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Dedicated to the gods of sake and rice, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. Five shrines dot the forested temple grounds, and the arched red lines of torii gates straddling the pathway leading up to Inari Mountain are a truly iconic sight. You’ll also see plenty of stone foxes at this temple, another symbol of Shinto.
A lovely place for a stroll in rural surrounds, there are fine views of Kyoto from the top of the torii gate pathway up the mountain. Stop off for a sustaining bowl of tofu soup at the small restaurants along the way.
The Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto, and a major highlight of any visit to the city.
The three-story pagoda gleams with gold leaf, though it is a 1955 replica of the original 1397 temple, which was destroyed by fire in 1950.
The beautiful temple hovers over a lake, surrounded by twisted pines and forests. The image of its reflection captured in the mirror-like water is a Kyoto symbol, and a must-have photo opportunity.
The classic stone and water gardens are another highlight for a stroll.
The Kiyomizu Temple is an ancient institution, dating back to 798 AD and the days of Nara, which has inspired temple architecture for centuries.
This Kyoto landmark provides fabulous views over the city and is surrounded by gardens and shrines.
Climb the steeply inclining steps leading up to the temple where You’ll find pavilion teahouses and restaurants in the grounds and the main hall jutting out over the hillside.
The refined traditional arts of Japan are highlighted for visitors at Gion Corner, an entertaining and informative nightspot.
From tea ceremony to the twang of the Koto, Ikebana floral arranging to puppet plays, Gion Corner dramatizes and explains the ins and outs of the esoteric world of Japanese traditions.
There are two performances each evening, plus an on-site photo gallery and the opportunity to experience tea house hospitality at a traditional Kyoto banquet, hosted by geisha.
For classic Kyoto in a nutshell, head to Arashiyama Park. The perennially popular area is rich in temples and a riot of fall colors in November, with pink cherry blossoms in April.
The park area embraces several major sights, including Tenryu-ji Temple, founded in 1339. The main temple of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by tranquil Zen gardens and bamboo forest. There are many other temples in Arashiyama, including the Gio-ji, Jojakko-ji and Daikaku-ji temples. Another highlight is walking across the Moon Crossing Bridge, with views over to Mt Arashiyama.
Built in 1164, Sanjusangendo Temple impresses in scope, size, and detail, with 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, flanking the main image of a giant, seated Kannon. Carved in the 12th and 13th centuries, the statues are arranged in 50 columns, each two rows deep. It's said that the Kannon witness and protect against human suffering. To aid in their mission, the Kannon are equipped with 11 heads and 1,000 arms.
"Sanjusangendo" translates to hall with thirty three spaces between the columns," describing a traditional measurement system. The wooden temple building extends 118 meters (387 feet), making it the longest of its kind in the world. Originally built for former emperor Go-Shirakawa, the Temple today remains a religious destination and popular tourist stop. It represents some of the most exquisite Japanese Buddhist sculpture and architecture in the country.
Deer Park (Nara Park) sits at the heart of Nara, a city of great historical importance and the birthplace of modern Japanese culture, located 19 miles (31 km) outside of Osaka. A majority of Nara’s top attractions, including Kasuga Shrine, Todaji and the Nara National Museum, are located in Deer Park, making it a popular day trip destination from both Osaka and Kyoto.
Besides the cultural and historical attractions found on the grounds of the park, it’s also famous for the wild (but very tame) deer that roam the grounds grazing on grass and hoping the passing tourist will feed them some deer crackers (for sale throughout the park). The park covers an area of about 1,300 acres (520 hectares) and requires about three hours to explore, particularly if you plan to stop at the temples and shrines.
Nijō Castle was built in 1603 as the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun. With its moats, walls, secret passageways and hidden chambers, the heavily fortified castle stands as a defiant symbol of the shogun's power.
Entered through an elaborate main gate, the castle complex includes two palaces, Ninomaru and Honmaru.
A visit to Ninomaru Palace reveals spectacular artworks, including painted screens and intricate gold leaf ceilings. Known as 'nightingale' floors, the squeaking floorboards were designed to alert the shogun’s bodyguards to the presence of intruders.
Japan's royal family no longer live in Kyoto Imperial Palace, but the imperial furnishings have been preserved. The immaculate parkland surrounding the palace is one of Kyoto’s favorite public gardens.
The palace has been empty since 1868, when the Emperor moved into the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. You need to book ahead to take a palace tour led by the Imperial Household Agency. Tours highlight the ceremonial halls, Imperial Library, the Empress quarters and throne room.
The lovely parklands are filled with flowering trees and grassed areas, carp ponds and cherry blossom trees. Pack a picnic and come for the day.
The most famous entertainment neighborhood in Osaka, Dotonbori (also called Dotombori) boasts a rich history, an exciting nightlife, and cultural gems. Situated along the Dotomborigawa River, Dotonbori stretches down a single street in in the city’s Minami area. Formerly a pleasure district, geishas once flocked to Dotonbori as the go-to place to entertain their customers. Today remnants of that lively history can be felt and seen in the numerous small restaurants and bars that dot the river. In fact, Dotonbori is Osaka’s best neighborhood for both domestic and foreign food. In addition to drinking and dining, Dotonbori has excellent shopping.
At night, Dotonbori comes to life with hundreds of neon lights. The most iconic images of the neighborhood are the larger-than-life neon “Guriko” sign – an image of a running man – and the Kani Doraku crab sign, an advertisement for a popular restaurant that features a moving crab.
Just because it is a museum does not mean that the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum is not functional. This operational sake brewery introduces visitors to the history and technical components of sake brewing. Located in the heart of an old sake brewing district, many of the buildings and breweries have been standing since the Edo era. Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum itself was founded in 1637, making it one of the region’s oldest breweries.
The charm of this Museum is its attention to detail. The brewery is in an old-fashioned, traditional sake house. Japanese songs about sake and sake brewing play throughout the museum. One of the main displays features over 6,000 brewing tools, considered by many to be cultural relics. Of course, the highlight of the tour is the sake tasting itself, where some of the area’s best is on display.
Ranked number one of Kyoto's five great temples, Tenryu-ji celebrates a history dating back to 1339 and stands in dedication and memory to an ancient emperor. Many of the temple buildings have been destroyed over the centuries, but the temple's landscape garden remains much the same today as it did in the 14th century.
The garden boasts a clever and unique design that marries imperial taste with zen aesthetics. Lush foliage lines a shimmering pond, and as visitors walk from one end of the pond to the other, it appears as though the seasons change in front of their eyes. Intricate stonework on one hill represents a mountain stream cascading into the pond, while in another area stones appear to be carp fish. Visitors seek out the garden to be transported to another time.
One of Japan's most famous castles, Osaka Castle played a major role in unifying Japan in the sixteenth century. First built in 1583 by one of Japan’s most fabled warlords, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, succeeded in ending century-long wars and using Osaka Castle as his stronghold.
The castle was built on about one square kilometer (less than a mile squared) of land, with two raised platforms supported by sheer walls of cut rock and surrounded by a moat. The central building is five stories outside, and eight stories on the inside. The thirteen structures that make up the castle have be designated as Important Cultural Assets by the Japanese government.
Osaka Castle was nearly destroyed during WWII, when used as one of the largest military armories. A full restoration started in 1995, and by 1997, had been completely restored to it's Edo-era days. The current castle is a concrete reproduction of the original castle, with a modern museum within.
Often mistaken for the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, Sagano expands north of the Togetsukyo Bridge in Kyoto. The tranquil area encompasses some of Kyoto’s most stunning landscapes. With rural residential areas, mountains dotting the horizon, fields ablaze with color and a famous bamboo forest, Sagano may just be one of Japan’s prettiest (and lesser known) spots.
By far, Sagano is best known for its bamboo groves. Walking trails wind through the forest, with thin, tall bamboos lining either side. Sun light filters through the narrow trunks, casting shadows along the path. Beyond the grove, one of the best ways to experience Sagano is on bicycle. In addition to the bamboo groves, there are numerous temples to explore, as well as the river and the well-traveled bridge. This idyllic nook on the outskirts of Kyoto should not be missed.
Theme park rides and shows come together in Osaka at Universal Studios Japan®. Like its sister parks in the U.S., the movie theme park provides fun for the whole family!
Snoopy, Hello Kitty, Woody Woodpecker, Shrek and many other stars are on hand to greet you as you make your way through the park. Entertaining rides include Jaws, Back to the Future, the Spider-Man Ride and Jurassic Park!
Partake in ultra-exhilarating shows like Shrek's 4-D Adventure, Terminator 2: 3-D or Backdraft. Universal Studios shows are fun for everyone and are full of excitement!
And if you're a Harry Potter fan, be enchanted by the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter! Fly over Hogwarts on the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" flight simulator; tour Hogwarts castle to see some of its most famous rooms; or even take a ride on a Hippogriff (winged horse with an eagle head)!
From sushi fish to kitchen knives, you’ll find everything under the sun relating to food at Nishiki Market. The covered market is a foodie's wonderland, and provides fascinating glimpses into the shopping and eating habits of Kyoto's locals, chefs and families.
Pick up produce to prepare in your hotel/apartment if you’re self-catering, or choose from a staggering array of ready-to-eat snacks, sweets and drinks. This is a great place to pick up a Kyoto souvenir with a difference, from authentic cooking equipment to green tea or photographs of this colorful market.
The spindly needle atop the 55 meter (180 foot), five-storied pagoda of To-ji temple keeps protective watch over the city of Kyoto, as it has done since its construction in the early 9th century. The tallest pagoda in Japan, it has become a symbol and iconic image of Kyoto. Several Buddha statues reside inside the famous wooden structure, enhancing its religious and historical allure.
The temple itself dates from 796, two years after the capitol moved to Kyoto. At the time, To-ji, along with a no longer existing sister temple, guarded the capitol. The temple’s feature image is that of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Medicine, further promoting To-ji’s status as a protector. To-ji was one of only three temples allowed in Kyoto in the early years of its reign as capitol, and it’s the only one that still stands today.
For handmade goods by local craftsmen in Kyoto, nothing beats the Kyoto Handicraft Center. This three-floor building is jam-packed with handicrafts, as the name implies, and souvenirs. The local cooperative showcases the best work from local artisans and encourages visitors to try their own hand at making a souvenir to take home. Visitors are also invited to step into observation studios where they can watch local artisans at work.
The Kyoto Handicraft Center focuses on traditional Japanese goods. These include pottery, kimonos, jewelry, dolls, carvings, decorative fans, and more. It may be the best place in all of Kyoto to find handicraft goods of all varieties in one place.
Host to Japan’s most famous festival, Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine is located in the heart of Kyoto. Yasaka Shrine dates back to the 7th century, when it was known as Gion Shrine for its location near the Gion district, famous for the geisha that live and work there. The shrine consists of several buildings. The main hall houses an inner sanctuary and a secondary hall. One of the most prominent features of the shrine is a large stage out front lined with hundreds of lanterns. One of the most popular times to visit the shrine is in the evening or at night, when the lanterns light the stage.
The annual Gion Matsuri festival began more than 1,100 years ago at Yasaka Shrine. In modern times, it takes place every July. Originally, the festival sought to expunge the city of illnesses. Today, the festival celebrates craftwork. Intricate fabrics, textiles, and sculptures adorn floats that men carry through town. Music, costumes, and street food contribute to the festive atmosphere.
One of Japan's Three Scenic Views, Amanohashidate is a sandbar that connects the two sides of Miyazu Bay. Amanohashidate, translated as "bridge in heaven," got its name for its beauty, poetically described as a pathway between heaven and earth. The sandbar spans 3.3 kilometers (about 2 miles), and nearly 7,000 pine trees decorate the strip The panoramic view includes the bay on either side of the famous sandbar, as well as snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Nestled between the pine trees on the sandbar, Isoshimizu fresh water well is an attraction on its own, having been held in high regard since the Heian Period. Japan's Environmental Agency designated the well as one of the country's 100 best springs and rivers in 1985. Weather walking across the Amanohashidate sandbar or viewing it from above, this view is one of the most celebrated in Japan.
Strolling along the Kamo River (also referred to as Kamogawa River) at night is a quintessential Kyoto experience. The fourth longest river in Kyoto spans from the northeastern most parts of the city southwest to the Katsuragawa River. The most popular section of the river runs through the famous geisha district of Gion. In warmer months, the river becomes a popular spot for picnics, walks, and people watching.
A walking path along the river’s edge gives way to stretches of parkland, perfect for enjoying an afternoon or evening. Restaurants situated above the river light up at night, illuminating the river below. There are five bridges that span the Kamo River. More adventurous travelers may enjoy finding each of them. Along with the Seine in Paris or the Tiber River in Italy, the Kamo River is a favorite spot among locals.
Once a destination for nobles, the Arashiyama district of Kyoto boasts small-town charm and beautiful mountainside views. Today, the popular neighborhood attracts tourists and nature lovers. The scenic neighborhood’s iconic landmark, Togetsukyo Bridge spans the Katsura River and provides panoramic views of lush mountainside foliage, gentle river swells, and local fisherman navigating the shoreline. The bridge’s history extends back 400 years and has been featured in many historical films.
Crossing Togetsukyo Bridge is a highlight of any visit to Arashiyama. From feeding carp fish over the railing to enjoying the splendor of cherry blossoms in the spring and fall foliage, the bridge is a gateway to a simple, stunningly scenic way of life. Another popular way to see the bridge is by a boat ride along the river.
No matter from where visitors view Japan's most famous rock garden, at least one rock is always hidden from sight. That's one of the reasons that Ryoan-ji, a temple with an accompanying zen rock garden, attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally a residence for aristocrats, the site was converted to a Buddhist temple in 1450. The temple features traditional Japanese paintings on sliding doors, a refurbished zen kitchen, and tatami, or straw mat, floors.
The temple's main attraction has always been the rock garden, as much for its meditative qualities as a desire to find meaning in its minimalistic attributes. The garden is a rectangular plot of pebbles with 15 larger stones on moss swaths interspersed seemingly arbitrarily. Some have said the garden represents infinity; others see it in an endless sea. Ryoan-ji is nestled down a wooded path that crosses over a beautiful pond with several walking trails. The luscious setting is as attractive as the temple itself.
Have tea with locals. Spend time in nature. Walk between villages. These are the highlights of the Nakasendo trail, a historic walking path through the Kiso Valley that links the villages of Tsumago and Magome. In feudal times, the Nakasendo Trail linked Kyoto to Tokyo. Samurais and feudal lords frequented the trail. Along the path were 69 villages, where the travelers could stop and rest. Today, walking the Nakasendo Trail between Tsumago and Magome provides visitors an opportunity to experience a small part of that history.
The five-mile (8-km) Nakasendo Trail meanders through a wooded forest. The trail crosses over two main waterfalls, the Odaki en Medaki waterfalls – male and female. Along the path there are several old-fashioned wooden buildings, many converted into shops where local handicrafts are sold. Many people stop in at a teahouse along the way, where a guestbook tracks those who have come through.
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