Osaka, Japan

Our final destination in Japan was Osaka. We didn’t leave much time for Osaka, only an afternoon/evening, but we were glad that we at least spared a little time for this big cosmopolitan city. We made the good decision to visit Osaka Castle late that afternoon – the place was just magical in that late afternoon golden glow. The park surrounding the castle was full of life – people jogging, taking a leisurely stroll, playing with their children, or simply sitting beneath a tree and reading a good book. As you can see by the photos, Osaka castle is absolutely spectacular perched atop the city. We were unfortunate to arrive too late to go inside, but exterior was just incredible!

Later that evening, we headed to where it all happens in Osaka – to Dotonbori Street. This is the central night-life district of Osaka and it is buzzing with people at all hours of the evening. Dotonbori Street is also a great place to grab a bite to each, as there are more restaurants than you wish to chose from, selling everything from crab, to noodles, dumplings, basically any type of Japanese cuisine. It’s one of those places that you have to experience at least once.

Well, that’s it from Japan. Heading to Kakadu National Park next weekend, so stay tuned for some posts shortly.

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Essentials:

Getting There:
Osaka is well connected by rail to many places throughout Japan. There is also an international airport at Kansai (about 30-45 minute train trip from Osaka Central Station). Osaka also has an excellent subway network connecting almost all areas of the city.

Stay:
We stayed at Yamatoya Hoten, located conveniently close to Dotonbori Street (about 50m away, if that). The rooms were Japanese styled ryokan rooms and we very clean and tidy.

Visit:
Dotonbori Street and Osaka Castle are at the top of the list.

Hikone, Japan

Whilst in Kyoto, we took a half day trip out of the city to visit Hikone Castle and its beautiful gardens. Unfortunately, we arrived probably only a few days after the cherry blossoms fell, so we missed the stunning landscape would would have enveloped the castle (the castle grounds are practically lined with cherry blossom trees).

Perhaps not as grand as Himeji Castle (which was unfortunately under renovation during our visit to Japan, thus we did not visit), Hikone has a quaint simplicity about it. We spent the afternoon exploring the castle (you can actually go inside and much of it is still original) and the beautiful gardens across the moat. We also had a grey day, but I can image that the place would have been twice as spectacular had the sun been shining.

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Essentials:

Getting There:
Take the train from Track 2 at Kyoto Central Station to Hikone. On the rapid express train, the journey takes about 50 minutes. From the station, traverse the centre of town towards the castle. The centre of Hikone isn’t large at all, but if you lose your way, just ask someone to point you to the direction of the castle.

Eat:
Before you arrive. We had difficulty finding a decent place to eat. Perhaps we were out of season (there isn’t much to do in Hikone except visit the castle). But 7 Eleven in Japan is always good for some take away nori rolls.

Avoid:
The Hikone town mascot, known as Hikonya, is everywhere and his song gets rather annoying when you listen to it on repeat constantly. Although, he is rather cute.

Nara, Japan

Initially I wasn’t too keen to visit Nara – all I heard about that was that there was a giant Buddha and a park full of deer. But I was pleasantly surprised by this small town, more than half of which is covered with parkland. Nara is a beautiful day out from Osaka or Kyoto, where you can spend a day picnicking in the park, exploring the temple and feeding the deer special deer biscuits which you can purchase from vendors in the park. And also be amazing by the giant Buddha (the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world). In the end, I was glad that we spent a day in Nara.

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Getting There:
For JR Pass holders, there is one train from both Kyoto and Osaka, which run half hourly from Kyoto and every 15 minutes from Osaka. When you arrive at Nara JR Station, it’s a leisurely 1.5km walk through the town to the park.

Buy:
Purchase good luck amulets from Todai-ji (the temple which houses the giant Buddha). A great souvenir to bring home from Japan. I bought a number for myself and my family.

 

Miyajima Island + Hiroshima, Japan

We had a beautiful sunny day to explore Miyajima Island and Hiroshima as a day trip from Kyoto. Thankfully for the amazing rail system in Japan, a trip like this can easily be done in one day. Japan is definitely a country of contrasts – after all the hustle and bustle of the big cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, it is nice to get away to places such as Miyajima Island. The short ferry trip from the mainland (which is covered by the JR Rail Pass if you have one) transports you to another world. The island is quiet and peaceful, and would almost be devoid of people if it were not such a popular tourist destination.

Take at least half a day to explore the island – visiting the parks and gardens, viewing the famous ‘floating’ gate and wandering around the small streets. Don’t forget to sample the local sweet, a small sponge-like cake shaped like a maple leafe, filled with custard, chocolate, bean pastes, etc. You cannot miss them in the main shopping street – every second store is selling them.

After Miyajima Island, we made a brief stop in Hiroshima to visit the Peace Park and the museum. The museum is amazing, yet also shocking, and definitely worth the visit. I would allow at least a few hours if you want to visit it properly – it’s bursting full of information about the atomic bomb drop and its unfortunate aftermath. A great history lesson, that hopefully the world has learnt and taken careful note of.

I found Hiroshima very different from the other Japanese cities – it had a much more European feel, with its wide avenues, parks, tram line and European styled buildings. It was only later that is dawned on me, that the entire city had to be rebuilt after 1945, when the atomic bomb literally decimated the city.

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Essentials:

Getting There:
From Kyoto, take the shinkansen train to Hiroshima where you transfer to the Sanyo Line to Miyajimaguchi. From the station there will be signs to the ferry terminal – it’s only a short walk away. To navigate Hiroshima from the train station, take the tram. To get to the Peace Park, take tram number 2 or 6 to Genbaku-Domu.

Eat:
On Miyajima Island, sample the barbecued oysters and the momoji manu (the local filled cakes). In Hiroshima, you must try the local okonomijaki (Japanese savoury pancake) which is filled with egg noodles.

Kyoto, Japan – Part 2

Here are the other half of the photos from Kyoto. If you’re into Japanese history, culture, food, architecture and gardens, I’d recommend at least three days exploring Kyoto. There are so many temples to visit, gardens to explore, restaurants and food to sample, and little streets to get lost in.

They following photos are taken from Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion), Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion), wandering along the Path of Philosophy, visiting various temples, gardens and wandering the streets of north-eastern Kyoto, known as Higashiyama, and discovering the little streets of Gion. I fell in love with the district known as Higashiyama (which is dotted with various temples and gardens, and has an old world feel to it). So I’d suggest spending at least a day or two exploring this area, if temples and gardens are your thing. And for foodies, Gion is full of interesting restaurants – and keep your eyes open for geisha.

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Essentials

Getting Around:
Kyoto has a reasonably good metro and bus transportation system, which means you can get almost anywhere in Kyoto relatively easily. To get to Kinkaku-ji, take bus 101 or 205 which takes about 40 mins from the central bus and train terminal. Bus tickets cost 260 yen for one way, or if you’re planning to get the bus around town for the day, a daily pass costs 700 yen. To Ginkaku-ji, take bus 5, 17 or 100. I spent the day walking back to Gion along the Path of Philosophy (with a good map in hand). From Gion, you can get the metro back to Kyoto Station. For those who like walking, Kyoto isn’t a huge city, and many sites can be easily reached on foot, provided you have a good map in hand.

What to buy:
Sweets! Kyoto is well known for its sweets, particularly the town speciality of sweet triangles made from rice flour and filled with a flavoured bean paste. Try the cinnamon ones – they are delicious. You cannot leave Japan without purchasing a kimono. There are a few tourist aimed shops in the shopping arcade off Kyoto’s main shopping strip Shijo Dori. If you are after something of better quality, visit Nisijin Textile Centre (located west of the Imperial Palace). By chance, I stumbled across a little shop along the Path of Philosophy selling antique kimonos, known as Mrs Fumimaro’s Antique Kimono Salon. The tiny shop is full from floor to ceiling with antique kimonos. You could spend a few hours sifting through all the amazing textiles. I was lucky enough to find one I fell in love with, and at a reasonable price too.

Kyoto, Japan – Part 1

So this is the first instalment of our days spent in Kyoto. If Tokyo is known for its metropolis and skyscrapers, Kyoto is known for its temples and shines. I don’t think any city in Japan is as fortunate as Kyoto to be home to so many spectacular buildings and quaint little streets. Kyoto is old Japan, and Tokyo is new Japan. Kyoto is also a mecca for all those foodies out there – don’t forget to visit Niskiki Market, dine in some of the fabulous restaurants and purchase some of the many sweets that Kyoto is famous for.

Our first stop in Kyoto was Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine, which is well know for its vermillion gates. This is a vast shrine complex (we didn’t have enough time to explore it all) and would take a good half day to experience properly. Our next stop was lunch and Kiskiki Market. This market place is known as the kitchen of Kyoto and is bustling with tourists and locals alike, purchasing lunch, snacks and Japanese kitchen staples. The storeholders sell many things which are almost unrecognisable for the western traveller, but simply ask, or if you’re brave, dig in and try all these weird and unusual things.

After lunch, we paid a quick visit to the Imperial Gardens, before taking the train to Arashiyama. This district of Kyoto is located west of the city, beneath Mount Arashi. Arashiyama has an old world feel to it. There are no skyscrapers, large apartment buildings or bustling traffic – the district is peaceful and slow paced – it’s almost difficult to believe that Kyoto city is so close. In Arashiyama we paid an interesting visit to the monkey sanctuary and the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, before evening fell and we took the train back to Kyoto and had a feast in a local restaurant.

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Essentials:

Getting There:
Kyoto is well connected by rail to the rest of Japan. The central train station is located at the southern end of the city. The closest major airport is Osaka Kansai, which can be reached via direct train from Kyoto.

Stay:
We stayed at Ikoi-no-le hostel. Located in a quiet street, within easy walking distance to the central train and bus station, although the rooms were small, they were clean and well kept. And the staff was incredibly helpful.

Eat:
We ate at Wa-ta-mi located on Gojo Dori almost every evening whilst we were in Kyoto. The food was decent, and cheap, and it was within easy walking distance to our hostel.

Koya-San, Japan

Koya-San was probably my favourite place in Japan. Far from the cosmopolitan cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, Koya-San is a world of its own. Nestled atop of a mountain, at almost 1000m above sea level, this former Buddhist monastery town still retains its old world charm. The small town of about 3000 inhabitants is dotted with a plethora of temples and shrines, as well as a vast UNESCO heritage listed cemetery. We spent the afternoon amongst the cherry blossoms wandering around this picturesque and spiritual town.

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Getting There:
Take the train from Namba station in Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station. If coming from Kyoto, take the train to Osaka, then to Shinimamiya to change to Gokurakubashi. From Gokurakubashi, take the cable car up to Koya-San and from the cable car station there is a regular bus service to the main sights in the town. There is a Koya-San pass you can purchase from Namba Station of Shinimamiya Station, which covers all rail and bus services to and from Koya-San.

Stay:
There are plenty of former temples and shrines which now serve as bed and breakfasts. This is a great option if you want a unique cultural experience in Koya-San.