Japan's largest city, Tokyo, is an assault on the eyes, ears, and taste buds. It can be a bit overwhelming when uniformed men with white gloves are aggressively and somehow still politely pushing you onto a crowded subway at rush hour. If that all sounds like too much, I highly recommend checking out the cultural capital of Japan - Kyoto, a calmer, more-relaxed, and more historical Japanese city.
Kyoto does not have its own airport, so you'll have to fly somewhere else first. For most people, this probably means Tokyo, but Kansai/Osaka and Nagoya are a little bit closer. Regardless, Japan has a pretty amazing train network with frequent and very punctual departures between all the main cities. If you plan on using the trains a lot and visiting more of Japan, the JR rail pass might be a worthy investment. It allows unlimited rides for a period of time, but it is best purchased before departing for Japan. (During my last visit, they were selling them at a few places in Tokyo, but for a higher price).
All this "planes, trains, and automobiles" nonsense may sound tricky in a foreign country, but it is surprisingly easy. Most signage is in english, and if you still get confused, the Japanese are quite possibly the most helpful people I have ever met. Just ask, or do charades to get your message across
You've made it to Kyoto Station, and it is a sight to behold in its own right. Shops and restaurants are everywhere. You could live here and have everything you need. And that's not too much of a stretch. There are very nice hotels like the Hotel Granvia that are physically attached to the station.
While staying next to an Amtrak station in the United States is generally frowned upon, being based near Kyoto Station is actually a really good idea. It's a very central spot to explore Kyoto, and you'll never be far from food - very important if you have a tendency to get "hangry" like me.
Another option is to stay at a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese guest house of sorts. You will sleep in sleeping bags on the tatami mat floors, have tea, and don kimonos. It can be more expensive than your average hotel, but it’s worth it just for the experience.
Where to first? Fushimi Inari-taisha is an easy, quick 10-minute train ride from Kyoto Station and a good introduction to Kyoto. And it's free! It is where thousands of red torii gates mark pathways up the side of a large hill.
If you visit during the summer, it can get quite hot and humid, so a bottle of water is a good idea. If you forget one, there are numerous vending machines even after walking up the pathways. There are several shinto shrines as you scale the hill to break up your trek as well. Keep in mind, there is no real destination. It's more of a choose-your-own-adventure situation.
The paths split periodically. You only need to go as far as you desire, though as a general rule, the crowds thin out the further you can schlep up the hill, which could mean better photos. The walk back down is a lot easier, I promise.
All of the other main sites in Kyoto require a little bit more legwork, or at least some sort of combination of street cars, buses, and/or taxis. Again, do not be afraid! The worst that can usually happen is that you get on the correct bus, but headed the wrong direction. I might be speaking from experience. But hey!, if you started from Kyoto station, chances are that you will be heading toward something. Let's say (totally hypothetically) that you meant to go west, but instead are headed east. We can make it work!
Kiyomizu-Dera Temple is an old (correction: really old) Buddhist temple perched on the side of a hill overlooking the entire city of Kyoto. It's also to the east of Kyoto Station. Yay! You might be disappointed to learn that this too requires a bit of uphill walking. Is this whole city uphill?
The walk passes by numerous storefronts selling traditional Japanese items like kimonos, chopsticks, daruma dolls, etc. You may see other tourists sporting the traditional attire as they explore Kyoto. Depending on the time of year, you may also see a lot of Japanese schoolchildren on a class trip. It can get crowded on those narrow streets, so visiting earlier is probably better.
If you head north of Kyoto, you can check off Kinkaku-ji (the golden temple) and Ryoan-ji (a zen rock garden). Both of these locations have nice paths that lead through gardens and ponds, so no need to rush through them. While in the past, I have taken the streetcar and then walked the rest of the way to these spots, a taxi might be infinitely easier.
Remember, in Japan the taxi door opens automatically, so no touching that handle! Japan is truly a germaphobe's paradise. But if you are feeling ambitious and just want to do a lot of walking, Kyoto is so old that many parts of the city still have very narrow streets and storefronts that could be tourist sites themselves. Getting lost and wandering aimlessly through the streets isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Hungry while you're out and about? Don't know where to start? Lost in TripAdvisor reviews? Just go to 7-Eleven. Have I lost my mind? No, seriously, it's not what you think. Japanese 7-Elevens are not the slowly rotating day-old hot dogs and mystery cheese and nachos you would find in America. You can get a proper Japanese meal at 7-Eleven and they will offer to heat it up for you if desired.
For a quick snack, try an onigiri. My traveling partner (and now wife) and I discovered these while mistaking them for rice balls in triangle form. (My Japanese isn't so good you see.) They are like rice balls, except that they contain some sort of fish, or chicken, or other food in the middle. So if you can't read Japanese, it can become a fun sort of game to find out the surprise in the middle. Oooh tuna with mayonnaise!
If you feel like classing it up from convenience store meals, the Kyoto Station has you covered whether you want a quick bite or a 5-course meal. The nearby department stores also have their own food courts with very diverse options. I also understand the desire to find some comfort food after eating Japanese food for a few days. It can be an acquired taste for many. I half-ashamedly admit to ordering a margherita pizza at an Italian restaurant in the train station.
You could spend days upon days in Kyoto, so I've only mentioned a few highlights. Temples and shrines are a dime a dozen, and most are open to the public, so you might just pick one on a map, and explore it without the crowds that flock to the other sites.
Even Toji Temple near the train station is pretty quiet. You could also check out the train museum (yay trains!), Arashiyama bamboo forest (for that perfect instagram shot), or hit up Yodobashi or Bic camera stores to be saturated with camera equipment, cellphone cases, and fancy toilets with buttons.
Much more than just the sights, Japan is a fun place to really immerse yourself in the culture. Go play pachinko, a sort of pinball meets slot machine game where you can potentially win prizes. There are no casinos in Japan, so pachinko acts as a sort of substitute. People will say there's skill involved in pulling the knobs to launch the little ball bearings, but it seems to be mostly luck. At one point, I was convinced I was winning because a dolphin did a flip in an animation on the screen and a bunch of fireworks went off while a bell began ringing wildly. This was evidently not enough to win even a keychain.
There's a big pachinko parlor next to the Kyoto Tower just outside the north exit of the train station. Just a warning, it can be very loud while playing pachihko, since the logic goes that the more beeps and dings you hear, the more you might believe you're actually winning.
Sing karaoke, try to interpret a manga just by looking at the pictures, or do some meditation at a temple or garden. But above all, stand on the left, and walk on the right when taking the escalator. I am convinced this is how all the trains leave on time. It starts with the escalators.