Kyoto makes a great base from which to explore the southern part of Honshu (the largest island), with frequent and fast train connections from it’s vast and futuristic main station. Most of the places below are on the main train line running from Kyoto to Kyushu island.
Home to an absolute must see, Todai-ji, the largest wooden building in the world (the second largest is Old Parliament House in Wellington), housing the largest bronze Buddha in the world (weighing 500 tonnes!). Also hard to avoid the numerous deer wandering around the place.
Himeji Castle is one of the few surviving original wooden castles in Japan, and a quite incredible building. Great example of what makes Japan so interesting, with similar things to the West (gardens, castles, religious buildings) but designed and built in completely different styles.
Hadn’t heard of Okayama until I got to Japan and happened to see it mentioned in a booklet. Turned out to be an unexpected highlight due to the attractive if replica Okayama Castle, and Korakuen Garden, one of the Three Great Gardens in Japan (along with Kenroku-en in Kanazawa and Kairaku-en in Mito).
Seeing the Atomic Bomb Memorial in person was a genuinely jaw dropping experience that brought home the impact of the first nuclear bomb, which was reinforced through the powerful Peace Memorial Museum. The Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum and Hiroshima Castle are also worth a visit.
For me just about worth the six hour return train trip from Kyoto to visit Engaku-ji, one of the Three Great Gardens in Japan (along with Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito). It is impressive if obviously very Japanese, i.e. looking much like most other Japanese gardens… Tsuzumimon at the main entrance to the station was impressive though, and parts of Kanazawa Castle remain.
Japan’s second most important (if third largest after Yokohama) city is famous for it’s food scene, and has enough sights to warrant a day trip.
Osaka Castle Park
The castle itself is a concrete replica (complete with a lift) of the wooden original (which as with most old buildings in Japan burnt down), sitting in the middle of a huge park, complete with a double moat. An historic place, best appreciated by reading James Clavell’s Shogun or Giles Milton’s Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan.
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
One of the better aquariums I’ve visited around the world, though I did get the feeling that many people there were as interested in what the fish would taste like as were interested in what they looked like.