Our journey to Nara, Kyoto, and Kobe
20.02.2011 - 26.03.2011 12 °C
After spending almost a week in Tokyo, Jacq, Jesse and Jesse’s mom decided to use their one week JR (Japan Rail) passes and hop on the Shinkansen (the bullet train) to head south and visit Nara, Kyoto and Kobe.
We left from Tokyo station in the morning and got on board one of the bullet trains called Hikari (which literally translates to “light” in Japanese). Once on board we hardly noticed as the train smoothly accelerated us to a top speed of 285 km/h.
Within 2 and half hours we had travelled approximately 500 km to Kyoto station, a trip that by car would easily take well over 6 and half hours!
Once in Kyoto, we decided to grab lunch at one of the many restaurants housed in the most architecturally impressive station we’ve ever been to. The JR Kyoto Station Building (aside from being an actual train station) also includes a luxury hotel, an 11 floor department store, museum, musical theater, and a vast underground shopping mall.
We couldn’t wait until we would be returning to this station to fully explore it and the amazing city of Kyoto, but for now we made our way up to the 11th floor and grabbed some lunch - ramen noodles and chicken karage. Placing our order was definitely unlike anything we’d ever done before – using what looked like a vending machine, we made our selections and then got in line for a table.
Once seated, our meals were timed perfectly to arrive minutes after we’d sat down. Afterwards, we decided to grab a coffee and stumbled upon a place called the Kobe Coffee Club, where they can make you a cappuccino with almost any kind of design on it!
After lunch and coffee, we were finally off to Nara, just a short 30 mins from Kyoto station. This small city of about 370,000 people, was once the Capital City of Japan from the year 710 to 784. Today, 1300 years later, many temples, shrines and ruins still stand and together with the Kasugayama Primeval Forest they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site collectively known as "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara".
We arrived in Nara in the evening and made our way to the hotel, which didn’t take very long as it was directly connected to the Nara JR station. Once we checked in the first thing we did was head downstairs to the Onsen (Japanese Bath and Hot Tubs)! This was Jacqueline’s first time to a Japanese onsen, but she quickly fell in love with them! Conveniently the onsen is open from 5:30 pm until 7 am the next morning so you can go almost anytime you like!
The next morning, we woke up and set out to explore the city.
We visited many ancient shrines and temples including the famous Tōdai-ji temple which houses a giant Buddha inside.
During our walk through the temples we came across the famous Nara Deer.
These guys make their way down from the mountains when the weather is nice – fully aware that people will be there to feed them.
Needless to say these are the friendliest deer you’ll ever come across and if you’re holding the special rice crackers used to feed them – they will follow you wherever you go!
They are also the only deer in the world that will actually bow to you!
Besides the ancient temples and shrines, the city is full of small streets rich with history and culture and full of things to see and explore.
Among them we stumbled upon an ancient house constructed during the Edo period. During this time, houses were taxed based on the amount of space the front of the house took up. As a result, many houses built during this period appear small in the front but actually extend far back. Typical to the architecture of the time this house includes drawers underneath the staircase to maximize space and an enclosed zen garden.
We also came across a unique tea shop, which still used a tea grinder from the 1940’s. The entire shop smelled amazing – and we ended up going back twice to get tea from there!
Of course we couldn’t leave Nara without trying some of their food and sweets. One of our favourites was a cute tea shop where we tried their matcha cake and apple pie – delish!
We arrived at the beautiful Kyoto station once more and made our way to our hotel – which was conveniently located in the station! We stayed at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, a beautiful and ordinarily very expensive hotel, but we were able to get a great deal with our JR passes!
Of course, we spent that entire day checking out all of the shopping around the station – from dessert and cookie shops, to clothing stores, to stationary – it’s all conveniently located within steps from our hotel (perhaps too conveniently!!)
For dinner that evening, we decided to get some take out for dinner. Head to a restaurant? Don’t need too – on the bottom level of every department store in Japan is a grocery store/food market, where you can find all kinds of delicious things to eat. Sushi it was and we brought it back up to our rooms!
The next day, we met Jesse’s cousin Aina and her husband Naogi - who took the day off to spend the day with us and show us around Kyoto! We first headed to a tofu restaurant located on the banks of the Kamo (Duck) river.
The restaurant was a typical Japanese style house, which was converted into a restaurant. We had lunch upstairs, in a room overlooking the river and of course sat on cushions for the meal! Given it was a tofu restaurant, almost everything was made out of tofu – including the tofu ice cream we had for dessert!
Next we headed to the Kiyomizu Temple. On our way, we strolled through a typical Kyoto street, checked out a few of the shops and tried Japanese cream puffs.
Once we arrived, we passed through the enormous red gates to the temple, where it contained some beautifully lit lanterns.
We also checked out this famous fountain at the Kiyomizu Temple, where it is said that it is a golden holy water, and if you drink the water you’ll have a longer life.
After all of the walking and shopping we were famished – so we were on a hunt to find ramen for dinner!
Unfortunately, the restaurant we had in mind was closed that day, but we didn’t realize it until we got there! On our mission to find a different ramen shop, we bumped into a real live Geisha and asked if we could take her picture! She agreed – only because she was crossing the street and had to wait for the light.
Amazing – we saw a real Maiko ( A young Geisha in training) in Kyoto!
The next morning we made our way to the famous Golden Temple, which is literally a temple that is painted with real gold!
On our route to our next temple, we stopped in at a Japanese wood block art gallery – where Jesse was able to actually do an art print!
We also stopped at the Ryoanji Temple, which is famous for the rock garden. This zen garden consists of only 15 rocks and white gravel. The longer you stare at the rock garden, the more your mind will come up with ideas on what it signifies. It was a very interesting experience and very peaceful.
That afternoon, we headed to a food market in Kyoto.
This place was amazing – from sauces, to fresh seafood (including these weird looking octopuses) to pickled Japanese vegetables.
The next day we headed to Kobe, but we couldn’t resist buying Bento Box lunches from Kyoto station for our lunch!
The final stop on our Japan rail trip was Kobe - a port city which, much like Vancouver, is surrounded by mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.
After arriving at our hotel, we set out to explore the downtown including Chinatown and a 1.5 km long shopping arcade!
While doing so, we also managed to stumble upon some awesome bakeries. Kobe is famous for many of their pastry shops including Japanese roll cakes which are made of a light fluffy cake and have a spiral of icing in the centre. Here’s a picture to give you a better idea.
After spending a couple hours walking around we began to work up an appetite and Jesse had already come up with a plan for dinner – we would trying Kobe beef!
Thanks to an awesome foodie magazine, Jesse’s mom purchased in Kyoto, we had an opportunity to scout out what looked like a good restaurant. To our surprise, the restaurant turned out to be even cooler than we had expected. The place was located on the 9th floor over-looking the city and it was actually Tepanyaki style - which means they cook all the food right in front of you over a large grill and they also do a bit of a show at the same time.
The Kobe steak dinner which includes a 10 oz Kobe steak, soup, appetizers, and dessert starts at approx $150 CDN. Although it was the most expensive steak Jesse’s ever ordered, he claims it is the best steak he’s ever had.
Meanwhile, Jacq and Jesse’s mom less-expensive, Japanese beef steak dinners, were also incredible and we all enjoyed the show they put on which included lighting our steaks on fire and flipping things into their chef hats.
Sitting right besides us were 4 girls out celebrating one of their friend’s birthdays. The playful chefs decided to give them some fun costumes to put on while the birthday girl blew out the candles on her cake!
By the end of the dinner we were stuffed and so we decided to try and walk some of the food by walking back to our hotel. On the way back, we passed by the Kobe tower which was illuminated and the beautiful view across the harbour!
The next morning, before heading back to Tokyo we spent the morning at the harbourfront which is called Mosaic – full of more shopping and food stores.
Here we picked up a few last items including matcha latte mix, 20 layer cake and stopped back at a pastry shop to have the famous roll cake!
Overall our trip to Japan was amazing! We had such an incredible time travelling and learning about the history and culture of some Japan’s oldest cities and visiting with Jesse’s family. We also thoroughly enjoyed the shopping and eating (which we did plenty of)!
With so many cities and islands to explore, we are already discussing plans for a return trip back including a ski trip to Hokkaido, but will have to save more money first!