[TRAVEL] Japan in Winter (27 Jan – 6 Feb 2015) – Osaka, Kobe, Himeji, Nara, Kyoto

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Schedule
Day 1 – Arrival at Kansai (12pm)
Day 2 – Rinkku Premium Outlets
Day 3 – We split into 2 groups, one went to USJ and we went to Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Day 4 – Spent it sick =(
Day 5 – Himeji & Kobe
Day 6 – Move to Kyoto
Day 7 – Kiyomizudera, Yasaka Shrine, Tofu kaiseki in Gion
Day 8 – Heian Jingu, Rozan-ji Temple, Imperial Palace grounds, Yoshida Shrine
Day 9 – Arashiyama, Togetsu Bridge, Tenryu-ji Temple, Bamboo forest
Day 10 – Nara, Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha, Kofuku-ji Temple
Day 11 – Kinkaku-ji Temple, Departure from Kansai (7pm)

*** Skip to the end of this portion if you don’t want to read about the logistics***


Air Tickets : Cathay  Pacific

Travel Time : 3hrs + 3hrs, and 2 hour layover in HKIA
Cost : Roughly SGD$650 round trip

Upon reaching Osaka, get your SIM cards or pocket wifi rentals picked up at the airport.
The ordering of the SIM card of pocket wifi usually has to be done 1 week before arrival. I didn’t use this company, but you might want to take a look : http://japanwifiservice.com/en/order-guide.html .
I previously used Veltra (http://www.veltra.com/en/asia/japan/ctg/160692:wi_fi_router_rental/) and it was good and cheap. No complaints about it.
I’m never ever going to order a SIM card again because
– the data was capped at 1GB (I ordered the 4G SIM card) and ran out on the last day
– I got it to put into my Huawei device, but discovered that my device was too new and the SIM Card wasn’t compatible, so I ended up putting it in a spare mobile phone and tethering.

Osaka 3 bedroom apartment, 6 days, SGD$1000+

CHEAP AND CHEERFUL! 3BR Namba!! in Osaka

Apartment in Osaka, Japan. A great little 3 bedroom in the heart of Nipponbashi’s Den Den town. Perfect for groups of friends, small families or couples who are travelling together, this is an awesome place for those who want to be near the action but are on a budget! ***… View all listings in Osaka

We stayed at an airbnb apartment about 10mins walk from Namba station. The location is pretty decent, lots of food and sights, and 5mins walk from Kuromon Market. It has an in-suite kitchenette and washing machine, as well as 3 bedrooms; which is good if you’re travelling in a group. It was comfortable, and decent sized by Japanese standards, and a pocket wifi device was provided, as were heat packs, bath amenities, towels etc

On to the cons : the heating consisted of 3 mobile heaters – 2 blowing out hot air and 1 used heating elements… something like how a toaster works. The 2 blowing out hot air also used gas, and I was in constant fear that the hose would detatch and kill us all at night. I guess it would be ok to stay there in summer or the warmer months.
The walls are really really really thin as well. I can hear the people in the next bedroom turn around in bed, cough, mumble… This wasn’t a problem for my other travelmates, but I’m a really really light sleeper, so it bothered me quite a bit.

Almont Hotel Kyoto http://www.hokke.co.jp/english/almont_kyoto.html

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I’m going to go right ahead and recommend this hotel with 5 stars.
The rooms are soundproof, clean, comfortable… the service staff are helpful and polite. Getting there from Kyoto Station is easy because the road leading to the hotel is flat, and about 10mins walk – it was easy to push suitcases and carry stuff over.
What tipped the scales in favour of a 5/5 rating from me was the public bath. It’s open in 2 shifts a day, and there’s always a steady stream of people going in and out, a testimony of how popular it is. It took a while for me to wrap my head around the idea of soaking in a hot pool with other ladies, sky clad, but I’m glad I did. There’s something therapeutic about letting the heat from the water replace the winter chill in your bones, even if it’s just for 5 minutes a night.
There’s also a Lawson across the street, and lots of food in the Station.

***          End of Logistics section           ***

Day 1 – Arrival (12pm)
Day 2 – Rinkku Premium Outlets
Day 3 – We split into 2 groups, one went to USJ and we went to Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Day 4 – Spent it sick =(

In Osaka, if its your first time, you might want to visit the Osaka Castle and gardens, buy a katana home and dress up as a samurai or something. We walked around dotonburi, denden town and stopped by kuromon market every day.
I planned to visit the owl cafe, but it didn’t work out because I was unwell and wasted a day.

If shopping is your thing, then the Premium Outlets is worth exploring. It’s not possible to finish all the shops in one day, so if you’re intent on combing through every single shop, you’ll probably need 2 or 3 days. I’m not a huge fan of shopping, so I could have given this a miss. It’s also only one stop from Kansai Airport, so you can plan to drop by right before you fly off.

The best part about Osaka is possibly the Kuromon Market. They sell Kobe Beef, Tuna Sashimi (ootoro, chutoro etc), soups and various other quality fresh produce, for much cheaper than restaurants.

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Osaka Aquarium was a nice trip. It’s not a very big exhibit, and their main tank isn’t impressive – the viewing wall is small and fragmented because the tank is a weird shape. However, they do have a resident whaleshark, which made it worthwhile. To me, at least.

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A couple silhoutted against a tank of marine life.

Oh, and super cute whale shark plushies… =D

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Day 5 – Himeji & Kobe

Himeji is a beautiful place. When you visit the castle (restoration works finish this month!) make sure you get the combined ticket to the Himeji kokoen too, its the castle gardens and there are something like 9 different themed gardens.

On the day this picture was taken, it was a clear day, with light snow flurries. The wind was killer, but totally worth braving for this view.

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This is a little pavillion in one of the gardens, which you can sit in if you take your footwear off. Taking winter footwear off was too troublesome, and sitting around in winter jackets didn’t appeal to me, so we didn’t sit in it. There are huge ass fish in the ponds too.

It’s really quite amazing how much effort is put into landscaping and caring for the plants. Even in winter, they look beautiful, especially when a little sun highlights everything.

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Unfortunately, for reasons, we didn’t get to spend much time in Kobe. We planned to reach Himeji around 11, have lunch there and explore, then move off to Kobe in the afternoon around 3, walk around and have a good  beef dinner.

We hit Kobe around 6pm and decided to try out A1. It’s not Kobe beef, but it’s still a tasty, nice steak nonetheless.

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Day 6 – Move to Kyoto
Day 7 – Setsubun Festival at Kiyomizudera, Yasaka Shrine. Tofu kaiseki in Gion

One of the rare times you’ll see a Geisha/Maiko performance in public, for free!
I have to say though, that Kiyomizudera is much nicer to look at in spring. In winter, it just lacks the colours, and the snow is mostly too light to stick.

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Bean throwing festival at Yasaka ShrineDSC_8296

Geisha/Maiko performanceDSC_8313 DSC_8343
Day 8 – Heian Jingu, Rozan-ji Temple, Imperial Palace grounds, Yoshida Shrine

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The Largest Torii gate in Kyoto (Maybe in Japan too), Heian Jingu
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I believe this is a Setsubun ritual where they take turns to drink something.

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Heian Jingu

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Rozan-ji Temple, Oni danceOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA DSC_8488

 

Yoshida Shrine Setsubun festival and outdoor food and games stallsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tying the bad fortune on a tree so that it won’t follow you homeDSC_8534

Using ricepaper sieves to catch goldfishOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA DSC_8566
Day 9 – Arashiyama, Togetsu Bridge, Tenryu-ji Temple, Bamboo forest

I would love to wake up to this view every morning… Tenryu-ji Temple gardens.
We paid 600 yen to have access to the gardens as well as the temple itself. You have to take off your shoes, but it’s worth the trouble to be able to sit on the tatami mats with the warm sun in your face.

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Here’s another view of the Tenryu-ji Temple, this time from the garden, directly opposite where I took the photo above.

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Exiting from the Tenryu-ji Temple, you can head directly to the Bamboo forest.

Its so calm and pretty, and silent.
This is easily my new favourite location. There’s something transcendant about walking through the bamboo forest, listening to the leaves swish against each other… Except when there are drunk Korean tourists yelling at each other. After they passed through, though, it was very enjoyable.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There was a couple having a DIY wedding shoot there too. I managed to sneak some pics of the bride as she was posing. It’s a really nice location to do a shoot!

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There are lots of rickshaw pullers around too. They will try to sell you their services. The people I saw taking the rides seemed to really enjoy themselves. Kiyomizudera has plenty of rickshaw pullers around too, and it might be more exciting to take a ride there because it’s on a hill. Arashiyama is pretty flat.DSC_8781

Stopped by a little kushiyaki place for dinner.

This is my ultimate favourite… a meat patty with a raw egg yolk and teriyaki sauce. mmmmmm…!
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Chicken skewers, with ume and wasabi topping.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This dessert was so good that I had 2 servings. Toasted bread with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup…

To die for.

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Day 10 – Nara, Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha, Kofuku-ji Temple

Nara is the place to go for animal lovers. I had my funniest experience there this trip, and it didnt just involve deer.
At Nara, you can buy deer biscuits, it’s much much cheaper if you buy in bulk, I can’t remember the exact price though. So, once you buy the biscuits, the deer will throng you, so be prepared. They can get really aggressive, especially the males. We weren’t prepared and we got butted and bitten and one pile of biscuits dropped onto the floor and all the deer were munching it up happily. They even bit our unopened cookies and plastic bags out of our hand. So, just BE READY, once the biscuits reach your hand, you’re a target.

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Stay away from the males if you’re worried. A couple of them were fighting each other and their heads were bloody from repeatedly butting each other.

Males can be identified by these bottle cap looking things on their heads. There’s an annual ceremony in Nara where they remove the horns of the males.

Speaking of ceremonies and festivals, there’s a hillside burning festival every year in January, and we missed it by one weekend. It’s the 3rd or 4th weekend of every January, and it seems it’s quite a spectable.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Todai-ji Temple.

It has a pair of little golden horns on top, and plenty of deer milling around.DSC_8852

In the inner temple grounds, there are no deer, and you have to pay to enter.

This temple houses the largest buddah statue, and it’s really quite huge.DSC_8865

On the way to the next temple, Kasuga Taisha, I decided it was safe because there were few deer around, and I opened up a dumpling to eat. As I took my second bite, a huge crow flew over from behind and plucked the dumpling right out of my hand. I was kind of dismayed, cos I was quite hungry, but pretty amused at the same time.

So, just beware of other animals, other than deer!

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Managed to trot over to Kofuku-ji Temple as the last few rays of the setting sun shone on it, making it look peachy.

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Some school girls getting harrassed by deer at Todai-jiOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And a well earned dinner at the market near the Nara train Station.
The beef sukiyaki was delicious, and the homemade tofu too. I’m still dreaming of the yummy flavours…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Day 11 – Kinkaku-ji Temple, Departure (7pm)

On the last trip, I visited the Silver Pavillion Temple (Ginkaku-ji), but unfortunately, it wasn’t a sunny day and the temple didn’t look that great. I discovered the difference even a little bit of sunlight makes to these temples at Kinkaku-ji this year. The exterior practically glows and comes alight, as though it has some kind of power source within it. It’s gorgeous.

 

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Some shots of the temple, from different angles

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Along the main road, there’s a little restaurant serving what looks like fusion cuisine. This meal summed up everything I was craving for the whole trip – Japanese Curry, Raw Egg and coffee.
The curry and egg baked rice was awesome, and I think it was my favourite meal there.

The coffee was soso, a nicer coffee would have made the meal even more enjoyable.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Places and things I missed doing this trip, which I would like to do next time!

– A good Japanese kaiseki meal
– A stay at a traditional ryokan
– An outdoor onsen
– Fushimi Inari Temple
– Owl Cafe
– A longer time in Kobe, and a proper Kobe beef meal
– Visit the snow monkeys at Arashiyama
– Rent a bicycle

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