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Friday, June 14, 2019

Japan: Osaka + Nara + Kyoto 1-Week Itinerary

Ohayo! Japan is one country that has been on our travel bucket list for the longest time (heck, I was even a huge J-fan before Kpop comes about), and we finally checked it off in May 2019. Because of our pregnancy and the early stages of caring for baby Olivia, it was the first trip we did in almost nine months (the last was Taiwan in August 2018). It wasn't exactly easy to leave our six-month-old baby to go on a holiday, especially for mummy who worried day in and out, but it was a much-needed break.

Here are 11 pro-tips if you're heading to Osaka and Kyoto!

Korea was one of our choices, but then decided to strike it off we have both travelled there in the past, and perhaps, friends have been posting lots on their recent Korea trip. Japan was an alternative, one that I'm glad we chose. It is timeless, and it is amazing how their traditions and cultures still seep deeply in the architecture and its people. It was late spring when we travelled - the warmth in the afternoons coupled with the cool evening breeze.
Read on for:
  1. Our full, actual itinerary (places of interests are marked in orange!)
  2. More travel tips to Japan's Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto districts.
  3. Budget breakdown

Day 1: 7-hour flight from Singapore to Osaka (KIX)
Just before I reserved our flight tickets from Scoot at $500 each (after checked-in baggage), curious me decided to check Singapore Airlines and found out that the timing was more suitable and the best thing? It's only $530 with everything included and in-flight meal and entertainment! Lesson? Be curious.

Getting from Kansai airport (KIX) to Osaka Central
As one of the most advanced countries, there is no lack of methods to get to the city central. There's the local train, bus, and if you order fish in your cai png (that is, you are rich), taxi. For us, we reserved our return train tickets using Klook beforehand, so it is a breeze. Oh before that, if you bought your passes (e.g., Osaka Amazing Pass, Unlimited Travel Pass, train tickets), electronic cards (e.g., SUICA, ICOCA) or SIM cards, you might need to exchange at the airport.

The Nankai Airport Express Rapi:t train is a comfortable 34-minutes ride from KIX to Namba station, where we are staying. Seats are reserved at the counters, and train comes every 30-minute or so. We reached our hotel at around 6pm, only to have a short rest before we popped back right out to the bustling streets of Dotonburi.
If you are wondering where's the famous Glico man - one of the landmarks of Osaka, look no further than the busiest streets of Osaka. Dotonburi is where you would check off half of your to-eat list, with local eateries selling takoyaki, okonomiyaki, ramen, sushi, and what not. Do not claim you have visited Osaka unless you have been here.
Shinsaibashi Shopping Street
Another famous street just a few minutes from Dotonburi where you will find big international brands such as LUSH, Zara and Bershka. The best thing? It's sheltered. Just a few streets away, you can find Orange Street and Americamura to feed your hipster needs.
Day 2: Kuromon Ichiba Market / Kaiyukan / Umeda

Breakfast time
Kuromon Ichiba Market must be one of our favourite places in Osaka as we visited here three mornings in a row, largely due to the close proximity of our hotel. It's the kind of market that tourists would flock to, just like Shilin Night Market in Taiwan. You will be spoilt for choice as you walk down the street with pretty much everything - fresh produce, sushi, matcha desserts. Everything that you need to fill your tum-tum with yum-yum.
Kaiyukan Aquarium
The world's largest aquarium, Kaiyukan, resides in, none other than, Osaka. And this is the place you will find the iconic whale sharks swimming around. This place is not just for primary school excursions, this aquarium is so fascinating even for adults, you get to see fishes of all kinds. Imagine twice or thrice the size of Singapore's S.E.A Aquarium, heck, you can even stroke manta rays and sharks.
If we weren't staying at Namba, we would probably choose Umeda - the Orchard/MBS equivalent. Compared to Namba, Umeda has more large and upscale shopping centres. There's a HEP5 ferris wheel nearby. Not amazing, but for $6.50 per person for a 15-minute city view, I would say go for it if you have the time.
We spent the late afternoon and evening exploring the huge malls located just at the station itself. It was a tiring day so we had a nice break at Cafe la Pause (pretty apt name) and did some shopping before heading off to Umeda Sky Building for a drink.

Here's a tip, you do not have to pay the hefty ticket fees for a nice view, the scenery at its lounge bar - Stardust isn't that bad either. And yeah, that's my impromptu birthday cake over there.
Day 3: Nara

Located just 45 minutes away from Osaka, Nara is another popular tourist destination because of its cute habitants who roam freely. That's right, if you haven't seen deers who would bow for food, that's where you will experience them at Nara Deer Park. Conditioning at its finest (sorry, psychology major here). Visitors can purchase deer biscuits for just Y150 and have a horde of hungry deers chasing after you. Psst, I even got bitten on the ass because I refused to feed it. Oh rather, I told it to wait.
Getting to Nara from Osaka
You can easily use the SUICA/ICOCA card to travel from Osaka, simply take the local train to the nearest station under the Kintetsu-Nara Line (orange line) and alight at the Kintetsu-Nara station. Depending on your start point, it is approximately 40-50 minutes from Osaka. From the station, it is about a 15-20 minutes walk to the park.

Tip: If you're gonna wear your Gucci sneakers, just be prepared that their soles will literally be full of shit at the end of the day. Deer shit.
Of course, Nara isn't just about deers. For tradition lovers, there are several temples and shrines, including Todai-ji, the iconic temple with a huge Buddha statue. We didn't enter mainly due to religious reasons, but for those like us, Higashimuki Shopping Street (Shinsaibashi equivalent) is an amazing place to pass your time with restaurants, cafes, and shops selling pretty interesting stuff.
Day 4: Universal Studios Japan (USJ)
We looked forward to this day since a long time ago, researching on battle plans to conquer USJ, that is, how to play as many rides with the shortest waiting time. I will probably write a separate post regarding that. USJ, in summary, is crazily fun (and tiring) - it brings the inner child out of you, especially seeing all those minion mascots running around or the spiderman theme song playing.

We simply love the Harry Potter section of USJ, as it is like walking to a whole new world where wizardry actually exists. Thing is, everything is in Japanese. Imagine minions mumbling or Dumbledore speaking Japanese. Still fun and highly recommended.

Here's a quick tip: Bring loads sufficient cash as you will be buying lots of overpriced stuff you wouldn't use. Like this happy girl after purchasing a Y3400 (that's >S$40 by the way) minion popcorn container.
Day 5: Osaka > Kyoto / Arashiyama

Travelling to Kyoto from Osaka
It's no big science to travel between the two cities. We got the Hankyu Pass so we took the Hankyu line from Umeda to Kawaramachi, the last station. Even so, there are various options, the fastest being the (Limited) Express as the train stops at significantly fewer stations.

Tip: You may want to travel directly to Arashiyama on the Hankyu Line and store your luggage (if any) at the station.
Who knows you may even get to strike a conversation with a friendly local? It's a pleasure meeting Mr. Honda, a 76-year-old student who's well-versed in English (which is pretty rare) and romantic literature. He is a true example of the Chinese proverbs: 活到老,学到老. Deep respect.
We regretted reaching Arashiyama in the evening, as the sun was setting real fast, the skies got dark when we walked to the Bamboo Forest. It's a joke how we reached the forest. We went one way for more than we should and decided it was wrong, u-turned and went the other, then we found out both would lead us to the same place. Luckily, with some Photoshop magic and colour correction, the photos turned out okay lah.
Well, on the bright side, the sunset view at the Togetsu-kyo bridge is pretty romantic. Please note that the walk to the Bamboo Forest takes about 20-minutes one-way. 

Tip: The forest is an extremely popular tourist site and is filled with a crowd almost all days of the year. If you want to skip the crowd, either head there very early in the morning or in the evening (but not that late, like us).
Day 6: Kyoto / Higashiyama-ward

Strutting the streets, Japanese-style
The most touristy thing to do in Kyoto is none other than renting a kimono for the day and walking around. To satisfy the needs of Japanese-wannabes, there are hundreds of kimono-rental shops located all around Kyoto. We had a few in mind, but ended up choosing Okamoto Higahiyama Kiyomizu (despite sounding very condom-y) for its close proximity to our hotel and places of interests.

Quick review of Okamoto: We made a reservation a few days before and arrived at 9.30am. Upon reaching, we decided on the package we wanted and made payment. There were a huge variety of ladies' kimono and accessories, so do expect to walk out the shop only after an hour. For men, there isn't much variety so that's a minus. Service-wise, and as expected, it is tip-top, from the guidance of choosing the kimonos to dressing up, the service staff were all very professional.

Breakdown of cost: Y4000 (men's plan) + Y5000 (full-scale attire plan) + Y1000 (hair-do) + 8% GST
Your route of the day largely depends on where your hotel and kimono rental are. But the typical sites to cover are (not in any particular order): Kiyomizu-dera, Ninnenzaka, Sannenzaka, Yasaka Shrine, Hokanji Shrine. I strongly suggest you plotting these sites on Google maps and plan the day ahead in advanced. The kimonos for both men and women are really, REALLY tight, especially when you just had a meal or when you're trying to walk. I thank God that I do not have to wear this every single day, but just for the experience, ya know? Anyway, my first question to the people in the rental shop was "how do I pee in this?". Don't worry, you'll figure out.
Tatami Starbucks
One of the most popular cafes located at a corner of Ninnenzaka is a unique rendition of Starbucks (better known as Tatami Starbucks). Just be prepared to queue as most are drawn to its insta-worthy interiors with tatami mats, Japanese-inspired decorations and wooden walls. Verdict - nothing out of the world, drinks are still the same, but the experience and the need to tick your bucket list probably warrants you a trip there.
Checking out with style

Day 7: From Kyoto to Osaka

As our departure flight is at the same Kansai Airport, needless to say, we need to travel back to Osaka. Our initial itinerary includes a trip to the famous orange shrines - Fushimi Inari, where they shot Memoirs of a Geisha, but we were too tired from all the walking so we postponed it till our next trip to Kyoto.

This is a one-week itinerary. You may choose to scoot back to Singapore if you wish, but we stayed for another night because we didn't want to rush. Like with all our other trips, we end our trip with a bang - that is (bang, hole in wallet) stay in a luxury hotel on the last night. This time, we picked Swissotel Nankai Osaka for its close proximity to Dotonburi and the OCAT station (back to Kansai Airport) - probably one of the best choice we made.

For us, we covered pretty everything we wanted to go during the first four days, so the last day was spent on souvenir shopping and stuffing our faces with as much authentic Japanese food. To be honest, visiting a Japanese club was in our itinerary, but I got a cold that day so we cancelled it. On the last night, after a nice shabu-shabu dinner (albeit pricey and lack of service), we head to a nearby bar called Batsu-Bashi for drinks. Highly recommended btw.
The bossman of Batsu-Bashi

Day 8: Going back home

Tip: If you are travelling to Nankai Airport via the Express Rapi:t train, I highly recommend you to get/exchange the ticket a few hours in advanced. As all seats are reserved, we had to take the subsequent train ride to the airport (30 minutes after our intended ride) and we nearly missed the airport check-in. Please don't be like us.
Quick tip on getting food souvenirs: 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.
As with every fun time, it was bittersweet saying good-bye to Japan and another long-awaited country checked off my bucket list (since my primary school times). For myriad of reasons like their people, culture and food, this country deeply attracts us. One thing is for sure, we will be back. In fact, at the time of writing, we are planning a Hokkaido trip with baby Olivia next year when she hits 2.

Budget Breakdown

To be honest, I've always thought that Japan is crazily expensive, but to be honest, it isn't. You still can find decent accommodation for ~$80/night and meals for $3-5. Ultimately it's your expectations. For us, especially for this trip, we decided to chill and splurge a little since it's supposed to be a rewarding trip (and it's my birthday period). So, here's a rough gauge how much we spent during the 8-day trip (all prices are for per pax)

Flights: $530
Return tickets by Singapore Airlines to Kansai Airport

Accommodations: $500 for 7 nights
4 nights - APA Hotel (Namba), 2 nights - M's Inn (Kyoto), 1 night - Swissotel Nankai Osaka.

Klook: $200
Unlimited 4G SIM card (8-day usage)
Attractions - USJ normal ticket (B), Osaka Aquarium, HEP5 pass, 
Travel Pass - Nankai Airport transfer, Hankyu 1-day pass, Osaka Unlimited travel pass, SUICA card

Kimono rental: $70 (after averaging, see actual price above)

Food: $560

Total: ~ $1850 (excluding personnel expenses and souvenirs)