Saturday, May 20, 2017

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

One of the most popular destinations in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine.  The shrine is located just outside of the JR Inari Station.  You can see it as soon as you exit.  The original shrine was built in 711 AD. 
You can walk along paths straddled by over 10,000 red/orange (vermillion colored) Japanese gates called torii.  
Each of the torii is donated by a Japanese business, which has the name of the company and date of donation inscribed on the backside.  Smaller torii cost around 400,000 yen and large gates can cost over one million yen.  
It is quite surreal and peaceful walking underneath all of these rows and rows of vermillion gates closely clustered together.  Trees and the mountainside surround the entire area.   Sun rays shine at you as you walk underneath the gates.  While the original shrine is ancient, many of the gates are newly built. 

Tourists and locals alike come to the shrine daily.  You will find plenty of restaurants and tasty street food just outside the area.  

Visitors hoping to explore the entire area can hike to the summit of the mountain and back in about 3 hours.  We spent about 45 minutes walking around before our son got tired and passed out.  Make sure you come here with comfortable shoes, you will be doing a lot of walking.  Entrance is completely free.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Exploring Nara Park, Todai-ji Temple, and an owl cafe in Nara, Japan

Nara is about a 1-hour trip from Osaka; we spent a nice day trip exploring the area. 

Nara Park
Nara Park is one of the oldest parks in Japan, and is home to over 1,200 wild deer that freely roam the area.  

These deer are considered national treasures and are protected by Japan.  Deer crackers are sold for 150 yen all around the park.  
If the deer think you will feed them, they will come up to you and bow to ask for food.  
Bowing deer

It’s quite an amazing sight to be surrounded by deer as you walk through the peaceful park.

We grabbed a tasty set lunch at Wafuresutoranmiyama (that’s not a typo) restaurant.

Todai-ji Temple
Located next to Nara Park, Todai-ji Temple houses an 18m (60ft) tall Buddha, one of the largest bronze statues of Buddha.  
The main hall is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.  Inside the temple, there are several other smaller Buddhist statues.  
The entrance fee to the temple is 500 yen.   

Wata Wata Owl Cafe
On the way back to the subway station, we grabbed refreshments at the Wata Wata Owl Café.  
This café houses several different types of owls, which were quite tame and friendly.  We were allowed to pet almost all of the owls and feel their soft feathers.  
At the end of our visit, our group got to handle one owl.

If you are ever visiting Kyoto or Osaka, it’s worth a short 1 hour trip to Nara to see the beautiful park and temples.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Exploring Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi in Osaka

After leaving Tokyo, we took the 3 hour 30 minute shinkansen bullet train ride to Osaka.  
Japanese high-speed trains regularly run up to 200 miles per hour.  There are 2 classes of seats for the train: ordinary and Green Car.  Green Car is like business class on an airplane with rows of 2x2 seats.  We sat in the ordinary seats that had rows of 3x2 seats.  The seats were very comfortable.  If you are traveling in a big group, the seats can be rotated 180 degrees to face each other.
Osaka is the second largest city in Japan (Tokyo being the largest) and we had a lot of fun exploring the city and surrounding cities.

Dotonbori is the most famous entertainment district in Osaka.  This area is filled with illuminated signboards, robotic storefront signs, restaurants, food stands, shopping and nightlife.  The best time to visit is at night when the area really comes alive with neon lights and people.  

One popular local landmark is a big illuminated billboard of a running man for Glico, a Japanese confectionery company.  
This sign has been up since 1935, although it has changed slightly over the years.  I’m not sure what the big deal about this one particular sign was, but everyone seemed to want to take pictures of it.  
While Dotonbori gets really busy and crowded, we found it very relaxing to walk alongside the canal.   
Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade
Located just next to Dotonbori and across from the Glico sign, the Shinsaibashi shopping area is filled with luxury department stores, hip boutiques and retail stores.  

The 600m long shopping area is covered by glass ceilings, preventing the area from getting too hot or too cold.  Although this area was packed full of people, the crowd keeps moving at a decent pace.

We loved walking through and eating around Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi.  Our son kept looking around at all of the colors and lights.  I’m sure his visual system was very stimulated everywhere we went.  If you ever find yourself in Osaka, you have to check out these areas!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Our last day in Tokyo: exploring Muji Shibuya, Tokyo Station, Tokyo Imperial Palace and more

Muji Shopping Center in Shibuya
When looking for children’s activities in Tokyo, I stumbled upon this blog post from Roam The Gnome about the Muji Shibuya store playroom for kids.   Muji is a Japanese retailer that sells various housewares, clothing, and other consumer goods.  
They also cater to families with children.  The 5th floor of the Shibuya Muji store has a special children’s play area. 

This fun little area has wooden décor that gives off a very soothing and peaceful vibe.  The whole play area is filled with all sorts of wooden toys. 
There are wooden animal magnets, rocking horses, ramps, as well as a wooden egg ball pit.  
The little tables and chairs are all made of wood as well.  Our son loved stacking all of the wooden figurines and rolling around in the wooden ball pit.
There is a nursing area with baby changing tables right next to the play area.   
We grabbed lunch at the Daylight Kitchen, a short walk from the Shibuya Station and one of the most child friendly restaurants around Shibuya.  Here they serve fresh and healthy organic food.  The restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating in a peaceful atmosphere.  
Daylight Kitchen was one of the very few restaurants we visited in Japan that provided high chairs for our son.  
We ordered the chicken set meal.  The chicken was sautéed with vegetables and included 3 sides (no idea what they were but it was tasty).  Our meals included organic salad, barley rice, and miso soup.  Everything tasted great and was much healthier than anything we had eaten in Japan up to this point.

Tokyo Central Railway Station
Our next stop was a visit to the Tokyo Station, one of the busiest stations in Japan.  Tokyo Station was recently renovated in 2012 with beautiful construction inside and out.  The station has many underground passageways filled with shops and restaurants.  You can easily spend half a day just exploring all the stores the station has to offer.  The outside of Tokyo Station is built with red bricks and a clean design, dating back to 1914.  

The station is located in a business district, surrounded by skyscrapers and tall buildings.

Tokyo Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is the residence of the Emperor of Japan.  Gardens, trees, moats and walls surround the palace.  

A bridge leads to the main gate of the palace.  Unfortunately, the palace grounds were closed on the day we visited so we could only admire the palace from a distance.  Still, it was fun and peaceful exploring the outer gardens with the palace in the background.

Tokyo Ramen Street
After exploring the outer grounds of the Imperial Palace, we made the 5-minute walk back to Tokyo Station for dinner at Tokyo Ramen Street.  We enjoyed the ramen at Tokyo Station so much the last time we went to visit Tokyo that we went there for dinner on two separate occasions.  This little corner of the station has 8 of the best ramen restaurants in Tokyo all lined up side by side.  It can be hard to decide which ramen restaurant to visit with so many good options! 
We came early and since it was off peak season, there weren't any long lines. 
We found a restaurant we all agreed on and ordered from the vending machine prior to being seated.  
As expected, the ramen was very flavorful and filling.    

Locals and tourists flock to Ramen Street to grub on steaming bowls of delicious ramen.  You can read a nice summary of all the various ramen options on the Tokyo Cheapo website here.    

After dinner, we all agreed that we had seen enough of Tokyo and were ready to head out to Osaka the next morning.  
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