Just when you think Tokyo wasn't crazy enough, there are crazier places one bullet train ride away! I love the slow pace of the Kansai Region, and it's full of so many new things that you can't help but fall in love. On to the tour! I'll be talking about this like you've taken the bullet train from Tokyo (as people are wont to do). It's really easy to navigate around the region, as there are less trains.
KYOTO After about a two hour ride, get off at Kyoto Station and leave your major luggage in lockers (or the baggage counter if there's none left. I love Kyoto Station, it looks like a Star Wars Spaceport! There's a cool food court a short way across if you're hungry for lunch.
Fushimi Inari Shrine We arrived in Kyoto after lunch, and so had to choose between Fushimi or the Bamboo Forests (something to come back to next time), but Fushimi Inari is one of those places you can't miss! The temple of a thousand toris, each dedicated to a person or group who sponsored the temple--is surreal to walk through, even in the winter. Definitely one of my favorite places in the world.
Getting there: from Kyoto station, ride the JR Nara Line (you know it's the right train when it's the old kind, the one with ceiling fans inside) to JR Inari Station. The shrine is just up ahead.
Yasaka Shrine Not too far from Gion is Yasaka Shrine. When we were here, they were gearing up for the New Year, so it was mostly full of food stalls and game booths. But the temple still had a lot of charm. From here, we walked up to Maruyama Park, then right into the preserved historic streets to Kiyomizudera Temple.
Getting There: From Fushimi Inari, (take the path off to the right when exiting the temple until you see another train station) take the Keihan Line to Gion-Shijo. Walk down the street (pass Gion!) and you should see Yasaka Shrine up ahead.
Ninenzaka/Sannenzaka Stairs We made it to the preserved historic streets just as the sun set, so we managed to hufff and puff our way through the steps in the twilight. It's so beautiful! Gorgerous little shops selling food and touristy things (I snagged green tea here), and you wish you had days to explore it all. My parents bought watercolor post cards of this place in a small cafe. And there are geisha walking around! Young maikos will happily take photos with you, but the older, more experienced geisha will not even bother.
We were supposed to walk around Kiyomizudera Temple too, but it was closed by the time we got there. Boo. But the view was so gorgeous we ended up sitting on the steps and looking out at Kyoto.
NARA We used Osaka as our home base, so we took the train to Osaka from Kyoto and headed off to Nara for a day on our own. Nara was a completely different side of Japan, showing a different side of Japanese religion. And of course. Deer.
Getting there: From Osaka, get to the Kintetsu Namba Station. Ride the Kintetsu line to Nara.
Todaiji Temple, Nara Park and Nandaimon Gate
A short taxi ride from the Nara Kintetsu station is Todaiji Temple, home of Daibutsu, the big Buddha. I love this temple. The walk inside had a lot of food stalls and snacks for the New Year, and there were deer all over! They're friendly enough animals, just make sure you don't have anything loose on you--those guys will chew on anything!
Feed the deer a few crackers at your own risk--they will nip at anything just for those treats!
It's a quick walk inside the temple (don't miss the giant Buddha hand!) but the park and the temple is such a contrast to the vermilion tori gates in Kyoto.
From Todaiji, we simply walked down back to the train station. It's a nice route along Nara, and you get a good view of some of the other temples too.
One of my favorite things in Nara was this small complex beside the Todaiji Temple entrance (facing the temple, it's just to the right). We found a nice tempura and soba place there, as well as a Mahoroba Daibutsu Puddinghonpo shop! It's this cute pudding brand that makes smooth, velvety and creamy pudding in the cutest jars. I had the Godiva chocolate one, and it was divine! I keep the jar for painting. :) Don't miss this shop! But in case you did, there's one in the MRT Station near the restrooms.
OSAKA Hello home base! Osaka is a big city--like Tokyo, you never seem to run out of places to see. But once you've made your pilgrimage to Harry Potter in Universal Studios (because let's face it, that's why you went, right?), there's a lot in the city itself to explore. We were here at the height of New Year, where all the stores were on sale and it was so cold that it started snowing!
Osaka Castle By the time we got around to exploring Osaka Castle, all we really wanted to do was hang around and try street food. It's larger than I expected it to be, and outside there's a small line of shops where you can play archery, throw ninja stars and grab a few souvenir items! More than the castle, I liked people watching here--there were a lot of locals visiting, if only to hang around the grounds!
Getting There: Head to the Tanimachi 4-chrome Station along the Tanimachi or Chuo Subway line. The castle is behind the NHK Broadcasting Museum (a pretty cool building to photograph too!
Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori Now that you've done your fair share of touring castles and temples, it's time to hit the shops! Shinsaibashi was the craziest shopping place I've ever been to--and I live in Manila! Shinsaibashi for us was a giant row of wonder, with H&M, Monki, Tokyu Hands and ABC Mart to keep us entertained. A quick stop of Pablo for cheesecake, and tucking into a small store on the other side for gyoza (yumyum!). Then when you reach Dotonbori canal to say hi to the Glico Man, you spot the biggest Don Quijote ever! GAH. I love this place.
Emerge via the Crysta Nagahori exit at the MRT (I love that name for a mall) and walk down the covered path for the shopping (H&M should be on the right and Uniqlo across it). Tokyu Hands should be behind you across the street.
Don't miss Ichiran Ramen on Dotonbori canal (turn right when you reach the bridge with the Glico Man), where you eat your ramen inside a stall by yourself and to really absorb the flavors. It's quite amazing, and it's OPEN 24/7.
The worst thing about going somewhere is immediately wanting to go back!