When traveling to Japan’s Kansai region, Kyoto is a great home base. It’s easy to get to several other major cities by standard rail or Shinkansen in under an hour or two, and a few lower profile mountain escapes are also easy to access. We’ve done numerous day trips from Kyoto, and in this post, we highlight our favorites.
As we discuss in our Tips for Surviving Crowds in Kyoto, Japan, it can be a very busy place. Taking a day trip can be a great reprieve from the crowds, and it’s a great tactical approach to visit one of the smaller towns or less touristy areas on this list if you’re visiting Kansai over a weekend or holiday.
With that said, we note that you should spend at least 3 full days in Kyoto, including a day each in Eastern, Western, and Central Kyoto, before considering any day trips. After that, we typically recommend a combo of Kyoto and nearby mountain areas (the first and second spots mentioned below). Suffice to say, there’s a ton to see and do in Kyoto, and most first-timers don’t allocate enough time to it!
A lot of places could qualify as a “day trip” but for this list, we’re capping the commute distance to 90 minutes each way. This (barely) disqualifies Hiroshima, and that’s by design. That’s one of our favorite cities in Japan, but doing it as a day trip from Kyoto totally fails to do it (or Miyajima, that area’s other main draw). You should do at least an overnight or two there.
With that said, in no particular order, here are our top day trips from Kyoto, Japan…
Osaka – We’ll start with Osaka, the obligatory pick when talking day trips from Kyoto. As Japan’s second-largest city, Osaka is often where visitors choose to stay on the Kansai leg of their trip, doing day trips to Kyoto (and elsewhere) from here. We think that’s a huge mistake, as it’s largely redundant to Tokyo and skippable if you’ve already visited that far superior city. (If that sounds harsh, well…we say much worse in our City Guide to Osaka, Japan.)
With that said, Osaka is under an hour away from Kyoto on the local JR line, and has some museums, Osaka Castle, Universal Studios Japan, and a world-famous aquarium. Arguably the biggest draw of Osaka is the foodie scene, which is admittedly quite good. Personally, we think you can find great food anywhere in Japan if you know where to look, but Osaka is definitely renowned for it.
Nagoya – Japan’s fourth largest city, Nagoya is a modern metropolis home to a variety of museums, restaurants, skyscrapers, and other attractions. We’d liken it to Osaka, except in our (controversial?) opinion, it’s better from a tourist perspective. Among other things, Nagoya is home to the SCMaglev and Railway Park, which we absolutely love–it’s our favorite museum in Japan.
This is an easy, 30 minute commute if you take the Shinkansen. Doing so pretty much requires the Japan Rail Pass, as the fare is cost prohibitive otherwise. Local trains take significantly longer, and are not recommended given the hassle.
Kobe – Renowned for its beef, the port city of Kobe offers so much more than just melt-in-your-mouth steaks. (Although those aren’t a bad reason to visit!) Significantly rebuilt following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the harbor is modern and eye-catching. A number of interesting districts make Kobe a great place to walk when bouncing around its interesting, niche museums.
While farther from Kyoto than Osaka, Kobe is still only an hour away and about 1,000 yen on the local JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line. We’d recommend it over both Osaka and Nagoya. Check out our 1-Day Kobe, Japan Itinerary for a step-by-step plan for the perfect day trip to Kobe.
Himeji – Continuing in this same direction along the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line, but switching gears to a moderate-sized city, there’s Himeji. This is internationally famous for Himeji Castle, a National Treasure of Japan and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is unquestionably the best castle in Japan.
However, there’s much more to Himeji than “just” that stunning castle. The other major reason we recommend it is Mt. Shosha & Shoshazan Engyoji Temple, which is easier to visit than Kyoto’s own Enryakuji Temple, and every bit as spectacular. Consult our Himeji, Japan City Travel Guide for other ways to round out your day in this great place.
Hikone – Another castle city, this time a smaller one in the opposite direction of Kyoto. Hikone is an intimate city along the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. We recommend Hikone pretty much exclusively to those visiting during exceedingly busy times when Himeji Castle might be too crowded, or to those who have already been to Himeji–it’s the superior castle city.
Unlike Himeji, the singular reason to visit here is Hikone Castle, one of only four castles in Japan designated as National Treasures. Just outside the castle’s moat is Genkyuen Garden, which offers stunning views of Hikone Castle. This Japanese landscape garden is modeled after a palace garden from Tang China, and features a central pond, streams, cherry trees, bridges, and more.
Uji – Switching gears from castles to tea (an obvious and natural transition), Uji is famed for its tea growing. The city’s tourist districts have blossomed around its fixation on tea, and shopping streets around Byodoin Temple (the city’s other main draw) are quaint and will give you the opportunity to drop serious money on all things tea.
A short train ride south on the JR Nara Line, we like Uji for its natural beauty, charm, and the aforementioned Byodoin Temple, which is unlike anything you’ll see in Kyoto. All of the tea stuff is fun, but there’s nothing on that front you can’t also get in Kyoto.
Nara – An easy and relatively inexpensive ride on the JR Line, Japan’s ancient capital of Nara is just south of Kyoto. The city offers a window into the past, with preserved temple buildings, heavily wooded parks, and beautiful gardens. Even there are arguably some redundancies, this is one of our top recommended day trips from Kyoto.
Its collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is Nara’s main draw, but the deer that rule the city and roam its public parks in search of a handout are the top reason to visit. Todaiji Temple, home to Japan’s largest bronze Buddha statue is another must-see. We have a 1-Day Nara, Japan Itinerary so you can accomplish all of the city’s highlights in a day.
Kurama/Kibune – Now we’re getting into “is this really a day trip?!” territory. If you’ve scoured our 1-Day to 1-Week Kyoto, Japan Itineraries, you’ll definitely recognize these names, as they are in a handful of those itineraries. Suffice to say, we love Kurama and Kibune, which are ‘escapes’ in the mountains north of Kyoto.
This is actually a longer train ride than some of the more distant major cities listed above, but it’s a scenic commute that’s quite lovely. In these two cities, you’ll find Kuramadera Temple situated on a mountainside, a wonderful onsen, dining with a view, and so much more. We emphatically recommend Kurama and Kibune.
Yoshiminedera – Pretty much the exact opposite direction of Kurama is Yoshiminedera, which is another mountain temple that is absolutely spectacular. Although technically in Kyoto along the outskirts of the city proper, this is a tougher sell because it’s only accessible via a bus that runs once per hour.
If you do take the effort to visit Yoshiminedera Temple, you’ll be rewarded handsomely with one of Kyoto’s top 5 spots–and one that seldom sees much of a crowd (outside weekends during fall colors season). We also recommend it, albeit not quite as enthusiastically given the bus situation, and not to those already “templed out” from days in Kyoto.
Ohara – Another spot that’s technically within Kyoto’s city limits, Ohara is a rural town tucked away in northern Kyoto’s mountains. Ohara can be an escape from the crowds, but the area’s main draw, Sanzenin Temple, can also draw a lot of domestic tourists (and some tour buses), particularly on weekends.
Getting to Ohara also requires taking a bus, and the commute is around an hour. We really like Ohara and its rural character, and once you get past Sanzenin Temple (which itself is absolutely worth seeing), crowds tend not to be an issue at all. Nevertheless, we probably wouldn’t make this our first or even fifth choice for a day trip from Kyoto–it’s something to do when you’ve exhausted other compelling options.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited any of these major cities and small towns in Japan’s Kansai region? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend any of them as day trips from Kyoto to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!