Ultimate Five Days Itinerary for Kyoto, Japan

traditional temple in kyoto with autumn foliage in december

Crafting your Kyoto itinerary for December may be daunting because there are many things to see and too many things to experience. But fear not; we got you covered.

Kyoto is definitely one of the gorgeous cities in the world. Yet, even as a city, it has some old-small-town charm. Seeing a quiet Zen garden in the middle of new buildings is fascinating. The towering Pagodas add life to the city’s silhouette. The mountains surrounding it feel like they hug the city and try to keep you cosy.

Our Five Days Kyoto Itinerary helps you plan your trip better, and I hope it makes you fall in love with the city as much as we did.

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How to utilize our Kyoto five days Itinerary for December?

The key to following this itinerary is to be an early bird. So you don’t have to get up at 5 and head out. But be sure to hit the streets by 8!

And we are budget travellers. So we picked only a few temples to save money and time. There are hardly any temples in Kyoto with free entry. Unless you are a Shinto monk or someone travelling in Kyoto for a month, you don’t want to visit all the temples. Right?

This itinerary revolves around a lot of walking, easy hikes and using public transport in and around Kyoto during December. Read here to know which pass is good to use public transport and best areas for tourists to stay.

There is no dress code to enter any temples in Japan. So dress according to the season. Wear good shoes. Carry a Japanese transparent umbrella -You are good to roll and fall in love with Japan’s cultural capital.

Kyoto Itinerary | Day 1 | Gion District and Higashiyama.

Nothing better than starting your Kyoto day by exploring old Kyoto. This is culturally the richest and most beautiful part of Kyoto. Every lane in this area is charming. The empty streets look way different from how they appear when the light. Have a latte at 9/11 and a quick snack like a whipped cream roll, so you are charged enough to explore the most beautiful lanes of Kyoto before the tourist herd attacks the streets.

D1.1 Wander around Yasaka Pagoda

I am not exaggerating – The iconic landmark of Kyoto was more breathtaking than I imagined! Centuries-old, perfectly restored black and brown wooden buildings line the stoned, slightly sloped paved pedestrian pathways.

The five-storey Yasaka Pagoda, built in 1440, stands quietly, dominating everything around it. When you arrive here early in the morning, say by 8, you are sure to imagine an old town with merchants wearing traditional dresses and women in Kimonos on the move. At one time, I thought I even heard the hoof beat!

Enjoy the empty streets till it last! Because post 9.30, hundreds of people like you and I will want to savour the most beautiful spot in Kyoto.

D1.2 Visit Kyoto’s most colourful temple Yasaka Koshindo.

As we began our stroll around Yasaka Pagoda, a partially hidden entrance gate invited us. Cluelessly, we entered to check what it was. The colourful cloth balls hanging around the idols made the ordinary typical Buddhist temple extraordinary.

The beauty of Japan is that there are billions of shrines and temples. Each has its own story and significance. Pilgrims at Yasaka Koshindo temple write their wishes on the colourful ball and hang it here, representing good faith in monkeys. Fortunately, the prankster monkeys were nowhere to be found there.

They believe one wish will come true for each greed you give up.

D1.3 Stroll in the most beautiful streets of Kyoto – Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka

When you walk up from Yasaka Koshindo temple towards Kiyomizudera Temple., you come across a series of steps to your left, taking you down to the most charming street of Old Kyoto. The Ninezaka street starts from the steps, and the old-world charm of restored traditional buildings begins right there. In most places, the lane with souvenir shops is tacky, but here it is classy!

When you are here early in the morning, the streets feel sleepy and cosy, making you wonder if princess Kaguya will walk the alleys. The best thing to do in Ninenzaka streets are –

  • Check our Ghibli shop.
  • Get your sketches done by local artists
  • Shop for traditional Japanese dolls and other souvenirs.

D1.4 Have brunch at the coolest Starbucks in the world at – Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya.

This coffee shop is located in a 100-year-old traditional Japanese house. So inside Starbucks feels as heritage as its locality – The entrance is typical to any new Starbucks. But the first floor (Japan’s second floor) has a Tatami floor and cushions with a low-height table to sip coffee with a Japanese twist.

Order Cappuccino and anything with Matcha flavour: Japanese know how to best use Matcha flavour in their lattes or cakes. For vegetarians, Avocado Mexican wrap is filling and tastes delicious.

D1.5 Take a walk on Ishin No Michi and Nene No Michi.

The road perpendicular to Ninezaka street is Ishin No Michi and has a different vibe. The lanes are wider and more modern. The beauty of it is that one end leads to the city and the other to the mountain. Needless to say, these roads house many luxury hotels and restaurants.

A right turn from Ishin No Michi to the street of Nene No Michi again takes you back in time. The road is named after the noblewoman “Nene.” She was the wife of Japan’s first unifier, “Toyotomi Hideyoshi”, who unified Japan in the 16th century. So as a street of a noble family, it does justice to the name. The wide lanes are lined with huge trees. Smaller temples and pagodas play a peek-a-boo here. The Autumn foliage adds a vibrance to the street’s black and brown shade card.

D1.6 Have a visual treat at Kodaji Temple with Autumn Foliage.

This is our favourite place in Kyoto. It isn’t just the temple that is beautiful. The temple entrance through a stone stairway with foliage itself excites you.

Once you are at the top, two cute miniature stone statues of Japan’s love birds – Hideyoshi and Nene, welcome you. Once Hideyoshi passed away, Nene became a nun and built the Kodaji temple in honour of her husband. So it is believed that if a couple touches Nene and Hideyoshi statues together, it is good for a long-lasting marriage.

Their big love story touched my heart until I learned that they are buried together, along with the son of Hideyoshi by his concubine! Wait what? How could Nene be so devoted to a husband who had a mistress! – The love story isn’t any cuter for me.

What makes the Kodaji temple beautiful?

Architecture-wise, it is like any other traditional Buddhist temple in Japan. But their Zen gardens are what makes it epic. The long winding pathways take you to the park full of rocks and gravels dotted with colourful plants. The waterbody and the wooden bridge over it look divine and dreamy.

As you climb up further, a smaller temple hides in the woods. Finally, the last top is a beautiful hut with a tea house. The colour saffron never looked as brilliant as it did here. Trust me, this is going to be the highlight of your Kyoto itinerary, especially if you go in December.

If you take a little detour while coming back, you are rewarded with a surprise – A short walk of 200m through bamboo groves dotted with foliage again!
You can easily spend two hours wandering around Kodaji Temple.

D1.7 Enjoy the Garden of Entoku-in

This is the sub-temple of marvellous Kodaji. Attending a traditional tea ceremony is a thing to do in Kyoto. Most travellers add this to their Kyoto itinerary. So, instead of going for the common ones, we picked Entoku. Because you get tea with an awesome view of the dry stone garden.

The premise is small. But the walls of temples have some serious psychedelic beautiful paintings from the 1500s. The main highlight garden is worth paying the admission fee of 500 yen per person. But not the tea ceremony.

If you want to attend a tea ceremony in Kyoto, Entoku shouldn’t be your choice. There is no thought of how blissful the garden is. But their tea ceremony is pale. There was neither a Geisha serving tea nor a traditional show. Instead, they just got Matcha in a nice cup with delicious red bean sweet and kept it in front of us.

D1.8 Go on Streetfood hopping at Matsibara Dori

Another reason why Kyoto became our favourite city in Japan is because of its affordable variety of street food.

The Gion district, which seemed to be quieter, calmer, and fetched some divine spirituality in the morning, would turn into a vibrant place full of people and food joints. The warm lights from the street lamps lit the area. The aroma of fried fish, Steamed veg Manjyus hit the air. If you are in the mood for some junk, sweet potato fryums are a step away. But, for the sweet tooth, there is Kyoto special – “Kyubaum.”

For coffee lovers, there are hundreds of cafes. But the best of all is “Waguri Mont Blanc” Waguri means Japanese chestnut. Montblanc is a dessert in which a blend of pureed chestnut cream and whipped cream is crowned with a sugared chestnut. The French dessert is so famous in Kyoto that you will assume Montblanc originated in Kyoto.

The best places to eat in Gion and Higashiyama are

  • ZIRAEL Vegan Restaurant
  • Kyo-Baum Kiyomizu near Kiyomizudera temple.
  • Tora fu Manjyu near Ninen Zaka stairways
  • Waguri Mont Blanc cake shop
  • Kiyomizu Kyoam for cinnamon ice cream puff.
  • Kyoto pickles – Tsukemono Japanese pickled cucumbers

After everything, end your day at peace at Yasaka shrine – You need not go with a religious mind. Because hundreds of lamps here naturally bring out some kind of spiritual thoughts that hides in you.

Kyoto Itinerary | Day 2 | Kiyozudera temple and Downtown Kyoto.

D2.9 Jinriskha ride

You have walked on your day 1, so take it lightly today. So start your day by taking a hand-pulled Rickshaw near Kiyomizuderatemple. You can choose the duration, and they take you around the areas accordingly. It is best to check which beautiful lane you missed yesterday and where to go later to savour those pretty lanes.

Renting a Kimono is a good idea if you are comfortable wearing heeled wooden sandals and walking wearing tighter fabric. This adds charm to your Jinriksha rides.

D2.10 Take a short hike in Kiyomizudera temple.

Perhaps this is the second photo you see on your google image search result when you type “Kyoto.” This is that temple which looks like it comes out of a green hill – and it is. That is why no tourist visiting Kyoto will leave this marvel out of their Kyoto itinerary.

Nestled on a hillside overlooking the city, it offers stunning views, intricate architecture, and a glimpse into Japanese history and culture. From the first glance at the entrance, you see just a wide entry like any other Buddhist temple in Japan. But, as you go further up, taller pagodas and wider temples appear.

What is Kiyomizu-dera famous for?

The 1200-year-old wooden temple stands on the wooden stilt floor, making it look floaty. And this is the highlight of the temple premise. After you wander in the balconies of the temple, walk 100m ahead towards that orange pagoda you see on the horizon. That is where you get the best view of Kiyomizudera, which looks like it is jetting out of the woods.

The whole premise is so big and green that you can easily walk around for 2 hours. There are smaller Shinto shrines inside with Toris and pavilions. Where you can relax and watch people. The best pavilion is opposite “Hand Water Basin.”

“Chozuya” is a water ablution pavilion in Shinto shrines. It is a ceremonial ritual where devotees wash their left hands, right hands, mouth and finally, the handle of the water ladle to purify themselves before approaching the main Shinto shrine! This ritual is too confusing for any non-Shinto” person, and it is fun to watch people like us struggling with the ceremony!

D2.3 Walk to Downtown Nishi Market on the west of Kamogawa river.

After soaking well in old Kyoto, it is time to see new. East of river Kamo is ancient Kyoto, and the west is further. Nishi Market is the best place to see a place where tourists and locals both go to hang out together.

Nishi Market is more than just a shopping destination. It’s a cultural icon, a gastronomic paradise, and a community hub. It’s a place where people come together to trade, eat, and connect. And even though it’s just a collection of buildings and stalls, it has a soul and spirit that makes it truly special.

Walking in Nishi market is like playing Treasure Hunt. There is plenty of food, a heap of souvenirs and various clothes! As an observer or a serious shopper, Nishi market can excite any traveller. To top it off, snacks here are cheaper and are a covered arcade. So, on a rainy day, the Nishi market is a perfect place to be lost without worry.

Nishi Market isn’t perfect. It can be crowded, chaotic, and overwhelming. You might get lost in the maze of alleys and stalls or end up buying something you don’t need. But that’s all part of the experience. The Nishi Market is like life itself: unpredictable, messy, and full of surprises.

D2.4 Walk by the Kamo River for a strange experience.

When you explore Japanese cities on foot, their infrastructure and facility management will surely leave you in awe. So you expect the same thing for their river walks.

But in Kyoto, the Kamo river gave us a strange experience! The river is clean – No complaints about Japanese public hygiene. But it isn’t a beautifully developed riverfront. The river promenade isn’t historical as it is in the Salzach river. Nor vibrant as it is with Ganaga at Banaras.

So walking around the Kamo river isn’t romantic as many bloggers claim it to be. But strangely nice!

D2.5 Have an early dinner at the world-famous Kichi Kichi Omu Rice.

If you’re a foodie with a sense of humour, you must try the famous Kichi Kichi Omurice in Kyoto. This restaurant is helmed by the charismatic and hilarious Chef Motokichi Yukimura.

It’s a Japanese dish that combines a fluffy omelette with fried rice, usually topped with ketchup or a tomato-based sauce. But at Kichi Kichi, the word is elevated to an art form. Chef Motokichi deftly whips up the omelette, flipping it in the air with theatrical flair before smothering it in a rich and flavorful demi-glace sauce. It’s a sight to behold and even more delicious to eat.

What really sets Kichi Kichi apart is the chef himself. With his infectious laughter and playful banter, Chef Motokichi is as much an entertainer as he is a cook. He regales diners with stories of his travels and shares his passion for food while expertly cooking up each dish with precision and skill.

Is Kichi Kichi Mur Rice worth the Hype?

Yes! Chef Motokichi invites diners to take part in the show by having them mimic his omelette-flipping technique. It’s a hilarious and thrilling experience with you and your fellow diners in stitches. But, don’t think it’s only the show and food that are normal. Because, Omurice, made by Motokochi, is one of the tastiest and healthiest meals we had in Japan. He even makes vegan/vegetarian rice on request!

How to make a reservation at kichi kichi omurice?

We were fools to head there without reservation on the first day. Fortunately, the pretty smiling waiter asked us to come the next day at 3.30 to stand in line to get a table at 5PM. And it worked. You may not be as lucky as we got during peak tourist season. So you must reserve a table at least a month prior. You can find all the details on opening hours and how to get your slot at Kichi Kichi Omurice here.

D2.14 Take a stroll through Pontocho Alley 

While wandering on the banks and coming across canals, we talked about Amsterdam several times until we hit that hidden dark Pontocho Alley! This narrow, lantern-lit street has traditional restaurants, bars, and tea houses. This is a great place to enjoy delicious Japanese cuisine and drinks while immersing yourself in the city’s vibrant nightlife scene. But before it comes to life, this 500m lane feels different from Gion district lanes.

It has been a famous Geisha district since the Edo period. But you don’t see Geishas in winter. The bamboo screens, wooden slats blocking the view, fine artistic lattices, and curved bamboo fences, often combined with low-height wooden fences, feel ecstatic. The shade of those lanterns adds mystery to this traditional lane. If you don’t find the walk on the Kamo river bank romantic, this narrow alley surely allures you.

Many affordable traditional Izakayas & even expensive Hookah places adorn this street. However, remember that the rules of these Hookah places differ vastly from what you see in the Middle East.

Kyoto Itinerary | Day 3 | Fushimi Inari Shrine & Nara.

D3.15 Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine

After Yasaka Pagoda and Kiyomizudera temple, a picture of thousands of Tori gates in line appears in your Kyoto search results. A long stretch of bright saffron Toris that feels like it leads to infinity. Trust me, and I was sceptical if it is worth visiting because it is over popular. Indeed it is popular and one of the most gorgeous places on earth. But we figured out a way to escape the crowd when we were there.

What is Fushimi Inari famous for?

First of all, let’s talk about those torii gates. They’re everywhere. They’re in front of you, behind you, beside you. There are so many of them that you’ll wonder if a secret torii gate factory is hidden somewhere on the mountain. But no, they’re all handcrafted, one by one, by skilled artisans who have probably built up some serious arm muscles over the years.

What does Fushimi Inari mean?

Fushimi Inari is home to many fox statues, and they’re not just there for decoration. Foxes are considered messengers of Inari, the god of fertility, prosperity, agriculture and even Sake!

So if you’re hoping for a good harvest and a Sake lover like me, you might want to give those foxes a little nod of respect. Don’t forget to observe what each of these fox statues hold in their mouth – Japanese and their attention to detail! Sigh!

Is Furhimi Inari shrine crowded?

Of course, Fushimi Inari can get a little crowded with so many visitors. You’ll have to navigate through the throngs of people, trying not to bump into anyone or get your foot caught in a selfie stick. But if you’re patient and willing to explore a little off the beaten path, you’ll find quieter spots to take in the shrine’s beauty without the crowds.

Japan’s chaos is organized! Even the most tourist-crowded places remain somewhat quieter. At maximum, all you hear is people giggling and chatting. So don’t be put off by the Fushimi Inari crowd.

Most girls wearing their Kimono rentals can’t walk uphill. So they stop at level 1 or 2 after getting a perfect shot for their gram. Then some men may continue to the next level for their “Model-like” photographs. Once they are done posing, they exit from level 3.

How long is Fushimi Inari walk?

But you keep climbing along with a few worshippers going to the topmost shrine. Some adventure hikers go to the Inari mountain top too. So after level 3, you can walk in solitude through the billion brilliant tori gates.

How do I get to Fushimi Inari shrine from Kyoto station?

If you have a JR Pass, take JR Nara Line. JR Inari station is the second station from Kyoto along this line. A short walk of 10 minutes takes you to the shrine. To get to the tori gates, you must take that easy uphill climb for 10 minutes.

Taking Keihan’s main line from Kyoto works cheaper if you don’t have a JR Pass.

D3.16 Make a day trip to Nara Deer Park.

Your Kyoto itinerary is incomplete without visiting Nara. Think of a temple city where you find deers wandering free and are ready to be cuddled (or at least a pet) and fed by you – That is Nara for you.

Read here to know more on “Dat trip to Nara Deer Park from Kyoto.”

Kyoto Itinerary | Day 4 | Arashiyama

The western outskirts are Arashiyama which is synonymous with natural beauty. Arashiyama is famous for its scenic beauty. The Katsura River flows through the district, surrounded by mountains and forests that change colour with the seasons.

Until I went there, I only knew the famous “Bamboo grove.” Fortunately, we went there in the morning and could go hiking around the prettiest villages in Japan.

Read here to know how to beat the crowd at Arashiyama, some hidden hiking trails and amazing temple meals on your way – All in just 30 minutes bus ride from Kyoto.

Kyoto Itinerary | Day 5 | Osaka

Long before we decided to visit Japan, we had been watching and drooling over Japan’s “Jiggley” cake. Little did we know that it was in Osaka. Then Ashrith, a gamer, had dreamt of being a Mario at the world’s only Nintendo world at Universal Studios in Japan.

With those crazy food streets, fascinating castles, and charming city streets – Osaka is a powerhouse. While many people stay in Osaka for two-three days. We made a day trip to Osaka from Kyoto.

Was it a good idea to make a day trip to Osaka? Read here to know about our one-day in Osaka, packed with exciting things.

So would you follow our Kyoto Itinerary for your December vacation? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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