How to spend two days in the former capital of Japan
My first visit to Kyoto was in the middle of winter. I loved the city but my enthusiasm was tempered by the ice-cold air on my face as our group rode around on bikes (please, no feedback from professional cyclists who would rightly point out my lack of tenacity).
There’s something very special about this place in autumn, as I discovered more recently. The weather is pleasant and the colour of the leaves is a perfect frame for so many of the landmarks.
Below is a template for a two-day trip, mixing old and new attractions and Japanese and international influences. But it’s only a starting point. Don’t stick too firmly to this or any other itinerary: the greatest joys in Kyoto come from wandering around and discovering something wonderful when you least expect it.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
About 10,000 red-orange archways known as torii frame the walk around these shinto shrine grounds in the shadow of Mount Inari. What better time than autumn to explore this colourful site? But be warned: the meandering pathway can get very crowded so don’t be surprised if fellow travellers gatecrash any attempted selfies. (Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchichō, Fushimi-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 612–0882. Entry: free. Website.)
After taking in the sights of Fushimi Inari, recharge with a warm brew at a nearby cafe named after the pigment of the torii. The best seats are on the deck overlooking leafy surroundings. (Address: 5–31 Fukakusa Kaidoguchi-cho, Fushimi-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 612–0805. Opening hours: Monday to Friday 10am to 5.15pm last orders; weekends 9am to 5.15pm last orders. Website.)
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Head north to the palace that housed the imperial family from 794 to 1869, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. It was rebuilt numerous times after fires — most recently in 1855. See the majesty of the buildings set against peaceful lakes and gardens. (Address: 3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 602–0881. Opening hours in the October to February period: 9am to last entry 3.20pm; closed Mondays and some other times depending on events. Entry: free. Website.)
Toraya tea room
Luckily, it is just a short walk from the imperial palace to this tranquil tea house. Try wagashi, a traditional Japanese confectionary commonly made with sugar and bean paste. The store also stocks seasonal sweets, which in autumn include kuri goyomi — a blend of pureed chestnuts with sugar and the jelly-like substance agar-agar. (Address: 400 Hirohashidonochō, Kamigyo-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 602–0911. Opening hours: 10am to 6pm. Website.)
Start the evening in style at this charming wine and cheese bar. With space for just seven or so people, you are sure to receive personalised service as you weigh up the menu options. (Address: 55–3 Matsuyachō, Nakagyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 604–0831. Opening hours: 3pm to 2am last orders. Website.)
Order a beer and settle in for a yakitori feast. We enjoyed skewers of chicken and spring onion (negima) and chicken meatballs (tsukune) after snacking on eggplant, tomato, pumpkin and kimchi dishes. The lightly fried tofu (agedashi tofu) is also recommended. (Address: 9–5 Higashimarutachō, Sakyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 606–8395. Opening hours: 5.30pm to 11pm last orders. Website.)
Pancake breakfast — need I say more? Chestnuts are very popular in Japan in autumn, and Cafe Rhinebeck had a tasty maron option when we went there in October. Each table has a scribble pad for patrons to write a note or draw a cartoon about their visit, a cool way to pass the time while waiting for your order to arrive. (Address: 692 Ishiyakushichō, Kamigyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 602–8226. Opening hours: 8am to 6pm with last pancake orders at 5pm; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Website.)
Autumn is golden and so is the main attraction at Kinkaku-ji. The Golden Pavilion, a hall containing replicas of Buddha and with a shining phoenix on its roof, can be found at the edge of a beautiful pond. Walk around the gardens, see an Edo-era detached teahouse, and visit Rokuon-ji, the Zen Buddhist temple. (Address: 1 Kinkakujichō, Kita-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 603–8361. Opening hours: 9am to 5pm. Entry: 400 yen for adults. Website.)
Pop in to this conveniently located restaurant for lunch after visiting Kinkaku-ji (it is just south-east of the temple grounds). The menu includes tonkatsu (pork), terriyaki chicken and fried shrimp. A lunch set that includes a selected dish, rice, miso soup and salad costs about 1000 yen. (Address: 30–5 Kinugasa Babachō, Kita-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 603–8362. Opening hours: 11.30am to 3pm; 5.30pm to 9pm; closed Mondays.)
This store, next-door to Itadaki, features a range of traditional hair accessories including “apprentice geisha” decorations, plus more modern hairpins. The friendly staff will happily teach you how to put them in your hair and can also arrange kimono hire. (Address: 30–6 Kinugasa Babachō, Kita-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 603–8362. Opening hours: 10am to 5pm. Website.)
Soak up a part of history at Funaoka Onsen, which, having opened in 1923, is apparently one of the oldest bathhouses still in operation in the region. Wood carvings in the dressing room depict the 1932 Shanghai incident — a battle that preceded the second Sino-Japanese war. Once inside the main onsen area you’ll find hot, warm and cold bath options, and a lightly electric-charged bath for the brave. Don’t forget to bring your own towel and soap, as the facilities are basic. (Address: 82−1 Murasakino Minamifunaokachō, Kita-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 603–8225. Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 3pm to 1am; Sunday 8am to 1am. Entry: 430 yen for adults. Website.)
Heading back towards Kyoto train station and sad about leaving this wonderful city? Pop into efish cafe for some final refreshments and a spectacular view of the river. The menu features a wide range of drinks, while food options include tuna and avocado sandwiches and beans and okra curry rice. (Address: 798–1 Nishihashizumechō, Shimogyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 600–8029. Opening hours: 10am to 10pm. Website.)