The historical cities of Kyoto and Nara, both erstwhile capitals of Japan during different eras, can be best covered as day trips from Osaka by train. You will find most of the attractions within walking distance from each other in both cities, perfect day out for tourists and locals alike.
During my two-week tour of Honshu and Hokkaido, I stayed in Osaka for four days along with my travel companions to cover the Kansai region comprising prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Hyogo, among others.
On the second day of my Japan trip, I headed to Kyoto with my travel companions on a special rapid train on JR Kyoto line (570 yen/person) from Shin-Osaka station. On reaching Kyoto in less than 25 minutes, we got caught in the rain. Since we were prepared for this, it didn’t bother us much. But, nothing prepared us for the sudden dip in temperature. Cherry flowers bloom when the wintry chill gives way to spring warmth. Unfortunately, spring was taking longer to set in, so the buds were still not ready to open. Deciding not to let this setback dampen our spirits we began to explore the ancient capital of Japan famous for its age-old buddhist temples including the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, imperial palaces, and beautiful gardens.
Our first stop, Sanjusangen-do Temple, was an eye-opener. We were completely taken aback by the 1000 sculptures of Hindu gods in different avatars and many other mythological creatures found in the sacred Hindu scriptures. Another surprise awaited in the garden surrounding the temple – cherry blossoms. Yayyy! We were on top of the world!
One of the most popular attractions in Kyoto is the Zen Buddhist temple of Kinkaku-ji, or, Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The imposing golden structure, standing in the middle of a pond, actually dates back to the 14th century. It was restored in 1955 though, after it was burned down by a mentally disturbed monk in 1950.
As the sun shone bright on the top two stories of the pavilion covered with pure gold leaf, I stood rooted to the spot as though bound by some kind of ancient magic emanating from the sparkling temple. The reflection of the pavilion on the still waters added to the surrealism. Kinkaku-ji is definitely a must-see attraction in this historical town.
Another breathtaking temple is the Kiyomizu-dera built on large wooden stilts and designated as a national treasure. Kiyomizu means pure water. The Otowa waterfall runs off the nearby hills in three channels of water (for health, longevity and success) that fall into a fountain. The water is believed to have wish-granting powers and we found many visitors trying to test the waters, so to speak. Being vacation time for students in Japan, we were simply blown away by the pretty girls in gorgeous Kimonos, the colourful traditional Japanese attire, visiting the sacred temple.
The path up the hill leading to the temple was lined up with ice-cream parlours, souvenir shops and food carts that created a foot traffic jam! Everything looked so quaint in spite of being shoved and pushed around by tourists and locals alike.
Besides cherry blossoms, Japan is also famous for its manga – graphic novels in typical Japanese style spanning a wide range of genres including action, romance, adventure, horror, mystery and suspense, sports, fantasy, sci-fi, drama, historical, and even erotica – which originated in the country. Interestingly, manga has been discovered in Japanese scrolls dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries! And, Kyoto’s International Manga Museum is well known in the manga fandom. Realizing that a visit to Kyoto would be incomplete without exploring the manga museum, we took the bus from Gojozaka stop (near Kiyomizu-dera) to Karasuma Oike. The museum was located about 200m from the bus stop.
The entry ticket was 900 yen and totally worth it! Rows and rows of manga for all ages, neatly arranged in chronological order starting from the 1970s, were staring back at us from room after room covering three floors. There were designated reading rooms to sit comfortably and enjoy the novels. The third floor housed volumes of research materials, magazines and books on ancient and modern manga. You can actually spend days exploring the various genres of manga from different periods. With the time we had, we could just walk around and browse through one or two manga.
We took a crash course on manga history and culture in the main hall on the second floor. There were bookshelves covering popular manga from the Taisho era (1912-1926) to modern era (2005). Original geisha sketches by various manga artists filled a room on the same floor. Another one showcased plaster casts of numerous artists’ hands who visited the museum on various occasions.
There was even a counselling room at the ground level where newbies could seek advice on how to draw manga! We also checked out the museum shop for souvenirs to carry back home. There was an interesting array of picture postcards, notepads, folders, purses and fridge magnets depicting the museum mascot ‘MAMYU’.
Back in our hostel, we were all talking and laughing at once. Cherry blossoms, pretty girls in kimonos, ancient temples, and manga museum – we couldn’t have asked for more!
Nara park in Nara Prefecture beckoned us on Day 3. After a simple Japanese breakfast at the hostel, we walked down to the station to catch a train to Namba. Then we took a 3-min. walk up and down staircases to reach Osaka-Namba station. From there, we boarded the express train on Kintetsu-Nara line to Nara. The total journey costed us 850 yen (1700 yen both ways). Soon we reached the picturesque little town that took us back in time. Our first stop was the information centre. We wanted to get the lay of the land before heading out, so collected a small route map of the main places of attractions. Cyclists and pedestrians filled the road leading to the deer park. Both sides of the street were lined up with interesting shops selling traditional sweets, souvenirs, and art & craft supplies. Deciding to spend time at this mini marketplace on our way back, we continued to walk towards the park.
Nara park was huge! If not for the signposts and our handy maps, we would have ended up going in circles. Ah, the wonders we discovered there! From imposing pagodas and gates to ancient temples and shrines, Nara was a treasure trove of attractions that blew our minds away.
We spent some time at the Kofuku-ji temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We learnt from a fellow traveler and history buff from our hostel that the impressive five-storey pagoda (Gojunoto), three-storey pagoda (Sanjunoto), the North Octagonal Hall (Hokuendo), and the East Golden Hall (Tokondo) were all classified as national treasures. The Tokondo was quite a peaceful hall with stunning Yakushi Nyorai Buddha gracing the place. We didn’t enter the National Treasure Museum though, the first building in the main courtyard, but were told it housed some of the best Buddhist carvings in all of Japan.
After a quick lunch of Ramen noodles at a small restaurant in the park, we headed for Todai-ji (Great Eastern temple), another important Buddhist temple, to catch a glimpse of Japan’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.
The entire temple complex was spectacular with smaller Buddhist statues and models of the former and current buildings on display inside the great hall. We discovered a pillar with a hole in its base that was believed to be of the same size as the great Buddha’s nostril. When we were informed about the legend, we got super excited. It is said, those who could squeeze through the hole would be granted enlightenment in their next life. Unfortunately, it was no child’s play to achieve such a feat as the opening was quite narrow. We had to give up after spending quite a bit of time trying to wriggle through. It was fun though!
As evening began to set in, we decided to call it a day and started walking towards the mini marketplace near Nara station for some window-shopping. Unable to resist the temptation of trying out the artful traditional sweets known as wagashi, one of the finest examples of Japanese craftsmanship, we bought a couple of boxes to share at the hostel. Happy with our purchases, we finally headed back to our hostel in Shin-Osaka by train (same trains in reverse order).
While both Kyoto and Nara have an abundance of ancient shrines and temples, they are all unique in their own way depending on their location, which would be extremely picturesque, and architectural styles. You simply cannot skip any of them thinking ‘it’s just another temple’! Each one of them will surprise you with its beauty and splendour.
Also read: One day in historical Osaka city