Kyoto Japan is a city rich in history and one of Japan’s top tourist destinations. It boasts ancient temples and shrines, great insight into Japanese culture, and some fantastic food. The area immediately surrounding Kyoto is also well worth visiting. Taking a few day trips from Kyoto to see and experience some of these sites should ideally be part of any Kyoto itinerary. Let me show you three easy day trips we took from Kyoto.
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A Day Trip to Nara
Nara is a city located 45 km directly south of Kyoto. It was Japan’s capital city during the 8th century, so it is rich in landmarks. It’s also a compact city making it easy to explore the major sites within a half day. It is home to the massive Todaiji temple – one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Even though Kyoto is full of temples, and it is easy to suffer from temple fatigue while visiting this part of Japan, I absolutely recommend that you include a visit to Nara and Todaiji temple as one of your top day trips from Kyoto.
Getting to Nara from Kyoto
There are two different train lines from Kyoto Station connecting the two cities – the Kintetsu Line and the JR line. Each stops at a different station in Nara. The Kintetsu station in Nara is a few blocks closer to the major sites, but Japan Rail Pass holders will want to take the JR line. It takes 35-45 minutes to reach Nara from Kyoto Station, depending on which train line you use.
(The public transportation system in Japan is glorious and complicated. For more detailed information on how to get around the Kyoto area, check out my post on Kyoto public transportation.)
Things to See in Nara
Nara’s major sites are clustered around and within Nara Park – a massive Park located just 1 km from the Kintetsu station. These include:
Todaiji Temple is the main attraction in Nara. It is located in the northern part of Nara Park. A long promenade leads through the Park to the temple where you will first pass through the imposing Nandaimon Gate. This is the largest temple gate entrance in Japan – certainly suitable given the size of the temple’s main Hall. Just inside the gate, on either side, you will find the large guardian deities or Nio protecting the temple from evil spirits and demons. The Gate and the Nio date to 1203.
Ultimately you enter the temple complex, and at its center sits the Great Buddha Hall. This building is massive. It’s hard to appreciate its scale in a photograph. For centuries, it was the world’s largest wooden building, though it has been surpassed in recent years. The Temple complex dates to 752. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been destroyed by fire twice and the current version was rebuilt in1709.
Inside the Hall sits the Great Buddha. This is one of the world’s largest bronze statues and rises to a height of 15 m (49 ft).
On the eastern edge of the Park, sits another Budhhist temple called Kofuku-ji. The most impressive structure here is the 5-storied wooden pagoda – Japan’s second tallest. The pagoda dates to 1426. It is definitely worth walking through here on your way from the train station to the Park.
Yoshikien Garden is located just outside Nara Park on the way back to the train station from Todaiji. It’s one of two traditional Japanese Gardens in the area. This Park is free to international visitors. Just show your passport. Once inside, you will find three different sections, each representing the three traditional variations of Japanese Gardens – a pond garden, a moss garden, and a tea ceremony garden.
Nara Park is also famous for it’s free-roaming sika deer. They are everywhere in the Park. Cute at first and then somewhat annoying, interacting with the deer is an unavoidable part of any visit to this part of Nara. You can buy wafers from area vendors and feed the deer. Some can be aggressive in their quest for food, so watch your back.
An Evening Trip to Osaka
Osaka is Japan’s second largest city but is often overshadowed by nearby Kyoto as a tourist destination. This despite the fact that many Kyoto visitors (us included) arrive at Osaka’s airport. I think a dedicated visit to Osaka should absolutely be part of any Kyoto itinerary. While Kyoto is certainly no small city, it lacks the tall buildings, the bright lights, and the crush of the crowd that can be experienced in most larger Asian cities. Take the train into Osaka at least once, ideally at night, and experience a different side of Japan. We spent an evening exploring the Namba and Dontonbori areas of Osaka. This is an area easily reached from Kyoto and is one of Osaka’s most popular nighttime tourist destinations.
Getting to Osaka from Kyoto
There are many options including a Shinkansen (Bullet Train) for those holding a Japan Rail Pass (it’s not worth the cost otherwise). A 30-minute trip on the Special Rapid Train (JR Kyoto Line) from Kyoto Station, followed by a 15-minute subway ride puts you at Namba station, right in the middle of all the action.
(If you do plan on using the bullet train in Japan – something I consider to be a quintessential Japanese experience, then you will want to consider the money-saving Japan Rail Pass. Click here for more JR Pass information and pricing)
Things to See in Dontonbori
Dontonbori is a popular nightlife area in the Namba district of Osaka, running along the Dontonbori Canal. In this area you will find lots of people, lots of neon, and lots of good food in the many area restaurants. Covered shopping streets radiate out from the Canal, and it is easy to find yourself in a crush of people as day turns into night in these ‘’outdoor malls”. Dontonbori is a great place to wander, to sample various foods, and just generally soak in the atmosphere.
Dontobori is famous for its signs. The neon Gilco Running man sign is considered one of Osaka’s most famous landmarks and was installed in 1935. Many of the restaurants along the canal feature large mechanical billboards with moving parts – giant crabs, octopus, blowfish to name a few.
Takoyaki is a popular Japanese snack that originated in Osaka. It consists of small octopus chunks cooked inside a batter and served with various sauces and toppings. Many small restaurants in Dontonbori specialize in Takoyaki. Eating on the street is frowned upon throughout Japan – this is one reason the country is spotlessly clean. Instead, order your food from a street-side counter, and then go inside to sit and eat. I chose the Takoyaki vendor with the longest line of locals. We sampled four different kinds of Takoyaki.
The tubular-shaped Don Quijote Ferris Wheel sits right on the canal. Don Quijote is a popular discount chain in Japan. Each car on the wheel is enclosed and the ride offers fantastic views out across all of Osaka. It’s also surprisingly inexpensive at around 6 USD.
A Day Trip to Kurama
Kurama is a rural mountain town located about 12 km north of Kyoto. Kurama is famous for its mountain temple. It’s also where you will find the best Japanese onsen (public hot springs bath) in the Kyoto area. This alone should put it high on your list of day trips from Kyoto.
Getting to Kurama from Kyoto
Depending on where you are staying in Kyoto, several train transfers will most likely be required. The journey generally requires about an hour from central Kyoto. The final leg is from the Eizan train station in north Kyoto. From there it takes 30 minutes to reach Kurama, through the north suburbs of Kyoto and up into the mountains.
Things to See and Do in Kurama
The Kurama-dera temple is located high on the mountainside above the town. The entrance to the temple is located just across from the train station. The hike up to the temple is steep. A funicular is available for those looking to cut the climb in about half. I personally found the temple to be less impressive than many in the Kyoto area, but the views from the temple complex out across the surrounding mountains is spectacular.
Hiking from Kurama to Kibune
More interesting than the temple itself is the hike behind the temple. The whole mountain on which the temple sits is considered holy, and several shrines dot a pathway that takes you across the mountain into the neighboring valley to the small riverside town of Kibune.
From the Kurama-dera temple gate near the train station, the hike is approximately 2.5 km. This is a moderately strenuous hike and rarely flat. As I’ve already indicated, it’s steep up to the temple and then it’s even steeper down the other side to Kibune. For this reason, I recommend hiking from Kurama to Kibune, rather than from the other direction. Despite the workout, this hike offers a great opportunity to get away from the tourist crowds in Kyoto and enjoy some of the natural beauty of Japan. Once in Kibune, it’s easy to catch a bus to the Kibune train station. I would then recommend taking the train back up to Kurama and soaking your sore muscles at the Kurama Onsen.
Visiting an onsen is a great Japanese experience, and Kurama Onsen is considered the Kyoto-area’s best. An onsen is a hot spring and there are thousands across Japan due to the underground volcanic activity around the islands. Public bathing facilities are built around many of these. Kurama Onsen has both an indoor and an outdoor option, and offers a free shuttle from the train station. The outdoor onsen is small but located right in the middle of the mountain valley – a spectacular setting. This was the best outdoor soak I’ve ever experienced – coolish mountain fresh-smelling air, surrounded by tree covered peaks just starting to turn autumnal colors. The onsen water temperature was comfortably hot. It was the perfect way to end the last of our day trips from Kyoto.
A couple of important onsen points to be aware of. You bathe naked, you bathe with others, men and women bathe in separate areas, and there is a whole list of onsen etiquette that needs to be followed. Click here to to read more details about my Japanese onsen experience.
For a longer side trip from Kyoto, consider taking the shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima and Miyajima Island. This area is less than two hours away but deserves more than just a day. We spent two days and nights visiting this historic and beautiful part of Japan. You can read more about our two days in Hiroshima and Miyajima by clicking here.
Kyoto is one of the world’s great cities and there is so much to see. But, definitely consider using Japan’s great public transportation system, and taking day trips from Kyoto to some of its nearby sites. Japan has so much to offer! You can click here to read about my full Kyoto itinerary and a description of our best experiences and meals while in Japan.