There is nothing short to do in both these vibrant cities but trust me, there are other places that are equally brimming with sights, tradition, culture and delicious food that’s less than an hour’s train ride away.
With the convenience of having a 14-day JR Railway Pass and a travel itinerary that was well-thought out in advanced, we covered some cities outside of Kyoto and Osaka that’s definitely worth spending a day or even two, if you fancy.
The Splendour of Himeji Castle, Himeji
A trip to Japan is incomplete without a visit to one of their magnificent castles. If you’re short for time or you only have the attention span for just one castle, Himeji Castle is definitely a piece of architecture that’s worth viewing up close. It is also one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites registered in the country.
Himeji city itself strikes me as a clean and more quiet metropolis, with extremely wide roads and the best part is the looming view of its castle the second you walk out of the train station. Take a casual stroll along the river while you admire the view of the castle; you can also rent a bicycle or hop on a traditional boat ride at your leisure.
There was quite a queue going into the castle as it was cherry blossom season, but the weather was comfortably cooling and it was a pleasure to be able to admire the vast castle grounds amidst the falling sakura petals.
While you’re there, take the time to enter the traditional Koko-en garden that’s situated right next to Himeji castle. It is filled with dainty plants, water features and bonzai that are certainly a signature reflection of the Japanese culture.
From personal experience, just be mindful not to step off the footpath to avoid being politely told off by the kind caretakers.
The entrance fee is ¥1,040 for both the castle and the garden, which is cheaper than buying a ticket separately for both these attractions.
Nature Activities & Glorious Beef in Kobe
This is where I happily died eating authentic Kobe beef and went to culinary heaven. For someone who isn’t fussy with how good her food is, it took me almost a year since having a piece of that marbled goodness before I could finally bring myself to order steak outside of Japan; it was THAT good!
If you have a restaurant in mind in Kobe, do make a booking a few days in advance as some venues only attend to customer reservations.
Not many may know this, but there is so much to wander and explore in Kobe that I am likely to stay here for a few days when I next return to Japan. This city is surrounded by mountains and forests; you could take a short hike up to see the Nunobiki Falls or even a more intense trail adventure if you’re there during the right season.
For a more relaxing activity, take the cable car up to visit the Herb Gardens for tea and ice-cream at their quaint little cafe, with a full view of the city as you look out their glass windows. Also, check out one of their many sake breweries or take a dip in their hot springs at Arima Onsen.
Bowing Heads with Deer at Todai-ji, Nara
Nara attracts both tourists and locals to visit its temple Todai-ji, another UNESCO heritage that houses a giant bronze Buddha statue. A tourist map would be good here as it’s a huge area to cover with different landmarks spaced quite a distance from one another.
Nara is my second favourite city after Kyoto, with a good mix of modern versus traditional that really was a great playground for someone with a camera.
What really adds character to this place are the many deer that roam freely throughout the temple grounds, hoping for a pat or better yet, some food. Watch and learn from the locals; with the right tricks, you’d be able to witness a deer politely bowing to you!
We spent the day covering most of the landmarks until sunset came, and our greatest find in this city is taking the courage to dine in a Japanese speaking only izakaya called Kura. This small eatery only fits up to ten people at a time and food and we enjoyed the atmosphere of true Japanese dining amongst the locals, sake included.
Share your Japan adventures if you have any, would love to bookmark places that are worth visiting in preparation for my next trip there!