Kyoto is one of the most popular destinations in Japan, and for good reason. It is a city that combines the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the sacred and the secular. Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years, and it still retains many of its historical and cultural treasures. From ancient temples and shrines, to serene gardens and bamboo forests, to exquisite cuisine and crafts, Kyoto has something for everyone.
If you are planning to visit Kyoto, one of the best ways to experience it is by taking a road trip. A road trip gives you the freedom and flexibility to explore Kyoto at your own pace, and to discover hidden gems that you might miss otherwise. You can also enjoy the scenic views of the surrounding countryside, and visit other nearby attractions along the way.
In this blog post, I will share with you my itinerary for a three-day road trip in Kyoto, covering some of the highlights and tips for making the most of your trip. Of course, you can customize your own itinerary according to your preferences and schedule, but I hope this will give you some inspiration and ideas.
Kyoto Road Trip
Day 1: Central Kyoto
On the first day of your road trip, you will explore the central area of Kyoto, where you will find some of the most iconic landmarks of the city. You can start your day by visiting Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, a stunning Zen temple that is covered in gold leaf and reflects beautifully on the pond. This is one of the most photographed spots in Kyoto, so be prepared for crowds and queues. Try to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the peak hours.
Next, you can head to Nijo Castle, a former residence of the shoguns who ruled Japan during the feudal era. The castle is famous for its architecture and design, especially its “nightingale floors” that squeak when stepped on to alert guards of intruders. You can also admire the elaborate paintings and carvings that decorate the walls and ceilings of the castle.
For lunch, you can enjoy some of Kyoto’s specialties, such as kyo-kaiseki, a multi-course meal that showcases seasonal ingredients and local flavors, or kyo-wagashi, traditional sweets that are often served with tea. You can find many restaurants and cafes in the central area that offer these delicacies.
After lunch, you can continue your sightseeing by visiting Nishiki Market, a lively street market that sells all kinds of food and goods. You can sample some of the local snacks and dishes, such as yuba (tofu skin), sashimi (raw fish), tsukemono (pickles), senbei (rice crackers), and more. You can also buy some souvenirs and gifts for yourself or your friends and family.
Next, you can walk to Gion, the famous geisha district of Kyoto. Here, you can stroll along the narrow streets lined with wooden houses and tea houses, and admire the elegant atmosphere of old Kyoto. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a geiko (geisha) or a maiko (apprentice geisha) in their colorful kimono and elaborate hairstyles. You can also visit some of the temples and shrines in Gion, such as Yasaka Shrine, Kennin-ji, or Chion-in.
For dinner, you can treat yourself to a memorable experience by dining at one of the ochaya (tea houses) in Gion, where you can enjoy a meal accompanied by geiko or maiko entertainment. You will need to make a reservation in advance through an agency or a hotel concierge, as these places are exclusive and expensive. Alternatively, you can watch a performance of traditional arts by geiko and maiko at Gion Corner, a theater that offers shows every evening.
Day 2: Northern Kyoto
Kyoto is a city that has a lot to offer, especially for those who love history, culture and nature. On our second day of our road trip, we decided to explore the northern part of the city, where some of the most famous and scenic attractions are located.
We started our day with a visit to the Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion. This is one of the most iconic landmarks of Kyoto, and for a good reason. The temple is covered with gold leaf and reflects beautifully on the pond that surrounds it. The temple was originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for a shogun, but was later converted into a Zen Buddhist temple. The temple has been burned down several times, most recently in 1950 by a monk who suffered from mental illness. The current structure is a reconstruction from 1955.
We spent some time admiring the temple and its garden, and then headed to the nearby Ryoan-ji Temple, which is famous for its rock garden. The garden consists of 15 rocks arranged on a bed of white gravel, representing islands in a sea of nothingness. The rocks are placed in such a way that you can never see all of them at once from any angle. The garden is meant to inspire meditation and contemplation, and to evoke the essence of Zen.
After enjoying the tranquility of the rock garden, we drove to the Arashiyama district, which is known for its natural beauty and scenic views. We parked our car near the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, which spans the Katsura River and offers a stunning view of the mountains. We walked across the bridge and entered the Sagano Bamboo Forest, one of the most popular spots in Arashiyama. The forest is filled with towering bamboo stalks that create a soothing sound when they sway in the wind. The forest also has several temples and shrines along the way, such as the Tenryu-ji Temple and the Nonomiya Shrine.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around the forest and its surroundings, and then decided to end our day with a visit to the Monkey Park Iwatayama. This is a hilltop park where you can see over 100 Japanese macaques roaming freely. You can also feed them with special food that you can buy at the entrance. The monkeys are very cute and friendly, but you have to follow some rules when interacting with them. For example, you have to avoid eye contact, as they may see it as a challenge or a threat. You also have to crouch down when feeding them, as standing up may make them feel intimidated.
The park also offers a panoramic view of Kyoto from its observation deck, which is a great way to end our day. We enjoyed watching the sunset over the city, and then drove back to our hotel. We had a wonderful time exploring the northern part of Kyoto, and we were looking forward to seeing more of this amazing city on our next day.
Day 3: Southern Kyoto
Today, I explored the southern part of Kyoto, which is famous for its historical and cultural attractions. I started my day at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the shrine of the god of rice and prosperity. The shrine is known for its thousands of vermilion torii gates that form a tunnel-like path up the mountain. It was a breathtaking sight to see the contrast between the bright red gates and the green forest. I spent about two hours walking along the trail, stopping at various sub-shrines and viewpoints along the way.
After descending from the mountain, I took a bus to Tofukuji Temple, one of the oldest and largest Zen temples in Japan. The temple has a beautiful garden with a variety of maple trees that turn brilliant colors in autumn. I enjoyed the serene atmosphere and the stunning views of the garden from the wooden bridges and platforms. The temple also has some impressive buildings, such as the Sanmon Gate and the Hojo Hall, which display exquisite architecture and paintings.
For lunch, I headed to Nishiki Market, a lively street market that sells all kinds of food and goods. I sampled some local delicacies, such as tofu skin, pickled vegetables, grilled fish, and mochi. I also bought some souvenirs, such as pottery, fans, and tea. The market was crowded with tourists and locals alike, creating a vibrant and festive mood.
In the afternoon, I visited Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of the most popular and iconic temples in Kyoto. The temple is perched on a hillside overlooking the city, and offers spectacular views from its wooden stage. The temple is also famous for its Otowa Waterfall, where visitors can drink from three streams of water that are said to grant different wishes: longevity, love, and wisdom. I decided to try my luck and drank from all three streams.
My last stop for the day was Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. I walked along the narrow streets lined with traditional wooden houses and teahouses, hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha or a maiko (apprentice geisha). I was lucky enough to see a few of them walking gracefully in their exquisite kimono and makeup. I also enjoyed watching some street performances by local artists, such as musicians, dancers, and puppeteers.
I ended my day with a delicious dinner at a cozy restaurant that served kaiseki ryori, a multi-course meal that showcases seasonal ingredients and artistic presentation. It was a perfect way to wrap up my amazing day in southern Kyoto.