As you immerse yourself in the captivating cultural fabric of Kyoto, it's easy to forget that just beyond this ancient city's borders lie treasures waiting to be discovered. While Kyoto's historic temples, traditional tea houses, and serene gardens are undoubtedly enchanting, the surrounding region offers a symphony of experiences that will elevate your Japanese adventure to new heights. Each of these places has its unique charm, offering a diverse blend of natural beauty, cultural richness, and historical significance. While for your first trip or so to this side of Japan may be reserved for the big numbers (like Osaka, Hiroshima, etc) these smaller towns will give you an unforgettable, authentic experience into Japan’s slice of life that differs from day trips in Tokyo. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!
1. Uji: The Home of Matcha and Cultural Treasures
Calling all matcha lovers! Venturing south from Kyoto, Uji unveils itself as a town steeped in tea culture and boasts a rich history that has left an indelible mark on Japan's heritage. Uji is where matcha, that vibrant green powdered tea, finds its roots. Here, you can walk in the footsteps of literary legends, explore ancient temples, and truly taste the finest matcha treats while surrounded by the serene beauty of Uji's landscapes. Whenever I’m in Uji, I come home with almost a whole suitcase packed to the brim with matcha products, since everything is so fresh and pure here regarding the quality and appreciation of matcha.
While you’re here, be sure to check out Byodo-in Temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Byodo-in is famous for its Phoenix Hall, an iconic architectural masterpiece that graces the 10-yen coin. The temple is surrounded by beautiful gardens and is a must-visit for its historical and artistic significance. There is also Ujigami Shrine, which is this ancient Shinto shrine - being one of Japan's oldest, dating back to the 11th century. It's located in a tranquil forested setting and is a designated National Treasure. Since Uji is synonymous with matcha, and you can experience traditional tea ceremonies and enjoy matcha-flavoured sweets and beverages at local teahouses and shops. After, stroll along the picturesque Uji River and enjoy the scenic beauty of the area, particularly during the cherry blossom season.
2. Arashiyama: A Nature Retreat on Kyoto's Outskirts
Approximately 30 minutes by train from Kyoto is a place where if you are seeking a nature escape, Arashiyama is the ideal destination. This charming district is famous for its bamboo groves, particularly the Sagano Bamboo Forest, where towering bamboo stalks create a surreal atmosphere. Don't miss the stunning Togetsukyo Bridge, which offers picturesque views of the Hozugawa River. You can also visit the Monkey Park, where you can interact with Japanese macaques.
There is also the Tenryu-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the region's most important Zen temples. It offers a beautiful garden with a large pond, and it's famous for its stunning views of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove from the temple's grounds. Make sure you also cross over Togetsukyo Bridge. This iconic bridge spans the Hozugawa River and provides panoramic views of the surrounding area. "Togetsukyo" translates to "Moon Crossing Bridge," and it's particularly popular during the cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons! One of the most special experiences in Arashiyama is also the Sagano Scenic Railway - known as the "Romantic Train". This train offers a leisurely journey through the beautiful Hozugawa River valley with old-fashioned, open-sided train cars that provides excellent views of the lush greenery and river.
3. Otsu: A Tranquil Lakeside Retreat
Just a stone's throw from Kyoto, Otsu is the capital city of Shiga Prefecture and sits gracefully on the shores of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake. Here, you'll find a serene escape from the bustling streets of Kyoto, where the ebb and flow of the lake provide a soothing backdrop to your day. Otsu invites you to explore its natural wonders, historical treasures, and delicious local cuisine.
Here, you can explore the Ishiyama-dera Temple. It is a historic temple famous for its connection to "The Tale of Genji," a classic work of Japanese literature. The temple offers picturesque views of Lake Biwa and is especially beautiful during cherry blossom season! Or, if you visit during the summer months, you can relax on the sandy shores of Omi-Maiko Beach and enjoy swimming and water sports. Then there is also the Otsu Port area, which features restaurants serving delicious local cuisine, including freshwater fish dishes. Try some of the region's speciality dishes like funazushi, a fermented fish dish - trust me, you’ll love it!
4. Lake Biwa: Japan's Inland Sea
Stretching gracefully along Kyoto's eastern border is Lake Biwa, a natural wonder and cultural icon. With its vast expanse of shimmering water and the picturesque islands that dot its surface, Lake Biwa is often referred to as Japan's "inland sea." Beyond its breathtaking beauty, this ancient lake holds secrets waiting to be uncovered, from sacred islands to charming lakeside towns. Take a boat ride to Chikubushima, one of the lake's islands, and visit Hogon-ji Temple, known for its beautiful autumn foliage.
5. Nagahama: A Timeless Gem on Lake Biwa's Shores
Nestled on the northeastern shores of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, Nagahama is a hidden gem that beckons travellers to explore its rich history, cultural heritage, and serene landscapes. As a bonus, Nagahama is also conveniently located relatively close to Kyoto, making it an ideal day trip destination. The distance between Kyoto and Nagahama can be covered in approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour by train.
One cannot visit without seeing the Nagahama Castle, a beacon of history and resilience. This iconic castle, originally built in the late 16th century, stands as a testament to Nagahama's enduring spirit. Inside its walls, a museum unfolds the story of its past, the feudal era of Japan, and the local culture. Then for a taste of the Meiji era's charm, head to Kurokabe Square. The name, which means "black wall," is a nod to the distinctive black brick facades that grace the well-preserved buildings in this area. Here, you can wander through boutique shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants, all set against a backdrop of historic architecture. Also, a unique spot is Nagahama Railway Square. Here, you can explore an array of historic locomotives and train cars on display, offering insights into Japan's railway history. It's a unique attraction that provides a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Japanese rail travel.
6. Nara: A sojourn with roaming deers
I’ve covered Nara before as a day trip from Osaka, but it is most definitely an awesome day trip from Kyoto too. Not many people know that Nara was Japan's first permanent capital! Today, it still holds a wealth of historical treasures. The star attraction of course is Nara Park, where you can encounter friendly, free-roaming deer, considered sacred and protected as national treasures. Within the park, you'll find Todai-ji Temple, housing the world's largest bronze Buddha statue. Explore Kasuga Taisha Shrine, known for its lantern-lined paths and serene forest setting. Nara's historical ambiance and natural beauty make it a perfect day trip from Kyoto - being only approximately 45 minutes by train.
7. Yoshino: A blooming mountain town
In the heart of Japan's Nara Prefecture, a mesmerizing world of cherry blossoms, sacred temples, and tranquil nature awaits. Yoshino and Mount Yoshino, an easy day trip from Kyoto, beckon travelers with their breathtaking landscapes, rich history, and vibrant culture. For those who are nature enthusiasts, history buffs or simply in search of an enchanting escape, Yoshino and Mount Yoshino offer a taste of traditional Japan that's not to be missed. From Kyoto, it takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours to reach Yoshino by train, making it an excellent day trip option.
Yoshino is celebrated across Japan for its dazzling cherry blossoms, transforming the slopes of Mount Yoshino into a riot of pink and white petals each spring. The spectacle is nothing short of magical, creating an ephemeral sea of sakura that captivates all who visit. Timing your visit between late March and early April ensures you witness this natural wonder at its peak. Mount Yoshino forms a vital part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. The mountain's spiritual and historical importance is deeply woven into the fabric of Japan's religious heritage. Mount Yoshino is divided into four distinct areas, each offering its unique cherry blossom viewing experience. From the bustling Shimo-senbon to the tranquil Oku-senbon, you can explore varying degrees of natural beauty and serenity.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto1-chōme-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan
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