As with most of our travels, it all started with a seat sale. The heavily discounted airline tickets prompted us to return to one of our most beloved countries, and another family trip was to become unforgettable. Initially, I thought that it would be a week-long vacation of sorts. After all, we were simply returning to the Kansai region, a portion of Japan we had explored before. I was imagining strolling around neighborhoods and indulging in food, without the rigors of first-time travel and the associated heavy sightseeing. Yet, it all changed when my brother wanted to go as well, since he had not been to this progressive country. It meant we had to go to many of the region’s attractions again (though it’s not something to regret) and to explore new ones too.
As I was busy molding our itinerary, I suddenly came across a news article saying that the G20 Summit was to be held in Osaka on some of the days we were around. Unfortunately, by the time I got hold of this information, I had made reservations that would be cumbersome to change. As a result, there were days when I felt like I sabotaged our schedule as we moved around throughout the day…all because I felt I couldn’t cut some attractions off the list. There were places where we weren’t able to explore as much as we wanted to, but all in all, I felt like the pace was manageable. Here is what our itinerary was like:
Day 0 Arrival
Our flight arrived in Kansai International Airport shortly before lunch. My brother’s flight was due to arrive 3 hours later, and we waited for him at the airport to make his first trip to the country easier. While waiting, I exchanged some money at the airport and loaded our ICOCA cards. After we met up with my brother, we were able to exchange our vouchers into regional rail passes. I also bought our one-way Haruka tickets and bought an ICOCA card for my brother. We then headed to Kyoto, checked into our hotel and called it a night.
Day 1 Kyoto
We started the day early walking around the Higashiyama district. The alleys of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka were picturesque without the crowds, and it was a lot easier to appreciate the serene temple of Kiyomizudera without the throngs of people. We then headed to Nishiki Market and had our fill of Japanese street food, and took the bus to Ginkakuji afterwards. Ginkakuji still captured my heart, and so did the snacks we had after our temple visit. We also enjoyed some soba from Honke Owariya for dinner.
*I penciled going to Kinkakuji on this day after Ginkakuji, but my parents begged off from going to another attraction on this day.
Day 2 Himeji and Osaka
Ideally, it would have been a Himeji and Kobe day, but since the G20 Summit was starting the next day, I had to move Osaka one day earlier. We spent a good chunk of the morning climbing the Himeji Castle–a feat I never really expected my parents to finish, but they did! We proceeded to Osaka’s kitchen, the Kuromon Market, where we sampled some medium-fatty tuna. Still hungry, we had some okonomiyaki from Ajinoya before walking towards the iconic billboards of Dotonbori. We headed to Abeno Harukas in the hopes of getting to the observatory, but my parents were too exhausted at this point to move around so we just went back to Kyoto.
Day 3 Kanazawa
Our side-trip to Central Japan began by taking the earliest train to Kanazawa. We had some great seafood at Omicho Market, before strolling the garden of Kenrokuen. We also took a short walk around Higashi Chaya before leaving the city. After changing trains in Toyama, we were on the Hida Wide View Limited Express, which allowed us to see the pretty countryside and the Japanese Alps. It was pouring as our train pulled into Takayama. We had some excellent Hida Beef for dinner and stayed the night in Takayama.
*We had a lot of downtime for our transfer between Kanazawa to Takayama. I honestly think that we could have squeezed one more attraction while in Kanazawa, or we could have gone to a teahouse, instead of having coffee at the station.
Day 4 Takayama and Shirakawa-go
Early the next morning, we headed to the Miyagawa Morning Market and the famous Sanmachi Suji. As the rain began pouring, we took refuge at Takayama Jinya, a former government building now turned museum. We explored Sanmachi Suji later in the morning, where we sampled some hida beef sushi (it was very delicious). After lunch, we took the bus to Shirakawa-go, viewed the village from the observatory before trekking down to the village itself. My brother and I opted to enter a traditional house, before we all strolled the village and took many beautiful photos. It was another bus ride to Kanazawa, where we took the train back to Kyoto. Yes, it was a really long day.
*It was a long day but I didn’t feel too exhausted. I was also able to get some sleep on the way from Kanazawa to Kyoto.
Day 5 Arashiyama, Kobe and Kinkakuji
It was another early morning rise to beat the crowds in the famed bamboo forest of Arashiyama. We were surprised by the beauty of Tenryu-ji’s garden, but we all had to move quickly as we were to have lunch at Kobe. We tried Kobe beef for the first time at Wakkoqu, before returning to Kyoto to see Kinkakuji. Our day ended with a tonkatsu meal from Katsukura at Kyoto Station.
*This was the first time I felt like I butchered our itinerary. I would have loved to cut Kinkakuji off our trip, but I wanted to show this iconic temple to my brother. It certainly wasn’t my favorite of attractions, but he seemed impressed with it. I felt Arashiyama alone deserved a day.
Day 6 Fushimi Inari and Nara
We spent the morning strolling around the hills of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Afterwards, we took the train to Nara. The pouring rain held us back at the station, but we proceeded to Todaiji as the weather turned milder. We saw some deer as we exited the park. We returned to Kyoto, walked around the Gion district at night, before having our final dinner, a kaiseki meal, at Giro-Giro Hitoshina.
*In my mind, this schedule made a lot of sense since they were along the same route. Well, not exactly. The train travel was still around one hour, and frankly, Nara deserved at least a day. I would love to go back.
Day 7 Departure
Our 1pm flight meant we had to head to Kansai International Airport early in the morning. It was sad to say goodbye to the country and to my brother, who was to take a later flight, but all good things had to come to an end.
*A word of caution: if your flight leaves early in the morning, you might have to consider staying near the airport on the night prior to your departure day. The earliest Haruka train which departs at 5:45 from Kyoto, only arrives at Kansai International at 7:10, which may be too tight to make to your scheduled flight. I only discovered this as my brother was supposed to take another airline with an early morning flight. Good thing he wasn’t able to book that one, or it would have made things a bit more complicated for us.
Sure, there were moments when we felt a bit rushed, but most of the time, we enjoyed our time at the attractions. Because I squeezed visiting Central Japan on this trip, our time in Kansai became a lot tighter. It was a decision I had to make, but it was a choice I would make over and over again. Visiting Central Japan, even just for two days, was worth cutting back time in and around Kyoto. From the freshest seafood in Kanazawa, to the sumptuous Hida Beef in Takayama, from the picturesque mountains to the pretty village of Shirakawa-go: these were all memories worth having. Don’t get me wrong, Kyoto was still beautiful and I’d go back in a heartbeat, but Central Japan balanced our trip in that we got to see some natural landscape and some lesser-known places of the country, enough to even entice us for a return visit someday.
I would always wish we had more time in Japan, because it seems to me that the more I get to know this country, the less I feel that I had visited enough. Someday, I’d certainly love to go back.
Until next time…happy (virtual) travels!