Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011


Kyoto gets all the attention, but Nara, 35 kilometers to the south, was there first. Considered by many to be the birthplace of Japanese civilization, it was the country's capital before Kyoto in the 8th century. Nara also beat Kyoto to UNESCO designation, when in 1993, World Heritage status was granted to Horyu-ji, a grand temple complex that boasts not only the nation's oldest five-storey pagoda, but more importantly the world's oldest extant wooden building: the Kon-do (Golden Hall), which dates to around 670 AD.

But these distinctions aren't the only reason to make the short trip to Nara from Kyoto. Todai-ji Temple, another World Heritage site, houses a 15-meter-high bronze statue of Bhudda (the Daibutsu) in what claims to be one largest wooden buildings in the world. Capping Nara off is Kofuki-ji Temple and its 600-year-old five-storey pagoda, the original of which was moved here from Kyoto in the 8th century. And now's not a bad time to visit. Throughout 2010 Nara is putting on a succession of special events and exhibitions as part of its 1,300th anniversary celebrations.

The JR Nara Line's Miyakoji rapid service connects Kyoto Station to Nara in 45 minutes and costs ¥690.


For a modern antidote to Kyoto's 2,000 temples and shrines, you could do worse than head 40 kilometers east to Osaka, the country's second city and a place known for its distinctive local dialect, sociable locals and lively nightlife. You could start with the most famous of Osaka's attractions, the five-storey Osaka Castle, which contains numerous feudal artifacts in its refurbished, modern interior. After, head to the outskirts of the city for something a bit more exciting, Universal Studios Japan, an almost carbon copy of Universal's Orlando resort. Finish the day off with dinner and a few drinks back in central Osaka, in the neon-drenched Dotonbori entertainment district, where you can try a few local favorites in often raucous company: Okonomi-yaki, a hearty savory pancake, and battered chunks of octopus that go by the name taco-yaki.

Regular JR train services connect Kyoto to Osaka in 30 minutes.


In the early hours of January 17th, 1995, Japan's sixth-largest city was devastated by an earthquake that claimed almost 6,500 lives and caused damage in excess of $100 billion. Though Kobe, 70 kilometers west of Kyoto, hasn't managed to regain its pre-quake status as Japan's premier shipping port, it has come back to life.

The highlights of the reemerging city include a lively if somewhat touristy Chinatown, a stunning fashion museum that houses historical and couture fashions in a building that looks like it has landed from Mars, and Harbor Land, a seafront redevelopment that merges the area's old brick warehouses with restaurants, shopping malls, cinemas and hotels.

But it's the poignant Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution which really stands out. It uses a variety of high-tech exhibits to document the brute force and devastation of the city's earthquake.

From Kyoto, the JR Tokaido Sanyo Line's special rapid service gets you to Kobe in 55 minutes at a cost of ¥1050. Several trains depart every hour.