Fantastic views of Mount Fuji from the bullet train
Summer activities at Lake Biwa
Temples and shrines surrounded by lush maple trees
Riverside meals and refreshing summer treats
Head to the Kansai area for a taste of Japanese tradition and cultural heritage.
Day 1: Visit the Makino Highland, overlooking Lake Biwa—Japan’s largest lake. Cycle under an avenue of towering trees and canoe under a shrine gate before you head to the cultural capital of Kyoto.
Day 2: Start your day early with a visit to the Arashiyama/Sagano area. Don a traditional yukata and explore secluded shrines, stroll along the banks of Kamogawa River, pick up souvenirs, and try some sweet summer treats.
|Required time||Game + 2 days|
|Distance traveled||app. 550 km|
|Transportation||Shinkansen, train, bus|
Relaxation and recreation at Lake Biwa
The Kansai area is home to spots like Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. It also encompasses Japan’s largest lake—Lake Biwa. Spend the first day of the course enjoying summer activities by the shore.
Lake Biwa is accessible from Kyoto Station, but if you’re coming from Tokyo, you can use your JR Pass and take the Hikari Shinkansen to Maibara Station.
The journey is less than 2.5 hours from Tokyo or Shinagawa Station. Both stations are packed with shops and stalls, so you can pick up snacks, drinks, or even a bento meal before you board the train. You’ll also find snack carts inside the train. Try getting a seat on the right-hand side of the train for fantastic views of Mount Fuji after you pass Atami. You can also expect to see verdant tea gardens, meadows, and pristine rivers during the ride.
After stepping off at Maibara Station, transfer to the JR Hokuriku Main Line and head to Omi-Shiotsu Station. It takes about 30 minutes. Then take the JR Kosei Line to Makino Station. The entire journey from Tokyo takes about 3.5 hours. The Makino area is situated on the northwest shores of Lake Biwa and offers hot springs, along with great views of the surrounding mountains and rivers.
The Tokaido Shinkansen lines connect Tokyo and Osaka. Note that JR Rail Pass users can access all the trains on this line except the fastest one, Nozomi. Opt for the Hikari train, which will take you there in a little over 2 hours. Free Wi-Fi is available on board.
The Makino Highland is packed with activities like camping, golf, tennis, and it even has playgrounds and hot springs!
Cycling is a great way to explore the area. You can rent one at the tourist information center at Makino Station. Visit the dawn redwood avenue—you’ll be following in the footsteps of the Olympic and Paralympic Torch Relay runners.
The route runs for about 2.5 kilometers, passing through serene pastoral landscapes. You’ll be cycling under a tunnel of about 500 lush dawn redwood trees.
If you’d rather take a leisurely walk around the area, take the Makino Kogen bus and step off at Makino Pic-land. The avenue is a 5-minute walk from the bus stop.
(Pic-land is 6 minutes from Makino Station on the clockwise route and 25 minutes on the anti-clockwise route)
Shirahige Shrine looms over Lake Biwa and is the oldest shrine in the area. It was built about 2,000 years ago and is associated with longevity and safe travels. Its vermillion torii gate, set against the backdrop of the lake, makes for a stunning view.
The Shirohige Hama Campgrounds are located nearby and offer a unique canoeing experience—you can canoe right under the shrine gates. There’s an orientation lecture beforehand and you’ll be accompanied by a guide, making it perfect for beginners.
Stay back until the evening to see the shrine gates illuminated.
Access Shirahige Shrine via Omi-Takashima Station, 20 minutes from Makino Station on the JR Kosei Line. The shrine is 30 minutes on foot and 10 minutes by taxi from the station.
After a fun day of lake activities, make your way to the ancient city of Kyoto. It’s about 40 minutes away on the JR Kosei Line.
Kyoto has a range of hotels to fit every budget, from luxury boutique hotels to backpacker hostels. You can even stay in a traditional ryokan, capsule hotel, or rustic bed and breakfast.
If you do choose to stay in a ryokan, go for a meal plan—it’s a great way to sample traditional Japanese dishes and seasonal ingredients. You can also expect a hearty Japanese-style breakfast, with delicious fare such as grilled fish, hot tofu, eggs, and pickled veggies.
After dinner, explore the traditional Gion district, centered around Yasaka Shrine. With street lamps, traditional wooden buildings, and cobbled paths, the area looks picturesque even after dark. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a geisha.
Pay a visit to the nearby riverside Ponto-cho area, lined with bars and restaurants.
Gion at night
If you choose to eat dinner outside your hotel, Kyoto has plenty to offer for epicures. You can opt for a Kyo-kaiseki course, characterized by fresh seasonal ingredients and beautiful plating techniques, or the traditional “obanzai” style of cooking, which incorporates a mix of seasonal and dried ingredients.
Kyoto-style sukiyaki—beef and vegetables in sweet, rich soy sauce—is an affordable alternative. Pike conger and Kobe beef are also great options.
Head to the restaurants in Ponto-cho for a vast selection of eateries.
For visitors looking to get familiar with geisha culture, there’s no better place than Kyoto. Geisha are locally known as “geiko” while trainees are called “maiko.”
You can enjoy an evening of geisha entertainment, which includes dance, musical performances, and traditional games. It usually comes with an extravagant meal. There are some places that offer English services, and you’ll be able to take pictures with the geisha.
Some shrines in Kyoto are open and lit up in the evenings, making them perfect for a stroll after dinner.
Visit Yasaka Shrine in Gion—it’s open 24 hours and illuminated with beautiful paper lanterns at night. The nearby Kodaiji Temple also has night illuminations for two weeks in the beginning of August.
A little further from the city center, you’ll find the iconic red gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine lit up at night year-round.
Temples, shrines, and summer greens
Kyoto has an impressive collection of temples and shrines, some of which are designated World Heritage Sites. Iconic spots such as Kiyomizu Temple, Kinkakuji Temple, and Fushimi-Inari Shrine usually top the list for visitors, but the verdant countryside has plenty of cultural gems to offer.
Wake up early in the morning and head to the Arashiyama area. The enormous Togetsu-kyo Bridge and the beautiful natural surroundings make for a picture-perfect view.
Arashiyama Station is 20 minutes away from Kyoto Station on the JR Sanyo Main Line (Sagami Line). From the Station, make your way past a grove of towering bamboo trees to Nonomiya Shrine. Afterwards, you can pay a visit to Tenryuji Temple—the garden in the temple premises is filled with lotuses and bellflowers in the summer.
Must-see temples in Arashiyama and Sagano
Jojakko-ji Temple stands on the slopes of Mount Kokura and overlooks the Hozu River. It was built in the 16th century. The temple premises, full of maple trees and moss, are enveloped in green through spring and summer. The temple complex also includes Tahoto Pagoda, a designated National Treasure, and an observatory which offers panoramic views of the area.
Built in the mid-ninth century, Nison-in Temple stands at the foot of Mount Kokura. The approach to the temple is lined with maple and cherry blossom trees, creating a beautiful green arch in the summer.
The scenic Gio-ji Temple is known for its lush carpet of moss and beautiful maple trees. Don’t miss the soothing sounds of the suikinkitsu—a water-based garden ornament—and views of the bamboo grove from the circular “Yoshino” windows.
Goshuin are temple or shrine seals hand-calligraphed by monks. They include the date of your visit and make for great keepsakes.
First, you need to purchase a goshuin book. They cost between 1,000 to 1,500 yen and are available at most temple shops. The cover designs vary between temples.
Once you have a book, head to the goshuin reception desk of each temple or shrine you are visiting and ask for your book to be stamped. Expect to pay 300 to 500 yen. If you don’t have a goshuin book, you can receive the stamp on a piece of paper.
Take a bus back to the center of Kyoto and head to the Kamogawa River.
You’ll find people enjoying lunch or taking a stroll along the banks of the Kamogawa River. You can also choose to head upstream to the Kamogawa Delta, where the Kamo River meets the Takano River. The area is accessible via Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Line.
You can use stepping stones to walk over the river. Be sure to look out for small stones shaped like turtles and plovers.
The area is perfect for all kinds of riverside activities and relaxation. You might even spot some herons and wagtails!
For lunch, you can choose from a number of areas, including Arashiyama, Sanjo, and Gion. Your options are endless—tofu, sushi, sukiyaki, the classic Kyoto obanzai set, or Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. You can also opt for Western-style fare such as hamburgers, omelette rice, or egg sandwiches.
Kyoto is a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts. You can choose from traditional bamboo crafts, dyed textiles, and a variety of modern pieces with a Japanese touch. Popular items include crepe wrapping cloths (furoshiki), Japanese-style accessories, hand towels with delicate patterns, and hand fans. You can also find incense and solid perfumes in a variety of scents.
Sweettooths can select from a range of confections made with green tea or red bean jam.
Don a yukata, have a riverside meal, and try some sweet treats
Yukata, a traditional outfit made with airy cotton, is perfect for hot summer days. You’ll find plenty of places in Kyoto where you can rent them. You can have someone put it on for you and get your hair styled in about 30 minutes, and even add extra touches like traditional geta sandals. You’ll find yukata rental shops in areas such as Gion, Kyoto Station, and Arashiyama.
Kawadoko—meals on riverside decks—is a great way to cool down in the hot Kyoto summer.
The Kamogawa area near Shijo-dori and Kibune in the north are popular spots. The kawadoko decks are open between May and September in these areas, and open during lunch hours in May and September.
The west part of the Kamogawa River, between Niji-dori and Gojo Ohashi bridge, is lined with about 100 restaurants offering a variety of food. They are set up with elevated terrace seats that overlook the river.
If you have time to spare, take a day trip to the Kurama or Kibune area for delicious Kyoto cuisine in lush natural settings.
In Kyoto, you’ll find a variety of cool and refreshing Japanese sweets made with healthy traditional ingredients such as green tea, red bean paste, and soybean flour. Sample warabi mochi—a jelly-like confection made with bracken starch—or shaved ice topped with strawberries and milk. You can also opt to top your shaved ice with quintessential Kyoto flavors like green tea and red beans. Another treat to try is monaka ice cream: ice cream wrapped in crispy bean jam-filled wafers.
Kyoto has plenty of scenic temples. Pay a visit to the eastern section of Kyoto for some spots known for their stunning maple tree gardens. Eikan-do (Zenrin-ji) Temple has about 3,000 maple trees. You’ll be walking under a tunnel of lush green maple leaves as you make your way up the stone steps leading to the main hall.
Yasaka Shrine is open 24 hours a day. The approach behind the main shrine building is flanked by maple trees and paper lanterns.
Kennin-ji Temple, located near Gion-Shijo Station, is Kyoto’s oldest zen temple. It has a beautiful landscape garden with maple and moss, as well as a rock garden. It also houses a folding screen that has been designated a National Treasure.
Kodai-ji Temple also has a famed rock garden, which looks stunning framed by summer greens.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of Kyoto’s most iconic temples. The streets leading up to it are lined with traditional buildings and gift shops. The view from the main hall, which overlooks groves of maple trees, is spectacular.
For even more maple trees, you can take a bus or train to more secluded spots such as the beautiful Sanzenin Temple or Kifune Shrine. Ruriko-in Temple, located at the foot of Mount Hiei, is another scenic spot, along with Bishamon-do temple. They are all known for their maple trees.
Note that Rurikoin is only open during spring and autumn. Ensure to check the dates in advance.
Osaka is just 30 minutes by train from Kyoto. You can use the JR, Keihan, or Hankyu Line.
You can return home via the Kansai International Airport, but before you leave, try some of Osaka’s mouthwatering fare. Deep-fried skewers, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki are all local specialties.
You can also opt to visit Osaka Castle, the enormous Kaiyukan aquarium, and Universal Studios. There’s plenty to see around the Dotonbori area, and you can shop in the massive malls near Osaka Station and Namba Station.
Other places to visit include the ancient city of Nara or Mount Koya, a temple settlement renowned for its Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Kamogawa kawadoko decks
Kansai International Airport (KIX)