Venture outside of Tokyo and you will find some really cool places to explore. In my opinion, cities like Kyoto and Osaka deserve more than a few days, while Nara can be visited in a day. Kyoto was my personal favorite. The glow of lanterns in old Gion creates a magical atmosphere when the sun goes down and the streets become more lively. During the day there are a ton of things to see and do. In contrast, Osaka has more of a city feel and more action. Nara had the deer….oh god.. so many deer.
What to Do in Kyoto
Just when you think you have seen all of the shrines and temples that you can handle in Japan, you come to Inari Shrine in Kyoto. Wow! We spent half a day at this shrine. One word comes to mind when I think of Inari Shrine. Stairs. So many stairs. But the climb to the summit was oh so worth it! Bring a lot of water, take your time and enjoy the views!
Visit the Arashiya Monkey Park. This was my favorite day in Kyoto! After a 20 minute challenging uphill climb, you reach the park, which is actually a mountain where these adorable monkeys live. My favorite part? The monkeys are free to come and go. The mountain is their home. When you reach the park, you can explore the paths, observe the monkeys and go inside a cabin where you can purchase apple pieces and peanuts to feed to the monkeys through zoo-like bars….so essentially, the humans are caged and the monkeys are free!! This was crazy fun!
Take a stroll through the Bamboo Forest. I didn’t feel it was worth going out of the way for, but it’s near the Monkey Park and there is a great little town with the most unusual shops along the way. It’s free to enter and there were yummy snacks sold near the entrance.
Take a day trip to Nara! Nara is a town entirely over run with Bambi-like deer. I’m pretty sure that the mayor of Nara is actually a deer! The town itself commercializes on this. There are deer cookies, purses, t-shirts, boxer shorts and even deer antlers that some people are insane enough to actually wear. As you get off the train and head to town, you will see the deer roaming the streets. I couldn’t wait to feed them the crackers that I read about online.. Top 10 things to do in Nara? I read that feeding the deer was in the top 5! So exciting! You can buy these “deer” crackers on every corner for about $1.00 US .My son entered the park with his “cracker pack”, fumbling to untie the biodegradable string around the crackers when the attack occurred. The deer surrounded him, one pulled on his shirt when suddenly, out of nowhere…..a large male deer bit his ass! We were assured by the “Nara Deer Association” (yes, there is one) that the deer do not carry rabies. Long story short, my son became incident # 243 this year . That’s a lot of deer biting incidents in the park of Nara!!! My suggestion; do visit Nara, it was a cool place to visit. Feed the deer at your own risk! There is are also some really worthwhile temples and shrines in Nara. We went to Todaiji Temple to see the giant Buddha! The train from Kyoto to Nara took a little over an hour with one transfer.
Shop at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. An hour or two of fun and great on a rainy day! They sell everything from Octopus on a stick to Hello Kitty slippers!
Things to do in Osaka
Visit Osaka Castle. The castle grounds were really stunning. The inside of the castle? In my opinion, not as impressive. I have a sneaking suspicion that a drunk curator organized the exhibits. It didn’t make much sense. It was also super crowded. There are boat rides that you can take around the castle moat as well.
Enjoy a fun filled action-packed day at Universal Studios Japan! I loved hearing the characters speak in Japanese! Tickets are reasonably priced and the park is a decent size. I was so excited when I saw that the Jaws ride was still operating there (only place in the world) . However, it was CLOSED for routine maintenance the day we were there!!! I had flashbacks of standing at the summit of Mt. Mitsutoge looking for Mt Fuji!
Stay overnight at a temple. We stayed at Gyokuzoin Temple about 2 hours from Osaka. The journey there was a bit daunting, but I felt it was worth it. My son may have a different opinion on this one. Gyokuzoin is run exclusively by monks and accommodations are sparse and simple. The meals are served in the traditional Japanese style, on the floor… and I never knew how uncomfortable this would be! This particular temple performs a fire ceremony starting before sunrise which is free for guests. We both agree that this was well worth getting up at 4:45 a.m. for. Fire Ceremony tip; they beat an extremely loud drum during the ceremony. Don’t be late or the last seats will be 2 inches away from this drum (speaking from experience). Then they proceed to burn pieces of wood with wishes written on them (offerings). I was desperately looking for a fire extinguisher as the “bon fire” got larger and larger…My wish was to not die of smoke inhalation that morning! Overall, this was a unique experience!
There’s also a Cup of Noodles Museum in Osaka . We went in hopes of trying different flavored Cup of Noodles soup in their tasting room as advertised online , but instead found ourselves unable to move through a sea of children waiting with empty noodle cups on a 3 hour line to make their own soup! The tasting room was temporarily closed for an exhibit. Not my favorite site in Osaka. I still have flashbacks of the children hopelessly clutching their handmade Cup of Noodles, most likely still waiting on that god awful line…
Where To Stay In Kyoto
This was one of my favorite hotels in Japan! The location is hard to beat, right in the old Gion district. Twice a week they offer guests an hour and a half show that features a young geisha in training who dances, plays games with the audience and participates in a little Q and A. ( Actually, in Gion they are called Geiko , not geisha)The show costs about $30.00 pp. It was entertaining and informative. The bar sells drinks before the show and during intermission.
Where to stay in Osaka
This hotel was a decent price and came with breakfast. It was close to subways and trains.
This is the temple that we stayed at for a night. As I mentioned, a bit of a hike to get to. I thought it was worth the trip. It was authentic and peaceful. The temple rooms are simple and large. I did not find the tatami mats on the floor to be as comfortable as they were at the Station Inn and the pillows were nothing more than a sack with bean bag filling! I imagine that prisoners at Sing Sing get better pillows. They made a temporary and unattractive imprint on my face. Bathrooms are down the hall. despite the pillows, I enjoyed my stay here! I even found a place further down the hill from the temple that sold soft serve PURPLE ice cream!! It looked like someone took Barney the purple dinosaur, stuffed him into the soft serve machine and added milk! It was a bit sweet, but tasty!
Restaurants we Loved in Kyoto
Kyoto Gion Ramen Muraji
In a doorway on the street of Kiyomotocho in old Gion, you will find a lantern and a menu beside a set of stairs…. upstairs there is a room with two large family-style tables (this is actually part of someone’s house). The fried rice was some of the best I have ever had and the prices were reasonable. We ate here twice and I ordered the fried rice both times.
Another small eatery that is actually part of someone’s home about 4 blocks south of the Granbell, to the left. It’s just a tiny cafe with great homemade granola, good coffee and fantastic conversation! We sat on 2 of the 4 bar stools provided and chatted with the owner who invited us across the street that night to listen to some jazz at her old music teacher’s house! So glad we went! We sat in a living room with a handful of other Americans and listened to some great music. The “bar” area of this living room had some stools and a drink menu! Some of the others jumped in and played piano and sang. I did not sing, sparing everyone pain and suffering.
Just a few short blocks from Inari Shrine, heading towards the train, we found a great place for a quick and cheap lunch. Around 10.00 US bought us a grilled cheese, cup of coffee and a waffle loaded with whip cream. Guess who had the waffle with entirely too much whipped cream?..I’ll give you a hint, It wasn’t me!
Tips and Suggestions
Japan is an expensive destination, but we found a lot of ways to cut costs. One easy way is to grab sandwiches at 7-11 for a cheap lunch. They were surprisingly fresh and tasty.
Bring a thermos/stainless steel water bottle. Water is safe to drink , so you can just fill it up before heading out every morning.
Beware of hungry deer in Nara! Don’t forget, if you do get bitten, at least you know that they don’t carry rabies!
If you want to do a sake tasting, there was a neat little place about a block away from the main shopping market in Nara called Harushika Sake Brewery.. The sake will help you forget about the trauma of being bitten by Bambi!
There are so many other interesting parts of Japan to visit, but these were the ones that we chose to explore and I am glad that we did! If you are planning a trip to Tokyo, and have time to see more than just that city, hop on a bullet train! The one we took from Tokyo to Kyoto took about 2.5 hrs. The trains go insanely fast, but the ride is super smooth! You can buy your tickets online in advance, or walk right up to the ticket counter that day if you want more flexibility in your schedule. I can’t recommend a visit to Japan enough…It was such a great experience. I believe that no matter where you choose to visit in this country, you will find the same level of respect for both people and nature, beautiful scenery and sites, and a plethora of Hello Kitty paraphernalia!