Osaka and Kyoto – cities and temples

It turns out we picked a few temples for the itinerary. I didn’t know what to see in Japan. So when we decided to travel to Japan, my wife did most of the planning. Looking at the map, there are too many temples to see them all, but I suppose we made it to the major temples. Additionally, we saw most of the major attractions and popular street markets in two major cities.

From Hong Kong, we flew into Osaka and had 10 days to go wherever we wanted from there. To make it easy and limit travel time/expenses, we stuck to the Osaka and Kyoto areas. The cities are very close to each other and remarkably easy to get around.

Map of the sites in Osaka and Kyoto

No Tokyo?

How can you go to Japan and not go to Tokyo? That was a question we asked ourselves a few times after we arrived in Osaka.

Japan has a bullet train that goes from Osaka/Kyoto to Tokyo in under 3 hours, but it would cost a small fortune. Also Tokyo is preparing for the 2020 Olympics so hotel prices have increased (as if they weren’t high already). For us, it wasn’t worth it to go to Tokyo on this trip. Not visiting Tokyo is an excuse to return to Japan in the future!

Transportation in Japan

The transportation within, and between Osaka and Kyoto is incredibly expansive and affordable. For example, it costs about 600 Yen (roughly $6 USD) to get from Osaka to Kyoto on the train. The trains run very frequently and quickly.

The ease of transportation also inhibited my ability to learn much of the Japanese language as most signs and announcements are in English. In addition, most people could speak English so there was not much of a language barrier for us spoiled Americans.

Osaka

In Osaka, we stayed near Tennoji, located near the zoo. Our first site to see: Shitennoji Temple.

Just before entering the temple grounds, we stopped for breakfast. This was our first taste of the technologically-advanced Japanese establishments.

To place our order for breakfast, the entire menu is on a “vending machine”. I called it the restaurant robot. We inserted our money into the machine and it dispensed tickets for each item we ordered. Then we gave our tickets to the kitchen staff.

A few minutes later, we were eating dumplings and steamed buns. As soon as we were finished, we could leave since we were all paid up. We ate at a few places where the ordering process had been automated with these restaurant robots.

Restaurant robot in Osaka

Tipping doesn’t really exist in Japan. We tried. The cashier at one restaurant looked confused when we tried to give him back some of our change.

Shitennoji Temple

After breakfast, we walked around the temple for about an hour. What I liked about Shitennoji was that it looked old. Of course the buildings are old, but many of the structures hadn’t been preserved in a way that makes them look brand new. However some of the buildings looked like they could use some repairs.

The courtyard and some of the larger buildings at Shitennoji

Shitennoji was a good introduction to Japanese Temples. It’s easy to get to since it’s near the middle of the city. It’s a huge area so the crowd was never very dense. You can walk into many of the buildings to see Buddha statues and etchings of scenes on the walls. No pictures are allowed inside of most of the buildings, which is kind of nice. You can take time to observe and think about the traditions, even if you are ignorant of many aspects of Buddhism or Shinto like myself.

Osaka Castle

The castle is a more obvious tourist destination in Osaka. It’s beautiful from the outside, but we were a little disappointed when we were inside. The inside has been modernized and converted into a museum with displays throughout its seven floors.

Osaka Castle

Regardless of the inside not being “authentic” there is a lot to learn while touring Osaka Castle. If you are interested in history, you could easily spend the entire day there. The cost to enter the castle is 500 yen and I think we got a discount for having a day-pass for the subway. Osaka Castle is worth going to see even if you just stay on the outside, which is free!

Osaka food and nightlife

After a solid day of walking we checked out the street markets and restaurants near the Namba neighborhood. The major markets we saw were Dotonbori, Kuromon Market, and Shinsaibashi-Suji.

Osaka is known for food, most famously Takoyaki (grilled octopus balls) and Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake). The street markets are therefore packed most of the day. Generally the food is cheap and delicious. I’m not much for crowds, but it was amazing to see so much action in so many different places around Namba.

Okonomiyaki in Osaka – don’t ask me what’s in it, but it’s good

Dotonbori

Dotonbori river walkway

Running through the heart of the popular street market areas is Dotonbori. There are so many places to get dinner, including some famous restaurants where the line to get in goes out the door and around the corner. We wound up getting ramen with Kobe beef. It did not disappoint.

Dotonbori with the average crowd

You can also take a stroll along the canal walkway at night. It’s illuminated by all of the restaurants and advertisements. I called it Osaka’s Times Square.

Kyoto

The train is the best and most economical way to get to Kyoto. It was about 600 yen (~$6 USD) to get there, and it only took about 40 minutes. Again, the trains are wonderful in Japan.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

We spent the majority of the afternoon at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The path up (and down) the mountain are lined with hundreds of “gates” overhead called toriis. Supposedly each torii is constructed when a wish made at the Fushimi Inari comes true.

Torii gates tunnel near the summit of Mt. Inari
One of the many altars along the path – often there were dozens of them in one area

So many temples, so little time

The following day we met my wife’s friend and husband (also newlyweds) in Kyoto. They had flown to Japan from Hong Kong a day after us (after their wedding) and were staying in Osaka. They took the train to Kyoto and we were off on our day of touring the temples.

At the end of our day, I was exhausted from seeing so many temples and walking so much. In light of going on and on about all of the temples we saw, I’ll give you the cliff notes for what we saw in 2 days.

Temples, Shrines, and Castles in Osaka and Kyoto

In two days in Kyoto, we visited seven temples/shrines. Included in the list are a few of the sites already discussed and a few other sites we saw later in the week. It would take a solid three days to see everything listed; and that’s if you are hustling.

Shitennoji Temple

This was our first stop in Osaka. Located inside the city near Tennoji. The major buildings look more maintained. Inside some buildings are some very cool sulptures and wall paintings. Turtle pond with hundreds of turtles. Entry fee: 300 Yen.

Osaka Castle

A seven story castle with a moat. Constructed with giant boulders as the foundation. The gold details along the roof used to be real gold. The inside is now full of museum exhibits. Entry fee: 500 Yen.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Near the entrance – the torii path is to the left

A large mountainous area consisting of temples, shrines, and walkways with hundreds of orange torii gates. There are several shrines and altar Great views as you climb Mt. Inari. No entry fee.

Yasaka Shrine

Similar to Fushimi Inari but on a smaller scale and closer to the center of the city. Bright orange buildings (also similar to Fushimi Inari). Near the historic Ishibe-koji Alley where you can see Geishas and performances. No entry fee.

Kodaiji Temple

This was my favorite (outside of Fushimi Inari) because it is low-key and more natural in appearance. Includes small ponds with catfish, a traditional tea house, bamboo forest, and colorful zen garden. Near the historic area of Nineizaka. Entry fee: ~500 Yen.

Zenkojido Temple/Kiyomizu-dera

A short walk from Kodaiji Temple. Near the entrance there are sculptures of dragons and a familiar-looking orange entrance gate. Good views from on top of the hill. I don’t think there was an entry fee.

Kinkaku Temple

The most unique temple as it sits out on the water and it is “wrapped” in gold. There is also a path that takes you around the pond and through the gardens. Very crowded. Not sure on the entry fee.

Ryoan-ji

Similar to Kodaiji Temple in that it is more natural with a pond and mossy gardens. Home of a famous 15-stone zen garden. The buildings are modest compared to most of the other sites. Far less crowded compared to Kinkaku. Entry fee: 400 Yen (I think)

Higashi-Honganji Temple

Massive temple located near Kyoto Station in the middle of the city. In my opinion, this was the most impressive that we saw. Contains extremely large rooms and ornate carvings. No pictures allowed inside. No entry fee!

Kyoto (Nijo) Castle

One of the entry gates to the Nijo Castle

Similar to Osaka Castle in that it has a moat and large boulder foundation. The structures and property are impressive, especially the artwork inside. Very ornate architecture and painting. No pictures were allowed inside. Entry fee: 1,000 Yen.

Daihikaku Temple

View from the Daihikaku Temple

Off the beaten path in Arashiyama. It’s a bit of a trek up the mountain but it’s worth it for the view and, if you are lucky, a Buddhist monk will instill some wisdom upon you. Plus you can ring the giant bell as you exit. Very peaceful setting. Entry fee: 400 or 500 Yen.

Tenryuji Temple

located in Arashiyama. Set near the bamboo forest. Features elegant landscaping, a pond and Zen garden. You can walk inside the temple (no pictures). Entry fee: 500 Yen (additional 300 Yen to go into the buildings).

Horinji Temple

Low-key but very close to the road in Arashiyama near the monkey park. A short walk up the hill through some trees and torii gates. Buildings are more rustic. Set on the mountainside. Less traversed by tourists. Very peaceful. No entry fee.

Isn’t there more to Kyoto and Osaka?

Of course! In the next post, I will go into the culinary delights of the two cities. Both cities are known for their food, and it’s worth a post just for that. Also, you are probably tired of temples by now. Thanks for reading!

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