By Dan Wilcock
From Tokyo, take the bullet train west to Kyoto. It’s not the most beautiful city, but it contains sites of stunning beauty. The two Buddhist temples you should not miss are Kiyomizu-dera, which is a massive wooden structure set against the forested hills and Ryoanji, which houses the world’s most famous dry rock garden. If you want to go for a hike with a spectacular view of the city, go to Daimonjiyama (the link takes you to instructions on how to get to the trail head).
Kyoto is in the Kansai region, home to Japan’s ancient capitals. This simple map can orient you to the region and its cities.
From Kyoto, spend a half day in Nara, to walk around the lovely green parks filled with wild deer and to see the massive Buddha statue inside Todaiji (side note: you can see another famous outdoor big Buddha in Kamakura, an excellent day trip from Tokyo. I think the two best day trips from Tokyo are Kamakura and Nikko).
Then, if you want to visit an authentic hot spring town, spend the night at one of the Inns at Arima Onsen, arrangements for which can be made here. This is the real deal. If you stay in an inn you usually can walk from one inn to another in light cotton robes and wooden shoes and warm up in each bath as you make your tour–particularly recommended for a snowy day.
From Arima, head west to Himeji, site of one of Japan’s oldest and most historically significant castles. On the way back, you can stop for dinner in Kobe for their justly-revered steak, before catching a late night bullet train back to Tokyo.
All of this can be done in three or four nights if planned well. The week-long JR Rail Pass will save you a lot of money. It includes bullet trains and unlimited rides on the national train network. You have to buy it before you leave your home country and validate it once you arrive.