Eat, Drink, Experience – that was my intention when booking the surprise five-day holiday to Japan for John after his retirement from the Navy. Ever since we met, I wanted to take him to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and as I’d lived in Osaka for three years during 2001-2004 and travelled extensively, I knew the exact itinerary for our quick trip. Osaka, Kyoto, Miyajima Island, and Hiroshima would be the destinations we’d visit. All destinations had a lot to offer, were relatively close by thanks to the famous Shinkansen (bullet trains) and we’re easy to navigate around.
Departing from Cairns, periodically Jetstar has outrageously affordable fares so when the return trip dropped as low as $300 pp, I punched in my credit card numbers as quick as the slash of a samurai sword.
JAPAN RAIL PASS
If you are planning a trip of 5 days or longer I would highly recommend purchasing a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass). It is an affordable and VERY easy way to travel extensively through Japan and saves you time ( AND MONEY) by not having to stop at every station and buy new tickets for each ride. We purchased ours through H.I.S Travel in Cairns however you can buy your pass from the Japan Rail website and learn all about what you can and can’t do with it. Do your correct research =, knowing the regions you are travelling to and buy a pass that reflects that area. All details are on the link below.
Osaka – Famous for its food!
First stop – Osaka! Don’t be afraid to dive deep amongst the streets and concrete jungle of Osaka to truly appreciate what this city can offer. Another ‘big city’ with all that goes with it but true to city living, it’s the hole in the wall bars, sizzling side alley restaurants and dodgy back streets where you experience the cool stuff.
•Eat, eat and eat some more! Osaka is famous for its food. Steer clear of the easy option ‘tourist’ restaurants and don’t be afraid to duck into a small door of the Izakaya restaurants and indulge in their specialities.
•Eat Ramen! We loved ‘Ichiran’ on the decks of the Dontombori River. Super quirky and damn tasty!
•Check out the neon signboards on the Dontombori River and do what everyone else is doing – Selfie time! Selfie sticks are everywhere in Japan!
•Walk the streets in America Mura (America Village) Shinsaibashi and check out the shops, culture, bars, and people!
•Spend a couple of hours at Osaka Castle and surrounding grounds. If your trip to Japan is short, it may be the only chance you have to experience a castle.
•Try your luck and book a room at one of the many ‘Love Hotels’. After a long afternoon/night on the sake and vodka, I was adamant to find us one to book for a few hours, but I was hugely disappointed when our search lead to dead ends.
STAY: For our two-night stay, we’d booked the newly opened Ibis Styles hotel in Namba – only two small blocks from the famous Ebisubashi Bridge and neon signs. The rooms were fresh and modern but small compared to our western hotel standards, but thankfully the Japanese are exceptional for utilizing space efficiently. The reality was we weren’t in Osaka to spend time in our hotel room, we were there to get amongst the city vibe.
KYOTO – SHRINES, TEMPLES AND QUIRLY BARS
After 2 nights in Osaka, we used our JR Pass and took the rapid train from Shin-Osaka station to Kyoto – the original capital of Japan. Kyoto is well-known for its two thousand plus shrines and temples but we all agreed early, there was no chance we were going to spend our two days ticking items off the Lonely Planet guide. As we were visiting toward the end of the famous Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season, the city, shrines and temples were packed with hordes of tourists! If you are not a fan of crowds (who is?!), plan carefully or pack your patience hat, as you will need it!
We picked our 2-3 temples to visit and spent the remainder of our time walking the streets of Gion, indulging in the local food and bar hopped through the many quirky cafe/bars to people watch. There are some seriously ultra-cool small bars (think a space that only fits ten people max) crammed into many side alleys or tucked away in small buildings. Dare to venture off and above the streets to appreciate such drinking holes.
People watching is next level in Japan! My favourite was the lean but damn strong Japanese men who ran the streets of Gion carrying tourists seated in the rickshaws. Poor little dudes had some hefty people they were lugging around.
STAY: Kyoto Kingugasa An
Hotel prices were high in April due so I opted to book the charming three bedroom Machiya house (link above) in an outer suburb of Kyoto. Newly refurbished yet still full of character, complete with all modern amenities, close to the bus line and restaurants, it was a nice change from hotel living. I wouldn’t recommend staying here if you want to party or have a noisy family! Japanese houses are small and closely attached to neighbours so sound travels easily.
MIYAJIMA ISLAND – ONSENS, NUDITY AND WILD DEER
From Kyoto we speed south to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen (included in our JR Pass), hitting speeds over 300km per hour. On arrival, we ate the best Okonomiyaki at a small restaurant at the train station before catching another train out to the harbour to ride the ferry across to the tranquil Miyajima Island. We checked into our hotel (details below), drank more beer and Chui Hai before stripping down to get nude and jumping in the hotel Onsen. If you’re prudish and can’t stand the sight of other peoples dangly bits, these Onsens may not be for you! The male and females are seperate and are equip with steaming hot mineral water, soaps and conditioners. The boys told a funny story of two male hikers who stripped off and begun all sorts of bending and yoga stretching in the small Onsen.
There were many highlights to our brief time on the island, but for me, this special few hours stands out in my memory. Like others on the island, we dressed in our Yukatas and wandered around the small village eating yakitori at the market, hanging with wild deer, drinking more sake and beer and watching the sun set over the famous O-Torii (Grand Gate). The four of us agreed that our time on the island was the best part of the trip, and wished we could have stayed for two nights if the vacancy permitted. This hotel is very popular so book early IF you choose to visit.
After four nights touring Japan, we finally got to stay in a Japanese style room complete with roll-out futon beds/mattresses. The futon mattresses were very comfortable so take the chance if you book and ask for the ‘Japanese style’ room over the Western style! Included in the price was dinner and breakfast and you have the choice.
We would highly recommend the hotel if you visit Miyajima. It is accommodating for both couples and families.
HIROSHIMA – A SAD LESSON IN HISTORY
En route back to Osaka airport we spent four hours in Hiroshima visiting the Peace Memorial Park, A-Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Shocking, confronting, emotional and a sad lesson in world history, there was also a sense of peace in the environment. Hiroshima has rebuilt over time to become a bustling modern metropolis with lots to offer the new-age traveller. The restaurants are a diverse mix of local and international food choices and the clothes and tech shopping is exceptional.
In five quick days we certainly achieved my goal to Eat, Drink and Experience Japan and grateful that our friends, Mo and Sakeena came along with us. They were the perfect travel companions as they also love to indulge in food, booze and good times as much as us! So next time you see a cheap flight to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ log on and BOOK!