Well into my year abroad in Japan, I finally got the chance to wander beyond the Tokyo area and take the night-bus (very cost-effective, but do consider taking the bullet train ‘shinkansen‘, if only for the experience) to two of the most wonderful cities I have ever been to: Kyoto and Osaka. Here is what I recommend you seek out and plan for if you can only go for 48 hours. (Other useful resources also linked to at the end of the article.)
I want to preface this by saying that I have decided to lump the two cities together as they are about one hour apart and, since the Japanese train system is very efficient and inexpensive (less than 4 quid/one way), it’s not that hard to navigate the two. That being said, it also makes sense to navigate the two in one day because Kyoto is a very traditional Japanese town so, sadly, everything tends to be closed by 6PM.If you’re aiming to make the most of your 48 hours, visiting Osaka, a city that prides itself on good food, tasty drinks and a vibrant night-life, is a must.
As always with travelling, deciding how much time to spend in any given place comes down to personal preference. For me, Kyoto is a must-see city that you can easily get the most out of in just a single day. However, someone who at wants to immerse themselves in the overall atmosphere, rent traditional garments and soak in the cultural and religious experience, could easily spend a week there.
Similarly, Osaka is wonderfully inviting with its food, its subculture and how incredibly bright and loud it is at night. So, if you are looking to explore the myriad of food varieties , get mildly intoxicated and share stories with locals, I recommend extending your stay here.
Just make sure that the accommodation you choose fits the intent of your travelling: Japanese trains don’t run past midnight and it’s important to be able to make it home after a night out! I went with a wonderful traditional property in Kyoto that had futons, a wonderful bathtub and free bike rentals that, despite the cold nights, my travelling partners and I took or a spin. Thankfully, it’s hard to go wrong- most booking websites in Japan are very stringent, so almost all places are guaranteed to have something good going for them!
I would suggest a more balanced plan: ‘quiet’ Kyoto by day and ‘lively’ Osaka by night.
Some things to know before you start:
- The subway cards that people use in Tokyo also work in Kyoto and Osaka!
- Most of the signs are also in English so navigation is surprisingly easy. However, you should expect to find more linguistic barriers than in Tokyo.
- You might find food stalls at shrines, temples, etc. so do try them out! A lot of the food is delicious and cheap. My personal favourite were Takoyaki (Octopus Balls) and Konpeito (Sweet Candy).
- If you are out of luck when you visit, make use of the convenience stores that you find – all, and I mean all food at 7/11 and Lawson is great quality. From ready meals that you can heat up in the microwaves (which are often in the stores!), to sandwiches, rice balls and chicken skin on a stick – these convenience stores have it all. And, well, it’s convenient.
- However, Japan is not well-known for being accommodating to those with specific dietary requirements. Among my group of friends, there were people that were vegetarian and vegan, and they had a difficult time with almost everything, as even the broth, and occasionally the sauces, contain some form of animal protein. If you find yourself in this predicament, I highly recommend the app Happy Cow.
- Be mindful of the adverse weather conditions and prepare accordingly! Typhoons, hurricanes and the like do occur in Japan and you might even find yourself in the middle of an earthquake. Summer is either incredibly hot and/or humid and you also need to account for the rainy season.
- Remember that Japan has vastly different holidays which, more often than not, will severely impact your travelling experience. Avoid ‘Golden Week’ – a week most of the country has off in April, as three major holidays occur very close to one another. Also try to avoid New Year’s or Obon (Festival to honour the spirits which happens every August), especially in Kyoto- there tends to be very large crowds at this time of year.
Day 1 – Temples, Castles and The Running Man
- Start in Kyoto. Kyoto is definitely a city that you want to see during the day while everything is still open so head out as early as you can.
- Kiyomizu-Dera. Kyoto’s most visited temple provides panoramic views of the whole town, has a vast history and also is within walking distance from the other items on the list
- Tofukuji-temple. Famous for its autumnal colours, Tofukuji is truly spectacular all times of the year. It also has a tranquil zen garden, perfect for taking it easy before the most difficult task of the day:
- Fushimi-inari. Dedicated to the Shinto god of rice and guarded by fox statues with daggers in their mouths (very, very cool), the temple is also known for the hike to the top of the hill that has you pass through 10000 (!) torii gates – about 12000 steps. I have been told that the view from the top is incredible but I wouldn’t know since I never made it!
- Subway to Kyoto station and refresh. I recommend Kyoto station for refreshments since it has the broadest variety of food (already hard to find) so if you have anyone that has specific food restrictions of any kind – this is the best place to accommodate for that.
- Silver and Gold: Finish Kyoto for the day by visiting the Silver (Gingakuji) and Golden (Kinkakuji) Pavillions respectively. The latter is the most popular tourist spot in Kyoto so make sure to take a photo of yourself in front of it and to post it on your social media with the caption ‘stay golden’ so that everyone is impressed by your cosmopolitan online presence.
- Train to Osaka.
- Evening at the Observatory. Hopefully by now the sun is setting or has already set so that you can enjoy a marvelous view from the Kuchu Teien Observatory. The sky-deck is fantastic and offers a 360 degree view of the city. Just know that it costs 1500 yen and that it might be closed on some days due to severe rain.
- Finish at Dotonbori. Dotonbori is the heart of Osaka’s nightlife and definitely the place to be when rounding off a long day’s travelling. Eat well, drink responsibly and take in the lights!
Day 2 – Go Wild
- Start wherever is closest to your accomodation. For the purpose of this article, the starting point for day two is Osaka.
- Osaka Castle. It is truly worth seeing Japan’s largest castle. There is a staggering amount of detail in its construction and it’s worth looking into in the history museum it hosts on-site.
- Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. I can’t personally vouch for this one, but I have heard that it’s an impressive aquarium. Ideal for children – also note that the ferris wheel is right by so you can spend a bit more time her.
- Refreshments and off to Kyoto again.
- Monkeying around. At the Iwatayama Monkey Park, you can hike to the top for a great view of Kyoto and also befriend the local monkeys. However, owl and cat cafés are controversial due to the treatment of the animals, so feel free to skip it if you feel uncomfortable with supporting a business like this.
- Arashiyama and Tenryu-ji Temple. This bamboo grove is absolutely stunning in real life and is definitely worth a visit. Just bear in mind that the area has a lot of tourists so it might not be the quietest experience.
And that’s it! Decide where to spend the rest of your time, in dynamic Osaka or tranquil Kyoto (but you can’t go wrong with either!). I would also recommend taking time to just wander around. Maybe visit the famous Kyoto Starbucks, politely (!) observe geishas on their way to work or just get let yourself get lost in the neighbourhoods.
Other destinations to consider
- If you are a foodie, going to Kobe is a must, as is trying their special beef! Kobe also boasts pure and crisp sake.
- For animal lovers, it does not get better than feeding the deers in Nara. Just make sure to be careful – they are wonderful but can also be aggressive sometimes, especially as they are free-roaming.
- It’s hard todo in one day, but Universal Studios Osaka is undoubtedly worth a visit. The tickets are pricey, as you expect from a big theme park, and the crowds can get quite ridiculous – especially since Japanese Universal and Disney fans can be quite extreme. Do plan ahead, not just for Universal, but for any theme park visit in Japan – a quick google search will show you a good one-day itinerary, as well as a calendar showing the best times to visit!
Other useful resources
- Lonely Planet – Kyoto
- Kyoto Visitor Guide
- Train Schedules in English
- Apps, Appliances and Misc. for Travelling in Japan
Godspeed, you traveller!