We flew out of Seoul on an overcast autumn day, straight into a beautiful hot summer’s day in Osaka! As Korea was starting to cool down (thankfully), Japan was still as hot as ever. Having an extended summer may sound nice, but after the last 5 months of extreme heat and humidity in Korea, I was really looking forward to some cooler days!
We spent three weeks in Japan, visiting Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Okayama and Tokyo! I talk about the first two cities in this post.
Our initial impressions heading into Osaka were that it seemed a lot cleaner, more orderly and less rushed! People were just calmer and a lot more friendly and helpful. Someone even let me go first in a queue! That would never happen in Korea.
Dotonbori – shopping and food
Our first night was spent looking for the hotel, which was very conveniently located one street back from the Dotonbori river, with all the amazing lights and sounds. We dropped off our luggage and headed into crazy Osaka, armed with our cameras, wallets and very hungry bellies. After walking around being amazed at all the sights, we allowed ourselves to be led into a 5th floor restaurant by a waiter standing outside. It was very loud, busy and smoky but we had a great time sampling our favourite Japanese food: Edamame, fried dumplings and fried chicken as well as some new discoveries like the famous Takoyaki octopus balls and Okonomiyaki fried noodle pancake. I knew Rob would love the Takoyaki and I would love the Okonomiyake!
We loved the crazy neon lights, loud noises spilling out of all the pachinko gaming rooms, and all the bikes! Osaka is definitely a bikers city.
We walked around the rest of the night, wondering around endless covered food and shopping alleyways, making note of where to come back. We walked the whole length of the famous Shinsaibashi covered shopping street and I found the most delicious handmade waffles, with real cream (!) and caramel cashew sauce. We really missed having real ingredients and handmade food so we really loved Japan!
We spent the next day at Nara deer forest, being amazed by how friendly and mischievous the deer were! People were buying little deer crackers but it looked quite dangerous to be feeding them (greedy things), so we stuck to patting them and taking selfies. It was really nice to be in the lush green forest, just smelling some beautiful clean fresh air. We also walked around the temples in the park. The most impressive was the giant carved and gold buddha at Todaji Temple. How did people manage to create things so big and intricate!?
After Nara we headed back to Osaka to do some shopping at Shinsaibashi, and to eat more waffles. We had more Okonomiyake in a tiny restaurant down a side alley, served by a mother and daughter with cute crooked tooth.
On our third day we planned to visited Osaka castle to learn more about it’s history and see the view from the top. We spent a long time looking for breakfast, but soon realised nothing in Japan opens til 11 or 12, and nowhere really serves breakfast! We ended up eating Udon in the busy castle park, next to the moat. We also got to hold falcons!
The castle was impressive but we later discovered that Japanese castles are best enjoyed from the outside, because the insides have all been gutted during different wars. The museums inside are quite interesting, but after seeing 3 or more it gets really repetitive. We had delicious peach ice cream, then I went home for a nap (trying to get rid of my heat migraines).
Rob visited the crazy manga area while I napped. Afterwards we ate dinner at a cool little ramen bar and wondered through the beautiful lit-up rooftop garden at Namba Parks shopping mall. We also discovered one of our favourite shops: Village Vanguard. It’s a little like Iko Iko in NZ, but more jam-packed full of cool books, prints, t shirts, gifts, accessories, makeup etc… Luckily this was a chain so we visited many more before we left Japan!
Amemura and Ukiyo-E
The next day we checked out, then headed to Amemura, the American part of Osaka. I found a cute Alice in Wonderland themed store complete with a tiny door for an entrance! There were lots of cool indie boutiques and some chain foreign stores. Rob bought some Birkenstocks (finally) and we had delicious buttery pancakes for brunch. We walked back through the Dotonbori area and spent an hour at the Ukiyo-E museum. It had a great TV doco series and really made me want to get into woodblock printing again! Later we popped into an owl cafe. Unfortunately it was all booked out so we took a quick look at the owls, then headed to the train station.
We settled in to our bullet train, but we suddenly arrived 7 minutes later! We knew Osaka and Kyoto weren’t very far apart, but it was still really quick. We found our hotel then headed to the hotel restaurant buffet for a deliciously simple Japanese dinner. Lots of rice, beef and veggies. Yum! Hotel MyStays was definitely the best hotel we stayed at in Japan, even though we only managed to get a twin room.
Biking Kyoto – Philosophers Path and many temples
The next morning we hired bikes and spent the whole day riding through Kyoto, on a very hot day. We went over beautiful little streams, down old alleyways and along the main river. We made it to the beginning of the Philosophers Path; a very lush green pathway which runs along a stream for a few kilometres. We visited quite a few temples along the way; Honen-in, Nanzen-ji, Chion-in and more…
We eventually made it to the most visited temple in Japan; Kiyomizu dera. We walked our bikes up a very steep hill, with thousands of other tourists. Eventually the bike got too heavy for me so I popped down a side street to leave it in a parking lot. I ran back to catch up with Rob but we spent the next hour frantically looking for each other! It didn’t help that we were in a crazy busy part of Kyoto: tiny old alleyways packed with hundreds of shops and tens of thousands of tourists! So many people. We eventually found each other, wondered around the temple and then had a nice downhill bike ride back to the bike rental shop.
Ponchoko Geisha street
We spent the evening walking through the old Ponchoko area; a street next to the river, packed with beautiful old restaurants on stilts. I even saw a real Geisha scurrying away with a little packaged gift!
Manga Museum, Nijo castle and Gion
The next day was quite lazy because we were so tired from all our biking the day before. We slept in, then spent a few hours at the Kyoto Manga museum. I learnt a lot about the origins and history of manga and anime, and all the different communication methods. Afterwards we strolled through Nijo castle, then headed to the traditional Gion area. We walked along magical tree-lined canals until we got to the main street in Gion, where we looked for dinner. All the restaurants were very traditional and expensive! We eventually found a shabu-shabu restaurant catering to foreigners and had a great meal of shabu-shabu (like a beef hotpot), tempura and fried tofu balls. We had dessert at an italian restaurant along a canal, then had a relaxing walk back home along the river. It was awesome to see hundreds of people sitting along the river at night, playing music or having some drinks. So many good vibes!
Arashiyama bamboo forest, many temples and the Golden Pavilion
On our third day we took a vintage old train out to Arashiyama, where we wondered through an amazing bamboo forest; so peaceful and relaxing! We also visited a lot of unique temples: Tenriyu-ji, Jjujakoji and Gio-ji. They were all amazing but my favourite was the moss temple, Gioji. It really did look straight out of a Ghibli movie.
We wanted to take the ‘romantic train’ along the river and back, but it was closed for maintenance so we headed back into Kyoto. We saw Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion, then had an amazing evening shopping along Shijo dori and the covered Teramachi shopping streets. We bought a lot of things and had fun checking out all the little boutiques and unique chain stores.
Fushimi Inari red tori gates
On our last day Rob found a delicious designer pancake house in an old Japanese home (complete with paper walls and a courtyard). Then we headed to the #1 tourist spot in Japan: the Fushimi Inari red tori gates which line the pathways all the way up a mountain. It was very very impressive! We took heaps of photos and walked about 1/4 of the way up. We’d love to climb to the top one day!
Afterwards we headed back to Kyoto station to catch our first long bullet train to Hiroshima.