Enchanted by Japan's wonder

Enchanted by Japan's wonder
Pickles galore at Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

JAPAN - Japan has always intrigued me. I had always envisioned going on a package tour if and when I was ready to visit the country. It was supposed to be very expensive and the language barrier daunting.

However, thanks to an almost-too-good-to-be-true deal I found on the Malaysia Airlines portal back in May (RM189 (S$72.90) nett return, unbelievable but true!), my wife and I finally had the opportunity to visit Osaka and Kyoto for our first taste of Japan. Our trip taught us three things:

Japan is not that expensive

Hotel accommodation can be cheaper than Hong Kong and Singapore. Our rooms at two very pleasant business-class hotels in Osaka and one in Kyoto averaged less than RM350++ per night. There are cheaper options available to suit tighter budgets. However, do bear in mind that hotel rooms in Japan can be incredibly small.

Delicious food can be found everywhere and often times, it is inexpensive. A hearty bowl of gyu-don or rice topped with sliced beef cooked in sweet soy sauce can cost as little as ¥280 (S$3.30). Most set lunches or dinners can be had for about ¥800 onwards. You can save quite a bit on drinks as complimentary ice water is provided at almost every eatery. Yes, the Japanese drink ice cold water even in cold weather. Try asking for warm or hot water and you'll get a puzzled look.

Japan is a much better shopping destination than Hong Kong or Singapore. You can buy a pair of branded trainers for RM90. There are plenty of home-grown Japanese fashion brands that offer quality products at comparable or lower prices than some of the international brands that we are more familiar with. Branded facial care products, cosmetics and nutritional supplements are also cheap and abundant.

Take time to wander around away from the tourist-swarmed districts and there are gems waiting to be discovered. My wife found a pair of made-in-Japan leather heels on sale for RM60 at a small local shop in a quiet neighbourhood in Osaka.

Be prepared to walk... a lot

The public transport systems in Osaka and Kyoto are excellent. Everywhere is connected by either the subway, trains, buses or limousine-like taxis driven by smartly dressed drivers wearing caps and white gloves. The interlinked subway and train lines can be a confusing maze at first, but you would soon get the hang of it. The fare from one destination to another within the inner city would cost about ¥230 one way.

Changing from one subway line to another can mean quite a long walk inside the station, going up and down stairs. If you are lugging a trolley-bag, it can be a pain as escalators or antiquated lifts are available only at selected exits. Make sure you ask which (of the many) exits to take or you will end up walking one big round to your destination.

The nice autumn weather (with temperatures that hovered between 16°C to 21°C) was often a great inducement to abandon the subway for a walk. And that can be pleasantly rewarding.

Strolling through the quieter parts of town, we found small cafés that served delicious fresh pastries and good coffee, a shop that sold hand-crafted leatherware and even a gallery that exhibited stunning applique artwork by a granny in her 70s.

Do not miss the markets, where more walking is required! Stretching as far as the eye can see, Nishiki Market in Kyoto and Kuromon, and Tenjimbashisuji Markets in Osaka offer a feast for the senses and are great places to shop for uniquely Japanese delicacies to take home. Choose from a mind-boggling variety of pickles, fresh coffee beans, fresh and dried seafood, top grade rice and scrumptious locally grown fruits.

Arashiyama is a must-visit

Osaka is nice and Kyoto is better, with its nice mix of modernity and tradition. But you must really visit Arashiyama to experience a little bit of rural Japan.

Just half an hour by train from Kyoto, the picturesque little town is famous for its numerous temples, shrines, ryokans and spectacular bamboo groves. If you are already tired of temples by now, just head to the not-to-be-missed trail amidst towering bamboo trees near the North Exit of the Tenryuji Temple. Taking the Sagano Romantic Train to the nearby town of Kameoka and making the return trip by boat down the meandering Hozu River is highly recommended. The two-hour journey by boat, rowed by a team of experienced locals, is blissfully serene and surreal at some points.

If you have the time, rent a bike and explore the quiet neighbourhoods. By the way, the Japanese treat their coffee seriously and you can get a cup of excellent freshly brewed joe from almost any convenience store or café.

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