CONTRIBUTED BY QUENTIN RICHARDSON
No offense, I love Korea too. But when I take leave, I like to really travel to places I have never been and go as far away from duty as much as possible. My fiancee’ recently returned from Osaka and Kyoto with great reviews of her trip. She suggested we go together for a trip of our own. Kansai Airport from Incheon is just under 2 hours by air.
Part One: Kyoto
From Osaka/Kansai Airport (KIX), we caught an express train to Kyoto station using a JR (Japan Railways) train. If you land at Terminal 2, use the free shuttle to get to Terminal 1 to buy tickets for trains and buses. You can buy tickets from touchscreen displays just like the KoRail versions in Incheon Airport. The train takes around 1 hour to reach Kyoto Station. (Fun Fact: Kansai Airport is built on a man-made island).
Finally arriving at Kyoto Station, we decided to catch a city bus to our hotel. The city buses are easy to understand and use if you pick up a Explore Kyoto book from the train station or any tourist information booth. You can buy a day-pass (recommended) on the bus for 500 yen ($5). A great value since almost everything in Kyoto you want to see has a nearby bus stop. Along with buses, Kyoto has both above and underground lines throughout the city. We used buses since everything we needed was close together.
Most of Kyoto is very suburban and very traditional Japanese style, but the city is large and urbanized as well. For a more urban feel, stay close to Kyoto station or Kawaramachi. We stayed in the Kawaramachi
area since everything she suggested we do and try were walking distance from our hotel. There are streets lined with stores and markets here. Kyoto is extremely tourist friendly in this area as well. You will see more foreigners here than other places in Japan I have visited so far (even Tokyo). Do not worry about using English here since a large number of locals know and can understand almost everything you say.
Looking for a REAL geisha? Within walking distance of Kawaramachi is the district known as Gion
. Here, there are bars and restaurants that have geisha entertaining their hosts. Please do not disturb them, their full and undivided attention will be directed to their host. If you are respectful, they will allow you to take their picture very momentarily when they are alone and returning back from escorting a host. Please know that they are not what most of us Westerners assume they are and not every girl in a kimono is a geisha. You will see a lot of locals in traditional clothing here, ask them politely and they will pose for a picture, not a selfie.
There are a host of shrines and temples here in Kyoto. There are a few distinct shrines that are a “must see” before leaving. Before visiting them, take a train or bus to Arashiyama
. The iconic bamboo forest of Arashiyama attracts visitors from all over the world. Here you can walk the path yourself or catch a ride from a local pulling a cart known as a jinriksha. Drivers of the jinriksha also serve as tour guides and photographers. Throughout the course there will be vendors selling items and food made from the bamboo they cut from the forest. We found it better to walk the path first, then if you want, to ride the jinriksha afterwards.
Next stop is the famous Inari Shrine
. This shrine can be easily found next to Inari Station, which is a few stops away from Kyoto station. What is behind this shrine draws large crowds of locals and tourists. A large hiking path covered with hundreds of torii gates awaits you. It takes over 3 hours for this course and if you are lucky, you will catch a glimpse of a fox along the hike. Inari shrine’s iconic image of worship is the fox, so finding one is a huge deal. We started the course late in the afternoon and finished around nightfall, which meant less people and more peaceful hiking (more mosquitoes too).
Again, there are a host of shrines in Kyoto with a distinctive feature and meaning. Kinkakuji
may be the most distinctive of them all. It is a shrine covered in gold set on a beautiful pond. Unfortunately, this is the only shrine you actually pay to see, but they give you a souvenir with your purchase. This site is also crowded with locals and tourists taking photos of the temple. There is also a temple that was also done in silver across town. We strolled the grounds and took pictures, but we really enjoyed the tea and sweets under the umbrellas near the exit.
Since there is so much to do and see in Kyoto, we did not get to enjoy it all in the 3-day visit. To find out what to do, use internet searches in combination with pamphlets from tourist information centers. Be sure to register for city-wide wi-fi at Kyoto station or any tourist information booth. Basically Kyoto in my opinion, is the real depiction of traditional suburban Japan mixed with a few modern interests.
Part Two: Osaka
Osaka and Kyoto are really night and day and many aspects. Osaka is more modern and commercialized than Kyoto. Here, you will see more locals in formal, western suits or radical stylish Japanese fashion. Here, malls and shopping centers are interconnected and clustered together with transportation networks. From either Kyoto or Kansai Airport, you can use a bus or train into the city. Like most cities in Japan that are more modern, this city attracts younger tourists who look to party, shop and eat.
We arrived from Kyoto via an express train between Kawaramachi and Osaka station. Our hotel was actually within walking distance of Osaka-Umeda station via underground shopping malls. We arrived at night, so we decided to visit Dotombori
. This famous street is well known for food and shopping centers, but even more famous for finding Osaka’s famous okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a fried egg pancake dish mixed with various other ingredients. We tried a restaurant that offer a dish with 9 different types of okonomiyaki! Next to Dotombori is the famous river walk of Namba that hosts a wall of Neon-lit advertisements. A great place for taking pictures or a nice riverboat ride.
Like Kyoto, there are a host of attractions in Osaka. Universal Studios Japan
is located at the Universal City stop, we didn’t go there or other places because of the rain. We visited Osaka Castle Park
and Namba Walk, an underground mall. We also visited a few markets since they are covered and to sample street food. At night, we had drinks in Kitasinchi since it was connected to our hotel via Dojima underground mall. Finally, on the last day, we left our hotel and enjoyed a last meal in Namba before catching an Airport Express Bus from Osaka Station (which takes over an hour).
To get to Kansai Airport from Incheon, we used Peach Airlines
, a low-cost carrier based in Osaka. They flew us there for only 154,000 won roundtrip! Peach Airlines has an average of 3 flights a day between Incheon and Kansai, and I booked them online. Most restaurants accept credit cards, but exchange for yen at Incheon Airport.
We stayed at the Hotel Elsereine
in Osaka and the Kyoto Royal Hotel
in Kawaramachi. Both were located in areas where everything we needed was walking distance away. Recommended areas to stay in Kyoto are near the station or Kawaramachi. For Osaka, stay near Osaka station (Umeda) or Namba. Hotels are booked easily from hotel sites.
Everything you need is available in English (even Korean to some extent). So don’t worry about getting lost. Be sure to find the local “Explore” books to help you find everything you need. There are volunteers at the train stations to help you find the train and track number you need or you can use Hyperdia (http://www.hyperdia.com/en/).