If you want to base yourself in one place and experience as much of “Japan” as you can, I would say “head to Kyoto”. Easy to access from the airport at Osaka, without stopping over, and a gateway to so many day trips and experiences.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine is known for its hundreds upon hundreds of torii gates, and to a lesser degree the crowds. Once you pass the shrine you walk the path up the hill through the torii gates to Fushimi Kandakara Shrine.
Tip, you can either walk back against the flow of the crowds through the torii gates, or the follow another path back down the hill (this does offer some amasing views of Kyoto and a cute little coffee shop).
Although I didn’t see any geisha walking the alleys of the Gion district, there were plenty of locals dressed in traditional and modern kimono. At the height of sakura (cherry blossom) season a late afternoon walk through the district is both beautiful and peaceful.
While the cherry blossoms are in bloom there are night markets (both gifts and food) within the grounds of Yasaka Shrine. If you are in the area during spring do go in, even if it’s just to see the cherry trees lit up at night. Word of warning though, it can attract BIG crowds so have a strategy in place if visiting with a group of people; one of you will get separated.
Nijo Castle was the residence of the first shogun during the Edo Period, built in 1603 it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Castle was built with nightingale floors, which means as you walk over them they squeak alerting others you are coming. Such a cool feature to play with when walking the halls. Once outside the gardens are amazing, ranging from ornamental to the plum orchard.
Otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion, there’s something about a gold leaf building reflecting off a pond that draws people to it. The gardens are quite pleasant in spring, however it is a must see in autumn due to the foliage changing colours.
A sub-temple of the larger Daitoku-ji Temple, and one of the most famous, is home of one of the most beautiful zen gardens. The garden represents the journey of life, by a small creek coming across trials and tribulations before meeting the sea. Out of respect they ask you not to take photos within the grounds of the temple, hence no photos.
The Palace itself was closed when I visited but the gardens were worth the effort. This was the one place in all of Japan that I could sit under the cherry blossoms in peace, get uninterrupted selfies, and just admire the blooms without feeling rushed.
Most tourists flock here for the Bamboo Grove, a screen of green trunks makes for great Instagram photos (apparently). If you are after photos here with noone else in them you better be up early.
As nice as the short walk through the grove is, I enjoyed the walk along the river and through the nearby streets so much more. Once you’re away from the bamboo the crowds thin and you can really appreciate the area. There are some awesome boutique stores, and this is one place that I bought a souvenir (a canvas tote bag with a dog eating ramen).
Known as Kyoto’s pantry, this alleyway of seafood, souvenir, pickles, kitchenware and just about anything else you can think of was on my must see while in town. My tip, try everything you can and your stomach enables you too. There was so much fresh seafood that I tried sea urchin and sea cucumber for the first time. Both I would happily eat again. A strawberry stuffed mochi was so soft and delicious. I also got a cool travel set of chopsticks (which had a fork and spoon at the other end), and actually did my gift shopping here for people back home.
Some stalls do not like photographs being taken, so just get the okay to do so first, generally if I purchased from the stall they were more than happy for a photo to be taken.
The train station itself is a destination in Kyoto. Go to the rooftop for a birds eye view of the city, visit Ramen street to order a ramen via a vending machine (so delicious), there was a photography exhibition on while I was there too, or you could just people watch.