The Ultimate Guide to Japan



Japan is an incomparable destination, filled with vibrant culture and deep-rooted traditions. Find your inner peace while visiting the majestic temples, shrines, and zen gardens. Observe historic customs of honor and respect. Indulge in the freshest cuisine, admiring the beautiful culinary presentations. Immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture by participating in Buddhist Zen Meditation or an elegant Tea Ceremony. Visit the Gion District, gazing upon the beautiful Geisha, dressed in their finest kimonos. Japan was surprisingly balanced with modern conveniences while honoring and preserving its rich history.
Choosing to visit Japan during cherry blossom season creates breathtaking scenery for those picture-perfect memories. Japan has earned one of the top spots in our hearts and should be experienced by any world traveler.



TOP ATTRACTIONS IN KYOTO


Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine

The Fushimi Inari Shrine is home to 10,000 Torii gates that are seen as an entrance to a sacred shrine in Shinto religion. Each gate has been donated by a company or organization giving thanks for their prosperity and in hope of good fortune in the future. The name of the donor is inscribed in black ink on the back of each gate and remains to be beautiful artwork representing Japan’s past, dating back to 711 A.D. Experiencing these well-preserved gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine are like touching a piece of human history!

Tip: Avoid crowds by visiting early in the morning, before 8:00am


Kinkakuji Temple

The Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, is a world-renowned temple named for its pure gold leaf finishing. Glistening in the sun, this Zen Buddhist Temple is one of the most photographed spots in Kyoto. It’s said to mitigate and purify any negative thoughts and feelings towards death.

Tip: To avoid crowds, visit as soon as they open, or a bit before they close, and avoid weekends. Opening hours: 9:00am-5:00pm | Admission: 400 yen


Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto is one of the most beautiful and serene places to visit in Japan. Standing amid these soaring stalks of bamboo is like being in another world. It’s one of the most widely photographed sights in Kyoto so make sure to arrive at sunrise to capture unforgettable memories.⠀⠀⠀⠀

Tip: Arrive at 7:00am or earlier to capture unforgettable photos.


Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizudera is known as the "Pure Water Temple" and is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan, dating back over 1200 years. Many traditional Japanese festivals are held here. Check their website for dates of celebration and festivities. We were blessed to experience SEIRYU-E, a festival praying for regional peace and expelling bad luck. At this event, an 18-meter long blue dragon leads the way, as a wide variety of performers, adorned with gorgeous costumes, parade through the grounds and the temple town, Click here to view SEIRYU-E and experience the beauty, tradition, and culture of Japanese celebrations.

Temple opening hours: 6:00am-6:00pm | Entrance fee: 400 yen


Nijo Castle

The gorgeous style of this castle was intended as a demonstration of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) prestige. The wide moat, massive stone walls, and heavy yet elaborate gates are still impressive and contains several lovely gardens as well as groves of plum and cherry trees. Inside the palace are several masterpieces of Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber. Stepping inside the palace, you will hear the famous "nightingale floors," which were designed to squeak when stepped on and thus alert guards to any intruders.

Opening hours: 8:45am - 4:00pm | Entrance fee: 600 yen


Higashiyama District

Experience traditional Japanese architecture and culture through the Higashiyama District. Stroll through the narrow streets & enjoy browsing the small wooden shop fronts.


Gion

Gion is Kyoto’s geisha district and is a short walk from the Higashiyama District. Perfect to visit in the evenings, when Gion comes alive with shops, restaurants, & teahouses. Be on the lookout for the beautiful Geisha and Miko (Geisha apprentices). Architecturally, the streets are filled w/ narrow wooden houses and lit by paper lanterns.

Hidden Gem: Locate Shirakawa Minami-dori on google maps and you will discover one of the most beautiful streets in Asia.



The Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no michi)

The canal lining Philosopher's Path, blooming with cherry trees, is exceptionally beautiful. The Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no michi) was named after one of Japan’s most famous philosophers who practiced mediation on his regular walks along the canal. It’s one of the most well-known and picturesque spots in Kyoto, with thousands of lovely sakura trees 🌸



Experience Traditional Japanese Culture


Zen Meditation Class

Shunko-in Temple offers Zen meditation classes with an English speaking Buddhist- Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, who travels the world giving talks about the zen & mindfulness, and how these practices can help improve our lives in these modern and hectic times, helping us be more creative and satisfied in our work.


During the meditation class, you will not only receive instructions on the basics of meditation and experience it within the temple setting, but will also learn how to incorporate Zen philosophy into your daily life. Using a scientific perspective, he will explain how meditation influences your mind in everyday life. Click here for an up to date schedule, to reserve your spot.



Tea Ceremony Camellia

Experiencing a tea ceremony gives you a glimpse into a fascinating part of Japanese culture that is historic and has cultural significance.

The tea ceremony represents purity, tranquillity, respect, and harmony and much preparation goes into this important event.

We booked a private tea ceremony and observed our Geisha performing detailed rituals before practicing ourselves. I highly recommend this experience!




Miyako Odori | Geisha Dance Performance

Geiko are women trained in dance and music, with an emphasis on grace, beauty, and dignity. Geiko begin their careers as apprentices called ‘maiko’, usually age 15. From then on, they move into a geiko house and dedicate their lives to the geiko world. Around the age of 20, maiko graduate from their apprenticeship, and become fully-fledged geiko.


In English, "Miyako Odori" translates to ‘The Cherry Blossom Dances’, because they take place in April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. The highly stylized and tightly choreographed dance moves are slow and graceful, so every move must be perfect. Participating in the dances is considered a great honor.

Photo credit | Miyako Odori Official Site
Performances include eight scenes, each of which depicts some aspect of Japanese life, especially life in Kyoto and the geiko districts.

There is a particular focus on traditional places such as shrines and temples, and on the seasonal changes that happen throughout the year. A huge amount of work goes into producing lavish costumes, and the geiko and maiko are elaborately made-up with white-painted faces and ornate hairstyles.



Japanese Cherry Blossom Season

As one of Japan's national flowers, the cherry blossom (sakura) holds a special place in Japanese culture. In addition to the beauty of its pale pink petals and its prevalence in Japan, the blossom is known for its distinctively short lifespan. Once this tree begins to flower, its delicate blooms will last only for a week or two before the “sakura snow” falls to the ground or is carried off by the breeze. Because of this fleeting phenomenon, the flowers have come to represent life's mortality. This is seen as a metaphor for our fleeting lives. a symbol of our temporary existence, yet profound impact in this world.⠀

View the Cherry Blossom Forecast HERE for estimated blooming dates in each region.


Torii Gates | Step into the Japanese Sacred World

Torii Gates are presented In front of every Japanese Shinto shrine, representing the border between the secular world and the sacred worlds of the Shinto religion.

The gates act as a passageway into a shrine’s sacred space. When passing through a torii gate, it's customary to walk to the side instead of straight down the center and to bow once before passing through the gate both upon entering and exiting the shrine. There are dozens of styles of torii gates, all with their own unique charm and beauty. This architecture adds greatly to Japan’s history and culture.



DAY TRIPS FROM KYOTO


Immersing myself in world travels has taught me to create more simplistic itineraries, which is why I recommend staying in Kyoto and venturing out to the following locations via day trips.This will not only save you time and effort, but will eliminate the stress of relocating and packing/unpacking your luggage. Using Kyoto as a home-base for 2 weeks, while taking train rides to multiple locations close by, created the most efficient and cost-effective itinerary.


OSAKA


Top Attractions in Osaka


Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle plays a central role in the history of the unified Japan. This beautiful castle is definitely worth a visit, both for its beauty, historic importance and scenic views.

Osaka Castle was built in the latter half of the 16th century, and was home to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s, one of the men behind the unification of Japan under one common ruler during the Sengoku period. This castle represents the country’s pride, a great symbol of Japan, and took 16 years to fully construct. The Nishinomaru Garden is famous as a cherry blossom viewing spot with 300 sakura trees.

Tip: Skip the inside of the castle, as it's not impressive, and take a stroll around the elegant Nishinomaru Garden.

Opening Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm


Okawa Riverside

The Kema-Sakuranomiya Park is a beautiful location to take a stroll. In the springtime, you will gaze upon 4800 sakura trees in bloom. Visitors can enjoy the riverside scenery, as well as a cruise on the Okawa, well into the night.


Dotonbori

The lively entertainment area of Dotonbori is Osaka’s most famous tourist destination and renowned for its gaudy neon lights, extravagant signage, and the enormous variety of restaurants and bars. Dotonbori is known as the "Times Square" of Japan.


Shitennoji

The first Buddhist temple in Japan, built in 593 A.D.


Best Cuisine in Osaka


Kuromon Ichiba Market

This famous market is well known for having the freshest ingredients and seafood in Osaka. Chefs purchase their seafood and ingredients here, for their restaurants. Save the restaurants for later and enjoy sampling delicious cuisine while strolling through this bustling market.


Transportation from Kyoto to Osaka


The quickest and most efficient way to travel between Osaka and Kyoto is by train.

The high-speed shinkansen service (also called the bullet train) will get you from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station in 15 minutes for 1,420 yen (approximately $13). This is a comfortable and efficient route from Osaka to Kyoto and might be worthwhile if you have a Japan Rail Pass to cover the cost. If you do not have a Japan Rail Pass, take the Special Rapid service on the JR Kyoto Line. The Special Rapid Train will get you to Kyoto Station in 29 minutes for 560 yen ($5 USD).


NARA

Best Attractions in Nara


Nara Park

Want to feel like a Disney princess surrounded by beautiful animals? Head to Nara Park in Japan! Nara Park is known as Japan's sacred deer sanctuary.

One thousand free-roaming deer have become a symbol of the city and are designated as a natural treasure.

They are soft, cuddly, and friendly...but look out when you have deer biscuits! Deer crackers are for sale around the park to feed and interact with these beautiful creatures.

Tip: Arrive early in the morning (around 7:00am) to see the deer sleeping in the park peacefully. You'll have these adorable animals all to yourself before the hoard of tourists arrive.


Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha


Kasuga Taisha


7th century Horyuji Temple


Koriyama Castle



Best Cuisine in Nara


Terakawa

Book in advance by email: terakawashokudo@gmail.com

Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 12pm-2:30pm, 6:30pm-8:30pm


Transportation from Kyoto to Nara


The best way to get from Kyoto to Nara is by train. Two rail lines connect these cities: JR and the private Kintetsu Line. The Kintetsu is the quickest and most comfortable, just be sure to take a direct express (tokkyu).


If you have a JR Rail Pass, you’ll want to take the JR line. It is recommended to take the Miyakoji Kaisoku Express on the JR Line in this case, because it only takes 45 minutes.


Kintetsu Nara Line: Y1110, 35 minutes by express (tokkyu), departs from Kintetsu Kyoto Station (on the south side of JR Kyoto Station) in Kyoto and arrives at Kintetsu Nara Station in Nara


JR Nara Line: Y690, 45 minutes by express (kaisoku), 70 minutes by local (futsu), departs from JR Kyoto Station in Kyoto and arrives at JR Nara Station in Nara.



HIMEJI CASTLE

Experience Japan as it was 400 years ago at Himeji Castle. Himeji Castle is known as a specular castle in Japan for its imposing size and beauty. It's one of the 12 remaining castles left in Japan. The fortress is commonly called the "White Heron Castle" because the castle’s white-plastered towers resemble a snowy egret in flight. The castle has been featured in several films, including James Bond’s “You Only Live Twice” and “The Last Samurai.” Enter through the Oteman Gate- this is a great spot to photograph the castle & view cherry blossoms.

Tip: During Peak season, only 15k tickets are handed out per day, so arrive early!


Best Cuisine in Himeji


Koba&Mor

The BEST Ramen we had in Japan! Enjoy conversations with the owner who is the chef. This place has an amazing vibe and cool atmosphere. We highly recommend ordering the "Milk Ramen." You won't regret it!

Note: Cash only



Transportation from Kyoto to Himeji


JR Special Rapid Train: Local trains take 90 minutes on JR Special Rapid Trains (Shin-kaisoku).

We purchased a 1-day Kansai Pass for Y2,200, which was cheaper than buying individual train tickets. You can purchase this 1-day pass at the JR ticket counter on the ground floor of Kyoto Station on the day of your trip. Make sure to scout out train times on google maps beforehand so you are aware of the departure times.


Shinkansen: Kyoto and Himeji are connected via the JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen. With the Hikari Shinkansen, the journey takes 55 minutes (you can use your Japan Rail Pass if you have one). Nozomi trains take 45 minutes (but you cannot use the Japan Rail Pass).


HIKONE CASTLE

Hikone Castle is one of the five Japanese castles designated as a national treasure. This honor is due to its unique combination of architectural styles.

Opening Hours: 8:30am-5:00pm | Entrance Fee: 600 yen (castle & garden),

1000 yen (castle/garden/museum)

Near Hikone castle- Genkyuen Garden, modeled after a Chinese palace garden from the Tang dynasty


Transportation from Kyoto to Hikone


From Kyoto Station, take the JR Tokaido Main Line or the JR Haruka Express eastbound to Hikone Station. The route is direct, and the trip lasts only 45 minutes. If traveling from Kyoto to Tokyo, or vice-versa, you will be passing through Hikone, making this town an excellent day trip on your journey.



MATSUMOTO CASTLE

Matsumoto Castle is one of the most complete and beautiful among Japan's original castles. The castle structures, in combination with their characteristic black wainscoting, give off an air of grandeur and poise.

Opening Hours: 8:30am-5:00p Entrance Fee: 610 yen


Transportation from Kyoto to Matsumoto


Take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto to Nagoya (35 minutes, multiple trains per hour) and transfer to the JR Shinano limited express to Matsumoto (2 hours, one train per hour). The one-way fare is 9,180 yen for non-reserved seats or about 10,000 yen for reserved seats. The Japan Rail Pass fully covers the trip if a Hikari or Kodama train is used between Kyoto and Nagoya.



BEST PLACES TO EAT IN KYOTO


Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen.” This market first opened in 1310 and is the top spot for seafood, produce, & local street food in the city. (Chefs shop here for ingredients) This market is five blocks long and over 150 stalls. Get ready to expand your palate and try bizarre, but delicious food- Baby octopus w/ boiled quail egg in its brain cavity, soy donuts, barbecued quail, grilled squid, candied kumquats, pickled gourds, sushi, tofu, and green tea ice cream. During cherry blossom season, you will experience sakura flavored treats. A top-notch dessert is the sakura ice cream. Bring cash and be prepared for large crowds. Arrive with an empty stomach!


Sushi Naritaya

Highly rated sushi!


IPPUDO Nishikikoji

Known as "The most famous tonkotsu ramen shop in the country." Many locations worldwide!

English menu available | No credit cards accepted


Kikyo Sushi

Delicious top-rated sushi in Kyoto!


Breizh Café Crêperie Kyoto

*Authentic French crepes* Our favorite crêperie in Paris! When finding their Kyoto location, we had to visit! This location was very similar to their Paris cafe.


Premium Pound Sanjo-Kiyamachi

Award-winning Kobe beef at a reasonable cost.

Budget Tip: Lunch prices are drastically less expensive and you will have the same culinary experience as dinner.



Mitsufuji

Traditional HotPot, a highlight meal on our trip!


Umezono Cafe & Gallery

Umezono Cafe serves the best Japanese pancakes and perhaps will be one of your memorable “foodie” experiences in Kyoto! Pancakes here are nothing like the American version, as they are much lighter, fluffier, and silky smooth...melt-in-your-mouth & unforgettable! Their matcha powder pancakes are filled with high-quality matcha tea from Uji city and go perfectly with the natural sweetness of the brown sugar butter, syrup, and red bean paste. This is a delicacy you don’t want to miss!!! Trust me...I went back three times during our stay in Kyoto. Highly recommend ordering their specialty, Green Tea Pancakes.


Shishin Samurai Cafe & Bar

You will feel the "Samurai spirit" when entering this cultural restaurant, featuring authentic samurai armor, swords, and Bushido in this 100+ year-old Kyoto house.


7-Eleven

If you’re looking for authentic Japanese cup noodles, fresh bento boxes, or even a wide selection of top-grade wine, this store exceeds expectations. Convenience stores in Japan are high-class compared to our U.S. 7-Elevens. There are 20,000 7-Eleven's in Japan making it the largest convenience store in the country. They're loaded with a large number of prepared, delicious food- bentos (boxed lunch), onigiri (rice balls), sando (sandwiches), hot foods at the counter like fried chicken, corndogs, fries, oden, nikuman (pork buns), yakitori, and more. Frozen foods, dried foods, plus tons of drinks and snacks to choose from.

There are a variety of breads and desserts too, changing seasonally.


Purchasing food here is more budget-friendly than dining at restaurants every meal. Experience typical Japanese food at an affordable rate. Their in-store ATM's also come in handy, allowing you to withdraw Japanese Yen for cash-only services.


Insider's Tip: Japan recently enacted policies that prohibit shops like 7-Eleven from freely handing out plastic bags to hold the items you purchase. Bring an eco-bag or you will have to pay ¥3 for a small bag or ¥5 for a large one.


LODGING IN KYOTO


Japanese Ryokan | Portals to Japan’s Past


Japan’s ryokan, or inns, are like time portals to the country’s past. You will experience the epitome of Japanese aesthetics- the pliant reed-mat floors, the beautiful sliding door panels, the tokonoma altars, the exquisite tableware produced by master artisans, the sensual yukata robes, the stimulating hot baths, the traditional foods, and the high quality service perfected for centuries to elevate every guest to the level of royalty.


In Japanese traditional inns, visitors can see and experience Japanese etiquette in its purest form. I highly encourage you to stay 1-2 nights in a Ryokan to immerse yourself in this beautiful experience.


One of the amazing perks of a Ryokan is bathing in an onsen. An onsen, “hot water spring,” is a natural hot spring bath. Onsen water is geothermally heated beneath the ground and rises to the surface bubbling hot.


The prerequisites of an official onsen are that the water must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water, and it must be at least 77°F (25°C) when it comes out of the ground.


Onsen water has been believed to have a multitude of healing properties for over 2000 years and is packed full of minerals that are good for your skin, circulation and general health.

Onsen baths can be beautiful objects in themselves – made from materials such as cypress wood, marble, and granite. There is nothing more relaxing or therapeutic than lying back in a hot bath after a long day – especially when you’re surrounded by falling snow, overlooking a beautiful mountain view, or listening to a river rushing past. Once you’ve experienced this, you’ll never be the same.



Japanese Etiquette | How to Onsen


  1. Birthday suits only (no swimsuits allowed)

  2. Shower before you bathe in an onsen

  3. Bring your own tow