48 hours in Kyoto, a City Stuck in Time
April is fast approaching and cherry blossoms will soon be in bloom. Now is the best time of the year to visit the ancient city of Kyoto, a historic place that connects the present to the past and brings you the best that Japan as to offer. There are cities you see and then there are cities you experience—Kyoto is one of the latter. With a story around every corner, Kyoto needs to be lived through in real time, beyond the view from your camera lens.
Located in Kyoto Prefecture in Kansai Region, the former imperial city of Japan is home to more than a thousand years of history with almost 20 percent of the country’s national treasures and cultural heritage sites found within its territory. Thousands flock to the city on any given day of the year from spring to winter, a testament to its transcending appeal, and whether your stay ranges from two days to two months, you’ll end up wishing you could stay longer.
9 a.m. Stroll and people-watch
Situated in a valley bordered by mountains on three sides, Kyoto’s either very cold in the winter or very warm in the summer. Always check out the local weather forecasts, and arm yourself with a map you can find at the English section of the travel pamphlets area at Kyoto Station, then you’re good to go. After checking into one of the many hostels, hotels, and guest houses (advisably, stay near the train station to easily access train lines and bus routes), spend your first few moments in the city strolling through the streets and people-watch. Don’t be surprised if you see women wearing kimonos, even in the chilly winter, and if you’re lucky, you might spot a geisha.
If you must take photos, take care not to block the geisha's path as she's probably on her way to work. It's generally better to ask for permission instead of running after her like paparazzi, and remember not to take any pictures if she's with a client, as that's a big no-no.
Enjoy the Kyoto vibes that blend old and new in this pseudo-urban area. Unlike most metropolis locations in Japan, Kyoto’s skyline isn’t as occupied like that of Osaka and Tokyo in order to preserve the historic value of the old city.
10 a.m. Do as the Japanese do. In Japan, do as the Japanese do—walk. The best way to get anywhere is with a little exercise, so from wherever you’re staying, walk toward the Hongaji Temples located just a few blocks from Kyoto Station. Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji are located within a few blocks from each other and serve as the head temples of Jodo-shin Buddhism. (Japan is home to two major religions: Buddhism and Shintoism, which have managed to co-exist harmoniously over the centuries.) The Hongaji Temples are "only" centuries old (age in Kyoto is measured in thousands, not hundreds, of years), but its proximity to the center of Kyoto is a good place to orient yourself with the Japanese brand of Buddhism.
Early to mid-mornings are always the best time to visit temples and shrines to avoid the afternoon crowd, but before visiting, it would be prudent to brush up on Japanese etiquette when it comes to visiting temples and shrines.
12 p.m. Go on a food trip. Honestly, any restaurant in Kyoto will do because nothing beats authentic Japanese cuisine. A good food hub would be Porta, an underground mall conveniently located near Kyoto Station. With rows upon rows of Japanese restaurants, Porta offers an array of dishes at an average of 1,500 yen per meal. The perks of eating at touristy spots: menus and waiters can serve you in English, just in case you’ve run out of Japanese.
1 p.m. Stop by the Golden Pavilion. At Kyoto Station, catch a bus going to Northern Kyoto where Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, is located. As its name suggests, it is, quite literally, made of gold—or its top two floors are at least. Once the retirement home of 14th century shogun (military general and de factor leader of Japan) Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the villa was converted into a Zen temple for the Rinsai sect of Buddhism following his death. After strolling through the villa’s grounds, take a break at the pavilion’s small tea shop that offers matcha tea (the legit kind) and traditional Japanese sweets.
3 p.m. Life below land. It wouldn’t be a Japan trip without indulging in the sciences that the country has to offer. In Kyoto, that means the Kyoto Aquarium located next to Umekoji Park in Central Kyoto where an array of marine animals are housed. Both educational and just plain fun, the aquarium’s appeal goes beyond just children and families—it’s also a reminder for all to protect the environment, something that you might notice the country takes seriously with their strict recycling habits and taboos about littering.
6 p.m. Priorities. Everyone needs an occasional dose of shopping, especially in a country where foreign brands are not as heavily taxed compared to the Philippines. Porta, Aeon Mall, Yodobashi, and Kyoto Isetan Department Store are just some of the easily accessible shopping centers in central Kyoto.
7 a.m. Have an early morning in Arashiyama. After alighting from a train at Arashiyama Station in Western Kyoto, the first place you should visit in the preserved town is Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like all temples in Japan, the structure has a rich history tracing back to Muromachi period, but it’s the impeccable garden and grounds that will capture your attention with how it holds true to the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabisabi—finding beauty in imperfection.
At the end of the path in the gardens of Tenryuji lies the entrance to the world famous Bamboo Groves of Kyoto that are best experienced in the early mornings before the crush of the crowd comes in.
After crossing Togetsukyo Bridge from Arashiyama to Sagano, make your trip even more memorable by visiting the Japanese macaques in Monkey Park Iwatayama. As fun as feeding and observing the snow monkeys are, the almost 20 minute hike up the hill to reach the park will make you literally catch your breath—but the mischievous monkeys (who might steal your belongings) are well worth it in the end.
12 p.m. Lunch by the riverside. Arashiyama is a major highlight for any Kyoto traveler, and its hidden gems are a great way to end a visit to the preserved community. A rare music box shop lies at the edge of the Togetsukyo Bridge in Sagano, and on the other side, after a walk along the river bank, sits an modest family restaurant where you can enjoy traditional Japanese dishes while sitting Indian style by the riverside. The open air and the stunning view of the river and mountains are enough to make anyone appreciate the humble, homey lifestyle of Kyoto.
2 p.m. A stop for history junkies. After taking either a bus or train back to Kyoto Central Station, take another bus to Kyoto National Museum. The Heisei Chishinkan building houses the museum’s collection of stone sculptures, paintings, weapons, and much more, from the culturally rich eras of Japan. This is definitely a stop for history junkies who are sure to be engrossed in the myths and legends depicted in the tapestries and paintings in the museum.
If your interest with Japanese religion was piqued at the museum, head on over to Sanjusangendo Temple just across the street. The temple is home to 1000 armed statues of Kannon (also known as Guan Yin), the Buddhist deity of mercy. The sheer number of metal statues of Kannon and other deities make for an awe-inspiring experience as well as a reminder of Buddhism’s Hinduism roots. For those with wishes and request, they can drop a coin into one of the donation boxes to ask for good fortune from the deities of the wind, seas, and much more.
4 p.m. Good fortune awaits.
A short bus ride or long walk from Sanjusangendo temple is Kiyomizudera Temple, or the “Pure Water Temple.” Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the surrounding landscape of the temple is enough to attract a slew of tourists all year round. Prepare for the heavy crowds, especially at Otowa Waterfall. Hundreds brave the rush of tourists just to get a sip from the waters of the Otowa Waterfall that are told to gift people with longevity, success, and/or love. If you haven’t realized it yet in your Kyoto trip, the people there take fortune very seriously. Even just a visit to Koyasu Pagoda in Kiyomizudera is said to ensure safe childbirth.
After testing out your fortunes, walk down from the temple to the main road by going through Higashiyama, the preserved historic district in Eastern Kyoto that makes you feel like you’re walking through 18th century Japan. Probably the best shopping location for travelers, the stone paved streets that sit in between wooden buildings housing numerous merchant shops sell everything from hand-made fans to Japanese sweets.
7 a.m. Way of the gods. Save the best for last: towards the end of your trip, close it on a high note with a visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine, most famous for its trail of torii gates that lead up to Mount Inari. Shinto, Japan’s traditional religion, is translated as “the way of the gods,” while Shinto shrines (“shinsha”) can be interpreted as “the place of the gods.” As such, shrines hold a sacred value, connecting the present to the past, with Inari shrines dedicated as a place of worship to Inari, the kami (god or spirit) of rice, fertility, and industry.
Fushimi Inari Shrine sits on the side of a mountain, so it’ll take at least three hours to reach the top of the trail. But don’t let that deter you from visiting because those hours will be spent walking under the remarkable torii gates that mark the transition from the ordinary to the sacred. Along the way, you’ll spot countless statues of kitsune (foxes), the messengers of the kami Inari.
Early mornings are the best time to visit the shrine so you can sink yourself in its quiet, ancient atmosphere. Peeking through the spaces in between each torii gate, the view will gradually change from ancient tree trunks to skylines and mountainsides as you reach the end of your journey. Rain or shine, night or day, Fushimi Inari Shrine holds some of the best experiences in the ancient city of Kyoto.