~ / Brian Norlander / travel /
Kansai, Spring 2019

Visiting Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka from April 28 to May 06, 2019.

Every year during the end of April, Japan has a cluster of holidays called Golden Week. In 2019, the stars aligned and the dates of the holidays combined with the enthronement of the new emperor, Emperor Naruhito, to create a 10 day long holiday.

During my first Golden Week in Japan I took my first trip outside of Tokyo using the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto, then using local trains to Nara and Osaka before finally flying back to Tokyo. I saw many beautiful temples and ate a lot of delicious food along the way.


Before I came to Japan I was excited about riding the bullet train. It runs at 320km/h and is punctual down to the second. It is extremely comfortable, safe and efficient. Although I could have easily slept on the train I spent most of the time looking out the window at the beautiful Japanese countryside and was even able to see Mt. Fuji.

The trip from Shin-Yokohama station near Tokyo to Kyoto Station took a little under 2 hours.

Shinkansen at Shin-Yokohama Station
Japanese countryside


Kyoto was formerly the capital of Japan before the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869 during the Meiji Restoration. Today Kyoto hosts many extravagant temples and simple shrines which are surrounded by a beautiful landscape and much traditional Japanese architecture. The city has a relatively small population compared to Japan's other large cities and is limited in how high buildings can be built to preserve views of the natural beauty surrounding the city. The location of the old capital was chosen partially because it is surrounded on three sides by mountains, a natural defense against invading armies.

Kyoto Station
The 10th floor of Kyoto station is all ramen restaurants.

The next morning we headed to Arashiyama, which is famous for a large bamboo grove and a monkey park on top of a hill that has a great view of Kyoto. The monkeys here are friendly, but don't provoke them!

Arashiyama Station has a Kimono Forest, inspired by the nearby bamboo forest.
The Katsura River, which comes out of the nearby mountains.
View above Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo grove

After leaving Arashiyama we visited some other smaller parks and shrines nearby and then went to Nishiki Market. Kyoto is littered with shrines and temples. Many people who visit Kyoto, and Japan in general, get an overdose of temples and they start to look the same after a while. At this point in the trip each new one was interesting and unique.

I had a slight obsession with the trees in Kyoto. The climate was very wet, everything was covered in moss and since it was the end of April everything was growing so green.
Left: Japanese Curry with tempura and sausage Right: Nishiki Market
Conveyor belt sushi: You pick as many plates as your want off of the conveyor belt until you are satisfied. Then the waiter comes around and counts your plates and you go and pay. Incredible!
Kyoto is known for its matcha flavored things. Match flavored ice cream, sweets, etc. This restaurant had free matcha tea!

One thing I love about Japan is how much effort they put into service and craftsmanship. You can see it in how much effort every worker puts into their job. From a cashier, to a baker to a garden keeper, Japanese workers always provide excellent service and pay attention to detail. I think this is reflected in their society in many great ways. It is most evident in their delicious food, punctual trains, clean streets and finely tuned gardens.

The sushi restaurant above was no exception.

Fushimi Inari Shrine
Each gate was donated to the shrine, even the smaller ones
Dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari's messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds. Fushimi Inari Shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital's move from Nara to Kyoto in 794.

After the long hike through the Fushimi Inari Shrine we were starving. Luckily there was some amazing street food just outside of the shrine! We pigged out on food here and had a great variety of options.

Left: Beef Middle: Cream filled pancake Right: Rice wrapped in beef with cheese
We stumbled upon a guy doing an amazing work of traditional Japanese art
Kyoto Aqueduct
I like all types of trees... I don't discriminate
On the way to Kiyomizu-dera
View on top of Kiyomizu-dera

After a long day of seeing temples we decided to go back to the same sushi place... but this time had about half the amount of sushi as last time.

I was satisfied with the amount of Japanese I was able to use on this trip. For two months I had been dedicating a lot of time and effort to learning Japanese. I was able to communicate very basic things such as ordering food and some small talk about my name, where I'm from, etc.

Kinkakuji temple
Left: It is typical to wash your hands and mouth before entering a temple. Right: Japanese tatami room. Many apartment in Japan are measured in tatami mats, a standard area measure.

After visiting Kinkakuji we walked around Ritsumeikan University before eating lunch at an okonomiyaki restaurant. The restaurant was only open 11:30 - 1:30 5 days a week and had room for maybe 10 customers. The man and woman who ran the restaurant had incredible teamwork while cooking in their tiny kitchen. It looked like they were married and lived upstairs. The service was exceptional. This was one of the most fun restaurants I had ever been to, and the okonomiyaki was under 600 Yen ($5.50)!

Left: The owner of the restaurant encouraged us to eat only using this utensil Middle: Elise enjoyed her okonomiyaki! Right: Okonomiyaki - Japanese pancake consisting of batter and cabbage with octopus!


The next leg of our trip was in Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan until 794 when it was moved to Kyoto. Nara is a lot smaller than Kyoto, and has an older style of temples. It is easy to see all Nara has to offer in one day.

After taking a 40min local train from Kyoto Station to Nara Station it was already after dark. We decided to walk to a couple large temples nearby and then get some conveyor belt sushi... again. This time was at a popular chain family restaurant called Kura.

Kura Sushi

Up next is a barrage of images from a large garden. Most pictures will be from the traditional Japanese garden, moss garden and flower garden. Enjoy!

Big Buddha temple
Nara is common for the deer that freely roam around the area. Many stalls nearby sold deer food. I thought the deer wanted to be friends with me but all they were interested in was if I had food or not...
I absolutely loved hiking in the mountains here
Looking north towards Kyoto. The weather was beautiful that day.
Wysteria tree


I couldn't stop taking pictures of the flowers. They were everywhere. It was spring in Japan and the flowers were in full bloom. Here is some of the pictures I took of them.


Osaka is the second biggest city in Japan. It is known for it's many delicious street foods as well as many canals. It also has an awesome castle soaked in medieval Japanese history, a stunning cityscape, and the usual Japanese parks and gardens.

Osaka Castle
Left: Osaka Castle moat Right: Plum garden
View on top of Osaka Castle
Uncle Rikuro Jiggly Cheesecake
Osaka cityscape
On top of the Umeda Sky Building
Umeda Station was massive, and deep within the station we found a restaurant that served soba noodles and tempura.
Oska has been an important port for Japan for hundreds of years
HEP FIVE Ferris Wheel
At night the city was also stunning

Next was Dotonbori, a massive area with street food and entertainment. This area was street food heaven and probably the best place on earth for eating takoyaki.

Left: Takoyaki - batter filled with diced octopus, tempura scraps and pickled ginger in a molded pan then brushed with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise and sprinkled with green laver (aonori) and shavings of dried fish. Right: Nikuman (pork bun) - I could have eaten these for every meal. Inside was onion and pork and the bun had a slight sweetness to it.
Osaka is a huge port and bring in a lot of seafood
The canal that runs through the middle of Dotonbori
Left: Match cream puff Right: Cookie cream puff
Kushikatsu - fried meat or vegetable on a stick
Near Umeda Station, the 4th largest train station in the world

As of 2013, only 6 of the 51 busiest train stations in the world were in Japan. Umeda Station in Osaka is the 4th busiest in the world. This train station was a labyrinth of train platforms, 7-11s, food courts, shopping, and endless streams of people. We got lost every time we entered this beast.

Just like that my 9 day trip was over. I am just starting to get a feel for all of what Japan has to offer and am excited to explore it this coming summer. I am already planning weekend trips around Japan and thinking of other cities I want to go to. This country is so dense in culture, I won't be bored anytime soon.

Tokyo welcomes me back

/ Travel