Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara cities are all located within close proximity to each other (within an hour train ride) and well-connected by the Japan railway network, so a single point accommodation in Osaka is actually sufficient as a base to start from for visiting attractions located in the other 3 nearby cities.
[Overview Travel Routing]
Looking back on my travels where I had 5 and 1/2 days spent in this 4 cities, my family and I took up 2 different accommodations during this period, not so much that it was essential, rather it was to let us experience the difference between a AirBnB home accommodation and a hotel 🙂
With AirBnB, it depends somewhat on luck on how good the host is, as well as initial self-groundwork to evaluate the quality of the host through some email communications before confirming the stay which is very important. I can right off recommend you to our previous hosts Duncan & Yoshiko who were excellent and warm hosts during our stay in Nara!
It seems that their hospitality has been consistent with very good reviews from many others who had stayed in their home too. Subsequently our 2nd accommodation was at Hotel Universal Port that is located right opposite Universal Studios Osaka. Our intention is clear … to be at the Universal Studio the moment it was opened …hahaha! Yup, and we spent one solid and memorable day at this theme park!
Yes, in our first 5.5 days besides Universal Studios, we spent half a day at Nara Park exploring the historical heritage sites of Nandai-mon Gate, Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga Taisha as well as Isuien Garden, all located with close proximity on map. You didn’t read me wrong, I said map ….hahaha. There is alot of walking and footwork involved so remember to go light and have a good pair of walking shoes! Maybe the deers at Nara Park can keep you entertained enough to forget your foot fatigues 🙂
Attractions at Nara
|Photo of Place||Name of Place||Description
|1) Isuien Garden / Yoshikien Garden||Isuien is an attractive Japanese garden whose name means "garden founded on water", and the garden's name is derived from the fact that its ponds are fed by the small adjacent Yoshikigawa River. The Yoshikien Garden is located just on the other side of the river. Both gardens afford excellent Autumn Colors as well as Cherry blooms during Autumn & Spring season respectively.
Isuien is divided into a front garden and a rear garden, with a number of tea houses scattered throughout. The front garden has a longer history, dating back to the mid 17th century whereas the rear garden, the larger of the two, is more recent and was built in 1899 by a wealthy merchant.
|2) Nandai-mon Gate||Approaching Todai-ji temple stands Nandai-mon, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce looking statues representing the Nio Guardian Kings. The statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself.
|3) Todai-ji Temple|
(UNESCO Heritage Site)
|Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple) is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temple and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple's influence on government affairs.
Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). Several smaller Buddhist statues and models of the former and current buildings are also on display in the Daibutsuden Hall. Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base that is the same size as the Daibutsu's nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life.
|4) Kofuku-ji Temple|
(UNESCO Heritage Site)
|Alighting from either Nara Station or Kintetsu Nara Station, this is likely to be your first stop point.
Kofukuji used to be the family temple of the Fujiwara, the most powerful family clan during much of the Nara and Heian Periods. The temple was established in Nara in 710. A couple of buildings of great historic value remain, including a five story pagoda and a three story pagoda. Kofukuji's pagoda is both a landmark and symbol of Nara.
In addition, while Kofuji's temple ground is free entrance, there are two areas that require paying an entrance fee: Kofukuji's National Treasure Museum and the Eastern Golden Hall.
|5) Kasuga Taisha|
(UNESCO Heritage Site)
|Kasuga Taisha is Nara's most celebrated shrine. It was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. Kasuga Taisha was also the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara, Japan's most powerful family clan during most of the Nara and Heian Periods. Per custom, Kasuga Taisha had been periodically rebuilt every 20 years for many centuries until the custom was discontinued at the end of the Edo Period.
Beyond the shrine's offering hall, which can be visited free of charge, there is a payable inner sanctum which provides a closer view of the shrine's inner buildings. Innermost is the main sanctuary, containing multiple shrine buildings that display the distinctive Kasuga style of shrine architecture, characterized by a sloping roof extending over the front of the building.
This temple is also famous for its lanterns which are donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals: early February and mid August.
|6) Gango-ji Temple|
(UNESCO Heritage Site)
|Gangoji Temple was one of Nara's seven great temples along with Todaiji, Yakushiji, Saidaiji, Kofukuji, Horyuji and Daianji. Asuka-dera, the oldest temple of Japan that was built to the south of Nara City around 600 was moved to the city following the capital relocation to Heijo-kyo and changed its name to Gangoji. Today, Gangoji is only a small fraction of what it used to be.
Today Gokurakudo and a Zen room in its wide precinct are used for monks' activities. They are registered as a World Heritage site as part of Historic Monuments of the Ancient Nara. One of the key features of the Gokurakudo and the Zen room that are National Treasures is their beautiful roofs. Japan's oldest tile roofing called "Gyokibuki" is constructed by partially overwrapping roof tiles of folding-fan shape, which creates varied and quaint expressions.
Hozo situated south of Gokurakudo houses a miniature five-story pagoda. This is a precious reminder of the architectural style of the Tenpyo Period. This 5-meter tall small building is designated as a National Treasure. Gangoji is also famous as a temple of bush clover. In autumn, flowering bush clovers make the temple a photographer's paradise.
|Nara National Museum|
(South of Isuien Garden)
|The Nara National Museum is an art museum which primarily displays Japanese Buddhist art. Established in 1889, the museum retains its original building and is joined by a new wing that is connected to the original building by an underground passage.
Both wings display the museum's permanent collection, which includes Buddhist statues, paintings, scrolls and ceremonial objects mainly from Japan. The new wing also houses temporary exhibitions, including an annual exhibition every autumn of treasures from Todaiji Temple.
(UNESCO Heritage Site)
|During most of the Nara Period (710-794), Nara served as the capital of Japan and was known as Heijo-kyo. The Heijo Palace extended about one kilometer wide and one kilometer long and served as the site of the emperor's residence and government offices.
When the capital was moved away from Heijo-kyo in 784, all of its original buildings were eventually lost, with the exception of a single hall that was moved in the 8th century and now stands at Toshodaiji Temple.
Today, three major structures of the former palace complex have been reconstructed. Foremost among them is the Former Audience Hall (Daigokuden), the largest building on the palace grounds that was reconstructed and opened to the public in April 2010. Two more full-scale reconstructions are the Suzaku Gate (Suzakumon), the main gate of the palace to the south, and the East Palace Garden (Toin Teien), which features a pond, streams and bridges, and was used by the imperial family for banquets. Also partially reconstructed were the offices of the Imperial Household Agency (Kunaicho).
(UNESCO Heritage Site)
|Mount Yoshino in Yoshino Town, Nara Prefecture, is Japan's most famous cherry blossom spot. It features over 30,000 cherry trees planted around the slopes which visitors can admire as they walk along the roads that lead up the mountain.
Yoshinoyama is divided into four areas: the Shimo Senbon (lower 1000 trees) at the base of the mountain, Naka Senbon (middle 1000 trees), Kami Senbon (upper 1000 trees) and Oku Senbon (inner 1000 trees) at the top of the mountain. Most visitors arrive via Yoshino Station in the Shimo Senbon (lower) area of the mountain. The road up Yoshinoyama starts off with a relatively steep slope but flattens out as you enter the town. The Yoshino Ropeway provides an alternative to walking up the first steep slope and drops you off at the entrance to the town.
Naka Senbon (middle) area which remains relatively flat and is home to most of Yoshino's famous temples and shrines, as well as many ryokan, restaurants and souvenir shops. In the Kami Senbon (upper) area, the town gradually ends and the mountain gets steeper again. The area offers many attractive picnic spots under the trees and nice views over the lower slopes of the mountain. It takes about one hour to walk from the upper ropeway station to Mikumari Shrine at the far end of the Kami Senbon area.
The Oku Senbon (inner) area is covered by forest, which mainly consists of trees other than cherry trees. Despite being located towards the top of the mountain, the Oku Senbon area offer almost no views of the cherry tree covered mountain slopes. It takes 90 minutes or more to walk from the upper ropeway station to Kinbu Shrine in the Oku Senbon area.
It is likely to be 3 full days if everything within Nara is to be covered. But there was not my objectives from the start. We were only trying to cover representatively sites from each city, and using a pace that is suited for a family holiday, without going into this hyper-“I MUST BE EVERYWHERE” mode 😉
Talking of that … further south of Nara within the boundaries of Nara province, lies Asuka, a small region with however a pivotal role in Japan history. This is also the site of Japan’s first capitals. Kyoto served as the Japanese capital for over a thousand years from 794 to 1868, and Nara was the first permanent capital from 710 to 784. Before those cities there was Asuka, where the first imperial residences were located.
We chose to explore this lesser traveled region largely to also see the autumn colors from Tanzan shrine that was famous for it. However do note that these locations are less direct accessible by train, so more time need to be allocated for travelling to them. We spend 1 full day here covering only 2 locations: Tanzan Shrine & Hasedera Temple.
Attractions at Asuka
|Photo of Place||Name of Place||Description
|Tanzan Shrine||Tanzan Shrine is located in the mountains just east of the Asuka region. It enshrines Fujiwara Kamatari, the founder of the powerful Fujiwara family, who exerted enormous political influence and essentially governed the country for most of the Heian Period (794-1185).
Tanzan Shrine is a very famous spot for viewing autumn leaves, and becomes quite crowded when the colors reach their peak usually in the second half of November. There are also many food stands and shops lining the approach to the shrine, offering various foods and products to the shrine's visitors.
From Sakurai Station's southern exit take a bus to Tanzan-jinja bus stop (25 minutes, 8-10 buses per day).
|Hasedera Temple||Hasedera Temple is located in the mountains east of the Asuka region. The temple was founded in 686, and now serves as the head temple of the Bunzan school of Shingon Buddhism. Situated in a valley, Hasedera has over 30 buildings built up along the hillside that visitors can spend a long time exploring. The main hall is at the very top and offers a great view of the surroundings from its balcony, particularly during the cherry blossom (sakura) and autumn color seasons.
Hasedera Temple is a 15-20 minute walk from Hasedera Station on the Kintetsu Osaka Line.
|Muroji Temple||Muroji is a large temple located in the mountains of eastern Nara Prefecture. Stone steps connect the buildings of the mountainside temple, leading through a dense forest. Many of the temple buildings date back hundreds of years, and the old wooden buildings create a harmonious atmosphere with the surrounding nature.
The mountainous area, where the temple is now located, has been considered a holy place since ancient times. When the Emperor Kammu fell sick during the late 8th century, high priests were sent to this area to perform rituals for his recovery. Once his health improved, Muroji Temple was ordered to be built at that same location. Muroji is also referred to as "Women's Koyasan" because Muroji permitted people of both genders to enter, while admittance to Koyasan was permitted only to men.
There are hourly buses from Muroguchi-Ono Station to Muroji-mae bus stop (15 minutes).
|Ishibutai Tomb||The Ishibutai Tomb is the most impressive of the ancient stone monuments in Asuka. It is believed to be a burial tomb for Soga Umako, a powerful leader of 6th century Japan. Visitors can actually walk inside the tomb and look at the massive rocks from inside.
The Ishibutai Tomb is located beside the Ishibutai bus stop, which can be reached on the Kame Loop Bus from Asuka Station (17 minutes, one bus per hour).
|Imacho Town||Imaicho Town is an unusually large preserved historic district located near Asuka in Nara Prefecture. While preserved districts in Japan are usually limited to a few buildings or perhaps a street, a visit to Imaicho allows visitors to wander through the many alleys of an entire small town.
In addition to walking through the streets and visiting Shonenji Temple, visitors can enter a few of Imaicho's preserved buildings. There is the Imanishi Residence, the oldest and most impressive of Imaicho's residences. Dating back to 1650, it accommodated the town's most powerful family, the Imanishi Family, whose members acted as town administrators. The Imai Machiya-kan near the temple and the Yonetani Residence are also open to the public. Both double functioned as shops and residences of merchant families specialized in hardware products. Tourists can also visit the Hanairaka information center just southeast of the preserved area, where there is a model of the town and a few old photos on display.
Imaicho is located a short walk west of Yagi-Nishiguchi Station and less than a ten minute walk from Yamato-Yagi Station.
Within Osaka, there are numerous sights and shopping as well that could take days of your travelling time. We kept it within 2 days, exploring the Minoo Park, the Osaka Castle and of course shopping at Minami (Namba) for the ladies in our travelling group!
Here are some main attractions that you could look to in Osaka:
|Photo of Place||Name of Place||Description
|Universal Studio (Osaka)||Universal Studios Japan (USJ) was the first theme park under the Universal Studios brand to be built in Asia. Opened in March 2001 in the Osaka Bay Area, the theme park occupies an area of 39 hectares and is the most visited amusement park in Japan after Tokyo Disney Resort.
Universal Studios Japan currently has eight sections: Hollywood, New York, San Francisco, Jurassic Park, Waterworld, Amity Village, Universal Wonderland and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Visitors are able to enjoy many amusement rides, ranging from child-friendly carousels to thrilling roller coasters and simulators based on popular movies such as Spiderman, Back to the Future, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.
The entrance gate of the Universal Studios Japan is located a five minute walk from Universal City Station on the JR Yumesaki Line (also referred to as JR Sakurajima Line).
|Osaka Aquarium (Kaiyukan)||Osaka Aquarium, also known as Kaiyukan, is located in the Tempozan Harbor Village of Osaka's bay area, and is one of Japan's most spectacular aquariums. It introduces various forms of life inhabiting the Pacific Rim in a well organized and impressive way.
Marine life is displayed in 15 tanks, each representing a specific region of the Pacific Rim. The central tank, representing the Pacifc Ocean, is nine meters deep and home to a whale shark, the aquarium's main attraction.
Osaka Aquarium is located at Osakako Station on the Chuo subway line.
|Osaka Castle||The construction of Osaka Castle started in 1583 on the former site of the Ishiyama Honganji Temple, which had been destroyed by Oda Nobunaga thirteen years earlier. Toyotomi Hideyoshi intended the castle to become the center of a new, unified Japan under Toyotomi rule. It was the largest castle at the time. However, a few years after Hideyoshi's death, Tokugawa troops attacked and destroyed the castle and terminated the Toyotomi lineage in 1615. Osaka Castle was rebuilt in the 1620s, but its main castle tower was struck by lightening in 1665 and burnt down.
In 1931, the present ferro-concrete reconstruction of the castle tower was built. During the war it miraculously survived the city wide air raids. Major repair works gave the castle new glamour in 1997. The castle tower is now entirely modern on the inside and even features an elevator for easier accessibility. The castle tower is surrounded by secondary citadels, gates, turrets, impressive stone walls and moats.
The Nishinomaru Garden, encompassing the former "western citadel", is a lawn garden with 600 cherry trees, a tea house, the former Osaka Guest House and nice views of the castle tower from below. Unlike most of the rest of the castle grounds, the garden requires an admission fee. The park is one of Osaka's most popular hanami spot during the cherry blossom season, which usually takes place in early April.
The recommended approach to Osaka Castle is through Otemon Gate at the park's southwestern corner. The closest station is Tanimachi 4-chrome Station along the Tanimachi Subway Line and Chuo Subway Line. The closest JR station to Osaka Castle is Osakajokoen Station on the JR Loop Line.
|Minoh Park||Minoh Park is a forested valley on the outskirts of Osaka, just north of the urban sprawl. During the fall, it is one of the best places in the Kansai Region to see the autumn colors in a natural setting. The colors are usually best in the second half of November.
Minoh Park starts a short walk north of Hankyu Minoo Station.
|Shitennoji Temple ||Shitennoji is one of Japan's oldest temples and the first ever to be built by the state. It was founded in 593 by Prince Shotoku, who supported the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. Although the temple's buildings burned down several times throughout the centuries, they were always carefully reconstructed to reflect the original 6th century design.
The outer temple grounds are free to enter, but admission is payable for the Gokuraku-jodo Garden and the treasure house. In the pebble covered courtyard of the inner precinct stand a five-storied pagoda that can be entered and ascended and the Main Hall (Kondo) in which Prince Shotoku is enshrined as a statue of Kannon. The Gokuraku-jodo Garden was designed based on descriptions of the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha.
Shitennoji is a short walk from Shitennoji-mae-Yuhigaoka Station on the Tanimachi Subway Line.
|Sumiyoshi Taisha||Osaka's Sumiyoshi Taisha is one of Japan's oldest shrines. Founded in the 3rd century before the introduction of Buddhism, it displays a unique style of shrine architecture, called Sumiyoshi-zukuri, that is free of influence from Asia. Sumiyoshi Taisha is the main and most famous of over two thousand Sumiyoshi shrines found across Japan. Sumiyoshi shrines enshrine the kami (Shinto gods) who protect travelers, fishermen and sailors at sea. The shrines are therefore usually found close to harbors.
Sumiyoshi Taisha is located in southern Osaka, a few steps from Sumiyoshi Taisha Station on the Nankai Main Line.
|Minami (Namba)||Located around Namba Station, Minami is one of Osaka's two major city centers. It is the city's most famous entertainment district and offers abundant dining and shopping choices.
Dotonbori: One of Osaka's most popular tourist destinations, this street runs parallel to the Dotonbori canal. It is a popular shopping and entertainment district and is also known as a food destination. At night it is lit by hundreds of neon lights and mechanized signs, including the famous Glico Running Man sign and Kani Doraku crab sign.
Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade: Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade and the surrounding Shinsaibashi area is Osaka's premiere shopping center. Approximately 600 m long, this area is unique as it combines chain retail stores and trendy boutiques with expensive department stores and top designer fashion labels.
Den Den Town: Located in the Nipponbashi area, Den Den Town is an electronics district comparable to Tokyo's Akihabara, and you may be able to bargain to a better deal. Den Den Town is becoming known as an otaku paradise with numerous manga and anime retailers as well as maid and cosplay cafes located there.
Amerikamura: Locally known as "Amemura," this shopping district is considered Osaka's counterpart to Harajuku and is a good place to see the cutting edge of teenage fashion and culture in Japan. It is a lively atmosphere that is populated with cafes, clothing stores, and thrift shops with a younger feel than the nearby Shinsaibashi.
1 day was spent at Arashimaya: Sagano Scenic Railway and the Hozugawa River Cruise to enjoy the Autumn Colors at Kyoto. In Kyoto, the city steeped in Japanese history and home to about 25% of Japan’s national treasures, shrines, temples … there is so much more that one could do. You could refer to my earlier blog article on World Heritage Sites (UNESCO) at Kyoto for some of the MUST-GO places.
My last stop for this trip was to Wakayama for 3 days, a little deeper into the south of Kyoto, away from the well-oiled systems of the urban cities and into the more rural regions of Japan. Of course if you are planning for your itinerary, an alternative to Wakayama could be Kobe or Nagoya if you have more days left. For my 3-day Wakayama trip, I covered the following sites (with links to earlier blogs that I have written about these places)
Let I always like to say, this travel itinerary of mine should only be used as a reference since you are likely to have in mind of some places to go already. Now that I have just provided you a list of more places to explore …. it’s time to put your thinking caps on and plan 🙂
Feel free to drop me a note if you feel that I could be of any help in helping you to finalize your travel itinerary. Goodbye and Goodnite for now 😀
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