JAPAN 2020: Osaka and Kyoto

After our first stint in Tokyo, we spent a couple of days in the Kansai region of Japan. We took a mid-day bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka and spent approximately a day and a half in both Osaka and Kyoto – not nearly enough time for either!

A big griddle of Osaka-style Okonomiyaki from Fugetsu

We planned to stay in Osaka and simply take the train back and forth to Kyoto. We did this based on a friend’s suggestion, as Osaka had more “night life” (which, for us, ended up being a Round One arcade) while Kyoto was supposedly quieter after dinner time.

Our first hotel was the Hotel WBF Namba Bunraku, within walking distance of Namba and Dotonbori and right off of a main road with bountiful street food options. In our short time there, we grabbed melon pan, takoyaki, and taiyaki on our many walks home.

(It is also situated next to the National Bunraku Theater, which looked interesting from the outside, but, like many other tourist attractions on this trip, was closed for the entire time we were there. Our hotel’s free breakfast was also put on hold, though their free happy hour was not, and we took full advantage!)

The hotel was further from the train station that I would’ve liked, but the street food on the way definitely made it a little more tolerable! Because the hotel was close to Namba anyway, where we planned to spend most of our time stuffing our faces and window shopping, we didn’t spend much time on the train anyway.

Our first of many cramped Japanese hotel rooms! (picture from booking.com)

Oddly enough, after our first night, the hotel let us know that they would actually be closing down for the rest of our stay, and re-directed us to a nearby larger branch, Hotel WBF Namba Kurmon. We actually saw this as an upgrade – the larger branch seemed a lot swankier, with a rooftop lounge, free breakfast, and an even more central location, though our rooms were just as small as they were at our last hotel.

The view from the rooftop lounge at Hotel WBF Namba Kuromon – we would’ve spent more time there but it was raining!

Our bullet train into Osaka actually arrived a bit sooner than we expected, so we decided to dip back into Kyoto for a quick visit to the famous Fushimi Inari shrine. The sun was setting, but we had heard that it’s actually better to visit at night, as the moonlight changes the mood of the area completely and, more importantly, it’s less crowded!

“Less crowded” actually ended up being a recurring theme for each of our visits to Kyoto. We had heard countless times about how crowded all of the tourist attractions would be, but actually found the opposite – while we encountered some other tourists, everything was quiet… a little too quiet. We all knew why – in addition to the virus, it was pouring rain for most of our visit – so we decided to simply enjoy the less crowded sights as they were, and as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! (And with lots of hand sanitizer!)

After visiting Fushimi Inari, we walked through the quiet, residential streets of Kyoto to a very small restaurant that specialized in Obanzai cuisine. This was definitely the most “Japanese” experience we had on the entire trip, as nobody in the restaurant, including the lovely older woman who ran it, spoke any English! We had some interesting yuba donburi (the texture was… not my favorite) and small plates of fresh food, like saba sushi and vegetable tempura.

We quickly realized that the restaurant was a very local spot, and it became even more obvious when one of the drunk grandpas at the bar started talking to us in broken English! Much like our experience at Maidreamin (except the total opposite of our experience at Maidreamin), I used my broken Japanese to try and hold a conversation with grandpa about Boston and how “Mama-san” makes the best food in the entire world! We definitely left the restaurant feeling like we had an authentic Japanese experience.

A few days later, we spent a full rainy day in Kyoto. Though it took us a while to figure out Kyoto’s bus system, we finally found our way to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, which should have been full of plum blossoms by then, according to the internet! Unfortunately, the trees and their blooms were not very impressive that day, perhaps because of the rain?, but the shrine itself was still beautiful and fun to explore.

A view of the inside of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

We then made our way to Kinkaku-ji temple. Like other touristy spots, we expected this place to be very busy – we even passed by tons of switchbacks where we assumed people would wait in line to even get tickets to go inside! – but we simply walked in without a problem.

Though it was pouring rain the entire time we were there, we were still incredibly impressed by the temple and its beautifully maintained grounds. While the entrance fee was steeper than other temples we visited, it was definitely the most beautiful and elaborate one that we visited, making the price a bit more worth it.

From Kinkaku-ji, we took a bus to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, which I was particularly excited about! I had seen many, many pictures of the bamboo online, and really wanted to see them in real life to see if they were just as majestic in real life. I’m very happy to report that the answer to that question is yes! They were beautiful, even in the pouring rain!

From there, we sat and waited for the bus in the pouring rain for a while before boarding a bus for an hour-long ride to Gion in the city center. While the ride was long, we definitely needed the rest – my feet were aching and standing out in the rain all day was taking its toll!

We got a much-needed dinner at Ramen Miyako (as seen in this vlog from on one my favorite foreigner-in-Japan vloggers, Sundai Love). Like her, we gorged ourselves on big bowls of ramen, dumplings, highballs, beer, and had our first sips of Akadama.

All I need is a big bowl of ramen, fried chicken, dumplings, and a highball… that’s it

Afterwards, we walked off our big meal by wandering the streets of Gion, including Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka Streets, where we dipped into the famous tatami-style Starbucks for a quick yuzu drink. Though it was already nighttime and many of the stores along the streets were closed, it was still nice to explore! The moon reflecting off the wet streets made everything especially photogenic.

Though we did forget that these were active streets, and almost got run over while taking these next two pictures.

Meanwhile, our introduction to Osaka was actually by bike! We booked the half-day Cycle Osaka Food tour from My Japan Tours and met our group bright and early in the Shinsekai neighborhood.

Our tour guide brought us to the (also eerily quiet) Shitennoji temple, where we watched a pond full of turtles and ate turtle-shaped treats.

We also took a quick cycling break to rest under the plum blossoms, which were fully in bloom this time!

We then made our way around to Osaka’s Koreatown – a choice that we thought was strange initially, but made more sense as our guide explained the history of the Korean community in Osaka and the unique mix of Korean-Japanese food they had created. We munched on some kimbap and jeon before heading into a nearby BBQ place. I wasn’t expecting to eat Korean BBQ on our trip to Japan, but I wasn’t complaining – good food is good food!

Afterwards, we definitely got our money’s worth on the bikes, as we continued zooming around Osaka, a city whose name means “big hill”! At one point, our guide said, “All right, I’ll meet you guys at the bottom of this hill! Take your time, or not, whatever!” and zoomed away. It turns out that he readied himself at the bottom of the hill to take our pictures as we arrived!

“I didn’t hit anyone!”

After this, we had our final meal – a sushi course!

Despite all the biking we were doing, a lot of us were pretty full at this point, and we spent time talking to our host about himself – growing up in Alaska, studying Japanese in college and writing his senior thesis entirely in Japanese, and why that was a bad idea, etc.

If it’s not obvious by now, I highly recommend this tour!

We took a couple more group shots before parting ways for the rest of the evening.

We spent the rest of that day wandering between Dotonbori, Namba, and Amerikamura, doing some window shopping, munching on street food, and taking in the lights! I bought some accessories, stickers, and souvenirs, and thought about buying an ice cream sandwich (that is, a roll with plain vanilla ice cream piped in), but restrained myself.

We definitely didn’t account for the amount of things to do in Kansai – especially in Kyoto! – and the short three days we split between both Osaka and Kyoto seemed to barely scratch the surface. I’d love to come back (after this global pandemic, of course) and plan a more detailed itinerary!

Next time, our final installment: Nikko!

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