Japan Trip Guide: Kyoto, Yamazaki, Osaka

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James Chan was part of the recent Japan Trip crew and shares his perspective exploring an amazing country. In this post, he picks up where I left off with the Japanese Grand Prix post (Days 1-2). Read on for a recap of Days 3-5!

Day 3: Kyoto

Day 3 was action-packed, as we hit up many of Kyoto’s most famous landmarks. Kyoto is famed for its traditional temples and shrines and related scenery, so visiting an array of them was our focus for the day.

But first, we headed to Nishiki Market, a popular traditional food market selling goods from sashimi and takoyaki to those dried things Asian grandparents buy to make medicinal stews and soups. We spent the morning taking in the diversity of items and stalls on offer, both with our eyes and through stuffing our faces with food. Personally, the stands reminded me of the Hong Kong streetsides that I used to explore with my parents, making it both a novel and nostalgic experience. However, it was much quieter and cleaner here.

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Next, we hopped on the subway to Higashiyama district, a popular tourist destination famed for its picturesque, traditional streets and temples. The streets were lined with shops selling trinkets and snacks, and we started seeing people in kimonos walking towards the shrine, a mix of locals coming to pay their respects and (mostly) Chinese tourists taking a ton of selfies. Despite the heat and humidity, the streets were packed as we navigated past the crowds while checking out the fare, eventually getting some delicious green tea ice cream to cool down.

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After a 30-minute walk, we arrived at Kiyomizu-dera, a temple founded in the 8th century and whose name translates to “clear water temple.” It’s a large Buddhist structure surrounded by natural beauty that offers breathtaking views of both the forest and the cityscape, as well as a great example of ancient Japanese architecture that is a feast for both eyes and social media virality. Check out some of the photos below!

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Another short subway ride later, we landed in Fushimi-Inari, Kyoto’s #1 sightseeing spot ranked by TripAdvisor, as at least 30 banners along the way sought to remind us. The place is famous for its many torii gates that line the paths to the mountain’s summit, which function both as one of Japan’s most iconic sites and as one of the first and most clever gamification-monetization schemes in human history: people and businesses who donated at least ¥400,000 got a small gate in their name added to the path, and at least ¥1 million for a large one. Your move, Candy Crush.

Despite the heat, we hiked up for 2 hours to the summit despite Glen and Jay’s assurances that we were not up until the predictable “well we’ve climbed so far anyway might as well make it to the top” moment. As the tourist crowd thinned out, it got easier to appreciate the pristine air and smell of trees along the trail path. When you get near the top, a sign that says “Great View” helpfully tells you where you should take your next FB cover photo panorama. A thoroughly enjoyable hike, and a great experience visiting one of Japan’s classic destinations.

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We then fit in two small dinners once we arrived at downtown Kyoto in the evening: an excellent gyoza place, and quite possibly the worst sushi I’ve ever had. The gyoza tasted excellent, although a bit lacking in meat. The sushi was tough and had an unpleasant fishy taste and smell. I’ve had better supermarket sushi.

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Day 4: Kyoto → Yamazaki → Osaka

We kicked off the day by going to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, which is exactly what it sounds like. We took a wrong turn and hiked halfway up a trail to a Zen temple before realizing our error. However, the area surrounding the trail was gorgeous, with a river running between two hills and dense forestry with traditionally styled boats carrying tourists across it. It was a shame we were on a tight schedule, or we would have enjoyed continuing along and seeing the temple.

The forest itself was unique, with the shade provided by the forest and the chirping birds providing a calm backdrop as we walked at a leisurely pace. We walked along the path for a bit, then checked out a nearby garden. Both along the trail and at the garden, the water was pristine, reflecting everything above it like a mirror; along with the meticulously manicured lawn area, you could tell that a great amount of care was taken in protecting the natural beauty of the area.

We then bid farewell to Kyoto and headed out for Yamazaki, but not before running into one last sight: a “kimono forest” featuring hundreds of kimono fabrics lining a stone path. As I would later learn, Japan is a very serendipity-friendly city well-suited for random wandering and exploring; many awesome places happened to be near train stations, so you could almost accidentally bump into a unique landmark or a great restaurant.

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Yamazaki is home to the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, famed for its high quality Japanese whisky. We pre-booked a tour of the distillery three weeks even before booking our Airbnbs. As expected, we were quite excited.

First thing we noticed was the sheer size of the place: it looked less like my image of a distillery and more like a full-blown factory. As we went on our tour, I learned that my initial assessment was less off than I’d thought: the distillery had incredibly sophisticated machinery and equipment, coupled by an intimate knowledge of the characteristics of whisky and how each part of the distillation process affects its flavor and texture. The tour ended with a tasting consisting of different whiskies produced in their various casks and the Yamazaki single-malt blend that is the end result. Even for someone like me who normally finds whisky to feel like drinking fire, the Yamazaki went down incredibly smoothly, leaving a pleasant aftertaste. After the tour, we did another optional whisky tasting featuring the incredibly rare Hibiki 30 Year, meaning that the whisky was matured for 30 years.

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Day 4 (continued): Osaka

A short train ride later, we were on to Osaka! After putting down our stuff, we headed out for Dotonbori, a famous entertainment red-light district featuring restaurants, street stands, bars, karaoke, and clubs (of both the dancing and “private dancing” varieties). We had dinner at a popular izakaya (diner) named Kitazo, where Jay and I split tempura and fried tuna. One interesting thing I learned was the difference between deep-frying in Japan vs. in America: Japanese tempura and other fried food tend to have a much lighter batter that tastes more crispy than oily, with a thinner coating of breading. This gives the food a more refreshing taste than American deep fry, and most restaurants will have a dip on the side to offset the weaker flavor compared to the American counterparts. What was really notable, however, was the delicious flavor (umami in Japanese) of the tuna – it actually reminded me of a seafood version of bone-in steak.

After wandering around the streets for a bit (see pics below), we found a bar that had an amazing deal: unlimited alcohol (a mix of beer, cocktails, and cheap wines and whiskeys) for just over 1,000 yen! For under $50, we each had about 3-4 drinks plus several appetizers. Between the izakaya and the bar, we got a taste of how after-work nightlife functioned in Japan: most restaurants had coat hooks so that salarymen and women could hang their suits and blazers, and the cheap all-you-can-drink bar we went to was definitely designed with Japan’s notoriously lengthy post-work happy hour gatherings in mind. One of the most interesting aspects of vacationing is seeing how other countries’ societies are reflected through little details like this, and Dotonbori provided a fascinating introduction.

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Day 5: Osaka

We started off the next day in Kuromon Market, one of Osaka’s biggest markets and one of its oldest at over 170 years old, which meant the clientele was mixed between locals buying groceries and tourists like us that mostly took pictures and got in the way. Like with Nishiki Market in Kyoto, there was plenty of food you didn’t see often in the States, from seafood and meat skewers to fresh sashimi to snackable favorites both known to us (takoyaki) and completely new (unagi over omelette egg anyone?). The two most memorable foods I ate there were deliciously tender wagyu beef sushi and tuna belly that melted in your mouth so fast you could almost drink it. See pics below for an r/food-style recap of things “I ate:”.

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Full from our impromptu brunch – we planned to have lunch after Kuromon that was, shall we say, deemed unnecessary – we moved on to our afternoon plans.

First up was Osaka Castle, a major historical landmark dating back to the Edo period of Japan (16th-19th centuries) when it was commissioned to be built in 1583 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the second of three key figures to unify Japan during that period. It was surrounded by a park and a moat, and contained exhibits of the history of that era inside. The majestic castle looked like classic ancient Japan, and a walk up the floors and through the exhibits taught me a lot about fundamental Japanese history.

We then took a train over to Minoo Park in northern Osaka, and walked along a path for about 2 miles to a very picturesque waterfall. Besides being extremely easy, what made this “hike” one of my favorites was the stillness and peacefulness of the scenery around me. After a few days of 80+ degree humid weather, this was the first day the weather had started to cool down, making it perfect to appreciate the serenity of walking in crisp forest-y air with no sounds besides the water rushing down the river next to us. This trail was also not too crowded, as we went closer to the end of the day, which meant we got to enjoy the walk at our own pace, soaking in the relaxed atmosphere and nature around us. At the end of the trail, having walked nonstop for 7 hours, our celebratory onigiris at the waterfall had never been more enjoyable.

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We ended up in Dotonbori again, where we had two dinners because why not. Our first dinner was at the original conveyor belt sushi restaurant, Genroku Sushi. For the uninitiated, you sit around a conveyor belt where you pick sushi plates off the belt (and extremely efficient and busy sushi chefs place them on the belt) and pay by the plate, with different color plates denoting different values. I had 16 plates for around $20 USD, an unbelievable deal given that most US establishments run around $2 to $2.50 a plate for worse sushi. On a recommendation by a friend originally from Osaka, we also went to a restaurant that sold skewers of batter-fried meat, including skewers of A4 wagyu beef. The food was great, but even more notably, it was delivered to us by a mini magnetized train.

We ended up at a riverside bar drinking cocktails and beer (unfortunately, not unlimited this time around) and reflecting upon a busy but amazing day. This day at Osaka served as a perfect microcosm of our trip to Japan and the versatility of the vacation hotspots here: we checked out Japanese daily life through a market, saw a historic castle, literally chased waterfalls, and enjoyed nightlife at one of the most famous streets in Osaka, all in one day!

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