Kansai Region Part 1 – Kyoto and Osaka

We’re spending about 10 days in the Kansai region of Japan. We have been having a hard time deciding what we should do and what we should leave for next time because there is so much to do in this part of Japan! We have had a pretty packed itinerary since arriving from Tokyo, and we have a little more to squeeze into our last few days here before we move on to Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Here’s what we’ve been up to lately!

Tuesday June 12 As I mentioned in a previous post, this was the day we arrived via Shinkansen into Kyoto from Tokyo. We checked in to K’s House, the youth hostel where Mike and Laura stayed while they were visiting the city 4 years ago. It is a good place – decently priced, clean and bright. We had 2 beds in a 4 person room, and no room mates on the first night! We dropped off our bags, showered up, and then headed out towards the covered shopping streets downtown and, more importantly, Nishiki Market for some dinner! However, we didn’t make it there for dinner because we passed an Ichiran Ramen shop on the way. It was too tasty last time, and we were too hungry to keep walking. After that, we passed through Teramachi Arcade and looked at all the wares on display. We filled in the (very small) gaps in our bellies with some breaded, fried mini chicken fingers that everyone was buying from a little stall on the shopping strip. We split a “single” which cost 200 yen – a fantastic deal for the amount of chicken they handed over. Yum! Once we were finished walking through the arcade, we crossed the street into Nishiki Market and marveled at all the food – fish, pickles, candies, pre-made snacks on sticks… the list goes on! But we were full up, and decided to return the next day for dinner. We walked through Gion (the geisha district) on the way home, and saw two geishas hurrying through the street! Mike told me all about what it looked like when the cherry blossoms were blooming. I think I would like to come back for that!

Wednesday June 13 We explored many of the shrines and temples of Kyoto. We started with a walk up to Kiyomizu-dera – a beautiful and extremely old (founded in 798, current buildings are from 1633) Buddhist temple that is extremely popular with tourists. Unfortunately a lot of it was under repair and covered with scaffolding, but it was still very impressive! We found many school kids would come up to us as part of their ‘speak English’ excercises. This happened to us in Nikko as well – questions of “Hello, do you speak English? Can we ask you some questions? Where are you from? What’s your favourite part of Japan?” and the all important “Can we get a picture with you?”. We hand out little Canadian flag lapel pins to the kids, which goes over great with them, and this time we got a photo with one group for ourselves!

After Kiyomizu-dera, we wandered through shopping streets, the grounds of many temples and shrines, a large city park and finally ended up at Chion-in temple, which was also undergoing repair. This time, it was impressively so. The sign said the main building will be under construction until 2019, and they had erected a huge metal frame around it. Despite this, the temple buildings were still in use, and we watched a monk performing a ceremony for a little while in addition to walking around as much of the grounds as we were allowed access to. Once we were finished with Chion-in, we had worked up quite an apetite, so we headed back to the Nishiki Market to pick up some dinner. We picked up a few pancake type things, and some other savoury items, and then grabbed some sweets. Then we headed back to the hostel to put our feet up and wait for nightfall – the plan being to go and see Gion lit up at night.

Back at the hostel we ended up making friends with two French guys from Normandie who were intending to have a night on the town, as it was their last night in Kyoto before heading to Tokyo. We decided to try and find a certain bar (called “A Bar”) down in Gion, and set out to find it. Its location wasn’t immediately obvious, and we ended up at a different place instead where we met a cool bar tender and 3 Japanese girls who chatted with us until the wee hours of the morning. It was lots of fun!

Thursday June 14 Staying up so late the night before probably wasn’t the best idea, as our plan for Thursday was to hike up and down a mountain ridge which separates the towns of Kibune and Kurama. We took the subway and another train out to Kibune, a quaint little place with dozens of lovely restaurants that have platforms over the river that passes through the town (which makes a very nice environment to eat on a hot day, we are told!). We visited a few shrines there and chatted with a Mexican-American family for a while. Then we took to the climb. It was hot, and we were astounded by the number of older people, and young women in fancy shoes who we passed on the trail. I certainly wouldn’t consider attempting such a climb without my runners! At the top of the ridge, there are a few shrines and temples, and lovely quiet places to sit. Then about a third of the way down the other side is Kurama-dera, a huge temple. This might be my favourite temple so far, since it wasn’t a zoo of tourists milling about, as it is a fair bit out of town (and up a giant hill). We took our shoes off, and lay on a platform with some other weary hikers, listening to the gongs and the monks singing inside the main building. We spent the better part of the afternoon relaxing up there. It was wonderful! Then we tackled the rest of the descent, which went rather quickly. We had planned to visit an onsen in Kurama, once we reached the town, but it was too far for our weary legs, and we still had a ways to go to get back to Kyoto. Hungry from the day’s walk, we scarfed some burgers from the McDonald’s (our first non-Japanese food) by the train station before heading back to the hostel to pack up for our trip to Osaka. Even though I was very tired when we woke up, I was very glad we did that hike – it is a highlight of the trip so far.

Friday June 15 We grabbed a quick ramen lunch at the architectural wonder that is Kyoto train station, and then arrived in Osaka in amazing time. The trip from Kyoto to Shin-Osaka station by Shinkansen takes only 15 minutes! That’s barely enough time to get comfortable! Once there, we found the street where our hotel was with no problem, but then couldn’t find the building. When we booked it on Expedia, it was called “Sunny Stone Hotel”, but none of the buildings had any English on them when we got there, and we couldn’t remember what the picture of the place had looked like. After about 10 minutes of wandering, we stopped some locals, and they pointed to the building we were standing in front of. Oops! Next time, we will be more careful! The difficulties arise in the fact that Japanese buildings don’t have addresses like the ones we have in Canada – the numbers, if they are displayed at all, do not appear in order as you walk down the street, and usually you are given a block number, and then you must look around a bit. We arrived too early to check in, so we dropped our bags and headed to the Umeda Sky Building, a 40 story building with funky architecture and a lookout at the top. We examined Osaka’s skyline until it was time to check in (they have a building with a road going through it!), and then headed back to put our feet up before meeting my friend Hikaru for dinner. Hikaru and I stayed in the same guesthouse in Washington DC, and it was great to see her again! She took us out for an amazing shabu shabu (a sort of Japanese hot pot) dinner, in the restauraunt where the meal originated! The restaurant was Japanese style, with the waitresses in traditional dress, and we had a private room. Oishii! It was fun to catch up with her, and she taught us a bit more Japanese. After dinner we made arrangements to meet up the next day to tour Osaka, and then took the subway home.

Saturday June 16 We met Hiarku at 10 am in the lobby of our hotel, and then set off for the Osaka Museum of Housing & Living, which is up in a building and contains a life-sized reproduction of an 1830s Edo-period Osaka neighbourhood which you can walk around freely in. It was cool to see what it looked like back then, and the best part was the opportunity to get dressed up in kimonos and walk around the town that way. Mike took a little convincing, but in the end we got some great photos! We worked up an appetite at the museum, and headed to a famous takoyaki shop for a light lunch. Takoyaki, otherwise known as octopus balls, is a dumpling (or spherical pancake) made out of batter with ginger and octopus on the inside. Mike had them last time he was in Osaka, and thought they were great. I agree! After lunch, we went to Osaka-jo (Osaka Castle), and learned about how it played a role in the unification of Japan, and about the great battles that happened there. We also got a great view from the top floor! Finally, it was time to head to the soccer stadium in order to get good seats for the game. It is possible to buy unreserved seats, and the fans are dedicated, so even though we showed up 2 hours early, there were already hundreds of people in the unreserved section! We got some okanomiyaki, gyoza and beer for dinner, and settled in to wait for the game to start. An under-12 game kept us entertained before the players came out to warm up. The fans were impressive – lots of singing, huge flags and drums, true to my experience in Bremen (and more impressive than what happens at BMO for the TFC!). A lot of the soccer songs that are sung are to tunes of Italian opera and other western tunes, which is a neat mix of cultures. Both teams were very good – the play is much better than in the MLS league back home. We were also treated to VERY heavy rains for most of the game. The clouds looked threatening, and I was glad we bought some vinyl rain coats in the Gamba Osaka colours. Not only did we fit in to the fan section well, it kept everything but my shoes dry! In the end, Gamba Osaka lost in extra time to the Uwara Red Diamonds, and we went squish squish all the way home.

Sunday June 17 Sunday was a rest day, and we slept in late, and then spent time writing, uploading photos and writing posts, which was good, because it took all day for my shoes to dry out. Keeping up with the writing has been a bit challenging because our hotel here in Osaka doesn’t have wireless internet, so we’ve been taking turns using the laptop. When it isn’t my turn, I have been writing postcards (which are very hard to find here!). Now we just need to locate a post office. After a sedentary day, we decided to get out in the evening, so we visited the shopping district of Shinsaibashi and the Dotonbori Arcade. It is like the covered streets in Kyoto, but bigger and with more people and neon lights. It was a lot of fun! We saw a Hub bar, so we dropped in for a quick pint and a snack of fish and chips (eaten of course with chopsticks), and then headed back to the hotel.

That sums up our first few days in the Kansai region. We are staying here until the 22nd – stay tuned for the rest!