A Spontaneous Trip to Kansai

June 14 – 25, 2008

The decision to go to Japan was pretty much based on a sudden impulse. Redeeming air miles, buying rail passes, doing some internet research – all these happened over a couple of days. Another week afterward we were on the plane to Tokyo.

The plan was to maximize the value of our one-week JR Rail Pass. Since we had to fly into Narita, we took the Shinkansen to Kyoto the afternoon we arrived, returned to Tokyo on the seventh day and stayed in the capital for the remainder of the trip. We based ourselves near the JR Station in Kyoto and ventured out town every morning and returned late at night. Ironically, we ended up with only one full day in Kyoto itself, as we also spent time in Hiroshima, Himeji, Nara, Osaka, and various locations in Kyoto’s suburbs.

If this trip had a theme, it was not the many places we traveled to, or whatever that we ate or bought; it was the railway that defined this trip. We took full advantage of the ease to travel from Kyoto to Nara in the morning, onward to Hōryū-ji in the afternoon, then dinner in Osaka. No matter where we chose to visit in the morning, by late afternoon we would always yearn for Osaka and its food, its shops and the sense of familiarity we had gradually developed. Getting off the train at Shin-Osaka Station, beating the rush hour crowd at the subway and arriving Dōtonbori hungry and tired – we enjoyed this routine that was established over the course of the trip.

No doubt we could spend more time at Kyoto, or slow down our pace at some places. Traveling such long distances might not be the most effective use of time, even when using the most efficient of train systems, but we enjoyed our flexibility and countless options each morning.

Even though we had a great time, June is not an ideal month to travel to Japan. The weather was mostly cloudy with frequent rain, although luckily for us the rain only started to really pour when we got back to Tokyo for the final few days on our trip. June is also the time when seemingly every Japanese high school takes field trips to popular sites, with the crowd at Tōdai-ji being the worst I had encountered outside of China. Finally, some random facts and opinions on this trip:

  • Number of days: 12
  • Places traveled to: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nara, Himeji
  • Number of World Heritage Sites visited: 5 (Historic Centre of Kyoto, A-bomb Dome, Miyajima Shrine, Historic Centre of Nara, Himeji Castle)
  • Number of temples and shrines visited in Kyoto and Nara: 9 (Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺, Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺, Nanzen-ji 南禅寺, Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺, Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社, Tenryu-ji 天龍寺, Kōfuku-ji 興福寺, Tōdai-ji 東大寺, Hōryū-ji 法隆寺)
  • My favorites among the above temples: Hōryū-ji and Fushimi Inari Taisha
  • My favorite non-temple site: Arashiyama bamboo grove
  • Most crowded: (Have to mention again): Tōdai-ji, Nara. With Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji tied for second.
  • Least crowded: Hōryū-ji
  • Number of times we sneaked on the Nozomi Train in Osaka to Kyoto: 3 (JR pass holder can only board the  Hikari Shinkansen Train, but not the faster Nozomi)
  • Number of bento consumed: 8
  • Number of consumed bento that could be considered average: 0
  • Most memorable meal: Jiyuuken自由軒 in Osaka
  • Worst meal: Some fugu/shabu shabu place in Ikebukuro
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