Kyoto, one of Japan’s largest and most visited cities, is perfectly located in the middle of Honshu Island and is a wonderful base for fun day trips. From here, the country’s excellent high-speed trains can take you anywhere you want to visit relatively quickly and comfortably (Japan’s road network is also excellent). Places of interest such as Nagoya, just over a two-hour drive to the east, can be reached in 1.5 hours by rail and will take you to the center of the city, where most attractions are easily accessible on foot. Another easy day trip is the slightly longer trek to Hiroshima to visit the sobering museums and monuments that mark the city’s devastation when the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.
1 Osaka Castle
Perhaps the most beautiful day trip from Kyoto (due to its proximity) is the beautiful historic city of Osaka. About an hour south (whether you drive or take the train), Osaka has long been regarded as the epicenter of culture in Japan and offers some excellent sights worth visiting. By far the most famous of the city’s landmarks is Osaka Castle (Ōsaka-jō), built in 1586 and for centuries the most formidable fortress in the country. There’s a lot to see, so be prepared to spend at least half a day exploring this sprawling property. Highlights include the 42-meter high main tower, with its scenic views and exhibits related to the castle’s history, as well as neighboring Osaka Castle Park, home to Hokoku Shrine (the even older Shitennō-ji, dating back to AD 59, is also worth a visit).
2 The Historic Temples of Nara
Temple of Todai-ji in Nara
Even closer to Kyoto than Osaka, a day trip to the pretty historic city of Nara is best undertaken by car or as part of an organized tour due to its relatively (by Japanese standards) remote location. They seem untouched by time and are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country thanks to their many fine old buildings and streets, so be prepared for the crowds. But it’s all worth it, especially since here you have the opportunity to also enjoy seeing some of the country’s most important national treasures and works of art. Highlights include a large number of beautiful ancient temples Kofuku-ji-tempel (7th century) and Todai-ji (8th century), the latter famous for its massive statue of the Great Buddha dating from AD 749. Other features of Tōdai-ji that make it so popular are the impressive Great South Gate, with its many columns and huge eight-meter statues that enclose the guarding the entrance of the temple, as well as the world’s largest wooden building, the huge hall of the Great Buddha.
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3 From Pacific Port City to Nagoya
From Pacific Port City to Nagoya
An easy 1.5-hour train commute east of Kyoto, the busy port of Nagoya is well worth taking the time to explore. Thanks to its port, Nagoya has long been an important manufacturing city and is particularly famous for its ceramic industry, which can trace its roots back to the 12th century (many tourists are drawn here specifically for the city’s many fascinating workshops and factory tours). This industrial wealth led to the construction of many imposing structures, such as the 16th century castle, completely rebuilt after World War II. Visits to the castle usually take in the 48-meter-tall main tower, with its pretty gilded dolphins, art treasures and sweeping views of the city. Another highlight of Nagoya are the many beautiful old temples, the oldest of which, Atsuta Shrine, dates back to the first century (be sure to check out the site’s treasury with its artwork, ceramics and jewellery). The harbor itself is also worth exploring and is home to the Haven van Nagoya Public Aquariuma small maritime museum aboard the historic ship Fuji, and some pleasant coastal walks.
4 Peace City: Hiroshima
Peace City: Hiroshima
Although a longer journey (it’s three hours west of Kyoto), a day trip to Hiroshima is well worth the time. It is hard to believe, given the beautiful surroundings, that this lovely city, forever remembered for the dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, was once a military target. Today, Hiroshima is rightly referred to as the “peace capital” of the world because of the many notable attractions that focus on this devastating historical event, and the need to ensure it never happens again. Perhaps the most visited of these sites Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, dedicated to the many victims of that fateful day. This beautiful park, home to a number of important memorials and museums each spring related to the event and its aftermath, is the epicenter of the explosion and attracts more than a million visitors each year. Must-sees include the Peace Memorial Museum; the Memorial Cenotaph; the Flame of Peace; and the famous Atom Bomb Dome, with its ruins of the old Chamber of Industry and Commerce.
5 Famous shrine island of Japan – Miyajima
Famous shrine island of Japan – Miyajima
Another top attraction not to be missed in Hiroshima is the city’s famous Shrine Island, Miyajima. Occupying some 30 square kilometers of Hiroshima Bay, the island is best known for the beautiful Itsukushima shrine, an attraction that can be visited as part of a day trip covering the city’s devastating wartime experiences or as a separate experience (there’s certainly enough to see and do on the island to spend the best part of the day here – and the views of the city at night are beautiful). Dating back to the 9th century, the island’s colorful buildings are supported on stilts just above water level and look like they are actually floating. It is quite an experience to explore the temple’s many bridges and historic buildings, as well as its beautiful park-like surrounds. Some of the best buildings to visit are the Main and Offerings, along with the Prayer Hall and the Hall of a Thousand Mats. Also, catch a performance of traditional dances and music, a special treat during the island’s many important festivals.
6 Himeji Castle (Shirasagi)
An hour and a half west of Kyoto is the town of Himeji, famous as the site of Japan’s largest fortress, the World Heritage-listed Himeji Castle. Also known as the Castle of Shirasagi – or the Castle of the White Heron – due to its outer walls resembling a flying white heron, this beautiful 14th century palace is a joy to visit and can easily consume several hours of your day while you explore the site beyond 80 buildings and fortifications and a large park. Highlights include the view from the five-story main tent, as well as exploring the steep, winding narrow walkways to the castle. After your visit, time permitting, be sure to visit nearby Koko-en Gardena traditional Japanese garden that encompasses the former grounds of a samurai warrior’s home (check out the tea house, too).
A fun, easy day trip from Kyoto, Arashiyama is only half an hour away and is the perfect getaway for those pressed for time and don’t want to stray too far from the city’s city center. Though considered a suburb of Kyoto, Arashiyama has managed to maintain its small, rural appearance, thanks in part to its lush vegetation and spread over a number of hills. It is one of the most fun attractions here for families Iwatayama Monkey Park. Although it’s a 15-minute walk from Arashiyama’s town center (all uphill, but worth it for the view), you’ll be rewarded with the chance to watch the park’s more than 100 monkeys roaming free in their natural habitat. Another pleasant walk is to the spectacular Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a beautiful area of tall bamboo towering high above you. Further, be sure to check out the many local vendors Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, famous for its historic Japanese architecture and the wide range of bamboo products sold here, including traditional mats and baskets. And if you still have energy to burn after all that walking, be sure to rent one of the fun paddle boats near the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge.
8 Kinosaki Onsen
Although located 2.5 hours northwest of Kyoto – and perhaps one of the few day trips from the city that is easier to take by road than rail – the traditional Japanese resort area of Kinosaki Onsen is well worth the effort. Located in the perfect coastal region of the Sea of Japan in Hyogo Prefecture, the pristine Kinosaki Onsen stretches along a beautiful tree-lined river that offers many peaceful places to stop and enjoy the tranquility of this town, popular since the 8th century for its abundant hot springs. or “onsen”. It’s a bit like stepping back in time, as the customs and even the clothing of the locals, often seen wearing traditional wooden clogs and kimonos, have been preserved just as they were in the early days of the city. And, of course, no trip to Kinosaki Onsen would be complete without visiting at least one of the many beautiful public baths dotted around town.