8 Top-Rated Day Trips from Kyoto
Kyoto, one of Japan's largest and most visited cities, is perfectly located in the middle of the island of Honshu and is a wonderful base from which to embark on fun day trips. From here, the country's excellent high-speed trains can whisk you pretty much anywhere you care to visit, relatively quickly and in comfort (Japan's highway network is excellent, too). Interesting places such as Nagoya, a little more than a two-hour drive east, can be reached by rail in 1.5 hours, dropping you off in the center of the city, where the majority of attractions can be easily accessed on foot. Another easy day trip includes the slightly longer trek to Hiroshima to visit the sobering museums and monuments marking the city's devastation when the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945.
1 Osaka Castle
Perhaps the best day trip from Kyoto (by virtue of its proximity) is the lovely historic city of Osaka. About an hour south (whether you drive or take the train), Osaka has long been considered the epicenter of culture in Japan, and is home to a number of 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 country's most formidable fortress. There is much to see here, so be prepared to spend at least half a day exploring this sprawling property. Highlights include the 42-meter-tall main tower, with its fine views and exhibits relating to the castle's history, as well as adjacent Osaka Castle Park, home to Hokoku Shrine (the even older Shitennō-ji, dating to AD 59, is also worth a visit).
2 The Historic Temples of Nara
Even closer to Kyoto than Osaka, a day trip to the lovely historic city of Nara is best undertaken traveling by car or as part of an organized tour due to its relatively (by Japanese standards) remote location. Looking as if untouched by time, Nara's many fine old buildings and streets means it's one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, so be prepared for the crowds. But it's all worth it, especially as here, you'll 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 exquisite old temples, including Kofuku-ji Temple (7th century) and Tōdai-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 its impressive Great South Gate, with its many columns and huge eight-meter-tall statues guarding the temple entrance, as well as the world's largest timber building, the massive Hall of the Great Buddha.
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- 10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Nara
3 The Pacific Port City of Nagoya
An easy 1.5-hour commute by train 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 as far as 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 its 16th-century castle, completely rebuilt after WWII. Castle tours usually take in the 48-meter-high main tower, with its fine gilded dolphins, along with its art treasures and excellent views over the city. Another Nagoya highlight are its many fine old temples, the oldest of which, Atsuta Shrine, dates as far back as the 1st century (be sure to check out the site's Treasury with its works of art, ceramics, and jewelry). The port itself is also worth exploring and is home to the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium, a small marine museum aboard the historic vessel the Fuji, and some pleasant coastal walks.
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4 Peace City: Hiroshima
Although a lengthier trip (it's three hours due west of Kyoto), a day trip to Hiroshima is well worth the time. It's hard to believe, given its beautiful setting, that this fine city, forever remembered for the dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945, was ever a military target. Today, Hiroshima is appropriately referred to as the world's "peace capital" due to the many notable attractions focusing on this devastating historic event, and the need to ensure it never happens again. Perhaps the most visited of these sites is Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, dedicated to the many victims of that fateful day. Encompassing a number of important memorials and museums relating to the event and its aftermath, this beautiful park - popular for its colorful cherry blossoms each spring - is at the very epicenter of the blast and each year attracts more than a million visitors. 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 Japan's Famous Shrine Island - 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 warrant spending the best part of a day here - and the views over the city at night are wonderful). Tracing its roots back to the 9th century, the island's colorful buildings are supported on piles just above water level and look like they're actually floating, and it's quite an experience exploring the temple's many bridges and historic buildings, as well as its beautiful park-like surrounds. Some of the best buildings to visit include the Main and Offerings Halls, along with the Prayer Hall and the Hall of a Thousand Mats. Also, be sure to catch a performance of traditional dances and music, a particular treat during the island's many important festivals.
6 Himeji Castle (Shirasagi)
An hour-and-a-half west of Kyoto is the city of Himeji, famous as the site of Japan's largest fortress, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Himeji Castle. This magnificent 14th-century palace, also known as Shirasagi Castle - or White Heron Castle - for its exterior walls that resemble a flying white heron, is a delight to visit and can easily consume a few hours of your day as you explore the site's more than 80 buildings and fortifications and ample parkland. Highlights include the views from the five-story-tall main keep, as well as exploring the steep, winding narrow walkways leading up to the castle. After your visit, if time permits, be sure to visit nearby Koko-en Garden, a traditional Japanese garden encompassing the former grounds of a Samurai warrior's home (be sure to also check out the tea house).
A fun, easy day trip from Kyoto, Arashiyama is just a half-hour commute and is the perfect getaway for those pressed for time and not wanting to stray too far from the city's downtown core. Although considered a suburb of Kyoto, Arashiyama has managed to preserve its small-town, rural appeal, thanks in part to its lush vegetation and it being spread across a number of hills. One of the most enjoyable attractions here for families is the Iwatayama Monkey Park. Although a 15-minute walk from Arashiyama's town center (all of it uphill, but worth it for the views), you'll be rewarded with the chance to observe the park's more than 100 or so monkeys roaming free in their natural habitat. Another pleasant walk is to the spectacular Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a beautiful area of tall bamboo that towers high above you. Afterwards, be sure to check out the many local vendors along Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, famous for its historic Japanese architecture and the wide array of bamboo products sold here, including traditional mats and baskets. And if you've still got 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 undertaken by road rather than rail - the traditional Japanese vacation area of Kinosaki Onsen is well worth it. Situated in the picture perfect Sea of Japan coastal region in Hyogo Prefecture, unspoiled Kinosaki Onsen stretches along a lovely tree-lined river offering many quiet places to stop and enjoy the serenity of this small town, popular since the 8th century for its bountiful hot springs or "onsen." It's a little like stepping back in time as the customs and even the attire of the locals, often seen wearing traditional wooden clogs and kimonos, have been preserved just as they would have been in the town's early days. And, of course, no trip to Kinosaki Onsen would be complete without visiting at least one of the many wonderful public baths dotted around town.