Great Day-Trips From Kyoto and Osaka! 8 Sites Where You Can Feel Japan’s History and Spirituality
The Kansai area is centered on the major cities Kyoto and Osaka, which have become very popular tourist destinations. As this area was the center of political power for a long time in Japanese history, it boasts a tremendous share of Japan's historical and religious heritage. This article introduces 8 sites that each offer a different angle of Japan's past, all workable as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka - although they’re worth a multi-day stay if possible.
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1. Hiei-zan Enryaku-ji, a Birthplace of Japanese Buddhism [Shiga]
The Hiei-zan complex has played a crucial role in Japanese Buddhism: it was founded by the monk Saicho, who brought over the Tendai School of Buddhism over from China, and it became the headquarters of this school as it gained popularity and prestige within the imperial court.
Many influential monks studied at Enryakuji, including the founders of the Pure Land, Zen and Nichiren sects, which are all among the largest Buddhist schools today. It would come to wield a considerable amount of power, to the point that it had its own guard of warrior-monks defending the precinct. However, while it flourished under the old Imperial system, when the system collapsed its fortunes were reversed. As Japan fell into anarchy and the warlord Oda Nobunaga sought to reunify it under his rule, he saw the warrior monks of Enryaku-ji as a threat to his power and ordered the complex burned to the ground. As a result, all buildings you can find here today are reconstructions from the 17th century.
Enryaku-ji, now a component of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto" World Heritage Site, is such a vast complex that you can easily fill up a whole day just exploring it! It's broadly divisible into three areas: the Todo (East Hall), the Saito (West Hall) one kilometer to the northwest, and then the Yokawa 4 kilometers to the north. Each has a configuration of beautiful temple halls, so it's definitely worth it to visit each in turn if you have the time! (You can walk along the paths or take a shuttle bus.) But if you'd like one section to focus on, opt for the Todo, which is the largest section and the one with the richest history, having been founded by Saicho himself.
Lean into the ascetic atmosphere and sign up for a few experiences, such as zazen (seated meditation) and copying sutras. In addition, there is the possibility of trying the monks' vegetarian cuisine (called shojin-ryori) within their quarters!
If you're not so hardcore that you can sustain the religious atmosphere for a full day, then you can also stop by Mt. Hiei's more worldly attractions, like the Tsutsujigaoka Garden, the Garden Museum Hiei which offers views of Kyoto and Lake Biwa, and the Minemichi Restaurant & Observatory, where you can feast on the regional specialty Omi Beef.
Two cable cars allow you to climb up to the Enryaku-ji temple complex: the Eizen Cable from the west (from Kyoto), and the Sakamoto Cable from the east (from Lake Biwa). The Sakamoto Cable was constructed first, in 1927, making it nearly a century old. Connecting the temple at the summit with the Sakamoto town at the base, it served the function of the "Omotesando," the road leading up to a temple or shrine's main gate.
The elegant, red and green design of the train cars, which are named "En" (fate) and "Fuku" (happiness), deliberately evoke a European aesthetic. It operates without any wires, allowing riders an unobstructed view of the marvelous Lake Biwa. It runs over 2 kilometers, making it Japan's longest cable car, and climbs 480m between base and summit.
2. The Floating Torii Gates at Shirahige Shrine [Shiga]
Torii - those gates that you can find in front of any shrine in Japan - are definitely one of the country's most emblematic symbols. They have the role of delineating the boundary between our world and the world of the spirits.
You might have seen the (perhaps more famous) Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, whose torii appears to float on the Inland Sea, but there is another such torii within Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, that belongs to the Shirahige Shrine. It is particularly beautiful when viewed at sunrise!
This shrine claims a history of over 2000 years, and it is said to have been constructed by Princess Yamatohime-no-mikoto, daughter of the 11th Emperor of Japan. (The floating torii, however, is a much more recent addition, from the 20th century.) "Shirahige" literally means "white beard", a reference to the Sarutahiko, the Shinto deity that is enshrined here, who is depicted with such a beard. Unsurprisingly, this shrine is said to confer longevity upon its visitors.
The startling, fantastical beauty of the torii floating atop Lake Biwa is very Instagrammable and has drawn considerable attention overseas. The shrine has become a popular tourist destination as a result. It is somewhat out of the way for those without a car, being a 40-minute walk to the nearest station. You won't mind the distance because there are lovely beaches the whole way, but you could take a taxi if you like. Alternately, the whole of Lake Biwa is encircled by a well-kept bike path, so you could rent a bicycle at Omi-Takashima Station for the round trip to the shrine.
If you're curious about Japanese religion and have a bit more time, you should also check out Chikubu Island, an uninhabited island known as the "Island of the Gods" for its numerous ancient shrines. It is accessible by boat from Nagahama, Imazu, or Hikone port.
3. Eiheiji, Where the Monastic Life Comes Alive [Fukui]
Eiheiji was founded in 1244 by Dogen Zenshi, a monk who started off studying in the Tendai school at Hiei-zan Enryaku-ji, but grew disillusioned with its practices and went to China to seek a better way of enlightenment. He would bring to Japan a form of Buddhism known as the Soto Zen school, and opened Eiheiji as its headquarters. Eihei-ji means “temple of eternal peace,” and it was opened here, in a less accessible location, precisely to keep his distance with his former school.
Eiheiji is primarily still used as a monastery for about 150 practicing monks, and while much of the monks’ quarters are cordoned off for visitors, the complex still offers tourists numerous ways to partake in the ascetic experience. The Soto Zen school diverged from previous Buddhist sects with its emphasis on zazen (seated meditation) and chanting Buddhist sutras, and as a result some of these experiences including joining a zazen session and hand-copying a part of a sutra with a calligraphy brush. Adjacent to Eiheiji are both traditional and modern-style lodgings where visitors can stay, and the experience includes temple cuisine, religious services, and a guided tour of the premises (previous reservation required).
The temple complex is gorgeous in itself. The noble architecture, combined with the serene forest surrounding it, creates a maximally peaceful atmosphere. Whether you opt for an intense or casual visit, you should pay extra attention to the Hatto (or Lecture Hall), the Butsuden (Buddha Hall, with statues of the past, present and future Buddha), and the Sanmon Gate, which are the most impressive in architecture and ornamentation. The temple currently asks guests to wash their hands by the entrance and get a temperature check, in addition to wearing a mask.
4. Amano Hashidate, A Flying Dragon or A Bridge to the Heavens? [Kyoto]
Amano Hashidate, situated in the north of Kyoto Prefecture, is known as one of the Three Great Views of Japan. It’s a large sandbar, some 3.6 km in length and formed by accumulated quicksand, and it vertically separates Miyazu Bay (of the Sea of Japan) and Aso Sea. It resembles a dragon reaching up to the sky, which explains its name, which translates to “Bridge to Heaven.”
The best place for experiencing this bridge to the heavens is Kasamatsu Park, which stands 130 meters above sea level and has an observation deck perfect for overlooking the sandbar. If you ever do visit, make sure to look at it through your legs so that it appears upside down. This tradition, known as “mata-nozoki,” is said to have originated at this park and really makes the formation appear to reach to the heavens!
5. Soak in History at Kinosaki Onsen [Hyogo]
Kinosaki Onsen, on the Sea of Japan coast in Hyogo Prefecture, is a wonderful spot for anyone looking for a pleasant soothing weekend getaway. But those curious about Japanese history and culture should visit because of the area's unique origin story. The onsen is said to have been founded around the year 720 by the Buddhist monk Dochi Shonin, who was looking for some way to cure the ill. He was instructed by an oracle to come here and chant a Buddhist sutra for 1,000 days until healing waters spew from the ground, which is exactly what happened. The bath that he opened is now known as the Mandara-yu, “mandara” meaning “enlightened mind” because of Dochi’s endeavors.
Over the ensuing thirteen centuries, Kinosaki Onsen gained fame for the waters' healing properties, and many travelers flocked to the area, seeking to be freed from their ailments. The local temple displays walking sticks left behind by those who no longer needed them. Nowadays, we can identify minerals like sodium chloride and calcium chloride in hot springs, which are said to be associated with alleviating fatigue, digestive issues, nerve and muscular pain, and bruising.
The onsen town at Kinosaki is relatively small, only a few streets wide on either side of the small Otani River. A weekend is more than enough time to stay in a ryokan (traditional inn), soak in a few of the seven outdoor baths, try walking around town wearing traditional yukata, and pop into a few restaurants and taverns. The seven outdoor bathhouses all have distinctive architectures; Ichino-yu, for example, looks like a kabuki theater. All also confer some type of good fortune on the visitor, like luck in marriage or in business.
Those willing to go the extra mile (well, third of a mile) should head to the Onsen-ji temple, the onsen town's "guardian temple" that was also built by Dochi Shonin. It used to be required for any onsen visitor to first head to the temple, and pray to the spirit of Dochi Shonin, to the Kannon Bodhisattva (the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion), and to the Yakushi Nyorai (a buddha who can cure all ills). While no longer a formal rule, it's still worth it to make this trip!
Onsen-ji is located halfway up Mt. Daishi. So you might take the hiking path on the way up, to the temple and then to the summit, where you can lose yourself in a world of greenery, dotted with classical stone statues. The summit offers an exquisite view of the surrounding area, as well as a cafe where you can take a break before heading back down on the Kinosaki Ropeway. (Or, of course, take the ropeway up and hike back down, if you’d prefer.)
Visit in the spring to see the town’s main street and river decorated with cherry blossoms, and visit in the fall so that you can admire the foliage during your hike. Kinosaki Onsen has devised comprehensive coronavirus guidelines, where facilities should require mask-wearing, maintain ventilation, and conduct temperature checks and frequent disinfection. Bath facilities are also imposing entry restrictions to prevent crowding.
6. At Himeji, Appreciate The Majesty of Japan's Largest Original Castle [Hyogo]
Most Japanese castles you see today are reconstructions, as many original structures were demolished during the Meiji Restoration, but Himeji Castle managed to avoid that fate and stands as one of the country's "12 original castles". It is often called the “white heron castle” (“shirasagi-jo”) due to its majesty and pure-white complexion.
Himeji City occupied an important spot, as any rebel army marching from the west to seize the capital would have to pass by here, making this a strategically crucial castle. The first structure in this site was constructed in the 14th century, and during the Warring States period of the 16th century, multiple enlargements conducted by various military commanders took it from a small fort to the major structure it is today. (One such renovation was directly overseen by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the Three Great Unifiers of Japan.) After narrowly avoiding destruction in the upheavals of the Meiji Restoration, in the Himeji Air Raids in World War II, and again in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, it stands proudly, over 400 years later. In 1993, it became the first official UNESCO World Heritage Site from Japan.
In addition to climbing to the top of the main keep and taking in the view of the city, make sure to visit the adjacent Kokoen garden, which has a tea room where you can enjoy a Japanese tea ceremony. It’s possible to take a pleasure boat along the moat as well, and the castle complex is particularly gorgeous during cherry-blossom season in spring.
In addition to requiring masks, temperature checks, and disinfection, the castle requests that visitors follow the viewing path while maintaining social distancing; there are entry restrictions as well.
7. Engyo-ji, A Picture-Perfect Temple Complex [Hyogo]
If you’re at Himeji Castle and looking for a nearby attraction, head north for Engyo-ji on Mt. Shosha. It belongs to the Tendai Sect (same as Enryaku-ji) and is even called “Mt. Hiei of the West”. It was founded in 966, over 1000 years ago, and it can be accessed by ropeway or hiking trail. It is one of the 33 temples on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, a well-known pilgrimage spanning all of the Kansai region.
The temple grounds so perfectly encapsulate the platonic ideal of the secluded temple monastery that is often used as a filming location, for Japanese historical dramas as well as for a few scenes in the movie Last Samurai. Look out particularly for the Maniden, which employs an architectural style called butai-zukuri (“stage construction”), where the whole structure is built on wooden pillars atop a steep slope, so you can look out directly onto an expansive view.
As with the other monasteries described here, Engyo-ji allows visitors to experience the monk’s life in a few different ways, including a zazen (seated meditation) session, copying characters from a sutra, and trying monastic food. There is also a two-day “health dojo” course that includes all of the above in addition to lectures, recitations, and other ceremonies. This latter experience is only available once a month and will leave you with memories you will never forget! (Reservations are required for all experiences except sutra-copying.)
Engyo-ji conducts ventilation and disinfection and requires masks.
8. Enjoy a Taste of History at the Centuries-Old Sake Distilleries of Nada [Hyogo]
Hyogo Prefecture also has much to offer by way of worldly pleasures: the area between Kobe and Osaka (the “Nada-Gogo”) has been a major sake production area for centuries and is home to dozens of breweries even today. Sake was first produced here in around 1330, and the first examples of commercial production date to the early 17th century. (Incidentally, “gogo” means “five towns” and refers to the five clusters of breweries that emerged in the area: Imazu, Nishinomiya, Uozaki, Mikage, and Nishi.)
Nada is suited to sake production in several ways: the quality of the water is most important, and Nada’s water is said to be quite hard (rich in minerals) but low in iron content, the perfect mix. The area’s Yamada Nishiki rice is also regarded as being a perfect fit for sake production. Lastly, this coastal area is easily connected to sea routes, so Nada sake easily made its way to the capital city of Edo (what is now Tokyo), where it quickly gained in popularity.
Several breweries are now accompanied by museums, where visitors can observe the sake production process, enjoy a tasting course for free, and buy various items to bring home at the gift stores. Two recommended sake museums are the Shushinkan (a brewery that opened in 1751) and Hakutsuru (a brewery dating back to 1743). In addition to learning about the sake-making process and getting tipsy, another draw of the tours is the vivid, lifelike representations of master craftsmen working with impressive vats and barrels in classical wooden rooms. A very Instagrammable sight!
Finish off the experience with the meal at one of the local restaurants, many of whom carefully construct their menus to pair well with Nada sake!
A Short Train Ride to a Millennium of History
What do you think? Visiting Kyoto or Osaka is plenty exciting on its own merits, but there’s an entire world of historically and culturally significant spots lying just a few hours away by train. Of course, this region has even more adventures to offer, but once the pandemic is safely behind us and you’re planning your visit here, keep these 8 spots at the top of your list!
The Kansai region is filled with all sorts of fascinating locations! Check out these links to find out everything the area has to offer:
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.