Japan 2013 – Osaka, Nara and Kyoto
In Korea your school’s birthday is a big deal and all students and teachers have a day off to celebrate (if it falls on a week day). My friend Claire and I were lucky enough to have the same school birthday and this year it fell the day before the Korean thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok. A few friends and I had decided to visit Osaka during the holiday this year, so we decided to go out a day earlier together. We caught the train to Seoul on Monday evening and stayed at my favourite place ever – Siloam jimjilbang. We were up very early the next morning to catch the airport railroad to Incheon airport.
Our plane arrived in Japan mid-morning and we mistakenly got on the slowest train ever from Kansai airport to Osaka. Luckily about 40 minutes in to our journey at one of the millions of stations our train stopped at, one of the station conductors told us to get on a faster train and we got there in quick flash time.
Upon arrival our first task was to find our accommodation for that night. We caught the subway (which was really retro and I loved it – apart from the price) to Shinsaibashi train station and then walked around the streets. On the first night we were staying in a capsule hotel, something I have always wanted to do so was pretty blooming excited about!
For the rest of the day we wandered around Amerikamura, an area with a lot of independent and vintage shops and a very relaxed feel. We also had a little walk around Namba which was close by and found lots of interesting streets and shops, saw a shrine down a tiny back alley with a moss covered Buddha and walked down tiny traditional streets. It felt quite unnerving to not be able to understand any Japanese writing as I’m so used to at least being able to phonetically read Korean even if I don’t always know the meaning! With this in mind we went in to the first restaurant with a picture menu and ate there. In the evening we sat in the main square in Amerikamura for a while chatting before heading back for a night in our capsules.
The capsule hotel wasn’t actually that far removed from a jimjilbang in that there was a shared locker room, changing room, toilets and sauna area for all the women. I found out afterwards that these actually usually just cater to business men and it can be difficult to find women’s capsules. Our actual sleeping areas were compartments with a pull down blind. I thought they were pretty comfortable although I did feel like I was in a space ship.
The next morning we were up and out early for a western breakfast (this doesn’t really happen in Korea much!) and to find our hostel where the others would be joining us later. We then caught the JR line (which is like an overland loop train) to Tennoji and visited Shitennoji temple. It was really beautiful and because it was a weekday was fairly quiet. There was a lovely view across the graveyard of the skyline and Osaka’s famous Hitachi tower.
Next we headed back to Namba to meet my UK friend Mitch who now lives in Matsumoto and had come to catch up for a day or two. The three of us then went to Osaka castle, which is very pretty on the outside but not that thrilling inside. Afterwards we went back to our hostel to meet everyone, get changed, have a quick beer in the bonsai garden on the roof and then went out to meet Mitch in Namba again. He wanted to show us around Ebisu bridge and Dotombori, two of Osaka’s most famous sights.
The neon lights on Ebisu bridge were pretty amazing! The area was jam-packed and the streets behind the river featured lots of animatronic animals hanging above restaurants in the area. We were starving so decided on a restaurant and ordered lots of delicious Okonomiyaki, delicious pancakes with lots of fillings and cheese. We spent the rest of the night drinking beer in a tiny corridor bar and a rather strange shisha bar before heading home in the wee hours.
We had a bit of a lie in the next day as we were feeling a little delicate and had already decided to spend a chilled out day in Nara, about an hour away by train. Nara used to be a historic capital in Japan so features lots of famous sights. It is also famous for the tame deer that wander around the park and temple areas of the city.
The first sight we encountered as we entered the historic area was a picturesque pond with lots of turtles swimming in it. There was to be a lake-side festival taking place that evening so lanterns were being set up on the water. We saw our first of many deer here! She came over and nabbed Emily’s (unwanted) sandwich out of its wrapper and wandered off whilst we all squealed (and Keir WWOOOOOYYYEEEDD) and tried to stroke her.
The next hour or so was spent buying special biscuits and feeding them to lots of quite brazen deer as we walked through Nara Park. We visited a couple more shrines, had coffee and then headed off for one of the main sights. Todaji temple holds claim to being the world’s biggest wooden building and oh my goodness it was absolutely enormous! The pictures unfortunately don’t do it justice. It took my breath away. What’s even crazier is that this temple had to be rebuilt after a fire and is apparently 1/3 smaller than the original! Inside the building is an enormous gorgeous bronze Buddha.
After staring at the Buddha (mouth open in awe) for a while, we followed Keir on his mission to find a geocache. Up a hill nestled amongst the trees behind Todaji temple we found another hillside temple with stunning views of the sunset. There was hardly anyone around so the atmosphere was lovely and serene.
We were pretty tired after sightseeing but we wanted to see the lantern festival by the water so went and sat on the grass for a little while as it was really beautiful. After maybe half an hour nothing happened so we went in search of dinner. We decided upon a restaurant which served a traditional set meal. Lots of small courses were delivered after each other. We weren’t entirely sure how we were supposed to eat it but an old couple opposite us had the same set so we copied them. It was yummy and included raw fish, miso soup, variations of tofu dishes and rice.
Full of food and worn out, we headed back to Osaka on an evening train and chilled out in the hostel.
Kyoto – a glance in to the past
We woke up early the next morning to catch a train to Kyoto for another busy day. Not far from the train station we found a bike rental shop and decided to travel around by bike all day. Our first destination was Kiyomizudera temple. We had to walk our bikes up a really steep alleyway to get to the temple. There were beautiful women walking around the temple grounds in gorgeous kimonos and the temple itself which was stunning, was situated up on the hill amongst trees and overlooked the city.
Next we cycled down to Gion, in the vague hope of finding a geisha. However it was blisteringly hot and we didn’t go to a teahouse, so we were obviously unsuccessful. We didn’t mind though because this area was very pretty, traditional and filled with kimono and souvenir shops. The buildings were all really narrow and made of dark wood. We decided to splurge and eat a traditional lunch in this area. This time the food was served up almost like a bento box but inside a beautifully intricate bowl. Cue all of us taking pictures of our food!
After lunch we cycled around a little and visited a few more vibrant red shrines and temples on our travels. We cycled up the philosophers’ path, a pretty cherry tree lined path and found a really cute café so sat with coffee and cakes soaking up the nice relaxed atmosphere. We were heading for another temple but by the time we had cycled there it was unfortunately closed. We started making our way back to the station, riding our pretty bikes along the riverside looking at all the attractive riverside restaurants and bars. I felt like I never wanted to leave Kyoto but it was getting dark, all the temples were closed and we were staying in Osaka so caught the train back.
Once in Osaka we tried to decide where to spend the next few hours before bed and randomly ended up getting off the JR at Kyobashi, a random stop, because everyone thought it looked ‘fun’! The streets around the station were full of neon lights and it was pretty busy (it was Friday evening). There were row upon row of tiny bar/restaurants known as Izakaya, full to the brim with suited and booted Japanese businessmen letting their hair down. We chose a bar and ordered LOADS of side dishes. I can safely say that every single thing they put down in front of us (apart from the mushrooms because I don’t like them) was mouth-wateringly delicious! There were 5 of us and usually the plate had 6 pieces of whatever dish we’d ordered on it. We all loved them so much that we had to pay ‘rock, scissors, paper’ to choose who got the extra piece. I never won!
A day in Osaka
Our final day was spent in Osaka so we took our time having breakfast. Claire had read about a bakery which apparently sold British style cakes only one JR stop away so we decided to walk and follow the train line because it was a lovely day.This wander gave us a chance to see everyday Osaka life. We saw lots of very nice bikes, a variety of different shops, people’s houses (most of which were decorated with plant pots outside) and more ornate looking food and drink establishments. The area leading up to and around Tsuruhashi station was really interesting and full of exciting looking alleyways. The bakery was in an upmarket area and the owner was from Leicester. He’d designed it with a mod theme which we weren’t too sure about. We weren’t too sure about the cakes either, apart from an amazing apple pie.
Afterwards we caught the subway to Namba AGAIN as Keir had read about a craft beer festival being held in the area, which we quite frankly couldn’t resist (apart from poor Claire who doesn’t drink any beer whatsoever)!
After a lot of searching we found the festival being held by the river and boy were there lots of tasty beer selections from all over the world, including the UK. I thought my holiday couldn’t get any better when Ash noticed someone eating blue cheese! After a short search we discovered a stall selling LOTS of cheese so bought some brie and some stilton with crackers and sat nomming them and drinking tasty ale with grins on our faces.
We split up for dinner that day because Ash, Emily and I wanted sushi, Keir wanted Octopus balls and to find a geocache and Claire wanted a bento box. Emily and I had seen a sushi restaurant nearby earlier in the day so went there. It was reasonably priced and we got to watch the sushi chef make our masterpiece of a dinner. The fish melted in our mouths and we all sat pulling faces and making noises of joy whilst eating.
We went back to the hostel and Keir, Emily, Ash and I decided to pay one of the local tiny cupboard bars a visit for a final drink in Osaka. We had a lovely evening with a very hospitable barman before returning to our hostel to get some sleep in preparation for our flights home to Korea the next day.
Needless to say, this trip to Japan further cemented my love for this amazing and vibrant country. So much so that Ash and I are now looking for employment in Japan when we leave Korea at the end of February. Fingers crossed eh!?