Kyoto is the most popular tourist destination in Japan, with more than 50 million people visiting each year. Herds of schoolchildren and flag-following foreign tour groups swarm its famous cultural sites. Still, a day in Kyoto is unforgettable, and with good timing you can still experience the depth of the city’s extraordinary culture.
As in many of the world’s most touristy spots, the best idea is to start early. Waking up at 5 a.m. may not sound like the beginning of a vacation, but if you take advantage of your jet lag, you can have Kyoto practically to yourself. Begin on the western edge of the city in the Arashiyama district, along the scenic Katsura River.
6 a.m.: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is open at all hours and is one of the most iconic Kyoto backdrops. The setting of giant timber bamboo is sublime, especially in the quiet dawn light. When we arrived at 6 a.m., only one or two other people joined us.
7 a.m.: Breakfast Picnic
Shops in Japan generally do not open until 9 or 10 a.m., so one of Lawson’s popular corner stores may be your best option for an off-hours bite. Anthony Bourdain loved the egg salad sandwiches, which are simple but tasty (there’s a range of other Japanese foods as well). The nearby Katsura riverfront makes an ideal setting for a breakfast picnic with your shopping haul.
Time your taxi rides to arrive at the opening of two of the famous Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage sites. (Alternatively, the nearby Iwatayama Monkey Park is a fine alternative for people with children needing a hike or others with temple fatigue. It has memorable city views.)
8 a.m.: Ryōan-ji Zen Garden
The Ryōan-ji Temple is home to the most famous Zen garden in Japan, and it opens earlier than most. The large dry garden dates to the 15th century and is a tranquil spot for contemplation. The temple also has a well-curated gift shop and a large pond to stroll around.
9 a.m.: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
One of the top attractions in Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion was originally built as a noble estate in the 15th century and later converted to a temple. Crowds gather at opening time, but if you arrive early enough, you can avoid a rush. The small building looks pretty from across the pond, but it truly shines on closer inspection: Water reflects on the gold leaf covering the top two stories in spectacular fashion.
Stop at the shop across from the exit for a memorable snack of green tea ice cream sprinkled with gold leaf.
10:30 a.m.: Daitoku-ji Temple Complex and Ryōgen-in Zen Gardens
The Daitoku-ji Temple complex is a collection of nearly two dozen separate Zen temples, which are less well-known than the two stops above. You can stroll the temple complex for free, but many individual temples charge a fee if you would like to view their private gardens and rooms. We particularly enjoyed Ryōgen-in, which contained several Zen gardens in contrasting styles. The gardens are much smaller than those at Ryōan-ji, but I found that their intimacy and design imparted a deeper sense of meditative repose.
12 p.m.: Lunch
Head back toward the central city for lunch. If the temple visits inspired you to have a long vegetarian lunch, try shojin ryori cuisine, the traditional food of monks. At Ajiro you can get an elaborate kaiseki meal that features yuba tofu. Reservations are a must. If you are looking for something more casual, stop for a bowl of ramen at Ippudo near the Nishiki Market shopping area.
1 p.m.: Shopping
I recommend chasing the morning Buddhism with some afternoon consumerism. Kyoto is one of the best shopping cities in the world, and you could easily spend the entire day doing just that. Some of my favorite shops include:
Nishiki Market and Teramachi Street: a large covered shopping street with everything from Japanese seafood snacks to designer clothing brands. We particularly liked Aritsugu for Japanese knives and Tokyo Denim and 45R for fashion.
D&Department: a perfectly curated little shop with Japanese design gifts, clothing and food.
Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu: stylish and colorful canvas bags for kids and adults (think Japanese L.L. Bean). The store currently doesn’t sell online, so be prepared for crowds at peak hours.
I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half of the reason you are in Japan is the food. For tonight, I recommend some Michelin-starred tempura followed by a round of sake.
6 p.m.: Ten-you Tempura
Enjoy a series of exquisite tempura dishes at this tiny Michelin-starred establishment. Our seafood plates were perfectly battered and fried in the traditional manner, in cottonseed oil. Make sure to have your concierge book a reservation in advance.
7:30 p.m.: Sake Bar Yoramu
The enigmatic Israeli proprietor has cultivated a wonderful collection of unique natural sakes. He walked us through a flight of flavors we wouldn’t normally associate with the drink, and it was the beverage highlight of our trip.
9 p.m.: Fushimi Inari Shrine
I like to walk off my meal to end the day. Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and is open at all hours, so you can arrive late. Once night falls, most of the crowds clear out, and you can explore the thousands of large orange torii gates alone. It is well-lit, but night lends an eerily beautiful air to the place. If you are feeling active, follow the gate-lined path for about two hours, all the way to the top of the mountain that sits behind the shrine, for a panoramic view of the city.