Dated – April, 2014
Cherry Blossoms or Sakura season in Japan. Put it down on your list right away. Japan is a beautiful country in every season, but this one particular season is spectacular. Not just how pretty and pink everything is around this time, but there is an infectious happy vibe that catches on real quick.
Thanks to Air Asia, return tickets from Chennai to Osaka was about 26k INR. Most of my travel plans start with an impulsive ticket purchase at a weird hour of the night. The impulsive bit is mostly S, and not me. But then, I get convinced easy. 🙂 Cheap tickets were available only in the last week of March, and not first week of April (peak cherry blossom season). We booked any which way and did regret a little bit, the first few days. On hindsight, I think it was a good trade-off.
Our itinerary – Osaka -> Nara -> Kyoto -> Hiroshima -> Mt. Fuji -> Tokyo -> Osaka
Japanese visa is easy peasy. Took about 3 days, not many documents and the cost of visa was 600 INR. I always end up judging a place by its visa procedures. And Japan was already on my good side. The only other thing which you must do before entering Japan is book the Japan Rail Pass. You cannot order it once you are in Japan and it is an absolute essential as a tourist there. The Shinkansen bullet trains make long distance travel ridiculously easy. The train maps are super tough to read. We used to just go to the JR Pass counters and ask the officers to write down the train timing and platform. By far, the easiest way to figure your way around. Oh remember to reserve a seat during peak travel seasons. Doesn’t cost a dime and makes life much simpler. All trains run with a few non-reserved coaches, just in case you miss reservations.
Okay so we reached Osaka about 9 in the morning. Our JR pass was valid for 7 days, so we needed another pass to get us through the first two days. Now, there are a crazy number of travel passes in Japan. So much so that you wouldn’t know what to pick. We picked the Kansai Thru Pass and it was perfect for getting around Osaka (3800 yen for 2 days). Included travel to Nara, Koyasan, all local travel within Osaka (except JR line).
With that sorted out, we left for the Bonsai Guesthouse. Well located, comfy and well recommended. Dumped our stuff there, picked up maps and left for Koyasan. This is a small religious town on top of a mountain. Before leaving for Koyasan, we had packed a sushi bento (Japanese box lunches) from Takashimaya. It took us almost two hours to reach Koyasan. Changed trains twice, then a cable car and finally a bus later, we reached the very empty and sleepy town. While on our way up, it had started snowing. By the time we were walking around the town, there was sunshine and fresh snow. Pretty as a picture!
We took the graveyard trail to Okunoin. As ominous as that sounds, that graveyard was really beautiful. It is also the largest graveyard in Japan, with almost 200,000 tombstones. There was rarely a soul. It was absolutely quiet, with sun rays filtering in through the trees. The snow was powdery fresh and pristine white. If not for the brain freezing cold, the walk would have been an extremely pleasant one. We walked till the prayer hall, then gave up in the cold and sat in the bus stop praying for the bus. The packed bento was put to use here. Note to self – Cold food on cold days is a bad bad idea. That half an hour spent at the bus stop felt like an eternity. We could finally feel our toes and fingers once on the train back to Osaka. I think that trip was when we truly fell in love with Japanese trains. I’ll tell you why. The trains were lined with heaters under the seats so that we could keep our feet warm. You know how big a blessing that can be!
We spent the evening in bustling Dotonbori area in Osaka. One of the most happening places in town. Perfect for street food, awesome restaurants, shopping, drinking and just walking around. Every one there seemed happy high and loitering from one end to another. Now, on the main streets of Dotonbori, pubs/clubs are not very visible. Yet, everyone looked drunk. Like an open secret that we weren’t aware of. Koyasan had left us spent, so we settled for local food and a light drink. We stopped at Rikuro’s for their absolutely brilliant cheesecakes, which they serve fresh out of the oven. Packed it for later consumption. Then, we went to a Takoyaki stall. Takoyaki stalls are present everywhere in Japan. Essentially, they are balls made of a white batter with octopus pieces and some veggies thrown in for good measure. Then they keep rolling it till it is brown from outside and gooey inside. Then, they sprinkle it with dried flaky tuna and serve it with a sauce. Extremely yum! This was also the first place in Japan where we realized that we need to know our way with chopsticks to eat street food in Japan. We asked for forks and got perplexed frowns from the owner. Finally, they managed to dish out a spoon. That place also had highball on tap. So, that was the drink for the evening. By the time, we reached back to the hostel, Sri had arrived and was predictably fast asleep. We ate an obnoxious chunk of the cheesecake and dozed off.
The next day was going to be a busy one. The day’s plan was to go feed the deer in Nara. Nara is a small town about two hours from Osaka; very famous for its temples and extremely polite deer. Probably one of those places where Japanese families take their kids over weekends. It was unimaginably crowded. The entire town can be covered on foot. The information centre at the station helps you mark a walking path on the map. Very helpful, till the point when our map was duly eaten up by the friendly deer! We started off with the Kofukuji Temple. Almost everyone was making a beeline for the Nara Park and Todaiji Temple. We followed suit and bought crackers (150 yen for a packet of 8-10 crackers) to feed the deer. Now, to figure how to make the deer bow takes a while. First few attempts, we just got scared and gave up the entire packet the moment we were surrounded by the deers. They can be quite persistent you know. The moment they see crackers, they surround you and start nudging you. Then, after a while, S did not give in and held on to the cracker. And lo and behold, all of them started bowing (and nudging). Looks simple but anyone who knows me, knows how comfortable I am with animals of any kind. After many attempts and a horribly funny video, I did get a few to bow! Congratulatory nod to self. 😛 Todaiji temple was super crowded and we ran out of patience and time. So we walked around it and then sat for a while in the plum garden, which was surprisingly empty.
Next was Sumo Wrestling in Osaka. We had booked tickets over a month back, yet the finals tickets were all sold out. We got tickets for the semi finals Arena C for about 4000 yen. This sport is hugely famous and those wrestlers are like rockstars in Japan. The ticket allows you to see all matches for the day, but the important ones happen only after 3 pm. The energy in the gymnasium was electric. Thousands of people. Asahi beer was doing the rounds everywhere. We saw about 12 matches. Each match lasts barely 30 seconds, but the build up to the match is intense. Throwing the powder, thumping their legs, staring down your opponents and that fraction of a second when they charge at each other. During one of the bigger matches, after the match was over, the entire crowd threw in their seat cushions! Because that’s what they do in Japanese sumo matches. 😀 If you ever get a chance, this must be there on your itinerary.
This evening was again spent in Dotonbori. This time we went to Daruma to try their very famous Kashikatsu. We were looking for this place the previous day as well, but then we went with the assumption that shop names would be written in English. Nothing is. It is all Japanese out there. So, we looked up the mascot for the restaurant and found it! Kashikatsu are deep fried skewers of almost anything (meat, veggies, garlic etc.). Daruma is famous for its dipping sauce where you can’t dip twice. We ordered a ton of stuff and scallop kashikatsu was the best. We ordered hot sake too. One sip of that and I knew this drink was not going to be on my favourite list. It was like drinking hot vodka! After a lot of walking around, we did find a small local pub. My biggest memory from that place was this really really creepy guy with weird teeth and a creepy smile. He just kept poking his head in our conversations through the evening! And the place was so small, it was kinda hard to avoid him. He completely took away the high of the excellent Japanese whiskey we were sipping on!
That night, Dipa also reached Osaka. Till now, there was no sign of cherry blossoms. News was that it should start off in a few days in different parts of Japan. So, we hoped and crossed our fingers. Next day, we left for Kyoto.