Yes, Japan is a modern country with its skyscrapers, lightning-fast train service, and neon-lit entertainment areas. But it's also rich in history, culture, and tradition. Japan is perhaps most fascinating when you see these two faces at once: a 17th-century shrine sitting defiantly by a tower of steel and glass and a geisha chatting on a cell phone. This part of the Kansai region might be the best place to view this contrast.
For many visitors Kyoto is Japan, and few leave disappointed. Wander in and out of temple precincts like Ginkaku-ji, spot geisha strolling about Gion, and dine on kaiseki ryori, an elegant culinary event that engages all the senses. Outside the city center, a day trip to hillside Arashiyama, the gardens of the Katsura Rikyu, and the temple of Enryaku-ji atop Hiei-zan is a must. With nearly 2,000 temples and shrines, exquisite crafts, and serene gardens, Kyoto embodies traditional Japan. For taking some with you, the Kyoto Handicraft Center stocks painted screens and traditional wear. Many restaurants serve dishes based on locally sourced ingredients. Embodying this spirit is the 400-hundred-year-old Nishiki Market, which includes roughly 100 mom-and-pop shops offering fish and vegetables.
In the 8th century, Nara was the capital of Japan, and many cultural relics of that period, including some of the world's oldest wooden structures, still stand among forested hills and parkland. Be sure to visit Nara's 53-foot-high, 1,300-year-old bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha) in Todai-ji temple and to make friends with the deer of Nara Koen. At the Kofuku-ji temple, the beautiful three- and five-story pagodas are worth a look. The Nara National Museum has numerous examples of Buddhist scrolls and sculpture.
More than 100 temples belonging to the Shingon sect of Buddhism stand on one of Japan's holiest mountains, 48 km (30 miles) south of Osaka. Kobo Daishi established the original Garan-ji temple complex in AD 816. An exploration of the atmospheric cemetery of Okuno-in temple takes you past headstone art and 300-year-old cedar trees. But the temple’s primary function is as the mausoleum for Daishi.
Ise-jingu (Grand Shrines of Ise), with their harmonious architecture and cypress-forest setting, provide one of Japan's most spiritual experiences. The Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine are roughly 6 km (4 miles) apart. In addition, there are 123 affiliated shrines in and around Ise City.
Although by no means picturesque, Osaka provides a taste of urban Japan outside the capital, along with a few traditional sights. The handsome castle Osaka-jo nestles among skyscrapers, and the neon of Dotombori flashes around the local Kabuki theater. Osakans are passionate about food, and you'll find some of the finest in the country here. The Hanshin Tigers have perhaps the most raucous fans in baseball, and the historic Koshien Stadium is the place to see them (and the Tigers) in action (though they play in the Kyocera Osaka Dome in August). The Namba Grand Kagetsu Theatre is a home to traditional manzai (stand-up) comedy and contemporary entertainment. Fans of electronics and the subculture will want to head to Den Den Town, which has shops selling consumer electronics and anime and manga products—much like Akihabara in Tokyo.
Kobe has recovered from the dark day in 1995 when it was struck by an earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people. The Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum is dedicated to the event and its aftermath. Some of the first foreigners to live in Japan after the Meiji Restoration built homes in Kitano-cho, near the station, and the area retains a mix of architectural styles. The city will forever be associated with beef, but a trip to its Chinatown will reveal numerous Chinese delicacies. At an elevation of 931 meters, Mt. Rokko is accessible by cable car and features a museum and garden. On the way up the mountain take a look at Nunobiki Falls, considered one of Japan's most picturesque falls. The city has also recently added a “life-size” statue for Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor), the robot in the popular manga and TV series.
The city's most famous sight, Himeji-jo, also known as the White Egret Castle (Shirasagi-jo), dominates the skyline. The castle takes only a few hours to see, and it's about a 15-minute walk (or a short bus ride) from the train station. Since Himeji is a short (50-minute) train ride from Kobe, it's a pleasant and unhurried day-trip destination for those based in Kobe (it's 15 minutes farther if you are based in Kyoto). However, the castle is shrouded by scaffolding and under renovation through 2015 (the interior of the main keep and other buildings in the site will be accessible during most of this period). If you get back early, use the rest of your day to buy last-minute souvenirs.