Konichiwa! I'm just back from a whirlwind trip to Japan - literally, I felt like I blinked and it was over. I flew in and out of Osaka, but spent most of my time in Kyoto, and wanted to share my 48-hour itinerary with you guys. The itinerary is perfect for anyone planning a first-time visit. I've included some of Kyoto's most iconic places, as well as a few off-the-beaten-path gems. I used trains and buses to get around, which might seem overwhelming at first in Japan, but if you use Google maps the transportation system is actually incredibly efficient and easy. I'm hoping to visit Kyoto again this year, so if you have any recommendations for my upcoming trip, please drop me a note. Happy travels!
Making friends with the famous deer of Nara.
8 AM: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
More than anywhere else in Kyoto, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove should be visited first thing in the morning. The grove is quite small, and once tourists start pouring in, the place gets incredibly busy and the tranquility quickly melts away. Depending on your hotel's location, it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to reach Arashiyama by train or bus - so plan accordingly to arrive by 8 AM (or earlier!). (Location: Arashiyama, Ukyo-ku / 右京区嵐山; Open 24 Hours; FREE)
For the best photos, head straight to the back of the bamboo grove, then turn around and take a picture. Even if there are people in the distance, the person in the photo hides them from view (there were probably 6 people behind me in this photo).
Soft serve treats just outside of the forrest.
Such a pretty part of the city.
The bamboo grove is easy to access by train. It's a 10-minute walk from the Saga Arashiyama Station and a 15-minute walk from the Arashiyama Station.
This was 9 AM, still not many people.
Absolutely loved the little Snoopy dessert shop located just outside of the bamboo grove.
10 AM: Otagi Nenbutsu-ji
This is my favorite temple in Kyoto, and it's remained relatively unknown. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is located on the outskirts of Arashiyama, about 20 minutes driving from the bamboo grove, in a quiet, wooded part of the city. It's actually hard to believe it's in Kyoto. The temple sits surrounded by 1,200 beautiful rakan statues, and each one is different. The temple is pretty small, and can be explored in less than an hour. No need to worry about crowds of people - this place is off the tourist radar. While the bus conveniently stops right at the temple entrance, there is only one bus an hour, so check the bus schedule on Google Maps to properly time your visit. (Address: 2-5 Sagatoriimoto Fukatanicho, Ukyo-ku / 右京区嵯峨鳥居本深谷町2-5; 8 AM-5 PM; 300 yen)
The hillside is covered with hundreds of these statues.
This guy was my favorite.
We had the temple to ourselves most of the morning.
If you miss the bus, it's a 30-minute walk to the bamboo grove from here.
Can you spot me?
My second visit to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, it's my favorite temple in Kyoto.
11:30 AM: Ramen Street - Kyoto Station
It might not be the best ramen in the city, but the Ramen Street (Ramen Koji) at Kyoto Station is a must-visit. To find the cooridor of noodle stalls, head up the Daikaidan Grand Stairway at Kyoto Station to the 10th floor. The entire level serves ramen - most places have you order by machine. Best not to visit during the lunch or dinner rush - it's popular, it's cheap and it can get very busy. (Location: Kyoto Station, 10th floor, next to the Daikaidan Grand Stairway; 11 AM-10 PM)
I think I could eat ramen every day for lunch in Japan.
2 PM: Fushimi Inari Taisha
Similar to Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari Taisha is a tourist magnet. Unlike the bamboo grove, this place is massive. There are 30,000 red shrines that span four kilometers up a mountain, leaving plenty of space to thin out the crowds of people. When you first arrive and see dozens of tourists bottlenecked at the base of the shrine taking photos, don't freak out! Simply hike through the crowds and continue up the trail. Most visitors only hike 1/4 of the way, so if you climb just a little further the people quickly start to dwindle away. There are plenty of amazing photo opportunities a bit further up where you'll have the trail to yourself - don't waste time at the base if it's packed with people. (Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto; Open 24 hours; FREE)
Took this photo in the middle of the day, closer to the top of the mountain. Hardly any people along this stretch of trail!
The 4-kilometer trail took about two hours to hike with photo stops.
4 PM: Pontocho Alley
It's easy to miss little Pontocho Alley if you aren't looking for it. The charming pedestrian corridor sits tucked away near Gion, running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, parallel to the Kamogawa River. It's one of the few spots in the city you might glimpse a geisha at night, as the alley is filled with tea houses, traditional restaurants and bars. (Location: Pontocho dori, Nakagyo-ku / 中京区先斗町通; FREE)
6 PM: Park Hyatt Kyoto
If you're planning to splurge at some point in Japan, this is where to do it. The completely new Park Hyatt Kyoto feels nothing like a chain hotel. The experience of staying here is truly one of Old World Japan with design cues that incorporate traditional Japanese elements, architecture and craftsmanship. It was such a treat to return here in the evenings - luxurious, calming and completely serene. And the property also sits on one of the most iconic streets in Kyoto, literally steps away from the historical charm of Higashiyama. Thank you Park Hyatt for hosting my stay! (Address: 〒605-0826 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Masuyacho, 360 高台寺)
Several of the rooms offer beautiful views over Higashiyama.
My first sunset from the hotel.
7 AM: Higashiyama
Take advantage of the Park Hyatt Kyoto's amazing location and explore the historic Higashiyama neighborhood. The hotel sits on one of the most photographed streets in the city, so pop out just after sunrise to snap a few photos before the tourists in kimonos start to arrive for photos.
One of the most famous spots for photos in all of Kyoto.
Quiet corners in Higashiyama.
Another popular street for photographers (this is a one-minute walk from the hotel).
This was my first time in the Higashiyama Ward, and I absolutely loved the feel of Old World Kyoto here.
9 AM Todai-ji Temple
After snapping your photos in Higashiyama, catch the earliest possible train to Nara. Todai-ji is the city's most famous temple], and if you arrive before 9 AM, you'll have the place to yourself. The temple is absolutely incredible - I've read several places that it's the largest wooden structure in the world. Quite the experience to stand before it without any one else around. (Address: 406-1 Zoshicho, Nara; 8 AM-5 PM; 500 yen)
They say it is the largest wooden structure in the world.
One of the most iconic spots in Nara.
10 AM: Nara Park
This was my second time in Nara, and it's still one of the my favorite parts of Japan. Todai-ji sits right next to Nara Park, an area of the city where thousands of friendly deer roam freely amongst the city's visitors. Some people find the deer aggressive, but I absolutely love them. I like to think they love me too, but really the deer are just looking for deer biscuits. Biscuits are sold for 150 to 200 yen for a dozen biscuits at little stalls around the city. Keep the biscuits safely hidden - the deer will shove their mouths into your coat pocket or purse searching for treats! (Nara Park, Nara / 奈良公園; Open 24 hours)
Deer whisperer (I wish!).
Bought this cute deer crossing post card inside Todai-ji.
I couldn't believe how calm this deer was posing for photos!
Some of the deer would bully other deer away from me because I had deer biscuits.
This guy was like a magnet following me all over the park.
1 PM Ginkaku-ji Temple
This is a zen temple located along the mountain in eastern Higashiyama. Also known as the Silver Pavilion, the reason to visit is for the spectacular sand garden, something rarely seen at such a scale. Be prepared for crowds midday, as it's a popular spot on the tourist circuit. Lots of tasty snacks to try on the street that leads to the temple. (Address: 2 Ginkaku-ji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto / 左京区銀閣寺町2; 8:30 AM-5 PM March to November, 9 AM-4:30 PM December to February; 500 yen)
So much soft serve in Japan!
3:30 PM: Kiyomizu Temple / Higashiyama
Depending how long you spend with the deer, you could be back in Kyoto by early afternoon. Nara is only an hour away, leaving the afternoon to spend in the Gion Ward, Kiyomizu Temple and Higashiyama district. Everything in these three areas can be accessed via a short walk, one train stop or quick taxi ride. You might be templed out by this point, but if you can manage one more, Kiyomizu is one of the most celebrated spots in the city with a grand wooden stage that overlooks stunning views of Kyoto.
Entrance to grand Kiyomizu.