One day in Kyoto is never enough

Kyoto is the historical and cultural hub of Japan. With thousands of temples and shrines, it can take days and days to explore properly.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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World Heritage in Kyoto, Japan

In some ways, Kyoto is the cultural archives of Japan. The city, about an hour from Osaka, was central to Japanese history for well over a thousand years and the marks of that millennium are in every little corner you could possibly explore.

If you come to Japan looking for temples and shrines, you’ll hit a divine motherload in Kyoto. There are more than 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines.

It doesn’t matter how lost you get, you will also find a red tori gate or a smiling Buddha not far away. The religious and historical are inescapable.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto first became the capital of Japan in 794AD and, despite a few periods when the power base was moved, remained the centre of politics until 1868. The imperial family over those centuries constructed much of what you can see today.

It has only 1 per cent of the Japan’s population but is home to more than 20 per cent of the country’s national treasures.

Within the city, there are 17 specific places that have been designated as part of the official Kyoto listing on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It’s impossible to see them all in a day. I think you’d be hard pressed to see them all in three days even.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to explore things in depth then you’ll need to leave yourself enough time to properly understand a city as culturally-rich as Kyoto.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

I gave myself just one day in Kyoto, which I now regret. It’s easy to get templed-out in this region of Japan and I fear that was beginning to happen to me.

But I still managed to see some of the most important temples and shrines… and finished the day, as the sun set, at the most beautiful of all the sights.

Here’s one way to spend a day in Kyoto.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

Nijo-jo Castle

This castle at the centre of Kyoto is hard to miss. Surrounded by a huge moat and high fortifications, it served as a protection from enemies from when it was built in 1626.

It couldn’t, however, protect itself from the fires that destroyed large parts of it on two occasions.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

There are two main parts to Nijo-jo Castle that you’ll see when you visit. The first is the main palace – a single-storey building that stretches out over a large area, full of rooms connected with paper doors and tatami mats. Most of the walls have beautiful and intricate paintings or gold leaf designs.

The second part is the expansive gardens and shrines which are carefully manicured and blossom with colour at certain times of the year.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

Ninna-ji Temple

There are many parts to Ninna-ji Temple and, again, it’s easier to think about the two main sections. The first is the ‘palace’, or the mansion of the imperial priest.

There’s an entrance fee for this part but it’s worth it because the building is beautifully understated and has a great view across its garden.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

The second section of Ninna-ji is ‘everything else’. This part has no entrance fee and includes a five-storied pagoda, the actual temple building, a golden hall, and smaller shrines scattered through the area.

After walking through the main and magnificent gate, there’s a long and wide boulevard to the top.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

Ryoan-ji Temple

Most of the space in the Ryoan-ji Temple complex is taken up by a lake surrounded by forest. It’s a serene area where you can sit and look at the water and hear the birds in the trees around you.

But the highlight – and the main reason for coming – is to stare at some rocks. The rock garden at Ryoan-ji is world famous and is made up of a large rectangular area filled with white sand and fifteen rocks placed into five groups.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

There is supposed to be something spiritual in the exact design of the rocks and people do sit and look at it for hours. If it all sounds very zen, you’re right. This is actually a Zen temple.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

This is one of the busiest places in Kyoto in the late part of the day as bus after bus arrives with tourists coming for the sunset.

Up on a mountain, Kiyomizu-dera has quite a few different sections to discover. There’s the gate, pagoda and shrines at the entrance, which are bright orange and impressively-large.

If you pay the entrance fee, you can go further in to the main wooden temple which was built without a single nail. From the decks here, you can look out across much of Kyoto and see the sun go down towards the horizon, creating silhouettes of the buildings you’ve just walked past.

It’s a stunning way to finish a day in Kyoto and it’s no surprise this is the last stop for the tour groups as well. Luckily Kiyomizu-dera Temple is large enough that it never feels too crowded.

Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan
Best temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN KYOTO

Kyoto is certainly worth more than just a day trip and so here are some suggestions for places to stay.

BACKPACKER

For a great budget option, The Millenials has an awesome and comfortable design.

BUDGET

An affordable and comfortable hotel option is the Gojo Guesthouse in the centre of town.

BOUTIQUE

For a traditional Japanese ryokan experience, try Hotel Mugen.

LUXURY

And if you really want to splurge, the Ritz-Carlton is one of the nicest hotels you will ever see!

UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

31 thoughts on “One day in Kyoto is never enough”

  1. Wow! You managed to do that all in one day?
    I guess there weren’t that many people then.
    During certain times it’s so crowded you certainly won’t be able to see all that in one day.

    You could spend weeks in Kyoto and there’s still so much to see.
    I doubt I’ll ever see everything, but I enjoy going back there.
    I admit that there are certain sights that I’ve seen many, many times already such as Kiyomizudera or Fushimi Inari.

    Reply
    • It was a pretty packed day but it wasn’t too hard to fit these four things in. You’re right, though, that everything would have taken longer if it was really busy. I think Kyoto is somewhere I’ll have to go back to again… when I’m ready for more temples 🙂

      Reply
    • Make sure you give yourself enough time there! Each of the temples and shrines (particularly the UNESCO ones) each have something a bit different and special about them. See if you can do all 17! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Ahhhh, so amazing! I was going to be heading to Japan, and Kyoto, in a month but changed my mind at the last minute because a week of fast-paced travel in Japan was working out to be crazy expensive. This post is not making me feel good about my decision!

    Reply
    • Oh no! That’s disappointing. I found that Japan isn’t too expensive (by global standards) but it’s true that if you’re rushing around for a week the transport costs really add up.

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  3. No visit to Kinkaku-ji? It’s not exactly walking distance so can understand why you didn’t make it, but it’s worth seeing when you go back.
    Great post – reminded me why I love Japan so much.

    Reply
    • Argh – why are you trying to make me feel bad about myself? 🙂
      I would loved to have gone there – it looks beautiful with all the gold. It’s probably the one I would have done next if I had had time. Oh well… next trip…

      Reply
  4. Thanks for the great post…would love to go to Kyoto someday (my experience of Japan so far has included only Tokyo and the surrounding areas). My favorite part of you post…the zen rock garden 🙂

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    • Ha – I’m glad you liked the zen rock garden. It’s supposed to be one of the highlights but I just didn’t get it. Perhaps that shows that I need to spend a bit more time finding the inner me… or something like that 🙂

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  5. I’ve been to Kyoto several times and haven’t even seen half of what’s there. As for the rock garden at Ryoanji: it has 15 rocks, but from any vantage point, exactly one is hidden from view. If you move so that the hidden rock becomes visible, another one disappears from your view–no matter where you stand, you can always only see 14. Apparently, when the 15th becomes visible, you have attained enlightenment. I’m assuming this was before the invention of the ladder…

    Reply
    • Ha ha. If I’d known, I would’ve taken my ladder with me! That’s actually a really interesting fact, though. It’s pretty clever – and I wonder how many times they rearranged the rocks before they were able to get that effect.

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  6. Kyoto is amazing. I was in Kyoto for a week and there was still so much to see. I am really impressed with how much you managed to fit in in only one day, you must have been exhausted.

    Reply
    • It was a pretty tiring day – especially as I was staying in Osaka and just got the train there and back for the day. I probably should’ve stayed overnight and seen a bit more. But, as you say, even in a week you can’t see it all!

      Reply
  7. Some great pics, brings back fond memories. We were a little temple burned out by the time we explored Kyoto, having spent 4 days exploring Nara, Kobe and Kyoto. We only scratched the surface. Hopefully we’ll return to Japan one day, it’s still remains as one of our favourite countries

    Reply
    • That’s the biggest issue with that area – it’s not just Kyoto. There are the other places nearby (like Nara) that are full of temples and after a while they all just become a big blur. I was trying to think about what I had done that week and I was getting confused about which temple was in which place.

      Reply
  8. Last month i was in Kyoto with my friends for a trip. Kyoto is really a very beautiful city of Japan. It was my best trip. I almost visited all tourist places of this city. I will make a plan to go there again.

    Reply
    • Good on you for seeing so much of it. There’s so much to see there, I don’t know how you would be able to pack it all in. But, you’re right, it’s a beautiful place!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  9. Can’t believe you missed Fushimi-Inari-Taisha. That was my favorite shrine in Kyoto, and so different from everything else. Row after row of torii climbing up and down through the wooded hills – gorgeous! Next time you’re in Kyoto, you’ll have to check it out.

    Reply
    • Oh yes, it’s an beautiful temple – I actually went there years ago. But, interestingly, it’s not part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kyoto. There are 17 temples and shrines within Kyoto that are part of it and this isn’t one of them… it’s still one of the biggest tourist attractions, though.

      Reply

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