After you’ve been to Tokyo and Hokkaido, the next logical region to visit in Japan is Kansai, where the cities of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto are all within a short train ride of each other. There are many things to see and even more things to eat, and if you have eleven days to spare, it makes for a nice and relaxing vacation.
Singapore Airlines flies direct from Changi to the Kansai International Airport (KIX), which sits on a man-made island about 40 kilometres south of Osaka. It’s not something you think much about, except when a category five typhoon tosses an oil tanker against the only bridge that connects it to the mainland.
Which is exactly what happened when Typhoon Jebi made landfall in Osaka during early September 2018. The airport was shut down, runways were flooded, flights were cancelled and thousands of people were stranded.
When I said earlier that a vacation in Kansai would be relaxing, I meant after you get there and there is no typhoon raging. It was a tense few weeks before our flight in October, but things eventually worked out and the weather was calm when we arrived and would stay calm throughout our eleven days.
We took public transport throughout our trip and relied mainly on the famously reliable Japanese train and metro systems, paying with the same Suica stored-value cards that we use in Tokyo.
The metro in Osaka and Kyoto are nowhere near the spaghetti that you get in Tokyo, but they are still extensive and will get you to almost anywhere you need to go as tourists. There might be some places in Kyoto that will require you to take a bus, but if you can also get there by train, take the train to avoid traffic.
Our plan was to spend the first few days in Osaka, make a day-trip out to Kobe, take the train up to Kyoto and then loop back to Osaka before flying home to Singapore.
If your approach to travel is to cram as many sights as you can within the shortest time possible, then this itinerary is not for you. But if you like to sleep in and slowly start your day, have long leisurely meals and spend more time at each location, then you might find it useful.
I’ve also pinned the individual places we visited in a public Google Maps list for easy reference. You can read crowd-sourced reviews for each location and also get point-to-point directions via your mobile phone GPS.
If you were observant and noticed the three red stars on the itinerary, then you’d already know what we felt were the highlights of our trip. There were many things that we enjoyed, but these were on the top of our list.
One: Shiraume Ryokan
We had never stayed in a Japanese ryokan before and wanted to experience it for the first time in Kyoto. Given that many of them have very few rooms and are extremely popular with visitors, we chose Shiraume and made reservations months in advance. Only after we confirmed did we pin down our travel dates and book flights.
It was the most anticipated part of our entire trip, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it far exceeded our expectations, from the beautiful building and rooms to the small but lovely ofuro to the amazing kaiseki dinner and the fantastic omotenashi offered by the elegant innkeeper Tomoko-san and all her staff.
Two: Osaka Kaiyukan
The Wife is a huge aquarium fan and we ended up spending an entire day at the Osaka Kaiyukan. It has eight floors of almost everything you can find under the sea, including a huge central column that houses its mascot, the giant whale shark.
You start at the eighth floor and walk down the spiral ramp that wraps round the central column and pass by all sorts of marine creatures, catching many of them during designated feeding hours and show times. My favourite was the cool-as-a-cucumber capybara and The Wife’s were, as always, the dolphins.
Three: Gyokuro Tea at Ippodo
My hot beverage of choice is black coffee, but I don’t mind a nice cup of tea once in a while. We spent a very zen couple of hours at the Kaboku Tearoom within Ippodo Tea Kyoto, where we were introduced to gyokuro tea, something that we’d never drunk before.
It is green tea grown in the shade and has the most unbelievable taste, closer to dashi used to make soups instead of usual brewed tea. We were given a small sample of cold brewed gyokuro and ended up ordering the Kyoto-exclusive premium select, paired with pretty seasonal wagashi sweets.
In addition to the top three highlights above, many other experiences deserve special mention. In no particular order, here are another eight.
Four: Matcha Parfait at Arashiyama Obuu
When I go back to visit Arashiyama again in the future, it won’t be to walk through the famous bamboo forest. It will be for the matcha parfait at Arashiyama Obuu.
It is the perfect combination of the richest and deepest matcha ice cream you’ll ever taste and the best matcha pound cake that you’ll never be able to buy, combined with green tea jelly, shiratama and kuromitsu.
Once you have it, no other dessert will ever come close.
Five: Kyo Kaiseki at Gion Karyo
We had four kaiseki meals across the eleven days and while our dinner at Shiraume was easily the best, our lunch at Gion Karyo came in a close second. The food and service offered by the relatively young staff was a beautiful balance of touch, sound, smell, sight, taste and a good example of how a good kaiseki meal should be.
Our favourite dish was the plainest looking one — fish paste in a light yuzu-accented broth topped with slices of sweet peppers. It doesn’t look like much and the flavours don’t scream out, but it warmed our hearts as it went down our throats.
Six: Sagano Romantic Train
Even though the journey only took less than half an hour, the slow ride in a vintage train with open windows showcased the natural beauty of Sagano and Arashiyama.
It had everything that you’d expect to see in a beautiful landscape painting, and as the Chinese like to say, 有山有水. Flowing rivers with clear green water, mountain ranges with tall trees and lush greenery, punctuated with landslides from the recent typhoon.
Seven: Herring Soba at Matsuba
The specialty of Matsuba is their Nishin Soba, or hot soba topped with shoyu-simmered herring. They have been around for 150 years and were the first restaurant to introduce this dish. We had different types of soba in Kyoto, but this was easily our favourite.
In fact, if I were to compare among all the bowls of soba that I’ve had in Japan, it would rank at the very top. The simple combination of broth, soba and herring make for an exceptional bowl of noodles.
Eight: Yuzu Nabe at Yuzugen
A hotpot is perfect for a cold autumn night out in Pontocho, especially if the soup is made from tangy yuzu citrus and the ingredients that go into it are super fresh. And adding ramen noodles into the remaining broth makes a perfect ending to the meal.
The chef at Yuzugen keeps a huge stockpot boiling in the back, and continuously feeds it cut halves of yuzu, jugs of fresh yuzu juice and another mysterious liquid. We believe it was some sort of fermented yuzu vinegar, but regardless of what it was, the combination was simply magical.
Nine: Shopfront Displays in Dotonbori
You are greeted with a riot of colours as you walk past the many stores in Dotonbori, and even if you don’t read Japanese, you’ll know exactly what each one is selling. Interested in having king crab legs for dinner? Head for the shop with a mound of it stacked high in the air. What about a bit of the ubiquitous takoyaki? You know what to look for.
And despite how cheesy it may be, you know you have to take a photo of the Glico man. In fact, take two photos, one in the day and another at night. Since you’re in the neighbourhood, might as well snap the Don Quixote ferris wheel and prove that you were in Osaka.
Ten: Okonomiyaki at Mizuno
Okonomiyaki is a hot greasy mess that both locals and tourists love, and Mizuno makes a great version of it. Don’t trust me, trust the long lines that appear during lunch and dinner hours.
They use yamaimo instead of flour as their main ingredient, making it taste lighter and less greasy. Pair it with a bottle of Coca Cola Plus for a complete and healthy meal. Maybe.
Eleven: Osaka Marriott Miyako Room View
Abeno Harukas is Japan’s tallest building with its observation deck on floors 58 to 60 reaching a height of 300 metres. Yes, both the Tokyo Tower at 334 metres and the Tokyo Skytree at 634 metres are taller, but they’re technically not habitable buildings.
The Osaka Marriott Miyako hotel is housed in the same skyscraper and occupies floors 38 to 57. We were staying in a room on the 55th floor and needless to say, the views were breathtaking.
The world has changed forever due to that-which-must-not-be-named and international travel has taken an indefinite pause. There are many countries that we want to re-visit in the future and Japan is definitely among the top choices.
In the meantime, as we remain grounded at home in Singapore, we can look back and remember the wonderful time we had in our eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto during the autumn of 2018, two years and a lifetime ago.
Eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto
The world has changed forever due to that-which-must-not-be-named and international travel is on an indefinite pause. There are many countries we want to visit again and Japan is definitely among the top choices.
In the meantime, as we remain grounded in Singapore, we can look back and remember the wonderful time we had in our eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto during the autumn of 2018, two years and a lifetime ago.