These places are fascinating, not only because of the buildings and gardens, but also how the environment such as the arrangement of mountains or other geographic features are integrated in the overall architecture. I have to admit that when I came to Japan, I didn't know the difference between temples and shrines. If you are in the same boat, check this article, it provides a good introduction.
At the Ryōan-ji temple, I was lucky that students from Kyoto University intercepted foreign visitors at the entrance to give them a tour in English. I had even three tour guides who explained me the temple highlights. Very interesting, thank you! This Zen temple is particularly known for its beautiful stone garden. The garden contains fifteen stones composed in five groups, but only fourteen can be seen when looking at the garden from any angle. It is said that only through attaining enlightenment one is able to view the fifteenth stone.
The Fushimi Inari shrine provides the ultimate torii gate experience. These traditional Japanese gates are only found at the entrance of Shinto shrines, and symbolize the transition from the profane to the sacred world. This shrine (Inari is the Shinto god of rice) has thousands of torii gates, and stretches into the forest of the sacred mountain Inari. There are many hiking trails lined with torri gates in the woods, and I did a fun hike to the summit of the mountain. You see fox statues everywhere as they are thought to be Inari's messengers.
From Kyoto, I did a day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, a small island near by Hiroshima. Standing at the place where the first of two atomic bombs in war exploded was depressing (Nagasaki is the second city). About 150,000 people lost their lifes in this horrific event, and many more suffered in the aftermath. I visited the museum dedicated to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the suffering of the people at this time is unimaginable. The insanity that countries still possess weapons of mass destruction or pursue them is absolutely incomprehensible.
Miyajima is less than an hour away from Hiroshima. The island is most known for the giant torii gate, which seems to float on the water at high tide. It is a beautiful island accommodating many temples and shrines, and the surrounding area offers spectacular scenic views as well as great hiking trails. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to explore the island in more depth, because I wanted to go back to Kyoto that night.
Kyoto is also beautiful at night. I figured that I always discover the nicest places when I just wander around without having a destination. My last night in Kyoto I had dinner at a small restaurant serving tasty local cuisine. By accident, Patrick, a guy from the US living in San Francisco, had the same idea, and we had a fun evening with great talks (we didn't take a picture though, somehow forgot it).
Kyoto's train station is an impressive building. It is huge! Feels almost like an alien object in historical Kyoto. In general, life is happening in and around train stations in Japan. This seems to be the focal point for many shopping malls, restaurants and other stores. It makes sense, because almost everyone uses public transportation, and a striking number of people go through Japan's train stations every day. For example, Tokyo's Shinjuku station is used by approximately 3.5 million people per day. The busiest train station in the world.
Osaka was a positive surprise. I somehow didn't expect too much from the city. It doesn't have the mega-city image of Tokyo or the historical significance of Kyoto. However, I had a great (although short) time. Osaka's aquarium is one of the largest in the world, and shows habitats from the Ring of Fire area in the Pacific Ocean. The Ring of Fire is associated with a 40,000 kilometer (25,000 miles) long belt including 75% of the world's active volcanoes, which surprisingly provides a very life friendly environment and habitat.
Osaka has a vibrant nightlife that is amazing! The Dotonbori area is unbelievable. It feels like it is a never-ending party zone. I was walking around absorbing the atmosphere, and had dinner at a Yakitori place. Yakitori is a Japanese type of skewered grilled chicken. I ate chicken thigh, skin, liver, heart, gizzard and tail, and drank beer and sake. Great dinner! Also, I listened to some street musicians randomly playing in the neighborhood.
In Osaka, I stayed at a so-called capsule hotel that provides cheap overnight accommodation in small rooms with no-frills. However, the Osaka capsule hotel was luxury compared to my capsule "room" in Tokyo (for almost the same price). In my opinion, these hotels are great and offer exactly what I need - an affordable place to sleep. Furthermore, they are organized very efficiently, and it is fascinating to see how hundreds of people are quickly getting ready in the morning using the large bath rooms (also many business people use capsule hotels).