I first visited Kyoto in 2010 and immediately fell for its peaceful allure. Although it was a short one-night stay, it was easy to see that Kyoto is unlike any other city in Japan. I have long wanted to return and spend more time there and recently did just that. With 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in and around the city and a history steeped in sake and geishas, there is no shortage of things to see and do. With that in mind, here is my take on what you can cover with three days in Kyoto including what to see, do, eat and drink.
What Is There to See in Kyoto?
From seaming endless temples and shrines to a peaceful garden, there is no shortage of zen in and around Kyoto. So much so that you can dedicate one of your three days in Kyoto to exploring its temples and shrines.
East of downtown Kyoto you will find Kiyomizu-Dera, a Buddhist temple popping out of the lush greenery that surrounds the city. Built-in 1633, this large complex perched on the hillside offers amazing views of Kyoto and is highlighted by a waterfall running through it. Also note, not one nail was used in its construction. Think about that while you are peering over its balcony 😉
There are several spiritual activities to take part in around the complex. I recommend Tainai-Meguri, a pitch-black room used to symbolize the womb of a female bodhisattva.
What Is There to Do in Kyoto?
As I found on my three days in Kyoto, there is much to do beyond seeing temples and shrines. Kyoto may be laid back but there is still fun to be had including a sake crawl through the Fushimi district and eating your way around Gion.
Despite its surrounding green hills, lakes, and rivers, Kyoto is a metropolitan city with a bustling downtown core. With no shortage of shopping arcades, bars, restaurants, and hotels, there is plenty to do downtown. Here are a couple of my favourites.
Stroll Nishiki Market
Stretching 400 meters through downtown Kyoto is the city’s popular shopping street, Nishiki Market. With over 100 stalls selling everything from locally grown produce to knives and street eats, there truly is something for everyone. Open daily from 0930-1800, this downtown Kyoto highlight is a great place to people watch, pick up a unique souvenir, and try some local eats.
Also, don’ t miss Nishiki Tenmangū on the east end of the covered street. This small shrine is dedicated to the deity Tenjin and features a statue of a cow that is said to bring good luck to those who rub it.
Note: The narrow street and its popularity can make for a slow crawl. If you want to get the full experience and maintain your sanity, consider booking a food tour with a local guide!
Wander the Manga Museum
Home to over 300,000 Japanese comic books (Manga), the International Manga Museum offers a unique peek into Japan’s fascination with cartoons. The walls are full of books that you can flip through. There are displays on the evolution of Manga and occasional presentations from artists. There are also demonstrations on how to draw Manga for the creatives out there.
Take a Stroll in a Bamboo Forest
If the hustle of downtown Kyoto and throngs of manga otaku (obsessed manga fans) have you looking for the exit, the next stop on this three days in Kyoto itinerary will be a breath of fresh air. Located southeast of Kyoto you will find the peaceful Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Stroll amongst tall bamboo trees before making your way across the Togetsu-kyo Bridge and over to the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. There you will find 200+ Japanese monkeys doing Japanese monkey things. The hike up takes about an hour if walking slow. The reward is a beautiful panoramic view of Kyoto.
Count the Torii Gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine
Another Instagram friendly stop on this three days in Kyoto itinerary is the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This 4 km path up Inari Mountain features over 30,000 orange Torii gates.
Why so many gates? The shrine dates back to the 8th century and is dedicated to the Gods of rice, sake, and prosperity. As such, each gate has been donated by a Japanese business or individual in the hopes that they find fortune or good luck in their ventures. In return, each gate is inscribed with the donor’s name.
Note: Although open 24/7, the best time to visit is mid-afternoon when crowds start to thin out and the temperature starts to cool.
Sake Crawl Through Fushimi
Speaking of sake, the fact that the shrine is dedicated to Japan’s favourite drink is no coincidence. As I found out on my time sake tasting in Kyoto with Magical Trip, the mineral-rich runoff from Inari Mountain is ideal for brewing sake! Fushimi’s sake district is the best place to experience this and sample some of the best the country has to offer. Head to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum to taste the mineral water from a live spring then head inside to educate yourself on the brewing process. Once done you get to sample some plum wine and a couple of types of sake, including a small bottle to go!
From there you can pub-crawl your way back to Fushimi-Momoyama Station, sampling the local sake along the way. Better yet, I highly recommend Magical Trips Sake Tasting and Brewery Tour. It’s a great way to get a locals insight and meet some new drinking partners along the way!
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- READ MORE: Check out my full review on my time sake tasting with Magical Trip!
Geisha Spotting in Gion
By now you should be ready for a night out in Kyoto so head back into town and over to the historic Gion area. Along with restaurants and bars, you will (hopefully) spot a Geisha strolling the narrow streets. These highly educated and trained entertainers are distinguished by their traditional dress and painted white faces. Despite what you may have heard, Geisha’s are not prostitutes. They train for up to five years in Japanese arts and attend private functions and high-end dinner parties.
What Should I Eat & Drink in Kyoto?
Although not a foodie city like neighbouring Osaka (although no city is like Osaka!), Kyoto has no shortage of great restaurants and food and drinks to try. You can find the food and drink listed below throughout the city however I recommend taking a food tour while in Kyoto. Not only will you get an insider’s take on where to find the best food in Kyoto, but you will also get insight into the history behind areas such are Gion while walking between stops.
First and foremost, Kyoto is known for its tofu and vegetarian dishes. Yudofu (Simmered Tofu), Yuba (Tofu Skin), and Goma Dofu (Seasame Tofu) are all local vegetarian dishes worth sampling.
Kyoto also serves some up some great duck. Although you can find smoked duck throughout town (including at 7-11’s!), Ishigamatei specializes in duck dishes and severs it in a variety of ways. Set menus start around 4,500 yen and include duck ramen, duck shabu-shabu, and sashimi.
Kyoto’s favourite treat is Yatsuhashi, a confectionery sweet made of glutinous rice flour. You can find it throughout the town in baked or raw form and there is even (of course) a Kit-Kat flavour.
Again, Kyoto is known for its delicious sake. Second, to only Nada in volume brewed, Kyoto sake is some of the best the country has to offer. Head to Fushimi to sample it from the source or pub-crawl your way home with a stop at Fushimi Saka Gura Kouji for an 18 sake sampler!
Drink Plum Wine
Kyoto also makes its share of plum wine and comes in a variety of flavours. If anyone finds banana flavour let me know! It has alluded me since I first had it almost ten years ago!
Drink Lucky Chicken Beer
Last up on this list of drinks to try while spending 3 days in Kyoto is a local craft beer called Lucky Chicken. This adorable can of IPA is locally made and part of a family that includes Lucky Boar, Dog, and Cat.
Where Should I Stay in Kyoto?
Looking for hotel recommendations for your three days in Kyoto? Here are my choice Kyoto hotels no matter your budget.
$$$ – Seikoro Inn
Traditional rooms for those that want the full experience. We’re talking screen doors, wood-panel walls, and a garden courtyard. Also a great location and only a 3-minute walk from Kiyomizu-Gojo Station.
If you request the new tower you will get a recently renovated room that is modern and comfy. The old tower offers great value however rooms are dated. The worn-out massage chair in your room is a good testament to that!
Three Days in Kyoto – Take it Slow
There you have it, my recommendations for how to spend three days in Kyoto. Although you can cram much of these highlights into a day trip from Osaka, I recommend you take it slow and stay in Kyoto. With its surrounding mountains and greenery, Kyoto offers a more relaxed pace unlike anywhere else in Japan. Its temples are beautiful, its parks are peaceful, and its sake is plentiful. Kanpai to that!
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