It’s been a long while since I last sat down to write or pen down my thoughts and in this post, I will be sharing some insights that I have gained during our most recent trip to Japan, the land of the rising sun.

The History

Japan is very well known for many things… ninjas, samurais, World War 2, green tea, sushi, tofu, geishas, Toyota cars, anime and many more. To appreciate your trip to Japan even more, do read up a little about the history and development of Japan because you will be very amazed by its resilient and forward-looking culture and its preservation of traditions.

The Flight

We booked for a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to Kansai International Airport, Osaka on SQ618 and for our return trip, from Haneda International Airport (Tokyo) to Singapore on SQ633.

SQ618 to Kansai International Airport is an overnight flight and it is a rather popular flight with travellers who frequent Japan. You will want to get as much sleep as possible during the flight and not fiddle around with the in-flight entertainment so that you will be all rest up when you arrive in the morning.

One of our most enjoyable flights thus far is SQ633 as the aircraft (the A359) is one of the newest in Singapore Airline’s fleet of aircraft. The in-flight entertainment system is pretty sophisticated and the fact that we were assigned bulkhead seats for a 6-hour flight back to Singapore makes the flight all the more comfortable due to the extra leg space.

The flight time from Singapore to Japan is approximately 6-7 hours.

The Time Difference  

Japan (GMT+9) is one hour ahead of Singapore time.

The People

Japanese people are very mindful and considerate and they are also approachable and friendly. However, most of them might not be able to converse fluently in English and you may need to pick up some simple and basic Japanese phrases and words prior to your trip. As we speak and write Mandarin, we were able to roughly interpret some signage and instructions that were written in the Japanese language because some Japanese and Chinese characters can be quite similar.

The Currency

The currency that Japan uses is the Japanese Yen. Before our trip, the exchange rate that we got was 1 SGD to 82.4 JPY. For the best exchange rates, head down to the Money Changers in the Central Business District area and do take your time to shop around for the best rates because if you’re changing a large sum of money, any small movements in rates do make a lot of difference!

The Transportation

It is rather easy to get around Japan with the help of some navigation and travel apps like Google Maps, Tokyo Subway, Japan Official Travel App, and Live Japan.

One of the best websites that have been the most instrumental and helpful in our planning is Live Japan and Tsunaga Japan. There are a lot of guides and articles that are worth checking out so be sure to do some research before your visit to Japan.

The common modes of transportation in Japan are as follows:

1.     Train

The train is the most common way of getting around in Japan. However, with so many different rail lines and rail companies that are operating in Japan, it can get quite confusing. Day passes are available for tourists so do make it a point to get one if you plan on visiting a couple of places.

2.     Bus

The bus is another way you can get around in Japan conveniently. Day passes are available for tourists so do make it a point to get one if you plan on visiting a couple of places.

3.     Flight

We took an ANA flight from Kansai Domestic Airport (Osaka) to Haneda Domestic Airport (Tokyo) for less than SGD$95 per person. This is relatively cheaper than taking the bullet train. But of course, if you have never taken a high-speed train in your life, experiencing it in Japan could very well be on your bucket list.

4.     Car

Traffic in Japan can get pretty hectic especially during the peak hours. It is, in fact, easier to get around the city area via public transport. However, if you’re travelling around the suburban or rural areas, driving is an excellent option. In case you’re wondering, parking in the city area is very expensive while parking in the suburban or rural areas is cheaper and sometimes free.

To drive in Japan, you will need to apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP) and you can do so via online or at the Automobile Association of Singapore (AA) offices in person. If you’re not in a hurry to get your IDP, you can apply for it via online and then wait up to 7 days for the courier to deliver it to you. However, if you need an IDP urgently, just head down to the (AA) offices in person and get it on-the-spot for just $20! The last transaction at the AA offices is at 10.30pm so don’t worry about not being able to make it in time to apply for the IDP in person.

While there are a lot of car rental companies around, we rented a car from Toyota Rent A Car and it was a convenient and hassle-free experience. Car navigation system is offered as a free option and it is available in English or Japanese. You could either punch in the telephone number of the place that you want to navigate to or the address of the place.

A paid option which I feel would be a good add-on to the car rental is the rental of an ETC card. The ETC card is inserted into the ETC device (it is very much like our ERP IU in Singapore) and it pays for the toll charges. Just so you know, it is cheaper to pay for toll charges using the ETC card than by cash.

One other great thing about our car rental experience with Toyota Rent A Car was that I could just return the car without having to make a visit to the Petrol Kiosk to top up petrol because what Toyota Rent A Car will do is that they will calculate the amount of petrol that I have used and from there, determine the petrol charges that I need to fork out.

If you’re planning to rent a car to drive around in Japan, I would strongly recommend that you purchase full insurance coverage; you don’t want to end up with nasty surprises that can spoil your holiday.

Our Accommodations

During our time in Japan, we stayed at 3 different accommodations.

1.     NEST Hotel @ Nishiki, Kyoto

NEST Hotel @ Nishiki, Kyoto is situated in an attractive location. Just 800 m from the Kyoto International Manga Museum, a 13-minute walk from Samurai Kembu Kyoto and 2.5 km from Nijo Castle; this 3-star boutique hotel is highly sought after for its close proximity to popular landmarks and places of interest.

There are 3 types of room available; Standard Twin/King Room, Superior Twin/King Room, and Japanese-Style Room. We stayed at the Superior Twin/King Room for 5 nights and we had such a pleasant stay that we hope to return again. Just so you know, the service and amenities of a 3-star hotel in Japan are considerably good so don’t be deceived by the star ratings. Not only is free WiFI available, every room is stocked with a Nespresso coffee machine! The hotel also has a common laundry area that is equipped with a washing machine and clothes dryer for guests’ use!

NEST Hotel @ Nishiki, Kyoto is owned by NESTatNEST and they have other luxury properties around the Asia Pacific area. What is even more interesting to note is that NESTatNEST is a subsidiary of Sin Heng Chan Group, a Singaporean company!

Room rates start from $156 onwards. With only 23 rooms available, be sure to make your reservations early to avoid any disappointment!

2.     Super Hotel Lohas Akasaka, Tokyo

Super Hotel Lohas Akasaka is conveniently located in central Tokyo and it is a 4-minute walk away from Akasaka Subway Station. The non-smoking hotel features a spacious public bath and free WiFi. Super Hotel Lohas Akasaka provides coin launderette service and internet PCs in the common area. Although there’s a convenience shop just beside the hotel, drinks vending machines are also available on site.

There are several subway stations accessible within a 10-minute walk from the hotel, such as Akasaka Mitsuke Subway Station, Nagatacho Subway Station and Tameike Sanno Subway Station. Popular Shibuya or Ginza areas can be reached within a 10-minute subway ride from the Akasaka Station.

Room rates start from $119 and do make your reservations early because they tend to sell out pretty fast!

3.     Shojiko Camping Cottage, Yamanashi

A trip to Japan without a glimpse or a photo of Mount Fuji is incomplete and I really wanted to do some outdoor camping and stargazing in Japan. To convince my wife (who’s not very outdoor-ish), I decided to glam it up and made some arrangements to do glamping at Lake Shoji for SGD$170 a night.

To get there, we rented a car from Toyota Rent a Car in Akasaka and drove from Tokyo to Lake Shoji. Along the way, we also made a stop at Gotemba Premium Outlets in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Our host, Masaki, is very fluent in English and he made sure that everything was all well in place before we arrived at our glamping tent. There’s hot-water shower and as well as cooking facilities available at Shojiko Camping Cottage.

There may be wild animals around the area but when we were there, the only wild animal that I spotted were some cats and a herd of deer foraging for food early in the morning. It was really a pity that the sky was cloudy when we were there. If not, we would have been treated to a marvellous sight like the one below.

As it can get really cold at night (about 10 degrees Celsius and below), you really need to be fully equipped and prepared. Do bring along some heat packs and layers of clothing to keep yourself warm if you’re going to camp at Lake Shoji.

If you’re an outdoor person, camping at Lake Shoji is something you must do when you’re in Japan!

The Places That We Have Been To

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market has a history of many centuries and lots of shops are manned by the very same families for decades. Everything began as a fish wholesale district, with the very first store opening around the year 1310. A bigger assortment of stores moved in afterwards, and the neighbourhood shifted from a wholesale marketplace to a retail marketplace. Today, it remains a significant marketplace for Kyoto and is frequently packed with tourists and locals alike.

Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this vibrant retail marketplace specialises in everything food related, such as fresh seafood, produce, cookware and knives; and is an excellent spot to locate seasonal foods along with Kyoto specialities such as Japanese candies, pickles, dried fish and sushi.

Tip: Kyoto is well-known for its Matcha (Japanese Green Tea) and what that means is that you probably might want to find some matcha-related goods as souvenirs for your tea-loving relatives and friends.

Operating Hours
Open daily 9 am – 6 pm.

Teramachi and Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcades

Nishiki Market branches off Teramachi about 100 meters north of Shijo Street.

At the centre of downtown Kyoto, Teramachi and Shinkyogoku streets form the core of Kyoto’s most important shopping district. Shinkyogoku is full of tacky souvenirs and Teramachi is a much-refined place with many different art galleries, bookshops, and clothes stores. You will also discover several stores selling spiritual goods including incense, Buddha pictures, prayer beads and so on. These stores are a holdover from the 16th century when the warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi moved a number of the town’s temples into Teramachi Street in a bid to restrain the clergy; hence the name of this street, Teramachi, literally means”temple town”.

Kyoto Owl Forest Zoo

Japan is rather well known for their animal cafes and even though there are a couple of owl cafes in Osaka and Tokyo; we decided to visit the one in Kyoto since we would be spending more time in Kyoto than anywhere else. The Kyoto Owl Forest Zoo is not a typical owl/animal cafe. No food and drinks are served here and visitors are not allowed to carry or hold the owls. At the very most, visitors are only allowed to pat some of the owls. Unlike other animal cafes where there is a fixed time limit of an hour per visit, there is no time limit here and you can choose to stay for as long as you wish.

While the animal’s welfare is a major concern for me, I was told that the owls here have been raised as domestic pets. One thing I also noticed about Kyoto Owl Forest Zoo is that they try to create a cosy and comfortable atmosphere and ambience for the owls. The lights here are pretty much dimmed and signages are put up to educate visitors about the different types of owl.

As Kyoto Owl Forest Zoo is pretty near Teramachi and Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcades, you may want to consider adding it to your itinerary.

Hours & Fees

Hours
11:30 to 19:30

Admission
600 yen

Ichiran Ramen, Kawaramachi

Some say that Ichiran Ramen serves the world’s best ramen and I must say, it is absolutely true for me because ever since I dined there, I have not had any ramen that could match up to Ichiran Ramen’s. Although long queues are expected at almost every Ichiran Ramen Outlets, the Ichiran Ramen outlet at Kawaramachi opens 24 hours and so; you could visit at a time when it’s not so busy.  The ramen and soup base here is just perfect and you can even customise the way you want your ramen and soup base to be!  Prices are also pretty reasonable and the entire dining experience is unique on its own. My recommendation? Remove every distraction and the itch to reach out for your phone and just fully concentrate on savouring your meal. You will definitely notice the wonderful goodness of the soup and the ramen. Will I return? Absolutely!

Kama-gawa River Bank

Kyoto has a river running through it; it’s known as the Kamo-gawa and it’s one long stretch of park that Kyotoites use for relaxation, exercise and contemplation.

Both sides are lined with broad green areas and bicycle paths, with lots of benches and exercise locations. Up near the Demachiyanagi end of the river (in the north, where Imadegawa-dori crosses the river), you will find broad play areas which are fantastic for picnics and for kids to run around.

Do make a stop for some really nice pictures!

Starbucks Teahouse in Higashiyama

By setting up shop in a two-storey renovatedJapanese townhouse which was once occupied by geishas, the Starbucks outlet has brought a breath of fresh air to the historical town of Higashiyama in Kyoto.

From the tiled roof and aged wood exterior to the logo printed on Noren curtains, the coffee shop blends right in with the rest of the classically designed temples and shops around it. The interior resembles a traditional tea house that features three tatami-matted rooms where guests are expected to act and follow the same rules given to them in a tea house. Shoes must be off and they must sit on cushions placed on the floor.

The rest of the space is filled with very few tables and benches to maintain the intimate atmosphere and flow throughout. Lines are not allowed to form beyond the shop so the number of customers allowed inside will be monitored, especially during its busiest times.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu finished the castle palace buildings 23 years later and further enlarged the castle by adding a five-storey castle keep.

Following the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as a royal palace for some time before being donated to the city and opened to the general public as a historical site. Its palace buildings are arguably the greatest surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal age. Niji Castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.

Nijo Castle can be divided into three areas: the Honmaru (main circle of defence), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defence) and some gardens that encircle the Honmaru and Ninomaru. The entire castle grounds and the Honmaru are surrounded by stone walls and moats.

Karamon Gate

Visitors to Nijo Castle enter the castle grounds via a massive gate at the east. English sound guides are available for rent (500 yen) at a kiosk just inside the gate. Venturing further into the castle will bring you to the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defence), where the castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace is situated.

The Ninomaru Palace served as the residence and office of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto. Surviving in its finest form, the palace consists of multiple different buildings which are linked to each other by corridors with so-called nightingale floors that squeak when stepped upon as a safety measure against intruders

Ninomaru Palace

The tour route passes by multiple waiting and audience rooms. Only the highest ranked visitors were allowed all the way into the main audience room where the shogun would sit on an elevated floor, flanked by bodyguards hidden in closets. Lower ranked visitors would be allowed only as far as the adjoining rooms without a direct view of the shogun. The innermost rooms consisted of offices and living chambers, the latter of which were only accessible to the shogun and his female attendants.

Outside of the Ninomaru Palace extends the Ninomaru Garden, a traditional Japanese landscape garden with a large pond, ornamental stones and manicured pine trees.

Honmaru

The Honmaru (main circle of defence) was the site of a second palace complex and a five-storey castle keep. However, both structures were destroyed by fires in the 18th century and were never rebuilt. After the fall of the shogunate, an imperial residence was moved from the Katsura Imperial Palace to Nijo Castle’s Honmaru where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Unlike the Ninomaru Palace, the Honmaru Palace is not regularly open to the public, although there are occasional special openings. Visitors may, however, walk around the Honmaru gardens and climb up the stone foundation of the former castle keep, which offers views over the castle grounds.

Cherry trees of numerous varieties are planted throughout the castle grounds, including nearly 400 cherry trees of late blooming varieties in a cherry orchard. Because of the many cherry tree varieties present, the blooming season at Nijo Castle usually lasts from late March through the entire month of April.

The castle also features a plum orchard, which is typically in bloom from late February to early March. Many areas of the castle grounds are also populated by maple, ginkgo and other trees that offer brilliant autumn colours usually during the second half of November.

Getting Here

The entrance of Nijo Castle is a short walk from Nijojo-mae Station along the Tozai Subway Line. From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Karasuma-Oike Station and transfer to the Tozai Line to Nijojo-mae Station. The whole trip takes about 15 minutes and costs 260 yen. Alternatively, the castle can be reached from Kyoto Station by Kyoto City Bus numbers 9, 50 or 101 (15-20 minutes, 230 yen one way) or from Shijo-Kawaramachi by Kyoto City Bus number 12 (15 minutes, 230 yen one way).

Hours & Fees

Hours
8:45 to 17:00 (admission until 16:00), entry to Ninomaru from 9:00 to 16:00

Closed
Tuesdays in January, July, August and December (or following day if Tuesday is a national holiday), December 26 to January 4

Admission
600 yen

Tenjin-san Flea Market

The Tenjin-san flea market is held on the 25th of each month in the early morning at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. There are about 1,000 shops selling all kinds of goods, second-hand goods, pottery, toys, foods and kimonos in and around the shrine.

This market is popular for antique goods, used kimonos and vintage kimonos. You can find kimonos for 500 yen to 1,000 yen in this market. If you find a beautiful kimono that’s to your liking, be sure to check the size before you buy. There are also a variety of foods such as vegetables, fresh fruits and local foods on sale.

The Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is also famous for having 2,000 plum trees. You can enjoy many beautiful plum flowers in full bloom in February and March.

Address
Bakuro-cho, Kamigyo ward, Kyoto city, Kyoto

Getting Here
Kyoto city bus number #50 or #101 from Kyoto station to Kitano Tenmangu-mae stop

Takes Place On
On 25th of every month

Operating Hours 
6:00am ~ 4:00pm

Golden Temple

Kinkakuji is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will, it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.

Kinkakuji is an impressive structure overlooking a large pond and it is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It was burnt down numerous times throughout its history; including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and again in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.

Kinkakuji was constructed to replicate the extravagant Kitayama civilization that developed from the rich aristocratic circles of Kyoto throughout Yoshimitsu’s times. Each floor reflects a different kind of architecture.

The first floor is built in the Shinden style used for palace buildings during the Heian Period. Statues of the Shaka Buddha (historical Buddha) and Yoshimitsu are stored on the first floor. Although it is not possible to enter the pavilion, the statues can be viewed from across the pond as the front windows of the first floor are usually kept open.

The second floor is built in the Bukke style used in samurai residences and its exterior is completely covered in gold leaf. Inside is a seated Kannon Bodhisattva surrounded by statues of the Four Heavenly Kings which are not shown to the public. Finally, the third and uppermost floor is built in the style of a Chinese Zen Hall and is capped with a golden phoenix.

After viewing Kinkakuji from across the pond, visitors pass by the head priest’s former living quarters (Hojo) which are known for their painted sliding doors (fusuma). The path once again passes by Kinkakuji from behind then leads through the temple’s gardens which have retained their original design from Yoshimitsu’s days.

Outside the exit are souvenir shops and a small tea garden where you can have matcha tea and sweets for 500 yen.

Getting Here

You can get to Kinkakuji from Kyoto Station by Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205 and the journey will take about 40 minutes and cost 230 yen. Alternatively, it can be faster and more reliable to take the Karasuma Subway Line to Kitaoji Station (15 minutes, 260 yen).  A taxi ride Kyoto Station to Kinkakuji will take 10 minutes and cost 1000-1200 yen while a bus ride (bus numbers 101, 102, 204 or 205) will take 10 minutes and cost just 230 yen.

Hours & Fees

Hours
9:00 to 17:00

Closed
No closing days

Admission
400 yen

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s top sights and for good reason; standing amid these soaring stalks of bamboo is like being in another world.

Apart from the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine and Kinkaku-ji Temple; the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is also one of the most photographed sights in Kyoto but no picture can capture the feeling of standing in the midst of this sprawling bamboo grove. You truly have to be there to experience it for yourself and although it is usually packed with people; you could go for the Arashiyama Rickshaw Tour where the guide will help you capture those beautiful moments while you just sit back and admire the scenery.

Tip: The Arashiyama Rickshaw Tour is highly recommended especially if you have rented the traditional Kimono to take photos with.

Getting Here
You can access Arashimaya Bamboo Grove directly from the main street of Arashiyama; it’s a little to the north of the entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple and it’s best paired with a visit to that temple (exit the north gate, take a left and you’ll be in the grove in no time). There’s just one main path through the grove which leads slowly uphill. Once you get to the top of the hill, the entrance to the sublime Okochi-Sanso Villa is right in front of you.

If you plan to take the train, the nearest train stations are Saga Arashiyama Station (10 mins walk) and Arashiyama Station (15 mins walk).

Kyoto’s Higashi Tenno Okazaki Shrine

Okazaki Shrine has been a place of worship for more than 1,200 years. Originally, this shrine played a role in protecting the emperor, his court and its citizenry. It is also called Higashi Tenno (Emperor of the East) because it is located to the east of the former capital, and it is beloved by the locals even in the present day.

The deity Susanoo-no-Mikoto, his wife Kushinadahime-no-Mikoto, and their children are enshrined here. Susanoo-no-Mikoto is a hero in Japanese mythology, especially in the famous tale of where he saved Princess Kushinada from the monster called Yamata no Orochi (a gigantic serpent with 8 heads and 8 tails) and after that, they fell in love, got married, and had many children. These deities are also enshrined at Yasaka Shrine in Gion and other shrines nationwide.

The Shrine’s Atmosphere

The area of Okazaki is a lively sightseeing spot, but originally it was located on the outskirts of the capital and therefore nature was plentiful. However, the peaceful grounds inside still remind visitors of the atmosphere of the past. The air is very fresh and clean because the shrine is surrounded by a lot of trees.

After going through the torii entrance gate, the area widens into a relaxing, sprawling open space. The building that is behind the trees is the Honden (main hall) and in front of the Honden, in the centre of the grounds, are shrubs and trees.

On the left side, there is the Miyashige Inari Shrine, which houses the deity of business prosperity. There is also a building called Amasha, which is said to be beneficial for eye diseases.

The Grounds of the Shrine are Awash with Rabbit Statues!

It has been said that “Usagi” (rabbits) are messengers for the deities of this shrine, and the reason for this is still unknown. One theory states that there were many wild rabbits living around the shrine, so there are many sculptures, statues and pictures of rabbits around the shrine!

First is the “Koma Usagi,” 2 statues of rabbits sitting adorably in front of the main hall. On the right side of the front face of the main hall, there is an opened-mouth male rabbit and on the left side is a closed-mouth female rabbit. Petting their heads and praying for marriage and a married couple’s compatibility is a common custom.

There are other rabbits statues close to the main hall, one is an Usagi Lantern, and there is also a pair of “Maneki Usagi” (rabbits inviting good luck) standing in front of the main hall. The rabbit to your right is for marriage and the rabbit to your left is for good fortune.

The surrounding area of the main hall is not the only place that has plenty of rabbits. In the chozuya (a building for purifying your hands before praying), there is a statue of a black rabbit looking up at the moon. This rabbit is called “Kosazuke Usagi,” and it is customary to splash water on the statue and rub its belly which is beneficial for having children and the safe delivery of children. There are other rabbits hiding all over the grounds in unexpected areas, so the fun part of visiting this shrine is finding these hidden rabbits!

Get Some Usagi Juyohin!

“Juyohin” means the blessing of items, like charms and omikuji fortunes which are offered at the shrines. They are available for purchase by offering money to the deity. The blessed items from Okazaki Shrine are very popular because of the adorable rabbit motif, especially the large variety of omamori charms which are beneficial for things like passing an exam and having good health.

There are unique omamori such as the “Usagi Mikuji Omamori” which include the fortunes and cost 500 yen, as well as the “Fukumimi (big ears bestowing good fortune) Mamori” for 1,000 yen. The Fukumimi Mamori is a blessed charm so that you might have a fortune from sharing benefits granted to rabbits with large fukumimi ears. They also offer a variety of items like the”Usagi Ema” (rabbit votive) for 600 yen, another amulet for the safe delivery of children called “Anzan Kigan Ofuda” for 1,200 yen, and “Usagi Dorei” (ceramic rabbit bell) for 500 yen at the shrine office which, when facing the Main Hall, is located on the right hand side. Do stop by after you have finished praying!

What’s So Special About the Omamori?

Originally, people regarded this shrine as important for protecting the emperor, his court, and its citizenry. At the same time, it has also been famous for granting blessings for having children and their safe delivery. Also because of a Japanese mythology hero, this deity shrine was said to be a place that blesses marriages, and therefore, many couples chose this location for their wedding ceremony every year. Wanting to share the benefits of this shrine, a staggering amount of amulets, including those for the safe delivery of children, are hung at both the main hall and the chozuya. Amulets are offered at the shrine office and what you need to do is to write down the date and contents of your wish and your name, and then just hang it with the others. If you feel that praying for something would help, why don’t you try it?

Okazaki Shrine is a prestigious shrine and is located very close to shrines and temples like Heian Jingu and Nanzenji Temple. There is a bus stop right in front of the shrine, and it is highly accessible from Kyoto Station as well.

Hours of Operation
9 AM to 5 PM

Admission Fee 
Free

Address
51 Okazaki Higashi Tenno-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Getting Here

Take Kyoto City Buses 32, 93, 203 or 204, and get off at the “Okazaki Jinja Mae” bus stop and it is a short walk from there.

Nara Park

Nara Park is a large park in central Nara. Established in 1880, it is the location of many of Nara’s main attractions including Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofukuji and the Nara National Museum.

The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, Nara’s nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city and have even been designated as a natural treasure. Nara’s deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be aggressive if they think you will feed them. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed.

As the deer are wild animals, do be careful (especially if you have brought your children along) and do keep a constant lookout especially when interacting with the deer. You are highly encouraged not to leave your children unsupervised.

It is pretty easy to get to Nara Park from Kyoto and there is a 1-day pass which you can purchase for just 1500 yen and it gives you unlimited rides on the KINTETSU Railway and Nara Kotsu Bus Lines within designated zones. We recommend that you set aside 1 full day to experience Nara.

Getting Here

Nara Park is a five-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station or about a 20-minute walk from JR Nara Station. Alternatively, the park can be reached by bus.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara

Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. It was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. Kasuga Taisha was also the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara, Japan’s most powerful family clan during most of the Nara and Heian Periods. Like the Ise Shrines, Kasuga Taisha had been periodically rebuilt every 20 years for many centuries. In the case of Kasuga Taisha, however, the custom was discontinued at the end of the Edo Period.

Beyond the shrine’s offering hall, which can be visited free of charge, there is a paid inner area which provides a closer view of the shrine’s inner buildings. Furthest in is the main sanctuary, containing multiple shrine buildings that display the distinctive Kasuga style of shrine architecture, characterised by a sloping roof extending over the front of the building.

Various Types of Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

Kasuga Taisha is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals, one in early February and one in mid-August.

There are many smaller auxiliary shrines in the woods around Kasuga Taisha, twelve of which are located along a path past the main shrine complex and are dedicated to the twelve lucky gods. Among them are Wakamiya Shrine, an important cultural property known for its dance festival, and Meoto Daikokusha, which enshrines married deities and is said to be fortuitous to matchmaking and marriage.

Getting Here

Kasuga Taisha is located in the east of Nara Park. It is about a 30-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station or a 45-minute walk from JR Nara Station. Alternatively, it can be reached by bus from either station. Get off at the Kasuga Taisha Honden bus stop (210 yen, frequent departures).

Hours & Fees

Hours
6:00 to 18:00 (April to September)
6:30 to 17:00 (October to March)
Inner area: 8:30 to 16:00

Closed
No closing days (the inner area is occasionally closed)

Admission Fees
Free (outer area), 500 yen (inner area)

Harushika Brewery & Sake Tasting

The Harushika Brewery Shop in the Naramachi district of Nara has become popular with foreign visitors as a must-do experience as eating tuna at Maguro Koya. In fact, it’s possible to do both one after the other as they are not so far apart; especially if you are on a bicycle.

At Harushika Brewery Shop, you can pay a small fee and sample a variety of Nara’s famous sake along with traditional Japanese tsukemono pickles in sake lees (a by-product of the brewing process). The sake tasting lasts about an hour and is conducted by English-speaking guides dressed in happi coats, who explain the different grades of sake and try to answer any questions visitors may have. You will also receive a small Harushika sake cup as a souvenir and you can purchase bottles of sake, pickles and sake-flavoured ice-cream wafers at the shop.

We really like the sparkling sake that Harishika Brewery makes and it goes pretty well with desserts! Unfortunately, as their sparkling sake is unpasteurised, they are best consumed either on the spot or within a couple of days.

As the fount of Japanese culture, Nara can lay claim to being the first place that sake was produced, in a commercial, somewhat mass-produced way by 8th century standards, at least.

Dotonbori Area

The lively entertainment area of Dotonbori is Osaka’s most famous tourist destination and renowned for its gaudy neon lights, extravagant signage, and the enormous variety of restaurants and bars.

The name “Dotonbori” generally refers both to the Dotonbori Canal and to Dotonbori Street which runs parallel to the canal’s southern bank. It is one of the most colourful areas in Osaka and an absolute must-visit location when travelling through the Kansai region.

The History of Dotonbori

The history of this area goes back to 1612 when a merchant by the name of Yasui Doton invested all of his personal capital in an ambitious local development project. Doton’s plan was to divert and expand the Umezu River into a new waterway that would link the local canal network with the Kizugawa River. Unfortunately, Doton’s project was interrupted by war and he himself was killed during the Siege of Osaka in 1615. Later that same year, Doton’s cousins completed his work and in his memory, the new canal was named Dotonbori or “Doton Canal”.

The new canal brought with it a flood of trade and from 1626, the area began to flourish as an entertainment district after theatre companies and playhouses began to move into the area on the canal’s southern bank. At the same time, the north bank of the canal began to prosper with restaurants and teahouses that supplied food, drink and entertainment to theatregoers after they left the theatres.

Today Dotonbori’s theatre culture is very much in decline. During World War II, bombing raids destroyed all the theatres except for the Shochikuza. However, there are still a number of small comedy clubs in the area and the Shochikuza continues to host classical kabuki plays, opera, modern dramas and musicals. Today, Dotonbori is better known as a gastronomic wonderland crowded with restaurants, street side food stalls, and bars.

Dotonbori’s Food Culture

Osaka’s obsession with food is often summed up with the expression “kuidaore” which is often interpreted to mean “eat till you drop” but it actually means to spend so much on food that you fall into financial ruin! Dotonbori is said to be the best place in Osaka to experience this kuidaore style/extreme love of food!

The Glico Running Man

Dotonbori is famous for its eye-catching signage and billboards with a giant pufferfish, an octopus, a clown, and the Kani Douraku crab which are all vying for your attention and creating an amusement park-like atmosphere. However, of all these signs, the most famous is that of the Glico running man above Ebisubashi Bridge.

An advertisement for Glico candy, the 20 meters tall and 10-meter wide sign shows a man running on a blue track with his arms raised in victory. This is actually the 6th version of the sign which was last renewed with LED lighting in 2014. However, the first Glico sign was installed here in 1935 and over the years, it has become a much-loved landmark of Osaka’s Minami area. In fact, the Glico running man and Ebisubashi Bridge below it is the focal point of Dotonbori. It is a popular meeting spot, an essential photo stop for tourists, and the site of wild celebrations when local sports teams are victorious.

Getting Here

The Dotonbori entertainment district generally designates the area between the Daikokubashi and Nippombashi bridges on the Dotonbori Canal with its focal point located at Ebisubashi Bridge. It is located in the Minami or “South” district of Osaka and is easily accessed from Namba Subway Station which is just four minutes away on foot.

Shinsaibashi

Shinsaibashi is a popular shopping district in Osaka which has a long history as a regional centre of commerce. The entire area is named after the former Shinsaibashi Bridge which was first built by Shinsai Okada in 1622. This bridge crossed the Nagahorigawa canal and was a popular local landmark until 1964 when the canal was filled in and the bridge was removed. The name remains though and has become closely associated with high fashion retailers and chic brand goods.

One of the big-name stores in Shinsaibashi now is the main branch of the Daimaru department store chain. This store’s history actually goes back to 1726 when it was first opened as a kimono and textiles store called Matsuya. Already at that time, there were many well-established small stores in the area, and Shinsaibashi grew to be Osaka’s major centre of trade; with goods coming from all over Japan. In the early 20th century, stores here began to trade in goods from overseas and Shinsaibashi grew to challenge Tokyo’s Ginza district as a leading commercial centre for high-class luxury products. There was even an expression: “Ginza in the east, Shinsaibashi in the west.” These days, Osaka can’t compete on quite the same level as the capital city, but Shinsaibashi is still the fashion central for Osaka; and for the major brands and retailers, it is very important to be represented here.

The backbone of Shinsaibashi is the Shinsaibashisuji shopping arcade that runs north from Dotonbori to Nagahori Dori Street and which parallels the Midosuji Boulevard to the west. This roofed arcade runs for 580 meters and contains roughly 180 stores among which you can find major department stores, brand retailers, independent fashion boutiques, teashops, and cafes. Because of its roof, it is a great location for a rainy day shopping. However, it does get crowded, with 60,000 people passing through it on an average weekday, and double that number on weekends. If you don’t mind the crowds, this is an excellent place for discovering the latest fashions in clothing, footwear, jewellery and accessories.

Some of the big names on this street are H&M, Uniqlo, Zara, United Arrows, Samantha Thavasa, Calzedonia, and Ralph Lauren. However, be sure to watch out for the side alleys that branch off from the arcade, as it is there that you will find some of the older and more traditional stores selling traditional crafts, hanging scrolls, and kimonos.

Getting Here

Shinsaibashisuji shopping arcade is convenient for the restaurants and bars of the Dotonbori entertainment district in the south, and for the youth fashion and clubbing district of Amemura in the west. The southern entrance to Shinsaibashisuji is just across the Ebisubashi Bridge opposite the famous Glico Man sign. From here Namba Subway Station is 5 minutes away. At the northern end of the shopping arcade, you have direct access to Shinsaibashi Subway Station.

Tsujiki Market 

Tsukiji Market is a large wholesale market for fish, fruits and vegetables in central Tokyo. It is the most famous of over ten wholesale markets that handle the distribution of food and flowers in Tokyo. Tsukiji Market is best known as one of the world’s largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day.

The sight of the many kinds of fresh seafood and the busy atmosphere of scooters, trucks, sellers and buyers hurrying around, make Tsukiji Market a major tourist attraction. In fact, the number of visitors has increased so much over the recent years, and that has become a problem to the course of business, as the ageing market’s infrastructure was not anticipated to serve as a tourist spot.

A visit to Tsukiji Market is best combined with a fresh sushi breakfast or lunch at one of the local restaurants. There are restaurants both in the inner and outer market area, which are typically open from 5:00 am in the morning to around noon or early afternoon.

If you plan to visit the tuna auction, do note that the number of visitors to the tuna auction is limited to 120 per day; the maximum number which the market’s infrastructure can accommodate. You will also have to apply at the Osakana Fukyu Center at the Kachidoki Gate, starting from 5:00 am (or earlier on busy days) on a first-come, first-serve basis. Successful applicants will be able to view the auction from a designated visitor area.

Getting Here

Tsukiji Market is just above Tsukiji Shijo Station on the Oedo Subway Line. Alternatively, it can be reached in a five-minute walk from Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya Subway Line. The closest JR station is Shimbashi, from where you can walk to the market in about 15 minutes.

From Tokyo Station

Take the Marunouchi Subway Line from Tokyo to Ginza (3 minutes) and transfer to the Hibiya Subway Line to get to Tsukiji Station (3 minutes). The fare is 170 yen.

From Shinjuku Station

Take the Oedo Subway Line directly from Shinjuku Station to Tsukiji Shijo Station. The one-way trip takes 20 minutes and costs 270 yen.

Ameyoko

Ameyoko is a busy street market along the Yamanote Line tracks between Okachimachi and Ueno Stations. The name “Ameyoko” is a brief form for “Ameya Yokocho” (candy shop alley), as candies have been traditionally sold here. “Ame” also stands for”America”, since lots of American products were available here when the street was the site of a black market after World War Two.

Nowadays, various goods like clothing, bags, cosmetics, fresh fish, dried food and spices are sold along Ameyoko. Opening hours and closing days depend on individual shops, but shops typically open about 10:00 am and close at 8:00 pm.

If you are craving for some fresh and big oysters, this is the place to go because they are very affordable!

Disney SEA

There is only one DisneySea in the world and it is located next to the Disney Land in Tokyo, Japan. If you are torn apart between having to visit DisneySea and Disney Land; I would recommend that you skip Disney Land and head to DisneySea instead.  Tickets to DisneySea can be purchased online or even at convenience stores such as Lawson (but you have to be able to navigate the Japanese menu).  Just so you know, the Disney theme parks in Japan are not owned by Disney but by The Oriental Land Company.  Hence, the language and signages used at the theme parks are all in Japanese.  It is best that you set aside one whole day to visit DisneySea so that you can conquer all the major rides and attractions in the theme parks. Better still, plan your visit on a day when there’s not much crowd (even though there will still be queues practically every day).

Gotemba Premium Outlets

As Lake Shoji was our eventual destination and Gotemba Premium Outlets happened to be along the way, we made a pit stop here to shop for some branded goods. With more than 200 over stores to choose from, you probably might want to set aside half a day to shop here. Don’t forget to present your passport at the Information Centre to get some discount coupons for some extra savings in addition to the normal discount prices. Also, if you go to Gotemba Premium Outlets on a clear sunny day, there is a high chance that you can see Mount Fuji from here so do bring along your camera for some photo opportunity!

Operating Hours

Gotemba Premium Outlets generally opens from 10 am and closes at 8 pm. However, do check their official website before you visit!

Forest Mall

Forest Mall is about a 20-minute drive away from Lake Shoji and if you’re camping overnight at Lake Shoji, this is the place to get your food and toiletries since there are no convenience shops nearby Lake Shoji.

Lake Shoji

Sandwiched between Lake Motosuko and Lake Saiko, Lake Shojiko is the smallest of the Fuji Five Lakes. Together with its two neighbours; it was formed when lava flowed from Mount Fuji and divided a large prehistoric lake into three smaller ones. The lakes seem to remain connected by underground waterways as they always maintain the same water level of 900 meters above sea level.

Lake Shojiko borders the Aokigahara Jukai forest and remains largely undeveloped except for a few hotels around its northern shore that enjoy excellent views of Mount Fuji. Outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and fishing are popular around the lake, as well as water sports such as water skiing, jet skiing and boating. If you are into caving, there are some caves nearby Lake Shoji which you can explore but they do come with entrance fees.

CupNoodles Museum

This interactive museum is designed to stir the creativity and curiosity within every child and provide a rich educational experience. Through the museum’s many exhibits, you can learn about the creative thinking of Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Food Products and inventor of Chicken Ramen. The entire museum is designed as a place for exposing children to the spirit of creative thinking that Momofuku possessed his entire life and as a place for stimulating the seed of creativity within them. More than just the educational aspect of the museum, you can even design and customise your own cup noodles here for just 300 Yen!

Entrance Fees
500 Yen

In Closing

We had a really fruitful trip to Japan and personally, we would love to return for a holiday. Although we didn’t quite fancy the crowded city areas, it is worth exploring Tokyo or Osaka at least once in your lifetime. For us, we prefer the quieter suburban areas such as Kyoto and Nara.

There are indeed so much to do, see, eat and play in Japan that it’s really hard to cover every single attraction in a short span of time. Furthermore, the same place in Japan is totally different in spring, summer, autumn and winter! If you haven’t been to Japan before, you should include it as part of your bucket list of countries to visit in your lifetime!

Author

Melvin is an experienced Swimming Coach, Outdoor Teacher, and Youth Leadership Trainer with more than 8 years of experience. During his free time, he enjoys a healthy dose of reading, travelling and writing.

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