Hiroshima, Osaka, Nara & Kobe, Japan

HIROSHIMA:

After a short train ride, we arrived in Hiroshima about an hour before we’d originally planned (we were able to get on an earlier train). We all went to my parents’ hotel so they could check in and then they walked with us to our hotel so we could do the same. Since none of us have phones that work here, we have to make sure we can always find each other in each city.

We chose to visit Hiroshima for its history, so our plan for the afternoon was to hit the top sites/memorials about the atomic bomb. We were expecting a pretty depressing afternoon and to see something similar to what we saw in Vietnam, with a very detailed museum explaining the history and the damage surrounding the historic event of when the first atomic bomb was dropped. It was a rainy day in Hiroshima (the first time it’s rained on our trip so far), so it was the perfect day for a couple museums, and also sort of fitting given the somber subject of the day.

The first site we saw was the Atomic Bomb Dome. We all thought it was going to be something different than it was, but it’s the only building that remained standing after the atomic bomb was dropped. Then we went to the Peace Memorial Museum (50 yen pp). It was filled with information about the atomic bomb and the damage it caused, but what it was missing was a good explanation of the history behind the event. The background information. Of course it was very sad, but we thought the museum was a little underwhelming. This could also be though because a whole wing of it is under renovation until 2018. Next we visited the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims (free) which had a large exhibit showing all of the people who died in the blast. All of these memorials/museums were surrounding a large and very peaceful park (the Peace Memorial Park) with a few more statues and memorials in honor of those who died. The area/day as a whole was not as powerful as what we saw in Vietnam about the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it), but the overall message of the whole area was one of peace and we thought that was very nice. In the very center of the park they have an eternal flame that will only be extinguished when the very last nuclear weapon on Earth is destroyed.

After our afternoon of history, we were ready to explore Hiroshima’s supposedly great nightlife. I hadn’t expected there to be much other than the history stuff that we’d seen, but the city itself is actually really cute with tons of great restaurants, shops, and bars. We walked back towards our hotels to the entertainment area of the city, under another very long covered street of shops (perfect for the rainy day) and then stumbled into a bar off of Namiki-Dori (the center of the nightlife area) with an all Japanese menu, but very cheap drinks (even though we weren’t quite sure what was what). We got a couple of beers and sakes and all enjoyed sitting and chatting in the very cute (albeit very small) bar.

Then, it was dinner time. I was very proud of my dad for getting a 6pm snack so he could make it until 8 or so for dinner. Dave found an awesome sounding place serving Okinomiyaki, a savory pancake-like dish topped with sprouts, cabbage, noodles, pork, and more, which Hiroshima is famous for. The restaurant, called Okinomi-Mura is 25 stalls spread throughout 3 floors, each serving different variations of this local specialty. We checked out each of the floors before deciding on (of course) the first stall we saw, with two cute women as the owners. Dave and I ordered one okinomiyaki topped with a fried egg (my dad ordered the same) and then one topped with huge oysters (something else that Hiroshima is famous for). They cook each person’s pancake on a big griddle, which also serves as the countertop, right in front of you (think Benihana style). They are delicious and it was such a fun meal.

We walked home after dinner and planned to meet a little later the next morning to give us all some time to relax. Dave and I went for a run back to the memorial park, while my parents finally got to have some time to enjoy one of their hotels.

Now, off to Osaka.

OSAKA:

We arrived in Osaka and immediately split up to go check into our respective hotels. We made plans to meet up 2 hours later back at the station. Dave and I had a little trouble finding our place (due to someone giving us incorrect directions) but we only lost a few minutes. Typically when we travel, we pay around $20-25 per night. In Japan, our average has been about $50. Osaka was one of the only places that we were able to find a hotel room for closer to our normal average, so we jumped on the opportunity to save a few bucks. The area we were staying in wasn’t supposed to be very nice (though a not so nice area here was nothing compared to a not so nice area in other places we’ve been) and the room was very (and I mean very) small but we weren’t planning to spend much time there, so it was ok. We dropped our stuff off quickly after checking in and then turned around and went back to the train station to meet my parents.

First, we checked out the area around Osaka Station and went up in the Umeda Sky Building to see the views. We didn’t pay to go all the way up to the roof deck, but on the 29th floor they had big windows where we were able to get a great view of another one of Japan’s very big cities. Osaka, Japan’s 2nd biggest city, has about 3 million people, about the same size as Chicago.

There wasn’t much around Osaka Station, so next on the itinerary was a Lonely Planet walking tour of the main shopping/eating/nightlife districts. The walking tour started out in an area called Amerika-Mura, which is a very funky, young area with lots of clubs and thrift stores all surrounding a small triangular park where the teens like to hang out, eat snacks, and people watch. Right next to this area is the Michigan Avenue-esque street (Mido-suji-dori) with wide, pretty streets and fancy stores. And next to that, another covered shopping area (Shinsaibashi-suji) going on for blocks and blocks, similar to what we saw in Hiroshima. Of each of these three different areas that we walked through, we each had our favorite. Dave and I loved the funky/fun vibe of Amerika-Mura (plus we were amazed at the clubs that were open from 5-11pmand were charging about $30 entrance fees). My mom liked the Michigan Ave. street and my dad the covered shopping streets. From here, our walking tour dropped us at the Ebisu-bashi bridge, which was a very pretty riverfront area lined with cute restaurants and then to the grand finale, Dotombori Arcade, which was pretty much the best food street/area I’ve ever seen. We spent a little while walking around and scoping out all the restaurants before deciding on a conveyor belt sushi place that seemed to be a great deal and had a line out the door and down the street.

Each plate of sushi (most of which came with two pieces) cost a little more than a dollar. As soon as we sat down, we started grabbing plates that looked good and then finding the ones we weren’t sure about on our menu to see what we were eating. The sushi was delicious and it was a really fun/different experience. Each couple ended up with about 14 plates stacked high at the end of the meal. After dinner, we walked my parents home and then took the train back to our place.

BACK TO HIROSHIMA:

Osaka is more of a nightlife city and there isn’t much to do during the day other than what we had done the day before, so for the next day, we had planned to take advantage of our last day on our JR passes and go see some other cities. When we were in Kyoto, there were a few other sights outside of the city that we hadn’t been able to see, so we started the day going back to one of them, Fushimi-Inari-Taishi. Kyoto is only a 30 minute train ride from Osaka, so it was an easy trip. This shrine is the top Kyoto attraction both in our book and on TripAdvisor. We had seen a lot of temples already so this was also something a little different – a 4km hike up a mountain that is filled with thousands of red gates/shrines. The hike wasn’t too difficult and it was very beautiful walking through the mountains and past and through thousands of these gates. There were also fox statues made out of stone all along the way who are known to be the messengers of Inari (the God of the rice harvest). The only disappointing part of the hike was the top. We thought there would be some kind of nice view at the top overlooking the city and all the gates we’d walked through but when we got there, there was no view and we didn’t even know that we had reached the top. Once we got back down, there was a very cute little town that we walked through and picked up a snack and some souvenirs in before heading to our next stop of the day.

NARA:

Next, we headed to Nara (an hour train ride from Kyoto), the 2nd most cultural city in Japan after Kyoto. The main attraction here is a big park with several temples and shrines in it. The park has another very cool element: it’s filled with hundreds (maybe more) of deer that walk around and come up to you. All throughout the park there are stands that sell crackers to feed them. We’ve fed lots of monkeys during our time in Asia, but the deer was a first for us. They were very cute and docile and they loved these crackers (and my dad’s shirt). After we ran out of deer crackers, we headed to see Daibatsu (the great bronze Buddha), known to be one of Japan’s most impressive sights. It is housed in the biggest wooden temple in the world. This was the nicest building/temple that we’ve seen in Japan so far and the only one that we really felt was worth our 5,000 yen per person fee.  After exploring the temple and watching tons and tons of little kids try to squeeze through a small hole in the back of the building that’s supposed to be the size of the Buddha’s nose (if you can fit through it, it means you will lead a life of enlightenment – Dave and I wanted to try but the line was about 100 kids deep), we went to a really nice viewpoint in the park before heading back to the train. We all loved Nara and thanked Dave (who was responsible for our day’s – and really the whole trip’s – itinerary) for adding this stop at the last minute.

KOBE:

We caught a train back to Osaka (another hour ride) and switched there for another 20 minute train to Kobe, home of Kobe beef. Originally we had planned to do a sake brewery tour (they are famous for these here) but we ended up arriving a little too late to make it worth our while. So instead we walked to the Kitano neighborhood, with its very fancy shops and streets going up into the mountains and then headed back down toward the waterfront. Kitano is where lots of Westerners first settled in Japan so there’s a bunch of different foreign houses/museums each representing a differently country, mostly from Europe.  Most of them charge a small fee to visit but we were short on time so we just perused the neighborhood.  It’s kind of like Monte Carlo (super fancy town in the mountains overlooking the sea) meets Epcot Center (different countries represented throughout).  Very interesting and much like other places we’ve seen in Japan, it felt like we were somewhere other than Japan (in this instance, Western Europe).  On our way down, we started checking out different restaurants in the hope of finding a place to try Kobe beef, but after seeing place after place listing ridiculous prices of about $50+ for 100 grams  of meat (Dave and I usually eat around 400 grams of meat each), we conceded that we would not be trying this delicacy.

Instead, we headed to Harbor Land, a very pretty area right on the waterfront that’s similar to Navy Pier in Chicago (complete with a Ferris wheel), but which seemed to be much less touristy). After scouring the area, we found a great restaurant serving “cook your own meat,” which is one dinner experience that we’d been wanting to try. My mom, of course, did not partake in the meat grilling and instead ordered a rice dish, but my dad got a steak and Dave and I got a meat platter for two. My dad’s steak was done quickly but Dave and I had so many different kinds of meat (beef, liver, intestines, squid and scallops) that it took us a while to cook it all (and by us I mean me). It would have been much easier with a bigger grill, but it was still was a very fun experience and the food was delicious. Plus, it’s rare to have  a meal in Asia that lasts more than 30 minutes, so that was a nice treat (and despite many protests from Dave, my parents treated as our anniversary dinner; on top of a few nights’ hotels they’re also treating us to for our anniversary and Dave’s 35th). All in all, it was nice to sit for a while and enjoy the delicious food and the great waterfront view.

At around 10, we got on a train back to Osaka, where we all split up for the night. I’m not sure anyone’s ever made better use of their Japan Rail Pass in one day or been to 4 different cities in a day, for that matter.  This may have been one of the busiest traveling days that Dave and I have ever had and we were very proud of my parents for being able to keep up. It was an epic day, and maybe the best of our trip so far.  Now, we’re switching gears and heading away from the big cities and into the Japan Alps.

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