Greetings Internet Stranger! Some destinations need to be carefully promoted to the cautious consumer. If I were to try to convince you to spend a perfect 24 hours in Hohokus, you might rightfully be skeptical. But I should have no trouble getting you to spend 24 hours in Kyoto.
It is so legendarily beautiful that it was spared bombing during World War II because the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, was so enamored of it. That alone should convince you that Kyoto is worth your time. But if you’re still not convinced, join me for 24 hours in Kyoto and we will discover the significance of birth and the joy of living.
That’s not my phrase. That’s what it promises on the sign. See:
24 Hours in Kyoto
Where to Stay?
For your 24 hours in Kyoto I’m going to suggest my lovely hotel in Kyoto, Kyoto Uraraka Guest House. It was in a neighborhood that was so safe, I saw children playing unattended in the nearby playground at night. There was also a tasty breakfast with several kinds of fluffy, sweet Japanese breads every morning. Also, there was a Japanese-Australian-French family with an adorable three-year old son who was obsessed with trains. I mean, probably that little boy won’t be staying there when you are in Kyoto, but he is adorable and you never know.
24 Hours in Kyoto
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Japan is hot in the summer, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, if you’re not from Japan or the US, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. Japanese electrical outlets don’t work with UK or non-UK European plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in Kyoto
Morning: Explore Central Kyoto
Central Kyoto is not the first place people would choose for spending 24 hours in Kyoto. It is not as well known as the Higashiyama or Arashiyama neighborhoods. But don’t let that fool you! Central Kyoto is full of hidden charms. It will bring me all the more pleasure to introduce you to…
Approximately top 5: 24 hours in kyoto
1) Higashi Honganji
Higashi Honganji is not one of the most famous tourist attractions in Kyoto, but I can only assume that these people who aren’t recommending a visit here just haven’t heard of it. This temple is impressive not only because of its size, but because of its importance to the religious history of Japan. It is an important temple for a branch of Buddhism called Shin Buddhism.
This is both a kind of Pure Land Buddhism and the most popular branch of Buddhism today in Japan. So if you visit, you will have the opportunity to observe many Japanese people visiting a place of great spiritual significance to them.
24 Hour Tip
Wear shoes that are easy to take on and off. You will be required to take off your shoes if you want to enter any of the halls in the temples. Also, remember that while some people there are tourists, some have come to pray, so be quiet and respectful. Shin Buddhists believe in chanting the name of Amida Buddha, so you may hear this as you are walking around the temple.
2) Higashi Honganji Museum
Don’t miss the small museum on the complex, which usually features an exhibit about a cause that is important to the community. When I was there, there was a powerful exhibit on antiwar art done by children. There were also signs explaining how some Shin Buddhist temples had collaborated with the militaristic government in power in Japan during WWII. The signs expressed regret for these actions. I found it very moving that the community was able to honestly show remorse for mistakes in their past.
3) Shosei-en Garden
After exploring those imposing buildings, you’ll be looking forward to a charming stroll through nature. That’s why I recommend a break at Shosei-en, which is the garden that belongs to Higashi Hongaji. Somewhat confusingly, it is located in a nearby but separate location. You can spend a lovely hour or so strolling around here and taking in the floral beauty of this semi-hidden gem.
24 Hour Treasure
My favorite feature in the garden is the stunningly reflective Moon Crest Pond. I love that name because the moon is such a big part of Japanese culture and also a big part of the movie Big Bird in Japan. The first time I ever heard of Japan was watching this movie, so it holds a special, yellow place in my heart. (Before you judge me, remember I was 6 at the time.
Fun Fact: Japanese legends don’t tell of a man in the moon. They think it’s a rabbit.
24 Hour Tip
Definitely come here in cherry blossom season, like I did. The flowers are stunning and it isn’t nearly as crowded as some of the more popular cherry blossom places in Kyoto.
Jealous yet? Then my work is done, Internet Stranger!
4) Lunch at Kyoto Station
You might think I sound a little nutty for recommending lunch in a train station. After all the only edible things you are likely to find in Penn Station here in NYC are a Krispy Kreme and a dead rat. But Kyoto has much better choices. They have two, two beautiful food courts on the 11th floor of the high-tech Kyoto Station. One is called The Cube and the other is called Eat Paradise. Did they eat paradise and put up a parking lot? That strikes me as rather short sighted of them.
I opted for Eat Paradise and had the set lunch at a restaurant called Kyotofu Fujuno, which specializes in using the wondrous tofu in mysterious ways.
When I received my deluxe set lunch, my mind was instantly boggled at all the many ways you could prepare tofu. There was fried tofu skin, fried tofu in broth with noodles, sushi wrapped with tofu skin instead of seaweed, various kinds of fresh tofu topped with different condiments ranging from spicy to salty, and finally different wagashi (Japanese sweets) made from tofu. My favorite was a rice flour dumpling covered in roasted soy bean powder. The powder added a rich, nutty flavor to the dumpling. Behold the power of soy!
5) Enjoy the views from Kyoto Station
Once you are done with lunch, head to the top of Kyoto Station and check out the sweeping views of the city.
There’s glass blocking the view because I guess they don’t want anyone pushing somebody off the top of Kyoto Station. It would probably delay a train or two.
24 Hours in Kyoto
Afternoon: City of Culture Kyoto Tour
Are you up for a tour of three of the most popular attractions in Kyoto? Of course you are! And by a strange coincidence, this tour meets just outside Kyoto Station, where we just finished our tofabulous lunch! Brilliant!
I had already had a good experience with Urban Adventures in Mexico City going on their Cantinas, Mariachi, and Lucha Libre tour, so I decided to book one of their tours in Kyoto: the City of Culture tour. This tour took in the Tofukuji Buddhist temple (pictured above), the famously foxy (I mean that literally) Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, and the Gion entertainment district. This district is best known for being a stomping ground for geisha. I should say a tiptoeing ground as no geisha would dream of stomping.
Our first stop was at Tofukuji, which is a bit of a ways away from the train station, so we took the subway. Our guide, Guillemin, gave us subway tickets that were included with the price of admission. He also showed us how to use them. This is very helpful as the Japanese subway system is not like anything we have in the United States.
24 Hour Tip
To use the subway in Japan, you need to put your ticket in the machine to enter AND to leave the subway. Do not throw away your ticket until you are well out of the subway! You don’t want to get trapped underground in Japan forever and have to live with the Mutant Ninja Turtles, do you?
Unlike the temple you and I saw earlier today, Tofukuji is a Zen Buddhist temple. While Shin Buddhists are more likely to chant the name of Amida Buddha, Zen Buddhists believe very strongly in silent meditation, and I did find that the noiseless atmosphere while walking around the temple was conducive to calming and clearing my mind.
24 Hour Treasure
My favorite part of the temple was this Zen garden, which Guillemin explained was an attempt to create water without water. The sand is supposed to mimic the movement of waves. After he said that, I found it entrancing to focus on the circles of sand and imagine them rippling out further and further, even though I know that’s impossible. OR IS IT?
Our next stop was at the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, which is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, Inari. Guillemin explained that many Japanese people are able to practice both Buddhism and Shinto because they use different rituals at different times in their life.
For example, Buddhist rituals are more often performed for funerals, and Shinto rituals are more often performed at weddings. I think that sounds appropriate because I’d definitely rather have a black and orange statue of a fox show up at my wedding than at my funeral.
But there is so much more than that to learn about Fushimi Inari Taisha! Allow me to share with you…
THREE FUN FACTS ABOUT FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA
1) What’s with the orange gates?
The shrine’s great claim to fame are the great paths lined with orange torii gates that are so fun to explore. Apparently Inari is considered good luck for business, so each gate is sponsored by a different Japanese businessperson or company. You can see the names of the donor and the amount that they gave written on the side of the torii.
Some people also leave their business cards on the floor in a room with a statue of a horse god in it for more financial luck, especially if they can’t afford to donate a torii. Our guide said you’re not supposed to, but new business cards are dropped in every day. Some people will do anything to make a buck!
2) what’s up with the foxes?
After the red gates, the first thing you will notice about Fushimi Inari Taisha is that it is covered with fox statues. Our guide told us that this is because foxes are considered to be the animal of Inari. I’m not sure that I trust this Inari guy. His symbol is a fox and everyone knows foxes are sneaky. He takes people’s money and tells them that he’s going to make them rich…this sounds like a Ponzi scheme to me. I think he might be Bernie Madoff.
3) no seriously, what’s up with the foxes?
Many Shinto shrines have tablets or pieces of paper on which you can write wishes for luck. But at Fushimi Inari Taisha, these tablets are of course shaped like foxes. I love how people drew their own faces on the foxes–I saw everything from realistic fox faces to characters from the manga Dragonball Z. Such a creative way of making a wish!
24 Hour Treat: Taiyaki
The favorite snack to get at Fushimi Inari Taisha is a taiyaki, which is a light pastry filled with either red bean or custard, I chose red bean and was very satisfied. It’s not included with the price of the tour, but your guide will stop if you say you want to buy one.
I don’t understand why it’s shaped like a fish though. Shouldn’t it be shaped like a fox? Won’t Inari get offended? Do you think I can pay him off with one of my business cards? DO I EVEN HAVE A BUSINESS CARD?
Our last stop was in Gion, which is most famous for being the home of most of the geishas who live in Kyoto. This seemed to be Guillemin’s favorite part of the tour, as he was just brimming with much more than…
THREE FUN FACTS ABOUT GEISHA
1) Should you call them geisha?
No. In Japan, they are called geiko.
2) how do you become a geiko?
Geiko in training are called maiko, and they start training at 15. Only a very few young women are chosen, and it is considered to be a great honor. In order to become a geiko, you need to become an expert at everything from traditional Japanese dance to performing a tea ceremony. Some geiko get married when they retire, but others do not marry and stay on to train maiko into geiko. It’s the circle of geiko!
3) what is a geiko’s job?
A geiko’s job is usually to serve as traditional Japanese entertainment during a lavish party. She would probably sing, dance, and/or play a musical instrument or demonstrate other traditional Japanese arts. Since the chances of you or I getting invited to one of these parties is slim to none, our only chance to see geiko or maiko perform is in public shows for a festival given in springtime.
I was lucky to have arrived in Japan at the end of March because the spring festival was about to start and I had reserved a ticket in advance online! But I am getting ahead of myself. That show is for another day. The last geiko dance of the day is at 4:30 and this tour ends at 5:30, so there’s no way to do both on the same day.
Our guide concluded the educational tour by saying that it was his last day as a tour guide because he was moving to a different city. He thanked us for sharing this special moment with him. So you probably won’t have Guillemin if you take this tour. It was a special tour though, as we learned a lot about Japanese culture and religion. We also saw three major Kyoto landmarks that would otherwise have been difficult to see in one day.
24 Hours in Kyoto
Evening: Dinner at Issen Yoshoku
Now that the tour is over, you’ll have a little time to explore Gion on your own! If it’s cherry blossom season, I recommend trying to find some because they look like magical pink clouds when they are all lit up at night.
When you are done, head to Issen Yoshoku, which will serve you a very tasty, very cheap, and very fast okonomiyaki. As I explained during our day in Osaka, okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake made with eggs, flour, cabbage, and a bunch of other wacky ingredients, usually topped with sweet and dark okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes, and mayonnaise. However, this okonomiyaki was different from the one in Osaka for several reasons.
24 hour treat: kyoto okonomiyaki
- It was thinner and more rolled up, kind of like an omelette. The Osaka one was fatter and flatter like an egg pizza.
- It had scallions. The one in Osaka was a scallion free zone.
- This one was topped with seaweed and okonomiyaki sauce, no bonito flakes or mayo.
- This one had meat in it, the other had squid and shrimp.
Both the okonomiyaki here and the one in Osaka were delicious! This one was a bit more no-frills but nothing beats an okonomiyaki hot off the grill. And look! My old friend Billiken even came by the restaurant to say hello.
Thanks Billiken! You’re the best. My 24 hours in Kyoto is finally complete!
Further Reading: A Perfect 24 Hours in Kyoto!
Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Kyoto right now? Then let me give you some suggestions for further reading for your itinerary. I like the Lonely Planet guide to Osaka and Kyoto. It’s divided according to neighborhood, which is very helpful.
If you’re a fan of fantasy literature, I really think the Japanese are some of the best in the world at the magic stuff. Read Kappa by Ryonusuke Akutagawa. It’s like Alice in Wonderland if Alice in Wonderland were about underground lizard people.
And if you prefer mysteries, settle in for a cozy evening with Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Ranpo. (Ranpo was a Japanese writer, but he admired Edgar Allen Poe so much, he changed his name to sound more like his idol.)
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that just because this is a 24 hour itinerary in Kyoto, it doesn’t mean you should only spend 24 hours in Kyoto. If you’d like another 24 hours in Kyoto with Ginkaku-ji click here. And if you want 24 hours in Kyoto with Kiyomizu Temple, I’ve got you covered here. If you want a day trip to Osaka, click here. If you want a day trip to Nara, click here. And if you want to add a Japanese Alps itinerary, click here.