Kyoto & Nara
The former imperial capitals of Kyoto and Nara are home to a sublime collection of temples, palaces, shrines and gardens. Both cities are deeply revered by the Japanese for their imperial history and renowned for their highly developed traditional arts and centuries-old festivals. The two cities complement each other well - in Nara you can see the foundations of traditional Japanese culture, which reached its zenith in Kyoto.
Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of wooden sandals on the paving stones, geisha passing in a flourish of brightly coloured silks and temples pagodas surrounded by sakura trees. Visit Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), a zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in golden leaf, and its successor Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion). However, Kyoto's key attraction is the famous Kiyomizu-dera, which main hall and and stage was built without the use of nails.
Getting Around Kyoto: Kyoto subway's two lines are the quickest way to travel around the city. You can buy stored-fare cards for Y1000 or Y3000, which you can use to buy both subway tickets and pay for City Bus rides. This card is available from the Kyoto Bus Information Center at Kyoto Station as well as from most train and subway stations. You can also use the color-coded bus system, where the most important stops are displayed in English on the electronic display.
The birthplace of Japanese civilization, Nara has since been left largely to its own devices and it remains today a relaxed, attractive place set against a backdrop of wooded hills. For many people, Nara is synonymous with Todai-ji, which main hall is still the world's largest wooden building. The monumental bronze Buddha is its biggest draw, while Kofuku-ji and several of the smaller temples boast outstanding collections of Buddhist statuary. However, even these are outclassed by the images housed in Horyu-ji, a temple to the southwest of Nara. Also, don't miss Nara Park, where you will see the spectacle of over 1,200 sika deer roaming freely amidst curious tourists.
Getting to Nara: Arriving from Kyoto, the quickest option is a Limited Express train on the private Kintetsu-Kyoto line (40mins, Y1110). The ordinary express takes a little longer and you have to change at Yamato-Saidaiji (50min, Y610). JR also has a choice of express trains (45min, Y740) and regular trains from Kyoto. Travelling from Osaka is similar: trains from Osaka's Kintetsu Namba Station take about 35 mins to reach Nara.