This former Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, as well as a major part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area, Kyoto is one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in Japan.
We reached out again to Ian Ropke, owner of Your Japan Private Tours, who was our trusted companion and guide for the 3 Days In Tokyo adventure to help us set up an itinerary perfect for spending 3 days in this ancient city.
Get up extra early and go to the nearest convenience store to your hotel and pick up a few picnic treats and snacks and make sure to wear comfortable shoes as we have a lot of walking planned for you. Then jump in a taxi and ask the driver to take you to the “Clock Tower” entrance of Kyoto University (the Stanford of Japan). With the clock tower behind you go straight and exit the university campus and turn left and walk through the big orange shrine gate of Yoshida Shrine. Walk straight to the stairs and just to the left use the water ladles to wash your hands and rinse your mouth (purification for entering the world of the Shinto Gods).
Then go up the stairs and turn left and stroll through the small shrine area. Yoshida Shrine dates back to 9th century. Return to the top of the stairs and with the stairs behind you turn right and go up the long uphill sloping car road (with no car traffic). At the top of the road swing left and go up the paved road to the top and then look for the small “tunnel” of orange shrine gates to your left. Turn right here and enter the grounds of another shrine (a modern Shinto branch sect). Walk straight and you will come to another long flight of stairs leading down to your left. Go down to the bottom and continue straight to the large orange gate before you and go through the gate. You are now in the large landscaped grounds of Shinyodo Temple (founded 984). To your right is a large moss covered area and on the right edge you will see a serene bronze statue of a sitting Buddha.
With the main building of Shinnyodo to your left continue straight and at the back corner of the building and turn right and continue straight (Buddhist stone cemetery stones to your right and left). Continue straight and then right and then left again and after 50 meters you will see a large ancient 3-story wooden pagoda tower to your left and another long flight of stone stairs leading down to your right (the views to the west and south are exceptional here and this is where I would sit down and take the picnic break). Walk down to the bottom of the stairs that leads to the bottom of the hillside cemetery. Cross the bridge over the pond and then turn right and go up the hill and stairs and turn left: you are now in the large grounds of Kurodani Temple (13th century).
Hail a taxi there and 600 yen later you will be just below the gates of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple). The Jewels of East Kyoto (a 6-8 km walk straight south on Kyoto’s famous east side): Go up the souvenir shopping street to the entrance gate of the temple enter and explore the multi-level gardens. Then exit and walk back down the shopping street and turn left onto the canal that borders the east side of the famous Path of Philosophy. Head to the enormous Sanmon (three doorway) gate of Nanzenji Temple (which you can climb to the top of). Explore the grounds of Nanzenji leisurely and then take a taxi to Gontaro Okazaki (soba and udon in a lovely garden setting.
Eat lunch and then head to Maruyama Park (the most famous venue for cherry blossom parties in Japan, if you happen to be there in April or May).
This day will be devoted to the Fascinations of Northwest and West Kyoto. Start the morning with a taxi ride to the east gate of the prestigious Daitokuji Zen complex (visit Ryogen-in Temple and Daisen-in Temple). Then enter the grounds of Imamiya Shrine (dedicated to the spiritual needs of the weavers of Nishishin, technically the east end of the Silk Road). Explore the grounds of the shrine and find the two tea and aburi-mochi shops on the east edge of the complex and take a break there in a setting that is over 400 years old (the two tea shops have been competing with each other for 400 years).
Take a taxi to Otagi Nenbutsuji a temple full of smiling stone Buddhas. Then exit the temple and turn right and go downhill to the thatch roofed farmhouses (one is considered to be the most expensive restaurant in Kyoto; kaiseki haute cuisine) and when you see the big orange Shinto gate to your right turn left and go downhill past the fine souvenir shops and maybe stop for a little souvenir for yourself.
Head into Arashiyama’s famous bamboo forest. At the end of the bamboo forest path look for the orange buildings of Nonomiya Shrine (dedicated to romance). Then exit the shrine and go straight and then left and in a couple of minutes you will be on the busy street that leads to the right back to Keifuku Arashiyama Station (lots of great shops to look into and lots of food and snacks).
After dark explore the dimly lit orange tunnels of Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine leading up to the top of Mount Fushimi (a 30 minute uphill stroll). Then return the way you came up and exit the shrine and find Fushimi Inari Keihan Station and go north to the Shijo Gion (Kyoto’s world famous geisha district).
Take the subway or a taxi to JR Kyoto Station and then walk a bit east to Sanjusangendo Temple (11th century; 1,001 gilded statues of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion; and also 13th century wooden masterpieces of the Hindu pantheon); spend about an hour here. Return to JR Kyoto Station and take the train to JR Horyuji Station and the little shuttle bus to Horyuji Temple: explore the complex and be sure to visit the temple museum as well. Then eat lunch just where the shuttle dropped you off in front of the temple. Return to JR Horyuji on the shuttle bus and in 15 minutes you will arrive at JR Nara Station.
From JR Nara station take a taxi to Todaiji Temple and the big bronze Buddha, deer feeding en route to the temple entrance. Exit Todaiji and turn immediately left (pond on your right) and walk in a slow arc to the southeast where you will soon see the back entrance to Kasuga Grand Shrine (perfect towards late afternoon).