In the center of the Kansai region lies the heart of Japanese culture. Kyoto is the keeper of traditional practices and historical treasures. As you explore the endless temples and shrines, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The city is also one of the few places where you can watch geisha performances or experience a tea ceremony with a maiko.
Without question, Kyoto belongs at the top of your list of destinations to visit in Japan. However, if you purchase a Japan Rail Pass, you won’t get your money’s worth here. Many sightseeing destinations are on bus lines or train and subway systems JR East doesn’t service.
A standard seven-day JR Pass costs 29,110 JPY (around US $266.00). If you use it to take a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto and nothing else, this won’t justify purchasing one. But by adding a quick day trip from Kyoto to your itinerary, you’ll get way more bang for your buck! You can get to these cities virtually for free when you use the JR Pass.
Most of Kobe sits on top of a hill that looks down onto the shore of Osaka Bay. The sophisticated and culturally rich city was a vital port for trading between Japan and China centuries ago. It takes around one hour to reach Kobe from Kyoto Station on the Sanyo Shinkansen.
Kobe’s well-laid roads are relatively easy to navigate compared to Kyoto’s winding alleys. Exiting the station, you’ll immediately see Ikutagawa Park, where cherry blossoms bloom along the river. Between here and the waterfront, you’ll also find the shopping and entertainment district Kobe Harboarland. Many of the restaurants in this area offer sweeping views of the eye-catching Kobe Port Tower and Maritime Museum.
Depending on your interests, you can ride the Shin-Kobe Ropeway past the Nunobiki Waterfall, explore Sorakuen Garden, or spend a few hours in the Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum. But whatever you end up doing, don’t miss your chance to try the reputable Kobe Beef. Believe us when we say that there’s nothing else like it in the world!
First-time travelers to Japan usually plan their vacations around seeing Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Tokyo is a business and financial giant while Kyoto is a mecca for the arts, but Osaka is a fun-loving town with friendly locals and distinctive grub. In many ways, Osaka is the polar opposite of Kyoto, which is why it’s surprising you can reach it in thirty minutes.
Start your day at Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s former domicile, Osaka Castle. Hundreds of cherry blossoms grow in the Nishinomaru Garden to the west of the main keep. The inside of the castle tower houses a museum dedicated to Hideyoshi and his samurai warriors, and the top floor has an expansive view of the city.
If you want to learn more about Osaka’s past, you can get to the Museum of History from Osaka Castle on foot. Or, see the sights from the 39th floor of the Umeda Sky Building. At night, head to the downtown area for luxury shopping in the Shinsaibashi promenade and take a twilight cruise on the Dotonbori Canal.
If you want to see more of Japan, take the Shinkansen bullet train down to the Chugoku region and make a stop in Hiroshima. A one-way trip takes about two hours, so you’ll want to leave as early as possible, and be careful not to miss your train back to Kyoto. If you depart for Hiroshima Station first thing in the morning, you’ll arrive around the same time that the Peace Memorial Museum opens.
On August 6th, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, which marked the beginning of the end of World War II. The effects were devastating, and the Peace Memorial Park adjacent to the museum honors the victims and their families. The museum’s opening hours change depending on the season, but you can enter the park at any time.
If you don’t feel like staying in the city, you can use your JR Pass again to get to Miyajima Island. The trip takes around forty-five minutes by train plus an additional ten-minute ferry. As you get closer to the shore, you’ll see Itsukushima Shrine’s iconic floating torii gate. Miyajima Island is one of the top three most scenic places in Japan and has fantastic hiking trails.
Nagoya fully embraces both modern and traditional Japanese culture. Historically, Nagoya played an imperative role in Japan’s economic development, and its industries continue to expand every day. You can reach Nagoya Station from Kyoto in about an hour and a half, or make it a stopover on your way to Tokyo.
The towering Nagoya Castle once served as the center of power of the Owari clan. During the sakura season, the cherry trees in the park surrounding the castle grounds bloom from late March to early April. If you go to Japan in fall, head to Korankei Valley to see the autumn leaves in November.
Nagoya’s suburbs are home to the Toyota headquarters. You can use your JR Pass to get to the Toyota Kaikan Museum, where you’ll see the latest car models, machinery, and sometimes robots. If you don’t want to venture outside of the city but love technology, head to the Nagoya City Science Museum, which has the largest planetarium in the world.
Kyoto was the capital city before Tokyo, but Nara was the first capital of the country! Founded in 710 AD, political leaders and Emperor Shomu spread Buddhism from Nara to the rest of Japan. You can still see their influences at the various temples throughout the city.
As you walk around Nara Park, herds of deer looking for food will flank you on either side. Although they’re wild, they’ve grown accustomed to humans and will beg for treats. Although it might be tempting, refrain from feeding them any outside food. There are stands in the park that sell biscuits specially formulated for the deer. Before you give them a snack, bow to them and watch as they bow back!
Continuing along the walkways, you’ll have no trouble finding the grand Todaiji Temple. According to legend, millions of built Todaiji and the 157-foot high statue of Buddha together. Attractions inside of the temple include models of past constructions and a pillar with a hole the same size as the Buddha’s nostril. They say you can reach enlightenment if you can pass through it.
Among all the castles across the country, Japanese people consider Himeji to be the most spectacular. Also known as the White Heron Castle, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a designated National Treasure. The grounds are a twenty-minute walk from Himeji Station, but they’re well worth the exercise.
Himeji is one of twelve Japanese castles that has survived through the centuries. Its imposing size, beauty, and fortifications attract visitors from all over the world. During the spring and fall, the ivory walls become even more brilliant contrasted with pink cherry blossoms and colored leaves.
From the Otemon Gate, you can get to the main keep through a labyrinth-like path. Inside of the castle, steep staircases take you up increasingly smaller and smaller rooms. From the top floor’s windows, you can peer down onto the entire grounds and the surrounding city.
Located between Kyoto and Nara, Uji is the birthplace of green tea cultivation in Japan. More specifically, farmers grow, roast, and grind tea leaves to make matcha powder. Around 1000 years ago, the social elite began drinking matcha in stylized ceremonies. Tea masters and maiko still practice this form of serving matcha in many regions of Japan, but there’s no better place to experience it than in its originating town.
Most of the city’s attractions are within walking distance of the Uji River. Cherry blossoms grow along the bank, and you can ride gondolas to see them. From mid-June to late September, cormorant fishers use the same boats to catch sweetfish and small carp. As you stroll the promenade, you’ll see tea houses, restaurants, and aesthetically pleasing bridges.
Near the river, you can also find the striking Byodoin Temple. The temple belongs to the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, which is apparent in its architecture. Established in 998 AD, fire and other calamities destroyed most of its buildings except for the Phoenix Hall. If you don’t have time to see this majestic place for yourself, you can spot in on the back of a 10 yen coin.