By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

The hardest part about early morning international flights is often the cold, yet somehow just the thought of leaving Harbin makes us feel warmer. Our flight with China Southern (not heard of them? They’re actually the 4th largest airline in the world!) lands in Osaka, Japan just after midday.

Now, “lands in Osaka” is somewhat misleading – Kansai International Airport is actually an artificial island inside Osaka Bay. Completed in 1994, engineers excavated 21 million cubic metres (27 million cubic yards) of soil from three separate mountains to create this international hub. (And they did a fantastic job – it’s already survived an earthquake and a typhoon.)

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Japan can be an overwhelming destination if you don’t come prepared. Thankfully, we’re under the watchful eye of Leah, a tours and activities expert for travel.com.au, and a former resident of this enticing archipelago. Minutes later, we on the airport train ‘Nankai Limited Express’ for the 45 minutes (7 stop) trip to Nipponbashi.

Better know by its local name ‘Den Den Town’, Nipponbashi is like 1980s Japan on steroids. Every electronic need you may have can be met here (and feel free to bargain with the vendors), and with districts shifting from gadgets to anime and eventually fashion, Den Den Town can be seen as a cultural immersion first and a shopping opportunity second.

Of course, Japan’s cultural heritage owes more to the samurai than to manga. Leah navigates us onto the subway for the six minute journey from Namba Station to Tanimachi (changing at Honmachi half way through). It’s Osaka, not Tokyo, so we don’t have to be squeezed into the carriages by guards.

We come back into daylight in the metaphorical shadow of Osaka Castle. From this location Hideyoshi Toyotomi unified Japan, but when the Shogunate later moved to Tokyo the region lost power – the original main tower was destroyed along with the Toyotomi family in the Summer War of Osaka in 1615. The current main tower may be twentieth century, but the artefacts and emotional history it displays are far older; so too are the immense gardens (106 Hectares / 250 acres of them) which boast cherry blossoms and 95 kinds of apricot flowers in the spring, while the highlight of our winter wander is the Great Stone Wall on the inner moat.

The brooding Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle and the Great Stone Wall. Photo by Joop Dorresteijn, CC Licensed.

Evening calls, so we head back to Dotonbori for food and neon wonderment. This is not Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, as the Glico Running Man (“a postwar symbol of Japan emerging as an economic power”, says Leah) indicates. We could walk for hours taking in the neon signs of Ebisubashi and the madness of Dotonbori Arcade, powered only by takoyaki octopus balls (or maybe a stop at one of the many izakaya, where good and drink are often served in equal quantities).

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba. Photo by yeowatzup. CC License.

But our mind turns to Saturday. An hour east of Osaka by train, Nara is the cradle of Japanese civilisation and home to the UNESCO listed Todai-ji complex. We’ve seen some overwhelming temples on our everydaydream holiday so far – but nothing prepares us for the 500 tonne, 15 metre high ‘Big Buddha’.

Daibutsu, Naro

That is a big buddha. Photo by David Offf, CC License.

You can look closely and observe the combination of periods that make up the Daibutsu – a head from the Edo period, while the hands are much older, all housed in a 300 year old hall that until 1998 was the world’s largest wooden building. If you do observe changes forced by earthquakes and fires, then be mindful of this quote from the Buddha himself:

When I was a young man, near the beginning of my life, I looked around with true mindfulness and saw that all things are subject to decay. Thus all things are subject to death, sorrow and suffering. I became aware that I too was of the same nature, the nature of beginning and end.

Too much spirituality? Then go and enjoy watching the Sika Deer which freely roam the temple gardens, before we take another train journey north to Kyoto. Once here, we head for dinner in the Gion – Kyoto’s main restaurant, shopping … and geisha (geiko, in the local dialect) hub.

An authentic geisha experience is exclusive, no dream holiday or wallet size will gain you access to the Ichiriki Ochaya, for example. While a tourist geisha experience is now an option, the thought of paying a premium to eat and watch in a tourist trap is the antithesis of our everydaydream holiday. So instead, we wander down Shirakawa Canal, select a restaurant full of locals, and enjoy some genuine Japanese cuisine (while also keeping an eye on the street for any geisha who may walk past).

See a Geisha in Kyoto

Please – if you see a Geisha in Kyoto, be respectful. Photo by This Particular Greg, CC License

Sunday dawns with a promise of comfortable shoes and quality photo equipment. We head two stations back towards Nara for the amazing 4 kilometre (6 mile) meander around Fushimi Inari. The only photographic subject more Japanese than cherry blossom has to be the red gates, and today we will see hundreds of them – large and small, isolated, and built together to created shaded paths that lead to the various shrines on this site.

Red gate Fushimi Inari

One Red Gate. Photo by Daa Nell, CC License

Many red gates Fushimi Inari

MANY Red Gates! Photo by SteFou, CC License

What an amazing weekend in Japan … and we still have Monday to see more!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Japan’s rail and subway infrastructure is superb – and clearly colour coded, even if you can’t read kanji or kana.
  • A quick rule of thumb – you can divide Yen by 100 (just remove the last two zeroes, so 3000 becomes 30) to give you an approximate amount in US Dollars. The exchange rate isn’t quite that bad (unless you buy currency at the airport!), but you try dividing everything by 89!
  • Shinto and Buddhism are the two most common religions in Japan, although (by western comparison) both are more ‘harmonious ways of living’ than an orthodox dogma.
  • Here’s a link to a collection of real Buddha quotes – but if you’re looking for laughs, go to the home page and explore their fake Buddha quotes!
  • Want a glimpse inside the madness of Osaka (and Leah)? Enjoy this personal video she took on her most recent trip to Japan (when she wasn’t dragging around hundreds of everydaydreamers).

Which part of Japan’s diverse culture interests you the most? What would you like us to do in Kyoto on Monday? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.