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Trip Report Japan trip report: fall in Kansai

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Just wanted to thank everyone here for all their help in planning our most recent trip. We are back from spending a wonderful 5 days in Japan. This is my second time to Japan, and if you haven’t been – GO! While there are language difficulties, the helpful and friendly Japanese people make up for it. They seem to enjoy carrying out the most mundane tasks. Never have I seen such friendly people in the service industry – smiling and seemingly happy to ring up your purchases at a Family Mart, making your coffee, giving you train directions. We were lost in Kobe and asked someone where the place was we were looking for. He didn’t know and didn’t speak English, but kindly walked us over to the tourist office for help. Another observation I had on this trip is that aside from the high cost of transportation, Japan isn’t as expensive as I remembered it. Instead of staying in touristy Kyoto, we based ourselves in Osaka and were pleasantly surprised that we could have a few drinks and a good, light meal for under $60 USD. I had enjoyed Kyoto on our last trip (spring 2008), but going back to it, found it a bit too touristy for my liking. I really think Osaka and Kobe are underrated, and I understand why everyone focuses on KYOTO, but to enjoy a Japanese city not as over the top as Tokyo, I definitely recommend spending some time in Kansai’s other cities. Plus, there’s nothing like eating Kobe beef in Kobe 

The purpose of our trip was fall foliage, and Kyoto didn’t disappoint. I can’t wait to download the photos from my husband’s camera – even my iphone photos are stunning. Now that I’ve been to Japan for both fall foliage and cherry blossoms, I can say I prefer fall foliage. It’s just brighter and prettier, but this is my personal opinion. We saw a lot more westerners over cherry blossoms than fall foliage – I think the cherry blossoms have an international reputation/appeal.

Guidebook – the same Frommer’s book I used in 2008. Should have updated this as this book had fairly limited info on Osaka and Kobe, and was a bit out of date.

I have to mention that Osaka, language wise, is a bit of a challenge. I now live in Asia, so I think nothing of it and preferred Osaka’s more local atmosphere, but a few years ago on my first trip to Asia, staying in Kyoto, where it’s easy to find an English menu or guide, was a better choice. Now on to the report….

Day 1 – Friday night red eye on Peach Airlines from HKG to KIX. About 3.5 hours. Peach is a new Japanese low cost airline that uses KIX as a hub. It flies into Terminal 2, so we didn’t get to experience the real KIX. Terminal 2 definitely feels budget! It was all white and felt like an Ikea warehouse. The flight was ok for the price, but I was annoyed that on a flight leaving at 1:45 am that the lights weren’t turned off. Leg room is very tight, however, unlike on China’s Spring airlines (worst airline ever), the seats on Peach do recline. The planes also seemed really clean, to be expected from Japan I guess. They sell drinks/food on board, however I suggest bringing your own water as they charge 150 yen for a very small bottle of water. Upon arrival we took the airport limo bus to hotel #1, the Sheraton Miyako. The day we arrived, Saturday, was the night before the Osaka marathon, so rooms everywhere were sold out. Luckily I had booked a reservation at the Sheraton a long time ago before deciding on the St. Regis, so I was able to keep night #1 at the Sheraton at a reasonable rate. We arrived around 8am and not surprisingly, our room wasn’t ready. The area around the Sheraton is great. It’s on top of a Kinetsu train that runs directly to Nara in one direction, Kobe in the other. As our room wasn’t ready, we took a map of restaurants from the front desk and saw there was one of our favorites near by – Freshness Burger! Neither of us eat any fish/seafood. I generally stick to vegetarian food in Asia as the meat is not to my liking, but we definitely consumed a lot of beef in Japan. After getting our freshness fix, we stopped for a cup of coffee and then went shopping in the mall behind the Sheraton as it was colder than we expected and we forgot our hats. Luckily Uniqlo had everything we needed. We then went to the Osaka Castle by the JR loop line, which was easy enough. The foliage was starting to change but had a while to go. We were both tired so we wandered around for a bit and enjoyed the castle grounds before returning to the Sheraton area. Stopped for some snacks- mankenn (?) waffles – they have Belgian type waffles covered in frosting…what’s not to like? Lunch was some takeout from the basement market in the Kinetsu department store. Yum – some non fishy items…gyoza, and a some vegetarian sushi I like.

I would certainly recommend the Sheraton Osaka. We try to stay at Starwood hotels, and there were 3 choices in Osaka. The Sheraton was around $150 USD for a premier room, which included wireless internet, no breakfast. For this price, the room was quite comfortable. We’d stayed in some pretty small rooms in Japan, so I was surprised the room was fairly roomy. The hotel’s common areas are very nice, and the location is very good. The airport limo bus is a definite plus. For dinner that night we went to mall across from the Sheraton, that was kind of quiet, but had various bars/yakitori/etc in the basement. We found one yakitori bar that had an English menu and was more crowded than other restaurants. We had delicious sour cocktails and some yakitori.

Day 2 – Sunday – Marathon day. The marathon ran by the Sheraton, and we could see it from our window. Since we were switching hotels to the St. Regis this day and as Osaka transit was messy due to the marathon, we decided to check out in the morning, leave our bags at the Sheraton, go to Kobe (via the Kinetsu line that ran under the Sheraton), grab our bags from the Sheraton and take a taxi to the St. Regis. Our plan for Kobe was to go to Steakland Kobe for lunch. I did a bit of research on Kobe beef restaurants in Kobe and this was mentioned as a well priced, reliable one. We arrived to Kobe and unfortunately the old Frommer’s book didn’t have a map of the area. Stupid me didn’t print one either. I had some directions in the book about it being across from a McDonald’s, north of the Hanshin Sanniyoma line. Great. Of course we found a McDonalds, went across…no steakland. Street address wasn’t helpful either. I showed the address to someone who walked me back to the main train station and to an English map and tourist office. Low and behold, the map showed maybe…4 McDonalds. Based on the directions in the book I figured out which way to go and remembered Steakland was near some other bars/restaurants, and we finally saw a sign for Steakland on one of the main streets showing which street to turn on and that the restaurant was on the 6th floor. All the hassle was worth it though. The place was busy when we arrived around 1pm, and we had about a 15 minute wait. My husband and I both got the 3000 Yen lunch set- 150 grams of Kobe sirloin. The set comes with some bean sprouts, a miso soup, salad, rice and choice of orange juice or coffee after the meal. YUM. The meat was delicious for the price! I can’t even imagine how good expensive kobe beef must taste. Definitely one of the better lunches I had in a while.

To be continued…part II: Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto

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    Great start! Loving all the details. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

    I do love the Kobe steak especially in a Kobe restaurant. We have had the same lunch you had in the same area at a steakland type restaurant complete with the coffee or orange juice but we shared a table with six other people IIRC as they would seat a whole table at a time from the people waiting in the line outside of the front door. You will find that there are other wagyu beefs throughout Japan besides the Kobe. Hida beef and Miyazaki beef come to mind. All are tender, tasty but with different flavors of the region they are raised and how they are feed etc.

    Please continue....

    Aloha!

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    Great post! I completely agree with you about Osaka. We used it as a base to travel to Arima onsen and Kobe but we ended up spending a glorious afternoon and evening there on a Sunday and hope to go back some day.

    I also agree with you that the fall foliage is just as lovely as cherry blossom season. And much less crowded - especially on weekdays.

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    So day 2: Kobe post lunch. The day we were in Kobe, Sunday (last Sunday as I write this!) was beautiful. Clear, not too cold, perfect blue skies. We wanted to go up Mt. Maya, I now realize there are different ropeways (cable cars), but we took the ShinKobe one. We really liked our day in Kobe. When describing Kobe, the word ‘underappreciated’ comes to mind – I recommend you get out of Osaka/Kyoto and spend a day there if you have time. The main tourist attractions are neatly laid out near the train station and there is sufficient English signage so that it’s easy to stroll around. After lunch we walked about 15 minutes to the ropeway, and expected a line given the fall foliage and that it was a gorgeous Sunday, but nope – maybe 10 minutes to get on a cable car. Roundtrip tickets were 1400 yen each I think. We would have hiked one way but it was already 2:30 or so and Japan gets dark early, and we needed to get back to Osaka. You pay for the cable car to take you all the way up the mountain. It stops at a herb garden on the way. Once you are at the top, you then can walk down for about 30-50 minutes through the gardens. There was a German beer festival going on as well. The views were stunning! Really special in my opinion – and it takes a lot to impress me (I wake up with a view of Victoria Harbor). After walking to the herb garden we took the cable car back to the bottom, and then set out to stroll through Kitano to see some of the Western houses. What a cute area! We didn’t have as much time to explore as we wanted, but what we did see of the area was very pretty. Some of the old houses were small b&bs and boutiques and I’d consider spending a night or two there in the future. There were many nice small shops, a few tourists, and just a relaxed vibe. Kobe is Japan’s most international city – it still felt very Japanese, but there were many restaurants with food from other countries – India, Thai, etc. We got back to Sanniyoma and the Kinetsu line, which went all the way to the Sheraton in about 50 minutes. Very convenient. We grabbed our bags at the Sheraton and were told a taxi to the St. Regis would be about 1500 Yen, vs 500Yen for 2 people on the train. We took a taxi. I don’t understand why taxis in Japan are so expensive. It’s one thing that I find irritating and inconvenient about Japan. In China, if I’m tired – just hop in a Taxi. No more than $5 USD. I also found the train fares cheap for long distances, pricey for short. We had to spend about $3 each to go a few stops, yet our train from Umeda to Arashimaya was just 490Y for at least a 45 minute ride. Anyway, on to the St. Regis.

    We arrived at the St. Regis around 7pm. This is really an excellent hotel as expected. It’s on the Homachi line, which gives you a few train options, and two stops from either Umeda or Namba. We also walked Umeda to the hotel one night in about 30 minutes, which was a nice walk over the river. I had booked a basic room for about 20,000 Yen a night, and found out there was no free internet – highway robbery of 19,000 Y a day. Give me a break. We turned Starwood Gold on this trip after the St. Regis stay, so I asked if we could have free internet after night #1 – nope. They looked at my husband’s SPG account which is a corporate account and offered us an upgraded room in lieu of internet. Sure, why not…We would up in a grand deluxe room on the 22nd floor with almost floor to ceiling views north of us – you could see very, very far – the ferris wheel as well. The rooms were beautiful. Big walk in closet, great bathroom around the back side of the room with two doors, separate bath/shower and tv above the bathtub. Sadly the tv in the bath had no English stations! The hotel is geared, like most things in Japan, to the Japanese. Very high tech rooms – all the lights, window shades, etc were controlled by a touch screen panel next to the bed. I loved waking up and hitting the button to see the curtains and then the sheers open to a wide open view of Osaka. I recommend this hotel as a splurge. It also had a bit of a boutique feel – after entering the first floor, you must take an elevator up to the 12th floor, then walk through the lobby to get to the room elevators. Get used to walking past a lot of ‘welcome backs” and bows. That night we were hungry and had no idea where to eat in Osaka. As the hotel is geared to the Japanese, they didn’t have a list ready of restaurants with English menus…or a local restaurant guide as the Sheraton had. The area to the north is very much a business area, to the south is the covered arcade and Shinabashi with plenty of shops, inexpensive eateries, bars…however on a Sunday night almost everything was closed. We asked for a yakitori restaurant recommendation, but the recommended one was closed, so they suggested we go to Watami, a local izakaya chain, across the street. Watami had an English menu and plenty of pictures. Had a delicious mango sour. Food; a fish less otamayaki type potato and cheese thing, tsukune with cheese inside (yum, except for the cartalidge), gyoza, fried lotus and another thing or two. With 2 drinks, around 3100 Y. There are a bunch of these around Osaka – recommended for an inexpensive izakaya that has full English menu, with an extensive drink menu.

    Monday (day 3): woke up to open my shades to…RAIN. So much for our Kyoto/Koyo plans. Checked the forecast with the front desk and was advised it would rain until 6pm. I was interested in the Osaka art museum and Japanese ceramic museum – both closed on Monday. We decided to just wander the Shinabashi area (sorry if my spellings are all wrong) as it was covered. The first stretch was all discounters – picked up some cheap slippers for my husband, random candy at a discount food store, some makeup at a huge discount drug/cosmetic store. I wanted a BB cream (a type of makeup) and the store had plenty of testers, so I got one I was pretty happy with for about 1000 Y. We roamed a bit and wanted to stop for lunch around 1:35. On the side streets we found a great looking yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurant, but the last order was at 1:45, oh well! We saw some other places but nothing too exciting, a lot of Onomayaki and sushi. Keep in mind we don’t eat fish, so anything that looks like it could be fishy (soba, ramen…) we tried to avoid. Checked out the basement of Denimaru (spelling off..) dept store. Good choice. Found a grilled beef counter and for about 850Y got a takeout box set with beef strips on rice. They heated this up for us yet…when we went to sit at the counter, were chased away because it was a takeout set. This was after 2pm when nobody was sitting or eating, and really ticked off my husband, who got pretty annoyed. There was no place to sit except for some benches that said no food or drink. Us being rebellious and annoyed Americans, we sat and ate quickly there. In the US – if nobody was waiting, we never would have been pushed away from eating at the counter where we bought the food. We’ve gotten used to this regimented mindset in Hong Kong so it was nothing new to us. We wandered and wandered, decided to check out Den Den town as my husband was looking for a specific Japanese character toy, but no such luck. I’ve never seen so many cell phone charms and figurines in my life though! Also checked out the plastic food area which was amusing. Wandered into the area with more Pachinko shops, and decided in the evening to walk back to the St. Regis once we got to Namba (opposed to taking the train). As the rain stopped we walked up some local uncovered streets, found some interesting prints in one shop, but nothing we loved enough to bring back to HK. I really love Japanese woodblock prints and would like one for a wall in our apartment, but the ones in the shop were a bit bright. Upon arrival at the St. Regis and after freshening up we contemplated dinner – I wanted – what else – more BEEF. I just love the steak in Japan. Our concierge knew of 2 Yakiniku places – one closer to the hotel where he had never been, and one he personally really liked but he called – no English menu and they told him they were a bit uncomfortable with non Japanese speaking guests. We first checked out the closer restaurant – looked empty. Pass. Next on to the no English restaurant – there was a menu with some pictures of meat, so we figured why not….they had wifi also – score. Our waitress had very limited English but she knew what a ‘lemon sour’ was and we pointed to some photos of meat. My husband wanted grilled corn and I google imaged ‘corn’ and some cartoons of corn came up, which she thought was hysterical, but understood. The meat was delicious – not cheap at about 1200 Y for 5 pieces or so. After eating enough we ordered an oreo mixed in ice cream cone as dessert and walked back to the St. Regis.

    Day 4: (Tuesday) – Opened shades to clear skies! Off to Kyoto. We walked to Yodayabashi station near the hotel to get the Keihan line to the last stop in Kyoto: Demachiyanagi. The concierge thought it was strange we walked to the train…a whole 15 minutes! The night before while we had internet in the restaurant I checked out Japan Guide’s Koyo report, which stated Shinnyodo was at it’s peak. On our previous trip to Kyoto we hit the highlights and didn’t know where this temple was. Armed with a map we got a bit lost finding it and wound up at another shrine…brought back memories of how spread out Kyoto is! Distances looked shorter on our map. We finally found Shinnyodo – worth the trek! Gorgeous red and orange trees everywhere. Really breathtaking. And busy. We weren’t the only ones who checked the Koyo report apparently. I assume there are many Japanese language reports, as this shrine was very busy. From there we walked through the main park, by the Heian shrine, and wound up at the entrance of the park around 1:15 and looking for a quick bite. None of the restaurants looked appealing and after being in Osaka – they seemed expensive and touristy. as I previously said, our previous trip to Japan was our first trip to Asia, and Kyoto just seemed magical. it's still a gorgeous place, but was less appealing this time around...at least the main areas with the tourist resturants. Casual Japanese resturants had lines out the front, so we decided just to grab a snack at Starbucks. After Starbucks, we decided to stroll through Gion past Gion corner on the way to Kiyomizudera. The walk up the hill to Kiyomizudera was as expected, crowded. But once we got to the temple we understood – many leaves washed away, but still many red maple leaves. Stunning. After taking enough photos, we made our way back to the Keihan line kiyomizodera stop – a good 20+ minute walk from the temple. And it was cold. Took the train back to Osaka and retreated to our comfortable room in the St. Regis.

    To be continued…

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    Loved your report. Planning to go to Japan in near future.
    Wondering what special Japanese souvenirs you found and are things very expensive these days as the exchange rate is not really good.
    Thanks in advance.

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    Hi,
    I actually didn't purchase any special things this trip. On our first trip, I had to bring back another bag full of sake cup sets, prints, japanese sandals....if you DO want to shop in Japan, the shopping is excellent.
    Osaka isn't too expensive. The amount of money you spend in Japan is really up to you. You can have a great meal at an Izakaya for $50USD, or you can go all out and eat in a private room in Tokyo at the top of some building and spend $500. Aside from absurdly high taxi prices, Japan is not that expensive, but expect to spend much more than you would anywhere else in Asia.

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    Thanks for your input. I need to buy some gifts for newborn babies in our family and was thinking I could buys some really cute stuff there.
    Can you think of some nice things you saw during your travels. I will have limited time for shopping, thus seeking your help again.
    Have a gorgeous weekend.

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