If you only have a few days to spend in Japan, spend them in Kyoto. Admittedly, the first impression you get as you leave Kyoto station is that this is just another concrete jungle. But dotted around the city are some 1,600 temples, 250 shrines, 60 gardens, 24 museums, 2 Imperial villas and some of the best photo opportunities that Japan has to offer.
The brightly colored torii gate of Fushimi Inari Shrine (photo courtesy of Flickr user keaguevarra via creative commons)
Many of Kyoto's temples were founded over a thousand years ago but have been destroyed by earthquakes, fires and wars, only to be rebuilt time and time again. Due to its historical importance, the city was spared from bombing attacks during World War II.
Formerly known as Heiankyo, Kyoto was the Imperial capital for over a thousand years from 794 to 1868. During the Heian Period (794-1185), the city was home to the powerful Fujiwara and Taira families. During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), Kyoto's position as the center of political power was temporarily diminished and the transfer of the Tokugawa Shogunate to Edo (now Tokyo) in 1600 again moved the political focus away from the city. But its cultural influence remained as strong as ever. Today, Kyoto still has its reputation for refinement and culture. In fact, the city is so chock-full of history and culture that it's hard for a short-term visitor to do more than scratch the surface.
Kyoto is located in the Kinki Region of western Japan and is within easy reach of Nara, Osaka and Kobe - together the four cities make up the so-called Kansai region. Tokyo is about 2 hours 40 minutes by shinkansen while the Kansai International Airport and Osaka International Airport are less than an hour away.
- See our page on the official websites for each prefecture and major city: Guide to Japan's Regions and Cities