Perhaps I should be a little clearer…I meant the west of Japan. Anyway, here we go…
After all the great times I had in Tokyo, I didn’t think it could get any better, though I knew I was only halfway done. While Tokyo is generally regarded as the capital city, the cities of the west side of Japan have a distinctly different feel. Though they might still be called ‘cities’, they seem to maintain much more of their heritage and the style of old Japan. And while I didn’t believe it to be entirely true, I do have to admit now that people generally seem much friendlier in west Japan than in the east. I’m going to cover the Kansai region and its surrounds in this post, while the next post will wrap up my saga in Japan.
After leaving Tokyo by plane, I arrived into Kansai in the late evening, and headed straight to my hostel to drop off my bags before heading out to explore what Osaka was like after midnight. Naturally, most streets had become quite bare at this time, but the dotonbori district still had a characteristic charm about it, especially with lanterns lit up across the length of the waterway. Though many people I know don’t do this, I like to explore cities in the dead of the night, and there’s no safer place to do it than Japan. Often, you get to see a different side, and you can appreciate the beauty that it has to offer without any of the distractions of the day. I didn’t walk too far on this occasion though, as I had a big day planned out the next morning.
Now, I may be wrong about this, but Osaka doesn’t seem to have many attractions outside of the dotonbori district, so it can be explored in the space of one to two days, maybe more if you’d like to go deeper. And that’s why I’d recommend the Osaka Amazing Pass for one or two days to anyone planning to visit. You can almost certainly get great value from it since it covers public transport, and almost all of the attractions in Osaka that you could possibly want to visit. Personally, I was able to fit all of the following in one day:
- Tsutentaku Tower – an observatory that overlooks part of the city of Osaka
- Tennoji Zoo – a city zoo in Osaka that has a fair variety of animals, including penguins and polar bears (I seriously feel sorry for them in summer)
- Keitakuen Garden – a traditional Japanese garden
- Shittenoji Temple – supposedly one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan
- Osaka Museum of History – I found the view of Osaka Castle from above more interesting than any of the exhibits
- Osaka Castle – a beautiful and majestic Japanese castle from the outside, while the inside had some nice exhibits on the history of the castle
- Prefectural Government Observatory – another observatory, though this offers a view of a different part of the city
- Dotonbori River Cruise – an entertaining 30-minute cruise up and down the length of the waterway. Though there is little about anything historical, the guide usually points out any interesting places along the river
- Floating Garden Observatory Umeda – yet another observatory, again in a different part of Osaka
- Suminoe Hot Springs – nothing beats a nice hot soak after a long day, they’re open till 2am, so there’s plenty of time to enjoy it
I never planned on going to see an idol group, girl group or any musical performance in Japan for that matter, but I was on the river cruise when it passed by the live public performance of a girl group called Kamen Joshi. It was really nice to see something like that live, and I ended up going down to high-five all of the girls afterwards, even though I felt strangely guilty about it because they literally stood there for a few hours after their performance ended to high-five and take photos with everyone.
Moving on to the next city in the Kansai area, I happened to be in Kyoto while the Gion Matsuri (festival) was on, which is regarded as one of the largest festivals of the year. Kyoto is like the second capital of Japan. It embodies the long-standing culture and style of Japan in an era that has passed. There are plenty of old-style buildings here, and you’ll be able to find a shrine every few streets down. The city has done extremely well to preserve so many of its assets and culture despite the changing times – you could look down some streets and believe that you had gone back in time. I highly recommend renting a bicycle to explore the many sights around Kyoto – it’ll be worth your while as you get to see a lot just by cycling around the area.
In terms of food, the main specialties of this area are takoyaki and okonomiyaki – two things that you must try. Takoyaki are soft balls of flour with octopus stuffed inside, and served with a glazing of sauce, bonito, and green onions. They’re a great snack, and they can be quite filling too. Okonomiyaki is like a savoury Japanese pizza or pancake – it’s made of a batter with cabbage, and topped with slices of meat, sauce and bonito flakes after being cooked on a hot plate.
To the south of Kyoto lies Nara. Nara is a great day-trip because it only takes about an hour each way, and while it offers several unique attractions, most of them can be seen in a day. The most iconic aspect of Nara though would be the fact that wild deer run free throughout the city. There’s no place I’ve seen in the world quite like it, and I was actually quite surprised by the number of deer.
Before I move on to the the last part of this area, I’d just like to say that Japanese people are incredibly generous and kind. While on my way down to Kobe via train where I would be staying the next night, I had to pass through Osaka. It was late at night, and I had planned to get a few hours of rest in a net cafe before I caught the first train to Kobe so that I could drop off my bag and then head over to explore Himeji. I really only needed an hour or two at the net cafe so that I could take a shower and refresh myself, so I decided to take a nap in a local park first. Just as I was about to fall asleep, an old man on his bicycle came past me and struck up a conversation. His English was surprisingly good, and we were able to talk for quite a while on various random topics – a wonderful cultural experience. He had trouble sleeping and had decided to go for a ride on his bicycle instead, and though this was a fairly safe area, he still warned me and offered to let me stay the night at his apartment. That was truly, one of the nicest things that a total stranger had ever said to me, though I felt that I would impose on him too much so I politely declined. An interesting thing he told me was that I would probably be far safer here than any Japanese person, because many Japanese people see foreigners as alien-like beings and try to avoid them as much as possible.
Himeji Castle is probably the most beautiful castle in Japan. While some may argue on this point, the pure white walls of Himeji Castle make it look incredibly grand and majestic, especially from a distance. It’s one of the best preserved castles in Japan too, despite the earthquakes and the bombings during WWII. It was a great way to finish up this section of my trip and wind down.
You may have noticed in many of my photos thus far a multitude of black spots in the images – this is a fault in my phone’s camera. I had a proper camera in Hokkaido, and another phone camera for the rest of the trip, though I had some issues with the latter which limited my use of it. I thought about using Lightroom to fix them up, but it’d take too long. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading!