Alongside Tokyo, Kyoto is the second most popular destination in Japan. The famous is simply relentless in its splendor, be it the gardens, temples, food and drink, or the town itself. One way or another, Kyoto is sure to tempt you into spending a fair chunk of time enjoying the sights. So here’s the question: Exactly how many days should you spend in Kyoto, Japan?
Surely you will visit some temples and shrines
Japanese temples are associated with Buddhism, and Japanese shrines with Shintoism. Arguably the most famous temple in Kyoto is Kinkakuji, pictured above. A relative baby in Kyoto terms, the current structure and gold plating dates back only to 1955. The temple itself dates back to the 14th century, but the attraction is really about today’s shine rather than yesterday’s history.
There are at least a dozen top rank temples to gaze upon in Kyoto, so you could easily allot bunchloads of time. That said, most people find fatigue sets in after two or three temples/shrines in one day. You’ll also want to mix up your day with other activities to keep things interesting. Temples and shrines that come equipped with expansive gardens are also a boon to the attention span.
Speaking of which, the granddaddy of all Kyoto shrines is Fushimi Inari. Around 10,000 gates wind their way up the mountain, but the main shrine buildings are quite close to the base. Still, the higher you climb, the more nature you get, and the less people. It’s entirely up to you, and admission is free. This means no buyer’s remorse.
If you’re particularly interested in religious sites, the time you spend at temples and shrines nears infinity. Most visitors, however, find a total of 1.5 days worth of temples/shrines to be sufficient. Chop that up into half days for optimal enjoyment.
Enjoy a little shopping, perhaps?
Tokyo has one type of shopping, and Kyoto an entirely different one. Kyoto is much more steeped in, and focused on, tradition. You can find crafts, textiles, cooking knives, kimono (buy used to save cash), and much more inside the tiny shops that dot the city. Pictured above is Nishiki, which is a very different kind of market. Here, it’s almost entirely about the food. Though once a market for buying things to eat at home or cook with, now many shops offer quick and easy bites onsite.
Everyone has their own interest level (or threshold) when it comes to shopping, so you’ll have to coordinate with your travel partners. Conservatively speaking, you will probably spend a day’s worth of hours shopping. Sprinkle that amount of time across two or three days.
Too much hustle and bustle makes for an unpleasantly ironic Kyoto stay. The temple pictured above is commonly referred to as Kokedera, but don’t show up uninvited. Reservations are required. On the plus side, the highly restricted visitor counts means more peace and serenity for you.
It’s not just Kokedera where you can enjoy quiet contemplation. There are numerous large gardens, quiet neighborhoods, and mountain trails for you to enjoy. Brazenly named the Philosopher’s Path, there’s a streamside walk from Ginkakuji to Nanzenji allowing for convenient, if slightly busier serenity and introspection.
The “Serenity” bucket includes just doing nothing, if we’re being honest. Let’s put a total of 1.5 days in the milieu for this. Add more based on your motivation levels.
Seems like the question of how many days you should spend in Kyoto is getting more complicated.
Get out of central Kyoto for a bit
The most obvious day trip out of Kyoto is a half day-ish one to Nara. At Nara Park, you can feed (and sometimes dodge) the deer, see a giant Buddha, and embark on many other cultural explorations all with great convenience. You may even choose to spend the night there.
One of our favorite excursions out of central Kyoto is to Fushimi. Yes, this is the same Fushimi of Fushimi-Inari fame (see above), but you will need to ride a train for about 10 minutes (around US$2) between the two. This old neighborhood has great buildings to see from long ago. Even better, many buildings (like the one pictured above) contain sake (Japanese rice wine) distilleries. Even more better, there’s free or low-cost tasting to be had.
Maybe you’ll prefer heading up to Kurama for a nice temple and hot springs combo. Or into Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, for a day or night or both. One way or another, you’ll want to have a free day for excursions. By the way, Osaka is the third largest city in Japan if you consider Yokohama materially different from Tokyo. We are based in Osaka, so we decline to believe that fallacy. We’ve got a bit of an attitude like that.
The “How many Days should you spend in Kyoto” question comes with a corresponding “How many Nights?”
Arguably the best way to plan a day in Kyoto is to have daytime activities followed by some later afternoon relaxation time (feel free to euphemistically refer to this as serenity). Then, come night, you are recharged and ready to go!
Yasaka Jinja (above) is an exception to the temple and shrine nighttime closure rule. It’s also conveniently located next to the Gion district, which should be strolled at night anyway. It’s even more also on our well-received Kyoto Night Streets and Eats tour.
Tours and Yasaka aside, there’s a lot of good food to be enjoyed in Kyoto. “Yuba” may be tofu skin, but that translation really doesn’t do it justice. “Shiokara,” on the other hand, is translated as salted fish guts, which is just about right. Be brave. The vast majority of Kyoto vittles are quite tame.
And the answer is…
Predictably, the answer is highly subjective. We’re sure you saw that coming. Still, it’s safe to say for most bon vivant types, three days is downright bare bones. Four is more comfortable. From there, it’s all icing.