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Trip Report Delving into Kyushu, plus Osaka, Kyoto, Kurashiki, and Tokyo

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Now that the flurry of November trip reports has come and gone (they were great!), I figure it’s time for one more, before the reports from spring cherry blossom-viewing visits start to come in. This report summarizes a one-month trip my husband (J) and I took to Japan from November 9 to December 8, 2013. The trip was our third to Japan in the last 8 years. Somehow, like many others on this board, the country has gotten under our skin and we just keep going back for more.

On our first trip we did an amazing sakura-season 12-day walk on the Nakasendo Way with Walk Japan (walkjapan.com), in addition a week on our own in Nara, Hiroshima, and Miyajima. That trip introduced us to Japanese customs and etiquette for bathing and staying in ryokans, dining, and train and bus travel. On our second trip, in May/June, highlights included Tokyo, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, more of Kyoto, and two fine weeks in Hokkaido, where we rented a car. We were much less trepidatious on the second trip--there's nothing like experience to make you more comfortable.

Our Nakasendo walk had been so much fun that we decided to build this third trip around another Walk Japan excursion--this one a 10-day trek on the Kunisaki Peninsula of Kyushu--as well as spending 2 and a half weeks on our own, including a three-night side trip to the island of Yakushima, a couple nights each in Osaka, Kyoto, and Kurashiki, and a week in Tokyo.

For our flights into Kansai airport and out of Narita we scored free tickets using frequent flyer points; for internal transportation we decided to get a 21-day JR Pass. We compared the cost of the pass with the cost of point-to-point tickets, using hyperdia.com. We love Japanese trains, and using a pass made it a breeze as well as saving us about $100 each on the tickets. In advance of our trip we visited the JTB office in San Francisco to purchase the voucher that we would exchange for the passes once we got to Japan.

We made our hotel reservations using Japanican.com, agoda.com, booking.com, and rakuten.com. In the past we also found japaneseguesthouses.com helpful, but this time almost all our ryokan stays would be while we were walking in Kyushu, so we didn’t need jgh’s services on this trip.

Here are the links to my photos

Osaka, Kyoto, Kurashiki, Tokyo
https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/6205

Fukuoka, Kunisaki Peninsula
https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/6454

Yakushima
https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/6394

OSAKA
Nov. 9-10
An uneventful United flight from San Francisco to Osaka on November 9 was a good start to the trip. Frequent flyer silver elite status allowed us to upgrade our (already free) seats to economy plus, which made the 11 hours in coach more tolerable. (Sadly, we didn’t fly enough on paid tickets in 2013 to keep our status for 2014, so that perk’s gone for a while. Will have to work to get it back for next year!)

At KIX it was easy to locate and get tickets for the Nankai Rapit train from the airport to Namba station in Osaka--1,100 yen each ($11 at about 100 yen to the dollar). Though we were last in Japan just a couple of years ago, we had forgotten that the tickets come with assigned seats in specific cars, so of course we sat in the wrong places and had to be roused out of our spots by their rightful occupants. We found the correct seats in the next car, with just a little egg on our faces but otherwise no worries.

From Namba we took a short subway ride to Honmachi station. We easily figured out how to buy subway tickets at Namba but had a bit more trouble once we exited Honmachi station onto the dark streets and tried to find our hotel, the Arietta. After walking a few blocks—literally and figuratively in the dark—we tried to regroup by staring in the dim light of a streetlamp at the map I had printed from the hotel’s website. A passerby who spoke English tried to help (a typical occurrence on city streets in Japan). He didn’t know where the hotel was (also typical), but together we worked out that we had gone in the wrong direction. We regrouped, walked a few blocks in the opposite direction, and finally located the Arietta. In retrospect, we should have taken a taxi from Namba, given that we were exhausted and it’s always harder to find places at night than in the day. Note to self for next time.

The Arietta is a pleasant little business hotel on a quiet street, actually quite convenient to the subway, once you know the way, and walking distance to the main sights we wanted to see in Osaka. Thin towels, but otherwise just right, with a good continental breakfast included in the rate. I love Japanese business hotels! The front desk staff recommended a restaurant around the corner for dinner. Almost no English spoken there, but luckily there was a picture menu and the server was able to conveyed that we should, after settling into our enclosed booth and deciding on what we wanted, press the button on the wall and he would come back to take our order. A couple of beers and several tasty dishes later, we were pleased with ourselves for having managed to deal with all the logistics required in our first few hours in Japan.

We had spent a night in Osaka on a previous trip but had not seen anything of the city, so we wanted to see at least a few sights in the full day we had allotted there before moving on to Kyoto. First impressions: a bustling, clean city that sparkled when the sun came out from behind the clouds, which it did off and on throughout the day. To get more perspective on the city, we decided against the subway and instead took a fairly long walk through the busy city streets to Osaka Castle. The fall leaves were turning colors and the air was cool and fresh. A takoyaki stand on the castle grounds served up the battered balls of grilled octopus topped with sauce and dried bonito flakes—a treat before touring the castle. The castle was definitely worth a visit, especially for the panoramic city views from the top floor. The clouds cleared after a passing shower while we were inside, and the rest of the day gave us gorgeous sunshine, perfect for a walk through the well-tended riverside rose garden.

Our next destination was intended to be the highly regarded ceramic museum, but we found when we arrived that it was closed for two weeks. Darn! Instead we found a place for a good lunch and then walked on to explore the Umeda area. There were lots of shopping opportunities and the area was fully decorated for Christmas, which surprised us, but we subsequently saw similar holiday decorations in all the cities we visited over the course of the month. We had already decided that we would hold off on shopping until we reached Tokyo to avoid overloading our bags until the end of the trip, so no shopping for me. But we did spend some time with the friendly and efficient JR agent at Osaka Station, where we traded in our JR Pass vouchers for actual 21-day passes and reserved our trains for the trips we would be taking starting the next day. I had done my research on hyperdia to find the timetables and routes we wanted, so I handed the agent the notes I had made on paper and he soon had all our tickets printed out in English, as I had requested. So easy!

We took the subway back to our hotel for a break, intending to go out again to enjoy some nightlife in the Namba area, but jet lag suddenly caught up with us, so we soon nixed that plan and instead settled for snacks from the nearby 7-Eleven and a little taste of Japanese TV (a little is more than enough), and called it a night. We would have plenty of opportunity to enjoy Japanese cuisine in the coming weeks, so we didn’t feel too bad about missing out on the first night. On a two-week trip it would have been a crime.

The next day we had a few hours in the morning before taking the short train ride to Kyoto. So we headed back to the Umeda area where we stored our bags in a station locker and walk to the Osaka Tenmangu shrine, also called the Tenjin shrine after the famous festival held there in July, for a quick look. The shrine dates back to the 10th century, but its main building was rebuilt in the 1800s. We loved the calm atmosphere of this city shrine and its subshrines, tucked in among the busy shopping streets and high-rises of modern Osaka. I like to pick up ema, or wooden plaques, at various shrines I visit , and this shrine had an array to choose from. You are supposed to write a wish and hang the plaque at the shrine, but I generally prefer to take mine home with me. The one I chose at the Tenjin shrine turned out to be designed for wishing for a healthy delivery of a baby, which the shrine ladies took pains to explain to me (I thought it was just a cute fat puppy). I’m not in the market for a baby, but the plaque was cute so I acknowledged that I understood and tucked it away to bring home. Not sure what the shrine ladies thought of that.

We thought we would have time for a quick visit to the floating observatory at the Umeda Sky Building, but there was quite a bit of construction going on in the station area and we couldn’t find a convenient walking route to the building that would fit into our time schedule, so we skipped it and headed to the train instead. For us Osaka seemed to be full of “wanted to” and “tried to but couldn’t.” Nonetheless, our short time there convinced us that the city is indeed worthy of a longer visit, and we will definitely return if the opportunity arises.

Next: never enough of Kyoto

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