The ethereal beauty of a cherry tree in full blossom tugs at the heart of even the most cynical ones among us. Despite the heavy tourist footfall during the cherry blossom, or Sakura, season, this is a must-see if Japan is on your bucket list. And no, the trip wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg, if you plan ahead.
Here’s how we managed to bring back fond memories of Japan and its epic cherry blossoms.
Before setting out for the country of our dreams, we pulled out a tourist map of Japan and pored over stories of fellow travellers and backpackers to chalk out our route map. Initially, we planned to spend 16 days covering the main Honshu island, a bit of Hokkaido (island in the north), and also the beautiful Kyushu island in the south. However, we had to drop Kyushu from our itinerary to shorten the duration of stay and remain within budget. We left Kyushu and its stunning Onsen island for autumn at a later date. Besides, we discovered the return flight from New Chitose airport in Hokkaido to be far more reasonably priced than any other international flight combinations. We also checked on the sakura predictions in the main cities and towns to firm up our itinerary.
And, get, set, go!
Finally, one fine morning in late March, six of us, not-so-young maidens, landed at the beautiful Kansai international airport. Built on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay in Japan’s Osaka Prefecture (Japan has 47 prefectures or administrative divisions), the airport itself is a tourist spot. The scene that unfolded from the aircraft window at the time of touch-down was simply breathtaking!
Our first task after completing immigration was to get our data sim cards. Data sims can be very useful in a country like Japan where you will hardly find any English-speaking local, except for a few in Tokyo city. Thanks to google map and google translator, we could more or less manage to travel independently without getting lost. There were plenty of options at the arrival lounge and we settled for JAL ABC. Armed with fully charged local sim cards, we were all set for our adventure in the land of the rising sun (or nihon in Japanese). Next on our agenda was to activate our 7-day rail passes against the vouchers we had purchased back in India (JR pass vouchers – with a validity period of 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days – can* only be purchased outside Japan. It is not for sale within the country). Japan Railways offer passes to non-residents that allow free travel in JR and partner trains, Shinkansen “bullet” trains (except on Nozomi and Mizuho trains), and buses operating on JR lines throughout the country. Luckily, the pass was also valid on JR-West Miyajima ferry that we took on Day 5.
Following the signs at the airport, we reached the JR office near the JR rail station inside the airport complex without breaking a sweat. However, looking at the long queue we knew it would need every ounce of our patience after the long overnight flight from home. It was sakura season after all! After about 40 minutes, we found ourselves standing in front of a ticketing counter. The girl handed us six forms to fill. We filled in our names, travel duration, and date of activation of the pass (we decided to activate it on Day 5) and went back to the counter with our passport-size photos along with the forms. Minutes later our passes were in our hands. We also decided to purchase ICOCA card, a smart card that can be used nationwide. By topping up this rechargeable card at any of the JR counters at the station, you can save time queuing up for tickets at various mass transit systems like buses, streetcars, metro and subway trains.
We headed to the JR station to catch the next train to Shin-Osaka where we had booked our hostel. Kansai airport is well-connected to Osaka city by rapid and express trains.
On exiting Shin-Osaka station after a 35-min train ride, we kept looking for the cherry blossoms, but were surprised to find none around. The trees were barely showing early buds. We didn’t lose hope though, as we had almost 2 weeks ahead of us to soak in the beauty of these flowers. After a few false starts, we finally reached our hostel (Shin-Osaka Youth Hostel), thanks to a helpful local teenager with whom we managed to converse using google translator. We realized Google maps didn’t work so well on flyovers and over-bridges (sigh!). Later in the evening, we set out to explore the area for some mouth-watering udon, the quintessential Japanese noodle soup. Soon we settled in a cozy family-run restaurant and enjoyed our first real meal of the day.
After a long walk back to our dorm, we decided to shed all inhibitions and go the Japanese way in the public bath inside the hostel. We were impressed to find every kind of toiletry and bath accessory neatly arranged inside the bathhouse which even had a hot pool! We called it a night after half an hour and settled in our warm and comfy bunk beds.
Day 2 found us in high spirits as we headed to Kyoto on a special rapid train on JR Kyoto line (570 yen/person) from Shin-Osaka station. On reaching Kyoto in less than 25 min., we got caught in the rain. Since we were prepared for this, it didn’t bother us much. But, nothing prepared us for the sudden dip in temperature. Cherry flowers bloom when the wintry chill gives way to spring warmth. Unfortunately, spring was taking longer to set in, so the buds were still not ready to open. Deciding not to let this setback dampen our spirits we began to explore the ancient capital of Japan famous for its age-old buddhist temples including the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, imperial palaces, and beautiful gardens. Our first halt, Sanjusangen-do Temple, was an eye-opener. We were completely taken aback by the 1000 sculptures of Hindu gods in different avatars and many other mythological creatures found in the sacred Hindu scriptures.
Another surprise awaited in the garden surrounding the temple – cherry blossoms. Yayyy! We were on top of the world!
Another breathtaking temple is the Kiyomizu-dera built on large wooden stilts and designated as a national treasure. Kiyomizu means pure water. The Otowa waterfall runs off the nearby hills in three channels of water (for health, longevity and success) that fall into a fountain. The water is believed to have wish-granting powers and we found many visitors trying to test the waters, so to speak. Being vacation time for students in Japan, we were simply blown away by the pretty girls in gorgeous Kimonos, the colourful traditional Japanese attire, visiting the sacred temple.
The path up the hill leading to the temple was lined up with ice-cream parlours, souvenir shops and food carts that created a foot traffic jam! Everything looked so quaint in spite of being shoved and pushed around by tourists and locals alike.
Besides cherry blossoms, Japan is also famous for its manga – graphic novels in typical Japanese style spanning a wide range of genres including action, romance, adventure, horror, mystery and suspense, sports, fantasy, sci-fi, drama, historical, and even erotica – which originated in the country. Interestingly, manga has been discovered in Japanese scrolls dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries! And, Kyoto’s International Manga Museum is well known in the manga fandom. Realizing that a visit to Kyoto would be incomplete without exploring the manga museum, we took the bus from Gojozaka stop (near Kiyomizu-dera) to Karasuma Oike. The museum was located about 200m from the bus stop.
The entry ticket was 900 yen and totally worth it! Rows and rows of manga for all ages, neatly arranged in chronological order starting from the 1970s, were staring back at us from room after room covering three floors. There were designated reading rooms to sit comfortably and enjoy the novels. The third floor housed volumes of research materials, magazines and books on ancient and modern manga. You can actually spend days exploring the various genres of manga from different periods. With the time we had, we could just walk around and browse through one or two manga.
We took a crash course on manga history and culture in the main hall on the second floor. There were bookshelves covering popular manga from the Taisho era (1912-1926) to modern era (2005). Original geisha sketches by various manga artists filled a room on the same floor. Another one showcased plaster casts of numerous artists’ hands who visited the museum on various occasions.
There was even a counselling room at the ground level where newbies could seek advice on how to draw manga! We also checked out the museum shop for souvenirs to carry back home. There was an interesting array of picture postcards, notepads, folders, purses and fridge magnets depicting the museum mascot ‘MAMYU’.
Back in our hostel, we were all talking and laughing at once. Cherry blossoms, pretty girls in kimonos, ancient temples, and manga museum – we couldn’t have asked for more!
Nara park in Nara Prefecture beckoned us on Day 3. After a simple Japanese breakfast at the hostel, we walked down to the station to catch a train to Namba. Then we took a 3-min. walk up and down staircases to reach Osaka-Namba station. From there, we boarded the express train on Kintetsu-Nara line to Nara. The total journey costed us 850 yen (1700 yen both ways). Soon we reached the picturesque little town that took us back in time. Our first stop was the information centre. We wanted to get the lay of the land before heading out, so collected a small route map of the main places of attractions. Cyclists and pedestrians filled the road leading to the deer park. Both sides of the street were lined up with interesting shops selling traditional sweets, souvenirs, and art & craft supplies. Deciding to spend time at this mini marketplace on our way back, we continued to walk towards the park.
Nara park was huge! If not for the signposts and our handy maps, we would have ended up going in circles. Ah, the wonders we discovered there! From imposing pagodas and gates to ancient temples and shrines, Nara was a treasure trove of attractions that blew our minds away.
We spent some time at the Kofuku-ji temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We learnt from a fellow traveler and history buff from our hostel that the impressive five-storey pagoda (Gojunoto), three-storey pagoda (Sanjunoto), the North Octagonal Hall (Hokuendo), and the East Golden Hall (Tokondo) were all classified as national treasures. The Tokondo was quite a peaceful hall with stunning Yakushi Nyorai Buddha gracing the place. We didn’t enter the National Treasure Museum though, the first building in the main courtyard, but were told it housed some of the best Buddhist carvings in all of Japan.
After a quick lunch of Ramen noodles at a small restaurant in the park, we headed for Todai-ji (Great Eastern temple), another important Buddhist temple, to catch a glimpse of Japan’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.
The entire temple complex was spectacular with smaller Buddhist statues and models of the former and current buildings on display inside the great hall. We discovered a pillar with a hole in its base that was believed to be of the same size as the great Buddha’s nostril. When we were informed about the legend, we got super excited. It is said, those who could squeeze through the hole would be granted enlightenment in their next life. Unfortunately, it was no child’s play to achieve such a feat as the opening was quite narrow. We had to give up after spending quite a bit of time trying to wriggle through. It was fun though!
As evening began to set in, we decided to call it a day and started walking towards the mini marketplace near Nara station for some window-shopping. Unable to resist the temptation of trying out the artful traditional sweets known as wagashi, one of the finest examples of Japanese craftsmanship, we bought a couple of boxes to share at the hostel. Happy with our purchases, we finally headed back to our hostel in Shin-Osaka by train (same trains in reverse order).
Thus concluded our first three eventful days in Japan. We took a break from long distance travel and explored the lovely city of Osaka the following day.
How did you find our discovery of Japan so far? Please share your comments below.
Also read: Our adventures in Japan from Day 4 – Day 7.