Japan Itinerary Part I: Osaka, Kyoto & Nara
Go to Japan. Japan is one of the few places where as soon as I left, felt a desire to immediately plan a trip back. It has everything to offer for the perfect vacation - a bit of history, gorgeous scenery, incredible shopping and in my opinion, the most delicious food on the planet. Raise your hand if you love sushi 🙋!
Throughout the month of April and into early May, Japan's cherry trees are in full bloom. This is called sakura, and I was lucky enough to be able to visit at the start of the season. In total, I spent a full week in Japan but wish I had at least 2 weeks. In this post, I'm sharing with you detailed itineraries for the first three magical days of my trip and tips to plan your own.
Itinerary at a Glance
I spent my first three days in Japan exploring Osaka, Kyoto & Nara. I was in Beijing for a work trip the week before, so was able to save money by flying directly to Osaka and then taking the train to Tokyo where I caught a return flight a week later. Keep your eye out for my Tokyo post coming soon!
Day 1: Kyoto - temples, geishas & a dreamy bamboo forest
Day 2: Osaka - where your foodie & shopping dreams come true
Day 3: Nara - a quaint town with gorgeous cherry blossoms & wild deer friends
Day 4-7: Tokyo - coming soon!
What to see by day
Day 1: Explore the Temples of Kyoto, Take a Foodie Tour & Sing Karaoke
Kyoto is the former capital of Japan, known for it's Buddhist temples, gardens, palaces and traditional wooden homes. I couldn't wait to see the iconic Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine and had been craving sushi since I landed. While we only had one day in Kyoto, I recommend spending two so you can explore even more than I was able to.
+ Take the JR train by 9am from Shin Osaka station to the Inari station in Kyoto. I recommend leaving even earlier if you want to beat the crowds!
+ Spend an hour or so exploring the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. You'll know this shrine from pictures of its bright orange gates that line the grounds. There are said to be over 10,000 gates total and entrance is free. I recommend spending at least an hour and walking towards the back of the shrine where there are less tourists.
+ From here, jump back on the local train to the Arishayama Bamboo Grove, which took a little over a half hour. Grab a pork bun and some iced coffee from a food stand on your way in and join the crowd walking through the towering forest of bamboo. If you want to avoid the crowds, I'd recommend coming here first and arriving as early at 7am for the perfect pictures.
+ For lunch, take a cab to Sushi Sei. It was by far the best sushi I ate my entire week in Japan. The cab cost should be less than $10 USD and we hailed it right on the street. I highly recommend making a trip here.
+ After lunch, venture over to the Gion district, famous for Geisha sightings. Start at the Yasaka Shrine, which is free to visit. There were rows of street food, so pick up some mochi stuffed with fresh strawberries and walk through more bright orange shrines.
+ Head onto Shiju Avenue and walk down Hanami-Koji Street, which is lined with traditional wooden machiya merchant houses.
+ After exploring Gion, take the train back to Osaka and have dinner. We took the train straight to the Temma Station for an Evening Foodie Walk that we booked through Airbnb. There were 8 guests total, and we went to three different "tachinomi" standing restaurants. In Japanese, Tachi means standing and nomi means drink. We weren't told what we were eating until after the fact and I ended up trying whale sashimi. We also had friend quail eggs that were delicious. I highly recommend checking out Airbnb's experiences and this one in particular!
+ After the Foodie tour, our host invited the entire group of 8 Airbnb guests to a whiskey tasting at Bar Alba, a lounge close to the Temma station. After a flight of whiskey, we had made friends with our fellow guests and decided to go to a karaoke bar, a very popular activity in Japan. There happened to be one right across from the station, and we sang Justin Bieber and Shania Twain into the early morning hours. When in Japan, you must sing karaoke!
Day 2: Stroll Orange Street & Visit the Osaka Castle
Osaka is the third largest city in Japan and is best known for it's incredible food and night life. After getting a taste of that nightlife during my Karaoke adventures, I decided to sleep in a bit and explore Osaka on my second day.
+ Jump on the train to the JR Namba Station and walk to Orange Street, a hipster area in Osaka that is full of adorable cafes and "I want everything" stores.
+ Grab a coffee at LiLo Coffee Roasters & a pastry at Westwood Bakers.
+ Stroll the streets and stop in the many gorgeous stores. There was one incredible second-hand store called Pour Mademoiselle that had an entire wall of vintage Chanel bags. I almost died.
+ When you get hungry, stop at Sushi Kaiba for the second sushi meal of the trip. There were a lot of locals there and the service was quick and friendly.
+ After lunch, hop back on the train to head to Osaka Castle. There are lines of sakura (cherry blossoms) of all different colors and we stopped for a while to smell the flowers and take some pictures. While we didn't go into Osaka Castle, there were great views from the outside and we ate some matcha ice cream.
+ To end your day, explore the Tenjinbashisuji shopping street, the longest covered shopping street in all of Japan. It has vibrant local stores and lots of restaurants.
+ For dinner we stopped at Sodaisho Ramen, which is located on a side street from Tenjinbashisuji.
Day 3: Visit Deer in Nara & Head to Tokyo
Nara happens to also be a former capital of Japan, and is famous for temples, shrines and wild deer that roam the streets of this quaint little town. The deer are sacred in Japan, and therefore allowed to roam the streets and even enter some stores. Interacting with them was really fun and I highly recommend making a day trip to Nara!
+ Pack up your things and check out of your accommodation in the morning. Make your way to the Osaka station and take a train to Nara. I recommend leaving Osaka around 9am to make sure you have enough time. The train ride takes just about an hour and you should buy a one way ticket so that you can take a train directly to Tokyo after. Bring your luggage with you!
+ When you arrive in Nara, there will be large lockers where you can leave your luggage. It's genius, and costs just about $6. Head up the stairs to the Nara fountain, make a right and you'll soon spot a bunch of wild deer roaming the streets.
+ Buy crackers from a street vendors and walk into the Nara-koen park to feed the deer. I've read blog posts that say the deer can be aggressive, but I didn't experience this at all. The deer will bow to you to ask for crackers, follow you around, but are generally friendly. Spend some time exploring this park and make some deer friends!
+ After the park, stroll the back streets of Nara and stop at Antique & Zakka Je êt Nous to buy a deer souvenir. I bought a gold antler ring to bring home.
+ Have lunch at Maguro-Koya which specializes in tuna. It fits just about 20 people in a super cramped space and is run by a husband and wife.
+ Around 1pm, we headed to Tokyo to continue our adventures through Japan. Post coming soon!
Where & What to Eat
If I had to choose one type of cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would hands down be Japanese food. I tasted the best sushi I've ever had, slurped up some incredible ramen, and ate mochi at least once a day. Below I'm listing the restaurants I recommend in Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara as well as a list of food you have to try when you're in Japan. I'll share more restaurants located in Tokyo in an upcoming post.
Sushi Sei, Kyoto
Eat all the sushi at Sushi Sei. This was by far my favorite meal of the entire trip, and that's saying something. Sushi rolls are actually not common in Japan, so you'll want to opt for nigiri if you want rice. Check out my tips below for recommendations on how to order sushi in Japan. The total cost with green tea came to less than $25 USD a person.
10 Toriko, Osaka
When we first arrived at our Airbnb, it was late at night and we were starving! Luckily, we stumbled upon 10 Toriko and had an incredible meal of Yakitori and some friend noodles. Yakitori is a Japanese type of skewered chicken and it's absolutely delicious. The fried noodles had bonito flakes on them and it looked like our food was dancing when it arrived at the table.
LiLo Coffee Roasters, Osaka
We passed this cute coffee shop on the way to our shopping day on Orange Street. I highly recommend stopping in to grab a coffee.
Westwood Bakers, Osaka
If you're feeling like a pastry or missing home, this bakery makes you feel as if you're back in California. I usually stick with local flavors, but sometimes you just need a taste of home.
Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street, Osaka
There are a lot of restaurants and food stands lining this large shopping street. I stopped for some fresh mochi but this is a great place to look for food too.
Sushi Kaiba, Osaka
This is also close to Orange Street, and serves some delicious sushi. I recommend the miso as well as my favorites - salmon, tuna and yellow-tail. This lunch cost only $15 USD per person
This ramen spot was super small and you had to pay at a vending machine before the owner/chef/only employee I could see whipped you up some fresh ramen. I ordered the miso ramen with an egg and an Asahi beer. The total cost was just about $10 USD.
This tiny restaurant is run by a husband and wife and pretty much only serves tuna. Stop here for lunch and order sake, miso, edamame and tuna.
TBP's list of what you MUST eat in Japan
Japan is famous for it's sushi. It takes 10 years to become a sushi chef and they take their art very seriously. I recommend trying the Otoro or fatty tuna sushi while in Japan. Check out our tips below on sushi eating etiquette.
Disclaimer: This is not Top Ramen noodles from the microwave. Japanese ramen is a combination of wheat noodles in a meat broth and flavored with soy sauce or miso. It is usually served with pork and other toppings and I always recommend adding a soft boiled egg to it.
While I didn't eat Udon during my first three days in Japan, it was the first meal I ate when I arrived in Tokyo. I'll share more about it in my next post, but Udon is made with a thicker and softer wheat noodle.
Yakitori is a type of skewered chicken. There's an entire street in Tokyo referred to as Yakitori alley (also piss alley but that's a story for another time).
Fried Quail Eggs
This was not something I expected to eat in Japan, but Osaka had some incredible street food and I was able to try friend quail eggs. They are usually served with three tiny eggs on a skewer.
I can't imagine life without mochi. I first learned what mochi was while eating mochi ice cream out of a box from Trader Joes. Now that I've visited Japan, mochi means something entirely different. It is a dessert and usually filled with a red bean paste. There is also matcha mochi, which I highly recommend.
Matcha flavored everything
Matcha is a type of green tea that is said to have great health benefits. It also tastes really good. I recommend trying matcha mochi and matcha ice cream. Oh, and don't miss out on drinking the real matcha tea!
Where to Stay
I had only a few weeks to book my trip to Japan and started by looking for Airbnb listings in both Kyoto and Tokyo. After searching for an accommodation in Downtown Kyoto for a couple of days, I realized I was not going to find the place I was looking for. It was cherry blossom season and Kyoto is a very popular place to stay. The listings I found were either too far away from the downtown area, or were way out of my price range.
I chatted with a few friends for Japan recommendations, and the common theme was that Osaka is very under-rated. One of my coworkers told me she liked it better than even Tokyo! Considering Osaka is only a short train ride from Kyoto and about an hour from Nara, I decided to check out the listings that were available. I ended up staying in this apartment. I picked it because it was only a few blocks from a station that was just one stop from Shin Osaka, which I would need to go to for my day trips to Kyoto and Nara.
While I wish we were able to stay at least a night or two in Kyoto, I'm so glad we were able to explore Osaka as well.
TBP Insider Tips
> Throughout our time in Japan, our Airbnb hosts gave us "pocket wifi" and it was a life saver! I highly recommend renting one from the airport if you aren't offered one with your accommodation. There are stands near the taxi stations that you can rent them from.
> If you want to start in Osaka like I did, you can fly straight into the Kansai International Airport located in Osaka. On a fast train, you can get from Osaka to Tokyo in about 2.5 hours.
> Japan is a very developed country, so you can rely on using your credit card and taking cash out at an ATM. The currency in Japan is called Japaneses Yen and the conversion rate at the time of this post is 1USD = 109.89JPY.
> Depending on your itinerary, it is probably a good idea to buy the JR Rail pass which can be used all over Japan. I didn't buy it myself and while the amount of money I spent on trains in the week may have been a little less than what the 7 day JR Rail pass costs, the convenience of having one pass that you can use for almost all of your transportation will save you some precious time and confusion as you try to buy tickets at every station. I'm embarrassed to admit I got on the wrong train more than once!
> The train system in Japan is very reliable and you don't need to book your train ahead of time.
> If you do need to buy tickets at a train station and are an English speaker, always look for the "English" button first. It took me a while to catch on to that, but once I figured it out, buying tickets was a lot easier. On some machines you have to put the money in first and others you pay after selecting the ticket. I used cash to purchase but most ticketing machines take cards as well.
> Ordering sushi and eating sushi is an art in Japan. My go-to order always includes salmon (sake), maguro or otoro (types of tuna) as well as yellow-tail (Hamachi). Check out this list of Japanese sushi item terms to help you with your orders.
> Another sushi tip for you: eat the sushi from light to dark, and do not dip it directly into the soy sauce. Usually, sushi is served as it is meant to be eaten. If you do want to add some soy sauce, dip a piece of ginger into the sauce and brush it onto the sushi so you don't overpower the taste.
> Did you know that most sake (Japanese wine) is supposed to be served cold? It is often warmed up because the quality is poor so the heat masks the taste. When you order sake, ask for ginjo. Ginjo means that the sake is higher milled and therefore better quality.
> If I had more time in Japan, I would have spent another day or two exploring Kyoto, at least one more day in Osaka and a full week in Tokyo. I would also have booked a night or two at an Onsen, which is a natural hot spring that exists in Japan due to the active volcanos located there. This is definitely on my list next time I visit, and I plan to go to one of the Onsen's on this list.