Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. My grandmother is from Kyoto, and I dreamt of seeing her home in person. But it was never about seeing just Kyoto—where could my grandmother have gone when she needed a getaway? What were some of the other places that may have shaped her early life?
In the fall of 2018, I was lucky to visit Kyoto, experience its secret trendy spots, and to explore the surrounding region to discover some of the day trips travelers can take to nearby cultural destinations.
Hikone is a city northeast of Kyoto and accessible via an hour-long train ride. Its most popular site is Hikone Castle, a typical fortress of historical Japan dating to the early Edo era.
With a keep of white walls and dark gables, a complex of historic buildings and a museum, and a backdrop of cherry blossoms in the spring, it’s easy to see why this beautiful site is labeled a National Treasure in Japan—and a World Heritage Centre by UNESCO. After visiting the castle, travelers can stroll up Yume Kyobashi Castle Road, a reconstructed Edo era street with shops and restaurants.
South of Kyoto, the small city of Uji has gained a reputation for green tea. Travelers can participate in tea ceremonies, take a brewing class, or grab a matcha ice cream cone.
Between these activi-teas (sorry), pay a visit to Ujigami Shrine. Built in 1060, it’s thought to be the oldest Shinto shrine in the country. Uji is reachable from Kyoto via a thirty-minute train ride.
Ine and Kyōtango
Ine and Kyōtango are located on the Tango Peninsula, northwest of Kyoto. If you’d like to escape to a small town, coastal Ine is the perfect choice. Boat rides provide a seamless view of Ine’s funaya, wooden boathouses perched over the teal water. Nearby, continue your seaside escapades at Kyōtango, famous for its attractive beaches like Kotobikihama. Visiting in the colder months? Simply trade the beach for hot springs, or onsen.
The quickest route to the Tango Peninsula is two hours by car. Going by train and bus requires multiple changes and can take two to three hours, so you should plan to spend at least a night here to have more time for activities.
The Shigaraki region has a history rich in ceramics. At the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, visitors can learn about the craft’s eighth-century roots and view one-of-a-kind ceramic wares, made inimitable by the wabi-sabi design that embraces flaws in creation. East of Kyoto, Shigaraki is forty-five minutes to an hour via car and an hour and a half by train with multiple changes.
On August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, U.S. forces dropped the first of two atomic bombs on Japan (the second would fall on the city of Nagasaki three days later). This event and its aftermath are remembered in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, located at the site beneath the bomb’s midair explosion.
At the Peace Memorial Museum, visitors will learn about the destruction and illness left in the bomb’s wake via recorded survivor accounts, photos, and various exhibits. Outside the museum, the park’s structures and memorials emphasize the reach of the devastation, such as the A-Bomb Dome and the Children’s Peace monument.
Hiroshima is an hour and forty minutes from Kyoto on the shinkansen, or bullet train. Though it’s possible to visit Hiroshima in a day, it would be wise to spend at least a night here to ensure that you aren’t rushing through anything.
On another day, you can take the ferry to Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Bay (and if you have a J.R. pass for the shinkansen, it can be used on the J.R. ferry). Walk or take the ropeway to the top of Mount Misen for a panoramic view of the green island, the turquoise bay, and the shores of Hiroshima.
When you’re finished, visit Isukushima Shrine and its famous floating torii gate. On the train ride back to Kyoto, plan a short stopover to see Himeji-jo, an original seventeenth-century wooden castle.
A forty-five-minute train ride south of Kyoto, Nara is an easy destination to escape to for a day. There’s plenty to see in Nara Kōen, a 1,630-acre (660-hectare) city park, including the over one thousand sika deer that prowl the grounds.
In the park, travelers can also stroll the winding paths in Isuien Garden, visit the Shinto shrine Kasuga-taisha and its many stone lanterns, and catch sight of the Great Buddha in the temple Tōdai-ji, a site dating back to the eighth century and Nara’s time as Japan’s capital city.
Travelers can reach Kobe, a coastal city southwest of Kyoto, via an hour-long train ride. Kobe is probably best known for its beef—sourced from local cattle called Tajima Wagyu—which can be sampled in many of the city’s shabu shabu and sukiyaki dishes.
For a panoramic view of Kobe and its perch on the shimmery waters of Osaka Bay, head up the Shin-Kobe Ropeway in the Rokko mountain range, or take a track that begins nearby. Along the way, you can stop for Nunobiki Waterfall, a lofty torrent ending in a reflective basin, and, further up, Nunobiki Herb Garden.
Finally, a visit to Kobe’s Arima Onsen won’t be regretted—over a thousand years old, today’s hot springs are located in a small resort town in a lovely mountain setting.
Travel further from Kyoto and explore more of the Land of the Rising Sun with our Japan Travel Guide.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.