A Week in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo: A First-Timer’s Experience

 

Lady in red. (photo from the author)

When I was a child, I told my mother – with all the naive brazenness of a six-year-old – that I wanted to go to Japan.

I grew up running around the village with Japanese friends, playing Japanese console games, and watching Japanese animated films. I loved maki and soba more than I did staple canned goods, and even hung Astro-boy calendars on my room. Although we didn’t have the means to, my mother knew how much I wanted to visit the country and promised then that we would.

Making the Dream a Reality

My mom passed away before we could go, pushing Japan into the back of my mind for years – 15, to be exact. But the year I started working, I promised myself I would save up so I could go on my own.

On Dec. 1, 2018, after more than a year of setting aside money from my monthly salary, I flew to the Land of the Rising Sun for the very first time. It was a leap of faith, since I had minimal knowledge about the country and the language.

I’ll tell you how I made it happen.

Research and Itinerary Drafting

I’m a paranoid traveler. Every step should be calculated and every train ride should be scheduled, down to the minute. Before booking my flight, I made a list of all the places I wanted to visit in Japan, as well as which trains or buses to take to get there.

Thanks to the reliable transport system of Japan and its integration into Google Maps, I was able to make an itinerary complete with train arrival and departure times. Feel free to use it for your own trips.

Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo are Japan’s most famous cities, so I made it a point to visit them during my 8-day stay. To say I followed the itinerary faithfully would be a lie. But I did avoid wasting time getting lost in the country for the most part, thanks to that guide.

Budget

Traveling to Japan isn’t cheap. But I didn’t want to skimp on my trip. I wanted money to be the least of my worries once I got to Japan because I wanted to enjoy and savor every city and sight.

Before I planned my trip, I asked friends who’ve traveled to Japan to give me a rough estimate of a daily spending in the country. “On a budget?” they would ask. To which I’d answer: “Comfortable.”

Php10,000 a day is the most common answer. But don’t worry. That’s more than enough for good food, shopping, sight-seeing, and even more good food.

Visa Application

There are a number of accredited travel agencies in the Philippines that offer Japan Visa services, but my coworker referred me to Universal Holidays Inc. It is one of the most highly rated travel agencies in the country, so you know you’re entrusting your application to the right people. You can check the agency’s list of requirements here.

Once I submitted all the necessary documents, I waited for only two days before I got a text from the agency that said my passport was ready for pick-up. I was granted a single-entry Japan Visa, valid for three months. Although the rates at Universal Holidays Inc. are higher than other agencies, the smooth and quick process made the price worth it.

Clothes

I would constantly monitor Japan’s weather from my phone before my flight just to see which kinds of clothing I’d bring with me.

The warmest weather report was 15°C and the coldest would hit 5°C. As a Filipina, that’s hella cold. If you’re as averse to cold weather as I am, make sure to bring these:

  • A thick, warm jacket
  • Turtleneck tops
  • Boots
  • Gloves
  • Hats
  • Pants in thicker fabric
  • Heattech tops and bottoms

If you’re still feeling cold by the time you get to Japan, you can always buy more articles of clothing or heat packs from convenience stores.

Daily Essentials

It wasn’t as hard to get around Japan because I had these with me:

  1. Portable WiFi – You can secure one of these online at Klook before your trip, or you can rent one at the airport.
  2. A smartphone with Google Maps – If you want to go to places you didn’t include in your itinerary, you can easily navigate your way through the city by using Google Maps.
  3. Google Translate app – For non-Nihonggo speakers/readers like me, Google Translate will be your best friend. You can use your phone’s camera to translate Kanji/Katakana/Hiragana characters into English.

Buy your card at any of the train stations in Japan for ¥2,000 or Php1,000. (photo from the author)

  1. Icoca Card Prepaid cards are going to make your travels more convenient, especially if you take trains and buses. Suica and Pasmo are famous card brands but I used Icoca – any of the three would be fine.

The Best of the Best

One mistake that I did was squeezing many tourist sites on a short trip. As a first-timer, what I should have done was picked fewer spots to visit then go over others the next time I come back.

Going to three sites per city is ideal. Here are three of the best places I’ve been to in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo:

KYOTO

There were more trees than there were people, and that’s rare. (photo from the author)

Kyoto Imperial Park

Kyoto Imperial Palace is at the heart of Kyoto, near Imadegawa Station and Marutamachi Station. (photo from the author)

Once the home to the Imperial Family of Japan, the Kyoto Imperial Palace is now an abandoned yet wonderfully preserved architectural structure just a couple of minutes away from Imadegawa Station. Entrance to the palace is free. You can join a tour with a group or you can walk through the palace grounds on your own.

You can find both the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Sento Palace within the park. (photo from the author)

The Kyoto Imperial Park is also a perfect place to bike around. There’s enough sunlight to keep you warm during the early winter season and lots of trees to look at while you explore the park.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Take the #9 Karasuma Imadegawa Bus in front of the Kyoto Imperial Station to the Nonomiya Bus Stop. (photo from the author)

The Bamboo Grove is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto. But trust me on this: there’s not much to see there. You can spend about 15 minutes inside the grove before you realize you’ve been going around in circles.

What’s worth exploring in Arashiyama, however, is the long stretch of street food just outside the grove.

Lining up for delicious mochi treats just outside the Bamboo Grove at Arashiyama. (photo from the author)

Gion

Get off Kawaramachi Station or Gion-Shinjo Station to visit Gion. (photo from the author)

My favorite place in Kyoto was Gion, the famous geisha district of Japan. It’s known for holding tea ceremonies performed by maiko or geiko in traditional tea houses. I had dinner in a restaurant that served the most sumptuous wagyu beef I’ve ever had in my entire life.

Melt-in-your-mouth goodness for ¥3,000 or about Php1,500 at one of the corner restaurants in Gion. (photo from the author)

OSAKA

Almost got lost in Ikebukuro that night. Be sure to keep your portable WiFi fully charged if you’re exploring the city on foot. (photo from the author)

Nara Park

From Kintetsu-Nara Station, take the bus to the park. Or you can walk and enjoy the views uphill. (photo from the author)

Nara Park is a must-visit site for many tourists who go to Osaka, and for a good reason. The deer alone are enough to make you travel to the park (and you can even feed them deer crackers – just look for vendors around the park). You can also walk around with gorgeous views of nature and green landscapes.

Dotonbori

Alight at Namba Station and walk along an avenue of both local and foreign cuisine. (photo from the author)

Come to Dotonbori for the food. Yep, the food. That’s mostly it.

Dine in peace at Ichiran for ‎¥790 (about Php400). Add ‎¥300 (around Php150) for that glass matcha beer. (photo from the author)

Universal Studios Japan

Hey, it’s Hogwarts! May I Slyther-in? (photo from the author)

The Hogwarts castle alone makes the trip to Universal Studios Japan worth it. The rides there are fantastic as well, like the Flying Dinosaur and Hollywood Dream. Just beware of the long waiting lines that could take 60 minutes per ride. Buy your entrance tickets and Express Passes (purchased separately) beforehand to save time. I bought both my entrance ticket and Express Pass at Klook for a total of around Php7,000.

A trip down memory lane. (photo from the author)

TOKYO

In Chuo Dori, Ginza, roads are closed off from 12 PM to 5 PM to let people roam freely. (photo from the author)

Harajuku

What’s left of the lights at Harajuku. (photo by Mimyka Hinampas)

 

The place for everything kawaii, Harajuku is the place to be if you want to get a taste of what it’s like to express yourself creatively in Japan. Takeshita, the street most famous for Lolita stores and accessory shops, is one you shouldn’t miss during your trip to Tokyo. I was a bit bummed I got to Harajuku too late. What I did, instead, was walk around until the train station closed. Harajuku still looks gorgeous at night when the stores are closed, showing off colorful walls and graffiti art.

 

Get into the Halloween mood early with these ‎¥2,400 masks (around Php1,200). (photo from the author)

teamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum

Feeling a little blue. (photo from the author)

If you take the train to Tokyo Teleport Station, you’ll see the gorgeous Daikanransha Ferris wheel in Odaiba. Walk a little further, and you’ll see a modern black building that houses one of the newest museums in Japan: teamLab Borderless. It’s food for the eyes – every sight in that museum is just a good trip (without the narcotics). I ordered my tickets on their website a few weeks before the trip. Do the same if you want to avoid going to the museum when the tickets are sold out.

Matcha ice cream and tea with a glowing twist – you can purchase these at the museum. (photo from the author)

Gotemba Premium Outlets

Gotemba Premium Outlets is a bus ride from Shinjuku Station. A round trip ticket costs ‎¥2,880 (or Php1,440). (photo from the author)

If you have some cash to spare and you’re looking for the shopping experience of your life, go to Gotemba Premium Outlets. Branded goods are here are waaaaay cheaper than they are in retail stores. They also stock rare and discontinued items. Plus: you get to shop with a gorgeous view of Mt. Fuji.

Shop with a view. (photo from the author)

If you’re planning on going to Japan on your own, don’t fret. The country is great for solo female travel. Just plan, plan, plan. And say “arigatougozaimasu” when necessary – they’ll appreciate it.

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