If there is one thing you should take from our experiences in Japan, it’s that you should plan ahead as much as possible. While we always knew it is not the sort of country that you roll up in a town and look for a room, we thought booking a few days in advance would always be fine. We were wrong.
Our last night in Tokyo was a frantic rush to book accommodation after discovering that during November and the height of Autumn, weekends cause the whole area of Osaka and Kyoto to be totally booked out.
This meant we were limited to 3 days in the area, and had to stay in Osaka rather than our preferred Kyoto. Sucks, but it was all we could do. We spent our first day in Osaka and the second in Nara.
We arrived at our hostel, dumped our bags and went straight out to make the most of our 1/2 day in Osaka.
The castle was our first destination. We weren’t overly bothered about the castle itself, as it is a concrete reproduction of the original, and we had come from Matsumoto with it’s beautiful castle.
But the grounds around Osaka castle are a great place for a late afternoon stroll, especially in the height of Autumn with all the beautiful coloured leaves. Katy also found some rather expensive but super tasty chestnuts to munch on.
Afterwards, with light fading, we headed for the Minami district, the main commercial area of the city. Strolling down the Dotonburi canal, it would be impossible to miss the neon lights. They are CRAZY. Way more than Tokyo – animated crabs, angry chefs and huge cans of Asahi beer. There were lots of hole in the wall Takoyaki (octopus balls) restaurants, something I regret not trying.
Down an alley I discovered one of the coolest shops I found in Japan – a huge retro game shop. Fllor to ceiling 1990s games consoles, games and accessories – heaven for a geek like me. It even had things like the Famicon Disk Drive which was never even released in Europe. Yeah, I’m a geek.
We finished the day by visiting Namba Parks, a sprawling rooftop urban park on top of a shopping centre. It’s a really interesting place to have a walk and you almost forget you’re in the middle of the city. When we visited the trees were totally covered in Christmas lights which was wonderfully kitsch and tacky.
For dinner we had our first taste of an Izakaya, a Japanese pub. Very loud and very smoky, beer and snacks were flowing freely, and everything was 290 yen (£1.54). Beer – 290 yen. Chicken wings – 290 yen. Saucer of green beans – 290 yen. Some things were better value than others!
There is far more we could have seen in Osaka but we couldn’t since the next day we were off to:
Famous for it’s amazing number of religious sites and its thousands of deer, Nara is a very popular day trip from Kyoto and Osaka.
Getting off the train we were greeted with a standard modern Japanese city. All the sights are a good 15-20 minute walk away. We’d decided to focus on Nara park as we only had 1 day – the park is enormous and a good majority of the city’s riches are located within.
At the westernmost tip was Kohfukuji Temple, one of Nara’s World Heritage Sites, complete with a 3 and 5 storey pagoda. Whilst there we ran into a Japanese guy who wanted to chat to us, and he recommended we visit the nearby government building to get a great view of Nara. So we did.
A short walk from the temple, the government building certainly wasn’t much to look at. Nor was it very high, only about 8 stories. But that was high enough in Nara, in fact it was the tallest building. The view was impressive, you could easily see the huge scale of the park and spot various temples poking out from the trees.
The viewing deck was free and is well worth a visit in our opinion. We didn’t stay too long though, as we wanted to go and see some of Nara’s famous deer. It didn’t take very long at all – just seconds after stepping into the boundaries of the park we saw hundreds of them.
The deer in Nara Park are protected and live more or less harmoniously with residents and tourists. However despite it officially not being allowed to feed them, vendors are everywhere selling biscuits for 150 yen for a pack. Because of this, the deer tend to beg for food and can spot a mile away if you have those biscuits – you better be ready to feed when you buy some or they’ll grab them! It was also interesting that while locals don’t seem to mind them, plenty of shops had barriers as deer presumably have in the past barged in and eaten anything in sight!
The rest of our afternoon consisted of wandering around Nara Park and visiting various different temples. We walked through Nandaimon gate (surrounded by deer, of course), then went to Todai-Ji temple, though didn’t feel the need to pay and go in since you can see it all from the outside.
Nigatsu-dō was a very attractive hall, part of Todai-Ji. Climbing all the stairs, you were greeted by another great view of Nara. Sadly we were also treated to a view of these Japanese girls teasing deer with food so they could get pictures with them – they never even gave them the food in the end. Is there any wonder some of them end up biting?
We walked past Mount Wakakusayama (more just a hill) but didn’t realise we could climb it. Instead we fed more deer.
Our last stop was Kasuga-taisha, notable for its stone lanterns, before we enjoyed a leisurely walk back through the tree lined park, saw a few more deer, and made our way back to the train station.
Nara was beautiful and while we were a tad templed and shrined out by the end of the day, it’s well worth a visit.