We believe that traveling slow is the only way to really get to know a place. In Japan we chose to explore Honshu Island, the area between Osaka and Tokyo including the Kansai, Chubu and Kanto Regions. To maximize our time, we usually enter a country at one point and exit it at another. We flew directly to Osaka Airport from Gyeongju – Daegu Airport, since South Korea is closer to Osaka than to Tokyo, so tickets tend to be more affordable. Additionally, Osaka lies in the middle of the Kansai Region so it’s the perfect base to discover the area before heading to Kyoto.
Locals say Osaka is very different from the rest of Japanese cities. For instance, while on escalators you should stand on your right, as in most of Europe, but not in the rest of Japan. There is something else quite atypical: Osaka has two city centers. In the north, the area around Osaka and Umeda train stations is a labyrinth of covered streets packed with shops and restaurants. To the south, the area north of Namba Station is an extensive shopping and entertainment area with many covered streets. The famous nightlife and entertainment area of Dotonbori is nearby too.
When deciding where to stay we had in mind both locations. Since we had to use both Osaka and Namba stations we decided to stay somewhere in the middle. Located just next to a metro station with direct connection to both stations APA Hotel Osaka Higobashi Ekimae was a great choice. The room was kind of small (we didn’t expect our bed to be so tiny) but the views were outstanding. Plus, it was the first time I enjoyed the famous Japanese Onsen. What an experience: a bunch of Japanese men scrubbing and showering while watching themselves in the mirror leaving the gorgeous hot tub empty just for me! Still, I was in shock: why do they like bathing together?
Osaka’s most famous attraction is the monumental Osaka Castle. Originally built in the 16th century it was demolished at the end of the 19th Century and what we see today is a relatively modern reconstruction. The park around the castle is worth visiting, especially when considering there are virtually no other parks in the entire city. Osaka’s look is a bit scary: towers, towers and more towers with just a few pre-war buildings left. We recommend a visit to the Nakanoshima Island where some of these masterpieces are located: Osaka City Central Public Hall, Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library, the Bank of Japan Osaka Branch and the cool ultra-modern National Museum of Art.
On our way to Himeji we noticed just how densely populated Japan is. It took us about an hour to get there from Osaka station and the whole journey was within an urban sprawl. An overwhelming 100 kilometers of concrete! The main reason we went there was of course to visit the famous Himeji Castle, but we wanted to get to know the city as well. So we walked about its covered streets and then hopped on a bike for further exploration. There were tons of tourists around the castle, but we were practically alone elsewhere in the city.
Himeji Castle will blow your mind: all of Japan’s sophistication in one place. The most distinguished among many Japanese castles is also one of the few completely authentic ones. Eitan was completely taken by the place, according to him the nicest castle in the entire world. Although originally built in the 14th Century as a simple fortification it was elevated to its current shape in the 17th Century. The monumentality of the castle is the result of its vertical composition and the use of stone. But the castle structure is mostly wooden. That’s why its interior feels rather cozy and intimate. A beautiful garden surrounds the palace. Don’t forget to check the other pavilions within the compound.
Mount Koya (Koya-san)
Traveling to Koya-san was something else. We loved everything about it! True, the journey was a bit longer than the one to Himeji, but the buildings end at one-point and rice fields, hills, forests and dense vegetation begin. We took the train from Namba Station and had to change somewhere to a mostly empty local train. Once there, a funicular takes you to the top of the mountain. You can hop on a bus that takes you directly to the main temples. To our amazement, it seems most tourists haven’t discovered the place yet, so it was all peace and tranquility.
Everything is magical and takes your breath away. We usually don’t buy passes but this time the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket made sense. The guy selling tickets at Namba Station was so nice, and gave us all the information we needed. We first went to the Kongobu-ji temple, a beautiful wooden structure with a perfectly shaped garden. Then we walked to the main temple complex: Danjo-Garan. I’ve never seen anything like the Konpon-Daito temple. It looks like an ornamental space ship! Later on, we visited the giant Daimon gate and ended the day walking in the woods through the Okunoin graveyard. It’s an experience I’ll never forget: the two of us alone in the forest surrounded by 200 000 graveyards and massive trees. Scary, right? And very peaceful too.
Nara is definitively worth spending a few days at. After all, established in the 8th Century it was the first permanent capital of Japan and many impressive structures from that period still stand today. Nothing can prepare you for Nara; a brilliant city, with a cute city center, tons of heritage, fabulous parks and deer walking freely. Even better: most tourists come to Nara on a day excursion from Kyoto or Osaka. Why would they do such a silly thing? We had the place mostly to ourselves! Once the flocks of tourists leave, you can walk or bike for hours down empty streets making friends with wild cute deer.
Our Nara Washington Hotel Plaza is downtown and proved a great choice. The area is packed with restaurants and shops that open until late, with both train stations within walking distance. We rented bikes on the first day and biked from east to west, north to south until we couldn’t bike anymore. Several important temples are outside of downtown, which is the perfect excuse to get to see Nara’s suburban life, with charming little houses nested among rice fields.
The city has several interesting temples, but Todai-ji is surely the most spectacular. The size of this huge temple is impressive. The world’s largest Vairocana Buddha is inside. Tons of school kids were visiting the temple; we got asked for pictures! In the same area we visited the Kasuga-Taisha, a Shinto shrine and the Kofuku-ji temple with its five-story pagoda, Japan’s second tallest. We also visited the Yakushi-ji and the Toshodai-ji located some 5km west of the city center.
As if it wasn’t enough the last night we managed to enter the fenced area around the Wakakusayama Mountain, climbed it and enjoyed one of the most memorable sunsets ever. And all that with cute deer roaming around. We even made friends with two Canadian guys. Nara is our favorite Japanese city, no doubt about it. It’s an experience that exceeds words. So, if you are visiting Kansai Region be sure to stay a couple of nights. Nara is a real-life fantasy.