Trip to Japan

After many, many years, I finally visited a new country. In my longest trip since forever, I traveled to Japan with some friends where we spent two and half weeks exploring Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. Here are my thoughts on the trip along with some photo & video highlights.

Mount Fuji in all its glory
Taking the Nozomi Express Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka, and eating a pork cutlet sandwich for breakfast.


The best Osaka sign I could find in Osaka. This is at Tennoji Park, with the Abenos Harukas (tallest building in the city) in the back

We flew into Haneda Airport in Tokyo, but the next day we took the train to Osaka. Osaka is located about 500 km to the southwest of Tokyo, but with the fastest Shinkansen highspeed trains, it only took about 2.5 hours on a smooth train ride with roomy seats. Japan’s public rail and metro systems are very well developed, and we used them everyday during the trip.

The famous and busy Dōtonbori district at night. The streets by the river are actually less busy than the main pedestrian street that’s one block over.
Strolling the busy Dōtonbori street at night

Osaka (大阪) is the biggest city in the Kansai region of Japan. It’s a major port and commercial center, and also has a lot of markets, shopping streets and nightlife. We stayed in the heart of the action near Dōtonbori and Shinsaibashi, two of the busiest areas in Osaka especially at night. We spent time walking around seeing all the bright signs and people wandering through the area. We were there during Halloween and the main Dōtonbori street and Shinsaibashi bridge were packed with people. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that many people walk around in one area. Most cities in US and Canada don’t have the population density.

The Umeda Sky Building observatory isn’t the tallest, but sure has a unique architecture.
Osaka Castle is a pretty cool Japanese castle. The park surrounding the castle is pretty nice too.
The Shinsekai shopping area is anchored by the Tsutenkaku Tower

In terms of touristy stuff in Osaka, we went to the various shopping streets and markets. The Osaka Aquarium was a pretty big aquarium that has two whale sharks in its main tank. The observatory at the Umeda Sky Building was pretty cool. In addition to the touristy stuff, we spent a lot of time locating restaurants in back alleys. One thing I saw quickly in Osaka are that a lot of businesses are located in the alleys in between the main streets. Some alleys are pedestrian only, but most have a single car lane in one direction. In the busy areas, it was interesting when pedestrians and cars try to share the same cramped space.

Admiring the whale shark and big fishes at Osaka Aquarium (click to enlarge)

Watching the whale sharks and other big ocean fish swim around at Osaka Aquarium

By the fourth and last day we were there, we started running out of touristy places to go to. But then it was time to move on to our next city, Kyoto.


One of the bigger buildings of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The palace is located in a large city park.

Kyoto (京都) was Japan’s capital city for over 1000 years, lasting until the mid 1800s when the capital moved to Tokyo. The city located about 50 km northeast of Osaka, so it’s in the same metropolitan area. Other than the Shinkansen and long distance JR rail lines, there’s also commuter rail that connect the two cities and that what we took to get to Kyoto.

The gold-embroidered gate of Nijo Castle.
The back area of the Nijo Castle compound, viewed from the base of a watchtower that had burned down.

Compared to Osaka (a big, busy city), and Tokyo (an even bigger, busier city), Kyoto is more like a mid-sized city. The touristy spots and the two main shopping streets are busy, but never felt there were as many people as Osaka and Kyoto. Kyoto is also a very historic city, with many famous temples, shrines and castles, along with well preserved historic districts. It’s just completely different vibe, and personally I like the Kyoto vibe a little better. Also unlike the two larger cities, Kyoto’s local metro system isn’t as robust. There are only two subway lines, and while some other areas are served by JR or commuter rail, there are a few attractions where it’s either take a bus or walk 20+ minutes from nearest station.

Walking up to Kiyomizu-dera, a popular temple on the hillside of Kyoto. It was a holiday so there were tons of people.

Here’s me in a kimono in front of the pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera (click to enlarge)

Found a quiet path down from Kiyomizu-dera
Walking up and down the historic streets of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka below Kiyomizu-dera.
Historic streets of Kyoto at dusk. Has a different feel, but still crowded.

During our stop in Kyoto, we visited the old Imperial Palace park and Nijo Castle. I also did the hike up Mount Inari from Fushimi Inari Taisha. This is the mountain with paths lined by thousands of vermillion torii gates. Kyoto is also one of the most popular places for people to walk around in kimonos, and we did that too. We rented kimonos one afternoon and walked up to Kiyomizu-dera (another famous shrine), along with this historic streets and districts of Sannenzaka, Ninenzaka, and Gion. It was fun, other than the traditional Y sandals not being particularly comfortable to walk in.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha at the bottom of Mount Inari. Also very popular
Near the start of the Mount Inari hike. These are the smallest torii gates along the route, and this is also the most congested portion.
Hiking through the thousands of torii gates on Mount Inari. Very crowded at the bottom but the crowds thin out as you get higher up the mountain.
View of Kyoto from midway up Mount Inari
The actual summit of Mount Inari has a shrine. Not much of view though. Not that many people come all the way up here.

Like Osaka, we also spent 4 days in Kyoto, but I feel like we could have spent another day or two there. I didn’t get to go to the Gold Pavilion (Kinkakuji) or the Arashiyama bamboo groves. Will have to save it for next time.

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