Our 4-day Kyoto itinerary is a step-by-step Japan touring plan for efficiently visiting temples, villas, shrines, and highlights in an efficient manner. In addition to the “best of” spots and hidden gems in Higashiyama, Arashiyama, and downtown, this Kyoto itinerary culminates in a final day that’ll take you away from the crowds for a hike north of the city, followed by some rest & relaxation at a mountain onsen.
If you’ve already read our 3-Day ‘Best of’ Kyoto, Japan Itinerary, you’re familiar with 75% of this itinerary. We only make minor tweaks to the first 3 days of this Kyoto touring plan, and tack on a final day that is meant to offer some different and fresh experiences that will eliminate some of that ‘temple fatigue.’
Although Kyoto renowned for its temples and shrines, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites and the absolute best of their kind in Japan, temple fatigue is very much a real thing. As such, this 4-day Kyoto itinerary offers you over two dozen of the city’s best temples and shrines for the most zealous of you to see, while also mentions several that you can safely skip so you don’t get worn out. This also provides you an opportunity to ‘choose your own adventure’, exploring and discovering Kyoto’s beauty on your own terms within the structure of our itinerary.
As these itineraries are going to start becoming more redundant for those who have read our shorter ones (which form the building blocks for this), we’re going to condense more. For thorough descriptions of each individual point of interest, click the “read and see more” links that follow almost every stop. Each of those posts also offers numerous photos, and those tell a lot of the story themselves.
If you have more than 4 days in Kyoto–we’d highly recommend at least 5 days–you can consult our 1-Day Southwestern Kyoto Itinerary or our 1-Day Nara, Japan Highlights Itinerary for recommendations at to how you should spend days 5 and 6. If you have 7 or 8 days in the Kansai region, consider breaking things up with day trips to Osaka or Kobe in the middle.
With that said, let’s dive into our step-by-step, day-by-day stay in Kyoto…
Kiyomizudera Temple – This temple opens at 6 a.m., and you’ll want to arrive as close to then–by 8 a.m. at the latest–to beat the crowds. Arriving earlier ensures you beat the tour groups and are also done in time to stroll through the Higashiyama District before that fills with people.
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. Plus, 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.
Higashiyama District – Start by taking a slight detour down Yasaka-dori to photograph the iconic view of Hokanji Temple (Yasaka Pagoda) from above. While in the area, grab coffee from %ARABICA (if the line isn’t too long) to get fully caffeinated.
Continue by walking back down the empty streets of Higashiyama District. It’s rare to have this area devoid of people, so embrace it. Stop for photos along Kiyomizu-zaka, Sannen-zaka, and Ninen-zaka. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Higashiyama District.
Kodaiji Temple – Your walk should end by walking down Ninen-zaka, a winding pedestrian-only lane. This will lead you directly to Kodaiji Temple.
Known for its quirky and envelope-pushing architecture, nice landscaping, and small bamboo forest, Kodaiji Temple is unique and highly recommended. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kodaiji Temple.
Kennin-ji Temple – Next, you’ll walk to the unofficial southern boundary of the Gion district. Kenninji is an underrated temple–but a must-do in large part due to “The Wind and Thunder Gods” on display.
It’s a large temple with a maze of covered walkways, gardens, and dozens of buildings. The gardens here are often overlooked, so be sure to pause and appreciate them. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kenninji Temple.
Lunch – Many of the best restaurants in Gion don’t open for lunch, meaning you might be stop at a couple of bakeries instead for desert. Our favorites include Patisserie Gion Sakai, Gion Tokuya, or Gion Kinana.
For a substantive meal, there are also a handful of ramen shops and more in Gion. Alternatively, Fresco Gion is a great grocery store with prepared meals in their deli case. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Gion.
Maruyama Park – Following lunch or a snack break in Gion, it’s an easy walk to Maruyama Park. This large public park is popular among locals, and a great spot to decompress. The centerpiece of the park is a giant weeping cherry tree, which is the city’s show-stopper during sakura season.
Maruyama Park is also good for a picnic, so if you opted to stop at Fresco Gion as recommended above, bring your meal here and enjoy it in a lovely setting.
Chionin Temple – From Maruyama Park, you’ll encounter the giant gate for Chionin Temple as you head north. Go inside and take the many steps up to find the main grounds of this free temple.
The upper grounds here are sprawling, and once inside you’ll want to head to the far corners to get away from construction, and also see some of the temple’s prettiest areas of hillside. (This temple optional if you’re tight on time or are concerned about “temple fatigue.”) Click here to read and see more in our full post about Chionin Temple.
Nanzenji Temple – From there Chionin’s gate, walk northeast. The next stop is Nanzenji Temple, which is another exquisite temple with free public areas. (We also really enjoy the paid Tenjuan Temple, a subtemple on these premises.)
Nanzenji free areas are impressive, with the aqueduct being the unequivocal highlight. We’d recommend walking around, under, and above it. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nanzenji Temple.
Eikando Temple – A short walk from the side entrance of Nanzenji, and at the southern end of Philosopher’s Path, Eikando is convenient to this itinerary. Despite this, Eikando Temple is frequently overlooked by Kyoto visitors.
If you’re visiting during autumn, Eikando Temple is a must-visit. Even though admission costs more in November and December, it’s completely worth it. Other times of year, consider Eikando optional. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Eikando Temple.
Philosopher’s Path – After perusing Eikando Temple, venture north on the Path of Philosophers, where the journey is the destination.
This quaint stone walkway winds along a canal of quiet contemplation and seasonal beauty, with a variety of temples and shops along the way. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Philosopher’s Path.
Honenin Temple – As you stroll up Path of Philosophers, you’ll see signs for Honenin Temple, which is a hidden gem of Kyoto that’s surprisingly close to the Path of Philosophers (and yet, receives significantly less foot traffic).
Honenin Temple features two sand mounds with seasonal designs, a moss garden, bridges, small buildings, and the thatched gate. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Honenin Temple.
Yoshida Hill Temples & Shrines – Directly to the west of Honenin Temple is Yoshida Hill; you’ll walk through more urban areas (and past another Fresco grocery store–grab snacks as necessary) along the way. This hill is home to a trifecta of our 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.
You’ll start with the northern boundary of Yoshida Hill, moving south through Yoshidayama Park before crossing the street to Shinnyodo Temple and then navigating uphill to the pagoda in Kurodani. This is one way this itinerary deviates from our similar 3-day Kyoto plan, as you’ll conclude your day at Yoshida Hill instead of continuing to Silver Pavilion. We’d recommend sticking around for sunset. Multiple spots in this area offer nice views, but the pagoda at the top of Kurodani Temple’s hill is our favorite.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – From Kyoto Station, take the JR San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama Station, walking about 10 minutes due west to get to your first stop. Do this as early in the morning as possible to avoid crowds.
For a peaceful and serene experience devoid of tour groups, you need to get to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove by 9 a.m. at the latest. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove draws tour groups and gets badly congested midday. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Tenryuji Temple – From Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, enter Tenryuji Temple via its north entrance. As with the bamboo grove, arriving here as close to the temple’s 8:30 a.m. opening time as possible is ideal; this UNESCO World Heritage Site also draws crowds.
Tenryuji Temple is known for its use of borrowed scenery, which makes it appear as if the garden extends into the surrounding mountains. We’re not huge fans of Tenryuji, but it’s worth seeing. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Tenryuji Temple.
Monkey Park Iwatayama – Kyoto Monkey Park is a bit out of the way, but our dedication to seeing monkeys knows no bounds. If you’re a sensible person, you obviously agree.
Once you arrive at the ticket booth of the Monkey Park, you’ve got another ~20 minute uphill hike to reach the plateau where the monkeys congregate. There, you’ll find monkeys chilling and a human cage through which you can feed them. 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, you’ll find Arashiyama Yoshimura, which is known for its tempura, soba, and great views. (It’s on Our Favorite Restaurants in Kyoto list.)
If time allows, peruse some of the shops in this area. There are good options for dessert, matcha, and a variety of shops. We usually break for ice cream here.
Okochi Sanso Villa – The entrance is tucked away at the end of the bamboo grove, meaning you’ll be making that long walk again (it’s unavoidable).
The former residence of Denjirō Ōkōchi, a famous Japanese samurai actor, this is one of Kyoto’s nicest traditional villas. It’s worth the 1,000 yen admission, which includes a cup of matcha and sweet treat. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Okochi Sanso Villa.
Jojakkoji Temple – Continuing north, the next stop you’ll encounter is Jojakkoji. Routinely overlooked, we absolutely love Jojakkoji Temple and find it to be superior to some of the big name spots in Kyoto.
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. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Jojakkoji Temple.
Gioji Temple – Between Jojakkoji and Gioji, you’ll pass several other temples, all of which we’d recommend skipping.
For the minimal time commitment and cost (this temple sells a combo ticket with Daikaku-ji Temple–buy that), Gioji Temple is worth visiting. Gioji Temple offers a single, beautifully mossy scene, which is a good option if you miss out on Kokedera. (Consider this temple optional if you’re tight on time or are concerned about “temple fatigue.”)
Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple – The 10 minute uphill walk from Gioji Temple to Adashino Nenbutsuji takes you through a lovely, off-the-beaten path part of Kyoto.
Here you’ll find 8,000 Buddhist statues placed here by local residents to honor the memory of deceased loved ones. (Consider this temple optional…)
Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple – While it’s only 10 minutes from the previous stop and ~30 from Arashiyama, Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple rarely draws a crowd–despite being one of the most unique spots in Kyoto.
Otagi Nenbutsuji features 1,200 cute and quirky Rakan statues created by amateurs. Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is a fun and special place; you’ll find yourself spending a good deal of time looking at the statues and taking photos. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple.
Daikakuji Temple – There’s a bus that runs directly from Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple to Daikaku-ji Temple, making this an that is incredibly convenient next stop that’ll move you back in the direction of downtown Kyoto.
A huge complex that rarely draws crowds due to its location, Daikakuji features some beautiful art, fascinating architecture, and lovely free grounds situated around a pond. We recommend paying the admission to venture inside the interior complex, as these are top-notch. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Daikakuji Temple.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – Our favorite place in all of Japan, Fushimi Inari is an absolute treasure that demands multiple hours to fully experience. This shrine is open 24/7, so the earlier you can get here, the better. The early-morning hike up Mt. Inari is an awesome no-crowds experience, and we highly recommend arriving before 9 a.m. for that.
Follow your hike up with coffee or tea (and sweets!) at Vermillion Cafe near the exit. If you have time to spare, double back to the front and look for the Secret Bamboo Forest of Fushimi Inari–it’s incredible and serene. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Tofukuji Temple – Easily accessible by foot or via the JR Nara Line from Inari Station, both of which will take roughly the same amount of time.
The essential experience at Tofukuji is the Hojo Garden, which is among the very best gardens in Kyoto. During the fall colors season, you’ll also want to do the Tsutenkyo Bridge route; it’s one of the most beautiful foliage spots in all of Kyoto.
Kyoto National Museum – Unless you’re down for a long walk that’s not very pretty, take the Keihan Main Line from Tofukuji Temple to Kyoto National Museum.
Exhibits here survey Japanese art and history, with English placards to inform the displays. Kyoto National Museum is a solid museum, but not among the best of Japan. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto National Museum.
Sanjusangendo Temple – Directly across the street from Kyoto National Museum is Sanjusangendo Temple. The exterior doesn’t impressive, but the lineup inside is staggering. (I won’t spoil it beyond that.)
Do not skip Sanjusangendo Temple; be sure to slow down a bit to let the full impact of the scene sink in, and closely inspect the details of the impressive statues. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Sanjusangendo Temple.
Kyoto Railway Museum – Take the bus to get from Sanjusangendo Temple to here; there are bus stops right outside the temple and in Umekoji Park, making this an easy and direct commute.
Kyoto Railway Musuem is the best museum in the city, a must do for everyone regardless of train interest levels. This museum highlights the importance of trains in daily life, the history of trains in Japan, and technical progress. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kyoto Railway Museum.
Ninnaji Temple – To access Ninnaji you’ll want to take the bus or the JR San-In Line via Tambaguchi Station. It gets tricky–remember that Google Maps is your friend.
Ninnaji Temple’s free main grounds that contain a five-story pagoda are moderately impressive, but it’s the paid Goten building that earns it a place on this itinerary. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Ninnaji Temple.
Ryoanji Temple – Around the corner from Ninnaji is Ryoanji, home to Japan’s most famous rock garden. You should arrive in the last two hours of operation, which will cut down on crowds at this very popular tourist spot.
Sit and contemplate the meaning of this rock garden that has confounded academics for centuries, and try to view all 15 rocks at the same time. Be sure to also stroll through the woods and around the main pond. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Ryoanji Temple.
Golden Pavilion – Next, do the 20 minute walk from Ryoanji to Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion). This is the most popular temple in Kyoto, and the buses to it tend to be standing room only, so we avoid them.
The good news is that at the end of the day, the heavy crowd that are endemic to the Golden Pavilion should be dissipating. Linger until closing and you can a serene experience at the Golden Pavilion, which will help you appreciate it more. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Golden Pavilion.
Kyoto Imperial Palace – In our 3-day itinerary, I made a big deal about skipping things that I think are overrated, using Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace as examples. While I’m not backtracking on that perspective, it’s pretty easy to include Kyoto Imperial Palace at the beginning or end of this itinerary because it’s within walking distance of Demachiyanagi Station, which is the gateway for the rest of this adventure.
We think Kyoto Imperial Palace is the weakest of the three imperial properties in the city, but it’s the easiest to visit, so that wins the day for this shorter stay. In our longer itineraries, we’ll likely replace this stop with one of the others. (Note that during cherry blossom season, the gardens here are an unequivocal must-visit.)
Eizan Railway Ride – Departing from Demachiyanagi Station, Eizan Railway has lines that cover Northern Kyoto in the city’s most well-appointed trains.
The scenery is gorgeous year-round, and if you’re fortunate enough to score the Panoramic Train KIRARA, during the fall, you’re in for a real treat. These trains are just as much an attraction as it is a form of transportation.
Kuramadera Temple – I fell in love with this mountain temple during a snowy winter visit, and even if you’re close to “templed out” do not skip Kuramadera Temple. Quite simply, it’s one of my favorite places anywhere in Japan, and would be deserving of the day-trip north of Kyoto by itself. With several temple buildings spread from the base of the mountain to its summit, you could easily spend a couple hours exploring Kuramadera Temple.
Kuramadera Temple is a place of discovery, with numerous buildings scattered from the base of its mountain to the summit, you could easily spend two hours hiking up its grounds. You’ll pass shrines, statues, torii–plus natural beauty including waterfalls, giant trees, and breathtaking vistas. 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.
Kibune Hike – Past the courtyard of Kuramadera Temple where the main hall is located, you’ll find a small trail winding through the woods on an up and downhill (mostly down) trail to Kibune. This hike is excellent, with subtemples and manmade details plus 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 is the return hike, which is the same path, meaning it’s almost entirely uphill. If you’re moderately fit, the hike is not too bad (we’ve seen several elderly Japanese visitors doing it) and we’d recommend going that route. If you’re concerned about it being too strenuous, you can walk 2km down the road from Kibune to Kibuneguchi Station and catch the Eizan Railway either back to Kurama Station or Demachiyanagi Station in Kyoto.
Kifune Shrine – The main draw of Kibune is the area itself, which features a peaceful stream, wooded areas, and waterfront ryokan & restaurants. Kifune Shrine is also iconic, with a long flight of stone steps and endless line of red lanterns.
Venture deeper into Kifune Shrine and you’ll find beautiful natural scenery. Kibune is a real gem, and it’s worth wandering up and down its main road before you make the return hike to Kuramadera Temple.
Kurama Onsen – There’s no better time to relax in the hot spring waters of an onsen than after a strenuous hike…if onsens are your cup of tea. They aren’t mine, but Sarah loves them. She raves about the beautiful mountain scenery around Kurama Onsen and calls this the best onsen she’s been to in Japan. Sarah also 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. Go in with an open mind, and be aware of proper etiquette for using the onsen. 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.
Extra/Alternative Stops – This day of the itinerary is a more relaxed version of our 1-Day Northern Kyoto, Japan Itinerary. If you’re not interested in the onsen, have time for other stops, or are not “templed out” at this point, you should refer to the morning of that itinerary for afternoon things to do.
Of those locations, we’d prioritize Enkoji Temple, one of the most underrated spots in Kyoto, and stunning with fall foliage. From there you can walk south or a beautiful stroll, or take the bus directly to our final destination of the day.
Silver Pavilion – This is normally a stop north of Philosopher’s Path, but on this day spent in Northern Kyoto, Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion) is the southernmost stop.
Silver Pavilion is a zen temple featuring a handful of temple buildings and beautifully-raked dry sand gardens at its entrance. From there, you continue on the loop around its gardens, including mossy and forested areas that meander into the foothills. Silver Pavilion takes on a radiant glow just before sunset, which is roughly when you should be arriving. Click here to read and see more in our full post about the Silver Pavilion.
That wraps up a busy four days in Kyoto! As you might’ve noticed, our itineraries have become progressively lax, scheduling less and less in the evenings. This is in large part because you’ll be getting up by 7 a.m. and walking 10 miles each day, and–realistically–will be too tired to do anything at night. If that’s not the case, consider doing Gion, Pontocho, or an evening visit to Fushimi Inari as time allows. If you’re visiting during cherry blossom or fall colors seasons, you’ll also want to be sure to do one of the nighttime illuminations that are held at popular temples. Even if you don’t have the energy for that–or for everything in this pretty busy itinerary– we think you’ll have a great time in Kyoto!
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 4-day itinerary? Any other temples, shrines, etc., you view as skippable, or must-do 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!