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Osaka and Kyoto (+ Hiroshima)

The 2 cities of Osaka and Kyoto are very different but being alongside each other it is hard not to put them together, like Jekyll and Hyde. You can travel between the 2 of them in just 15 minutes by 'shinkansen' bullet train, or half an hour on a slower train.

osaka

pagoda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our dinner-suited taxi driver seemed rather over-dressed for our destination. We were booked into a downtown capsule hotel in Osaka where the guests wore uniform pyjamas, much like in-mates. These places are mostly associated with single men, although some have separate women's sections but the Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi was a find with 4 capsules with additional space in one room. The perfect opportunity to try this so-capsuletypical Japanese experience, but with our family altogether. It was late - we settled into our individual cabins - each with TV (turned off for the kids as channels are littered with porn), light, mirror, shelf, air-con, clock and a blind to pull down to enclose it. It was cosy with crisp white sheets and within a moment sleep engulfed us.

In the morning we put on the pyjamas and went to wash in the public bathroom. This is common practise in most authentic accommodations in Japan regardless of the standard. Men and women separate - you wash and shower off whilst sat on a little stool and once clean relax in the hot tub. The only difference between this and visiting an 'onsen' is that an onsen's water comes from a natural hot spring and can be thought to offer healing benefits. There is something ritualistic about it and you quickly get over the group nakedness. The children love to wash and bathe, and repeat it all over again - they have never been so clean!  Shampoo to toothbrush to razors are provided. They think of everything!

streetosakaFeeling refreshed we hit the streets, quickly discovering that we are in the middle of it all - the happening area of Amerika-Mura. We are delighted to fall from retro toy shop to interesting clothing boutique to vinyl music shop - all interspersed with small and friendly eateries. The youth cruising these streets are hip and wacky. It's great for people watching. We instantly love the area so much that we decide not to go sight-seeing at all - there's plenty going on right here.

As the day passes we continue to wander - camera in hand trying to capture the atmosphere. By the river Dotombori-gawa, futuristic messages beam out - advertising the latest thing in moving, colourful light. An octopus outside a restaurant, upstages other hanging seafood adornments by bursting into opera. There is plenty to see and plenty of people to see it. A big wheel in the centre of all this unfortunately has long since been out of service. But a moment later we are distracted by something else…

It's a brief visit to Osaka, and possibly 2 nights is enough, to capture the essence of this extrovert city. Despite the fact this felt a bit seedier in places, than elsewhere we've encountered in Japan, at no point did we feel remotely out of our depth. There are plenty of love hotels here, including the fun Little Chapel Christmas, but I gather these are largely so popular because Japanese often live with family in close proximity and 'to get a room' for a couple of hours can be a necessity.

Next we were catapulted to Kyoto - the nation's centre of culture. It's here the Geisha's can be seen in Gion, where you can experience a tea ceremony and visit as many shrines and temples as you can handle. It felt slower paced immediately, although you need to share pavements with weaving cyclists. From our Japanese style hotel room, not far from Kyoto Station, we could stroll to 2 of the cities' central temples - Nishi Hongan-ji and Nigashi Hongan-ji. The latter is probably more interesting as the largest wooden structure in the world and with a rope on display made of human hair. Devotees had donated their hair to help in the moving of the enormous trunk pillars holding the structure up. It is currently in the middle of a extensive renovations project here, but its still worth a look. 

We also popped to Ti-jo. Its about 15 minute walk from Kyoto Station and is an important symbol to the Japanese. It is the highest pagoda in Japan with 5 tiers and reaches a height of 57m. There is a pleasant garden and pond with fish and tortoises that our kids enjoyed.

fushimi

bamboo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is so much to do in Kyoto, and if you believe the guide books so many essential shrines that can't be missed, so you need to quickly get to grip of an itinerary that works for you. Apart from a JR line, buses are the main mode of transport. As we have children in tow, we had to ensure that we weren't going to temple them out, and to be honest, us too. I think we pulled it off perfectly with the follow itinerary.

Full Day 1 - Get the JR train from Kyoto Station to Fushimi Inari. The orange shrine gate that greets you is a sign of what's to come. After the washing of the hands, throwing of the rock through a hole in a stone sculpture and passing of some devotional stalls the hundreds of torii lead you up the hillside. One after another creating a complete arch onwards and upwards. The torii have been donated by companies or individuals as a blessing and at this popular temple they undulate over a 2-3 hours woodland walk. I recommend that you take the time to stroll at least part of the route. It's a pleasant walk, calming for the soul.

kiminoThen take the train, via Kyoto station where you need to change, to Asa… and turn right into a lane that will lead you to the main street. There are many restaurants and tourists to fill them, but its a pleasant atmosphere added to by the man-pulled rickshaws trundling up and down. There were many kimono-clad girls around here in their glory - hair twisted and held with flowers, wooden flip-flops over their specially adapted socks. Yes, socks and sandals are acceptable here!

I would walk through Teniji temple gardens (for a fee) and emerge at the top gate to join the bamboo grove (beyond the crowds) and feel overwhelmed by the towering archway above you. You can walk on someway until you reach the bridge … and to the right on the other side you can enter the …Monkey sanctuary. It's a steep climb up to the clearing where the monkeys hang out. You can feed them from within a cage (you are in it, not them!) and then take a seat on a bench with panoramic views over the whole of Kyoto. Kyoto Tower draws the eye - we always knew the way home. The monkeys take in the view alongside you whilst picking at each other and bounding about.

Full Day 2 - Take the bus to Sanjusangen-do - the 206 from outside Kyoto Station - Here there are a 1001 statues. Hop back on the same bus (you can buy a day-pass) to continue to Kiyomizu-dera. Its an uphill climb past crafts and pottery shops, restaurants etc in a growing crowd as you need the entrance. Before you enter be sure to visit Tainai-meguri, to the left of the pagoda, where you pay your 100 yen, take off your shoes and follow a row of wooden beads through the darkness, in blind faith and reminiscent of your time in the womb, until you reach a lit stone which you turn as you make a wish. If it hadn't been for the shrieking gaggle of school girls behind this could have been really symbolic, but it was still fun. After paying our entrance fee, usually around £2-3, there were other rituals to follow. A little weight-lifting challenge, incense to light, a bronze figure to stroke for luck, and an orange pagoda amongst woodland to reach, terminating in a walk between 2 rocks (with eye's closed) to see if you will find true love. It is anything but somber and dull.

On leaving here we took a lane to the right past ancient wooden houses, with interesting tourist handicrafts stalls: sake jugs, chopsticks, fans and unusual food items for sale, which lead on through South Higashiyama. If you could handle more temples, gardens and shrines there are plenty to explore. We kept moving on, only taking a rest at Maruyama-koen park. Towards the top of this park, itself busy with shrine bells and lanterns, there is a beautiful pond crossed by a bridge and it was here that we settled to enjoy the afternoon sun and refreshment from a nearby stall.

The park exits into Gion, the Geisha district (not that we saw any). We didn't feel quite in our grove here. Restaurants along the walkway look amazing, but with prices to match. We got a bit lost and seemed to have missed the main streets which are supposed to be the most beautiful in Asia. Darkness came too quickly - we ate and got home to our tatami mat beds.

Day 3/4 - I would take a bus to Kinkaku-ji from outside Kyoto Station and from their stroll on to the temple and Japanese gardens at Ryoan-ji. Go from there by bus to Nishiki food market to marvel at the weird and wonderful things Japanese eat. You could also try a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in nearby Gion. Alternatively North Higashiyama offers many treasures. These are days we didn't have so I can't give personal reflections.

Of course unless visiting temples is really your thing, I think its best to just pick a workable route and select a few important places to see rather than rushing around, paying lots of entry fees (that add up) and ending up exhausted. We still had energy to have a great night out with an Australian family one evening, for tappenyaki food and hot sake.

domeWe began our 7 day Japan Rail Pass the next day which made an outing to Hiroshima feasible. It takes about 2 hours from Kyoto (via Osaka on a bullet train), but actually it was a welcome change to sit back for a while. From the station at Hiroshima jump on a tram (no.2 or 6) to the Dome. This is a ruined building miraculously left part-standing  the epicentre of the A-bomb. It remains as a monument to the tragedy that befell Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. There was almost no other structures remaining within moments of the 8.15am catastrophic blast within a 3 kilometre radius. The museum details the where, why, how and the shocking effects this terrible decision had on so many people. Within a week 140,000 people had perished in the most gruesome way. I believe its an important visit to make - It's a shame the leaders of those countries who have nuclear weapons don't go there. Surely they would change their minds. No one has the right to cause this horrific destruction.

Walking back over the bridge you needed to lift our spirits. It had been an important but heavy afternoon. A street-side cafe offered delicious Hiroshima oysters, Guiness, cava and ice-cream! Something to please us all. We recovered there for our journey home.

It's worth working out what your train journeys around the country are going to cost you (I googled this) and deciding whether it is worth your while getting a rail pass in Japan. We are not using ours every day but with 4 journeys in a week we will cover the cost of the ticket (about £275 per adult). The Hiroshima round-trip, normally about £125, then became free of charge.