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Friday, June 21, 2019

11 Pro-tips for Osaka and Kyoto

Ohayo, our latest and long-awaited trip brought us to the land of the rising sun, among other things, such as its rich history, great sushi, and weird fetishes. Like many others, we faced the common dilemma of where to lose our Nippon virginity - would it be Osaka or Tokyo? We chose Osaka ultimately because it seems to be more cultural appealing, cheaper, and its close proximity to Kyoto and Nara. For now, to us, Tokyo seems just like another city, busy, crowded, albeit lively. So Osaka, it is.

If you haven't, click here to see my 1-week Osaka, Nara and Kyoto itinerary!

After visiting Japan, I understand why it remains a popular holiday destination for Singaporeans. In many ways, Japan is similar to Singapore, just that its cleaner and neater, the people are more friendly and courteous (arguably more beautiful), almost everything looks like an art-piece from their food to toilet seats. It's as if perfectionism seeps in their blood. Despite our existence on the same continent, here are things you should know before you arrive in Japan like a headless chicken. This post will focus on the cities of Osaka and Kyoto which we temporarily made "home" for a week.
See #10 for USJ tips!

1. Get your passes in advance.
There are a lot of different sites to do this, like Klook, Kkday, Changi Recommends, etc. The first thing you should do is to compare their prices and check out their existing promo codes. We went with Klook and got our travel passes (inter-city, SUICA, etc.), 4G SIM card, and attraction passes (USJ, Kaiyukan Aquarium, HEP5). Not only it is cheaper, it also saves you queuing time. You just simply flash the QR code, beep, and you are good to go.
Train leaves on time, just sayin'.

2. Use travel apps.
If possible, avoid taking taxis because well, they are known to be extremely expensive. Planning your route in advance helps and to do that we suggest travel apps such as Hyperdia, Navitime, or my all-time favourite, Google Maps. And trust me when I say that Japan's railway system is way, way more extensive (and punctual - sorry SMRT, you need to improve a heck lot) than Singapore's. Have you seen a spiderweb? It's pretty much the same thing. If you bought travel passes, do check if the respective railways are covered to maximise your bucks.

3. Stay close to the city's heart.
In Osaka, we highly recommend accommodations around either Namba (street, markets, etc.) or Umeda (city hub). For the first leg of our trip, we stayed in APA Namba Eki Higashi, fuss-free business hotel. For approximately SGD$130 per night, just don't expect a big room, but don't worry you'll get basic commodities. For Kyoto, stay near Gion/Pontocho for a glimpse of their nightlife. For us, we stayed at M's Inn Higashiyama (~SGD$120/night), approximately a 7-min walk to the main street/train line and the places we want to walk in our kimono, which I'm glad we did cos' kimonos are not the easiest clothing to walk around. Our last day at Osaka brings us to Swissotel Nankai (~SGD$240/night) as it's literally on top of the airport transfer line.
Chilling at level 33 of Swissotel.

4. Day trips.
From Osaka, you can choose to do day-trips or even explore another area for 1-2 days. Because their transport system is so well-developed, almost every city is linked together via railway. Some popular options are Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Hiroshima, Nagoya. Heck, you can even travel all the way to Tokyo in less than 2.5 hours via the bullet train (Shinkansen), however, that will set you back by more than SGD$150 (one-way).
When in Nara

5. Go online.
Japan is one city you do not wish to be offline, because you would want to insta-everything from a takoyaki ball to their fascinating vending machines. But mainly, you do not want to get lost in the intricate network of their buildings and railways. For this purpose, we actually reserved a wireless router from Changi Recommends, but we forgot to collect as we only remembered after checking in (thank God there wasn't any charge). We quickly booked an unlimited 4G SIM card with Klook. During the trip, we simply tether and shared the internet.

6. Luggages? No worries.
Most train stations in Japan have luggage lockers, from small to the largest luggage, they have it. Perfect for storing your luggage in between checking-out and checking into your next hotel (if they do not have luggage-storing facilities). Lockers are simple to use with both Japanese and English instructions. Prices per day are approximately SGD3-4 for a small piece, SGD5-8 for medium, and SGD10 for the largest storage.
Just remember where's your luggage at.

7. Eat to your heart's content.
And the best places to head to are none other than the touristy streets and local markets. Not going to Dotonburi when you're in Osaka is like giving Eiffel Tower in Paris a miss. In Osaka, besides the already-well-known Dotonburi, we highly suggest Kuromon Ichiba Market, which is otherwise known as Osaka's Kitchen. There you can find fresh produce, like seafood, fruits and all the goodies you may want to try. In Kyoto, head to Ninnenzaka/Sannenzaka and Pontocho/Gion which are known for its snacks and restaurant/bars respectively. One thing's for sure, you probably wouldn't find food of this quality for similar prices back at your own country.
The birthplace of takoyaki.

8. Be a Japanese-wannabe.
Like I said, kimonos are not the best clothing to walk about, it's not exactly comfortable especially after a meal, and not convenient at all when it comes to toilet business. But, but. For once in your life, put on a kimono, experience it, and take some nice photos. Visiting the shrines and nostalgic alleys with and without donning a kimono makes a heck lot of difference as you'll probably get into this indescribable mood. There are many kimono rental shops across Kyoto, most of them are clustered near the Higashiyama area. Sites like Klook do have vouchers for kimono rental at overly-touristy companies with basic designs. If you decide to go slightly fancy-pancy like us, prices usually vary from Y4000 to Y20000.
Ohayo beautiful.

9. Visit the 100-yen store.
Like the Daiso in Singapore, Japan has several 100-yen chains scattered all around. My wife bought a pair of hair clips at their Watsons-equivalent for approximately SGD$6, and you know what? Daiso has 10 for 100-yen (that's like SGD$1.20). From basic necessities to eccentric toys, they have it all. Oh, while you're here, get ponchos for your USJ trip (some rides will get you soaking wet) and huge plastic bags to contain all your goodies.

10. Getting the most out of USJ.
There are many ways to do this and I'll probably write a separate post on this. But for starters, if you do not have the express pass or early timed entry pass, here are two ways to skip the long queues.

- Go freakin' early. They usually open around 8.30am, so get your entry ticket online to skip the ticketing queue and get ready to rush in when the gate opens. Get the timed entry for Harry Potter and go for the rides usually with the longest queue: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, Flying Dinosaur, etc. Ultimately, it's up to you which one you want to prioritise, but plot out your route beforehand.

- Ride late. Take your own sweet time, have breakfast (heck we had lunch before entering USJ), get your timed entry for Harry Potter, ride the rides with the shortest queueing time, skipping the popular rides in the peak hours (that is, in the morning/afternoon), take photos with the mascots, explore the park. The queue will slowly die down after 4pm and that's when you would rush to clear those rides.  For example, there was no waiting time for the usual 1.5-hour wait for HP's Forbidden Journey when we rode around 5.30pm. Disclaimer: some rides close earlier so check out their opening times beforehand. 
brb, otw to be a wizard.

11. Get your souvenirs at the airport.
The airport has it all. After you check-in and go through the security, there is a tax-free shop selling most souvenirs that you might want to bring home. Best of all? You carry it onboard, you save luggage space, and you wouldn't have to lug your food-filled luggage around. Disclaimer alert - I suggest that you get venue-specific souvenirs, for example, deer-biscuits (for human consumption - just sayin') at Nara itself. Chances are, the shop doesn't have it.

There you have it, tips to get you going for your Japan trip! Oh, click here to see my 1-week Osaka, Nara and Kyoto itinerary!