Kyoto draws tourists from near and far to experience its old-world magic. Kyoto (literally meaning Capital City in Japanese) was the seat of power and religion for a long time in Japan. This is the place you come to see the splendour of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, imperial castles and the art of Geisha.
“I loved the quiet places in Kyoto, the places that held the world within a windless moment. Inside the temples, Nature held her breath. All longing was put to sleep in the stillness, and all was distilled into a clean simplicity.” ~ Pico Iyer
Many come to Kyoto to get a taste of what I believe is the complete opposite to Tokyo; serenity, tradition and nature. The Budget Traveller’s Guide to One Week in Kyoto will have you exploring the classic areas of this magical city, like the Golden Pavillion (Kinkakuji), Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Nijo Castle, Gion and more, all while not breaking the budget. A week is the perfect amount of time to venture and see the best it has to offer and have some great food along the way.
The Budget Traveller’s Guide to One Week in Kyoto will cover the following:
- 7-day flexible itinerary
- Restaurant recommendations near to where you will be visiting
- Money saving tips
- Free things or cheap things to do in Kyoto
- Recommended budget accommodation
Day 1 – Arriving in Japan/Getting to Kyoto
The closest airports to Kyoto are the Kansai International Aiport in Osaka and Osaka International Aiport. From the Airport, you can catch the JR West train to Kyoto Station (taking around 73 minutes).
From Kyoto Station catch a bus or train to your accommodation. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto relies on buses as it’s the main form of public transport. Google Maps will help you find the right bus you need to take! You can purchase an all-day bus pass from the station for 500 yen.
Don’t overwhelm yourself too much on the first day. Instead, go for a walk around your accommodation and find places like a supermarket or restaurant. Have an early night so you are refreshed for the next day.
Day 2 – Northwest Kyoto
Let’s get to exploring Kyoto! I would recommend starting this day as early as possible as you will be heading over to the Golden Pavillion (Kinkakuji). The shrine opens at 9 am and is the best time to go to avoid the mass crowds (hey I don’t blame them, it’s very beautiful!).
The gardens and architecture are meant to represent paradise on Earth and a sanctuary for Zen Buddhism. I’d estimate spending around an hour here as most likely you will get pulled along the current of visitors and won’t have time to sit down. Have a break from it all by trying a green tea ice cream across the street from the temple!
After Kinkakuji you have two options to explore. You can visit the Ryoan-Ji Temple famous for its Zen rock garden or Daitokuji which is a complex comprises of hundreds of Zen temples. We chose the latter as we needed a reprieve from the crowds at Kinkakuji.
This shrine complex was every bit I imagined to Kyoto to be; serene and enchanting. We were able to explore the grounds at our leisure and even got a chance to sit down to try some Yatsuhashi! Find out more about the Daitokuji temple here.
All this zen has probably given you time to reflect on your hunger. We went to a quirky cafe nearby called Node where they had delicious budget lunch sets, with things like gnocchi or green curry.
Let’s finish the day off with one more final shrine – Kitano Tenman-gu. Built back in 947AD this was the first shrine to have chosen a real person as the shrine’s diety. Japanese people now come to the shrine to be blessed in academics and avoiding calamities!
In the springtime, the shrine celebrates a Ume Blossom Festival with a tea ceremony hosted by geishas and maiko. If you are visiting in Autumn you can experience the glorious auburn splendour of 350 maple trees on the grounds. Did I mention that this place is free? Even better!
Day 3 – Arashiyama
Next let’s explore the Arashiyama area in the west of Kyoto! There are two ways of getting here, you can either take the train to Arashiyama Station or one of the local buses. It’s pretty easy to figure out where the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is from all the tourists heading in that direction.
Wander up the forest path to take in the splendour of these sky-high bamboo trees. Patience is key here and you will need to wait it out to take a good photo. Otherwise, continue along the path and you will come across an exquisite botanical garden that takes you all the way down to the river.
You have two options to explore next – head over to the Tenryu-Ji Temple, known as one of the top 5 great temples in Kyoto or play about at the Arashiyama Monkey Park!
Tenryuji Temple is registered as world heritage site. It was built in 1339 to appease a deceased Emperor’s spirit! This place has beautiful buildings and gardens to explore and really is the jewel of Arashiyama.
Arashiyama Monkey Park is for those wanting to have fun with Japan’s famous snow monkeys! I did a lot of research before coming here to make sure that it was an ethical and safe place for the monkeys and not a tourist trap. Luckily a lot of care and attention goes into the monkeys, with many rules in place to ensure their wellbeing.
Just a note that it is a very steep 30-minute climb to the top and it’s recommended you have good walking shoes. Read more about our day at the Arashiyama Monkey Park here.
End your busy day at the one and only onsen in Kyoto, Sagano Onsen Tenzan no Yu. Relax in the many hot tubs they have on offer including a carbonated spring, salt saunas, silky bathtub and jet bath. Don’t worry if you’re feeling too shy about taking a dip with others, you can always make a reservation in advance and book a private bathtub!
Day 4 – Southern Kyoto
Let’s venture to the mystical and explore Kiyomizu-dera Temple, located halfway up Mount Otowa. This grand temple is in honour of the Shinto deity ‘Kannon’, with many coming to pay their respects to the god of mercy and compassion.
The Temple has a deep connection to the Otowa waterfall with the water used to cleanse away bad omens. Founded over 1200 years ago this truly is a holy place to come and experience. Please note: Many of the temples are covered in scaffolding for the upcoming 2020 Olympics.
Head out over the temple over to Sannenzaka, a long pedestrian street lined with souvenir stalls and old-fashioned Japanese architecture. This will link up with Ninenzaka street which has many traditional homes and teahouses for you to try.
They’re famous because in the 16th century a feudal lord would walk to Kiyomizu-Dera to pray for the birth of his child. San means to give birth and Nen was the name of his wife. There’s also an urban legend that if you fall over walking down these streets you will die in two years! So watch your step!
As you come down the street you will be able to see the famous five-story pagoda Hokanji, also known as the Yasaka Pagoda. This temple stands over 46 meters tall and was built based on the Imperial Prince Shotoku’s dream in 589.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how hungry are you at this point? Head over to Musoshin to get yourself a delicious big bowl of ramen and piping hot karaage. You can even watch them make the noodles right in front of you!
With your belly full you can take a nice stroll through the Gion area, also known as the geisha district! Chances are it will be difficult to spot a geisha in real life so you can go to places like the Gion Corner to watch a performance or attend a tea ceremony. Prices for performances are around 3,150yen and it’s essential you make a booking in advance.
Make it a relaxing end of your day by strolling through Maruyama Park and visiting Yasaka Shrine. The park is a great spot to come and have a picnic during the cherry blossom season.
Day 5 – Central Kyoto
Today it’s time for some royalty and power starting off with Kyoto Imperial Palace. A long time ago Kyoto was the home and capital of the Imperial family. There is a sense of magnitude and splendour when walking the grounds of the palace and you will understand why it was the capital.
You no longer need a reservation to enter the grounds and entry is free! I would recommend joining up with an English guided tour to get a better sense of history.
Next you’ve got two choices, you can head over to Nijo Castle or the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Nijo Castle was built by the first Shogun (Military leader) and his plan was to make a residence more grand and spectacular than the Imperial Palace.
We visited Nijo Castle on our trip and we were blown away by the attention to detail. Beautiful tapestries hung from the walls and large audience rooms where the shoguns would meet. There’s also a splendid garden you can walk through and sit under cherry blossoms. Read more about visiting Nijo Castle here.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is home to over 300,000 manga with monthly events and exhibits. Browse through their extensive collection and watch manga artists in action. Feeling creative? Join one of their drawing workshops on offer!
Pick up a bite to eat at the Nishiki Market, with hundreds of food vendors selling fresh seafood, deep fried goods and sweets. This is where you come to try the little baby octopus on a stick!
Day 6 – Fushimi Inari Taisha and Nara
Today we are going to have some fun exploring outside of Kyoto. Hop on the Nara Line and head 12 minutes out to the Inari Station where you will get off to explore Fushimi Inari Taisha.
This Shinto shrine is famous for its 10,000 tori gates that lead up the sacred Mount Inari. This shrine is built in honour of the humble inari also known as rice! Foxes are the guardian of this shrine and you will see a lot of souvenirs in the shape of them.
Getting here early in the day is always better as the shrine receives thousands of tourists every day. If you want to get some spectacular pictures keep walking up through gates for about an hour and the crowd will start to thin out. My partner and I visited Fushimi Inari Taisha dressed in full kimono and it made for a wonderful day. To find out how you can rent a kimono in Kyoto read more about it here.
Once you’ve explored the shrine head back to the station and continue on the Nara line for about an hour to arrive at Nara Station. You can walk 20 minutes to Nara Park or take the Nara City Loop Line bus for tourists. The fare is 210 yen and will drop you right off at the park.
Nara Park is massive and located in central Nara, and famously home to hundreds of deer! These deer are truly Japanese because if you bow before feeding them they will bow back. Please make sure to read the signs about deer behaviour or you might get a nip.
Todaiji Temple is located inside the park and is one of the top historical landmarks to visit. The temple was built in 752 and was the head Buddhist temple for hundreds of years. Inside Todaiji is a towering Buddha where many people come far and wide to worship. Local legend has it that if you can fit through the passage of the Buddha statue’s nose you can reach enlightenment!
If you’re feeling peckish after all this walking around try some of Nara’s local specialities. Somen noodles are best served cold and dipped into a dashi soy sauce, refreshing on a warm day. Follow it up with some Manju for dessert, a steamed bun filled with a sweet bean paste.
Day 7 – Last day
Take this chance to go and visit any temples or sights you missed out on. There are thousands of temples to explore and it’s great to visit some of the smaller, less known ones. If you need some inspiration read my guide on 8 Ways to Discover a Different Side of Kyoto.
After you’ve taken in all the sights, continue your journey on to Osaka or Tokyo.
Budget Accommodation in Kyoto
Always try to stay in hostels rather than hotels when travelling to save the ultimate dollar. You spend such little time in your room so no reason to splurge. Always consider cleanliness, amenities and free breakfast! Double check reviews and see how close the location is. The following are places I recommend you to stay at:
- Piece Hostel Sanjo in Central Kyoto (this is where we stayed and it was the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in)
- Gion Ryokan Q-Beh in Southern Kyoto
- Nagomi Ryokan Yuu in Downtown Kyoto
How much does one week in Kyoto cost?
For a full breakdown budget for one week in Kyoto check out my guide here.
I want to know more about travelling around Kyoto:
- The 50 Best Places to Eat in Kyoto
- 8 Ways to Discover a Different Side of Kyoto
- How to Rent a Kimono and take the best photos at Fushimi Inari Taisha
- 11 Myths Busted About Travelling to Japan
- Discounts and Passes for Japan Guide 2018
- What is the best accommodation in Japan?