Few Japanese cities offer as much historic charm and Zen-inspired beauty as Kyoto. Reachable in just under an hour by train from Osaka and less than three hours from Tokyo by the Shinkansen bullet train, Kyoto is a city that you should plan to spend at least a day in.
Kyoto is often a must-visit destination for first-time travellers to Japan. The country’s former imperial capital is home to tranquil landscaped parks, charming paved streets that take you back to Japan’s Edo period, impressive restaurants, cafés and shops, and more than a thousand majestic Buddhist temples and shrines. Kyoto is also a pedestrian-friendly city, and most of its interesting neighbourhoods and landmark sites are accessible either by foot or via the city’s efficient subway system. If you get an early start, you’ll be able to see and do plenty in Kyoto in just 24 hours.
Enjoy a local breakfast at Kishin Kitchen
Begin your day with a Japanese breakfast at Kishin Kitchen. Kishin – which comes from the Zen word for ‘joyful mind’ – serves simple, delicious and nutritious breakfast set meals made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. The star of these breakfast sets are the soups, which are available in three varieties: Kyoto white miso with pork and root vegetable; clear seasonal vegetable; and Japanese tomato seafood. The soups are served with rice and pickles, while side dishes come at an additional cost.
Embrace nature in Arashiyama’s bamboo groves and temple gardens
From Kishin Kitchen, jump into a taxi and head west for about 35 minutes to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, where you can enjoy an invigorating morning stroll through a forest of soaring, ethereal bamboo plants. At the back of the forest, you’ll find Giou-ji, a peaceful little temple with a magical-looking, carefully tended moss garden. Afterwards, as you make your way back to Arashiyama’s downtown area, stop by Tenryu-ji Temple, which has a lovely garden with a pond framed by scenes of Mount Arashi and Mount Kame. By mid-morning you’ll be happy to refuel with some good aromatic coffee at Arabica Arashiyama, a local café with an alfresco seating area overlooking the picturesque Hozugawa River and the Togetsu-kyo Bridge.
Eat and shop at Nishiki Market
Take a taxi or the subway back to downtown Kyoto to the bustling the stalls and eateries of Nishiki Market. This 400m (1,310ft)-long stretch of market has more than a hundred stalls selling everything from skewered octopus heads and premium grilled steaks to chilled pickled cucumbers and tofu doughnuts. Give yourself at least two hours to walk through, try as many snacks as you can and perhaps pick up a few packs of vacuum-sealed pickles or spices as gifts for family and friends. While you’re here, a good place to stop for lunch is Hale, a cosy vegetarian restaurant where you can order a bowl of rice topped with stewed yuba – tofu skin – accompanied by salad or vegetables, soup and side dishes.
Find your Zen walking the ‘Path of Philosophy’
From Nishiki Market, take the subway from Shijo station to Demachiyanagi station then walk for about 25 minutes past Kyoto University and Yoshida Shrine till you arrive at Ginkaku-ji Temple, where The Philosopher’s Walk begins. Known locally as tetsugaku-no-michi, which means ‘path of philosophy’, The Philosopher’s Walk is a roughly 2km (1.25 mile) path that follows the scenic Shishigatani Canal from Ginkaku-ji Temple southward to Nanzen-ji Temple. Lined with cherry, maple and camellia trees, the path was thus named because the influential 20th-century Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, used this path for daily meditation while he lived in Kyoto and taught philosophy at Kyoto University. The walk takes about 30 minutes and passes by a number of temples, shrines and a few cafés and gift shops.
Experience old Kyoto in Higashiyama
At the southern end of The Philosopher’s Path is Nanzen-ji Temple, which has been the headquarters of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen and the centre of Zen Buddhism since 1386. Formerly the retirement villa of Japan’s 90th emperor, according to legend, the villa was once haunted by malevolent ghosts so the emperor called in a Zen priest to help him expel the supernatural presence. The priest succeeded and in gratitude, the emperor converted to Zen Buddhism and transformed his villa into the impressive Nanzen-ji Temple. From Nazen-ji, keep walking south and you’ll arrive at Higashiyama, one of Kyoto’s best preserved historical districts. Soak up the atmosphere of old Japan as you explore the narrow lanes lined with wooden buildings, shops and local eateries. Not to be missed are landmark sites Yasaka Shrine – a popular spot for cherry-blossom viewing in springtime, and Kiyomizu-dera Temple – a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most famous Buddhist temple complexes from the Heian period.
Higashiyama is also a great spot for shopping. You can buy pretty tea and sake sets from Pottery Shop Toutensei Kawasaki and piquant umeboshi – pickled plums – from Ousu no Sato.
Look out for geishas and indulge in a kaseiki dinner in Gion
Geishas are Japanese female entertainers who are recognised by their kimonos and oshiroi makeup (white powder applied to the face). Geishas perform traditional songs and dances, and you might see a few walking along the streets of Gion even today. Developed during the Sengoku period, which lasted from around 1457 to 1615, Gion is one of Japan’s most well-known geisha districts, and also where you’ll find many of Kyoto’s finest dining establishments.
Kyoto is famous for its kaseiki ryori – multi-course, degustation-style haute cuisine that’s served in many of the restaurants and inns in Gion. Most of the best kaseiki restaurants in Kyoto are usually fully booked days, weeks or months ahead of time, so it’s best to make a reservation before you arrive in the city. A good place to enjoy a kaiseki meal is Gion Nanba, which serves creative, and beautifully presented, Japanese dishes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients such as fresh water eel in summer. Tucked away in a small alley in Gion, the restaurant only has two small private dining rooms and six bar counter seats, so reservations are a must. The dishes here are much more traditional than many of the other kaseiki restaurants, and much attention is paid to the flavour profiles of the key ingredients in each dish.
Treat yourself to a matcha parfait for dessert
After dinner, satisfy your sweet tooth at Saryo Tsujiri , a Japanese-style dessert café that offers a wide variety of matcha – powdered green tea – desserts made from tea leaves farmed in the nearby town of Uji. Try one of their decadent parfaits complete with matcha soft-serve ice-cream, jellies and mochi sticky rice balls. If you’re still too full from dinner, then get yourself some warm and mellow matcha tea to aid with digestion.
Sake and dancing around Pontocho
From Gion, walk across the bridge near Gion-Shijo station to Pontocho Alley – a narrow nightlife street on the west bank of the Kamo River flanked by traditional wooden houses on both sides. By day, this alley is quiet, but at night, it comes to life with dozens of eateries, bars and clubs. Enjoy some sake at Ki Bar, which also offers karaoke, then walk along Kamo River and take in the views of the city by night. If you still have the energy for it, head to World Kyoto nightclub that’s located just off Kiyamachi-dori – the street parallel to Pontocho Alley – and dance the night away.