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A Season of Discovery: Exploring some Hidden Gems of Osaka and Kyoto (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 9

A Season of Discovery: Exploring some Hidden Gems of Osaka and Kyoto
Osaka Castle

Day 1: The Arrival


Landing in Osaka amidst the vibrant hues of an October morning was a bit like stepping into a frame from a Studio Ghibli movie.


The first stop after clearing Japanese Customs was to pick up our preordered SIM card. My phone roams, but data roaming on my kids’ mobile accounts is expensive. Therefore, before arriving in Osaka we reserved our data sim card through Sakura Mobile. Sakura Mobile's unlimited data plan ensured we stayed connected with our travel planning apps and their availability at Kasai, Narita, Haneda, Chubu Centrair, and New Chitose Airports means they’re a constant companion on my family’s trips in Japan.


From there we grabbed our convenience store snacks, purchased our Osaka Airport Limousine Bus tickets, and were off for the long ride from Kansai International Airport to Osaka.


Day 1 Continued: Unagi and Other Delicacies


We arrived a bit early for check-in, so we left our luggage at the hotel and ventured out for lunch. Our destination was the uniquely named Unagi no Gama no Hoyaki Gyutan Yakitori Basashi Izumo Osaka Fukushima Honte (5 Chome-12-20 Fukushima, Fukushima Ward, Osaka), famed for its barbecued unagi (eel). The dish was a revelation, with delicious portions as generous as the restaurant's name was a mouthful.


Our post-unagi euphoria led us to the One Piece Mugiwarasutoa Umedaten store (Osaka, Kita Ward, Umeda, 3 Chome−1−1 大丸梅田店 13F) near Osaka Station, to sate my kids’ craving for all things related to the One Piece anime. We got a bit lost trying to find the store, but it provided us with a chance to burn some lunch calories and explore the area. 


By mid-afternoon, we headed back to the Hotel New Otani Osaka (1 Chome-4-1 Shiromi, Chuo Ward, Osaka), our Castle in the Sky, to settle in and plan the evening. Our room offered an extraordinary view of Osaka Castle, which, in all its autumnal glory, stood majestically, reminding us of the serenity amidst the chaos of city life.


Our first day concluded in Dotonbori at night, where the heart of Osaka beats the loudest. The neon signs, the street food aroma wafting through the air, and the cacophony of sounds made for an excellent sensory experience. We walked, we ate, and then walked a bit more and ate a bit more - nothing was safe from our culinary crusade – before getting slightly lost on our subway ride back to the hotel.



Day 2: Synergy and Shopping


Day two began with a visit to every coffee shop and patisserie we came across, until we decided it was time for lunch at Synergy (530-0003 Osaka, Kita Ward, Dojima, 1 Chome−5−35, 2F). We discovered this tiny, cash-only gem through the Michelin Guide, and it was worth every moment of the wait. The proprietor wore many hats as the cook, server, busboy, and cashier, yet she managed to be both efficient and friendly. As we left, delighted by our lunch, we purchased some of her special blended curry mix to bring the flavors home.


We devoted the remainder of the day to exploring the shopping districts of Umeda and Namba, accumulating anime gear, clothing, and overly tempting kitchenware. Along the way, we indulged in the local cuisine and beverages. My favorite find was a steak and rice bowl generously covered in cheese. This seemingly incongruent combination turned out to be an unexpected treat.


To conclude our busy day, an evening walk through the stunning grounds of Osaka Castle (1-1 Osakajo, Chuo Ward) offered a perfect opportunity to unwind and burn off some calories.

A Season of Discovery: Exploring some Hidden Gems of Osaka and Kyoto
Gionmachi Minamigawa

Day 3: From Synergy to Shrines


Day three began with anticipation, as we were set to make the short journey to Kyoto. This city served as Japan's capital for over a millennium, from 794 CE—when it was known as Heian-kyō—until the capital was relocated to Tokyo in 1868.


After enjoying a delightful breakfast at the hotel boulangerie, we packed our overnight bags and made our way to Yodoyabashi Station, where we boarded the Keihan Electric Railway Main Line train bound for Kyoto. Despite having booked an express train with reserved seats, a mix-up led us to unwittingly board the wrong train. It was only when our train unexpectedly bypassed the Fushimi-Inari Station that we realized our mistake. No problem. We disembarked at the next station and caught a regular train back to our intended stop.


Our first destination was the Fushimi Inari Taisha (68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto) world-renowned for its mesmerizing Torii gate path. This shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, however, is far more than its iconic gates. Covering over 215 acres, the shrine's expansive grounds feature structures dating back to 711 CE. And, nestled within this tranquility is the Inari-Saryo Café, a quaint spot ideal for a snack and some quiet reflection. If you find an open spot on the deck and the weather is favorable, I highly recommend taking a moment there to soak in the stunning views.


After savoring a snack and a moment of reflection, we made our way back towards the train station. En route, we couldn't resist stopping at Kyotoshoryu (27-17 Fukakusa Ichinotsubocho, Fushimi Ward), known for its exceptional ramen, before catching the train into the city.


With our bellies full, we struggled a bit trying to find a taxicab, then shifted our energy to figuring out how to use Uber to hail a car. After that, the city was our oyster, or as the Japanese might say, 果報は無限大 (which I am told means, “The prospects are limitless”).


Our next stop was Kinkakuji (1 Kinkakuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto), commonly known as the Golden Pavillion, but officially Rokuon-ji, meaning Dear Garden Temple. This magnificent Zen temple, covered in gold leaf, was made even more spectacular as the sun slowly moved toward the early evening sky. I visited the Golden Pavilion a few years ago, and it still held me in awe with its mesmerizing beauty.


Day 3 Continued: the Ryokan and Gionmachi Minamigawa


By the time we, along with the other temple visitors, were gently ushered toward the exits in anticipation of the temple's closure, it was time for us to find our hotel and check in. We aimed to immerse ourselves in the historic heart of this extraordinary city during our Kyoto experience and were fortunate to secure a reservation at Kyoto Ryokan Kinoe (44-8 Bishamon-cho, 4-chome, Matsubara-agaru, Higashioji-dori, Higashiyama-ku).


The hotel was even more than I had expected. Upon entering, guests are expected to remove their shoes and wear provided slippers throughout the hotel. Our room was a compact suite featuring an entryway alcove (tokonoma), separate bath and toilet facilities, and a large multifunctional room that served as the bedroom when the tatami mats were laid out, or our dining/sitting room when they were stored away.


The only oversight on my part was not pre-ordering the exquisite dinner meals that I saw on the hotel’s website. These must be ordered 24 hours in advance due to their intricacy. So, with the help of Google Translate, we asked the hotel staff for dinner suggestions, and almost as soon as we had dropped our bags off in our room, we ventured into the quiet, narrow streets of Gionmachi. This historic district is known for its temples, wooden structures, and traditional tea houses, where patrons and geishas quietly alight from cars and glide into the beautiful buildings to carry on the traditions of a millennium past.


Ultimately, we made our way to Wagyuyakiniku Toku (Higashiyama Ward, Benzaitencho, 26 2), for one of the most memorable barbecue meals I've enjoyed in a long time. The ingredients' quality was nothing short of exceptional, and their presentation elevated to art. My son’s barbecuing expertise—finely honed through a unique high school experience of frequent barbecues near the JROTC building—was on full display as he masterfully took charge of the grill. This exquisite culinary experience was beautifully complemented by the reasonably priced pours of Yamazaki whisky, adding a refined touch to our delightful evening.


Our walk back to the hotel took us past a small but very well-stocked liquor store, where we managed to buy some Yamazaki whiskey—a treasure that's become increasingly difficult to secure in the U.S. A bit further and we were once again immersed in the Gion district, feeling like time travelers as we stepped back into a historic era, quietly navigating the neighborhood's activities.


After a brief stop at our hotel room to drop off our finds, we grabbed our camera gear and set off for the Yasaka Pagoda, the majestic five-story Buddhist structure overlooking the picturesque Yasaka-dori street. It was late in the evening, and the streets were remarkably quiet, devoid of the usual tourist bustle. This tranquility made the visit particularly enchanting, with the sole signs of modernity being me and my children. After soaking in the tranquil calm of the evening, we returned to our room, ready to spend some quality time with tatami mats and heavy kake-buton blankets.

Go to part 2 of this article, here.

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