My first trip to Japan was in January of this year when I met up with K in Tokyo at ~20 weeks pregnant. But, it was too cold to truly explore, I wasn’t able to eat any sushi, and all of the bars and some cafes were too smoky to step inside, so I felt like I didn’t get to do as much as I wanted to. I wanted to go back again after we had E.
We decided to go at the end of September, but flights to Tokyo were too expensive, so we decided on Osaka and Kyoto instead – two other cities that I’ve been wanting to go to. It was going to be our first actual family, non-work trip, sans nanny (unlike our trip to Bali).
The official plan was to see Osaka from Saturday through Monday, train to Kyoto, and stay there through Wednesday.
But of course things don’t always go according to plan…
Thursday before our trip, we found out that Typhoon Trami would hit Osaka on Sunday, the one full day that we had there. The government was planning to shut down Kansai airport as well as shops and restaurants in Osaka because of how badly they were hit with another storm just weeks prior.
Luckily by Monday, the typhoon had cleared Osaka with minimal damage, if any, and we were greeted by beautiful, sunny autumn weather. We explored Osaka and Kyoto with the weather on our side, and it seemed that as soon as it began, our trip was over.
Back in Hong Kong, our friends asked which we preferred: Osaka or Kyoto. Personally, I think we needed at least another day in each city to know for sure, but two things that are true of both cities is that the people are SO nice. Majority may not speak English well, but they will help you as much as they can. And they love babies! Everyone stopped to look at E and ask about her. It was very sweet. I hope we’ll get another chance to go back and explore more!
Here are our trip highlights:
I would say Osaka is a smaller, less crazy version of Tokyo, but definitely has its share of nightlife and late night eats. Our Osaka stay was cut short because of the typhoon, but we ate and did as much as we could.
The main thing to know when visiting Osaka is that it’s known for food, more specifically okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and omu rice (didn’t have time to try it). So be prepared to eat as much as possible.
Getting around: Osaka is super walkable, but in case you need a train or cab…
- Getting to/from the airport: Kansai Airport is not close to Osaka or Kyoto, so if you’re going to either of those places, make sure you land or leave early enough to take the train because cabs are super expensive in Japan in general.
- Trains stations: The ones in Japan can sometimes be a maze but they often have a ton of great food and the restrooms are actually clean. The Namba station in Osaka was no exception. We had no idea which exit to take when we got there because it was so huge, but thankfully people working there were helpful, and there are some tourist information areas that can also help. If traveling with a stroller, a heavy roller or a wheelchair, most train stations have elevator access, but they’re not near every exit. So you might have to ask to find one that’s in the direction you’re going.
- Trains: The train system is amazing but can be confusing at times, so make sure you know what kind of train you need to take. Also, the Shinkansen is only available at the Shin-Osaka stop.
- Cabs: We didn’t need one, but you can hail one from most streets.
Where to stay:
Trains in Osaka are easily accessible so I recommend finding a hotel or an Airbnb by a train station. A lot of hotels in Japan can be a bit pricey so we went the Airbnb route, but our Osaka Airbnb fell through last minute because our host’s cleaners forgot to leave us the key. So we ended up at the Hotel Monterey Grasmere instead.
Fortunately, the hotel was nice and even had an art museum inside. But, the museum was closed through the weekend because of the storm, the wifi was weak, there were no breakfast options, and they stop serving in their restaurants after 8:30pm. So the hotel wasn’t ideal, but given the fact that we had a typhoon coming our way and had no clue how bad it might be (it had already pummeled Okinawa), we felt safer there than at someone’s apartment, and it was really close to the Namba station and to other streets we wanted to check out.
What to see:
As mentioned earlier, our time in Osaka was cut short so we mainly walked around the Namba station and Dotonburi area including the river, Shinsaibashi-suji and Ebisubashi. A lot of the bigger shops were closed, but some of the smaller brands and all of the food stalls stayed open, and there were still crowds of people everywhere.
The only thing I think we really missed was the Osaka Castle, but I hope that we get a chance to check it out in the future. If you’ve been, let me know what you think!
A lot of shops and restaurants had closed early due to the storm, including ones that we wanted to try, and stayed that way for the rest of the weekend so we couldn’t get a true feel of certain streets. But thankfully, there were many that were still open including late night spots.
On our first night, we settled on a local, no-frills ramen chain called Tenkaippin. The ramen was basic, but the karaage was amazing! It was crispy, tender, and super flavorful. In fact, I find that chicken in Asia somehow tastes better than in the States. Then for dessert we grabbed some Krispy Kreme that I had eyed nearby (I rarely ate it in the States so not sure why I craved it then) and headed back to the hotel for the night.
On Sunday before the storm, we managed to stuff ourselves as much as possible with the following:
- Breakfast at Marafuku Coffee, an old school Japanese cafe, where we enjoyed some cheese toast and pancakes. It’s totally not what we expected to get, but it’s the popular combo in these sorts of places and it was a perfect, tasty carb overload.
- We were still stuffed from breakfast but wanted to try as many street eats as possible. So on Dotonburi, we bounced from a takoyaki stand, to a grilled crab shop, waited in a 30-45 min line at Le Croissant for some sweet and cod roe filled croissants (surprisingly tasty), and then ended up in a supermarket picking up fresh sashimi, karaage, chirashi, a mix of sweet Japanese snacks, and green tea to eat/drink later when we couldn’t go out.
- During the storm, we went to see if anything was open in Namba station because we could get there without going outside, but the only place open was the Sweet Box.
They make a lot of different sweets, but the one we tried was a potato cake. So good! It’s a cake made from a regular potato, but set inside of a potato skin, and it has the consistency of a lighter custard mooncake without being fatty. If that doesn’t make sense to you, come to Hong Kong during the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival and I’ll buy you a mooncake 😉
Breakfast on Monday morning was at the Micasadeco & Cafe.
Their huge fluffy cocoa and chestnut pancakes were seasonal, but any such pancake that they have is a definite must get. They were so good and soft that I wondered if they were actually made of air.
Our last official bite in Osaka was at the Shin-Osaka train station, en route to Kyoto, where we stopped at Messa Kuma, in the basement of the station, for a lunch set of okonomiyaki, takoyaki and noodles. It was comfort food to the extreme.
The only shopping we did in Osaka was at the Onitsuka Tiger store in Ebisubashi to check out their Nippon Made shoes. Nippon Made shoes are an exclusive type of Onitsuka sneaker only made in Japan and therefore far cheaper in Japan than anywhere else. We excitedly walked away with a new pair each.
Unlike Tokyo or Osaka, Kyoto is serene and quiet. Kyoto was the original capital of Japan and is known for its older architecture as well as its shrines and temples. So plan enough time in your trip to walk around and take in the beautiful structures and greenery around it.
From a food perspective, Kyoto is known for kaiseki, vegetarian temple food and matcha everything. Matcha tea, matcha soft serve, matcha ice cream etc.; it’s everywhere.
Where to stay:
You can certainly stay in a hotel, but I think an Airbnb is a better option, depending on what’s available, because it gives you an opportunity to live in Kyoto style home. We opted for that after seeing pictures online and we loved it.
What to see:
- Shrines: The ones we went to are:
- Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Yasaka Shrine
- Heian Jingu Shrine
- Philosopher’s Path: A quiet, pretty, greenery filled path along a small man-made stream that takes you to the Ginkakuji shrine.
- Higashiyama Jisho-ji/Ginkakuji
The shrine I’d say you could skip is the Heian Jingu shrine. I personally wasn’t as impressed by it as the others. Also, we only saw the outside of the Yasaka shrine on our way from Kiyomizu-dera to our lunch spot, Tempura Endo. I don’t even know if you can go inside, but the beautiful five-tier pagoda makes it worth seeing.
- Gion: The most famous neighborhood of Kyoto aka The Geisha District. We didn’t see any geishas but it’s a really picturesque area with loads of teahouses and private clubs.
- City Center and Kamo River: There’s nothing specific that I think is worth seeing here, but it’s nice to pass by
- Nishiki Market: A long indoor market with loads of snacks and various foods
- Breakfast: In a city where most shrines open at around 6 or 7 am, there are very few cafes that open before 11am.
- So one morning we ate some warabi mochi that we had gotten the day before. It’s a dessert and not a breakfast food, but we needed to finish it or it would spoil. Then we stopped by Cafe 58 which opened at 10am for a quick coffee before shrine hopping.
- Another morning we just grabbed an egg sandwich from 7-Eleven which was actually really good
- Afternoon matcha treat: Gion Tsujiri. Their matcha soft serve with matcha and hojicha cake was amazing.
- The only place we were able to make it to for lunch is the Tempura Endo Kyoto. We expected a table, but were given a private room where we could sprawl out on the floor while enjoying the tasty tempura courses. It was something I’ve wanted to experience so was a great surprise!
- If you don’t have time for lunch and need to grab something on the go, opt for one of the bento boxes or boxed lunches in Kyoto station. Sounds lame, but they’re so good!
- As mentioned earlier, there are loads of matcha treats. So I grabbed some matcha and chestnut soft serve while shrine hopping.
- There are also many different snacks available between the various shrine locations.
- Then while on the Philosophy Path, we popped into the Riverside Cafe Green Terrace for a quick shrine hopping break.
- Kyoto Wakuden: A kaiseki restaurant located on the 11th floor of a building right next to the Kyoto station (where most of the restaurants are). We sat at the bar near the kitchen so that we could park sleeping E next to us while we ate. The soux chefs were super nice and the food was really fresh and tasty. If you go, and raw seabreem with sushi rice is an option for you, get it!
- Akune: It’s located in a hidden alley next to the back entrance of the Daimaru department store off of Shijo street. I can’t find the restaurant on the map but the phone number is: 075 241 1507 and directions from our Airbnb host are below. It’s as authentic as you can get when it comes to Japanese food; we really enjoyed it. It’s a family owned kaiseki/omakase restaurant where only the son, who is the head chef, speaks English, but we chatted with the rest of the family via Google Translate. Also, there’s no menu. Each course is based off of what was brought in fresh each day/week, and all of the ingredients are only from Japan. There are some dishes that aren’t for everyone, but if you’re up for it, definitely give it a try.
- We only shopped during the last hour of our trip before we caught our train to the airport, but there are lots of shops on and around city center to check out. We found the shops on the side roads to be more interesting than the ones on the main road.
- There are also many little shop stalls on the walking paths between shrines.
Getting around: Kyoto is walkable but is super spread out
- Trains: There are a number of different lines in Kyoto station but they don’t all start from the same area, so make sure you know where you’re going
- Train Lockers: If you need to store your luggage for any period of time, you can leave it in a locker at Kyoto station. We had a massive suitcase that we didn’t want to cart around on our last day and was surprised to find that the lockers at Kyoto station could accommodate it.
- Getting a cab: At Kyoto station there’s an English-speaking cab line at which is slower because there are less English-speaking drivers. But, if you have your address in Japanese or open in a map, then you can try the normal cab line. Outside of the station you can either hail a cab from the street or see if there’s a cab line. And generally, It’s best to pay in cash but some allow credit cards as well. You just have to confirm beforehand.
Take bug spray with you because I got bitten up quite a bit. I’m not sure if they’re only around during particular seasons or not, but it’s best to be safe if you have the type of blood mosquitos love.
Blog edited by: Betty Ho
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Like!! Thank you for publishing this awesome article.