I apologize for the delay in this post everyone! Poor health and a far-too-old laptop (I’m waiting to pull the trigger on the Microsoft Surface Pro 5 as soon as it debuts) make for an awful combination, but I’m so excited to share my Japan Photo Diary of Osaka and Kyoto with you all finally!
When the hubby and I began the new year, one of our resolutions was to travel more. In our past adventures, we explored the more traditional destinations such as Paris, Rome, and Santorini, but always within a comfortable distance as we both hate long flights. But this time, the allure of Japan beckoned us. 15 hour flights be darned, we decided to fly across the world and spend nearly three weeks in the beautiful Land of the Rising Sun. Starting from the western Kansai region, we began our journey in Osaka and traveled to Kyoto, two cities so geographically close yet all the more unique in their own cultural flair and character.
:: 3 Days in Osaka ::
An afternoon spent exploring the Osaka Castle area.
Afternoon lunch at Ichiran Ramen.
The main tower at the Shitennoji Temple.
The Sorihashi Bridge that leads into the Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine.
Fugu and sea bream over rice at Yotaro Honten.
The view of Osaka from the Floating Garden Observatory of the Umeda Sky Building.
A luxurious late-afternoon massage at The Ritz-Carlton Osaka Spa, which uses only luxury ESPA products.
A late night meal at the famous Mizuno Okonomiyaki.
Our walk to Takama through the Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street, the longest indoor shopping arcade in Japan.
An early lunch soba set at Michelin-starred Takama.
A special “Strawberry Collection” Afternoon Dessert Buffet at The Ritz-Carlton Osaka, available through May 31st, 2017.
Hotel: The Ritz-Carlton Osaka was our first and only choice for our stay in Osaka. Located within walking distance of the Osaka Station and multiple subway stations, it was ideal to get to after a long flight and easily accessible during our stay. The hotel is not only beautiful, decorated in the style of an ornate 18th-century Georgian-style home with beautiful crystal chandeliers and Persian rugs, but it also feels like you’re just at home, no doubt thanks to the amazing hospitality by the team there. With 6 dining options, a boutique shop, gourmet patisserie, and flower shop all on-site, you have everything you might need without even stepping outside the hotel doors. Of all the hotels Matt and I have stayed in so far, we have never felt as welcome and at home as we did at The Ritz-Carlton Osaka. When you find yourself in a foreign country with a huge language barrier, this type of accommodation can make all the difference in the experience. When it came to making reservations or helping us navigate our way throughout the city, The Ritz-Carlton Osaka never failed us once, and we highly recommend it to anyone looking to stay in Osaka for their first time. Special tip: if you visit before May 31st, 2017, make sure to take part in their “Strawberry Collection” afternoon dessert bar with an assortment of sweet and savory strawberry desserts, designed by fashion designer and Chef Oriana Tirabassi.
- For Osaka-style tempura, make sure to check out two-Michelin starred Yotaro-Honten. This unassuming restaurant is 95 years old and now run by Chef Touru Ohira, the third-generation in his family to do so. This style of tempura is made with salt and cottonseed-oil, which is much lighter and less greasy tasting than normal tempura prepared in vegetable or sesame oil. Every piece is made table-side when you opt for the set menu, and as promised each piece has a clean finish on the palate. The Sea Bream in rice is a must-have as well.
- For a late-night meal, head to the famous Mizuno Okonomiyaki for Osaka-style okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) in the Dotonbori Area. The lines outside can attest to the quality and popularity among locals and tourists alike. The restaurant is small with limited seating, but don’t worry- the line moves quickly and the wait is well worth it.
- If ramen is more your thing, head to Ichiran Ramen right next door. An introvert’s dream, you can potentially enjoy a bowl of ramen here without talking to anybody during your visit. Here you can customize your ramen selection via a vending machine, choose a solitary booth to sit in, and be handed your food through an opening. Not only is the experience unique, but their ramen is also considered some of the best in the world. For those in NYC, you can now experience Ichiran at their Brooklyn outpost, although prices are more than double that of what you may find in Japan.
- Michelin-starred Takama is small homey restaurant located in north Osaka and known for their hand-made Jyuwari soba. With two dining tables seating only 10, it’s imperative that you make a reservation. They close when their soba sells out so make sure to go sooner in the day than later! My personal recommendation: the duck-broth soba set- you won’t regret it.
Other Tips: Spend an afternoon or a late night in Dotonbori, a large down-town area housing countless restaurants, arcades, shops and more. This area is also home to the famous Glico Running Man Sign. This advertisement is by none other than the famous Pocky manufacturer and has endured for over 70 years. This simple sign of a man running to victory is a favorite for locals celebrating sports victories and has become a symbol for success. For unobstructed views of Osaka from high above, the Floating Gardens of the Umeda Sky Building offer the best views of Osaka from the 39th floor. Sites such as the Osaka Castle (don’t miss the green tea ice creams in front of the castle), the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, and Shitennoji Temple are also beautiful attractions rich in history and religious influence.
:: 4 Days in Kyoto ::
The exterior of the Hyotei Annex, where you can reserve breakfast.
A morning visit to the Zenrin-ji Temple.
A pause along the Philosopher’s Walk.
An afternoon visit to the Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavillion Temple, UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The only Pierre Hermé in Kyoto is located inside The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.
The 10,000 Torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
The hills of the preserved historical district Higashiyama.
One of the best kaiseiki meals we enjoyed at Giro Giro Hitoshina.
Morning caffeine fix at % Arabica on the banks of the Ōi River.
Geishas shuffling between teahouses in the Gion district.
Beautifully designed interiors back at The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto. The design concept is based on five Japanese words/ feelings: Utage (festive), Seido (serenity and movement), Miyabi (elegance), Hana (splendid), and Nagomi (harmony).
A quick visit to CLAM Coffee Sarasa, well worth the detour.
A final dinner in Kyoto at Sumibi Torito for chicken yakitori.
Hotel: Given the amazing experience during our stay in Osaka, Matt and I opted for The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto during the second leg of our journey in the Kansai region. This property sits on the Kamogawa river and many of their rooms and suites, ours included, offers sweeping views of the riverbanks and the Higashiyama mountains- a beautiful sight to wake up to and enjoy a sun-drenched breakfast beside floor-to-ceiling windows. What we loved about this property was the refined balance between the traditional Japanese influences and modern touches such as all the latest technological appliances, automated room controls, and luxurious suite facilities. Overall, the Kyoto hotel felt like a more modern sister to its Osaka counterpart in the Kansai region. We didn’t encounter as many staff as we did during our stay in Osaka and feel this might be well suited for perhaps those on business or couples who enjoy their privacy. Nonetheless, it was one of the best properties we have stayed in and look forward to returning.
- One of our most memorable breakfasts (besides the amazing spreads provided by The Ritz-Carlton properties) was at a three-Michelin starred restaurant called Hyotei. While we couldn’t make it for a full kaiseki lunch or dinner, thankfully Hyotei also serves a phenomenal set breakfast menu. We opted for the Torigayu chicken rice porridge set, which was so filling that we were able to last well past lunchtime without an additional meal. If you can’t secure a reservation for lunch or dinner (unless you do so well in advance), breakfast here is the next best option and not to be missed.
- Giro Giro Hitoshina is a small but famous restaurant on the banks of the Takase Canal. With an outpost in Paris, Giro Giro is one of the best kaiseki restaurants offering innovative fusion Japanese fare. The atmosphere is as lively as the food is good. This is definitely what you might call hipster kaiseki- oxymoronic as that may be.
- On our final night in Kyoto, the weather turned for the worse, and we experienced torrential downpour. Despite this, we trekked out to Sumibi Torito and tuns out, it was well worth it. We simply couldn’t leave Kyoto without trying yakitori or skewers, and Sumibi served up some of the best. This place focuses primarily on various parts of the chicken, so try everything on the menu as portions are bite-size as is typical with yakitori.
- For coffee lovers, CLAMP Coffee Sarasa is a joy. With freshly in-house roasted beans, they really know their coffee. The location may be confusing as it’s located at the end of a small alley, but keep going and you’ll find a beautifully rustic cafe and delicious coffee paired with simple pastries. For your early morning hike in Arashiyama, head to the % Arabica outpost by the Ōi River. This coffee shop as well as its parent location in Higashiyama boasts one of the most beautifully designed cafes that draw people in for the interior alone. Of course, the coffee is exceptional as well, especially with latte-art world champion Junichi Yamaguchi at the helm.
Other Tips: Typical sights such as the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inari should not be missed, not to mention the numerous historically-rich spots such as the Philosopher’s Walk and countless temples. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove feels other-worldly, with bamboo stalks surrounding you and filling the place with an ethereal and serene light. For photography enthusiasts, go at sunrise and make sure to bring a tripod as you’ll need to shoot at a lower shutter speed given the deceptively low levels of light. After this, cross the bridge over the Ōi River and visit the Iwatayama Monkey Park. Here you can view the area from high above and feed the wild monkeys. Make sure to visit Fushimi Inari’s 10,000 Torii Gates as well. Not only are they Japan’s number one tourist destination, but it is also a revered shrine for all who come to purchase Torii gates to appeal for good fortune, especially businessmen. The entire circuit to the mountain top takes approximately 2-3 hours round trip so comfortable shoes are of the utmost importance. Other notable areas to visit include Gion, where you may see geishas shuffling between tea houses; Higashiyama, a historical district around the Kiyomizudera Temple; and the various UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Kinkakuji Pavilion, one of the most awe-inspiring sights we’ve come across in our travels.
The sunrise from our room at The Ritz-Carlton Osaka.
Final Tips: Coming from NYC where you can get by on a single credit card, we were surprised to find that Japan is such a cash-centric country. Make sure to always keep cash on you, preferably in a change purse. When using public transportation, never throw away your subway tickets as you will need them to exit stations. Further, fares are based on expected distance traveled, and if you travel further or less than what the original fare was purchased for, you may always get a fare adjustment before exiting the final station. Finally, make any restaurant reservations well in advance (think 30-60 days). Michelin-starred and other elite restaurants usually only accept reservations from hotel concierge or from prior visitors who can refer you. Japan also has the most restrictive reservation policies, with hefty late or cancellation fees, so arriving on time is imperative.
When we set out for this trip, we knew so little of what to expect in Japan besides preconceived notions of what Tokyo may be like. What we found visiting the Kansai region was a fantastic balance between the modern infrastructure and city life offered in Osaka and the beautiful, cultural richness of Kyoto. We regret not taking more photos due to the cold (we booked the trip when forecasts read 60 degrees, but turns out the temperature was just like that of frigid NYC) but are nonetheless very grateful for the experience. Next time we’ll make sure to visit during spring in time for the cherry blossoms 🙂
If you have any other questions or tips, make sure to leave them in the comments. As always, thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed!
A big thank you for The Ritz-Carlton properties in Osaka and Kyoto for such incredible accommodations during our stay. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Learn more here: The Ritz-Carlton Osaka and The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.