Osaka & Kyoto | The Heavy Hitter Tourist Trail

Osaka felt like a world away from rural Shikoku, being a heaving metropolis of nearly 20M people. We were more than happy to drop off our Kyushu rental car here as the traffic patterns were daunting at best. And switching to taking taxis (when the trains wouldn’t cut it) revealed another little Japanese quirk – the drivers all look like butlers and wear white gloves! A far cry from the Gojeks we’d become used to in Bali. Our first stop in Osaka was to the Cup Noodles Factory for Andy’s 5th birthday, where you get to make your own cup and select toppings at a Willy Wonka-esque assembly line full of wacky cranks and pulleys. We also splashed out for a really cool hotel here to mark the occasion, getting a room service (Andy’s fave) birthday cake sent up to us on the 25th floor overlooking Osaka’s skyscrapers. It was one of those views where you almost wanna cancel your tourist plans and just soak it in all day and night!

Andy’s present from mom and dad was for the next day, starting with a pre-dawn arrival at Universal Studios to have any hope of beating the crowds. At around 7:30am they finally opened the gates, with people literally sprinting across the park to Nintendo World. We joined the frenzy and it was worth every effort, they cut off entry right after we got in! Nintendo World was one of those things that I’d been fascinated with for years having grown up in the 80’s playing Mario Brothers. Somehow Andy seemed equally excited about getting into the depths of Bowser’s Castle with me, which set the tone for a great day in an otherwise chaotic theme park. Riding the super tame “Yoshi’s Adventure” led us slowly through an eye-popping landscape of piranha plants, interactive prize eggs, and all the famous characters – it really felt at times as if we were in a video game. Harry Potter World’s Japanese-speaking Caucasian wizards and a great ride on Minion Mayhem rounded out a super fun day for all.

Like most decent-sized Japanese cities, Osaka had a very well preserved castle with moats and trails that made for great afternoon strolling. This one also had a huge playground nearby for Andy with long cage-like tunnels suspended high above the ground. Every 10 minutes or so, a kid would panic and freeze causing everyone to get stuck- eventually forcing a parent to shimmy up there to grab em. We joined in with the locals cracking up every time it happened.

As sunset approached, we headed down to Dotonburi – a lively area with hilariously oversized icons and mascots advertising the offerings within each shop. We found a nice beer and ice cream stop to hole up at along the waterfront and watch the action, eventually popping over to a nearby stall serving fake crab and Kobe beef skewers (quite possibly the best bites we had anywhere in Asia). To cap off the night, we stumbled into a bumping izakaya restaurant called Kamameshi & Sumi Sake Yamazo with mouth watering sukiyaki and grilled shishito peppers.

Heading onward to Kyoto, we got lucky and wound up on the daily Garaku tourist train – which is tricked out in traditional Japanese decor (there were even bamboo plants in one car). Kyoto’s train stations are destinations in and of themselves too. After walking Kyoto Station’s Skywalk for a bird’s eye view of the city, we sat shoulder to shoulder with hurried locals enjoying some of the best ramen in town. Since we got to Kyoto on St Patrick’s Day, we went in search of a pint of Guinness – a special family tradition for us since Andy first came home from the hospital at 3 days old on St Pats. 5 years in, the tradition remains unbroken!

Despite knowing that post-COVID tourist numbers in Kyoto were near record highs, we still set out to see 2 of the most iconic spots in town: Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. And so did everyone else. Thankfully there are dozens of side trails and temples along the 1,000 or so torii gates at Fushimi Inari to explore sans other tourists. Arashiyama also had some parks and bamboo groves nearby that were actually pretty chill. But while both of these Instagram spots were undoubtedly cool to finally see in person, getting away from the crowds whenever the chance arose was almost just as exciting. There are also loads of other places in Kyoto and elsewhere that look just like these spots sans the hordes, and I’d recommend anyone going there outside of mid-winter to consider that as an option! In addition to record-breaking tourist numbers in 2024, Kyoto is now even fining people for flooding into certain residential neighborhoods – as locals are now suffocating under the strain of over-tourism.

Heading out of town for a day on the Oi River wound up being a much better experience for us. We started with the “Romantic Train” that runs along the steep river valley, giving us a preview of the boat ride to come. Andy said multiple times along the way “trains are definitely my favorite vehicle to travel in” so I guess we’ll call that a win? At the end of the line, we stocked up on sake and snacks for the 1.5 hour long boat ride back – piloted by 3 very talented guys with bamboo poles. Every time we raced over a rapid, Andy would say “this is so wild!” – pretty sure we nailed parenting that day, despite having a beer in hand for most of it 🙂

Tara really wanted to see the costumed throngs in kimonos while we were here, so we set off for the Gion District. Lucky for her, there were so many kimono-clad tourists there that our taxi gave up trying to drive through them and just dumped us off in the crowd. After strolling around for a while, we scored a table at Gion Yuki – another lively izakaya restaurant. They sat us next to a pink-haired local gal cracking up with her friend over a bottle of nigori sake (the cloudy one), who recommended we try some. It was incredibly delicious, as was the miso-basted eggplant we got with it. So much good chow in Kyoto that it’s hard to pick our favorites, but the grilled eel at Sumiyagura was a strong contender. Heck, even the soy-marinated cheeseburger at McDonald’s was awesome! Kyoto is also known for creative ice cream flavors- Nanaya Sanjo had a delicious black sesame and sakura (cherry blossom) too.

Big cities in Japan these days are also chock full of animal cafes, originating from cat cafes many moons ago. Now one can sip coffee with capybaras, hedgehogs, and miniature pigs – the option we landed on. For about an hour, we had a dozen or so little oinkers snuggling up with us or nibbling at our feet – a pretty hilarious and distinctly Japanese experience. Everyone got a kick out of the pigs all rushing to me when I sat down (as if I was their king), guess I should lose a little weight! We also spent a fun rainy afternoon at the Samurai Ninja Museum. The museum itself is pretty small with some history lessons that failed to keep Andy’s attention, but throwing ninja stars at the end and dressing up like samurai warriors made it worthwhile for sure. Kyoto set the bar pretty high, but nothing could prepare us for what awaited on the way to Tokyo. Stay tuned…


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  • SamJuly 2, 2024 - 3:37 am

    So cool! I would love to go to Nintendo World!ReplyCancel

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