Hi fellow travelers!
It’s still Elena here and, as I have told you in our previous post, I am taking over Eat The Road for a while in order to tell you everything about the 2 wonderful weeks that I have spent in Japan last May. When I prepared my itinerary for this trip, I knew I wanted to spend some days in Kyoto and Tokyo, two must-visit cities, and that, given time constraints, I would not be able to travel outside Honshu, the biggest island of the Japanese archipelago. But I found out that there are many interesting things that you can visit in the Kansai region. I also knew I wanted to spend at least one night in a traditional accommodation (temple or ryokan) and test the onsen. I discovered that I could do both things and also experience some spiritual ceremony in the region of Mount Koya.
The itinerary that I will illustrate in this post will allow you to see as many things as possible during 2 weeks time, experience a diversity of landscapes and historical sites (mountains, urban, outskirts, temples, castles), take a lot of trains – which is also a key experience in Japan, given their obsession with trains -, and have the occasion to slow down the pace, do some shopping, taste good food and relax.
Day 1: Osaka. We arrived in the morning in Osaka and decided to leave our luggage at the airport and to go and explore the city even if we were super-tired as we couldn’t fall asleep on the flight. We decided to visit Osaka to experience another big and modern city apart from Tokyo. Osaka is normally known as «Japan’s kitchen» and the term kuidaore, which means «ruining yourself through the extravagance of food» is often associated with this city and its variety of good restaurants. Our hotel was near Nanba station, but we decided to visit the Osaka Castle and the Umeda Sky building (not far from the Osaka station) in the afternoon, before collapsing in our beds at 8pm.
Day 2: Himeji Castle, Kobe and Dotonbori. We definitely felt better on our Day 2. We took the train and traveled westward in order to visit Himeji Castle, the largest and most visited castle in Japan. This impressive white construction dates to 1333. On our way back to Osaka, we decided to stop in Kobe for lunch and a walk on the harbor. In the evening, we finally had time to explore Dotonbori district, get hypnotized by its lights, and take a picture with the famous Glico Man, an enormous candy-ad with an athlete that runs and smile and changes colors from time to time. After visiting Amerikamura, the most modern part of the city, we had dinner at a very fun place, Zauo. Here, if you seat on the tables which are on a sort of boat, you can catch your fish and decide how to have it cooked. We thought it was good fun: if you are planning to go, I recommend you to book in advance and specify that you want a table on the boat. After dinner I met with an Italian friend who has been living in Japan for almost 10 years. He took me to an izakaya (Japanese pub) where I tried umeshu, a cherry liquor. I found it so good that I decided to bring home a bottle at the end of my trip.
Day 3/4: Koyasan. On our 3rd day, we took the Nankai Koya Line from Nanba to Gokurakubashi, and then the Koyasan cablecar (ask about the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket to optimize the costs of your trip if you are visiting this region from Kansai). This was one of the best part of our holiday: during these two days, we visited the numerous temples of the region, as Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi. The Okunoin cemetery, with his hundreds graves and statues, is very evocative, especially as it is surrounded by some sort of permanent fog. We spent the night at the Fukuchi In, one of the temples of the region which has been converted into a travelers’ lodge. If you try one of these accommodations, you will sleep in traditional Japanese rooms, test Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, relax in the onsen or in the common spaces with view on the gardens. And, if you feel like, you will be invited for a session of prayers and meditation in the morning. It’s an experience I would definitely recommend!
Day 5: Nara. Deer, deer, deer. These lovely animals will probably photobomb most of your pictures as you will visit the park in Nara; you will be surprised as you start touring the park but at some point you will realize they are just part of the environment. They are not aggressive at all, actually they are nice and friendly and you will be able to take selfies with them and pet them, but if you decide to buy the cookies and feed them… well, be prepared to be followed by curious and hungry deer 😉 The deer are a nice add-on for a city that really deserves a visit: it is an ancient capital, and here you will be able to visit the Tōdai-ji temple complex, and be surprised by the size of Daibutsu Buddha. We stopped here while heading back from Koyasan on our way to Kyoto and spent the night at a cheap hotel called Toyoko Inn, which was very basic and served a Japanes style breakfast (you may want to go get a cappuccino and some cookies instead, I did as I am not accustomed to eat vegetables for breakfast), but overall the hotel is all clean and new and good value for money. You can also visit Nara with a return trip from Kyoto, if you prefer; it takes less than one hour to travel between the two cities (by train, of course!).
Days 6 to 9: Kyoto. Kyoto has been the Imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years. We chose to spend 4 days in this city, as there were many things to see (and most of them are outside the city center) and many experiences to make (tea ceremony, geisha show, kabuki theater) that we didn’t want to be in a rush. One of the upcoming posts will be about the things to do in Kyoto, make sure you read it! I still want to dedicate a special mention to the Airbnb flat that we booked, this one. Nice location close to the river and to several bus stops, in a quite residential area literally 2 steps away from Gion district. Plus, it was very cozy.
Days 10 to 14: Tokyo. If Japan is another planet… well, Tokyo perfectly embodies its role of the capital of an alternative universe. Skycrapers, colors, lights and sounds: I really would not know where to start from to describe this living and enormous city. I will dedicate one of the upcoming articles to share more details about what to do in Tokyo. I stayed near Shinjuku station, but you should really pick up your preferred location depending on what you love most: crowds, restaurants and lights or quiet neighborhoods.
And that’s a wrap for now! Stay tuned for the upcoming articles about Kyoto and Tokyo. And if you are already dreaming to visit Japan (as much as I dream that I can go back and have another taste of this amazing country), be ready to Eat the Road!