5 Days in Kyoto

5 Days in Kyoto photo of Kyoto street with Yasaka pagoda in the background

What’s so Special About Kyoto, Japan?

When we first arrived in Japan, I knew that Kyoto would be one of our first trips within the country. It has an old-world feel that really exudes traditional Japan. With dozens of castles, temples, and shrines, several of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, Kyoto is hub for Japanese culture. My favorite part of Kyoto was seeing the incredible architecture, immaculate gardens, and the city’s history. One fact I learned while in Kyoto was that it was originally a potential site for an atomic bomb by the US during WWII. It was removed from the list because Kyoto held such cultural significance. Kyoto was the capital city and emperor’s residence for over 1000 years before it was relocated to Tokyo in the late 1800. The fact that Kyoto was spared in WWII is a gift to all of us because it contains some of the country’s most culturally significant architecture.

Where is Kyoto?

Kyoto is located in the Kansai region of Japan. It’s approximately 50km from Osaka. Although Kyoto is Japan’s seventh largest city it’s in the top five most visited cities in Japan. If you are traveling to Japan, Kyoto is a must-see experience.

The Best Time to Travel to Kyoto

Fall and spring are the best times to travel to Kyoto. In the fall, you get incredible weather with the potential to see the leaves changing. The spring boasts equally beautiful weather and the potential of cherry blossoms. That being said, cherry blossom season is highly popular and brings droves of tourists into the city. Off-seasons like summer and winter don’t give you ideal weather but it’s not completely out of the question. We traveled to Kyoto in December and while cold, it was still a wonderful experience. We bundled up and enjoyed having fewer crowds. The summer anywhere in Japan will be hot and humid. Living in Okinawa, we trade hot for hot and take opportunities to cool down in fancy department stores, ice cream shops, and indoor play areas.

What to do in Kyoto?

A quick Google search will land you dozens of potential itineraries of things to do in Kyoto. It’s an area rich in history, culture, and of course food. I’ll share what we did in our 5 days in Kyoto with our kids but just know that it’s not an exhaustive list of things to do in and around Kyoto.

How many days should you spend in Kyoto?

Kyoto is often a day trip from Osaka but I strongly believe you need at least three days in Kyoto. In fact, we scheduled 3 days in Kyoto with plans to go to Kobe for 2 additional days. We ended up canceling our Kobe plans and staying in Kyoto two additional days because we felt like we had more to see and do.

Our 5 Day Itinerary

Day 0 in Kyoto

We took a plane from Okinawa to the Kansai Airport in Osaka, then hopped on the JR Haruka Express train to Kyoto. My girls absolutely loved that the Haruka Express train had Hello Kitty on it. It takes about 75 minutes to reach Kyoto Station and from there, you have Kyoto at your fingertips. Our first evening we settled into our hotel, the Mimaru Kyoto Station, and then walked about 15 minutes over to Higashi Hongan-ji Temple to stretch our legs. It was a really scenic walk, passing Kyoto Tower and generally beautiful architecture. 

Since we were all tired from travel and ready for food we headed to the mall. I love peeking around local malls when traveling and they always have really good food options in Japan. We stopped at a great little teishoku or set meals. The main reason for the mall visit was that I wanted to check out Takashimaya department store. I was searching for Blundstone boots. Living in Okinawa, I miss department stores! After procuring my boots we wandered the streets of Kyoto, grabbed a delicious dessert, and called it a night to prepare for an early morning of temple and shrine sightseeing! 

Day 1 in Kyoto

Our second day in Kyoto was dedicated to visiting the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, and Nishiki Market. 

First we grabbed coffee and a bite to eat from Starbucks. 

Kyoto Imperial Palace & Gyeon National Garden

Kyoto Imperial palace

The Kyoto Imperial Palace is significant because for 500 years Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan. The grounds that the palace sits upon are stunning. The gardens and recreational space are vast and lovely. We visited in December and still saw maple leaves changing colors – it felt like a slice of magic. You need several hours to explore this palace between the palace grounds and the park that surrounds it.

Nijo Castle

nijo castle kyoto japan

A block or so away there’s another significant Kyoto landmark is the Nijo Castle grounds. Nijo Castle was built in 1603 and has stunning architecture. The Karamon Gate is a must see.

Ichiran Ramen

ichiran ramen kyoto japan

For lunch we stopped at Ichiran Ramen before heading into Nishiki Market. Ichiran is Japanese chain ramen shop. It’s known primarily for it’s unique dining experience. All seating is bar seating and you never see or talk to your server as they are behind a screen. You order on a paper order form and communicate via wooden signs. It’s a great quick lunch that is reasonably priced.

Nishiki Market

nishiki market knife shop

Nishiki Market is a vibrant market filled with produce, local food items, seafood, food stalls, and other shops. I had researched ahead of time knowing I wanted to visit Nishiki Market to buy knives. Aritsugu is undeniably the most popular knife shop in Kyoto therefore it’s a popular stop for tourists. I purchased a chef’s knife from here for a decent price and it’s still the knife I grab the most. 

donut shop in kyoto japan

After shopping we wanted some carbs for fuel so we stopped into Koé Donuts Kyoto. This space is completely Instagram-worthy but the donuts are delicious. The line was long but the treats were tasty enough to make it worth it for my family.

We headed back to the hotel and rested a bit before going back out for dinner. 

Dinner: Donguri Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a popular dish in Japan. It’s a pan-fried savory pancake that is made from a batter with cabbage, protein (usually pork), and other veggies. It is typically cooked on a hot griddle at your table. There are two different styles of Okonomiyaki, Osaka and Hiroshima style. Donguri serves Osaka style okonomiyaki. This was our first time trying this famous dish and we absolutely devoured it.

Day 2 in Kyoto

Temples and Shines

goshuin book outside a temple in japan

We dedicated a whole day to checking out as many temples and shrines as possible. We purchased Goshuincho books once we arrived in Kyoto so that we could start collecting Goshuin stamps. You can read more about Goshuin stamps here but essentially, for us, they are memory books that document temples and shrines that we’ve visited here in Japan. My girls loved getting their Goshuincho stamped and watching the calligraphers in action. It’s a very unique experience that I highly recommend.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Sushimi Inari shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha is easily accessible by train. This shrine is well-known for its long path of torii gates. The shrine grounds are massive with a main hall but most people come for the Senbon Torii or the thousand torii gates that lead up to Mount Inari. The hike to the top is a decent way up. We went about halfway before turning around.

fushimi inari taisha senbon torii

The farther you go, the better the photo opportunities will be as fewer people will be in your shots. This is one of Kyoto’s most popular destinations, so going early is a good idea.

Kawai Shrine

kawai shrine

On the grounds of the Shimogamo Shrine is a place where women and girls can go to pray for beauty. This shrine was the most fun for my daughters. The ema are wooden paddles that you can draw your “beautiful” face on. Typically, you would write your wish on your ema, here you get to draw it.

kawai shrine

They had a little room with art supplies so that you could create your perfect ema. Additionally, they had “beauty water” for sale for those hoping for a little extra insurance.

kawai ema at the kiwai shrine

We really enjoyed looking at all the unique ema at the different Kyoto temples and shrines. You can read more about unique ema that are available in Kyoto here.

Yasaka Temple

yasaka temple yasaka koshin-do

Yasaka Koshin-Do is probably one of the most instagrammable temples in Kyoto. It’s a small temple that packs a punch in the visual interest department. The colorful kukurizaru are hanging pieces of cloth that temple goers can write their wishes on. They are then tied on to the others creating a beautiful and colorful backdrop. While we were visiting Yasaka Koshin we took the opportunity to check out the Higashiyama District of Kyoto as well.

Higashiyama has an old world Japan feel that makes you feel like you’ve been dropped into a movie set. It’s so beautiful. The district caters to tourists with pottery shops, souvenirs, cafes, and ice cream shops.

Yasaka Pagoda

yasaka pagoda kyoto japan

Also in the Higashiyama District, you’ll find the Yasaka Pagoda. It’s another Instagram-worthy area because the five story pagoda is the only lasting structure from a former Buddhist temple complex known as Hokan-ji. The temple is a really remarkable and unexpected sight in the middle of the Higashiyama District.


picture of Gion district in Kyoto Japan

Gion is another area of the Higashiyama District that is known for its old Japanese-style architecture. Gion is also known as the Geisha district with tourists flocking to this area of Kyoto to spot a geisha. Some streets are now closed to tourists as Gion is still an actual neighborhood with real residents who don’t want to be bothered by tourists with cameras. There is still more than enough traditional Japanese architecture to see in Higashiyama.

That was more than enough sightseeing for us for one day so we made our way back to our hotel to rest before dinner. For dinner, we visited a local pizza shop, Goichi Pizza, which was absolutely delicious. The owner spoke great English and was really warm and receptive to tourists. 

Day 3 in Kyoto

Day Trip to Nara

Nara park part of kyoto 5 day itinerary

We had heard all about the bowing deer and Todai-ji Buddhist Temple that we were all pumped for a day trip to Nara. We took the 35-45 minute train ride to Nara Station which is adjacent to Nara Park. Once we exited the train station, we were almost immediately in Nara Park with the wild deer. On every corner, there are vendors selling crackers that you can feed the deer. They will bow for food. The girls loved the deer. 

Todai temple in Nara Japan

Todai Temple was a short walk from Nara Park – if I had to pick one temple or shrine that was a must see from this trip it would be Todai-ji, hands down. The grand temple houses a giant bronze Buddha. The temple was constructed in 752. It’s hard to fathom how such an intricate statue and temple could be constructed without modern-day tools. 

We grabbed a bite to eat at Sakura Burger and enjoyed one of the better burgers we’ve had in Japan. I recommend it for a quick lunch while in Nara. It’s walkable from Nara Station.

amazing ramen in kyoto japan

The rest of the day we spent hanging around close to our hotel before getting ready for a ramen dinner. We visited Ramen Mugyu Vol. 2 and easily had some of our best ramen.

Day 4 in Kyoto


Arashiyama monkey park

Our day in Arashiyama was one of the favorites of the entire itinerary. There is a scenic train ride that is approximately 25 minutes from Sago to Arashiyama. The stops were a little confusing to us so we ended up getting off one stop earlier than we intended to but it worked out.

arashiyama bamboo forest

We were able to walk through the Arashiyama bamboo forest a bit before we set out to hike up to Monkey Park. Monkey Park is filled with wild monkeys.

monkey park in arashiyama day trip from kyoto

For 100 yen you can buy apples and peanuts to feed the monkeys from an enclosure. The monkeys are adorable and are not shy at all. There are several workers that are manning the area to make sure that the guests are following the rules and that the monkeys and guests are safe. There’s a small playground at the top as well that my girls enjoyed.

arashiyama kyoto japan

After visiting Monkey Park we were ready for some snacks so we walked back down into town. Arashiyama is a quaint little town with lots of food vendors, cafes, and souvenir shops. I finally found my first custard-filled taiyaki in Arashiyama so my belly was happy! You can walk across the river to the other side for more cafes and shops but the most impressive thing for me was the scenery.

Day 5 in Kyoto

Our last and final day in Kyoto we made sure to visit the Golden Temple, one of the more popular tourist attractions. The top two levels of the temple are completely covered in gold leaf. I had many friends recommend it to us and it’s a bit off the beaten path in northern Kyoto, you have to arrive by bus or taxi. We opted for the bus and it was very easy to navigate. The Golden Temple, Golden Pavillion is an impressive structure. The building and the grounds are both gorgeous. We spent about an hour here. The rest of the day we went and enjoyed the sites of Kyoto by walking down alleys and streets that were interesting. This is always my favorite way to explore cities in Japan because it’s so safe. 

Yasaka pagoda at night

For our final evening in Japan we took one last stroll around Higashiyama. Although the shops, cafes, and temples were closed we were able to get some beautiful views of Yasaka Pagoda.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Kyoto Japan

Clearly, this is by no means the perfect Kyoto itinerary or even an exhaustive one but if you are planning a visit to Kyoto, I hope you found this is a good place to start. Kyoto is a beautiful city with incredible culture, architecture, and food. Whether Kyoto is your only destination or one along your route, I highly recommend a visit to this unforgettable city.

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