Travel Notes: 6D/5N Culture Geek Experience In Osaka, Nara & Kyoto | CoolJapan

From visiting historical sites to finding the best authentic cuisine, travelling is one of life's greatest adventures. Our "Travel Notes" series features travel itineraries from real people as inspiration for your future escapades.

Japan ticks all the boxes for whatever you hope for on a getaway, whether it be relaxation or adventure, or experiencing tradition or innovation. If you’re the type who wants to experience the best of both worlds, you’d be surprised that our recommendation isn’t the bustling city life in Tokyo but rather the colourful allure of the Kansai region. To help your planning, we’re laying down the ideal 6D/5N itinerary for the ultimate culture geek adventure set in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.

Preparing for the trip

While Singapore and Malaysia residents need no visa for a 90-day visit to Japan, it’s a different case for those who reside in the Philippines. Luckily, many travelling agencies are affiliated with the Japanese embassy to help aide in visa application. One must apply three months prior to the ideal time of visit. Knowing the status of the application usually takes three to seven days. ReliTours at SM Megamall is an option you can consider. 

Once you’ve secured your visa, it’s smooth sailing from there. First thing you have to consider is the season of your visit. Japan has all four; cherry blossom season in spring (Early to Mid April) and autumn (usually late October to Early December) being the most popular travel dates for tourists. The country has a unique charm year-round, though, so you wouldn’t go wrong whenever you decide to travel. Flights from Manila to Osaka usually takes five hours, while it's six to six and a half if you're from Singapore. Malaysia takes the longest, going from seven to eight hours depending on your city of origin. 

Tennoji Station

Tennoji Station

My family and I usually travel to Japan post-cherry blossom season because places are not as crowded then. The weather is also quite favourable because it’s neither too hot nor too cold. Through the years I’ve travelled during this season I've learned that the usual clothes we wear in our region, paired with one or two light jackets, are enough to keep you comfy. I do recommend wearing sheer tights, though, because they're great for avoiding varicose veins. Sturdy walking boots are also a must for all the walking and stair-climbing you'll do. 

Outfits in Japan during May/Spring and Summer

Some of my outfits during our late spring/early summer travels

As for the currency, Japanese yen is easy to get a hold of, with many legitimate money changers available in each region. Even some banks sell Japanese notes, so it’s definitely up to you to decide and research which conversion rate is more favourable. Alternatively, you can also withdraw from ATMs once you land or have your money exchanged at the airport, but having some notes changed while you’re in your home country is preferable because most Japanese establishments prefer or only accept cash as a mode of payment.


Left: ICOCA cards also come in fun pop-culture designs such as Hello Kitty and Astro Boy; Right: Do it like a local and top-up at the designated loading stations

Japan has a very efficient public transport system so you’ll have little to no problem reaching the points of your itinerary by either train or bus. There are many tourist passes available for purchase depending on where you're travelling, but our tried and tested method is purchasing an IC card. It's a reloadable prepaid card that you can use in all trains, buses, and even vending machines and convenience stores. ICOCA is the titular IC card for the Kansai region, which can be purchased in the airport or any major train station for JPY2000. The card is preloaded with JPY1500 and the remaining JPY500 is the card deposit, which you can refund at the end of your trip at the designated IC return kiosks.

Day 1: Exploring Osaka

Kuromon Ichiba, Osaka Castle, Umeda Sky, Namba 

Journeying to Japan takes at least five hours from Manila, so tummies rumbling upon landing is inevitable. For those who are arriving from the late afternoon to nighttime, Kuromon Market is definitely recommended. This huge stretch of streets and stalls filled with some of the best food Osaka has to offer is a great first stop after a long and tiring journey. From okonomiyaki to fresh seafood to sweets like ichigo daifuku (strawberry and red bean mochi) and candied fruits, this is a great introduction to your Kansai visit. A tourist assistance lounge is also situated in the area, perfect for those who want to simply relax as they eat while waiting for their hotel check-in. 

Kuromon Ichiba

Right: Ichigo daifuku is definitely a must-try for anyone with a sweet tooth; Right: Okonomiyaki is a Japanese-style pancake mixed with meat, seafood and veggies that's perfect for sharing

After having your fill at Kuromon, head off to Osaka’s prime landmark: Osaka Castle, which is a 30-minute train ride away from Kuromon. The park surrounding the castle is also rich in colour no matter what time of year it is, making it a refreshing contrast against the city’s busy streets that are adjacent to the castle’s surroundings. 

Osaka Castle

Left: Osaka Castle's park post-cherry blossom season is just as beautiful with its lush greens; Right: a visit to this city is not complete without a pilgrimage to this landmark

From a relaxing stroll around the castle grounds, it’s time to head to Umeda Sky Building to catch a view of the amazing sunset atop an architectural marvel. The 173-metre building has an observation deck on its 39th floor, surrounding its ‘floating garden’ structure. I personally love the hypnotising escalator leading up to the observatory and, of course, the view of the city against the crimson sky is a majestic way to end a long day.

Umeda Sky

Umeda sky

But as they say, the party only starts when the sun goes down. For the final stop of the day: Osaka’s Namba district. Known for colourful shopping and dining spots lining the streets of Dotonbori, Shinsaibashi and Amemura, Osaka’s nightlife is truly mesmerising. You might find yourself coming back to Namba, as we did, each night before heading to your accommodation.

Day 2: Meeting deers in Nara

Nara Park, Todaiji

After a long day in Osaka, choosing a day trip that’s too far may take a toll on your stamina. Nara is a great follow-up to the previous day’s exciting affairs. Approximately a relaxed hour away from Osaka, Nara is best known for its wild deers freely roaming around the streets. This is because of their sacred status as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion.

Nara Park

Left: Just hanging out with Bambi at Nara Park; Right: Kofukuji temple is a great stop prior to heading to the great Todaiji

Upon arriving at Nara station, merch and cartoonish versions of deer displays will already greet you. The streets leading up to the deer park are also lined with Bambi-esque paraphernalia, from face towels to key chains to biscuits that are perfect for either enjoying or for taking home as a souvenir. However, the main highlight is actually approaching the park, where the well-cared-for woodland creatures are spoiled by both tourists and locals alike, feeding them ‘deer biscuits’ made from hay and grass. Nara's resident forest celebrities are also not elusive to the human touch, so getting a photo or two of petting them isn't at all a hardship.

Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple

Still, Nara is not just about the deers. It’s also home to one of Japan’s most significant historical landmarks: the Todaiji Temple. History buffs would be thrilled to know that this structure played such a huge role in the Buddhist presence in Japan in the 752 B.C. that the capital of the religion had to be moved from Nara to Nagaoka years later to lower the influence and power of the temple against state affairs. Now, it houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha, measuring up to 15 metres tall.

Day 3: Navigating through Kyoto and Arashiyama

Kiyomizudera, Byodoin Temple, Uji, Sagano Bamboo Forest, Tokugetsu-kyo Bridge

A trip to Kansai is never complete without finding oneself in the grandeur of Japan’s former capital, Kyoto. Home to many of Japan’s most prestigious shrines and temples, this destination will easily hold a place in the hearts of culture geeks because there’s just so much to do and see. This is why I personally dedicate two days for Kyoto alone in this itinerary. 

For this itinerary, the first stop would be the great water temple of Kyoto, Kiyomizudera. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has vast grounds that provide a great view of Kyoto from its wooden stage. It is also well-known for the Otowa Waterfall found at the base of the temple, which has three streams that are said to provide different benefits: one for longevity, one for success, and one for love. Drinking from all three though is discouraged because it signifies greed. 


Left: Kiyomizudera's roof is under-maintenance until March 2020 but the main pavilion is still open for guests; Right: People are lining up to drink from the streams

From one majestic site to the next, we move on to another heritage site in the Uji district, the Byodoin Temple. This beautiful structure was formerly a retreat villa for the political clan Fujiwara before it became a temple that holds the Phoenix Hall in the 10th century. Now, it is featured at the back of the ten yen.

Byodoin Temple

Byodoin Temple

For matcha lovers, Uji is also known for having superior tea across the region. Most of the stalls offer exquisite matcha delicacies you can’t find outside of this city. Matcha gyoza and matcha ramen are definite must-tries.

Uji District

Uji, the Matcha district

After a hearty matcha-themed meal at Uji, it’s off to Sagano Bamboo Forest. One of the most recognisable spots in any Kyoto travel itinerary (often referred to as Arashiyama Bamboo Groves), the huge stalks of greens in this location provide a great contrast to the brightly coloured shrines and temples in Kyoto. A quick stroll definitely soothes the mind and body as it’s also a great way to spend some downtime after a lot of exploring around the heritage sites previously visited.


Left: The refreshing greens of Arashiyama Bamboo Forest; Right: Ending the day at Tokugetsu-kyo Bridge

To continue the serene vibe captured around the Bamboo Forest, it’s best to end the day at Tokugetsu-kyo Bridge. The 155-metre bridge stretched over the Katsura River, which can be reached by either train or bus from the Forest, provides a great scenic location for watching the sunset. It’s also stationed near a bus stop that has routes back to Gion-machi, which is our starting point for going back to our temporary residence in Osaka.

Day 4: More of Kyoto’s must-see sights 

Kinkakuji, Fushimi Inari, Gion-machi 

Kicking off day four is a morning at Kinkakuji in Kyoto, also known as the Golden Pavilion. Looking mesmerising against the pond it resides upon (therefore giving the illusion of floating), this temple, which is a former residence of a shogun, is covered in gold leaves that give it a glinting colour. The place can be pretty crowded in the afternoon so it is ideal to visit the place early in the morning to be able to move around the pavilions surrounding the garden more freely.

Kinkakuji Kinkakuji, The Golden Pavilion

Next, head off to the famous Fushimi Inari which is approximately one hour away via train. Known for its hundreds of vivid orange torii gates lined against one another, this destination is the head shrine of Inari, the god of rice and agriculture. Each torii gate was installed as a symbol of thanks to the god for every successful harvest during the 8th century. The shrine is also lined with fox statues with keys to their mouths, symbolising the protector assigned by the god to take watch of the granaries. I ended up accidentally dressing in colour coordination with the torii gates during my visit, making for a complementing photo (I suggest you give it a try, too).

Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari

Walking around Fushimi Inari is a long hike, especially if you wish to reach the peak, so we decided to spend the rest of the day at the relaxing yet exciting Gion-machi. Known as the geisha district, the streets of this town are filled with a lot of eateries and tea-houses to rest in. We were also able to catch a maiko (geisha-in-training) performance at a nearby theatre. It was rather by chance, though, that we were able to see the posting for the event. So keep an eye out for announcements whenever you visit the district or look it up prior to actually visiting.

Gion district

Gion district

Day 5: Geeking out at USJ

What better way to end one last full day in Kansai than to head to Universal Studios Japan? After days of exploring traditional sites and sceneries, USJ is great for taking in the more modern take on the culture with a mix of Western and mainstream touches. One of the main attractions for Potterheads is, of course, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Drink some butterbeer, buy HP merch, and just bask in the glory of the Hogwarts Castle replica. It’s worth noting, though, that almost all attractions in USJ are still in Japanese so expect to hear Dumbledore and the rest of the Golden Trio speaking like anime during the castle tour. This goes for all the other interactive activities in the park.

Wizarding World Of Harry Potter

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in USJ

Personally, I didn’t really mind it as much as I can understand a bit of Nihonggo and the visual cues for most of the attractions pretty much still give an immersive experience despite the language barrier. But it’s still worth thinking about if you’re very particular about dialogues when visiting theme parks.

Cool Japan USJ

Right: Of course, I had to pose dramatically in front of the Shingeki No Kyojin installation; Left: A Detective Conan-inspired drink 

I was lucky enough to visit USJ multiple times when their Cool Japan exhibits were still up because as a huge otaku (J-pop-culture geek), it definitely felt like paradise. My favourite activities were posing against the full-sized replica of Shingeki No Kyojin’s Armoured Titan, as well as catching attractions related to Sailor Moon, Final Fantasy, Evangelion, and more. The collaboration between USJ and Cool Japan came to a close August of this year. But there's still good news ahead because it has been reported that Super Nintendo World is set to be a permanent attraction in USJ come 2020.

Ending the day on a high note, we headed once again to Namba to do some last-minute shopping before hitting the airport the next day. Don Quijote, a well-known merchandise chain all over Japan, has a massive branch in Dotonbori; it's where I got most of my haul of KitKats and beauty products to take home.

Day 6: Having some fun at KIX

Kansai International Airport

Kansai International Airport

Heading home after such an exciting trip can feel like a downer. But Kansai International Airport will definitely send you off feeling happy. Aside from a lineup of gachapons (capsule toys) in one section of the airport that you can use your loose change on, there’s also a Pokemon merch store that’ll tempt you to spend your remaining yen on a Pikachu clad in a pilot uniform.

Overall, Kansai is a wide region that has a lot of exciting experiences to offer. While there are still a lot of places explore, whether renowned or off-the-beaten track, these initial recommendations will surely leave a mark on your cultural curiosity over Japan’s heritage.

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