The former imperial capital offers Japan’s best collection of temples, palaces, shrines, and gardens. Kyoto is a city steeped in history and tradition, where you can spy geisha on the streets and eat exquisitely presented meals.
Arriving: Kansai International Airport Is 100 km (miles) southwest of Kyoto, connected to the city by a train that takes just over one hour. Kyoto Station is linked by Shinkansen lines to Tokyo and Nagoya to the east, and to Osaka, Fukuoka, and Hiroshima to the west.
Make your way to Higashiyama district, on the eastern side of the city, and the hillside perch of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, where the wooden terraces provide sweeping views across Kyoto. Wander down cobbled Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka toward Maruyama Park, a famous cherry-blossom viewing location. Pass through the vermilion gate of Yasaka Shrine into Gion, Kyoto’s geisha quarter, where there are plenty of places for lunch.
Admire the wooden buildings lining Hanamikoji-dori on your way to the subway station of Sanjo Kelhan. From here, ride the two stops on the subway to Keage. Admire the beautiful gardens at Konchi-in Temple, then explore the precincts of neighboring Nanzen-ji Temple. Just north of this quintessential Zen temple is the start of the 2-km-(mile-) long Philosopher’s Walk. Should you need to rest, there are plenty of teahouses along the way. The route ends at Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, where the refined gardens are the star attraction.
Having booked a tour with the Imperial Household Agency, enter the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park to admire its impressive stroll garden, with a delightful pond and arched bridge. Hop on the subway from Imadegawa to Kitaoji, the closest stop for Daitoku-ji Temple, a walled complex where you can contemplate the artful arrangement of a Zen garden from the teahouse of the subtemple Daisen-in.
Take the 15-minute walk from Daltoku-ji to the wooded hills of Kitayama, where you’ll find Kinkaku-ji, famous for its Golden Pavilion surrounded by gardens and reflected in an ornamental pond. If you’ve time and energy for one more temple, make it Ryoan-ji, the location of Japan’s most famous and abstract Zen rock garden. The contrast with the dazzling opulence of Nijo Castle, a short taxi ride back toward the center of Kyoto, couldn’t be more acute. Having admired the castle’s gorgeously decorated interiors, end your day with a meal and nightcap In Pontocho Alley, an area where you’re sure to spot geisha going about their business.
To extend your trip…
Arashiyama is a beautiful wooded, riverside district where the imperial court retreated for relaxation, Nara, which pre-dates Kyoto as imperial capital, has a spectacular park that is home to wooden temples and a monumental bronze Buddha. The Grand Shrine at Ise is one of Japan’s most sacred places.