Kyoto is Japan’s cultural heart. It is a place to discover and immerse yourself in the world of old Japan. As with the rest of Japan, Kyoto is not a cheap city but with a little penny pinching and a lot of walking, you can really enjoy Kyoto on a budget. So, what do you do if you only have 2 days in Kyoto? This Kyoto 2-day itinerary is a great way to see the best the city has to offer.
Kyoto is probably what you think of when you conjure up images of Japan in your head. Ancient wooden temples, Geisha skittering along neat streets and cherry blossom crowning the trees in clouds of baby pink….Kyoto has all that and more.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1000 years (784 – 1603) which has led to an abundance of beautiful temples and historic buildings, all tucked away within the modern city. Although Tokyo is now the business centre and fast-moving capital, it is Kyoto which holds a place in most people’s memory when they remember their trip to Japan. It is so venerated worldwide for its unique character and 2000 precious temples that the USA removed it from the list of potential bomb sights during WWII to preserve it for the future.
Your Kyoto 2-Day Itinerary
Day One – Tori Gates and Temples
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Start the day by catching the train out to either Inari Station, on the JR Nara line or Fushimi Inari Station, on the Keihan line. Here you will find the Fushimi Imari Taisha, 10,000 red tori gates that cover the side of a sacred mountain. Dating back to the year, 711 it is older than Kyoto itself. Look closely at the gates and you will see that each is inscribed. This is likely to be the name of a company or person and is donated in the hopes of prosperity and fortune. The larger the gate, the larger the donation.
You can climb the whole mountain, enjoying the surrounding nature as well as the gates but most people just wander around, getting lost in the first few hundred metres. The most famous spot is Sen Bun Dori (1000 Gate Road). This is where the first main tunnel of large gates splits into two. By arriving early, you will miss the worst of the crowds, leaving it free to explore by yourself.
Entrance Fee: Free
Kiyomizu Dera Temple
Hop back on the train to Kiyomizu-Gojō Station/ From here it is a 10-minute stroll up to the Kiyomizu Dera Temple. This the most popular temple fordomestic Japanese visitors. As well as the temple itself, the large wooden veranda has a gorgeous view. The view is especially beautiful in autumn as the vista is carpeted with the red leaves of the maple and cherry trees. the veranda is so well known that it is the star of a Japanese idiom. To jump off the stage of the Kiyomizu Dera Temple means to embark on something impossible.
Within the temple grounds, you will find the love stones. If you can walk the 18m between them with your eyes shut, it means you will be lucky in love. There are some helpful people around that can guide you but that does mean you will need a matchmaker to find your soul mate.
Entrance Fee: ¥400
As you wind down the mountainside from Kiyomizu Dera, you will pass through the unbearable quaint streets of the Higashiyama district. This area is handsomely preserved, with wooden buildings gracing the sides of the pedestrianised streets. This is a wonderful place to hunt out some local handicrafts.
You will not believe what is tucked away here. there is even a Starbucks in a 200-year-old house. Room are lined with tatami mats and customers remove their shoes and enjoy their favourite coffee.
As you pass down the stepped alley Sannenzaka, watch you don’t slip. This road name translates as 3 year hill, and it is said that anyone who trips here will die within 3 years!
Ryozen Kannon Temple
Sitting atop this shrine is a 24-meter concrete statue of the Goddess of Mercy. The Ryozen Kannon Temple was unveiled in 1955 as a memorial to those who lost their lives in WWII. The altar has soil from every allied WWII cemetery. Four times a day, services are held.
Entrance Fee: ¥200 – This includes a stick of incense for you to add to the cauldron full.
Yasaka Shrine used to be known as Gion Shrine because it is in the heart of Gion. It combines Buddhism and Shinto aspects, a uniquely Japanese trait.
Yasaka Shrine has been in Kyoto for around 1200 years but the exact date is a matter of debate. It has its origin in one of two monks who are rumoured to have founded the temple 50 years apart. It is dedicated to the deity Susanoo-no-Mikoto, his consort and their 8 offspring. You need to keep pinching to remind yourself just how ancient it is. The place seems so full of life that it doesn’t feel 1200 years old.
Entrance Fee: Free
A short five-minute stroll through the beautiful Maruyama Park will bring you to Chion-In Temple. This park is particularly beautiful in spring when it is pink with cherry blossoms. Still, at any time of year, the famous weeping cherry is beautiful and it is a brilliant place to sit and have a picnic for lunch.
Chion-In is a Buddhist temple from 1618. The whole place is built on a vast scale. Inside is Japan’s biggest temple bell at a whopping 70-tonnes. It is rung 107 times at every new year, and then once more to shake off the previous year.
Entrance Fee: Free to enter the grounds, ¥300 to go inside
Pontocho is a thin, pedestrianised alley that is now lined with an array of restaurants. It is wonderful to walk through but you won’t find much here for a budget dinner. Enjoy exploring and keep an eye out for these two spots that won’t break the bank. There is more about them in the “Where to Eat in Kyoto on a Budget” section below.
- Great okonomiyaki at Yasube Pontocho
- Fabulously grilled sticks of deliciousness at Yakitori Torihara
Day Two – Bamboo Groves and Geishas
If you fancy a relaxed morning then skip this first step and make your way to Kinkaku-ji. We will join you there at about 10:30. (Skipping it will save you a fair amount of cash too).
Hop on the metro to Saga Arashiyama Station, JR Sagano line.
If you want a clear photo, it will be your only chance as the area becomes incredibly busy by 09:00. Other temples and popular spots can become hectic too but taking a clear shot across a temple lake is much easier than if people are strolling through the centre of your bamboo shot.
Tenruji opens at 08:30 so you won’t have too long to wait for it to open if you are visiting the bamboo grove early.
The highlight of this temple is its perfectly manicured garden, designed by Muso Soseki. Unlike the buildings, which have seen multiple reconstructions, the gardens have been maintained in their original condition since they were first laid out.
Visiting this temple isn’t a very cheap option so, if you are feeling templed out from yesterday, you can probably skip this. There are more chance t see temples and gardens later today.
Entrance Fee: ¥500 (with an extra ¥300 to enter the buildings)
Monkey Park Iwatayama
Take the 25-30 minute hike up the mountain to reach the Monkey Park. Originally a station for university students to study the indegious monkeys, the numbers soon increased so much that tourists began to arrive…and a monkey apark was born.
The monkeys here are Snow Monkeys, otherwise known as Japanese Macaques. These guys have undereye bags like mine, and cute little pink butts….like mine. They are not caged but are free to roam the mountain. Tourists purchase snacks of fruit or nuts and can feed the monkeys through a cage they themselves must stand in. Once the monkeys eat their fill, they scamper back into the trees. That is why it is good to get here early.
Entrance Fee: ¥550
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Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Jump on bus 205 or 206 to Nishi Oji Station. From here, take the Randen Line north to Kinkakujimichi.
The Golden Pavilion is magnificent. It is truly golden, with gold leaf covering the top two floors, giving it a shine you can see from afar. The original building was commissioned by a retiring shogun as a villa but has burned down several times since then. It was most recently rebuilt in 1955 and now serves as a Zen Buddhist temple.
There is a lovely garden in which to sit and have a cup of tea and a snack.
Entrance Fee: ¥400
Kyoto Imperial Palace
You have a choice here, you can either bus 204 to Marutamachi station, or take a 40-minute walk to the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Kyoto Gosho was the hoe of Japan’s Imperial family before they made the move to Toyko in the 1860s. It was rebuilt a few times thanks to relocations, wars and fires. The one you see today was finished just 11 years before the family left it.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be very regulated, with mandatory tours but now everybody is free to wander at their leisure. This allows you to poke around at your own speed, or sit and relax. you cannot enter the buildings but can see into the rooms and through open doorways. English tours are still available, and for no extra cost but they do get booked up quickly. If you are interested in the wall illustrations but visiting Kyoto on a budget, this is a great place to see them for free (rather than the Nijo Castle which is our next sight.
Entrance Fee: Free
Central Kyoto Sights
The next two sights are very close to each other and both rather expensive so we think it would be best to pick just one.
1 – Kyoto International Manga Museum
If you are interested in the phenomenon of Manga Illustration/animation, then take some time to go and the Kyoto International Manga Museum. It houses 300,000 items of manga history, 50,000 of which can be picked over at your leisure from the manga wall. You can’t fail to notice the huge phoenix that is two storeys high.
Entrance Fee: ¥800 plus extra for temporary exhibitions
2 – Nijō Castle
For some more history, the Nijō Castle is an understated but interesting fortress. The castle was built over 20 years in the early 1600s as a home from the first Shogun of the Edo Period. It is great fun trying to walk silently over the nightingale floorboards which squeaked to alert guards to intruders. Audio guides are available in English.
There are some gorgeous blossom trees in the grounds. Plum, which blooms in late February and cherry which bloom later in March.
Entrance Fee: ¥620 plus ¥410 to enter the main Ninomaru Palace
You have definitely earned lunch! Just a 15-minute walk south-east will bring you to foodie heaven. Nishiki Market is absolutely stuffed with great lunch options. Street food, things on sticks, fresh seafood and Kyoto’s famous pickles are all on offer. With 130 shops in this slim marketplace, you will be spoilt for choice Oh, and no, this isn’t just a tourist trap. There has been a market here for over 400 years. The vendors used 400 years. Clear and cold water for fridges.
- Watahan’s oysters are not just palm-sized, but palm and full hand-sized. You can’t slurp this down in one or you may die. Instead, bite off a section of creamy meat and enjoy.
- The Karaage at Umeshin is very salty..but in a good way. The incredibly crispy, coated chicken is served plain but they offer lots of toppings to choose from.
- Look out for the little red octopi on sticks. They are glazed in a slightly sweet sauce and have a little quail’s egg inside the head. Sounds kinda gross, taste kinda delicious.
- Kimura Fresh Fish – Pick some marinated tuna, a fresh slice of seared tuna or tender quid and you can eat it right there in the back of the shop. This has been here for almost as long as the market.
- Grab some Takoyaki at Karikari Hakase. Takoyaki is small batter balls stuffed with octopus. On top, you will often find spring onions, ginger, sauce and tempura pieces and seaweed flakes.
Head across the river to East Kyoto, passing the minamiza Theatre on your right. You will shortly come to the road of Hanamikoji Street. Turn right onto here and the first building on your left is the Ichiriki Chaya. If you have read Memoirs of a Geisha, you will be in heaven, as these two building are mentioned at length.
Take some time to explore the streets in Gion. Tidy wooden frontages conceal restaurants, ochayas (teahouses), okiyas (Geisha dormitories) and a wide variety of shops. Dotted on the backstreets, you will discover some mini shrines too. Take a stroll along the Shirakawa River and enjoy a peaceful moment.
You won’t be able to afford Geisha entertainment if you are visiting Kyoto on a budget, it costs an awful lot. However, wandering the streets of Gion, you may be lucky enough to spot them flitting through the streets to their various appointments. Listen out for the telltale click-clack of their geta (wooden block sandles).
Geisha or, Geiko as they are named in Kyoto, are highly skilled and talented entertainers. From the exacting etiquette of the tea ceremony to dance and musical instrument performances, they go through years of training. During this time, they are called Maiko. Throughout Gion and Kyoto’s other Geiko districts, these butterflies of Japanese life flutter, leaving crowds of mesmorised tourists in their wake.
Please don’t follow these lovely ladies, just let them pass as you quietly gape.
Leaving or Arriving by Train? Here re Some Little Bonuses
If you have a train that leaves at a reasonable time, you can pop across the road to visit the Higashi Hogan-Ji. This vast temple is interesting enough as it is but has a couple of cool additions in their exhibition. You can see a giant wooden sled and weirdly, a huge rope made of human hair that was dnaed to the temple.
There are lockers in the train station so you can leave your luggage there as you explore the temple.
Entrance Fee: Free
Kyoto Train Station
The giant modern beast that is Kyoto Train Station is actually a great place to explore. Head up the escalators up to the 11th floor where you will find some lovely places to sit and relax. For here, head up to the SkyWalk. there are some fabulous views of the Kyoto Tower and across the city. Both the view and laser show on the stairs are best in the evening.
Around Kyoto Station, you will find cheap food from across Japan. Whether you are looking for a proper sit-down meal, or something to take with you on the train, you will have some great options.
And speaking of food…
Where to Eat in Kyoto on a Budget
1 – 7-Eleven/Family Mart
The backpacker’s best friend! Convenience stores in Japan are of excellent quality. You will find a fantastic choice of bento boxes that are fab to pick up for a cheap lunch. Keep your eyes peeled for the line of green triangles in the chilled section. These onigiri (rice balls) are yummy seaweed-wrapped sushi rice triangles stuffed with all sorts of tasty additions like tuna, seaweed or chicken. Plus, if you like squishy, sweet cakes, there is a fine selection.
Come later in the evening to pick up some bargains for the following day. Most 7-elevens mark their food down about 50% between 6:00 – 8:00.
2 – Yasube Pontocho
Okonomiyaki is an amazing blend of pancake and omelette. Fillings like shredded cabbage and seafood are mixed into the batter before you fry it on a hot plate on your table. You can add a yakitori style sauce and lashings of mayonnaise. It is a surprisingly filling dinner and fantastic value.
3 – TORIHARA-Kyoto
Everybody loves something delicious on a stick, and Torihara knows how to make some fabulous things on sticks! Dainty slivers of grilled chicken are slathered with a sweet and salty sauce. Pick a couple of meat skewers and some cheaper veggie options and the bill should be perfectly reasonable.
4 – Gyoza Hohei
Gyoza is what they do at Gyoza Hohei and boy, do they do it well. Both varieties offered are delicate and delicious. The originals are packed with garlic, they pack quite a punch. If you don’t fancy fierce garlic breath, go for the ginger ones instead.
5 – Ichiran Ramen
There are a few branches of this classic noodle shop, specialising in the pork bone broth. Most shops are open 24 hours a day s. If you still have more than 50% of your soup left than you can ask for a free top up of noodles. For the price, its a whole lot of food.
7 – Ice Cream
Soft serve ice cream is a must-do in Kyoto. Even on a chilly March day, you will see plenty of tourists clutching perfectly swirled, brightly coloured dairy treats. Matcha is a popular choice but for a unique choice that isn’t found elsewhere in the world, get the Sakura (cherry blossom).
8 – Vending Machines
Japan has more vending machines per capita than anywhere else in the world and they sell absolutely everything. If you are craving a coffee (and these are long days of sightseeing so we totally understand) then hunt out a vending machine and you can get a nice, hot can of coffee for half the price of a cafe.
A Note on Sushi
Midrange/cheap sushi is not great quality in Kyoto. Save your sushi meals for elsewhere in Japan.
When to Visit Kyoto
Winter – In late February/early March, Kyoto hosts the Higashiyama Hanatoro festival. Visitors are treated to extra lights in the temples and along the paths of Southern Higashiyama. Meiji (training Geiko) perform on giant temporary stages. It is magical.
Plus, plum blossom is out but as it precedes the cherry blossoms, the prices won’t have skyrocketed yet.
Spring – Spring is cherry blossom time and it can be VERY expensive to travel as you follow the sakura parties. To travel on a budget you will need to book everything as far in advance as possible.
Summer – Kyoto is hot and humid in summer but the sun is out which is great for those important photos. There is a summer festival in June, the Gion Matsuri. Parades, streets parties and plenty of street food are on offer. It is Kyoto’s biggest festival and one of japan’s biggest.
Autumn – Late fall/autumn is Kyoto’s high season. In October, the leaves begin to change dramatically from green to vivid red. The weather is warm and clear by day, and crisp in the evening. Prices will be a little higher but book in advance and you will still find a bargain or two.
Tips for Visiting Kyoto on a Budget
Look Out for Lawson 100 Yen Stores (Hyaku En Shoppu)
These sell a great range of bits and bobs. We wouldn’t recommend the sandwiches here but they are great for those things you forget to bring with you or snacks.
Look Out for Fresh Markets
If you need some vitamins in the shape of fruit, opt for outdoor markets as these are usually better value.
Save Your Data
If you are lacking data in Japan (and it is not that worth getting a local sim in Japan with all the free wifi) check out our list of apps for backpackers for great offline map apps and other apps to save you roaming data.
Getting Around Kyoto on a Budget
You won’t be taking that much public transport if you are following this itinerary to the letter. If you are taking the odd bits then you can either use:
- Cash – You can pay on the bus as you disembark at the front of the bus.
- IC Card – Tap in this card when using the bus and out as well if you are using the metro. This IC Card works in Tokyo so you may already have one handy.
- The Kyoto Sightseeing Card – If you want to know you can jump on a bus or metro at any point, grab one of these for ¥2000. It isn’t a cheap option but if you need help to get around, it is great to know you have it in your pocket. There are bus-only passes for half the price but with a short amount of time, we think the metro is more useful.
Where to Stay in Kyoto on a Budget
Accommodation in Kyoto can become very expensive so consider other budget-friendly options other than hotels. There are some great guesthouses/hostels with both dorms and private rooms. Check out Hostelworld for those options. Alternatively, you can have a look at Airbnb for rooms or whole apartments to rent.
Final Thoughts on this Kyoto 2-Day Itinerary
Seeing Kyoto on a budget can be tricky, and you will definitely leave with lighter pockets, but it needn’t cost the earth. Spending a little cash in the right places allows you to really enjoy Kyoto and its magical blend of old-world Japanese charm, modern bustle and calming natural highlights.