As much as I enjoy wandering the streets of Kyoto and immersing myself in the unique ambiance and flow of the city, it’s also a very convenient base to use for exploring the mid section of Japans main island, Honshu. Kyoto has less of that big city feel that characterises Tokyo and Osaka but it’s still a significantly populated space and sometimes it’s nice to break that up with a trip to a smaller city or even into the countryside.
Here are 10 of our favourite day trips from Kyoto that can be feasibly enjoyed as day trips. That’s not to say an overnight stay wouldn’t be enjoyable if time allowed but that’s not always practical and it’s no reason to miss out. If like us you tend to travel with a moderate amount of luggage and like the convenience of limiting the number of accommodation moves required,then slightly longer day trips are an excellent option.
The speed of the Japanese rail system combined with the relative economy of a JR Pass make significant distances viable. We have a bit of a routine with day trips usually starting early and picking up a Starbucks and something from the bakery just before we board the train for our breakfast and either returning after dinner, picking up a bento to eat on the train or eating at one of the (literally) 100’s of restaurants in the Kyoto Station precinct before returning to our hotel at night.
Some of these might be a bit long particularly if you’ are travelling with younger children but they work well for us. Doing it this way we can generally have 8-10 hours to explore our days destination. If we want to we can always snooze on the train but we do set the alarm on our phone. Japanese trains run to such an exacting timetable it’s very viable to do this so we normally give ourselves a 5 minute buffer to pack stuff back in our bags and be ready to go because the station stops are very short.
Here are 10 of our favourite day trips from Kyoto in no particularly order:
Using a limited express train it’s 2 1/4 hours to Kanazawa. If you want to wander the Chaya districts at dusk in the hope of spotting a geisha or enjoy a leisurely evening meal of beautifully fresh local seafood it’s easily done as the trains back to Kyoto run well into the night.
Highlights in Kanazawa are Kenroku-en garden which is noted as one of the top 3 gardens in the country and the adjacent castle. The geisha districts here are the next largest and most active after Kyoto’s but some of the old tea houses have been converted to living museums and tea shops which I really enjoyed experiencing. The samurai district also has historical interest with old homes now open as museums. We enjoyed the Oyama Shrine and Omicho market too, they weren’t part of our plan but we found both of them as we wandered around the city streets. The ninja temple is another popular attraction but although it has many fun ninja style hidden passages and trap doors it doesn’t appear to have its own ninja history.
You’ll find more information on day tripping to Kanazawa from Kyoto in this post.
Less than 40 minutes after leaving Kyoto station you will arrive in Nagahama, which has a casual and friendly small town feel. Across the road from the station you’ll find Nagahama castle, the park which is a popular sakura spot in spring time, and the shores of Lake Biwa. The lake is a popular recreation spot in summer.
The town area retains the heritage of the area and you’ll find some interesting buildings around Kurokabe square housing glass ornaments and bowls which are a specialty of the town. There are also some great restaurants and a museum with the towns intricately decorated festival floats on display.
Two events in town that we’ve been to and enjoyed on different visits are the Nagahama Bonbai festival featuring bonsai of cherry and plum blossom and the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri a festival of kabuki theatre expertly performed by children.
The bullet train to Himeji will take around 55 minutes each way. The big attraction in Himeji is of course the castle, arguably the most impressive of the few original castles still standing from the feudal era. Going through the open areas of the castle and the impressive gardens will require a few hours. Allow extra in busy period like when the cherry blossom is in bloom or during golden week when the queues will be quite long.
You’ll pass the information centre just before you reach the castle, they speak English and will be able to help with planning out the rest of your day but my pick would be Mt Shosha (Shoshazan Engyo-ji). This heavily forested mountain is home to an historic and sprawling temple complex. You can hike all the way, take the ropeway then a light hike, or take a bus from the ropeway to suit your fitness and available time. The temple was used for filming a scene from the movie The Last Samurai but Tom Cruise’s acting ability shouldn’t be used as a reason not to explore this beautiful setting.
This one’s a shorter commute, it’s only a 30 minute train trip to Sakamoto station in neighbouring Shiga Prefecture. The cable car is fun, the views out over lake Biwa are amazing and the hike between temples on Mount Hiei feels a world away from the bustle of the city.
There’s plenty to see up here for those wanting to spend the day in the hills with temples and nature. While there is a restaurant we recommend picking up a bento or a cold lunch from the 7-eleven or a bakery on your way and having a picnic. There’s a konbini between the station and the cable car if you want to pick up drinks or snacks.
You can read all the information for planning a day trip to Enrukuji from Kyoto in this post.
This is a longer stretch for a day trip at 2 1/2 hours on the bullet train in each direction but given that you sit back and relax in relative comfort on the train it can be done. I know people who’ve done the day trip all the way from Tokyo although I don’t recommend that.
There are two options that you would probably do here, one is Miyajima Island and the other is to explore Hiroshima City with a focus on the Peace Park and central attractions. If you’re a fast paced traveller (we’re not) you could do a half day at each.
For Miyajima Island catch the train to Miyajimaguchi (30 minutes) then walk down the short street directly outside the station to the ferry. Don’t forget your JR pass also covers the cost of the ferry. We like a full day on the island with the possibility of enjoying the sunset but plenty of visitors do only spend a couple of hours. A half day would be enough time to see the famous torii gate, deer, the main shrine, shopping street and possible one or two temples in the lower area. With a little longer we’d recommend the cable car and /or walk up Mt Misen for the views and visiting some of the other temples a little further out. There are lots of lunch options in the shopping street with local oysters featuring prominently. You can see the oyster beds from the ferry on the way in, I’ve had variations of the oysters on two visits with no ill effects.
In the city the Peace Park, museum and the A dome would be on most peoples list to visit. In addition based on personal interests the castle and it’s park, baseball stadium, Shukkeien garden and shopping area may be of interest. Hiroshima like most of Japan has great food options but if you’re a fan of Okonomiyaki trying the unique Hiroshima layered noodle version might also be on your list.
Our Hiroshima City self guided walking tour takes in most of the sites and if you want to speed it up a little consider taking the tram one way or heading straight to the Peace Park The tram leaves from outside the train station and stops conveniently opposite the A-dome.
It’s only 30 minutes through to Osaka and we picked up the Osaka Amazing Pass (previously called the Osaka Free Pass) from the information centre outside the main station. For Y2300 it covers all your train (or bus) transport with free access to 28 attractions with discounts at some others.
We first took a look at the city from the river on the 60 minute Suijyo Aqualiner cruise. Next we headed for Osaka castle, went inside to see the museum and also the Nishinomaru Garden, as we were there in ume (plum blossom) season we spent a while looking at the groves of blossom with a free guide who was able to tell us quite a bit about both the flowers and castle in English. The Osaka museum of history is very near to the castle with some life sized townscape reconstructions if you are interested in that. Osaka prides itself on its delicious food and it is well justified to spend a portion of your day deciding what to eat and enjoying it. Late in the afternoon we went up the Umeda Sky Building observatory, it’s a great spot to enjoy the views as it transitions from daylight through to dusk and the city lights come on. Dinner with the neon lights of Namba is also highly recommended.
Another day trip that’s under an hour from Kyoto is the city of Kobe. In 1995 the city was devastated by the Great Hanshin earthquake but other than the museums and memorials you wouldn’t know know. Kobe rallied immediately beginning the rebuild and re-opening it’s major port facility and infrastructure in record time which ensuring its continuity as a significant source of employment and income in the area.
There is of course much more to Kobe, having long been a thriving port it has a robust China Town and is one of the best places in Japan to celebrate Chinese New Year which determined the timing of our first visit to the city. It also has a robust historic sake district which is open for tasting and many people would travel just to eat the renowned Kobe beef in the home city.
Find more things to do in this post on our top 8 things to do in Kobe.
An hours travel from Kyoto could have you in the historic castle town of Hikone. This town is home to one of 4 original castles in Japan listed as National Treasures. The town sits on the shores of Lake Biwa and on a clear day there are great views from the top floor of the castle out over the town and lake beyond.
Hikone was a popular alternative for visitors during Himeji castles recent renovation period and has recently been undergoing some refurbishment of its own. Walk around the edge of the moat and you’ll find a recreated castle street that offers good restaurant alternatives including one of our best meals of local beef in Japan. The castle museum here has a good collection and is housed separately to the castle keep itself which stops it getting as congested.
If you’re a faster paced traveller consider joining Hikone and Nagahama into a single daytrip as train passes directly by Nagahama station on the way to Hikone.
The JR train through to Nara takes about 45 minutes. This is one of my favourite relaxing days, it’s very easy and once you are there you can walk around between most of the attractions, it’s flat, green and relatively compact. We’ve found the locals here very friendly, the architecture and history is amazing as this was an ancient capital of Japan and dare I mention again, great food.
The deer that mill around in the park, outside the temples and even around the shops are adorable. Despite the signs advising that they can be prone to bad behaviour I haven’t seen anyone have any problems unless they fed them and even then it was being followed and pestered for more attention, nothing more intimidating.
You can see more of the 10 reasons why I love visiting Nara in this post and about Gango-ji, a special temple we visited for Setsubun.
An hour and 2o minutes headed west from Kyoto will have you at Okayama station. This city is home to another of the top three gardens in Japan known as Koraku-en,. It’s a huge garden and absolutely stunning during sakura when it’s a very popular spot for sedate family hanami parties but it’s equally beautiful at other times of the year. The nearby Okayama castle forms part of the ‘borrowed scenery’ a common component of Japanese garden design and well integrated into this one.
After exploring the castle and gardens an interesting option while in this part of the country would be to head to the rural Kibi Plains and hire a bicycle to explore the paths between the rice paddies, temples, shrines and historic burial mounds along the way. Catch the train (30 minutes) to either Soja or Bizen Ichinomiya to hire a cycle, it’s mostly on dedicated cycle paths and the cycle can be returned at the opposite station.
This is no where near an exhaustive list of day trips from Kyoto but it’s a few of the ones we’ve done and really enjoyed for a variety of reasons. If you have your own favourites to add please comment below.