We ended up staying in Namba in Osaka for several days and used our JR Rail Pass to travel to surrounding cities. This is all possible, of course, because of Japan’s highly efficient and speedy rail network. We stayed in an apartment, a ten minute walk from the Namba train station called, Apollo Apartments, and paid AUD$80 per night. The room was very good with a stove and washing machine BUT the entrance and the kitchen area is so low I kept banging my head all the time – now I am not a giant, so a tall person will be semi-comatosed banging their head living in these confined spaces!!
Our first day in Osaka was all about housekeeping and getting all our fiddly tasks completed. First cab off the rank was a trip on the underground rail to Umeda Train Station. We then walked on the underground walkway through to Osaka main station to get our Japanese Rail Pass. We had actually purchased our Japan Rail Pass in Sydney during our brief stopover home. We had to physically get the pass at the Japanese Rail ticket office at Osaka main station. The JR pass pickup desk was actually within the Nippon Travel Agency Office there. Previously, the JR pass was only available in your home country. I am told that there is currently a twelve month trial occurring whereby the JR pass can be purchased in Japan. We had a twenty one day Second Class pass which cost AUD$683 each. However, let me tell you not to be put off by the term second class as Japanese second class is premium deluxe class compared to the trains in Australia.
After catching an underground subway train back to Namba , Di was then wandering the streets looking to find the BIC Camera store – there was one not far from the train station. In Japan it is rather difficult for tourists to buy a Sim card – everywhere else it is easy-peasy, but not in Japan. The BIC Camera store is one of the few places where a tourist can buy the SIM card over the counter, but only data. You cannot make calls from the SIM, this is where you have to buy an International Phone Card to make any calls, whether it be local or international. The cost of a SIM card for both of us, was a total of AUD$135. Di had a 7GB plan, and myself, 2GB. It was the most expensive SIM card we have paid in 17 months. There are quite a few other options, including finding accommodation where a pocket WiFi is provided; or you can hire a pocket WiFi with unlimited data for a better deal than what we got with a SIM card. We didn’t find out about these until later.
The Japanese have a love affair with vending machines – at the time of writing, actual physical love was not provided by vending machines, but I am sure it is coming. The vending machines are everywhere. Every street has one or three, and they sell every type of drink and snack possible, and yes, beer is included – it is just so convenient for the alcoholics!!!
The vending machines are never vandalised and the purchase of alcohol is never abused by the teenagers – why, because the people of Japan respect and honour themselves and the community. Can you imagine in your home country having vending machines in every street – they would be destroyed or even the whole vending machine stolen.
Di and I ate at a restaurant where we ordered our meal at a vending machine. Yep, selected the noodles we wanted, the types of Ramen and the added items like onions etc. We paid at the vending machine and then our order came to our table.
For us, as the writing on the machine was all in Japanese, our final meal was a bit of a lottery, as we based our selections on small photographs next to the buttons we pressed – but in the end it was okay. Meals like Ramen are enjoyable and filling and can be purchased for between 800 Yen and 1000 Yen (AUD$10 – 12).
The next day we used our Japanese Rail Pass for the first time. The confusing thing with the pass is that so many different companies own railway lines and many lines do not take the JR pass. The challenge then becomes how to get to JR lines so that you do not have to pay. Osaka has a JR loop train line that runs around and through Osaka. The JR line platform in Namba is a good twenty minutes walk underground through several other train lines until you find it – it takes some getting used to.
Our first trip on JR was to Himeji Castle and Mount Shosha. We didn’t travel by Bullet Train (Shinkansen) but by Rapid Train and it only took 90 minutes to cover the 80 kilometre distance. There were multiple stops on our trip – the Shinkansen does it in 40 minutes with a couple of stops and of course is covered by the JR pass.
On exiting the Himeji train station you will see Himeji Castle straight in front of you. It is about 1.5 kilometres away but you cannot miss it. We walked to the castle with a procession of other tourists – very hard to get lost.
Like all good castles Himeji Castle has a very large moat around it and a small bridge crossing it – everyone wants a photo of the bridge, so you ‘jocky’ for a photo taking position.
The castle is a rather grand spectacular white castle. It was built in the early 1300’s and has been designated a Japanese National Treasure. The castle is considered to be one of the three premier castles in Japan, as well as being the largest castle in Japan. This made, for us, seeing other castles after this a bit underwhelming, as none of them rose to the majestic nature of Himeji Castle. The castle is built entirely of wood.
The weather was overcast but it was very hot and humid whilst we were at Himeji Castle and Di took every opportunity to cool off.
It costs 1000 Yen each to enter the castle.
After Himeji Castle Di and I returned to the road at the front of the castle and crossed the road to catch a bus up to Mount Shosha. We waited in the oppressive heat for bus number 8, which took us to Mount Shosha. The bus trip is about 30 minutes and pay the 270 Yen fare when you exit the bus. The bus actually terminates at the next leg of the journey at Mount Shosha Ropeway.
The ropeway is literally right next to the final bus stop. The ropeway is like a cable car, that only goes up a short distance and takes less than five minutes – the cost was 900 Yen each (round trip ticket). The ropeway staff are so cute, they bow and greet each ‘guest’ onto the ropeway and, when getting out of the ropeway car, a portable air conditioner was placed outside the door to blow cold air on you as you exited.
There are also bamboo poles near the ropeway exit that you can use as walking sticks throughout the park; these poles are free to use and you must return them after your walk.
Mount Shosha is home to a vast temple complex called Engyoji Temple. It costs 500 Yen to enter the complex. The temples are all spread far and wide and there is a lot of walking to cover all the temples – hence the walking sticks. The first section is uphill to get your sweat glands functioning profusely and start manufacturing blisters on your feet. Di sadly had new hiking sandals and the blisters struck with glee.
A map is provided on entering the temple complex and you definitely make use of it, let me tell you. The trails run every which way and at the end of each trail there is another temple that is over a thousand years old – so it is all worth it. The Niomon gates and the Mitsunodo building were used in the Tom Cruise movie ‘The Last Samurai’.
I was amazed at the old wooden buildings and, probably even more amazed, that each 1000 year old wooden building came equipped with a miniature fire extinguisher, that would do very little if the wooden building went up in flames – but anyway, it is the thought that counts.
It took a couple of hours to complete all the trails around Engyoji Temple and I really enjoyed it – the trail was easy to follow and was a bit steep in places but it was all worthwhile.
Di sadly lost her prized red cap somewhere on a trail, so if you find the cap on your visit to Engyoji could you return it to her.
I was surprised with the lack of tourists at Mount Shosha and Engyoji. It seems that most people head for Himeji Castle and that’s it. There is a special bus ticket and ropeway ticket you can buy at Himeji Train Station that saves you 300 yen and the hassle of having to get correct bus fare.
We then retraced our steps down the ropeway, bowed politely to all staff members and the number 8 bus was waiting for us to take us back to the train station.It was a long day out from Osaka; we left the apartment at 8am and got back about 6ish, but it was a very interesting and rewarding day – other than Di’s blisters and her lost cap of course.
The two main things we did in Osaka were to visit Osaka Castle and visit Dotonburi in the evening. Dotonburi is within walking distance from Namba train station and is a brightly lit area on the river bank.
This is where restaurants flourish and the consumption of food is everything. The neon lights flash and the enormous billboards let you know what each restaurant specialises in; they actually sell the dreaded Japanese ‘blowfish’ here.
We enjoyed the Dotonburi area; it is vibrant and an optical attack. There are people everywhere and the queues for each restaurant are staggering – well not every restaurant. It amazes me how one restaurant has a queue of thirty people deep waiting to get in, and the next one is empty with a staff member nearly begging you to come in.
Dotonburi, though, is surprisingly short and you can walk the length in a ten minutes – it is more a condensed, than spread out, area.
The area surrounding the Dotonburi is a vast retail complex of small covered walking streets that you can only shuffle through as the crowds are thick with gawking window shoppers.
It was here that Di got her new red cap so she was a happy chappy again.
I think men could spend a good few minutes in this shopping area and then it would be off to the pub for some Rest and Relaxation. Women, on the other hand, could well spend an eternity there – it is all a matter of perspective.
Osaka Castle train station is on the JR loop line, so you can use your JR pass to get there. Di and I got so confused on the loop line as we were forever going the wrong way – at least it was free with our pass and, being a loop, we would eventually arrive at the correct station, even if it took 50 minutes longer than it should. The other problem was that, if we caught a rapid line on the JR loop, we never knew which stations it did not stop at, and we were always waving to the station we wanted to get off at, as the train hurtled past. Local trains stop at all stations.
Osaka Castle is a large castle complex in the middle of Osaka.
Again, it was bloody hot and humid when we went.
There were tourists everywhere. Inside the castle it is all very narrow and cramped and this meant you fighting for each scrap of oxygen as you navigated the staircases. The place was interesting enough but not as good as Himeji Castle and, with the crowd, it is somewhat off putting, but if you are only in Osaka a short time then it is a must see.
There was an elderly, Japanese man just standing in front of the castle dressed in traditional samurai gear. The man did not want money and was eager to have his photo taken with any passing tourist. Can you imagine this happening in Thailand or Vietnam – the man would have asked the tourist for money and then stolen the tourists’ watch.
On another day we caught the JR line out to Nara. Nara is about 30 kilometres from Osaka and the JR rapid train takes about 40 minutes. You take the JR line from Shin-Osaka station.
Nara is full of temples and full of deer. The deer are everywhere. This is another place that gets very busy with tourists as the day wears on. I believe the trick is to get to a tourist spot before the large bus tours arrive. Nara is a classic example of this.
We arrived at Nara train station just before 10am. On exiting the train station head to the left of the train station and you will see a two stone lanterns and a small street heading away from the train station – this takes you up to Nara Park and where most of the temples are.
The walk is rather pleasant along narrow streets but it is a long, slight, uphill climb. Di and I chose to go to the highest point first and then work our way down hill in a zig zag fashion to the train station.
The highest point for us was Kasuga Taisha, which is nearly four kilometres from the train station. This was at the end of the road and subsequent walkway from the train station. The road ends and the walkway starts at Nara Park and this is when you start to see the deer.
I have seen, in parks like this, when the tourists feed the animals, the animals can get a little aggressive if a tourist does not feed them; monkeys and kangaroos for example. Well the same sort of thing applies with these deer. We saw deer chasing people for food. The deer will ram into the tourist, which can be painful for the elderly and the very young. This is compounded by some deer having large antlers.
Generally, though, as long as there is food about, the deer can be patted and photographed without any issue.
The deer are wild and not domesticated. They wander through the park area at will, without any restrictions. They are known as Sika Deer and there are about 1200 of them in the park area. There are signs about warning of some the issues with the deer. There are many places selling food to feed the deer with, with the cost for some crackers is 150 yen (AUD$1.80).
The walkway leading to Kasuga Taisha is lined with over three thousand stone lanterns and was built in 970AD. It makes a great photo if you can get the deer and the lanterns together. I enjoyed the walk up to Kasuga Taisha.
After leaving Kasuga Taisha we turned to the left path and followed the Kaminonegi-michi Pathway, which is a loop path, that brings you back just below where you started. This path goes for about two kilometres and is virtually tourist free – as most tourists are pretty lazy and will stick with feeding the deer.
The Kaminonegi-michi Pathway goes past several smaller temples and shrines and is a relaxing walk.
From there we entered the Nara Park and wandered around the various paths and Japanese Gardens making our way through the park to the heavily tourist populated Todai-ji Temple. You pass through the Todai-ji Gate to reach the temple. Here you have to watch stepping in deer poo at the same time you duck under a swinging selfie stick. The Gate and the Temple are well worth a look and the lake in front of it makes it all a bit more special.
We then went away from the tourists again and made for a beautiful little spot called Ukimido Pavilion. This is about a two kilometre walk down the road from Todai-ji Temple and it was practically deserted of people. The pavilion is in the middle of a beautiful lake with flowering trees surrounding the lake. There were many local artists painting the lake, pavilion and the mountains in the background – I was at a loss why there were few people there.
We then swung back to the main tourist trail and went to the Kofuku-ji Temple complex. This complex has several large temples. Unfortunately the main Kofuku-ji Temple was being restored and was hidden behind a large black screen.
There is a large five storied Pagoda in the complex which is pretty impressive and makes for a good photo.
Next to the five storied Pagoda is the Eastern Golden Temple. Then across from these two are Southern Octagonal Hall and then down the steps the smaller three storied Pagoda.
As I said earlier, there are many more temples at Nara, but there reaches a point where you become all Shrined/Pagodad/deered out and need to get away. I loved the experience though and thought Nara was a great place to visit. We needed an ice cream after that.
We really enjoyed our time in Osaka. The Namba area was an excellent place to stay and we loved walking the streets, when it wasn’t too hot. We ate at some nice Japanese restaurants – we loved a Nepalese Restaurant called Taj Mahal Everest, that had the best Indian food and, honestly, the most divine cheese and garlic naan bread.
We also went to a lovely pizza place that served the most succulent fried chicken – yes we get tired of noodles and rice sometimes, just like we do with temples and pagodas!
We also did a day trip to Kyoto whilst we were at Osaka but I will discuss that when I talk about Kyoto. We travelled for the first time this trip on a Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and the journey from Osaka to Kyoto only took about 13 minutes – not bad for a 35 kilometre distance.
We were finding Japan is obviously more expensive than most of Asia. The meal servings are pretty small and I often felt that I needed more food after eating – small servings are good for my bulging waistline!!!! Di and I found it better when we were in a guesthouse/apartment, where we could cook meals as well as bang our heads. This gave us the opportunity to buy eggs and toast for breakfast saving a lot of money.
The Japanese adventure continues ………………..