As one of Japan’s largest and indeed, most popular cities, Kyoto has no shortage of people arriving to visit and marvel at the ancient capital and all its archaic temples and colourfully adorned shrines.
Positively dripping in history and centuries of culture, the city is a must-see destination when in Japan.
The crowds of travelers flocking to Kyoto however also have another motive – to explore the unimaginable beauty of the surrounding region, filled with cloud forests, feudal castles, enchanting ports and a host of other unforgettable attractions.
One of the most appealing things about Kyoto and its location is the ease with which you can reach prime destinations in very little time thanks to the ingenuity and efficiency of Japan’s bullet trains.
Check out this handy guide to start planning your day trips from Kyoto.
1. Osaka Castle
An hour to the south of the city both by car or train, you’ll be treated to another of Japan’s cultural gems – the wonderful city of Osaka.
Long considered an unmissable place on account of its aesthetic beauty and rich history, Osaka is also home to the famed Osaka Castle.
Nestled between babbling streams and perfectly manicured bonsai trees, the landmark is almost 500 years old and served as the country’s most impregnable fortress for years.
With enough to keep you wide-eyed and fascinated for a whole day, make sure you see some of the castle’s highlights.
Among these are the exhibits housed in the impressive main tower, not to mention the stunning view from the top.
End your day with a stroll round the grounds of Osaka Castle Park and a visit to the Hokoku Shrine.
2. Nara Temples
The gorgeous city of Nara truly is like a window into the past, divided by rivers and fir trees that are flanked by pedestrian bridges and fine old buildings.
Even closer to Kyoto than Osaka, it takes hardly any time to arrive to Nara by car, making it one of the most worthwhile day trips on this list on account of how beautiful it is.
The highlights of the day are bound to be the perfectly preserved temples, untouched by time and drawing crowds from all over the world.
Be sure to visit the Kofuku-ji and Tōdai-ji Temples, built in the 7th and 8th centuries respectively and both remarkably impressive.
The winning feature of the Tōdai-ji Temple is undoubtedly the Hall of the Great Buddha, which, believe it or not, is the largest timber building on the planet.
Easily reachable within 2 hours, the bustling port city of Nagoya is by all accounts a technological, cultural and aesthetic marvel.
The city’s wealth stems from its prowess as a ceramic industry leader and has led to the construction of a variety of magnificent structures.
A popular attraction is the city’s 16th century castle, complete with a 48-meter high tower and untold treasures found at exhibits inside.
Another worthwhile site is the Atsuta Shrine, which incredulously dates back to the 1st Century.
Between these impressive destinations and endless pleasant coastal walks, the Pacific port city of Nagoya is a must-see.
The beautiful location of the city and it’s serene ambiance serve as a melancholy contrast to the devastation inflicted on it in 1945 by the dropping of the first atomic bomb.
Known as the “peace capital” of the world, Hiroshima is full of thought-provoking attractions promoting unity and stating that never again should this happen to any nation on Earth.
One of the most worthwhile of these is Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where various memorials and epitaphs stand.
The Park itself if also beautiful, turning pink every spring on account of its cherry blossom orchards.
Make sure you pay a visit to the fascinating Peace Memorial Museum and the Flame of Peace.
5. Miyajima – Shrine Island
Also found in Hiroshima, occupying around 30 square kilometres of the idyllic Hiroshima Bay is one of the most beautiful sites in all of Japan.
The famed Shrine Island, or Miyajima, is full of colorful buildings and Itsukushima shrines that stand serenely in the waters of the bay supported by raised columns that give the illusion that the buildings are floating.
There’s plenty to do, including visiting the Hall of a Thousand Mats and the Prayer Hall, but the experience itself comes from simply quietly exploring the many interconnected shrines and soaking up the majestic beauty of it all.
6. Himeji Castle
Shirasagi, otherwise known as Himeji Castle is less than two hours from Kyoto and is akin to something out of a Japanese graphic novel or fantasy animation.
The towering white palace is comprised of a muddle of towers and balustrades that are built in the feudal Japanese style and are truly a sight to behold.
The World Heritage-listed castle includes more than 80 buildings and a vast expanse of impeccable parkland surrounding it, meaning once you’ve explored the main keep and winding walkways, you can take a restorative, peaceful stroll through the gardens.
Though it’s technically thought to be a suburb of Kyoto, this region has a perfectly preserved rural-town appeal that feels a world away from the bustle of the city’s core.
Spread out over various hills, all covered in lush, colorful forest full of reds and golds, Arashiyama is the perfect city escape.
Attractions include the family-favourite Iwatayama Monkey Park full of friendly primates and stunning views.
Another truly spectacular walk is the beautiful Arashiyama Bamboo Grove where you’ll have the chance to walk among bamboo trees towering high above you.
8. Kinosaki Onsen
Due to its remote location, it may be preferable to undertake the almost-three-hour trip by road instead of train, but a trip to Kinosaki Onsen is worth every second of travel time.
The small town, like so many beautiful, remote locations near Kyoto, feels untouched by time and is located on the picture perfect coastal region of the Sea of Japan.
Famous for it’s hot springs (or onsen), you can expect to spend the day relaxing, visiting public baths and marvelling at so much of the traditional culture retained from Kinosaki’s construction in the 8th Century.
Reachable in just over 2 hours from Kyoto, Kanazawa is a beautiful old town full of tea houses and geishas and an air of quiet merriment, particularly around dusk when the lights in the doorways turn on and the streets begin to fill up with joyous locals.
Highlights also include Kenroku-en Garden which is actually one of the best 3 gardens in the whole of Japan and right next to a beautiful castle that is worth a visit.
Another small-town atmosphere that travellers can’t get enough of, is the friendly town of Nagahama, a mere 40 minutes from Kyoto Station.
Be sure to pay a visit to the magnificent Nagahama Castle, whose park fills with merrymakers in the spring who come to observe sakura, or the opening of the cherry blossoms.
If you arrive in summer, you can also make the most of the beautiful Lake Biwa, a popular and picturesque place to cool off.
Overlooking Lake Biwa and a short cable car journey away is the gorgeously pristine region of Enryakuji, an alpine-esque area high up in the hills that is dotted with temples and some of the best views in Japan.
If you’re a keen hiker, then take the route on Mount Hiei that’ll take you past some of the most popular temples.
The area is fairly isolated so it’s a good idea to pick up some food for a picnic before you make the ascent.
Renowned for everything from beef, to sake, the port town of Kobe has long been a melting pot of cultures and culinary delights.
Home to a number of museums and memorials commemorating the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, there’s also a wealth of history to be discovered here and at less than an hour away from Kyoto, it’s well worth the visit.
One of the highlights of the city is its thriving China Town, which is so developed due to Kobe being a crucial port.
If you happen to be around during Chinese New Year, this is the place to be.
Another of the top 3 gardens in the country can be found in the beautifully serene town of Okayama.
Known as Koraku-en, it’s positively stunning all year round but for a real treat, be sure to visit around May during sakura when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Perfectly integrated into the garden design is the famous Okayama Castle, providing the perfect backdrop to the immaculate greenery.
14. Hikone Castle
Famously known as one of the original 12 castles in Japan, Hikone Castle is widely considered a national treasure and it’s easy to see why.
Surrounded by a moat and picturesque bridges, the castle still has its original keep from the 16th Century and overlooks the shores of Lake Biwa.
The castle gardens are also a marvel to look at and stroll through, containing yet another magnificent building, built in the Chinese Tang Dynasty style and providing another fascinating site to visit.
15. Fushimi and Uji
No trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a sake brewery and Fushimi is a district that is home to nearly 40. Second only to Kobe, its one of the best Sake brewing districts in the country and as a result, is well worth a day trip to sample the world renowned Japanese rice wine.
The neighbouring Uji district is also famed but for its tea growing.
Home to surreal, shocking green rolling hills where the tea is grown, its a perfect day trip to not only try the incredibly high quality tea, but to marvel at the beauty of the region it comes from.