It was a pretty last minute decision to go to Japan. At first we thought we’d go to Tokyo, but then we decided to just do Osaka and Kyoto as we’d never been. Here are some of the trip highlights.
This was our first trip out of Tokyo (Yokohama doesn’t count), and our first time on a Shinkansen. Ever. I can’t believe myself! At first I found it quite overwhelming trying to figure out the trains, but thank goodness for a good friend giving me the tips for the JR Pass and the staff at HIS International Travel (where I bought the pass from) for their friendly advice – let me just say it was a much more pleasant experience than buying the Swiss Travel Pass, but more on that later. Eventually I bought the green car 7-day JR Pass.
The plan was to fly into Tokyo Narita, but a few days before the trip we chose to fly into Nagoya instead. We were scheduled to arrive into Tokyo at 6pm and including clearing customs, etc, I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to make the last shinkansen to Kyoto or Osaka (since the JR pass does not cover Nozomi trains). And it just felt silly to fly into Tokyo when we weren’t intending to even be in Tokyo. Flying into Osaka would have been the easiest but we couldn’t get redemption seats on such short notice.
The red eye flight into Nagoya was long enough for some decent shut eye (always easier without kids and a resolve not to watch any movies), but it’s a pity that I didn’t get a window seat on the left of the plane because the landing approach by the sea is just beautiful. It was about 14 degrees but so sunny, and good weather is always a good start to a holiday. From the airport we took a train o Nagoya Station, unfortunately the trains aren’t JR so we could not use the JR pass. Google Maps kept telling me to take a bus to the Nagoya Station instead but I’m glad I didn’t listen to them.
At Nagoya station it took us quite a while to find the JR Information Center to exchange our JR vouchers for the JR Pass, but after that it wasn’t too much trouble. We then had to go to the Shinkansen ticket office to get tickets issued to us for our trip, and we were then on our way! All in all it took us more than 4 hours from the time we landed to the time we reached our hotel in Osaka, given the waiting time and fumbling around trying to get the JR Pass exchanged. And of course we had to walk around to drool at some of the bentos and contemplate having an Yebisu beer at 10 in the morning (we didn’t, because they were not open!). The actual trip is only about 2 hours between each city.
Our first stop was Osaka. Because we were only spending 2 nights here, we chose to stay as close to Shin-Osaka where the shinkansen stops, as possible. We were eyeing the REM Osaka hotel but they were full, so we ended up at the Mariott Courtyard Shin-Osaka Station, which is directly connected to the Shin-Osaka station (duh). Just follow the signage to REM hotel and turn left towards a McD’s and walk across an overhead bridge to the hotel. The Mariott was a decent stay, with friendly staff who helped us with some of the restaurant reservations. We enjoyed our stay here.
Osaka is known as the food capital of Japan, with more Michelin stars than even Tokyo. We only had 2 short days here, so we definitely need to go back and eat our way through the city. Our lunch that day was at one of the branches of Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M. This place is only for beef lovers, and we really savoured all the beef here, although I did not have much interest in any beef after that! Too bad we didn’t have time to head to Kobe to try out the beef there! Perhaps next time 🙂
Since we had to do something touristy, we spent one of the mornings at Osaka Castle as we heard from one of the locals that was the place to go to catch the Sakura. They have a lovely large playground on these grounds (in case you bring kids, we didn’t), and there were many families having a picnic on this gorgeous weekend.
One of the highlights was the takoyaki from the roadside vans.
That afternoon we headed to Tenma street to Harukoma 春駒/はるこま (天満/寿司) for some sushi, which my husband spotted off a blog. I just noticed on Tripadvisor that is it #9 out of 26,161 eating places in Osaka!! It is a very local joint, with old men and families dining there. They do have an English menu, but I think most of us are more or less familiar with the usual Japanese names for food by now, right?
We enjoyed walking along this street, and my husband found some good deals for Sake and Whiskey at Bottle Shop. Across this was an interesting Japanese eatery which was very popular and had lot of locals eating here.
In Osaka we also tried two Michelin restaurants which we only managed to book at the last possible minute, like barely a few days before we’d left. Both were interesting experiences, but I honestly can’t say it was the most mind blowing. I’d probably have rather been squeezing with the locals at the local hole in the walls. In fact, I thought The kaiseki on Singapore Airlines was pretty decent in comparison.
We spent a night at Gion Hatanaka on a friend’s recommendation, which I only realized later, is a rather famous establishment for organizing a geisha performance plus dinner! At any rate we really enjoyed our kaiseki dinner and breakfast here and didn’t do the geisha dinner, although I would definitely not have minded. Like many of the Tripadvisor comments said, service at this ryokan is a little patchy, but overall it was decent stay.
After that we spent two nights at the Citadines Karasuma-Gojo Kyoto, which has the most interesting lobby as compared to any other Citadines or Ascott property we have stayed at. Right next to the hotel is an interesting soba restaurant, where they have 3 guys making soba all day long (or at least for the time we were there). Where we were seated were all tourists, but I did see a number of locals come in and out when we were waiting for our seats.
Our first morning in Kyoto, we walked around the the famous Yasaka Shrine, which is a large area to walk around, but I’ll have to say that temples are really not my thing, and some parts of the temple was just teeming with people. Although it’s interesting that they all have histories and stories, it feels to me like you’ve seen shrine, you’ve seen ’em all.
We decided to head to a quaint tempura restaurant for lunch, but weren’t able to get a counter seat, which totally defeats the purpose of visiting a tempura outlet, so we had a small bowl each and left in search of Ippodo tea that is completely not related to the ramen.
At Ippodo we had some green tea made for us, and it was the first time I’d had it so thick like a paste! We spent some time tasting some tea and then bought a haul to make the people at home happy. We tried both Santouka and Ippudo ramen, and of course other big names such as the famous Tsujiri green tea ice cream.
On our last day, before heading to the airport, we decided to go to Arashiyama. We saw on Google maps that there is a Sagano Scenic Railway, so we boarded the train at Torokko Saga, which you can see once you exit the Saga Arashiyama station.
Very quaint right?
We were really glad we took this short scenic ride because the views are amazing! The ride there was very pleasant, but the return trip was filled with many many tourists, so thankfully we had one journey they was pleasant.
On the way back we alighted at the Arashiyama station to walk among the bamboo groves. We first started by visiting the Okochi Sanso Garden where an entrance fee will allow you to roam the gardens, and comes with a free cup of Japanese tea and a small snack.
It is a 10-minute walk around the garden. It has a lot of steps so, no strollers here please, although you can probably leave the stroller at the tea house.
Now for the bamboo forest. The bamboo groves themselves are lovely but it is really quite crowded and not very zen. We would have wanted to have had lunch at Shoraian 松籟庵 which apparently is a tofu place on the top of the hill, but had a plane to catch.
After our morning adventure, we left for the airport in another Shinkasen. It was a smooth ride, passing through green tea plantations (or rather, patches?) and mikan plantations. Mikan are the loveliest mandarin oranges with no seeds that my kids absolutely devoured last winter.
I saw on Google Maps that we’d be passing by the Fuji area, and I was not disappointed. We’ve only seen Mt Fuji in the far far distant background from Tokyo, so this was a wonderful surprise. And what a blessing that it was fantastic weather. What a wonderful way to round up the holiday.
It was such a short trip, and there’s still so much to do. We definitely will be back!