Kyoto is Japan’s third largest city and many consider it to be the heart of the country. Founded as Heian in 794, it’s also one of the Asian nation’s oldest cities. While it’s golden age was between 794 and 1185, a Kyoto day trip is very popular with tourists who flock to the area to see the magnificent landmarks and historical sites.
Kyoto is one of the most popular destinations for tourists. With it’s rich history, vibrant culture, and incredible food, it’s easy to understand why. This guide will share some tips for making the most of your day trip to Kyoto.
Osaka is my favorite city in Japan. It has much of the same stuff you’ll find in Tokyo, but on a smaller scale. As a result, the crowds and costs are smaller. It’s also known as “Japan’s Kitchen” due to the absolutely amazing food you can find there. When I’m in Japan, this is my home base because when I want to explore, it’s easy to get around. One of the best nearby adventures is a Kyoto day trip from Osaka!
My first visit was nearly 25 years ago. The transportation and technology was impressive in 1995 and it’s even more impressive today. With the high-speed Shinkansen “bullet train” system, you can get just about anywhere quickly. On my most recent trip earlier this year, I wanted to show my daughter some of the Kansai region. We settled on Kyoto and Hiroshima (we’ll probably check out Nara in 2020). Here are some tips based on our experiences.
Day Trip to Kyoto From Osaka
Before you start planning your trip to Kyoto, it’s important to understand that this is a very popular destination for tourists. Some locals have even complained about overtourism, although, the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic may change that dynamic.
Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and can be found on the island of Honshu. Thousands of tourists flock to the city every single day to see the classical Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, breathtaking gardens, and traditional wooden houses.
If you’re doing a day trip, you won’t have time to see everything. That’s why you should consider these suggestions to maximize your time:
- Plan to arrive in Kyoto as early as possible. We got there at 7am and it was mostly empty. A little earlier would have been even better, because the sites filled up quickly.
- Have a plan. In fact, you should be very picky and do research on the places you plan to see. You need to be efficient.
- Eat everything. Okay, not everything, but Kyoto has some amazing food. We’ll get into that in a bit.
- Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking. A LOT. Even if you take the train, subway, and/or buses, you’ll probably max out your day’s worth of steps in Kyoto.
- Plan for rain. Although the rainy season in Japan tends to be in June and July, the weather can be unpredictable. If you get caught without an umbrella, you can buy a very affordable one (or a poncho!) at convenience stores in the area.
There are some places in the world where you can travel and just wander around. Kyoto is not one of those places. If you want to hit some of the main attractions, it really pays to be prepared. We highly recommend picking up a guide book or local map from Lonely Planet (it’s old school, but you won’t need WiFi or data to use it)!
How to Get to Kyoto From Osaka
If you’re planning to spend any time at all in Japan, you should probably buy a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). Not only can it make your life so much easier, but it could save you money. Be sure to check out our complete guide to using the Japan Rail Pass and Shinkansen.
- By Shinkansen: With your JR Pass, you won’t have to pay any extra to hop on the Hikari or Kodama bullet trains from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station (non-reserved seating cars). It takes just about 20 minutes, which is amazing. You’ll have to pay to get on the Nozomi train, but you’ll get there faster (we don’t think it’s really worth the added expense on such a short trip, though!).
- JR Train: You can also get to Kyoto from Osaka on a regular train. From JR Osaka station or JR Shin-Osaka station, you’ll take the Shin-Kaisoku express train to JR Kyoto station. You’ll have to pay and it takes about 30 minutes to arrive. Unfortunately, when you arrive, you’ll be a fair distance from the center of the action, so keep that in mind.
- Hankyu Train: Another regular train option, you’ll board the Limited Express (Tokkyu) at Hankyu Umeda station (which is connected to the JR Osaka station) in Osaka and travel to Kawaramachi station in the center of Kyoto city. This will take you about 45 minutes.
Personally, we recommend sticking with the Shinkansen for your Kyoto day trip from Osaka as you’ll save time and money if you’ve got the JR Pass. We’ve taken the other two routes, and they just weren’t as easy or efficient.
Popular Attractions in Kyoto
If you’ve only got one day in Kyoto, you’ll need to be picky about what you see. We used the Visit a City app (iOS | Android) to help us refine a plan, and it was the best thing ever. We always knew where we were going which really helped keep stress levels down.
If you’re not sure where to begin, here are the most visited places in Kyoto. You won’t be able to see all of these in a day, so we suggest picking three to four that pique your interest most:
- Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine – Built around 711, this Shinto shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. There are many levels and layers to this site, making it a good option.
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – If you’ve ever seen a picture of soaring stalks of bamboo, it was probably Arashiyama.
- Kinkaku-ji Temple – Built towards the end of the 14th century, the Zen Buddhist temple is nicknamed the “Golden Pavilion” and sits above a reflection pond.
- Ginkaku-ji Temple – Constructed in 1482, the Jisho-ji (Temple of Shining Mercy) or the “Silver Pavilion” is known for its gardens and gorgeous halls and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple – Another UNESCO World Heritage Site temple which is known for its wooden stage projecting out from its main hall.
- Chion-in Temple – Built in the 17th century, this is the main temple of the Jodo, the most popular Japanese Buddhist sect.
- Nanzen-ji Temple – Built as the retirement villa of Emperor Kameyama in the 13th century, it’s one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan (and even has smaller temples inside of it!).
- Tenryu-ji Temple – The Tenryuji Temple (Heavenly Dragon Temple) was built in 1339 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Nijo-jo Castle – Built in 1603 by the first Shogun of the Edo Period (Tokugawa Ieyasu), Niji-jo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was once used as the Imperial Palace.
Remember, it doesn’t matter which place is the most Instagrammable or what other people loved, choose based on your heart’s desire. It won’t steer you wrong!
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is based in Paris, and is a specialized agency of the United Nations. According to the website, the Organization seeks to “encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”
While I’ve mentioned a few of them already, did you know that Kyoto actually has 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites? It would probably take a few days to see them all. Again, you’ll have to be quite selective (we’ve only seen four so far!), but here’s a quick list:
- Kamigamo Jinja
- Shimogamo Jinja
- Nishi Hongan-ji
Whenever we travel anywhere, we check to see if there are any UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the area. It’s not always possible to see all of them, but we think it’s important to try! They are designated as being special for good reason!
Tips For Your One-Day Itinerary in Kyoto:
Every traveler is different, so the advice you find on websites and blogs (including The Anxious Travelers) is subjective. That being said, we’d like to offer our recommendations for a one-day itinerary in Kyoto. Also, be sure to read our 10 Things You Should Know Before Your First Trip to Japan!
We love seeing the sites, but we also aren’t obsessed with visiting every shrine or learning every detail. Instead, we’re the type of travelers who like a more chill experience that involves taking in the ambiance and vibe of a city rather than having an intense to-do list. If you’re like us, you might find our tips helpful.
Start with Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. It’s right outside the Inari train station (a short trip from Kyoto Station – but you’ll have to pay a small fare). It fills up very, very quickly so if you care about getting photos without crowds, go as early as possible.
Consider skipping the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It’s only about half a kilometer long and is far from the center of Kyoto, so you’ll have to decide if it’s worth it when you’ve only got one day.
Absolutely see the Sanjusangendo Hall. We don’t see it as often on lists, and maybe that’s because there is a strictly enforced “no photography” rule at the site. We’ve noticed a trend where some travelers seem to think that if you can’t share it on Instagram, it’s not worth it. Well, this breathtaking structure features a 120-meter long hall that’s actually the longest wooden structure in Japan. Built in 1164, the Buddhist temple is also known for its 1001 statues of Kannon – the Goddess of Mercy. Definitely worth it. Just PLEASE take your shoes off.
Again, don’t feel like you need to hit every landmark. Pick the ones that are most appealing or convenient for you, enter them into the Visit a City app and follow the itinerary it generates. So easy!
Where to Eat in Kyoto
There is no shortage of food in Kyoto. The areas of Gion (the birthplace of the Geisha!) and Nishiki Market (the “Kitchen of Kyoto”) are very popular destinations for foodies. The latter is great because there are multiple food stalls in a small area, allowing you to easily sample something from each.
With my food allergies and our obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), we weren’t too adventurous with food during our Kyoto day trip. If we’d had more time, we would have made a greater effort. I’ll recommend the website Inside Kyoto’s food guide as a supplement to our one-day itinerary.
We grabbed some nice, hot teas from the vending machines on train platforms to sustain us through the morning. Then, for lunch, we stopped in at Coco Ichibanya. It was a multi-story location, so we chose a table on the second floor and enjoyed the view. It was also great that they had outlets right at the tables. We charged up our Skyroam Mobile WiFi Hotspot and Power Bank while we ate.
Coco Ichibanya is known for its curry (our favorite!). We each ordered Chicken Katsu (I also had fried chicken and stewed chicken on my platter for sharing) with curry and rice. The breading on the chicken breast was so crispy and everything was delicious. It was the perfect way to escape the slight rain that had rolled in!
At Nishiki Market, we found a Melon Pan location. We ordered two complete with ice cream. Unfortunately, we didn’t eat them. The preparer handled our money and then the bread without changing gloves, and neither of us wanted to eat it after that.
We’ve heard from many people and even those without OCD contamination fears have said they wouldn’t have wanted to eat it. It was highly unusual for Japan, but we ended up throwing them in the garbage 🙁
Kyoto Tours & Experiences
You can always choose to skip the self-guided experience in favor of some tours. It’s a real toss up whether this will save or cost you time. We’ve been lost on a Kyoto day trip before, so we definitely could have benefited from the help of a local.
At the same time, those moments we spent aimlessly wandering around real neighborhoods are among our favorite memories. Again, do what’s best for you and your sightseeing style. If you’re interested in tours, though, here are some suggestions (we recommend signing up with Viator, Voyagin, or Klook).
- Kyoto Cultural Forest, Shrine and Temple Tour with Options – This is a one-day guided tour of Kyoto’s temples, shrines, and cultural attractions. Lunch can be included with this package.
- Kyoto Early Bird Tour – This half-day tour is designed for those who want to get an early start and beat the crowds. We’d recommend this so you can get the most out of your experience.
- Hidden Kyoto E-Biking – We absolutely love cycling through cities (like Vancouver!) to stay active and save time. This half-day 8km bike tour will take you to the lesser-known secrets of “Hidden Kyoto.”
- Private Highlights of Kyoto Tour – Select one of two different routes for this full-day tour and explore the major Kyoto attractions with a personal guide.
- Nighttime All-Inclusive Local Eats and Streets, Gion and Beyond – Want to eat your way through Kyoto? This three-hour walking tour will give you historical insight into the city’s streets and nighttime entertainment scene. Then, you’ll sample regional specialties (including drinks) at two standing bars/restaurants.
- Kyoto Nishiki Market Tour with 7 Course Lunch – The sprawling 400-year-old market is a must-see destination for foodies. On this seven-course food tastings tour, your guide will navigate the massive space as you’re immersed in Japanese culture.
- Ramen Cooking Class at Ramen Factory – In North America, ramen noodles are a popular, inexpensive staple (especially among college students!), but you’ve probably never had it fresh. On this tour, you’ll learn how to make one of Japan’s most popular dishes from scratch at a local ramen factory!
Our Favorite Moment from Kyoto (and a Cautionary Tale!)
We confidently walked up the steps to the Kiyumizu-dera temple, and as we walked along the path, we saw a large congregation of people. We had no idea what was going on, so we pushed through to keep moving. Boy, was that ever a mistake (and uncharacteristically clueless and disrespectful of us).
We’d had a long morning on our Kyoto day trip and wanted to see one last site before breaking for lunch. What ended up happening, though, is that we crashed a wedding! When we pushed past the crowd, we ended up stepping into the path of a bride preparing to make her way to the ceremony. One attendant politely, but firmly, grabbed my daughter by her backpack and shoved her out of the way.
We felt so ashamed because we really love Japan and go out of our way to be respectful while traveling. It was just a combination of poor timing and a lack of awareness. Along with other tourists, we took photos and shared them on social media. To our surprise, the bride’s sister tracked me down and asked for copies of the video and pictures! Fortunately, they were forgiving of the situation and it made me feel good to be able to send images from their special day!
Kyoto With Travel Anxiety
What’s a Kyoto day trip like for an anxious traveler? We thought it was pretty great. It wasn’t as serene as Hiroshima, for example, but it wasn’t as frenzied as Tokyo by any stretch of the imagination. We liked that the bustling crowds were balanced out by nature, which helped keep our travel anxiety in check. Also, Japan is very good for our OCD and anxiety in general. Having hand washing stations and sinks inside restaurants (the one below is literally next to our table at Coco Ichibanya!) is immensely helpful for us.
We noticed something interesting about Kyoto, though. The attention to detail (like the food handling at Melon Pan) was less than we saw anywhere else in Japan. We also kind of felt like there was some frustration with the tourists. In fact, we heard some people talking about it.
Maybe it’s because of moments like when we crashed that wedding. Maybe it’s a lack of manners or respect from tourists in general. Either way, we’re seeing more and more stories (like this one and this one) that suggest we might be overstaying our welcome.
So, as a reminder, always be courteous and mindful when you’re traveling, especially in countries that place an exceptionally high value on respect. Have a great time in Kyoto!