Japan Part II -- Two weeks in Japan
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
In this post, we'll explore the island of Japan in the time frame of two weeks. We'll Cover Kyoto, Osaka, and Miyajima. For coverage on Tokyo, Kamakura, nearby day trips, and Shibu- Onsen, please see Japan Part I -- Two weeks in Japan.
We'll start the second half of our journey with a 160min Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto and continue moving south from there. It's now time to slow down from Tokyo's fast-paced city vibe, relax, and enjoy Kyoto's romantic fairytale-like scenery.
Kyoto in 3 days— Day 1
Transportation in Kyoto will be much slower than in Tokyo; nevertheless, it's still very reliable, but more time is needed for sightseeing. Here we'll be using a mixture of buses, trains, and walking as modes of transportation. Start your day exploring Arashiyama, located on the outskirts of Kyoto. We stayed here while in Kyoto and enjoyed the authentic feel and look of our surroundings. We used Airbnb to rent a studio apartment, stayed at a bachelorette's pad (now married), and ate across the street at a non-English menu/speaking restaurant, so we had to point at the menu and were surprised with every dish that kept coming out. This experience was refreshing, genuine, and exciting for us as travelers as we love to embrace the culture of every place we visit and often wander off to non-planned places; those tend always to be the most memorable ones when looking back on our experiences.
Our first stop is at the Bamboo Forest (open 24 hours-- Free). I recommend going here early as it's an open forest with natural lighting and usually in the afternoon it gets crowded and after 7 pm dark. This forest is at the end of a long strip, passing temples, shrines, and food trucks. I recommend starting first with the forest and then making your way back to all those other things. Also, Kyoto is a city full of beautiful gardens and temples— the amount can be overwhelming and redundant after a while, so I recommend making a list of the ones that perk your interest. We visited a handful while here.
After the forest, take a stroll back into the main street, stopping everywhere that looks interesting. You'll find temples, shrines, food trucks, and a kimono forest inside a semi-open mall. We stopped here for ice cream and ate GOLD for the first time!!! Yeap! There's an ice cream shop inside this mall that will top off your ice-cream with gold leaf for only $7 #becauseweonlyliveonce Now the real question is, what did gold taste like? There's no taste, in all honesty, and the texture feels as if you were eating paper. Would I eat it again? I don't think so. Am I glad I tried it and now know? Heck yeah!
More things to do in Arashiyama
* Visit the Oi River ( nearby - Free)
* Gio-Ji Temple ( small moss temple)
* Tenryu -Ji Temple ( 8:30am- 5pm --$6 )
* Saiho-Ji "Kokedera" (This is a private moss temple, and reservation is required via mail three months before the visit. If approved, you get an invitation to attend via mail.) Open 9 am-5 pm $30 entrance fee. *Katsura Imperial Villa (9 am-3:30 pm Free).
After a full in Arashiyama, if up to it, check out the nightlife in Gion or Ponto-Cho.
Day 2 -- Central Kyoto
Start your day with morning tea at a traditional Japanese garden. These gardens are best enjoyed during spring and autumn. You can opt for a garden that offers a Tea Ceremony or one that sells already made tea. Take your time roaming through this picturesque fairytale like gardens and find your inner zen.
After tea, head on to Toji Temple (8:30 am-5:30 pm $5) and hang out in Ponto-Cho after. This is an excellent spot for "Geisha Spotting" (near shijodori end) and grabbing lunch/drinks as this area is packed with restaurants, teahouses, shopping, and bars. Some bars to check out are Yoramu ( most famous for its sake) and cafe independents for its underground music scene. This area should be visited both during the day and night as the ambiance is completely different.
Geisha Spotting in Kyoto-- I read the book Memoirs of a Geisha in high school, and although the book is fictional and not at all what happened, I still really wanted to see one but knew that spotting them was not so easy as they lead very private lives. Before arriving in Japan, I read that the best places to spot them in Kyoto were Gion & Ponto- Cho between 4 pm-8 pm ( what a stalker, right!?!) since it's when they go on appointments to tea houses. I made it a point to hang out in those areas with my camera in hand at all times, a paranoid gaze scanning every street, and nothing happened. I saw nothing, I found nothing. On my last day in Kyoto, I decided not to look, get lost and enjoy my surroundings, for Kyoto is my favorite place to visit in Japan. Then it happened. I found a beautiful Geisha walking down the streets. The moment was epic, and everything I thought it would be. It's a bizarre feeling seeing one walk right next to you.
Geishas are a dying art form. In the 1920s, there were about 80,000 geisha in Japan. Today in Kyoto, there are only about 67 Maiko & 177 Geikos left. So whats a Geisha? Geishas are traditional Japanese females that act as hostesses. They are artists, and they're an enigma to the world. They spend all their lives perfecting the arts of dance, classical music, conversation, games & tea ceremony to entertain the world's elite. Some start training as early as three and become a professional by 15. They prefer to be called Geikos instead of Geishas. A Maiko is an apprentice of a Geiko (Geisha). Their Kimonos cost between $10,000-30,000 Dollars. Contrary to many beliefs, they are not prostitutes, and the word Geisha means "art doer."
Kimono rental in Japan
A Kimono is a traditional Japanese dress. Originally Kimono meant "something to wear" or "clothing." When we arrived in Japan, it was close to midnight, so we immediately headed towards our Airbnb for much-needed sleep after a long flight. The next morning we woke up extra early to check out Tokyo and its famous Tsukiji Fish Market. Going up and down various neighborhoods, we were stunned to
find so many people wearing kimonos!
I thought, Wow- this place is still really traditional. Although, yes, Japan is still very traditional, Kimonos is mostly worn by tourists or locals at a special formal event like a wedding, tea ceremony, or funeral. So mystery solved! You can rent a kimono for a day and wander the streets wearing it! I got super excited and convinced my boyfriend (after a long talk and some sake) to do it with me in Kyoto. I thought Kyoto would be the perfect place since I find it romantic, scenic, full of tradition and culture.
Unfortunately, I sprained my foot on day one and could not wear the flip flop/ socks combo since I needed full support, and a kimono with sneakers did not seem like a good idea at the time. But YOU can and should do it when in Japan! It'll be an experience to remember for sure! P.S: Kimonos are also really tight and adjusted to your body, so don't plan on traveling long distances while wearing one.
Day 3 -- Northern Kyoto
Visiting Kinkaku-Ji "The Golden Pavilion" Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple located in the Northern part of Kyoto, it's top floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It has been burned down numerous times, and it is said that in the 1950s, it was set on fire by a fanatic monk that thought that Kinkaku- Ji was too beautiful to look at, so it had to be destroyed. Visitors are not allowed inside, but it's definitely worth a trip to marvel at this beauty!
Visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine: This was hands down my favorite Shrine in all of Japan. Not even rain could stop us from completing this 3-hour elevated hike. Located in the Southern part of Kyoto, this shrine is famous for its thousands of torii gates, and it's dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of rice. The wild path of the hike leads into the wooded forest of sacred Mt. Inari and offers impressive views. Other places nearby to visit are Daigo-Ji Temple & nearby local sake breweries/warehouses.
Visit Gion, full of restaurants, teahouses, shops, and bars. Check out Yasakajinja Shrine (open 24 hours.) Visit Kiyomizu-Dera for a walk down a preserved historic district and a traditional tea ceremony. If visiting during the full bloom of cherry blossom season or autumn "leaf season," take a local bus from here and see the philosophers walk; it's a beautiful strip down a canal that inspired many writers and artists.
24 hours in Osaka
It's all about being a foodie in Osaka, named one of the 52 places to travel to in 2017 by the New York Times for its food. Osaka is known as a gastronomist's town. I'm a foodie, so we had to visit! Dotonbori is the central spot you want to hit; it has something for everyone! You can walk up and down the street, eating, drinking, and gaming. We had so much fun. Highly recommend visiting this spot during the day, walk the food off then come back at night for some nightlife.
Underground Sake Tasting at Shimada Shoten — If you're in Osaka, you have to check this place out! It's a bit of a walk from the center but so worth it, plus you get to walk off your food coma from Dotonbori and then return for dinner. This is a real locals spot, no tourists whatsoever. We made new awesome Japanese friends, and after a couple of sake rounds, they even asked us how we found that spot ;) that's always a good sign (when a local is surprised to see you there). This spot looks like a simple sake shop; you even have to ask for the tasting.
When you ask to do a tasting, they take you to an underground basement where you're left alone with hundreds of sakes to try. Some even 40+ years old. The best part- you pay per shot glass 220 yen, so they all have the same price. We had so much fun here. There's also a maximum of 2 hours allowed at the tasting. Once the two hours are up, they escort you out of the basement, and you can sake shop upstairs.
12-hours in Miyajima
"Island of Gods."
Taking a day trip to the Island of Miyajima, and hanging out with the locals of this island... 80% wild deer— Reaching this Island is easy from Kyoto, Osaka, or Nara and so much fun! This tiny Island (only 1.5 hours away from Kyoto) has something for everyone, and I assure you, it will not disappoint. Before reaching the Island, you must take a ferry out of Hiroshima, worth exploring for a couple of hours and trying some okonomiyaki (grilled pancakes of eggs and meat) and kaki (local oysters.)
If visiting on August 6, you can be part of the beautiful memorial dedicated to those killed in the nuclear bombing of 1945-- The Floating Lantern Ceremony. The ceremony is held in the evening to remember and in hopes of peace and nuclear disarmament. The floating lanterns symbolize the journey to the afterlife. From Hiroshima, we take a 25 min ferry to the Island of Miyajima. The last ferry leaves the Island at 10 pm, so plan accordingly if not staying overnight.
Once in Miyajima, you can rent a bike at the ferry terminal to explore the Island or travel by foot.
Things to check out along the way:
*Go-Ju-no-to (five-story pagoda)
*O Torii "floating torii."
* Hike Mount Misen
*Visit Momijidani Park
*Ride the cable cart
O-Torii Gate— One of Japan's most iconic and photographed sights is located on this Island. During the span of 7 hours, you can see this torii both with low and high tide. During low tide, you can walk up to it and touch it! Many festivals are also held at the shrine from time to time. The sight is equally stunning for both high and low tide. I recommend getting to the island early so you can see the high tide, after visit the shrines, temples, hike Mt. Misen, have lunch in town and end re-visiting the torii walking and gazing into the sunset.
Hiking Mt. Misen
Mount Misen is a sacred mountain located in Miyajima. This hike brings you to the highest peak of Miyajima at 500 meters above sea level. It offers spectacular views, wildlife, and a Buddhist Temple.
This was our favorite hike in Japan. It takes about 5 hours to complete but if you get tired, a cable cart can bring you up or down. Hiking Mt. Misen was at times challenging. The path was not always smooth, and it was raining, so the ground was quite slippery. This was the perfect hike for me, full of Kon'nichiwa, lots of
challenges to complete but always knowing there was a way out (cable cart) if we got too tired. So, did we complete the hike? Well, halfway. The truth is, we had every intention to. We climbed to the top and came down via cable cart. Why? It was raining, I had a terrible foot sprain (that I got on day 1, not fun! but-still I was not backing up from my adventurous itinerary), it was getting dark, and we had to catch the ferry back to Hiroshima. If you love hikes & nature, I highly recommend this Island!
This ends the second half of our two weeks in Japan. Some extra day trips if you have more than two weeks are: Day trip to Kobe, famous for its Kobe beef. Day trip to Nara, famous for its deer park. Overnight stay in Koyosan Mt. Koya, famous for its Buddhist retreat. Day trip to the Island of bunnies. Yes! its an island full of bunnies <3
Have a favorite spot in Japan? Leave a comment, and I'll be sure to check it next time I'm in town... Thanks for reading!