Visiting Kyoto in one day is crazy, I know. But if you’ll stay in Japan just for short time or you’re in a business trip, you can’t miss the occasion to spent at least one day in Kyoto.
Yes, even if it’s just a taste. Because when there are opportunities, must be seized!
Of course, in a day in Kyoto, my advice is to visit the main attractions and reserve a future visit for the less crowded places and immerse yourself better in the atmosphere of the city.
One day in Kyoto, even if this city is too crowded all year round, is an experience that you will keep in your heart forever.
To visit Kyoto is needed at least 3 days, 4 days if you want to visit Nara (and I recommend it), but following my itinerary you’ll be able to visit the symbols of Kyoto in one single day.
Visit Kyoto in one day
Let’s start by saying that you’ll never finish to explore Kyoto, but since we have only one day available, we must focus on the “unmissable” the iconic spot of the city.
Kyoto is a very huge city and alas, not all the main attractions are located next to each other. In addition, the subway system is not as convenient as in Tokyo and the best way to visit Kyoto is by bus. Which means a route on the road, slower and subject to traffic jam. You might opt to travel by taxi, which is cheaper than in Tokyo, but you need to keep in mind that travel takes a long time. If you want to optimize the time available, I advise you to not stop for a real lunch break, but to taste some street food that you can easily find nearby the temples.
If you only have one day to visit Kyoto, your itinerary will almost certainly start and end at the Kyoto station, where both Shinkansen and local trains arrive, as well as night buses. If you arrive from Tokyo Shinkansen takes about 3 hours so I suggest you leave around 7-7.30am in order to arrive in Kyoto late morning. For the return the last shinkansen is around 9pm.
From the station you can then start your day in Kyoto by taking a taxi or buying a daily bus pass (500yen) which is convenient if you use the bus at least 3 times in a day.
Kinkakuji, the Goldel Pavillon
The Golden Pavilion is undoubtedly the most famous image of Kyoto. That famous Japanese temple, covered with gold that is reflected in the placid waters of the pond in front of it, is the first thing we think about when we hear the name Kyoto. An emblem like this can only be the first stage of our day in Kyoto, also because being in the western part of the city, it is more distant from the station and other attractions, so it is better to go here as a first stop to optimize itineraru.
The bus stop is easily identifiable: Kinkakujimachi and also the driver usually informs passengers that it is the Kinkakuji stop and all the passengers probably will get off here.
From the station to the Golden Pavilion it is almost an hour by bus 205.
The approach to the temple passes through a beautiful vegetation, which in the autumn season is inflamed with the red of the momiji and autumn leaves. On the other hand, Kyoto is one of the best destinations to spot autumn colors, koyo, even more than Okutama and Mount Takao near Tokyo.
To access the pond and the gardens surrounding the Golden Pavilion it is asked an entrance fee of 400 yen and is not possible to enter in the golden biulding.
Being the most famous attraction of the city, it is always very crowded, so arm yourself with patience and wait your turn to take billions of photos of the shining golden temple.
The Golden Pavilion is a Zen temple built by Yoshimitsu Ashikaga as his retreat. At his death it became a Zen Rinzai temple. The interiors are built according to the style of the era in vogue among the aristocrats: each floor represents a different culture and style. The ground floor is typical of the Heian period, with contrasts between the wood of the pillars and the white of the wall panels. The second floor reminds the Samurai residences, and the third is Chinese-inspired.
The surrounding gardens are also interesting and there is also an old tea room that looks to the temple, as needed at the temple of the Daimyo who loved to retreat here to relax.
Suvenir, omikuji (lucky charm), snacks and a modern tearoom are located at the end of the path, you can stop here for a short and quick break and nibble something!
Ryoanji and the zen garden
A soft 20-minute walk or ten minutes btbus 59 will take you to Ryoanji Shrine, a beautiful and quiet temple famous for its zen garden.
In this sand garden are 15 rocks, grouped in various points, which is supposed to represent the islands of Japan. The interesting fact is that from almost no observation point you can see all 15 rocks, at least one remains hidden! The meaning of this display, as well as its origin, is not well known and according to Zen tradition, the meaning must not be explained: everyone has to understand it by itself… Stop here for a while and meditate.
In addition to this famous garden, the garden surrounding the temple is very suggestive as well, especially with the autumn colors and I invite you to walking it, following the path that runs around the pond.
Hours: 08.00-17.00 from March to November, 08.30-16.30 in winter
Kyomizudera and Higashiyama
At this point probably the morning of your day in Kyoto will be passed, and it is better to head to the east side of the city, the most evocative and rich in temples, with the hill of Higashiyama.
The transfer takes about an hour, different combinations of buses reach the area, personally I recommend using Google Maps and set as destination Kyomizu-michi or Goyo-zaka.
You’ll get at the foot of Higashiyama and will reach the large and famous Kyomizudera through the Sannenzaka stairway. I advise you to make a first stop at the Temple and then walk the alleys of Sannenzaka and Ninezaka, in an ancient atmposphere among paved streets, wooden houses, cute little souvenir shops and even a Starbucks that looks like a tea house.
Kyomizudera is the largest and most important temple in Kyoto and one of the most famous in Japan, as well as UnescoHeritage. Among its peculiarities, stands out the huge wooden structure that supports the temple above the cliff, an incredible sight even if at the moment is under restoration until 2020. Always inside of the Kyomizudera there is also a Shinto temple dedicated to love, soul mate, and wedding but for the moment I’m far away thanks: P
In the lower part of the temple, under the wooden foundations, you can find Otowa Waterfall, the pure water that gives its name to the temple. The water drops divided into three fountains, from which visitors can drink thanks to a ladle. Everyone can drink from a single source, choosing well what you wants between longevity, success or love; I recommend to think carefully about your choice and don’t cheat drinking from all three!
If you visit Kyoto around the end of November or the end of March, you can watch the special illuminations of the garden that extend the opening of the Temple until 9.00 pm and are definitely worth seeing.
Hours: 06.00-18.00 (18.30 on weekends from mid-April to July and every day in August and September)
After your visit to Kyomizudera, end your day in Kyoto walking the streets of Higashiyama, descending from the preserved alleyways and depending on the time you decide to stop and visit the temples along the way, such as the Kodaiji and its beautiful Zen garden and the grove of bamboo (since alas, in a single day in Kyoto you will not be able to visit the great Bamboo forest of Arashiyama which is out of town), or the Yasaka Shrine with its many lanterns, in which in July the famous Gion Matsuri.
Gion, the Geisha disctrict
Note that most of temples close at 4.30/5 pm and access is allowed up to half an hour before closing, so you will hardly be able to visit others.
From the Yasaka Shrine you just have to cross the street and take a few steps to reach Gion, the ancient Geisha district, where even today if you are lucky you might find it slipping through the narrow streets of the neighborhood.
Gion is still a district with ancient charm, which has arrivet to us as it appeared in old times, and despite the high number of tourists, remains one of the unmissable stops when visiting Kyoto.
Tea rooms, wooden houses, small shops, make Hanamikoji and the side streets a place out of time, full of emotions and suggestions. Just further north is the area of Shirakawa, overlooking a canal to give the most enchanted atmosphere, where to enjoy a special dinner, admiring the quiet flow of water.
On the other side of the Kamo River is Pontocho, which was once the prostitute district, now the land of izakaya and locals for drinking and eating yakitori. In short, a classic Japan, but less sophisticated than the neighboring Gion. A walk along the river and you will then be ready to greet the city and return to the station by bus 205 and end your day in Kyoto!
Of course, with just one day at your disposal you will only have a taste of the beauty of this city, but when the chances of visiting a city happen even for a few hours, my advice is to take them on the fly!