The morning of 14 May 2017 was the day I finally step foot in Japan.
I had no initial desire to visit the Land of the Rising Sun but upon my wife’s desire to tick it off her bucket list led me to buy flight tickets a whole year in advance for the family. It was also to be our little one’s first faraway adventure abroad after spending most of his first year traveling domestically.
Our pick was Kansai, a region known for its culture and cuisine in both Kyoto and Osaka, respectively.
We spent a full week criss-crossing both cities and here’s my action-packed 7-day itinerary exploring this wondrous region.
DAY 1: Kansai International Airport to Inari
We took a night flight on AirAsiaX and arrived at 9:20 in the morning at Kansai International Airport (KIX), an impressive airport built on a man-made island off Osaka Bay. After clearing through immigration and customs, we made our way to Kansai Airport Station, located at the second floor of the terminal.
The plan was to go to the farther city first so we pre-booked the “ICOCA & HARUKA,” a set containing the multipurpose ICOCA Card loaded and a discounted ticket on the Kansai Airport Express HARUKA train serving the region. The JR Ticket Office by the station is the place to collect the passes and soon we were on our way to the former imperial capital Kyoto.
It was a smooth 75 minute train ride to Kyoto Station, a grand steel-frame building with over 15 different platforms. We used the baggage delivery service at the Baggage Room on level B1 to send our luggage to the hotel while we hopped on another JR train to Inari. Our first destination – Fushimi Inari Taisha.
We first had lunch at Inafuku, a restaurant that serves grilled quail and sparrow as their specialty dishes. Then, we spent the rest of the evening wandering around the main Shinto shrine guarded by sculptures of fierce-looking kitsune (foxes) before going on a short walk along the endless vermilion torii gates that meanders its way up to the peak of Mount Inari.
After a long day of travel, we finally checked-in at our hotel and had early dinner at Tempura Arima, a hole-in-the-wall that serves a spectacular 20-piece tempura platter!
DAY 2: Chion-ji Flea Market, Nishiki Market and Gion District
Our trip in the middle of May coincided with the Chion-ji Flea Market held on the 15th of every month. We hopped on a morning bus to the temple nearby Kyoto University and the grounds was already packed with vendors and visitors. All sorts of eccentric hand-made products were on sale from miniature furniture to artisanal breads and pastries.
We spent the afternoon at Nishiki Market sampling the best street eats Kyoto has to offer. We started with dessert in the form of green tea ice-cream and soymilk donut then moved on to fried skewers and flavored rice crackers. There’s plenty of food to sample so make sure you go there on an empty stomach and try not to splurge on one item at one place.
The final part of day 2 was spent at exclusively at Gion District. We began at Yasaka Shrine, a 1,300-year old Shinto shrine feted by locals annually in the form of Gion Matsuri festival. We then explored two ancient streets, Hanami-koji and Shirakawa-minami, lined with wooden machiya houses in search of the elusive geisha and we were really fortunate to spot one!
For dinner, we decided to splurge on yakiniku (grilled meats) at Izakaya, one of the few 100% halal yakiniku restaurants in Japan.
DAY 3: Sagano Romantic Train, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Tenryu-ji
Day 3 was spent among the greenery and gorges of northwestern Kyoto. We took a JR Train to the village of Kameoka and hopped on the Sagano Romantic Train, an old-fashioned open-air train that runs along the Hozugawa River. The 30-minute ride gave us dramatic views of the ravine as the train runs along the mountain range all the way to Arashiyama.
The scenic train ends close to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest which is only a 10-minute walk from the station. Towering bamboo trees that flank both sides gives off a surreal vibe amidst the horde of visitors taking selfies. We joined the crowd and snapped photos while slowly strolling downhill along the well-manicured gravel path.
The end of the pathway was the back entrance to Tenryu-ji, a Buddhist temple designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple was founded more than 700 years ago and has underwent a number of expansion and restoration. We spent about an hour admiring the tranquil complex and the highlight was Sogenchi Pond Garden, the only feature to be in its original appearance.
We had lunch at Yoshiya Hondori that serves a limited halal bento set – I had the Tempura rice bowl and Zaru Soba set, my wife had Deep-Fried Chicken and No-Meat Croquette set and our little one had a bit of everything!
DAY 4: A retreat to Momijiya Ryokan
Our final day was a retreat to a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, in the mountains of northwest Kyoto.
A ryokan is not for budget travelers but it is a quintessential Japanese experience. We booked a full-board stay at Momijiya, in rural Takao, which was a 15-minute shuttle ride from JR Hanazono Station. Our Japanese-style room has the softest of tatami mats our feet has ever felt and it faced a greening forest with the sounds of the rushing river below keeping us company while we unwind after three amazing days.
A ryokan experience would not be complete without a kaiseki-ryori, a multi-course Japanese dinner. The chef curates the menu based on locally-sourced seasonal offerings, in this case jungle produce and freshwater fish. We were bedazzled with a 12-course meal with some familiar items such as sashimi and tofu while others look quite foreign to us but all are equally tasty! Breakfast was equally impressive and the taste is indescribable so I’ll let this photo here do the talking.
DAY 5: Traveling to Osaka and Dotonbori
The next morning begins our second long journey to Osaka. The ryokan’s free shuttle dropped us back at JR Hanazono Station and we backtracked to Kyoto Station before changing lines. The JR Kyoto Line took 45 minutes to get to Shin-Osaka Station, one of the major transport hubs in Osaka. Two subway lines and a whole lot of walking later, we finally arrived at our apartment in Shimanouchi neighborhood which is about 6 blocks from Dotonbori.
The evening was spent wandering along the immensely crowded Dotonbori street, stopping by every food truck, street cart and restaurants in search of the city’s best eats. Sushi was the first victim of our hungry tummies followed by the obligatory takoyaki and okonomiyaki. Dessert was split between the apparently famous melon-pan and the already famous Pablo Cheese Tart.
The whole family then decided to witness dazzling display of the neon billboards along Dotonbori canal.
DAY 6: Osaka Castle and The Best Halal Ramen in Town
The next day, we took a short subway ride to Osaka Castle, a massive fortification that includes towering walls and two moats over one square kilometer. It took us about 20 minutes to walk from the park into the main tower. The castle gleams majestically on a bright day with its 5-tiered white walls capped with its iconic curved green roof. We did not enter the building as it was packed with tourists and school children so we decided to relax around the castle grounds till afternoon.
After a botched attempt of trying to score the best unagi in town, we trekked a long way to Namba for probably the only halal ramen joint in Osaka – Ramen Honolu. I had the Special Rich Chicken Ramen while my wife had the Spicy Fried Chicken Ramen it was to be the best bowl of noodles we had in our life. Our fully charged selves did some quick shopping at nearby Takashimaya departmental store and LAOX duty-free shop before calling it a day.
DAY 7: Shinsaibashi shopping and National Museum of Art
It’s all about shopping in the morning as we took to the streets of Shinsaibashi. This massive covered strip malls runs for more than 10 blocks and it mixes hundreds of local and international brands together with specialty shops and cafes. We had a great time shoe shopping at ABC Mart followed by an intense tea-picking session at a tea shop before hoarding a handful of green tea snacks and chocolates for friends and family.
Later that day, I went on a solo adventure to the National Museum of Art. This underground museum is situated on Nakanoshima Island and is best recognized by its bamboo shoot steel exterior. The collection inside is not as massive as compared to other museums I’ve been but it surprisingly features pieces by greats such as Cezanne, Picasso and Ernst.
Our last night in Osaka is about tying loose ends food-wise. Rikuro Ojisan’s Cheesecake was on the hit list, a Japanese-style cheesecake so light and fluffy it jiggles when moved about. The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle is Hokkyukusei’s Omurice, a fusion rice where fried rice is wrapped in omelet and topped with ketchup – basically the Japanese version of Nasi Goreng Pattaya!
DAY 8: Osaka to KIX
I wouldn’t count this as a day since our flight’s departure was at 11:00 a.m. but it’s interesting to note that this was the only time we took a (ridiculously expensive for my standard) taxi from our apartment to Namba Station. Instead of the usual JR train, we hopped on the privately operated Rapi:t ß and arrived at the airport within 37 minutes.
Our food hunting apparently hadn’t ended in Osaka since we had a hearty plate of soba at Sojibo, one of the few hidden breakfast gems at KIX. When we finally had our last cone of daily matcha ice-cream at the departure gate, it was time to say sayonara Japan!