit to an onsen to unwind.
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!
Have you visited any of these spots in Northern Kyoto? What did you think of them? Any that you’d recommend skipping? Anything else you’d recommend doing? Any other places you’re considering visiting on your fourth day in Kyoto? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? 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!