2016 has definitely been a travelling year for me, and I’m really grateful for the opportunities I had to see the world 😀 Japan was a family holiday (as opposed to Hong Kong which was a work trip and Bangkok which was a trip with friends) and probably our last big trip for a while. My brothers have major exams next year, and then one will be off to serve the nation, and I’ll have university to deal with as well – so yup.
I was last in Japan in 2014 on a school trip, but I only saw Tokyo. On this trip, we went to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, and it was amazing. I’ll summarise what I saw/did/ate on a location basis, just to make things easier 😀
We only spent three days in Tokyo, but we covered most of the major sites. I also stupidly formatted my memory card by mistake on the second day, so I lost a large number of photos from there, but it’s okay. Not all is lost.
We stayed at Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro, a hotel/hostel. I actually stayed there on my school trip two years ago, and it has an excellent location. We were just a street or two away from Ikebukuro station, so getting around was really convenient.
Here are the places we visited in Tokyo 😀
Tsukiji Fish Market
One of the most famous tourist destinations in Tokyo, Tsukiji is set to move out of its current site in November this year, so it’s crazy packed. We didn’t really do much when we got there – just walked around the market, took a look at the seafood on display, and then went for breakfast where we had this absolutely amazing chirashi-don.
It was incredible.
After going to Tsukiji, we headed down to Asakusa and visited Senso-ji, which is the oldest temple in Tokyo! The last time I was in Japan, we only got to the temple in the evening, so most of the shops were closed.
This time around, we got there around 10 in the morning, and it was bustling with people. The shops there sell everything from funny masks to candy, and tour group after tour group was roaming the streets. It also seemed to be field trip season in Japan, because we saw many groups of students travelling around with their teachers.
I bought a new umbrella (the Waterfront brand is VERY GOOD) from a small shop near the temple, to replace the one I got on the previous trip. Japanese umbrella selections are A+++.
Pokemon Centre Mega Tokyo
What’s a trip to Japan with a bunch of Pokemaniacs (aka my brothers and myself) without a visit to the Pokemon Centre? We went to the one at Sunshine City near Ikebukuro, and we spent a solid hour trawling through the shelves for Pokemon merchandise.
Trust me, the urge to buy EVERYTHING was all-consuming, but I eventually settled on a cute Eevee keychain, Pikachu socks, and some adorable Substitute earrings, along with some other stuff as souvenirs for friends. My brothers bought their fair share of Pokemon merch as well, and we spent an entire hour in the shop obsessing over everything – my mom was surprised we spent so long in there, but hey, Pokemon is pretty damn enthralling.
When in Tokyo, you MUST go to the Meiji Shrine. It’s like number one on the list of “places you must go as a tourist in Japan”, and it’s incredible.
Built to commemorate the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, Meiji Shrine is surrounded by forests. Trekking along the gravel-strewn path, you’ll see sights like wooden lampposts, bridges, and barrels of sake en route to the temple itself, located in the heart of the forest.
The temple is an impressive structure, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to witness the priests in action, or even see a traditional Shinto wedding take place! Meiji Shrine is extremely picturesque, but it’s probably best to visit on a weekday to avoid the crowd. We went on a Sunday, and it was pretty packed.
I also ran into my polytechnic coursemate Deborah when I was there! Talk about coincidence much.
This place requires no introduction – welcome to Harajuku, Japanese shopping paradise. It’s home to delicious crepes, Calbee potato chips, quirky 390 yen shops that sell everything from t-shirts to brightly-coloured wig, and even foreign fashion labels like Monki. You can think of it as something like Bugis Street, just with a lot more people and colour.
We didn’t really do much in Harajuku. We ate a delicious strawberry and custard crepe, and I bought some cute socks as souvenirs for friends. We also visited this humongous 4-storey Daiso, and my brother bought some super reflective sunglasses from the 390 yen shop for giggles.
Again, you probably don’t want to visit Harajuku on the weekend – we went on Sunday, after going to Meiji Shrine (they’re literally located just down the road from each other), and we were inching our way through a sea of people.
Special mention to this absolutely delicious bowl of ramen we had in East Ikebukuro on our last night in Tokyo – the staff spoke Mandarin, so ordering our food was a breeze!
After our three days in Tokyo, we headed down to Osaka via the Shinkansen – their bullet trains! I was incredibly fascinated by the entire experience – I think it’s super cool, and I was fascinated at how the landscape changed from city to residential to rural. I’ve never seen so many rice paddy fields in my life till I got on the bullet train, and it was really cool.
We had our bento box lunches that we bought from Tokyo Station, and I entertained myself for most of the nearly 3h ride by staring out the window.
We stayed at an Airbnb in Osaka, just a 5min walk from the Nankai Namba station, and it was quite intriguing to see how a Japanese apartment looks like and is laid out. It’s small, definitely, but I suppose if you have to live with it, it’s not too bad.
Here are the sights we saw in Osaka!
Ebisubashi-suji and Shinsaibashi-suji
These are the two major shopping streets in Osaka, and they’re really close to Namba. Okay, technically they’re one long shopping street, broken up by traffic junctions and the like, but whatever.
Ebisubashi-suji is a lot more affordable, and here is where you can get piping hot takoyaki, yakitori sticks, and ice-cream sandwiches, along with bags, shoes, and souvenirs.
Shinsaibashi-suji is definitely more upmarket – once you cross over from Ebisubashi-suji to Shinsaibashi-suji, you start noticing more international brands like Uniqlo and Daiso, and more expensive department stores, like Daimaru.
If you’re looking to get a proper meal, turn out of the shopping street into the side streets! The streets are laid out like a grid, so it’s not difficult to go off the beaten path to grab dinner, and then return to the main street when you’re done. Plus, the food in the side streets is often cheaper than if you were to dine in the main areas.
This was how we found this delicious yakiniku beef barbecue place – the meat was simply divine, I’m drooling just thinking about it.
Cutting across the long stretch that is Ebisubashi-suji and Shinsaibashi-suji, Dotonbori is AMAZING. You know you’re there when you emerge and see 1. The giant mechanical crab and 2. The Glico Running Man.
We didn’t really get to explore Dotonbori very much, but aside from being home to places like H&M, it’s home to a lot of food. Just walk down the street, and there are shops selling all sorts of yummy things, from beef noodles to fried pancakes.
We had some dumplings from a random stall, and they were piping hot and delicious. Seriously, there is like, no such thing as a bad meal in Japan. Everything was ace.
I’m a bit sad that we didn’t really explore the entire stretch of Dotonbori, but Osaka is definitely on my list of places I’ll visit again. Dotonbori, I’m coming back for you!
Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum
Dear Mr Momofuku Ando, thank you for inventing the instant ramen that sustains me through late nights and lazy mealtimes, your legacy will outlive that of some world leaders.
We went to the Instant Ramen Museum, and it was really fun! I previously went to the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama, which is much bigger than the one in Osaka, but this smaller one was cool as well. Entry is free, and you can rent audio guides that tell you the story of how Mr Momofuku came up with his instant ramen, which is useful because most of the exhibits are in Japanese.
The staff can also speak Japanese, Mandarin, and English, so if you have any problems, they’re glad to help.
You also get to decorate and build your very own cup noodles for 300 yen, and that was lots of fun – it kind of felt like I was going back to my primary school days of colouring.
Plus, they have a small section with vending machines selling unique cup noodle flavours that aren’t available in regular supermarkets or convenience stores in Osaka – my brother had one that came with a fritter, and I ate one that resembled wantan mee in chilli oil. Yum.
The museum is located in the outskirts of Osaka, specifically in Ikeda, so getting there does take a while – but you get to see a slice of suburban Osaka while you’re at it, so the journey is definitely worth the while 😀
A place steeped in an incredible amount of bloodshed, I still haven’t fully untangled the history behind Osaka Castle. But that’s okay, because even if you don’t know anything about history, Osaka Castle is still a sight to see.
Getting to Osaka Castle will leave you footsore and exhausted (because you’re climbing UP TO THE CASTLE, fun fact: most historical castles, temples, and churches are built on hills), but the journey up is full of beautiful trees, interesting rock formations, and gorgeous bridges that are all awesome photo opportunities.
Osaka Castle itself is worth a visit, as it’s full of artefacts telling the history of the place. From letters to paintings and even suits of armour that have seen combat, it’s incredibly fascinating. I could have spent hours poring over every corner of the museum, but it was very crowded so we didn’t linger.
The top of Osaka Castle is an observation deck, though most of it is covered in chicken wire. Still, you can get a great view of Osaka City from up there, and it gets incredibly windy – so seize the opportunity to get some wind-tousled shots ;D
Also, the great thing about Osaka is that it’s an excellent starting point to make day trips out to other parts of Japan. We went out to Kyoto and Nara from Osaka, and each location was, at most, about an hour by train (:
Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan, as far as I know, and going to Kyoto after spending about 5 days in the bustling cities of Tokyo and Osaka was an entirely different experience. It’s definitely a lot quieter.
Getting around Kyoto is easy – you can purchase a one-day tourist pass, and you can ride on all the local buses and trains to get to the popular tourist sites. It certainly made getting around a breeze!
The temples are all gorgeous, but I’d definitely love to go back in spring or autumn, where the cherry blossoms are in season or the leaves are changing colour. We went in summer, and while it was pretty great, it wasn’t as visually striking.
Here are the places we visited in Kyoto!
This was the first stop on our Kyoto itinerary, and it’s a lovely sight to behold. Getting to the temple requires a long trek up the hill, but upon arrival, you’re greeted by beautiful pagodas and towers.
To see the temple proper, you have to pay a small entrance fee, but it’s worth the money. Not only do you get to see old artefacts, the interior of the temple is gorgeous, filled with plants, flowers, and stone structures from times of old. It’s a marvel how they managed to built the temple in an era before modern machinery!
On the way down from the temple, feel free to grab a bite or buy some souvenirs from the shops that line the street. We had delicious beef buns (think traditional Chinese paus, but with beef filling instead of pork) that made for a super yummy snack.
Kinkaku-ji literally translates to ‘The Golden Temple’. There’s also Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple, but people tell us that if you only go to one, the Kinkaku-ji is the one to see.
Admittedly, there wasn’t much to see once we entered the temple, but I have to admit, the Golden Pavilion is rather beautiful. It’s definitely striking.
I personally felt that there wasn’t anything interesting about Kinkaku-ji, but perhaps if I had more information on its history, it would have been more than just another pretty temple.
We had to take a train to get to Tenryu-ji Temple, because it’s located in the suburbs of Kyoto, and the train station and tracks look like something out of all the Miyazaki films I love the watch. I always say, you know you’re in the rural areas when the train station platform is on the ground level.
Tenryu-ji Temple is a sprawling Zen temple filled with beautiful plants and flowers. You also get a pretty sweet mountain view!
My family isn’t a huge fan of temples, so our attention was quickly diverted by something else – the famous Bamboo Forest.
You technically don’t have to pay to enter the Bamboo Forest, but we didn’t know that, so we paid for entry to the temple in order to access the forest. You can access it from the main road, and many people rent bikes to do so, in order to better explore the area.
The Bamboo Forest is definitely worth visiting – row after row of incredibly tall bamboo, all of them growing together to bathe the path in shadow. A bamboo tree itself doesn’t provide much shade, so the sheer number of trees required to create this dark path is impressive.
The temperature difference when you step into the bamboo forest is tangible – this place should definitely be on your agenda when you visit Kyoto, if only because it’s something you’ll never see in Singapore.
We also stopped by some of the tourist streets in Kyoto city itself, but there wasn’t much to see or buy because we got there in the evening and most of the places had closed already.
It’s also probably a good idea to wait till after peak hour before getting on a train back to Osaka – the odds are, you’ll be able to get a seat and rest your feet. And you will need it, because in Kyoto, you walk a hell of a lot.
The last full day we had in Japan, we headed out to spend half a day in Nara, and it was raining cats and dogs. Nara is known for their sacred deer, and these deer pretty much walk around willy-nilly. They also poop around the area willy-nilly, and combined with the rain, that meant that there were rivers of deer poop along the sidewalk when we visited.
Not fun, especially if you’re not an animal-lover, but Nara is definitely a lovely place. We visited three temples in Nara, which took up the better part of our morning. The great thing about Nara is that all the major tourist attractions are easily accessible on foot from the train station, so you don’t have to worry about taking the bus at all.
The grandest of all the temples in Nara, Todai-ji is home to a humongous statue of Buddha. It cuts an impressive figure in the sky, even on a rainy day. We didn’t spend much time here, because it was super crowded, but walking through it was quite interesting.
This is a much smaller and quieter section of Todai-ji located up on a hill, and yes, there are deer around.
There are deer pretty much everywhere, but less so at Nigatsu-do Hall. Nigatsu-do Hall isn’t as popular as Todai-ji, so it’s far quieter and much more pleasant. The view from the Hall is great, and they even have a rest area where you can have water, tea, and even soup! So long as you wash up after yourselves, you’re free to sit and chill for as long as you like.
While we were resting there, we saw some Japanese kids on a field trip stop at the rest area to have their lunch! Their little bentos were pretty adorable, and it seemed like quite a smart set-up!
The last stop on our Nara adventure was Kofuku-ji Temple. We didn’t go into the temple, just kind of admired it from the outside, but I will admit I was too concerned with dodging the piles of deer poop on the floor to really soak in the atmosphere.
I definitely want to go back to Nara, especially when it’s not raining, because I’m sure I’d have enjoyed myself a lot more if I wasn’t simultaneously trying to avoid getting jabbed in the eye by some tourist’s umbrella and trying to avoid stepping in deer shit. I’d probably also try to avoid peak tourist season, because it was really hard navigating with all the crowds.
Next to the train station, there’s a sheltered street selling souvenirs, trinkets, and food, so we stopped over that to have piping hot ramen for lunch before heading back to Osaka!
Getting to Kansai Airport from Namba was very easy, as the airport express starts at Nankai Namba station, which was really close to our Airbnb. The Japanese train system is really top of the line, so you can count on it to get you where you need to go, no problem. Plus, people are helpful as well, and most of them can manage some degree of English + arm flailing sign language, so you can get by.
And that brings me to the end of this super long and massive blog post about my amazing trip to Japan! If you read this far, kudos to you for sticking it out, and thanks so much 😀
I’ve been really blessed, having been able to travel to so many places all within the first half of the year, and it’s been an incredible experience. Now it’s time for me to tuck my passport back in the safe, and put my suitcase back in storage – I’ve got a new adventure beckoning, and it’s called university.
This will probably be the end of #StefGlobeRollin for a while, but I’ll definitely have other posts, and be back with more travel adventures as soon as I can 😀 Cheers!