Five days in Japan and we were already into our 3rd city. We used the Japan Rail Pass to get to Kyoto. Kyoto is more like Japan's cultural capital. It has a rich history as compared to other places in Japan with a particular culture and character. Numerous temples, streets tinted with the colours of kimonos and traditional Japanese cuisine are just some of the things make up this popular city. We spent three days here and even managed to snag in a bit of Nara. Clearly three days are not enough if you want to see each and every thing here, however, its good enough to see some major ones. Oh! And just to be clear - April in Kyoto is packed with tourists ... probably because of the cherry blossom season. Its impossible not to have photo-bombers unless you wake up at 6am!
At first, we even had trouble finding a hotel here as most of them were full. To our luck, Hotel Hokke Club Kyoto popped up on Agoda one fine day and it was just a 2 minute walk from the main railway station. Pretty awesome eh? If you intend on spending three days in Kyoto, make sure you tick these places off your list:
1) Sanjusangendo Temple - This temple dates back to the 13th century and is well-known for its 1001 life size statues of Kannon - the Buddhist goddess of mercy. We walked into a narrow, long hall filled with statues covered in gold leaf. Each of them had a different face and 40 arms. They say that if you look hard enough, you'll will find your face on one of the status! There's a fee to enter and photography is prohibited inside.
2) Fushimi Inari Shrine - A Shinto shrine lined with thousands of bright orange Torii gates. Be prepared to be mesmerized by rows and rows of gates as far as the eye can see! Ridiculously crowded during noon though.Don't expect to be the only person in your photo. There are a lot of food stalls around the temple.
3) Arashiyama Bamboo Forest - Unlike any other forest, this one is lined with thick bamboo trees. The air is cool and the sun peeks through the lush forest. Visit early to avoid crowds.
4) Kyoto Station - Here's one station every tourist would probably pass through but would never go around discovering it. It has a very futuristic design and is especially beautiful at night. Besides an underground shopping mall, this station has a skyway and an observatory deck thats free to enter. Another interesting thing is their long staircase with 171 steps studded with 15,000 LEDs that creates amazing lights shows for each season. We witnessed a cherry blossom show.
5) Kyoto Tower - A long tower with an observation deck situated right next to our hotel. It looked beautiful at night. We were happy to admire it from the outside.
6) Gion - An old district lined with traditional style houses, tea-houses and shops. Gion is also one of Kyoto's main geisha districts. However, I didn't spot any !
7) Yasaka Shrine - So, we visited most of the temples during the day. By the time we reached this one, it was past sunset and we didn't want to make a second trip. This shrine is located close to Gion district. What I loved most about this place besides the illuminated lanterns was the Maruyama park. This park is popular during cherry blossom season. People were literally dining under hundreds of cherry trees.
8) Nishiki Market - A long, narrow market with more than 130 stores. On the day of our visit, we skipped brekkie so that we could go around sampling different kinds of food. Expect stuff like fried liver and sea cucumber!
9) Higashiyama District - Another popular geisha district in Kyoto with paved slopes decked with restaurants, tea-houses and souvenir shops. I still didn't spot any geisha!
10) To-ji Temple - This was the second 5 storey pagoda that we visited in Japan. It was 1200 years old and looked magnificent at night. There were a few more buildings within the temple grounds, however, we didn't visit them.
CHERRY BLOSSOMS - One of my favourite spots to view cherry trees in Kyoto was Maruyama park. It looked gorgeous at night.
Another place we saw them at was Keage Incline ... an old, abandoned railroad track. I'm sure that there are plenty of other places too, and if you have more time in Kyoto you can definitely go around exploring more.
GETTING AROUND - Getting around in Kyoto was relatively easily. We used a mix of subway and trains, and a taxi twice. For the subway, we brought a day pass and for trains we had the JR pass. A day pass works best if you're planning to visit many places on one day. There are buses around Kyoto station to take tourists to all the major sites, however, we didn't use them. Depending on your budget, you can decide what suits you best.
Until next time! x
After our visit to Miyajima, we returned to Hiroshima Station, picked up our bags from the locker and headed to our hotel. We stayed at ANA Crowne Plaza Hiroshima, which was a short walk away from Hiroshima's major sites.
I was looking forward to our Hiroshima visit, because I would finally be putting my history textbook to life! Hiroshima was reduced to rubble on August 6th, 1945 when the US Air Force dropped its first atomic bomb. 30% of its population was wiped out and many were affected. (for those of you who didn't pay attention to your history teacher!)
Not too far from our hotel, was the Peace Memorial Park. We walked through beautiful cherry trees which was once a pile of ash all the way to the Atomic Dome. This dome is probably the only thing that partially survived the bomb. It is now a protected site and serves as a memorial to all those affected by the bomb.
There's a little cafe next to the atomic bomb dome called Cafe Ponte which makes an amazing orange juice!
We also visited the Childrens Peace Memorial Monument, a tower dedicated to the child victims of war and the Cenotaph, an arch shaped structure which proudly declares Hiroshima as a city of peace.
The Peace Memorial Park consists of a Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Memorial Hall. By the time we reached the Peace Memorial Museum, it was closed. This is probably the first place you should visit when you're around the Peace Memorial Area, as it closes around 6pm. It contains details of the event that happened nearly 71 years ago. Such a shame we missed seeing this!
However, we visited the Peace Memorial Hall. A good thing is that all of this is free to enter (except the museum which we missed). Here, we saw names and pictures of people who perished on that fateful day as well as stories from survivors. Its amazing to see a city which was once reduced to ground zero transform into the Hiroshima it is today. The entire visit was just too emotional for me.
Later that evening, we walked around Hiroshima exploring its shopping and dining scene. In Hiroshima, they make they're own kinda Okonomiyaki called the "Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki". Okonomimura - a street named after this Japanese dish is probably the best place to try it out. We kinda went on an eating spree! Seafood in Japan is so much cheaper than Abu Dhabi!
For shopaholics, there's an indoor shopping arcade on Hondori Street from where I managed to snag some cute Japanese toe socks.
After spending 3 days in Osaka, we were off to a new city - Hiroshima. However, before getting out of Hiroshima station, we embarked a short journey to Miyajima - Japan's scenic island. For the sake of convenience, Hiroshima will be a covered in a different post. In reality, we spend one day in both Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Using a Japan Rail Pass : We used the JR ( Japan Rail) Pass to travel around Japan. It covers all the JR bullet & non-bullet trains (except the Nozomi & Mizuho) and in addition to that you can avail many other discounts. Visit their website to know more. We ordered a 7 day pass from their website and it was delivered within 4 days. Once you activate this pass, you can use it for 7 days (consecutive). It was good for us because we didn't intend on making any long journeys after 7 days. Anyway, we activated this pass at Osaka station. To sit on one of the world's fast trains was such an exhilarating experience. They call it Shinkansen in Japan or simply a bullet train. With this pass, you can even reserve your seat for free (make sure you reserve a day in advance so you don't have to wait in line on the day of travel). We opted for the ordinary pass rather than first class and we had enough place and amazing seats! Use Hyperdia to plan your journey.
Once we reached Hiroshima Station, we decided to leave our suitcases at the station before heading to Miyajima. We saved a lot of time this way. The good thing about Japan is that all the stations have lockers ... and they come in various sizes. We left our suitcases at the station, boarded another train (free for us as we had the JR pass) and headed to Miyajimaguchi Station (takes about 25 minutes). From there we boarded a ferry (again free for us because of the pass) and headed to Miyajima (takes about 10 minutes).
Once we reached, we gave ourselves about 3.5 hours to explore the island. Here's how you can explore Miyajima by foot!
1) Take a selfie with a deer! - They're all over Miyajima and they're considered wild. But seriously, they're not that bad. Just be careful with your food, papers, maps, etc.. the deer manages to pull them off from anywhere. One of them came after my ice cream and the other behind Mr. D's map! Its safe to take a selfie with the ones that are sitting down calm and relaxed.
2) Get up close to the Itsukushima Shrine - Here again, you've gotta watch out for the tide. We were lucky that it was low tide and we could actually walk all the way upto this giant floating Torii gate. This shrine is sort of like the pride of this little island.
3) Eat a Miyajima oyster - Miyajima was the first place I devoured an large oyster. And unlike the ones we have in UAE where you eat them raw, these are cooked. And they are so yummy and cheap. They somehow remind me of mussels! You better eat as much as you can here because in Hiroshima they are a bit more expensive.
4) Admire a five storied pagoda - You'll probably find more of these around Japan depending on where you go. This one was 28 meters high and situated on top of a hill. It is said to have been built in the 15th century and combines Japanese and Chinese architectural styles. The cherry blossoms just added to its charm. Make sure you climb up the stairs upto the pagoda area to get a wonderful view of Miyajima.
5) Visit the Daisho-in - A Buddhist temple that leads up to Mt. Misen. This temple is located at the foothill of Mt. Misen and you can go hiking (if you have the time & energy). If you're lazy and short of time (like us), you can walk around the temple and admire the many little Buddha statues near the entrance. Each Buddha has a different expression and is quite a sight.
Walking through this quaint little island was such a joy. There are rows of little shops near the ferry dock that sell souvenirs, ice cream, ornaments, socks and other knick-knacks. Some of the houses and shops on this island are centuries old and will transport you back to the good ol' days. If you have more time, its worth strolling around. Sadly, we had to leave for Hiroshima. However, we did manage to tick off the main stuff on our list!
Gone are those days when I used to book an entire holiday package from a travel agent. Travelling often has made me so wiser and I've learnt to save money. When you travel with a big group, you have to stick to a particular agenda and a meal plan ... which for me is just out of the question. And if you want an exclusive private tour, you have to pay a fortune! So, why not take help from the internet and make an agenda that suits you. That's exactly what we did, and now I'm saving you the trouble by making one for you! You're welcome!
Getting from Osaka Kansai Airport to the City Centre - There are a number of ways to reach the city from Osaka Airport. Obviously the most convenient way is taxi, but you have to pay. We caught the Nankai Rapi:t (takes about 35 minutes to Namba Station) and from there we had our hotel bus wait for us. We stayed at the ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka. Namba is well connected to other areas of Osaka, so even if we had to take the subway from there it would take us around 15 minutes. The Nankai Rapi:t train tickets can be purchased at the Nankai ticket office in the airport.
Getting around Osaka - We managed to get around Osaka using subway. We purchased a day pass for each day at the vending mention in the station. There's a JR Loop line where the subway pass is not valid. Some of the attractions lie on the JR Loop line, so we paid as we went. If you have a JR train pass (for inter-city travel), you can travel on this line for free. We had the pass, but didn't activate it until 3 days later.
We spent a little over 48 hours in Osaka, but those extra hours do not count as we arrived around 9pm. Here's what we did in 48 hours.
1) Umeda Sky Building - An unusual looking skyscraper with a floating garden and an observatory. This building comprises of two towers with a structure suspended in between. You have to pay to visit, but its totally worth it. The view from the top is amazing. You can see the entire city.
2) Shitenno-ji temple - Temples are to Japan what churches are to Europe. There are just so many of them, so its good to plan in advance where you wanna go. Shitenno-ji is Japan's oldest Buddhist temple. Within the temple grounds, they have a number of little buildings. I personally loved the turtle pond filled with little turtles and the cherry trees.
3) Osaka Castle - This was one of my favourite castles in Japan. On the castle grounds, people were pick-nicking, dancing ... the whole place was bustling with life. We had to walk a couple of steep slopes to get to the top ... where the castle actually was. But it was so worth it. We didnt enter the castle but rather enjoyed its view and the little food stalls on the outside. If you are there during cherry blossom season, try out the Sakura ice cream.
4) Universal Studios - We visited Universal Studios only for butter beer! We missed having this in Orlando and couldn't bear the thought of leaving Osaka without trying it. We made some time late in the afternoon and popped in. If theme parks are not your thing, you could skip this. Many of the rides had like a 120 minute waiting time ... which was ridiculous! Only towards the end of the day, the timings were reduced to 30 minutes or so and we got to try some of them. Atleast my wish of drinking butter beer was fulfilled :D.
5) Dotonburi - The home of the famous Glico man ... a neon lit board with an image of a ... well... a running man and a giant moving crab. We spent our evenings here on both the days because it had all the action. And not to forget, it looks amazing at night with neon lights everywhere ... kinda reminded me of Times Square. Moreover, the dining options are endless.
6) Tsūtenkaku - An iconic tower in the middle of Shinsekai with an observatory. You have to pay a fee to visit. We were happy to admire it from the outside.
7) Shinsekai - Osaka's retro looking entertainment area filled with shops and restaurants.
8) Shinsaibashi - A long indoor shopping arcade that looks like its built under an arc. The shops here sell everything from clothes to electronics, souvenirs to musical instruments, and much more. This is a shopper's paradise to be precise. For a change, I didn't buy anything! If you walk all the way to the end you reach Dotonburi.
9) Cherry Blossoms - We visited Japan during cherry blossom season and we got enough and more! The best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka is the Kema Sakuranomiya Park. This park has nearly 5000 cherry trees, and you basically walk under them. I cannot even begin to tell you what an amazing experience that was!
Other nice places to see them are Osaka castle and Expo 70 Commemorative Park (we didn't enter this park, just saw a bit from the outside).
As you can see, we covered quite a lot on our own in two days. Once you get a hang of the Osaka metro system, getting around is a breeze! Most of the attractions are around a metro stop.
Next up is - Miyajima! Stay tuned x
Mr. D and I usually plan our holidays in advance. At the end of each year, we sit down and count the number of holidays we have the following year and where we should go. I have to admit ... Japan was not part of 2016's holiday plan. Two months prior to visiting Japan, Mr. D told me that he wanted to be in Japan during Sakura (cherry blossom). And just like that, WE WERE OFF TO JAPAN!
Our 16 day trip to The Land of the Rising Sun started off in Osaka and ended in Tokyo. I personally know a lot of people who have Japan on their bucket-list, its just that we got to tick ours off sooner. Before going into all the deets about each place we visited, I'd like to share with you some things about Japan that really fascinated us.
1) Public Transport Etiquette - How often do you hear the sound of silence on a very busy metro? Everyone was in their own world ... most of them busy on the mobile phones. The only people who were chatting were us (whispering of course). The Japanese are a very disciplined lot, thats for sure.
2) Hi-tech Toilets - You might have heard about Japanese toilets. They take pee and poo to a whole new level! They are not as complicated as you think, trust me, just too futuristic ... like the rest of Japan. Everything is in-built into the commode unit - spray, music ( to muffle nature's sounds so you wont be embarrassed anymore!), the bottom dryer, warm seats, etc.
3) Vending Machines - The Japanese have a vending machine for every damn thing. And they have them everywhere. You do no need to visit a store to buy cup noodles, umbrellas, toys, underwear, hot-dogs and more!
4) Japanese People - In the 16 days that we were there, we didn't see a single grumpy face. They are warm, welcoming and always willing to help. Not everyone might know English, however, we never found that a problem. I remember the time we got lost at the Osaka station ... and a kind Japanese man left his work behind and walked along with us until we reached our destination (even though we insisted we could manage). They are amazing people!
5) No Tipping in Japan - I'm unsure of the number of countries in the world that do not accept tips. However, I don't think that there are many. Japan is one of them. They consider it as an insult. I remember an incident where I almost lost my handbag at a busy, touristy temple in Japan. I carelessly left there and realized it only 45 minutes later. When I return back to the spot, I saw the temple caretakers fold my bag to keep it inside. I was touched, and unfortunately couldn't do anything about it other than shake their hands and thank them a number of times. They are HONEST.
6) Innovative Food and Wacky Restaurants - The Japanese are very innovative when it comes to everything. Let me ask you a question ... what comes to your mind when you think of Japanese food? Sushi? Mochi? Well ... thats just one part of it. When we were in Japan, we ate sea urchins, black vanilla ice creams, gold dusted donuts (real gold!) and many such crazy things.
Some of the restaurants were unlike anything we'd ever heard off - a French maid restaurant, a robot restaurant, onsen restaurant, ninja restaurant, etc.
We only visited the Robot restaurant.
7) Dressing Culture - The Japanese have a unusual sense of style and they are not ashamed to show it ... especially the youth (I'm not talking about the kimono here). You'll see them dressed as different characters - rainbow hair, neon skirts, colourful socks, painted faces, funky boots .... its actually pretty fascinating.
Japan will surprise you in more ways than you think. I have never seen a country like it.
To know what we got upto in Japan, watch out for my future posts or subscribe to receive updates!
Mr. D and I visited Austria two years ago ... however, it was just Salzburg and Innsbruck. This time around, we were so close to Vienna ( like literally 3 hours away in the Czech city of Cesky Krumlov), and we knew that we wanted to spend some time there. We took a private bus from Cesky Krumlov to Vienna and spent 2 days there. We stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson Uno City Vienna, a 4 star property ... not exactly in the heart of Vienna, but pretty close. The nearest train station was a 7 minute walk away. The good thing about Park Inn hotels ( besides the room of course ) are the free breakfasts. It made those early morning walks to the station pretty easy!
Let me warn know, you're gonna to see a lot of Christmas in this post ( Yayy, Christmas came early! ) as we visited Vienna during the holiday season (Okay, I'm SO late!). In case you're visiting now, its probably gonna be the same thing ... minus the Christmas market ... and Santa.. and the frozen red nose! Here's what we did/saw/ate in 2 days:
1) Sachertorte - Vienna is home to this world famous chocolate cake. It was invented by Franz Sacher 180 years ago and is available at Hotel Sacher. We waited in line for nearly half an hour to try this out. I cannot say that it was the best cake I'd ever tasted, but atleast I can tell people I tried it.
2) Rathaus - We were here for one of the biggest Christmas markets in Vienna. The main building here is the Vienna City Hall which looked spectacular at night.
3) St Stephen's Cathedral - Yes, I do have a thing for churches and this wasn't an exception. This was a 12th century Gothic church in the middle of a very busy Stephansplatz. You have to pay to enter certain areas. We just did the free bit. You can even visit the tower and the Catacombs.
4) Karlskirche - One of the most beautiful Baroque style churches I've ever seen ... and yes I've seen many churches and most of them have most or less the same interior. This was so different, for instance - the ceiling was so high. There's an elevator that takes you right to the top. Worth it if you're not afraid of heights. Just in case you don't wanna go up, there's much to admire on the ground level.
5) Belvedere Palace - A historic building in Vienna. You pay a fee to enter inside. Again, we were happy to see it from the outside and nibble on some Christmas market goodies.
6) Schönbrunn Palace - A prominent Baroque style palace in Vienna which we (unfortunately) were forced to see from outside as the queue was pretty long. We headed to the Christmas market around it instead. It looks simple on the outside, however, I think the beauty is inside ... which we missed :(
7) Hundertwasser House - A very ... umm... unique looking apartment building that would make your & my apartment look boring! It was designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Be prepared to take hundred photos at every angle. Visitors are not allowed in ... I wonder why ? This should be on your places to-visit list.
8) Christmas Markets - I know, I know .... Christmas is six months behind us and six months ahead of us. But the main reason we wanted to visit Vienna were the markets. At every teeny weeny corner, we found a market. They even had a Christmas tram with Santa onboard. I did not keep a track of all the markets we visited, but the biggest one was at Rathausplatz. You know what, if you have time, just visit everything. There's something special about every market.
Okay, I have to admit ... our main purpose of visiting Finland was Rovaniemi! Mr. D and I had been planning this trip for over a year now. After seeing 'Visit Rovaniemi's promotional videos on the internet, we knew we had to be be there during the festive season ... especially since " Rovaniemi" is the Official Hometown of Santa Claus! Our dream had finally come true :D
Once we landed, we got exactly what we wanted - "A White Christmas". The moment I saw the board - "Rovaniemi - Santa's Official Home Airport", I was as excited as a little baby who'd just received a new toy! I couldn't believe that this was actually happening.
We caught a mini bus just outside the airport (no pre-booking required) to our hotel in Rovaniemi City Centre. The bus stopped right in front of out hotel. We stayed at the Original Sokos Hotel Vaakuna - a Finnish hotel chain with great rooms. Everything about the hotel pointed out to Santa Claus! The traditional Finnish breakfast was an added bonus!
Here are 10 things you need to do while you're in Rovaniemi :
1) Visit Santa Claus Village - We caught the "Santa's Express" bus just outside the hotel to Santa Claus Village. This bus runs regularly to and from the village and takes about half an hour. We spent most of our time here and got to meet the big man himself. We loved strolling around and even enjoyed traditional Lappish cuisine including a reindeer burger.
2) Meet Santa Claus - Santa Claus sits at his office at Santa Claus Village 365 days a year. And yes we met him. If you like, you can purchase photos and videos conversations you had with him just like we did. It isn't very cheap though!
3) Visit Santa Claus Main Post Office - Also located at Santa Claus Village, you get to see the letters received by Santa from his fans all over the world. You can even order a letter to be sent to your loved ones and meet his elves!
4) Cross the Arctic Circle - Santa Claus Village lies on the Arctic Circle and there's a line with the co-ordinates marked on the ground. When we visited, this line was buried under thick snow. Try throwing some water over it and you might be able to see. Don't forget to take a picture with your legs on either side! If you still cant see it, head indoors and there are markings there as well. You can even get a certificate from Santa Claus Village to prove it.
5) Ride a Reindeer - There's nothing more magical that riding a reindeer on a snowy day in Santa Claus' hometown. Mr. D and I sat all comfy under a reindeer hide on our sleigh while our reindeer Assa took us for an hour long ride all through the snow clad forests. Don't worry, there's an instructor standing behind you. After the ride, we indulged in some hot wine and cooked our own sausages!
6) Go on a Snowmobile - The Arctic Snowmobile Park is located within Santa Claus Village. Unlike the reindeer, you ride the snowmobile yourself. Mr. D was behind the wheel while I just held on. After changing into a different attire and given a little briefing, we were all set to go. This hour long ride was so much fun.
7) Get your passport stamped - At Santa Claus Village, for just 50 cents, you have an opportunity to get your passport stamped with a stamp of the Arctic Circle. We were lucky to get it stamped for free! How else would anyone know that you've crossed the Arctic Circke?
8) Lose yourself in Lordi's Square - Most of the hotels are located within this square, which also happens to be Rovaniemi's city centre. Walking around was easy ... every though it was freezing! There was a little Christmas market here when we visited. There are also a number of restaurants, shops, shopping centre, tour agencies and a tourist information centre.
9) Visit Rovaniemi Church - We landed near this Church when we were trying to escape the cold. And I just had to get in. It was simple on the inside and beautiful on the outside.
10) Admire The Lumberjacks Candle Bridge - Something that you probably wouldn't miss while strolling around the river in Rovaniemi. This bridge looks beautiful at any time of the day.
We stayed for a total of three days in Rovaniemi and the temperature dropped down to as low at -15C. We got what we wanted though i.e. plenty of snow ... which we don't get in UAE. Sadly, we missed seeing the Northern Lights as the weather was not in our favour. Rovaniemi is not just for kids but for anyone who loves Christmas or are kids at heart. The entire experience was pure magic!
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