And now, the last stop on the amazing two month adventure; Japan. We spent a month here, from January 5th to February 6th, travelling through Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Nagano, Fuji, Tokyo, and Sapporo. It was an intense itinerary, and we did a lot and saw a lot in a very short amount of time. I enjoyed every minute of it. Since it was such a full trip, I decided it would be best to break my bragging up into three posts. The usual Geek & Eat post will follow the final part and the usual “Want to Visit Japan?” advice section will be in the last part. Welcome to Part 1: Osaka and Kyoto.
We arrived in Osaka after a flight that lasted about an hour and a half from Busan, landing in the early evening. We had to first get from the airport into Osaka, and then finally onto a train out to Dobutseun-Mae Station. Fortunately our hotel was right outside the station. We didn’t do much on this night; just getting settled, and finding a little ramen restaurant for dinner. However, the next day was when we could really start to explore Osaka. We got into Umeda, the middle of Osaka, where we had something to eat, before going to Yodabashi, a massive shopping centre. We did a lot of window shopping, and also explored the Jump! store. Afterwards, we discovered, and fell in love with, the Loft department store. Eight floors filled with everything; stationary, costumes, anime merchandise, cosmetics, and everything in between! No wonder we spent the entire afternoon inside, only stopping for dinner before heading back to the hotel.
The next day we were off to Osaka Castle! The castle was built from its original designs in 1931, and opened as a museum. You actually start the exploration of the castle from the eight floor, an observation deck, down. The museum inside was all about Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the “great unifier” of Japan who ended the Warring States period, and the Siege of Osaka in 1614-1615. It was all really interesting, and we stayed on sight until the museum closed and we got to see the main keep lit up. Afterwards, we made our way to Minami in Namba, an area known for food and entertainment. There were so many lights and restaurants and gachapon everywhere… as well as a lot of prostitutes and sketchy looking male host clubs. It was here we got addicted to gachapon… particularly ones related to the character Gudetama (my spirit animal… egg?).
The next day in Osaka involved exploring the massive thirteen storey shopping centre on top of the Osaka train station in Umeda. We found a store call Tokyu Hands; very similar to Loft, and with a lot of gachapon… so it’s no surprise we were there for a while. There was also a Pokemon Centre, and some of the toys were so adorable! Afterwards we caught a train out to Mino Park to see its famous waterfall. We had a 2 km (1.2 mile) walk through the pretty forest first, passing a couple of graveyards and the Ryuanji Temple. By the time we got to the actual waterfall, it was quite dark. We could see it clearly enough, but weren’t able to take any photos, but what does that matte?. The park was pretty as it was, but I would really like to come back and see it in Autumn! Afterwards, we headed back Minami (Dotonbori? I really don’t know which name to use) area again, eating at a teppanyaki restaurant and having warm melon bread with vanilla ice-cream from a street van. Delicious!
The day after was a much anticipated day for one of my friends and me… we had bought tickets to see the K-Pop group Big Bang on their MADE Tour! The concert wasn’t until later that day, so we spent the morning and early afternoon in the nearby Shinsekai. The area was once developed as an entertainment district but was neglected following the Second World War… today it’s a pretty nostalgic place with the distinctive Tsutenkaku Tower at its centre. We went up to the tower for some views of Osaka, and even went up to the open deck at the top- very cold! There were a lot of souvenir shops to keep us occupied on the walk back to the hotel. Afterwards my friend and I headed to the Osaka Kyocera Dome for the concert. We went a little crazy at the merchandise stall, but we were soon all decked out and ready for the concert. IT WAS SO INCREDIBLY AMAZING I CAN BARLEY PUT IT IN WORDS!! BIG BANG I LOVE YOU, I STILL WISH YOU DIDN’T LEAVE THE STAGE!! We did head back to Shinsekai afterwards for more delicious teppanyaki.
We managed to squeeze in a visit to the shrine Sumiyoshi Taisha on our last day in Osaka. Because it was still early in the new year, there were a lot of people at the shrine buying good luck charms for 2016, disposing charms from 2015, getting their fortunes for the year, and paying respect to the Gods. It was really interesting to see the bonfire where priests were burning old charms and blessing new ones, and also where they were doing chants. There were a lot of festival tents set up selling food, and also set up with little games inside. After we explored the really pretty temple and walked over its famous bridge, we enjoyed some takoyaki, omusoba (yaki soba wrapped in omelette), squid omelette, and candied grape, strawberry, pineapple, mandarin, and apple. We also walked through the pretty Sumiyoshi Park before heading back to our hotel to collect our bags and training to Kyoto. We found a restaurant selling abura soba (soup-less “oily” noodles) which was SO DELICIOUS. The next day, our first day in Kyoto, was spent pretty quietly. We were staying in the Higashiyama district, so we went out to explore on the first day. There were temples and shrines everywhere, a lot of interesting shops, and a lot of people wearing kimono! It’s an area we definitely want to explore more closely. We had the most delicious udon for dinner that night.
One of the reasons we were spending almost two weeks in the Kansai region was because there were a number of day trips we wanted to go on. The next day marked our first; training out to Nara to explore Nara Park (the trip taking less than an hour). We started at the Kofukuji Temple, slowing making our way into the park. Nara is quite famous for its wild deer, and they were absolutely everywhere. We bought crackers to feed them and they were insane; one deer in particular followed us non-stop and headbutted if you didn’t feed it quick enough! One of my friends got bullied into feeding it all of her crackers! We wandered through the pretty woodlands and down to the Ukimido Gazebo before heading back up towards Todaiji Temple. The temple was closed by the time we got there, but an older Japanese man led us up onto a balcony overlooking the temple where we could watch the sunset. His English was really good and he told us all sorts of things about the temple. Afterwards, we headed down for a delicious serving of teppanyaki (again) before heading back to Kyoto.
The day after we went to Arashiyama, a really pretty area just out of Kyoto that is surrounded by mountains. The first thing we did was go on a 30 minute cruise on a Japanese houseboat on the Oi River, an activity once enjoyed by nobles and royalty. The boats were pushed by a man with a bamboo pole, and the inside room had tatami mats, cushions, and a little heater. The views were really pretty! Afterwards, we made our way to the Tenryuji Temple, where we wore slippers and explored inside the temple. Afterwards, we changed back into our shoes to explore the beautiful zen garden, still in its original design from the thirteenth century! In my opinion, it was the prettiest garden we saw the whole time in Japan (although we did go in Winter). Afterwards, we headed out to the bamboo groves, which the area is famous for, passing the Nonomiya Shrine for the Sun Goddess and other female-related deities. After finding an observation deck, which we stayed at until sunset, we headed back to Kyoto. We had teppanyaki for dinner again; no surprise there!
We decided to get back to exploring the Higashiyama area on the next day… but in style! We rented out kimono to wear on the day. Selecting a kimono and getting dressed was an experience in itself; because it was so cold, we wore thermal pants and shirts underneath, and then had the nagajuban (under white kimono) tied pretty securely over the top. We then put on the kimono, which was secured with two ribbons. The obi was then tied over the top with a board, and decorated; mine with a pink ribbon and bow and a beaded chord. Finally, we wore two layers of tabi socks and then the zouri (shoes)… it was a lot of fuss to get dressed! Us two girls also got our hair done, and three of us were given traditionally-styled bags to put our belongings in. Feeling very special, we set out to explore Higashiyama. There’s a lot to see in such a small space; we started off at the Entokuin Gardens and Temple, went through some traditional craft shops (lots of chopsticks to buy!), the site of the Goryo Eji Tonsho (something I knew a little bit about thanks to the Hakuouki anime series!), up to the Shinshu Otani-Ha Buddist Temple, and then to the Temmangu Shrine. I prayed here for healing due to my various injuries, following the somewhat complicated instructions of walking around the hall three times while spinning the prayer wheels with my right hand. We then walked through the Kodaji Temple and gardens, down through a bamboo grove, shopping up through the historic streets and up the stairs to the top. We were hoping to go to the Kiyomizudera Temple, but it was getting late and it had closed. Instead, we returned our kimono, and, having not eaten much all day due to the fear of staining our clothes, went and ate some deliciously messy burgers for dinner. All in all, we felt extremely special the entire day!
We went out on another day trip the next day, catching the Shinkansen to Himeji to visit the beautiful Himeji Castle… one of the things I was most anticipating in Japan! The castle is super pretty from the outside, plastered in white and extremely bright! There was a school excursion there the same day as us (so many children), and the kids were really cute, a lot of them saying hello in English to us when they passed by. They were in and out pretty quickly though, while we took the time to learn all about the main keep, the castle’s defence system, and its use of recycled stone in construction (including using stone coffins!). Although the castle only looks like it’s five storeys from outside, it’s actually seven! After exploring the main keep, we visited the West Bailey Palace with the 300 m Long Corridor which also had super steep staircases. We had bought a combined ticket to see the gardens as well, but since the castle was starting to close up, we instead turned our attention to dinner, having various types of kushikatsu. Afterwards, it was back to Kyoto where we explored the train station. You can get to the top for views over Kyoto and after six massive escalators, one right after the other, we were there. Apart from the night views, we also got a chance to appreciate just how huge the train station is! After a long day exploring, it was back to the hotel and off to bed.
We saved some of Kyoto’s most iconic sights for our second-to-last day. We first went to the beautiful Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Its top two storeys are completely covered in gold leaf, making it really pretty! We worked our way around the lake it was situated on, and through the gardens where there was a shrine and a few souvenir shops. We had a little bit to eat, including some sweet dango with sesame paste and pork and tofu steamed buns. Afterwards, we caught a bus and two trains to get to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a shrine famous for its thousands of torii gates. There were a lot of people there, and after checking our the main complex, we worked our way up the torii gate trails on the mountain. The gates are donated by those wishing for good financial luck, usually from big businesses. Inside the trails there are also lots of little shrines, which isn’t surprising considering that Fushimi Inari is the headquarters for over 30 000 smaller shrines! We reached the viewpoint just in time to see the sunset over Kyoto. Afterwards, we continued along a loop pathway to the mountain summit and back down as it darkened. Fortunately the pathway was well lit, and it was actually quite nice to be there with less people around. We went back to our hotel room relatively early after dinner, with a plan to do some packing for our travels the next day (which, sadly, only ever turned out to be a plan).
We explored Nijo Castle on our last day in Kyoto. The carvings on the gate to get to the Ninomaru Palace were really detailed and pretty! We went through a lot of rooms inside the castle where we learnt a little about Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan. We also walked through part of the garden and up to an observation deck, where we could see some of the Honmaru Palace, which was unfortunately closed to the public. There was also an art gallery displaying the original cherry blossoms paintings of the Ninomaru Palace, and also from the nearby Nagoya Castle. The paintings dated back from 1603 and 1626! The brochure we were given helped explain the difference and development of style between the two paintings, which was very interesting. We briefly stopped at a souvenir shop before getting back to the hotel to collect our bags and head off to Nagoya… but that’s a story for a different post.
That’s about it for the time we spent in the Kansai region in Japan! As you can see, we had a lot of things we wanted to see, and we were pretty busy the whole time we were there. But that’s only the start of our trip in Japan, and you’ll soon see just what else we got up to in this amazing country! I really loved Osaka and Kyoto, and I especially fell in love with the beautiful scenery, interesting history, and amazing food. I can’t wait to get back!