Kyoto is one of the most-visited cities in Japan and, in my opinion, somewhere you should visit during the low season to escape the hordes of tourists. If you decide to go, I highly recommend getting out of the city to explore the surrounding areas (after you’ve ticked off some of Kyoto’s top sights).
In this article, I’ll share with you my suggestions for how to spend a week in the Kansai region and what not to miss.
Begin your trip in Kyoto, starting in the northwest corner to hit the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-ji and the “Moss Temple” of Saiho-ji (you need to make a reservation by sending a postcard one week in advance). As you work your way back towards the city centre, stop at Ryōan-ji, which is famed for its “karesansui” Zen rock garden.
Spend another day exploring the east of Kyoto, visiting the temple of Ginkaku-ji and hiking through the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Don’t miss the opportunity to have a “kaiseki” traditional multi-course meal, then wander through the streets to find a whiskey bar of your liking. If you’re out just before sundown, you might catch sight of the geishas running into the bars, although they rarely allow you to take photos.
Kyoto is just a short train trip from Osaka and after living in the nearby city of Sakai, I have a soft spot for the area. I’d recommend strolling from Namba to Umeda, with a stop in the Shinsaibashi district to check out the fashions and grab something to eat, then end your walk in Dōtonbori, which is home to the famous Glico running man.
My favorite sporting goods store, Spotaka, is also in the area where you can pick up Japanese-style Mizuno and Asics gears or you can head to the Ame-mura district, which is a hub for youth culture. If you’re after a cultural fix, one of my favorite places to explore in Osaka is Osaka-Jo, a castle that combines tradition, mystery and beauty, or you can visit the Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum to admire its unique ukiyo-e art.
Osaka is a fantastic city for food, with some of my favorite spots being Matsuzaka Beef and almost anywhere along Dōtonbori Road. Be sure to try the local specialties such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki and yakisoba.
Another easy day trip from Kyoto is to Nara, which once served as the capital of Japan. It’s renowned for the deers that roam through Nara Park where the Tōdai-ji temple stands, as well as having plenty of peaceful Zen meditation areas. You could also travel west to see Himeji Castle, which is one of the three biggest castles in Japan. If you’re heading that way, make a stop in Kobe to try its world-renowned wagyu beef at the local Ishida restaurant.
Lastly, if you have time, head to Wakayama and trek the Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route that winds been grand temples and tiny shrines. It’s a great way to experience the rural hospitality of Japan and its stunning cypress forests while connecting with the country’s ancient Shinto culture at the same time.
Though Hiroshima is not the Kansai region, it’s a short train ride. So many people don’t make the trip to Hiroshima but it left a big impression on me. It’s synonymous with the atomic bomb that was dropped here at the end of World War II and visiting the museum is a poignant experience. I remember reading about a girl who’d been so disfigured by the bomb that she’d asked her parents to let her die, saying “no one will marry my little brother when they come to our house and see me like this”. I was close to tears reading about this and her screaming in pain during treatments.
The area where the bomb hit is now protected as a Peace Park and I spent hours sitting here just enjoying the greenery, the birds chirping and watching the school children coming and going on their field trips. Almost everything in Hiroshima has been rebuilt during the last 80 years, so it feels quite shiny and new, although the streetcars give it a vintage feel.
I’d recommend overnighting in Hiroshima and spending a day at Miyajima, an island in Hiroshima Bay that’s home to a giant orange torii gate that seemingly floats on the water during high tide. Ride the cable car or hike the trail that leads to the top of the island for panoramic views across Hiroshima Bay and explore one of the two old naval training bases.
Hiroshima’s culinary specialties include noodle-infused okonomiyaki that’s known as Hiroshima-yaki and I found a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant just 10 minutes’ walk from the train station that was run by a mother and daughter team. They cooked in a tiny setting and chatted away to customers – I found the people in Hiroshima extremely friendly.