Day 15 – Exploring the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle & the Neon-Lit Streets of Osaka

After a night of soaking in onsen and sleeping in a plush futon, I had one of the best sleeps since coming to Japan. Even the waking up part wasn’t bad, normally I snooze for like at least 30 minutes, because there’s an awesome breakfast to look forward to. I don’t actually eat breakfast in my day to day routine back in Sydney, mainly because I just want to maximise sleeping time and just roll out of bed to leave the house straight away, but also to save money 😅. So it’s always a pleasant experience to be able to eat/afford a decent breakfast when I’m on the road, but today I can confidently say I’m going to have the fanciest breakfast I’ve ever had, kaiseki ryori style.

I’m not actually sure if kaiseki ryori applies to breakfast or it’s exclusive to lunch/dinners, but given how many courses we got I don’t think anyone’s gonna complain if I call it that.

Look at all that stuff!

We did also get an English menu to tell us what all the dishes are, but unfortunately I lost it so we’ll just have to stab in the dark here.

Okay I know the one on the left is ikura or salmon roe, second from the left is natto or fermented soybean, but no clue about the rest

This is definitely grilled fish and a big chunk of ham 😂😂

Preeeeetty sure this is yoghurt

After breakfast we headed up to the rooftop to enjoy Gesshin no Yu, the open air bath that alternates between men and women only each day. From here you can see the vast Lake Biwa, but you probably don’t wanna be out of the onsen for too long because it’s absolutely freezing. I was kinda hoping that if it was gonna be cold, might as well go all the way and snow, but all we got were cloudy weather 😠

Time to leave Otogo Onsen and head back to Kyoto

There’s no doubt I’d recommend a night at a ryokan if you’re in Japan, it’s a quintessential Japanese experience to try out. If you’re planning to splurge on something while you’re in Japan, a night at a mid tier or better ryokan for its onsen and kaiseki ryori is a prime candidate alongside meal of top tier wagyu beef. Even better, come to Yumotokan and you can enjoy all 3 with it’s Ohmi beef offering, the little known cousin of Kobe and Matsuzaka beef that’s just as good. They have an English website that you can book directly through, and it costs about 18,000 yen or around $230 per person including both dinner and breakfast. However, for full disclosure there are a few downsides to my stay here, which may or may not be relevant for you:

  • Location is a bit out of the way, although still quite accessible from Kyoto through a 20 minute train ride and they offer free pick up from Otogoonsen Station
  • I did get a mild bout of food poisoning in the afternoon after checking out, and the only things I ate before that was the kaiseki ryori dinner and breakfast, plus the croquette burger. I’m not necessarily blaming them, just stating this for full disclosure as I said. I have no reason to doubt their commitment to hygiene which Japanese restaurants are very well known for, and Karl ate the same things as I did and he was fine. The breakfast did have some strange dishes I’ve never had before, so it’s possible that my stomach just had a bad reaction to something

Still, I would highly recommend Yumotokan but I think there are pleeeeeenty of good ryokan either in the Kyoto, Arashiyama or at one of the nearby onsen resort towns, so you’ve got plenty of option if you do some research.

After checking out we made our way back to Kyoto, to finish off some remaining sightseeing before we move on to our next city Osaka. Our first stop is Sanjusangendo, yet another Buddhist temple, famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the Godess of Mercy. Kannon is said to have 11 heads to allow her to better witness the suffering of mortals, and 1000 arms to help the mortals with their suffering. However, the statues here will only have 42 arms for practical purposes of course, but if you subtract the 2 regular arms we all have, then multiply by the 25 planes of existence in Buddhism and you’ll get 1000 each. I mean I’m no fan of religion in general, but it’s amazing how much imagination these people had before the internet to make all these stuff up. Sanjusan is the number 33 and gen translates to an old unit of measurement measuring distance between columns in a building, so the temple literally means the “hall with 33 spaces between columns”. That obviously makes Sanjusangendo quite long, in fact at 120m it’s other claim to fame is being the longest wooden building in Japan.

Loooooooooooooooooooooooooo…

…oooooooooooooooooooooooong

You can’t actually film or take photos inside out of respect, so the only way to get an authentic memory if you don’t want to use sleight of hand is to buy one of the official postcards. You’ll just have to take my word that it is actually pretty awesome inside to see rows after rows of man-sized Thousand Arm Kannon statues flanking the giant Thousand Arm Kannon statue in the middle.

Best I could do is Google Images

Despite not being one of the more well known stops in Kyoto, I do think it’s worth a look because it’s quite different from your average Buddhist temple, and if you stay in Kyoto long enough trust me you’re gonna need that. It is a bit expensive to get in at 600 yen, and photography is a bummer. Allow around an hour for this place and if you have time, the Kyoto National Museum is right across the road. I also didn’t even realise at the time that Sanjusangendo was within walking distance from K’s House, just a block further from CoCo Ichibanya when we ate there last time.

Thanks to my detailed planning, a bus just around the corner from Sanjusangendo took us with minimal walking to our next stop, the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It’s a shame we missed out on the tour of the Tokyo Imperial Palace on our last day in Tokyo, but the Kyoto Imperial Palace can be explored without joining a guided tour or any prior arrangements (although English tours are still available). The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the home of the imperial family until 1868, when Emperor Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. The entire complex is surrounded by walls, so it looks quite out of place in the middle of urban Kyoto, although that makes the place really easy to find. I’m not sure how many entrances it has, but we walked along the northern wall an couldn’t find one until turning left onto the western wall and finding an entrance at about half way.

We’re given a visitors badge and allowed in after doing a bag check, free to explore the entire complex, although the interior of all buildings are off limits. Since we didn’t get to see the Tokyo Imperial Palace, I made sure to take extra photos here 😅.

Preserved original gate, very stylish

This is where the royal horse carriage waited

Crane paintings on fusuma

Unfortunately you can’t go inside any of the buildings

This tree is important enough to have its own signpost 😂

A sneak peak into the royal living quarters

Cool roof design

Playground for kenmari, basically a juggling game. I’d be quite good at that 😊

Can’t even get near some of the buildings here

Of course, like any other important place in Japan, the Kyoto Imperial Palace comes with its own immaculately maintained gardens.

The actual palace only takes up about a quarter of the enclosed complex. Another palace complex known as the Sento Imperial Palace takes up another significant chunk, however you need to join a free tour to visit it and it is only conducted in Japanese. Interestingly, I later found out there’s a small branch shrine of the famous Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, standing on the small island of a pond. I wish I knew that in advance so we could’ve checked it about before visiting the real deal :(. The rest of the complex is a basically a public park, and you’ll see plenty of people here for a stroll or even better, walking their dogs.

These doggos are a bit too fluffy for me…

…but man being a dog walker must be so fun 😦

Not a bad place to take a look around, but given it’s relative distance to other attractions in Kyoto, I’d say if you’ve seen the Tokyo Imperial Palace you can probably skip this one, unless you’re a history buff.

Again we were stuck in no-man’s land when it comes to food options 😒. It’s just strange how we keep ending up in areas that aren’t packed with restaurants, I guess I just thought in Japan there’d be a awesome food spot every 5m on the road. After about 20 minutes of walking around aimlessly and getting progressively more hungry, we stumbled across a small 3 story complex with a few restaurants and I decided to just pick one of them. I know I’ve always stressed that since we’re in Japan, we should be eating Japanese food as much as possible, or at the very least not wasting a meal on stuff we can eat back at home. Well that’s exactly what we ended up doing.

Wait a second, that ain’t no Japanese food

We ended up going to a restaurant called Saizeriya, a national chain of family-style Italian diners. They’re known for serving decent Italian food at really budget prices, like budget enough to even shock me. I had no idea such prices were possible in a restaurant in Japan, especially since western food are usually at a premium here. They have a very extensive menu which you can read online, including dishes I’ve never seen before so technically it still counts as trying something new 😁. I guess my knowledge of Italian food is basically non-existent after pizza and pasta. Actually, a better term for some of the food served at Saizeriya is yoshoku, which literally translates to western cuisine, as opposed to washoku or Japanese cuisine. The name is not technically correct, as it more refers to western dishes (not necessarily Italian) that has been adapted for Japanese taste buds. For example, the korokke from convenience stores that I love so much are derived from croquettes, which are French in origin. Nowadays yoshoku has become a staple in the regular Japanese diet thanks to their relatively cheap prices and widespread availability led by popular chains such as Saizeriya.

So I tried my best to order some of the staple yoshoku dishes that I could find off the Saizeriya menu. It didn’t start well, as my love of chicken wings took over, which is definitely not yoshoku. At 299 yen for 5, I have no regrets.

Okay but now sticking to yoshoku, I started with what’s known as a doria. I’ve legit never heard of this dish, ever, and I honestly couldn’t tell what it was. A quick Google search told me it was another French dish, like a rice gratin. Not that I know what a rice gratin is, so this wasn’t helpful at all 😠. So instead I’m gonna go by what I see…

My best description would be rice topped with cheese and then baked. Kinda like an Asian potato bake? 😂😂😂 It was good though, I love cheese and it’s even better when it’s baked. All for a low price of 499 yen.

Next up is a yoshoku staple, one that I’m very familiar with. Everyone loves burgers but the Japanese likes to eat them without the buns. So yes, it’s just a hamburger steak, or known in Japanese as hambagu. You’ll notice that the Japanese likes to just borrow the English pronunciation rather than make up a new word, and the easiest thing to do is just pronounce hamburger using your best Asian accent impression – this is your one chance to do it and not be called a racist 😂.

Not much to say really, just a juicy hamburger steak with an egg, although I must say the potato wedges were horrible compared to the ones you get in Australia. Still, at 399 yen there’s not much to complain about. Oh yeah, you can also pay just 199 yen for a refillable cup, with your choice of unlimited western and/or Japanese soft drinks!

Just when we thought it was over, I realised since this place is so cheap I can actually afford to order desserts! Always a pleasant surprise when you realise you can afford to eat more 😁😁. If you can’t choose between the custard pudding or the tiramisu, just get both as a bundle for 399, and save 50 yen compared to ordering them individually.

I walked into this restaurant a sceptic, thinking what the hell am I doing at a Italian fast food chain restaurant when I’m in Japan. But 4 course meal with unlimited drinks for under $20 has me convinced. If you do come here, make sure to try their yoshoku menu items since I doubt their pizza and pasta are going to be on par with what you can get at an authentic Italian restaurant back home, plus the chicken wings weren’t exactly mind blowing. Otherwise the food quality was actually pretty legit too, I can definitely see why this chain is so popular in Japan, at the risk of me sounding like I’m hired by Saizeriya 😂. Being one of many chains around the country, it doesn’t really matter which one you go, but we stopped by the one in near Imadegawa Station just west of Kyoto Imperial Palace,

And we’re finally here, to see the last historical landmark of Kyoto on our list before we leave town. I’ve lost count of how many shrines and temples we’ve seen so far in Kyoto, but it’s good to end our time here with something different, a castle. Not the type of castle you see in Harry Potter or LoTR however, a Japanese castle. Nijo Castle was constructed in 1603 as the home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period and one of the most well known historical figures in Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate united Japan and ruled it for 250 years, until Emperor Meiji restored imperial rule in the Meiji Restoration. It’s a great example of what castles looked like during Japan’s feudal age, both in terms of its strategic layout and the architecture of its buildings.

Entrance to Nijo Castle

View of Honmaru from above

We enter the castle grounds using a bridge over a moat, which is a ditch dug into the ground that surrounds the castle and filled with water. In Japan this is known as the Honmaru, the first circle of defense for castles, forcing enemy invaders to enter through the bridge making it much easier to concentrate the defensive forces at that choke point. Once you get past the and the stone walls encircling the Honmaru, there’s another smaller moat inside known as the Ninomaru, or the second circle of defense.

Smaller and shorter Ninomaru

Karamon Gate

Only when you pass through the Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru, you’ll reach the main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace.

Ninomaru Palace

The palace, where the shogun stays when he visits Kyoto, is a connection of several buildings all preserved in their original form, including its nightingale floors that are designed to squeak when stepped on as a security measure against assassins.

Even though this is a castle, you still can’t avoid those immaculately maintained gardens that the Japanese people love.

I don’t know what this plant is, or if it is even a real plant, but it has a very disturbing shape…

Once you see it, cannot be unseen…

There’s also another garden within Nijo Castle called the Seiryuen, a half Japanese half western style garden built for cultural events such as tea ceremonies. As usual, it doesn’t look quite as nice in winter but has its own charms.

Finally, there is a relic of of WWII and a testament to nature’s perseverance.

This tree is the offspring of the trees in Hiroshima, which were exposed to nuclear radiation when the atomic bomb exploded a mere 1.3km away

I think it’s best to visit the Nijo Castle with clear expectations, as more of a palace rather than the typical castle you’re probably used to, although those kind of castles do exist in Japan which we will visit soon. It might not make it onto your list if you’re only in Kyoto for a couple of days, but any longer and I think it’s worth checking out.

And with that, our time in Kyoto comes to an end. We gathered our big backpacks which we left at K’s House (100 yen per piece per day for storage) before we went to Yumotokan, and headed over to Kyoto Station to catch a 30 minute train to our next destination, the city of Osaka. A shout out for anyone travelling through Kyoto Station, if you turn right after going through the ticket barrier at the main entrance, there’s a small ekiben shop, but it’s very popular so if you towards the end of the day most stuff are going to be sold out 😔.

So colourful

All the black signs are for items that are sold out

However, I still managed to get my hands on one that I wanted, which was Kyoto-style sushi. It’s more for breakfast tomorrow because the train ride to Osaka is short, so you can find out in the next post how Kyoto-style sushi is different.

Soon we have arrived in the bustling city of Osaka, the second largest city in Japan right behind Tokyo. Even though it’s only a few hours away from Tokyo by the shinkansen, any Osaka native will tell you how different they are from their fellow countrymen in Tokyo. For starters, they speak the Kansai dialect, which is different enough to what you hear in Tokyo to confuse even moderately proficient Japanese speakers. The people in Osaka also consider themselves more hospitable, open-minded and humorous which contributes to the liveliness of the city, compared to their Tokyo neighbours who are your typical city dwellers, seen as more rigid, busy and keep to themselves.

First time travellers to Osaka might get a bit confused by the two major, similarly named stations here, Shin-Osaka Station and Osaka Station.

  • Osaka Station is the main transport hub of the city situated in the Kita (North) district of Osaka, also known as Umeda, where the main business district of the city is. Umeda Station, also a well connected metro station, is right next to it
  • Shin-Osaka Station, meaning new Osaka Station, is further north from Osaka Station just oustide of the city centre, although reachable in under 5 minutes from Osaka Station. It is the main long distance transportation hub of the city, so if you’re coming from Kyoto, Tokyo or any other city by shinkansen, you’re going to arrive here

However, where all the action happens is in neither of these two areas, but at the Minami (South) district of Osaka, also known as Namba. As the city’s main entertainment district, this is the recommended place to stay for tourists, especially backpackers as there are several affordable and high quality hostels around the area. One of them is the hostel I booked, the Osaka Hana Hostel, located a few minutes walk from Shinsaibashi Station, which is on the convenient Midosuji Line connecting both Osaka Station and Shin-Osaka Station. Unfortunately, while there are a few JR-run metro lines in Osaka, Midosuji Line is not one of them so your fares won’t be covered by your JR Pass, but your Passmo or Suica card from Tokyo will work just fine here.

Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures of the hostel, but you can find those online. It’s clean just like all the other hostels I’ve been to thus far in Japan, and a bit cheaper than Tokyo at $30 a night for a 6 bed dorm. Location is awesome, but the downside is that there’s not much in terms of a common area, so nowhere to really hang out and meet fellow travellers. Not that big of a deal since I’m with Karl, and I’ve found that the backpacker culture isn’t nearly as strong in Japan as other Asian countries anyway, even in K’s House with the massive common room there wasn’t much socialising going on.

And that was okay, because the location is so great that in less than 5 minutes you can walk to the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, a sheltered street full of restaurants, shops (both big brands and boutiques) and of course people.

It’s 8 pm and we haven’t eaten anything substantial since lunch time, so we’re running pretty empty by now. Good thing Osaka is nicknamed tekna no daidokoro, or the Nation’s Kitchen, so there’s good food everywhere you go. Along with it’s dialect, Osaka also has a few unique dishes that I’ve researched in advanced and keen to try out. One of them is kushikatsu, more a style of cooking rather than a particular dish, as it basically refers to deep fried skewers of meat or vegetables, with kushi referring to the skewers. As you can probably imagine, what can be skewered and dipped into a a bucket of oil is only limited by your imagination, so the best way to enjoy it is by ordering one of the pre-made set combos rather than trying to figure out which to order a la carte.

Daruma, a well known kushikatsu restaurant in Osaka, can be found right inside Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade.

Kushikatsu Daruma – Shinsaibashi branch (left)

The word daruma actually refers to a type of Japanese doll modelled after the person who founded Zen Buddhism. Their styles vary but they are usually red and have a design rich in symbolism, used in Japan more as a good luck charm rather than a toy. You can often find them at Buddhist temples with both eyes blank, where you choose a goal you want to achieve and paint in the first eye, but only paint in the second eye when you have achieved the goal. Why it became the name of a kushikatsu restaurant? No clue.

daruma doll

Although I’m gonna be honest, after reading a manga called kamisama no iutoori, I can never look at daruma dolls the same way again. Don’t get me wrong it’s an excellent manga of the horror/survival genre and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of a little blood and want to venture outside the typical Naruto or One Piece manga. But just look at this page…if you dare.

Now back to the restaurant, they have a 3 “combo” that you can order off the menu, which is all done through an iPad.

Ganso Kushikatsu Daruma English Combo Menu @ Dotonbori, Osaka

You can choose between 9, 12 or 15 skewers for 1,400, 1,800 or 2,200 yen respectively. So not exactly a budget meal here as the skewers aren’t that big or filling. I chose the 12 skewer combo, because the 9 skewer combo was too small and the 15 skewer combo had extra stuff that didn’t really interest me (e.g. mainly more vegetables), but Karl the big boy went all in on the 15 piece combo. First dish that came was the side dish, for which we chose doteyaki, a beef tendon stew and another Osaka specialty.

What makes Daruma cool is that the kushikatsu are not delivered by a waiter, but by a small train track running alongside all the tables, kinda like at a sushi train.

And there they are, skewers of all sorts of stuff, including beef, pork, quail eggs, and asparagus, all deep fried until its golden.

A small hotplate is also provided, so you can leave your skewers on it while you eat so they stay piping hot.

The way you eat kushikatsu is also unique. On every table there’s a big tub of kushikatsu sauce, which is shared amongst all the customers so double dipping is absolutely not allowed. If you need more sauce after your first dip (which you really shouldn’t), your supposed to use a piece of cabbage and scoop up some sauce instead.

I didn’t enjoy kushikatsu that much. I feel like once they got battered and deep fried, the actual flavour of whatever was inside is kinda overpowered. Also, eating a dozen or so deep fried skewers made me feel a bit sick and given how much we paid compared to how little substantial stuff we got, I think we would have been better off ordering a few sticks individually as a snack rather than allocating a full meal to this.

Re-energised, we carried on exploring the Namba district. The other end of Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade leads directly to Ebisu Bridge in the middle of Dotonbori, the most popular entertainment district in Osaka running along the Dotonbori Canal. It reminds me a lot of Times Square at night, with the streets lit by neon lights everywhere.

From the Ebisu Bridge, you can see the famous Glico Man, a giant sign of a track athlete that is the symbol of the Glico candy company.

An interesting fact is that this is the 6th version of the Glico Man and the first to be using LEDs as opposed to neon lights like the rest of the signs at Dotonbori.

And when in Osaka, one must follow the tourist tradition of doing the Glico Man pose.

An attempt was made…

The main street of Dotonbori just behind the canal is a foodie’s dream, there are so many restaurants and street food stalls you can easily spend a week here trying something different every meal.

We made it!

Omg look at that 10 man serving of fried chicken, fries and edamame (lol)

Only a small glass window separates me and thousands of dollars worth of Kobe beef…

Another fun thing to do is try to spot all the mechanised signs signalling what the restaurant specialises in.

Big fugu for the Zubaraya chain restaurant

Big octopus for a takoyaki stand

We stumbled upon what must be the largest Don Quijote store in Japan. It’s so big it even has what it looks like it’s own Ferris wheel…

That is next level

Also, Dotonbori is kinda similar to Kabukicho back in Tokyo, as there are several host and hostess clubs around the area. If you need a refresher on what those were, you can read my earlier post here. Otherwise, this picture should tell you a thousand words.

Is it me or is half of these guys not very good looking at all…

For budget backpackers like us, Dotonbori is an excellent place to try out Osaka street food. Like this truck that sells a melon pan ice cream sandwich!

That’s some very honest marketing, now I want to know what the MOST delicious one is

Okay a bit gimmicky, since it’s just a melon pan that you can get at any convenience store plus some soft serve ice cream in between. But it doesn’t look too bad for 400 yen, if only it wasn’t sold out for the day.

While not budget per se, there’s also a teppanyaki cart here serving up authentic Kobe beef for a (relatively) low price of 2,500 yen, complete with an official certificate so you know you’re getting the real deal.

Japan takes their beef seriously, you actually need a certificate to prove you are serving Kobe beef

I know that at least with proper restaurants, if you ask they can also show you the identification papers associated with the cow you just ate from! That’s right, the top tier wagyu cows are considered so important they get their own ID, complete with their nose print and family lineage so you can even figure out who their great grandparents are 😮😮.

I watched a few people get their order to gauge how worth this is, and it seems okay looks like you get about 150 gram-ish, and the marbling definitely looks legit. Perhaps I will give this a go tomorrow.

We were still a little peckish as I kinda held back with the kushikatsu because they weren’t such good value, so while I’m not looking to drop 2,500 yen on some Kobe beef, I did want something to supplement my dinner. I think the perfect snack to fit that bill at Dotonbori is takoyaki, which originated from Osaka so this is where you can get the OG. Dotonbori has no shortage of takoyaki stands, and I’m sure local experts will all have their own favourites, but I went with the Acchichi Honpo stall not too far from the Glico Man, as multiple sources online swear by its quality over other its surrounding competitors.

They definitely aren’t as out there as some of the other stores, no need for a gigantic octopus to attract people’s attention. Although they do have a balloon octopus which is kinda cute. It looks a lot like a neighbourhood stall you find in any working class suburbs of Japan. There was also a decently long line, so people must be here for a reason.

The way he casually turns over the takoyaki makes it looks so effortless

Takoyaki is basically a ball made out of batter, filled with diced octopus as its main ingredient, topped with mayo, takoyaki sauce and dried bonito flakes. When exposed to heat, the bonito flakes start to wiggle around making it look as if it’s come alive.

On average they go about 500-600 yen for 8, and because they are mostly made out of batter they are quite filling, so they are excellent value. Plus it doesn’t hurt that they taste great with the sauce too.

Just before we called it a night, we swung by a little Buddhist temple hidden in the alleyways of Dotonbori, where local merchants used to pour water over the temple’s statue for good luck.

The temple is small and hard to find, so look out for this sign

You can see the buckets water ready on the ground

And that’s it, our first night in Osaka wrapped up. Obviously there’s a lot more to see (and eat), so tonight is more like a scouting session. We’re gonna drop some serious cash in this area, at least by my standards, so stay tuned.

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3 thoughts on “Day 15 – Exploring the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle & the Neon-Lit Streets of Osaka

  1. Pingback: Day 16 – Over Eating in Osaka & A Visit to Osaka Castle | Poor Man's Backpack

  2. Pingback: Day 16 – Over Eating in Osaka & A View Atop the Osaka Castle | Poor Man's Backpack

  3. Pingback: Day 18 – Climbing the Best Castle in Japan & Tasting the Best Beef in Japan | Poor Man's Backpack

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