Japan

Kyoto, Japan

IMG_3188From Osaka I headed to Kyoto by Shinkansen. Shinkansen is Japan’s high-speed train system connecting most of the country. I found transportation in Japan to be easy to use and to navigate. During my time in Kyoto I utilized the Japan Rail Pass. The Japan Rail Pass gave me access to JR trains and transportation, which were convenient to most tourist sites in Kyoto.

My first day in Kyoto I tried to visit a sake brewery, which unfortunately wasn’t open at the time. From there I headed to Nishiki Market, a long narrow shopping street filled with small restaurants and shops. There were over 100 stalls in the market selling items related to food or cooking. One of my favorite shops I looked at was a knife store. The knives were all handmade in Japan, though I passed since I was using a carry-on for my trip.

The next day I decided to head to Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. This was one of the few Sake experiences I could find in Kyoto that was actually open to the public. One thing Kyoto could do is embrace Sake tourism, especially in providing more education.

The entry fee to Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum was only 300 Yen. The ticket gave me entry, a free souvenir Sake bottle (with Sake), and a Sake tasting. The museum is self-guided and smaller, though it provides a lot of information about how Sake is produced and the history of Sake in Japan.

From the museum I next headed to Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is a designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The castle was the residence of shogun Tokugawa Ieyas. The complex dates back to the early 1600s. Some of the buildings have been rebuilt due to damage from fires and storms.

The castle is surrounded by two moats, which provided protection to the palace and gardens. The complex at Nijo Castle is impressive. Much of the gardens are covered in cherry and plum trees. Nijo Castle is probably a great site to visit later in spring when the trees blossom.

On my final day in Kyoto I went to Fushimi-Inari. This shrine is dedicated to Inari (Shinto god of rice) and is considered the most important shrine to Inari. You’ll find many fox statues across the shrine, which are thought to be messengers for Inari. The earliest known structure at Fushimi-Inari predates Kyoto becoming the capital of Japan in 794.

In my opinion, Fushimi-Inari is probably the most recognized shrine in Japan due to the thousands of torii gates. The torii gates span a network of trails, which lead to the forest of Mount Inari. The further you walk along the trail, the less visitors you’ll encounter. The hike can take about 2 to 3 hours, but you can turn back before reaching the summit. Along the hike you’ll encounter small shrines and miniature torii gates.

My huge mistake with visiting Fushimi-Inari was not getting up early enough. I arrived about 10:00 AM and the site was filled with tourists. If visiting Fushimi-Inari, I highly recommend visiting the shrine around 8:00 AM. This will help with avoiding the main crowds.

In general, I found Kyoto to be packed with tourists. Part of the reason may have been due to Chinese New Year. I guestimate around 60% of the tourists I encountered in Kyoto were from China. If you travel in Asia during the beginning of the year, just be aware Chinese New Year may increase the number of tourists traveling.

Accommodation: Ibis Styles Kyoto Station

During my time in Kyoto I stayed at the Ibis Styles Kyoto Station. The hotel is located right across the street from Kyoto Station, which made it convenient to reach local transportation.

Hotel RoomBesides the location of the hotel, the price was good! Kyoto hotels are fairly expensive, yet Ibis was budget friendly and modern feeling. This was my first time staying at an Ibis property and I wouldn’t shy away from their properties in the future.

When arriving at the hotel, I was able to check-in a few hours early and was even given an upgrade. The room was small but easy to move around. The room even included a mini-refrigerator. The thing I liked the most about the property was the laundry room on the second floor. This was easy and convenient, plus made it nice not having to send out laundry to an expensive service.

 

Osaka, Japan

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Last year I decided to visit Japan for two weeks over Chinese New Year. I started my trip by spending 3 days in Osaka before heading to Kyoto. Osaka was a city I found easy to navigate and a great introduction to Japan.

The weather during the beginning of my trip was not the most cooperative. It ended up raining my first 2 days Osaka. I decided to check out the various shopping and food areas since most were covered or easy to dash between. One area I walked around was Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street. This street is well known for shops that sell kitchen and cooking utensils.

Besides exploring the shopping areas, I decided to take a food tour with Drink Osaka. This ended up being my favorite food tour in Japan, and possibly my favorite food tour in Asia. My tour ended up being just the guide (Rodney) and myself. Luckily, Drink Osaka didn’t cancel my tour since no one else booked for the evening I was there!

The tour explored the Dotonbori area of Osaka, which is home to hundreds and hundreds of bars and restaurants. I’ve never seen so many restaurants and bars in one area. Dotonobori is busy with locals and tourists trying the various foods and bars. During my tour I tried kushikatsu, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki. We also stopped at two local bars to sample sake and Japanese whisky.

Rodney then took me to a restaurant not included on the tour, where I had the opportunity to purchase and try fugu. Fugu (blowfish) is a poisonous fish and that should only be prepared by certified chefs. The restaurant had less than 10 seats and somewhere I never would have found on my own. Supposedly Jay-Z visited the same restaurant the year before during his visit to Osaka.

I tried fugu two different way. One version was roasted fugu in warm sake, known as Hirezake. The other was fugu served with soy sauce. I had the chance to try handmade tofu, which was some of the best tofu I’ve tried.

 

Accommodation: ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka

IMG_2906During my time in Osaka I stayed at the ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka. The hotel is located in downtown Osaka and overlooks the nearby Dojima River and highway. There are multiple subway stations nearby and a free shuttle to Osaka Station.

The ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka was modern and recently updated before my stay. Upon check-in I was upgraded to a queen room with a view due to my IHG status. The room was the largest and most spacious I encountered during my trip to Japan. There was even a small sitting area that overlooked the Dojima River and highway. The only downside was the noise late one night from the nearby highway. The highway is popular with the infamous street racing that takes place in Osaka.