Spending significant time in Japan can be both overwhelming and amazing. We spent a little over one month in Kyoto while also visiting the nearby cities of Osaka and Nara. Come along with us to find out what we did, how we spent one month in Kyoto, and some of our favorite places/attractions. You can also learn more about our traveling adventures here.
Where We Stayed in Kyoto
We stayed in Kyostay Toji Main. It was about a 20 minute walk from Kyoto Station and directly across the street from Toji Temple. We loved the place and thought it was super comfortable, clean, and in the perfect location. There was also a bus right across the street (the 207) that we used to move around most of the city. Both Kyoto station and Toji station were in easy walking distance. The Aeon mall was close by, which had a large grocery store, movie theater, and lots of shopping. There was also easy access to convenience stores like 7/11, Family Mart, Ministop, and Lawson’s.
Where We Went in Kyoto
Like any place, we of course did all of the touristy things in Kyoto. We arrived in early February and got the pleasure of enjoying some snow. So here is what we did in one month in Kyoto
Toji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple was founded in 796, when the capital of Japan was transferred from Nara to Kyoto. Prior to that, it stood alongside its twin temple (Saiji) in Nara as one of the capital’s guardian temples.
The grounds around the temple are small but beautiful, especially when the cherry blossoms are blooming (which we did not get to see fully). The entrance to the temple grounds, to explore Toji and the surrounding structures, is 500 yen. For another 500 yen (~$3.60 USD) you can also get access to Kanchi-in Temple.
On the 21st of each month there is a large flea market that is held on the grounds of Toji. It is free to enter and has a large variety of items, including food. It is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be around on the 21st.
Higashi Hongan-ji Temple
These temple grounds are located in the center of Kyoto. The Higashi Hongan-ji is one of two dominant sub-sects of Shin Buddhism. The temple grounds are free to enter (though the gardens cost 500 yen [~$3.60 USD] admission).
Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most popular temples in Kyoto. A UNESCO World Heritage site that was founded in 780. The wooden stage is popular for its views, especially during autumn and cherry blossom seasons. The cost of admission is 400 yen (~$2.85 USD). It gets crowded, so the best time to go would be early in the morning. We went before the cherry blossoms started and the trees were still bare, but it was a great view none-the-less.
Gion is Kyoto’s geisha district. The oldest streets are lined with traditional wooden buildings. It is the location people go to see geishas. Apparently they are spotted more frequently in the evening on the way to or from an engagement. However, you should be polite and avoid crowding or taking pictures or videos of them. Sean and I happened to see one briefly as we were walking down the street.
Shijo Avenue is an area popular with tourists. It is full of shops selling all sorts of food, crafts, and sweets. Yasaka shrine is in the area as well. This is a great area, with beautiful architecture, to explore for free.
Another temple we explored was Ryōan-ji.This is a zen temple that is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden. It was originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, but was converted to a zen temple in 1450. There is a beautiful park with a pond in the area. Admission to the temple was 500 yen (~$3.60 USD) per person.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple)
Definitely one of the most famous sites in Kyoto. The Golden Temple is a Zen temple that is covered in…you guessed it, gold. You can’t enter the temple itself, just the grounds around it, but it sits on a pond and makes for some gorgeous pictures. The admission fee is 500 yen (~$3.60 USD) and gets you access to the grounds. Once you’re done exploring you can enjoy gold-flaked matcha ice cream.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
This site was recently named one of the world’s worst tourist attractions. I think the reason is due to the overcrowding versus what you get out of the site. But trust me, the survey does not give this place a fair shot.
Located in southern Kyoto, this is the Shinto shrine that is famous for its thousands of red torii gates. The thousands of torii gates wind up the trails to Mount Inari. There is no admission fee and the site is open 24 hours a day. Go early to beat the crowds. If you aren’t an early riser, you can also get away from the crowds by just hiking up the trails. The trail is pretty easy, but can take 2 to 3 hours to go up and back.
Since the entrance gets super crowded, I recommend just walking a little bit up the trail and you can easily get shots of the torii gates to yourself – even if you don’t want to do the whole hike.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is a top attraction and will most definitely get crowded. So arrive early! We got there at 8:30 am (most of the businesses didn’t even start opening until 9 am). The bamboo forest is open 24 hours so it does not matter what time you go and just depends on what kind of light you want. There may have been less than 10 people by the time we arrived. We walked back through around noon and had a completely different (wayyyy more crowded) experience. But I would say, going back at that time was also worth it for the difference in sunlight shining through the bamboo. Anyway, go early.
Visit the Temples of Arashiyama
Once you’re done walking through the bamboo grove (which is admittedly quite small) go check out some temples. We walked about 20 minutes straight to Gioji temple. Located a bit farther away from the main area, Gioji is a small but peaceful temple. Admittedly, we were there in February so did not get any of the seasonal beauty, but since it was a gorgeous day, it was still worth it. However, it looks otherworldly (based on pictures) during autumn, cherry blossom season, and with snow so if you can get there during any of those seasons, do it.
Next we walked to Seiryō-ji Temple and then Daikaku-ji Temple. Daikaku-ji Temple is a former imperial palace and sits on a beautiful pond (would definitely be amazing with cherry blossoms if you’re lucky). To get into the temple and the pond, it costs around 800 yen (~$5.70 USD).
Then we stopped at Pizzeria LUGARA for ahh-mazing pizza. Just check out the Google reviews! After lunch we walked back through the bamboo forest and into Kameyama Park for some amazing views.
We planned on returning to Arashiyama to go on the Sagano Romantic Train, but we had been hoping for cherry blossom which did not bloom before we left Kyoto. We did not feel spending the money was worth it without the cherry blossoms. However, it does look like a beautiful ride, especially in the spring and autumn, so if you have the time and money it may be worth it.
We also did not go to the monkey park, mostly because we had just seen monkeys in Vietnam so it wasn’t a priority.
Keage Incline and The Philosopher’s Path
We waited until the last week in Kyoto to do this. Because we were again hoping for cherry blossoms. It was a no go (they didn’t bloom until after we left). But still a lovely walk and a must see during autumn and with cherry blossoms.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The former palace of the emperor of Japan until 1868. Admission is free but you do have to go through security and get guest badges. There is only one path to follow which takes you around all the buildings. It wasn’t hugely exciting but has some beautiful architecture and is worth it if you have the time and nothing else to do.
Built in 1603, Nijo Castle was the residence of the first shogun of the Edo Period, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The admission is 800 yen (~$5.70 USD) for the whole grounds, plus 500 yen (~$3.60 USD) if you want to enter Ninomaru Palace. Unfortunately, Honmaru Palace was under construction at the time so we were unable to see it. But we did pay the extra to enter Ninomaru Palace.
Kurama to Kibune Hike
This was one of the last things we did in Kyoto and it is definitely worth it if you have the time. It’s easy to get to, you can take the Eizan Train Line all the way to Kurama Station. The hike is fairly easy and takes you past beautiful temples and into the peaceful forest. You end in the village of Kibune. This website provides easy directions to follow the hike.
Where We Ate in Kyoto
The food in Japan is out of this world and there are an abundance of places to eat. We spent most of our time trying different places in Kyoto Station. Our favorite sushi place was Sushi no Musashi in Kyoto Station by the Hachijo exit.
An interesting place we tried was Gion Duck Rice. It’s the sister restaurant to Gion Duck Noodles, which is popular for their duck ramen. When we arrived there, a line formed down the small alley. So we sought out Gion Duck Rice. Located in a nondescript alleyway, the restaurant sits about 8 people. The price is a bit expensive but the experience is interesting. You basically perform a science experiment by pouring the broth over bonito flakes and then adding the rice and duck. It was delicious and definitely a unique experience.
Nishiki market is known as Kyoto’s kitchen and has a variety of Japanese street food. We tried a variety of the food, including unagi and gyoza.
Nara is a must visit if you’re around Kyoto or Osaka. Famous for the local, bowing deer, Nara was Japan’s first capital. For a small fee, you can buy crackers to feed the deer in Nara Park, who will bow to you to be fed. Be warned though, they can get a little aggressive.
Nara has some great history and beautiful old temples. Walk through the pathways of mossy stone lanterns at Kasuga-taisha or visit Todai-ji to see the large Buddha statue. Todai-ji costs about 600 yen (~$4.27 USD) admission fee.
We decided to go to Nara at a specific date in order to attend the Omizutori (Shunie) Festival. It is the oldest recurring Buddhist event held between March 1st to the 14th. The event is free and has been held for over 1250 years. Just after sunset giant torches are carried across the balcony, raining down embers. The last day of the festival, which is when we went, is when all the torches are brought out. It was a particularly spectacular site.
Sean and I arrived at the temple around 4 PM to wait in line. The event started at 6:30 PM, but arriving early was a good idea as the courtyard filled up quickly. Despite having to wait in the sun for over 2 hours, the experience was incredible. Being in another country, getting to experience a one of a kind traditional event is something special. If you ever get a chance to see the Omizutori Festival, take it!
Osaka is Japan’s second largest city and one of the biggest foodie areas in the country. We walked the streets of Dotonburi, Shinsaibashi, America-mura, and Nipponbashi Denden Town. We walked through Kuromon Ichiba Market to get the famous takoyaki. The experience was not as good as we had hoped. The flavor was just okay, but it was the boiling hot lava on the inside that made it a nightmare. Sean burned his mouth so badly he was talking about going to the hospital. It’s all a bit funny now, but we definitely didn’t see the hype. I also got a strawberry mochi, which was delicious.
Osaka castle is one of the most famous landmarks in Japan. The grounds of Osaka castle are free to enter, but it costs 600 yen (~$4.30 USD) to enter. Sean and I skipped going into the castle as it appeared to be more of a small modern museum and a viewing platform. But the grounds are beautiful and the castle is amazing. Instead, we took the boat ride around the inner moat. It was a bit expensive at around 1500 yen (~$11 USD) per person for a 20 minute boat ride. But you can some great views of the castle.
Kyocera Dome Osaka
While we were staying in Kyoto, we were interested in catching a baseball game. We happened to be there during the World Baseball Classic and were hoping to see Ohtani play for Japan. Unfortunately, those tickets were unsurprisingly sold out. But we did get the earlier game to see the Osaka Buffaloes play South Korea. It was fun seeing a game in another country but the crowd wasn’t as exciting since most people would be at the later game for the WBC.
We tried to get into the souvenir shop for a T-shirt or something, but because they were selling Ohtani WBC merch, the line was all the way around the stadium. So we skipped it.
Universal Studios Japan
Going to Universal Studios in Japan was a bit of a hectic experience. Japan was (until it recently opened in Los Angeles) the only location that had Super Nintendo World. Our goal was to see that. But after reading many articles, it seemed like you needed a timed ticket. Apparently, you can buy a timed ticket or you can arrive at the park and scan a QR code to receive a time. We purchased our tickets through Klook (for about $60 USD per person), but missed out on buying the pass for Super Nintendo World.
How to get into Nintendo World if you miss out on buying the pass
The key is to arrive early. Check what time they open and try to be there at least 1 hour before. For the best chance, arrive an hour and a half before opening. You can also purchase an early entry pass, that gets you into the park 15 minutes early (the cost for the ticket and early entry is around $84 USD per person).
If you don’t buy the early entry pass, you may get lucky as they often open the doors early for regular admission. If you’re there early enough, head directly to Super Nintendo World. Early in the morning they usually don’t require a timed ticket to enter that area. Sean and I went directly there and had no problems.
Once there we started at Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge where we were able to walk right in. This is a 3D ride so be aware if you get motion sick. When we arrived the wait time said 20 minutes. When we left the ride it was up to 70 minutes. So get there as soon as possible if that’s your interest.
Our next ride was Yoshi’s Adventure. It’s a kid’s ride but is a relaxing ride with great views of the Nintendo area. You’ll be able to marvel at the detail of the park. It’s incredible.
So there are only 2 rides in this section of the park. You can also buy a power up band and interact with the various coin blocks around and earn points. After the rides we ended up getting in the short line for Kinopio’s Cafe (Toad’s House). It opened at 11 AM and we were in line around 10:45 AM. Again, this cafe gets buy so get there early if you can.
The Rest of Universal Studios Japan
After Super Nintendo World, we headed straight to the Wizarding World area. The other ride that requires a timed entry ticket is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. We did not have that and did not want to wait almost 2 hours. So instead we grabbed a Butter Beer and headed out.
From there we went to The Amazing Spider-Man ride and then walked around. Unfortunately we did not do much as everything was so crowded. There were lines even for the snack booths. So after checking out all the souvenir shops, around 12:30 PM we decided to leave.
TeamLab Botanical Garden Osaka
Another fun thing to do while in Osaka is check out the TeamLab Botanical garden art installation. This is an open-air exhibit that extend around the lake in the botanical garden. The price of admission is 1600 yen (~$11 USD) per adult. It appears the price of admission increases during peak season.
The exhibit is held at night as the installations are lit up. It was a very cool experience and we would highly recommend it. It is very different from the TeamLabs installation in Tokyo.