Osaka and Kyoto
07.04.2012 - 11.04.2012
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.
After Nikko we had decided that it was time to go to Kyoto and have a look at its famous temples. However, being the cherry blossom season and the week-end we struggled to find accommodation for the first night. We therefore chose to spend one night in Osaka before heading to Kyoto. A great decision as it would turn out.
Osaka is a big city west of Tokyo, famous for its food and night life. There is also lots of sightseeing to be done but we decided that there would be plenty of that done elsewhere in Japan; what we wanted was a proper night out.
Getting to Osaka from Nikko means passing back through Tokyo. Our tickets left a connection time of precisely 7 minutes in Tokyo between Shinkansen trains; this would seem very optimistic anywhere except Japan. But of course we were deposited from one train perfectly on time, followed the signs to the next platform, and hopped on our connecting train with a couple of minutes to spare. It's things like this that just make Japan so easy to travel in.
After having checked in at our hotel (which was an entirely automated process by the way), we headed to the Minami area which supposedly is THE area to spend a night out in Osaka. So it proved to be. Neon lights, floods of very trendy people, noise, restaurants, bars... It was more like the "crazy", "Bladerunner" Japan we had imagined before. It was great wandering the streets just taking in the atmosphere.
Saturday night in Osaka looks something like this
We decided to try the local speciality "okonomiyaki" for dinner. It's like a huge pancake with different fillings, covered by something that resembles British brown sauce, mayonnaise, and a fried egg for good measure. Reading our description now, we should maybe clarify that it was delicious - as is everything else that we have tasted in this country. We've only had sushi - something we both love - a few times - we've been too busy trying the different specialities. There is so much more to Japanese food than sushi, sashimi, tempura and teriyaki!
Okonomiyaki is an Osaka culinary speciality and Chibo restaurant is a long standing specialist in making them
After dinner and a few drinks at a bar we ended up where any good night out in Osaka (or anywhere in Japan for that matter) should end up - a karaoke bar. It was the kind of place where you get your own room with a TV screen and awesome speakers. Included in the fee was unlimited drinks, ordered by remote control and delivered by a smiling waitress.
We decided to go for one hour and got started - ABBA being the obvious choice to warm up! Then it just went on. Suddenly the staff came and told us we had ten minutes left. Without hesitating we asked for another hour. This was just too much fun. An hour later, with barely any voices left, we gave up our booth, happy. Highlights? Probably Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way", Oasis' "Roll with it" and Roxette's "Joyride". Bon Jovi's "Living on a prayer" brought us back to our wedding... (and by the way, we've just had our five year anniversary!).
A few shots from the karaoke booth
We left Osaka really liking the place.
Let's face it, there can be such a thing as too many temples
Kyoto is much more than a failed climate change agreement. It's home to more than 2000 temples, several of them so spectacular that they have been UNESCO world heritage listed. Unlike, for example, Nikko, the temples are spread out over a big area all around the city and public transport is a must to get around the different sights.
As mentioned a number of times, this is cherry blossom time and peak season in Japan. This means that we were not alone when we embarked on our Kyoto temple spotting tour on Sunday, after having left our stuff at the hostel. We visited these incredibly beautiful temples (we'll let the photos speak for themselves) but unlike in Nikko, we couldn't really get a feel for the spirituality of the sites, as we were too busy dodging out of people's photos and trying not to step on Japanese children (second objective achieved, not so successful on the first one). Maybe with hindsight, choosing a Sunday at the height of cherry blossom madness to see Kyoto was bound to be a little overwhelming...
We were not alone on the streets of Kyoto
A funny thing about Kyoto is that many Japanese tourists dress up in kimonos before going on their temple tour. We got some photos of that and of a geisha (real or fake, who knows) who was on a break from a photo shoot.
If you're a Japanese tourist, the thing to do in Kyoto is to dress up in traditional costumes
First temple of the day, Kiymizu-dera
And more temples...
Pensive moment at the path of philosophy
Biker and dog, out for a ride. Nice to see that pooch not only had a helmet but said helmet was Harley Davidson-branded as well
The geisha show was cool
On Monday morning our primary objective was to get tickets to the Miyako Odori, a geisha dance show. Kyoto is the "geisha capital" of Japan (anyone who has read "Memoirs of a geisha" might remember that it is set in the Gion quarters of Kyoto). Only, the geishas here aren't called geishas, rather they prefer to be called "geiko". Throughout April you can watch a geisha dance show (because of - you guessed it - cherry blossom). We had read great reviews and were really keen to go. Luckily, we managed to get a couple of tickets.
Waiting for the fun to begin at the Geisha show
The geisha (or geiko) show was really special. The theatre was very tastefully decorated and nicely lit up. At 12.30 on the dot the music and singing started, performed by an all female orchestra sitting at the either side of the stage. It's the kind of music with a very distinct type of singing you may remember from old Japanese films. And then in they came, the geishas. All beautifully dressed up in amazing kimonos, with the distinct make-up and hair you associate with geishas. For one hour, different dances were performed by different groups of geishas, some of the dances being more like a piece of theatre (some geishas even played men). It was really beautiful and graceful and by far a Kyoto highlight.
Some snaps from the Miyako Odori geiko dance - taken clandestinely despite ban on photography. Dedication to the blog
We agreed to take a temple break for the rest of Monday and just wander around and do some shopping instead. It was official: we were suffering from temple fatigue after only one afternoon.
We keep mentioning the cherry blossom but it is actually worth a paragraph of its own. This time of year the Japanese go mad (a bit like Swedish midsummer) and it's easy to see why - the country is suddenly full of trees in various shades of pink and it is beautiful. We started off quietly laughing at people taking photos of cherry blossom but it turned out the laugh was on us - it didn't take long before we were doing the same thing.
"Ahhh, check that out, so much cherry blossom, better get a photo"
"Wow, lots of cherry blossom trees along the river, hold on, let me get a photo"
"Let me get a photo of you in front of this view (which has cherry blossom)"
"We should really get a photo of cherry blossom at night"
"These guys are having a picnic under the cherry blossom (always on blue tarpaulin - why?!) let's get a photo of that!
And so on. We have said, a number of times, that enough is enough, no more cherry blossom photos, but if you look at how many photos the Japanese, who actually LIVE here, are taking of it, we are bound to take more.
People taking photos of cherry blossom
Back on the temple track
Our last day in Kyoto we were re-energised and ready to see some more temples. Our temples of choice were a bit outside of town, closer to the mountains, which turned out to be a very beautiful setting.
First temple of the day, the UNESCO listed Tenryu-ji. The garden was spectacular.
Shoes off when you go into Japanese temples
After the first temple, we walked through the famous bamboo grove. The lonely planet describes it as "entering another world"... Not so sure about that. It felt a lot like the over-crowded world of the rest of Kyoto in cherry blossom season.
Grant couldn't see the bamboo forest for the bamboo trees
Next stop was the home, or rather garden, of the late actor Okochi Denjiro.
Remember this guy from old samuraij films? We didn't, but nonetheless enjoyed the stroll around his garden
Nice view from the garden
Frothy green tea and cake was included in the entrance fee
We met a really nice couple from Canberra there, whom we later bumped into on the train going west the next day. They had the ideal set up - retiring early and travelling lots!
Next up was the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Around 200 monkeys live up on the mountain, which is a brisk hike up from the river. We had seen some Japanese monkeys briefly while in Nikko, but this time we were able to get really close to the monkeys - quite aggressive little critters, it has to be said - and enjoy some beautiful views of Kyoto.
Lots of monkey business up here
Our last temple of the day (and indeed in Kyoto) was the Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It's beautifully placed in the middle of the water and the surrounding areas are fantastic. UNESCO listed? You bet.
Last temple in Kyoto - it's gold and UNESCO listed
It was with a very light step we walked towards the bus stop after our last Kyoto temple. No more crazy temple crowds, at least for a while. In the evening we enjoyed our best udon noodles so far, just around the corner from our hostel. On the sign language instructions of the friendly guy dining next to us at the bar, we added generous lashings of chilli powder. Grant didn't stop hiccuping for an hour after the meal.
And just when we thought we had Japan figured out...
...we get surprised once again - a vending machine selling ties
The next day, we would board yet another Shinkhansen in search of "the real Japan"...