Our Southwestern Kyoto Itinerary offers a touring plan for our ideal day on the outskirts of the city, hitting a few places that are simultaneously highlights of Japan and also hidden gems due to their location. As with our other Kyoto itineraries, this one tries to balance efficiency with sufficient time to wander, explore, and stop to smell the roses (or perhaps the sakura…but they don’t really have much aroma, so perhaps not).
Unlike our other Kyoto plans, this 1-day plan of attack has a “choose your own adventure” type of style, and is more nebulous than our previous Japan itineraries, but that’s out of necessity. Two of the stops on the touring plan require advance reservations (Kokedera and Katsura Imperial Villa), and are experiences we hesitate to recommend due to the difficulty of securing these.
The third is one of our absolute favorite places in Kyoto (Yoshiminedera Temple), but somewhere we hesitate to recommend because its remote location makes it tough to justify in terms of the time commitment. With this itinerary, we’ve come up with a rough plan for visiting at least 2 of these highlights, plus other points of interest in Arashiyama and elsewhere, all in a single day.
It’s an aggressive plan at the beginning of the day and will require luck to accomplish the highlights, but as an excellent fourth or fifth day in Kyoto after you’ve done our Eastern Kyoto Itinerary (day 1), our Western Kyoto Itinerary (day 2), and our Central Kyoto Itinerary (day 3). You should probably also do our 1-Day “Cool Kyoto” Itinerary on day 4, and do this itinerary or Nara as day 5. Even if you only manage two of the highlights, it’ll be great. If you’re able to make it to all three of the highlights, there’s a chance this will be your best day in Kyoto.
Since we have separate blog posts about all of these locations, we’re going to focus on the logistics of accomplishing this itinerary rather than describing each temple or other point of interest. Refer to the full blog posts (links open in new tabs) if you want to see photos or read our sales pitch for each…
Yoshiminedera Temple – In order for this itinerary to work, you need to catch the first bus of the day to Yoshiminedera Temple, which is at 8:35 a.m. from Mukomachi Station. The bus only runs once per hour, so don’t miss this one.
While we note that we spent 3 hours at Yoshiminedera Temple, I also spent a ton of time taking photos. The temple’s pamphlet indicates that the loop takes 30-40 minutes, and it’s entirely realistic to finish your visit in just over an hour. If you want to catch the 10:24 a.m. bus, that’s about how much time you’ll have.
Note that even catching this bus is a bit of a gamble, as this will get you to Katsura Imperial Villa around 11:30 a.m., which is 30 minutes after ticket distribution begins. It should be early enough to score same-day reservations to Katsura Imperial Villa for the 3:30 p.m. tour, but it’s not a sure-thing.
If you’re able to book advance reservations–the ideal scenario–you can skip the next step and take a more leisurely pace at Yoshiminedera Temple. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Yoshiminedera Temple.
Katsura Imperial Villa Reservations – Hopefully you’re able to skip this step, but if not, you’ll want to get to Katsura Imperial Villa’s entrance as close to 11 a.m. as possible, which is when they begin distributing their free same-day entrance tickets.
Katsura offers 60 same-day tickets per day spread across 3 different tour times (20 per tour). For the purposes of this itinerary, we recommend selecting the 3:30 p.m. tour time, as it will give you ample chance to have lunch, and do Kokedera Temple or visit Arashiyama.
Kokedera Temple – One thing we noticed while we were lingering around during our Kokedera tour was that no groups arrived after us, and no one was leaving before us (we arrived pretty early). From this, we deduced that our 1 p.m. tour was probably the only one of the day.
When it came time to write this itinerary, I wanted to be certain this is true (since there’s no information online as to whether it is), so I viewed our reservation card in Google Image Search and looked at every single “related image” that I could to find other cards. From this, I found that 1 p.m. is the most common tour time, with 10 a.m. tours also offered from July until September. (This makes sense–it’s when there would be the most demand due to rainy season.) I found no other tour times.
Now, this doesn’t mean my research is conclusive nor does it mean scheduling trends won’t change. However, I think there’s a reasonably strong chance you’ll be given a 1 p.m. return time if you visit outside of summer, and a 50/50 chance at a 1 p.m. return time if you visit during the summer. This works perfectly with the other stops in the itinerary.
Even if you do get stuck with the 10 a.m. Kokedera time, I could still see the big three of this itinerary working, so long as you’re able to book Katsura Imperial Villa reservations in advance, online. Start the day at Kokedera, then do the 1:30 p.m. Katsura tour, and then go to Yoshiminedera Temple for the afternoon.
The question thus becomes whether you’re reading this itinerary far enough in advance to book Kokedera Temple for your trip and, if so, whether you are willing to make the 3,000 yen splurge on this temple visit. If it makes you feel better about the cost, just think of Kokedera and Katsura Imperial Villa as each costing 1,500 yen per person! 😉 Click here to read and see more in our full post about Kokedera Temple.
Southern Arashiyama – We’re going to assume a lot of you either won’t want to hassle with the reservation process for Kokedera, or want want to drop ~$30/person to look at some moss. That’s over $100 for a family of 4, and as cool as seeing 120 varieties of moss, that’s steep. Especially since none of them are Randy, Carrie-Anne, Kate, or Elisabeth Moss.
The good news is that there’s still plenty to do in Arashiyama, even if you spent a previous day there. We’d recommend doing something convenient to the Arashiyama Hankyu Station. To that end, options include Horinji Temple (pictured above), Dendengu Shrine, Kameyama-koen Park (perfect for a picnic), or even a return visit to Arashiyama Monkey Park!
Lunch – Given the fluidity of this itinerary, it’s downright impossible to make a solid lunch recommendation. You may have hours in Arashiyama, or you may only have 30 minutes down by Katsura.
I will say this, whether you have to grab pizza chips and matcha cookies on the go from 7-11, or you have time for a multi-course experience, you can have a memorable meal. If you do have the time and can’t think of anything better to do, we’d recommend Yudofu Sagano in Arashiyama. That’s where we ate on our Katsura Imperial Villa day, and it was incredibly memorable and delicious (words I never thought I’d utter about tofu!).
Katsura Imperial Villa – Once you’re done with Kokedera or Arashiyama and lunch, it should be time to return to Katsura Imperial Villa for your free guided tour.
As we noted in our gushing review of Katsura Imperial Villa, this is an absolute must-do for architecture enthusiasts, as it features exemplars of Japanese design. Even if you’re just “regular” people like us, Katsura Rikyū is a simply sublime experience and ranks very highly of all things to do in the city. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Katsura Imperial Villa.
Nijo Castle – This is really only a workable suggestion if you do an earlier tour of Katsura or are visiting at a time of year when Nijo Castle has its nighttime illuminations. We did the sakura season evening event, and thought it was fine. The highlight was the projection show, but Kodaiji Temple has a better projection show (and overall, a better nighttime experience).
We are not really fans of Nijo Castle. It’s not a towering fortress like Osaka or Himeji Castles, and is really more akin to Kyoto Imperial Palace. Everyone else seems to love it and it’s one of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto, but I’ll bet anything that if “castle” weren’t in the name, its visitation numbers would drop in half. (Curse those clever 17th century marketing minds!)
Really, we’re including this as an option because it’s an easy commute from Katsura Station to Omiya Station along the Hankyu-Kyoto Line. It’s a recommendation of convenience, not an endorsement. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Nijo Castle.
Toji Temple – Another option of convenience is Toji Temple, which is highlighted by Kyoto’s tallest pagoda. This is really a similar scenario to Nijo Castle–you’ll either need an early Katsura tour or night illumination at Toji to make this workable.
While my first visit to Toji was sort of ‘meh’, I really enjoyed both the fall night illumination and everything about Toji Temple during sakura season. If I had to choose between Toji and Nijo, I’d definitely choose Toji Temple.
To get to Toji Temple, take bus 26 from Katsura–you’ll definitely want to use Google Maps for the best route options. It should take under 40 minutes entrance to entrance. Click here to read and see more in our full post about Toji Temple.
Yasaka Shrine – If neither Toji nor Nijo are options, or you’re just not interested in either of them, consider taking the Hankyu-Kyoto Line to Kawaramachi Station, where you’ll be minutes from the heart of Gion.
From there, you can grab a beautifully-presented dessert, eat dinner at one of Gion’s many excellent restaurants, make a visit to Yasaka Shrine, Kenninji Temple, etc. You’ll presumably have already done this at least one other night, but there’s no such thing as too much time in Gion. We’ve visited more times than I can count, and still haven’t eaten everywhere on our list. (Honestly, if my choices are sweets in Gion or Toji/Nijo, I’m voting with my stomach…) Click here to read and see more in our full post about Yasaka Shrine.
Chances are, this plan will go off the rails somewhere. The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. Changing things on the fly and rolling with the punches are a prerequisite for this itinerary. If the prospect of having to alter your plans and not having a totally certain plan of attack is disconcerting, this is not the right itinerary for you.
We do want to note, however, that as risky and uncertain as this Kyoto itinerary might seem, it’s not a feast or famine scenario. Without a doubt, you’ll be able to do Yoshiminedera Temple. That’s a top 5 thing in all of Kyoto, and you’ll be done with it by around 10:30 a.m., when the day is just getting started. From there, Katsura and Kokedera are both fairly convenient, so either if you can’t or don’t do those two things, it’s not like you’ve risked an entire day. You can still move on to Arashiyama…or you could go all the way across the city to Gion…and be doing something else by noon.
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 locations in Southern Kyoto? What did you think of the experiences? Would you recommend these temples and villas to a first-timer visiting Japan, or is this trek too much of an effort? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? 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!