Growing up watching tokusatsu, anime, samurai movies, and eating Japanese food, have made me very fond of Japan and their culture. Last August presented itself as a great opportunity to visit Japan when an unplanned trip to the local travel fair scored us some really sweet airline deals.
We were bound for the Kansai region, which is on the southern part of Japan. Since Kansai is already a pretty big place, we opted to focus our tours on 2 major cities: Osaka and Kyoto, and made quick side trips to two other cities: Nara and Kobe.
Getting Around Kansai
There are pocket wifi’s for rent which you can get at the Kansai International Airport (KIX). Make sure you secure one for the entire duration of your stay. The internet is highly essential for foreign visitors. There are plenty of apps useful for navigation and online travel tips that would help you make wise use of your time, money, and energy as you roam around Japan.
Japan has a very vast and efficient network of trains. For convenience, it’s best to secure Japan Rail’s Multiple day passes (JR Pass). Japan Rail covers the entire Japan, but you will have to use other train companies to get to the nook and cranny spots of cities.
There are other train networks that do not have multiple day passes, so for them, you will have to purchase tickets for each ride or get a prepaid IC card. Buses also serve as a convenient way of reaching places where trains don’t go to. Some places like Kyoto have special day passes for buses exclusively for tourists that are bundled with discounts for some tourist sites.
Kyoto is very rich in culture and history. This is where you will find most of the castles, shrines, and temples, as there are many of them scattered all around Kyoto. I wouldn’t suggest seeing each and every one as they are just far too many. After seeing about 3 of the same kind, it’s safe to assume that you’ve already seen all of them. This is where the internet comes in very handy. You can check the web or some travel apps for the top sites you should be visiting, or any sites you might find interesting. They should be complete with guides, maps, and descriptions.
Nijo Castle is one of the castles we visited. It’s a fortified castle with a surrounding moat. It’s basically a one direction walk on the halls when inside the main building from entrance to exit. They have opened the walls of the rooms and inside them are mannequins clothed in what that they have supposedly worn during that period. The mannequins are positions in such a way that emulates would be events inside the castle back then.
Note that taking of pictures is not allowed inside the castle.
Outside the castle is a beautiful, vast garden. The garden is pretty big and the surroundings are very beautiful. From hereon, you can already take pictures so make sure to take lots of them.
Fushimi Inari is a Shinto Shine. What makes this shrine special are the orange Torii path that you will have to trek, and trek hard! Trekking the entire Fushimi Inari would take a couple of hours for those who want to cover the entire shrine grounds, which is definitely a good cardio workout. It’s best to bring your own drinking water as the trek will definitely make you break a sweat and the distance between vending machines can be a bit too far apart.
The walk can be a little tedious and mostly repetitive, especially on the earlier parts, but reaching higher ground definitely rewards you with a breathtaking view of the entire city. We didn’t choose to continue the entire journey to the very top, but nonetheless, the experience was definitely exciting and wonderful.
Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion
The view of this place is probably one of the most used facades for Japanese postcards and refrigerator magnets. The Pavilion itself is very small, and visitors are not allowed to enter. Visitors are only to walk around the perimeter of the lake where they can snipe to take pictures of the pavilion from a distance. There is also the Ginkakuji, the silver version of this place which we opted not to visit anymore so as to prioritise variety in our sightseeing.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Heading over to the outskirts of Kyoto, we visited Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This is place is full of bamboos, bamboos, and even more bamboos! What happens here is basically a long walk down a path surrounded by a thick shroud of bamboos from start to finish. Nothing much to see or do here, and the pictures you will take will most likely look the same everywhere in every view. Visiting this place is more for a “check-off-the-to-do-list” experience.
Compared to Kyoto, Osaka does not have much Shrines and Temples. The major historical building that they have would be the Osaka Castle. The attraction in Osaka is more about its buzzling city life and shopping centres. This is perfect destination for those who are into shopping, partying, and looking for a Japanese culinary adventure.
Namba Walk is an underground shopping complex which stretches from Namba station all the way to the Dotonbori area. It’s a good place for getting good bargains on typical shopping items such as clothes and accessories.
Coming right out of Namba Walk is the Dotonbori area. This place is the prime destination for those into night life and awesome food trip. Some of the best restaurants in Osaka, and even Japan, can be found in Dotonbori.
Be it Ramen, Katsu, Sushi, Takoyaki, or even non-Japanese food, Dotonburi has a huge number of restaurants to choose from.
The very best ones will always have the longest lines, but the patient wait will definitely reward you with mind blowing gastronomic experience. I’d recommend trying out Ichiran and Hanamaruken for the Ramen, and Wanaka for Takuyakis.
The Osaka Castle is another favourite postcard facade. Arriving form the nearest train station, tourists will need to be prepared for a long uphill walk to the Castle. There is a transportation service going up to the Castle for a fee, but we opted to walk instead to be able to enjoy the castle ground surroundings. The walk can be tiring, but at the top are small shops that sell food and drinks where walkers could rejuvenate themselves from the long arduous climb. Inside, the Castle has actually been turned into a museum.
Each floors showcases different artefacts from different periods of Osaka’s history. There are video presentations for those who would want learn more about the Castle. Climbing to the very top gives a good view of the city.
Kobe and Nara
Other notable places to visit at the Kansai area would be Kobe and Nara. These places are perfect for quick visits, and we were able to enjoy both of these places in just one day.
First thing that comes to mind when hearing “Kobe” would be “Beef”. Kobe is known for the “Kobe Beef” that is famous all over the world for being ridiculously tender and tasty that it blows every other beef out there out of the water. We went to Kobe in the morning to experience first hand the famous Kobe Beef. Thank goodness for the internet, we easily found a great steakhouse which is just a few minutes walk from the train station. The place is called Ishida, and we chose this one because of its consistently high online reviews.
What’s unique about this place is that they cook the meat right before you and serve it in bits and in batches. That way you always get the perfect cut right from the grill. I can’t express enough how great the steak was, as it is just absolutely without a doubt, “Phenomenal”; and with no exaggeration, it will seriously ruin all other beef for you!
In the afternoon, we went straight to Nara coming from Kobe. The highlight of this trip is the Deer Park. It’s a big area where deer freely roam around with the community, and there are lots of them. You see them by everywhere; lying on the ground, crossing the street, by small groups, or by large herds.
They’re quite friendly and you can even touch them. I wouldn’t recommend getting over confident with them though , as at times they would try to snatch anything from you which they think has food inside; in a non-agressive way of course, so they usually be easily shoo’d away.
Another attraction nearby is the Todai-ji Temple. It’s a Temple with the giant Buddha inside, and yes there are still deer roaming around that area. We weren’t able to get inside the temple proper, just outside by the gate, since it closes early and we spent too much time making friends with all the deer. Still, Todai-ji Temple is a sight to behold from the outside.
There are other places to see in Kansai which we were not able to go to anymore, but I believe the places we visited should be at the top of everyone’s list. Our travel was on August which is summer, so the weather was really hot. That type of weather might not be favourable for some tourists, especially for the long walks. I would recommend traveling during the Cherry Blossom season which is usually from March to May. This way, the weather is cool and the Cherry flowers bloom in pink, which is a very beautiful picturesque view of Japan.