Our 1-day Western Kyoto Itinerary features a range of temples, gardens, and other stops in Arashiyama and Sagano, along with one of the best places to see monkeys in Japan (because we’ve got our priorities straight). In this touring plan, we’ll provide strategy for efficiently seeing everything from UNESCO World Heritage Sites to under-the-radar gems, and give you a step by step plan of attack for Western Kyoto that is entirely walkable.
While we tend to spend far more of our time on the Higashiyama side of Kyoto, and would suggest visitors to the city do the same, Arashiyama and the rest of Western Kyoto are absolutely worthy of a full day of your time if you have 3 days or more in Kyoto. (If you have two or fewer days, consult our 2-Day Kyoto Highlights Itinerary instead.)
Together with our upcoming Eastern and Central Kyoto Itineraries, this plan forms the basis of a three-plus day visit to the city (with subsequent itineraries coming for the outskirts and hidden gems). While this itinerary only takes you to one location on our Top 10 Things to Do in Kyoto it does include a few top 20 picks, plus numerous other points of interest. With this itinerary in particular, you’ll see a lot that most tourists overlook, including a few stops that aren’t recommended by Japan guidebooks.
Note that this itinerary does not include a couple of places you might want to visit: Kokedera Temple and Katsura Imperial Palace. These are not included because they are reservation-only; for Katsura Imperial Villa, you can apply online here. Kokedera Temple is much more difficult, so we’d recommend emailing your concierge before arrival to see if they can make reservations for you. Due to the reservation process and timing issues, we recommend skipping both on your first visit to Japan.
Otherwise, this Western Kyoto Itinerary is pretty straightforward. Since we discuss why you should visit all of these stops in greater detail in each of their full posts, we’re going to keep that brief in this itinerary. Click the link following each temple or other point of interest to read and see more about it in a new tab.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – From Kyoto Station, you’ll take the JR San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station, walking about 10 minutes due west to get to your first stop. Don’t get flustered if you can’t find it at first, as the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove doesn’t really announce its presence. You’ll find it tucked away behind side streets.
You’ve probably seen photos of this winding pathway that meanders through Arashiyama; many photos (including some of mine) make it look peaceful and serene, totally devoid of people. If you want that experience, you’ll need to arrive early in the morning, as the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove draws huge crowds. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Tenryu-ji Temple – At the “end” (or beginning, depending upon where you start) of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is Kita-mon Gate (north entrance) to Tenryu-ji Temple. Plan your morning around arriving here as close to the temple’s 8:30 a.m. opening time as possible because this UNESCO World Heritage Site gets very busy.
Tenryu-ji Temple is known for its garden’s use of borrowed scenery, which makes it appear as if the garden extends into the surrounding mountains. Beautiful year-round, Tenryu-ji is particularly stunning with the vibrance of fall colors. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Tenryuji Temple.
Monkey Park Iwatayama – Including the Kyoto Monkey Park in this itinerary means you’re going to have to do some backtracking, but there’s no way around that (aside from cutting this stop from the itinerary, which is blasphemy). You’re really only looking at an extra 10 minute walk each way–and you’d need to head in this direction to get lunch, anyway.
Once you arrive at the ticket booth of the Monkey Park, you’ve got another ~20 minute uphill hike through a forest to reach the summit of the monkey mountain. There, you’ll find a large clearing with a large gang of monkeys and a “human cage” through which you can feed the monkeys apples or crackers. We shouldn’t need to “sell” you on monkeys since they are undeniably awesome, but this is also a nice addition to your itinerary since it’s so different. You’ll see the range of monkey emotions, from happiness to anger, and get to have some fun interactions between the snow monkeys, too. This is one of our favorite spots in Kyoto. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Monkey Park.
Togetsukyo Bridge & Sagano Shopping/Lunch – Retracing your steps back across the Togetsukyo Bridge, turn to the left as soon as you cross back over the bridge. On this side street, you’ll find Arashiyama Yoshimura, which is known for its tempura and soba. (It’s one of the dining spots on Our Favorite Restaurants in Kyoto list.)
After you’re done eating, if time allows, peruse some of the shops in this area. There’s a surplus of options for dessert, matcha, and a variety of trinket shops. Keep in mind that you still have half the day–and a lot of walking–ahead of you, so don’t buy anything you don’t want to carry. (Most of this stuff is sold elsewhere, anyway.)
Okochi Sanso Villa – If, for some wild reason, you wanted to skip the Kyoto Monkey Park, it’s very easy to go from Tenryu-ji Temple to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to Okochi Sanso Villa all in quick succession. The entrance for this villa is tucked away at the end of the bamboo grove, meaning you’ll be going through it again if you follow our recommendation.
Okochi Sanso Villa is the former residence of Denjirō Ōkōchi, a famous Japanese samurai actor, and has beautiful gardens that evoke Kyoto’s four seasons. While some visitors might balk at the 1,000 yen price, that includes a cup of matcha and sweet treat, and the grounds here make for a lovely stroll. Additionally, if you’re unable to score reservations to Kyoto’s famed villas, Katsura Imperial Villa and Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Okochi Sanso might be your only alternative. (Don’t feel bad, it’s arguably the best of the bunch!) Click here to read and see more in our full post about Okochi Sanso Villa.
Jojakko-ji Temple – Continuing north, the next stop you’ll encounter is Jojakko-ji. Now, you’ll undoubtedly have some resources tell you that Jojakko-ji Temple is skippable, a second-rate temple in Arashiyama that’s not worth the time and money considering how many good options are in the area.
Maybe they have a point and perhaps you should listen to them, but I love Jojakko-ji. It has a lot of the iconic characteristics (thatched roof gate, mossy landscape, towering pagoda) and takes on a different aesthetic with each of the four seasons. I’d sooner skip Tenryu-ji than Jojakko-ji, but that’s just me.
Gio-ji Temple – Between Jojakkoji and Gio-ji, you’ll pass several other moderately-prominent temples, all of which we’d recommend skipping. (Nison-in Temple during the cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons might be the one exception.) To be honest, we’d consider skipping Gio-ji Temple, but they offer a combo ticket with Daikaku-ji Temple, and the latter is a must-visit.
For the minimal time commitment and cost, Gio-ji is most certainly worth visiting. There’s basically one “scene” here, but it’s a gorgeous one and is an okay consolation if you miss out on Kokedera (the Moss Temple). That’s the pictured view of the thatched-
Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple – From Gio-ji Temple to here, you’re looking at a 10 minute walk, and you’ll be going through a lovely, off-the-beaten path part of Kyoto. This also starts your gentle climb into the foothills of the city’s western mountains.
Here you’ll find 8,000 Buddhist statues that were placed here by local residents in the early twentieth century to honor the memory of those who perished. On your walk here, you’ll see posters for an evening illumination that occurs every August 23 and 24 that looks absolutely stunning (albeit a bit ominous). While this temple isn’t so pretty under the sunlight, the thousands of statues are an impressive sight, and it’s a nice stop on the way to the main attraction on this leg of the itinerary, Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple.
Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple – Continue up those foothills, passing through the giant torii gate, past the thatched-roof teahouse, walking along this quaint lane of machiya homes, and you’ll find yourself in an area of Kyoto few tourists see. While it’s only 10 minutes from the previous stop, Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple rarely draws a crowd–despite being one of the most unique spots in Kyoto–because it’s a full 45 minutes away from Tenryu-ji Temple.
The draw of Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is the 1,200 cute and amusing Rakan statues that represent the disciples of Buddha. Unlike other temples that feature solemn artwork meticulously crafted by skilled professionals, these have a decidedly amateur feel to them, and Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is all the better for it. Some of the statues are downright funny, and you’ll find yourself spending a good deal of time perusing the collection.
Daikaku-ji Temple – The least convenient of the stops on this walking itinerary, but that’s sort of the point. This comes with two pieces of good news. First, there’s a bus that runs from Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple to Daikaku-ji Temple that is incredibly convenient (we walk, but you don’t see much worthwhile scenery that way), and due to its out-of-the-way location, Daikaku-ji Temple draws a disproportionately low number of visitors.
If Daikaku-ji were located in the heart of Arashiyama or Higashiyama, I am certain it’d be perpetually crowded like Tenryu-ji or Nanzen-ji. In my opinion, this sprawling complex is superior to the former and on par with the latter, which is pretty high praise. There are both free and paid areas to explore, and you can spend a lot of time at Daikaku-ji as a result. You should without a doubt pay the admission (buy the combined ticket at Gio-ji Temple), as the interior complex at Daikaku-ji Temple has few rivals in Kyoto.
All told, this itinerary should take you until around 5 p.m. to complete, but if you skip earlier stops and somehow have time to spare, you might consider doing Myoshin-ji Temple (via the JR San-In Line). This temple complex is relatively convenient to Daikaku-ji Temple, worth seeing, and not included in our other main Kyoto itineraries. It’s also pretty comparable to Daitoku-ji Temple (confusingly similar name to the last stop here, but different), which is another temple complex we don’t recommend for those with three days or fewer in Kyoto due to its out-of-the-way location. Of course, dinner in Gion, Pontocho, or the Higashiyama District is always a great way to unwind and spend an evening in Kyoto after a long day of touring!
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
If you’ve been to Kyoto, do you have any feedback on this itinerary for Arashiyama, Sagano, and other parts of Western Kyoto? Any stops you view as skippable, or can’t miss locations we overlooked? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? 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!