In high school geography class, my teacher would always find ways to talk about Japan. He was fascinated with the country, but as a student, I looked at the map and thought it would be impossible to see it one day just because it was so far away and so culturally different than anything I knew. It just didn’t seem feasible in my thirteen year old mind.
Fast-forward a few years and Jeff entered my life taking me to so many corners of the planet, my head is still spinning. He didn’t think Japan was so impossible, and since Rome and Greece were both checked off his bucket list in our early travel days, seeing the island country was a natural next goal for him. Since we were just traipsing around Thailand and Cambodia with a trajectory to the U.S., Japan was a perfect stepping stone to explore, so Jeff and I booked a week going from Osaka to Kyoto to Mt. Fuji to Tokyo before continuing on east.
As we boarded our plane from Phnom Penh toward Japan, I did wish we had spent time in Vietnam. We were so close in proximity, but with our time frame, we just couldn’t fit it all in. However, at least we can say we were in Hanoi for several hours as we waited for the midnight plane to Osaka.
We landed with no problems and grabbed our bags. For the first time in all of our travels to all kinds of countries, we got stopped by border patrol to search our suitcase. It was nothing concerning since it turned out to just be a rookie’s first day on the job, but since our passports had many, many return stamps to London decorating our visa pages, we were called to question. Jet-lagged, but still happy to be in Japan, we smiled and thanked the young woman who had to point to phrases on a laminated form in order to communicate with us.
A quick note: bring cash with you into Japan. We should have exchanged some cash at the airport or had some on hand because finding an ATM machine that would take a U.S. credit card became a sort of game in the underground system. The 7/11 is generally going to be your best bet in getting an ATM to take an American card.
The underground train system in Japan is extraordinary. In Osaka, there are 8 underground lines (13 in Tokyo!), and the signs situated above the ticket machines, will tell you how much your ticket will cost based on your destination. It took us a while to figure out this system, but once we got it, we never had another problem determining our route, so check out this link or don’t be shy about talking to the station manager.
A quick note: A one-day travel ticket will cost about 800 yen, and you need to put a semblance of cash/coin in the ticket machine before choosing your destination. I guess it’s to show you’re serious about buying a ticket. We stared at this slot-looking machine for the better part of five minutes just trying to accomplish step one.
Finding a good location and deal on AirBnB in Japan was not ideal for our travel purposes, so we stayed in hotels along the way. Also, we knew that if we had a problem, talking to the concierge would be a non-issue. With AirBnB, you stay with or around the locals, which is usually wonderful except when you don’t speak Japanese and the signs don’t have a semblance of English on them.
After a brief accidental wandering in Osaka, we found our hotel: Hotel Brighton City and fell into our tiny but perfect hotel room. Ravenous, we walked across the street to the 7/11. In the U.S., the 7/11 is famous for its Icees and being a fuel station. In Japan, they are a refuge from the heat and a haven for cheap eats. Every single one we walked by (and they are everywhere) was packed with people hanging out and stocking up. It became our go-to for breakfast since eating in Japan was a costly endeavor. Also, for something quick, there are vending machines everywhere that have water, green tea, and iced coffee. This was a complete revelation.
Jeff and I each grabbed an iced coffee in a can, and I indulged in one of my absolute favorite Japanese delicacies: mochi. I was over the moon that mochi was just on the shelf, no big deal. I grabbed a red bean paste one to save and a matcha green tea one to have then. That’s another thing I’ll note about Japan, and it will come up a lot: matcha is in everything from mochi to shampoo.
Full and awake, we got back on the underground transport and made our way to Osaka Castle at the Morinomiya stop. We didn’t learn our lesson about heat in Cambodia and were visiting the mostly-outdoor attraction in the middle of a very hot day. Tickets were 600 yen each, and much like Russia, you can buy your tickets from handy little machines with helpful English instructions.
Tickets in hand, we made the long climb up to the entrance of the fort. Osaka Castle is the third largest castle in Japan, and once at the top, the views were extraordinary. You could see an invading army for miles with that vantage point. Built in 1583, the castle grounds cover 15 acres of land and house 13 other structures from wells to turrets all built for fortification. Originally, the castle was meant to dazzle visitors with gold leaf trimmings and five stories of height (with three stories hidden underground), but it was two years later that the castle was made to be a little less pomp and a little more fort.
After a couple of sieges on the castle in 1614 and 1615, the castle fell into the hands of Tokugawa Hidetada who began to reconstruct the outer walls, but in 1660, the gunpowder warehouse was struck by lightning and the resulting fire spread to the castle. Five years later, the tower was struck by lightning leading to a continuous slope of disrepair and neglect which wasn’t remedied until the 1800s when the local government finally scraped enough money together to restore it.
The castle was at the center of more conflict through the next two centuries including becoming an arsenal during WWII. But what stands today is a reconstruction of what the former castle looked like in its heyday. With this all in mind, the interior of the castle is completely renovated to be a functioning museum with exhibits geared for children and tourists. I will admit I was not enthralled with the inside because most of the displays were thin and not very informative.
However, what did capture my attention was the massive painting The Summer War of Osaka which depicted the 1614 Siege of Osaka. No photos were allowed of the painting, but you can see it here. The artwork was extremely beautiful, and the accompanying video described many of the individual moments depicted on the mural such as a woman running from the soldiers or the dying allies in the field.
That night, we had dinner at Tokisushi after following one of our favorite travel blogger’s recommendations. After navigating the side streets in no perpendicular order, we sat at the bar and were (thankfully) handed English menus. The main reason we decided to stay in Osaka for a night instead of going straight to Kyoto was because we were told Osaka had the best sushi. We were here to find out, so we ordered the standard chef’s menu and the premium chef’s menu. We enjoyed sake as we waited and were served some of the most gorgeous and delicious sushi I have ever had in my life, and the price was not extreme.
After we said our arigatos, we walked over to the Kuromon Ichiban Market, a sort of outdoor/covered shopping mall with the odd food cart. The Pachinko casinos poured out smoke and were deafening (click here for a super-short video), but we had to see the inside. After two solid minutes, we ran out and laughed while we regained our hearing. Dotonburi Street was full of people, food, and randomness, but it was a perfect introduction to Japan.
The next morning, we had one more stop before hopping on the train to Kyoto. The Shitenno-ji Temple is regarded to be the oldest and first Buddhist officially administered temple in Japan. Originally built in 593, Prince Shotoku wanted to construct something to reflect his Buddhist faith before Buddhism really took off in Japan.
When we first walked on the compound, we were floored by the clean and openness of the space. The gravel paths and open ground resembled that of a zen garden. We paid the 300 yen to enter the complex and went inside the small chapel to hear Buddhist monks praying. The sound of their voices resonated around the entire campus, so we took their notes with us as we climbed the center pagoda. The climb didn’t offer any views of the surrounding city since the windows are mostly blocked, and the interior didn’t offer anything special, so it was just an excuse to climb some steps.
We walked all around the grounds and saw the ornate gates with their devil-like guardians keeping watch. Between the chanting monks and the small turtle pond with dozens of turtles bathing in the sun, we felt so at peace and ready to conquer the next city on our Japanese tour.
A quick note about finding the temple: There are signs once you get out at the Shitennoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station, but it can be easy to missed if you’re not looking down the left side alleys. We approached the temple through a cemetery (中之院), which I highly recommend seeing, but without being vigilant about locating any sign, we would have completely missed our turn.
Helpful Hint: If you’re not keen on using the squat public toilets, I do have a hint. Most of the public restrooms do have a separate stall for the physically disabled. While I do not usually support using bathrooms that are designed to help others when I am capable, I do draw a line at certain levels of hygiene. So, for you fellow travelers, if you are wary, know that you do have an option.
Helpful Hint: The grocery store chain of choice will be Fresco. We spent a good hour roaming all of the isles for local delicacies!
Follow us as we board the JR Line train to the old capital of Japan: Kyoto.