For our “fall break” this year we decided to leave SE Asia and experience a country we’ve long desired to visit, Japan. We left for Osaka, Japan from Bangkok on a Sunday afternoon and arrived in Osaka approximately 5 hours later. Osaka is interesting because Kansai International Airport if situated on an island of reclaimed land, dredged up from the sea floor. When landing, it looks like you are about to land in the middle of Osaka Bay.
Once we exited the plane and made our way through immigration, etc. we looked for the “Klook” desk to pick up a pre-paid SIM card we had pre-ordered before arriving in Japan. Unfortunately, the Klook desk closed at 10:00pm and we didn’t get there until about 10:30pm. Damn! Luckily I had prepared for this and printed out directions to our hostel in Osaka. We hopped on the Namba-Nankai Railway headed towards Namba Station. At this point it was getting rather late and we were struggling to keep our kids awake due to the calming rocking motion on the train. The train was SO VERY QUIET. All Japanese passengers were sitting quietly using their phones.
As we arrived at Namba Station we then had the challenge of finding the Nerarel Hostel. We walked out the train spot in the wrong direction and had to circle the entire Namba Station before finding Nerarel. Success! We found it! Or so we thought…. The entry door was locked. There was a sign out front saying that we needed to call the sister property to have someone check us in after 11:00pm. At this point it was about 12:15AM and we had no SIM card to make calls. We felt stranded so we gestured to a random gentleman on a bike that ended up being a police officer. He spoke little English but was eventually able to call the number listed and hand us the phone. The receptionist arrived 15 minutes later and checked us in to our little hostel with two bunk beds, a small desk, and no TV. It was TINY!! We were starving because our flight did not offer dinner. We put our things away and went across the street for our first meal.
This first meal in Japan was amazing and I think it was so because of how hungry we were. We walked in to a small diner with a wrap around, low bar. There was two computer kiosks at the entry way where you ordered. You pick your meal, any sides, and drinks and then you insert Japanese Yen. Any change is dispensed and tickets are printed. You hand the stack of tickets to the waitstaff and take a seat. Within minutes, your food is delivered. It’s like Japanese fast food I guess?? I realized how common this was the more time we spent in the country.
The food we got was an assortment of miso soup, kimchi, Kirin Beer, and beef gyudon. The gyudon is literally a beef bowl with rice, green onion, tofu, and various toppings. Mine was served on a flame-heated cast iron dish and I added a raw egg to it which slowly cooked in the dish.
This stuff was RICH but awesome, especially at 2:00AM….HAHAHA… It reminded me of my late night Waffle House visits in Atlanta. After dinner it was time to go to bed in preparation of the exploration of Osaka the next morning.
We woke up around 9:00AM, took showers, and made our way our to JR Namba station to find our pre-ordered SIM cards from a different pickup spot.
JR Namba is a different station from Namba station, as it is on the Japanese Rail (JR) line. We walked into Namba station first and tried to follow signs, mostly in Japanese, to JR Namba station via “Namba Walk” which is an underground tunnel connecting the two stations. Upon first visit the train station is a dizzying maze of connecting rail lines.
We were utterly confused at this point if we were going the right direction. We tried to ask a few people but they unfortunately didn’t speak english very well. I will say that Japanese people that we met were VERY friendly and tried to help if we seemed lost. After about 45 minutes of searching we finally found the “OCAT” tourist information center to get the SIM card. Once we had the SIM, life was MUCH easier with the use of Google Maps and Google Translate. We made our way to one of the central tourist spots, Dotonbori, to check things out.
Dotonbori was very cool! It is overloaded with gift shops, restaurants, sushi spots, ramen houses, and bright flashy neon signs. Down the center is a canal dividing up the area. I cannot stress how impeccably clean things were! Not a cigarette butt, crumbled piece of paper, or tin can to be found. I was amazed!
As we walked, we saw a long line of people waiting for a street food so I decided to jump in and try what they were making. The food was “takoyaki”. I really didn’t know what it was but people were waiting in lines 25 people long. I ordered a regular-size order through another kiosk and handed my ticket to the cooks. These things looked like little pancake balls with fried garlic and onions on top, garnished with mayonnaise. My daughter and I shared it and realized there was also tiny octopus tentacles inside them as well! It was ok for me, texturally weird, not something my daughter much enjoyed.
We went down a side street to have our first Japanese ramen experience. It was interesting because we ordered our ramen through a kiosk outside and then walked in and sat the a bar surrounding the kitchen. We handed over the tickets and they prepared whichever ramen we ordered. You could hear the “slurps” of satisfaction all around.
After this stop we continued to tour the street, finding a coin locker to store our baggage for a few hours. We then headed towards Kuromon Ichiba Market, which was highly recommended by a few Thai friends. It was awesome because it had so many varieties of seafood. They had shrimp, prawns, oyster, urchin, squid, octopus, king crab,… you name it! There was pretty much anything from food, clothing, art, etc. We rummaged around and I had to try some “time sale” Red King Crab for 200 yen.
After spending a good while in Dotonburi we decided to make our way towards Kyoto to check in to our AirBnB in the Shimogyo Ward of Kyoto Prefecture. The entire journey there took about 1.5 hours from JR Namba Station to Kiyomizu-gojo Station. The AirBnB was a classic machiya-style Japanese wooden home called Aotake-an. It was AWESOME. It had three bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, hot tub, and a japanese garden. The windows looked like something out of Karate Kid, with a grid-papered pattern.
That evening we walked towards Hokanji Temple looking for food, but quickly realized that the area was more of a tourist destination rather than a place with food options. Either way it was beautiful to see the sun setting around the temple.
This area of the city is mainly full of touristy gift shops and fine dining so we ended up near the canal off of Pontochodori Street, which is filled with restaurant options. Our son love the beef from the previous night so we ended up having beef gyudon again at another gyudon fast-food place. Afterwards it was time to go to bed.
The next morning, we walked towards Kiyomizu-gojo Station and stopped off at fruit market on the way. We got some deliciously crisp apples for a quick breakfast that my son still talks about.
First place we traveled to was Arashiyama Ward to see a Monkey Park, the Bamboo Grove, and the Sagano Romantic Scenic Railway. Upon arrival at Arashiyama we walked a few km towards the monkey park. There was a beautiful river running through the center of the complex.
We scaled a series of some steep inclines and twists to finally make it to the top where the Monkey Park was located. There were stunning views of the city and surrounding prefecture.
The monkey’s ran wildly around us, playing and fighting with each other. You could feed them if you wanted, but only within the confines of a building which had wired fencing to prevent an ambush by the monkeys. It would not be safe to attempt feeding them while walking freely outside.
After an hour or so at the monkey park, we walked our way towards the Bamboo Grove. There were rickshaws’ everywhere offering to take you around by foot. There was a very nice dining complex nearby with all sorts of noodle dishes, deep fried foods, and beer. We made a short stop and had some grilled chicken skewers. Then, onwards we went to the Bamboo Grove. It was a beautiful sight, yet very crowded. We found ourselves ready to leave after about 20/30 minutes. It was a maze of Bamboo that you could easily walk for a few hours.
We used the GPS to walk towards the Sagano Romantic Train, which is operated by JR Railways.
The Sagano Romantic Train ride is a short 30 minute ride from one end of a deep gorge to the other, traveling through some beautiful countryside. The train is supposedly an antique still in operation. Our children loved it and we were able to see the rushing river below and the vast array of plants. I recommend it to anyone looking for a nice break from walking.
After Arashiyama and the Sagona Romantic Train ride, we went to Fushimi Inari Taisha. This was our last tour stop for the day. We took the train to the Fushimi Inari Station and found ourselves very close to the attraction upon exiting the train. The shrine is only a short 5/10 minute walk. This was an impressive structure said to celebrate rice and foxes. It is lined with red archways that extend for a very long time. Each red gate is supposedly paid for by donations from different people. I hear it takes almost an hour to walk the entire loop. Our kids were tired by this point so we spent about 45 minutes before leaving. It is a very iconic location and featured in films and television.
After a busy morning, we came back to the AirBnB for a short rest. It was nice to relax for a bit before going out to find some non-japanese food for the evening. We found a great italian pizzeria nearby called Goichi Pizza. The food, the wine, and the waiters were great! Just what we needed after a long day of touring Kyoto. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Kyoto.
Next morning we checked out of our AirBnB and walked to train station to put baggage in coin lockers. Throughout the last day in Kyoto we walked to Otani Hombyo Tombs, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, and Yasaka Shrine. This was perfect because all three were in rather close proximity to each other.
By around 3:30pm in the afternoon, we were ready to go ahead and head towards the airport hotel in Osaka to be prepared for our departure the next morning. We returned to the train station to get our luggage from the coin lockers and made our way to Kansai Airport to check in to the very swanky Hotel Nikko for the night. Japan was a whirlwind of excitement! I’d love to go back!