As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t love Kyoto. However, it does make an excellent base for some awesome day trips! As with Tokyo, here are some of my personal suggestions, with one addition from my companion from this trip, Dan, as we did our own things some of the time.
1. See a beautiful castle in Himeji
Himeji is a city about an hour and a half from Kyoto on the Shinkansen (bullet train). Immediately after getting off the train, you’ll notice signs to the castle. Follow them, and you’ll walk about a mile up the main street of the city to an impressive edifice on the hill overlooking the region.
The grounds of Himeji Castle are nice, but it’s the main keep itself that is most spectacular. Explore to see it from different angles. You can go inside, but it really isn’t worthwhile, as there are no existing furnishings, and when it gets crowded, it gets hot and stuffy.
2. Eat Kobe beef… in Kobe!
Kobe is one of the largest cities in Japan (population about 1.5M), home to a busy port and much industry. But let’s be honest: you want the beef.
Kobe beef is the most decadent and famous beef in the world, with a price to match. However, if you go for lunch to Wakkoqu (conveniently connected to the Shin-Kobe train station by pedestrian walkway), you can get the lunch special for only $60 or so per person. It consists of soup and salad, vegetables, coffee or tea, dessert, and the best meat you will probably ever eat.
If you don’t need an immediate nap after eating, journey to the Nada district of town, where you can tour several sake breweries and taste their wares before heading the 30 minutes back to Kyoto.
3. Play with monkeys in Arashiyama
On the outskirts of Kyoto, in a small suburb called Arashiyama, is the Iwatayama Monkey Park. Here Japanese macaque monkeys roam free. Although it is a bit of trek to get there, it is worth it. There are not many places that you can hang out with and feed monkeys so casually. You can only feed them in a caged area, which is probably best for both you and the monkeys. For 100 yen, you can purchase a bag of food: apples, peanuts or bananas. Keep your palm flat when giving them the food and they will casually grab it from you. Their appetites are voracious, so try and spread the love to more than one. They are very comfortable around humans and will walk around next to you, but be careful not to get too close or stare at them too long. Otherwise, you might rile them up. I was guilty of this once or twice while I was trying to get pictures. In addition to these amazing animals, the summit boasts the best view of Kyoto. A nice added bonus.
To get to the Monkey Park from Kyoto station, hop on the San-In Line (with a JR pass if you have one), for 6 stops to the Saga-Arishiyama Station. From there, it is a 16 minute walk (1.2 km) southwest to the park entrance. It is a 550 yen fee to enter and the reward is a fairly strenuous hike uphill that will take you 20-30 minutes depending on your pace. You probably don’t need more than 30-60 minutes at the park, but it is an experience you will never forget.
Photo and day trip description courtesy of Dan!
4. Play with deer and view the world’s largest wooden building in Nara
If monkeys aren’t your thing, but Bambi is, an hour on the Japan Rail Nara Line will take you to the city of Nara. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan, from 710-784, and the Todai-Ji temple dates from that period (although the current iteration has only been around for 300 or so years – fire destroyed the original, which was 40% larger). The temple is amazing (see the cover photo), and itself easily worth the trip down. After all, how often can you see the world’s largest wooden building?
However, for many, the highlight of Nara is Nara park, home to about 1200 sacred deer. These deer are awesome, and as docile as you will find. For 150 yen, you can purchase a package of deer cookies, which will get a pack of them to follow you around, hoping for a treat. They will eat from your hand, let you pet them, pose for pictures, and best of all – being Japanese deer – if you bow to them they will bow back!
5. Explore historic and modern in Osaka
Osaka is the “second city” of Japan, the center of a metro area of 10M, and home to a ton of industry and commerce. A 12 minute Shinkansen ride will get you downtown from Kyoto, and from there the Osaka train system can get you anywhere you want to go. I suggest two highlights.
First, visit Osaka Castle. While not as large as Himeji Castle, it is even more impressive. Good ornamentation gilds the tower, while massive walls and moats show visitors that the castle’s reputation as an impregnable fortress was well-deserved. Imagine being an invader as you cross a narrow bridge over a moat, pass under a guard tower, and through a maze of passageways to get to another wall.
After the castle, go downtown to the Omeda Sky Building and pay the fee to go to the observation deck at the top. An incredible 360 degree view of the entire city will greet you from the pinnacle of one of the coolest looking buildings I’ve ever seen!
Japan’s transportation system makes experiences like these all possible, allowing visitors to use a convenient home base to explore the entire region. Do you have other suggestions? Please post them in the comments!