72 hours in Japan

Osaka, Kyoto & Mino-o

Recently, I ventured to Japan on a short holiday. I had a few ideas of what I wanted to do and see. All that was left now was to book my flights and accommodation.

Flights: £200 return Qingdao - Osaka Kansai Airport

Accommodation: 220 yen per night - 4 nights (shared dorm)

Accommodation: Osaka Guesthouse SUN

The hostel common area

The guesthouse allows you to arrive after the check-in time as long as you check-in the following morning. Be sure to inform them of your arrival time in advance. The location of the guesthouse was smack bang in the centre of downtown Osaka. I was able to walk everywhere.

Getting from the airport to the guesthouse

I took the JR Namba train which costs 920 yen and takes approximately 50 minutes (there are other faster options but I didn’t know at the time). From Namba station it is a 5-10 minute walk to the gueshouse (I took a taxi because it was midnight and I had no clue where I was going).

Day 1: Exploring Osaka

My friend gave me the contact of her friend who lives out in Osaka so we met up on the Friday morning at Takashimaya department store. After some quick introductions he was more than happy to show me around. Firstly, we walked around the shopping areas, showing me some great places for second hand electronics and much more. Later we walked by Toshimoto Kogyo which is a famous animation where we stopped for some pictures. Close by we stopped at a street vendor in Dotonbori so I could try some local food called Takoyaki. They are balls of goodness for 450 yen (a portion of 8). I only managed 5.

Before we knew it lunch time was upon us and what better place to stumble across than an Indian restaurant with a special offer. 800 yen for chicken curry, chicken tikka pieces, salad, naan bread and a drink. Demolished!

There is no better way to relax after a good meal than a bit of people watching so we found a nice spot in the shade and did just that. After a much needed rest we headed to Utsubo Koen Park.

Utsubo Koen Park

The park is within walking distance from the down town area. We constantly stopped to look in shops and take pictures of interesting things along the way. I think if you walked without these stops it would take about 15 minutes or less. On entering the park I first noticed how clean and well-kept it was. The grass was so green as if it were artificial. It had a small area with a fountain with some children happily playing in the water. We wandered around for a while then moved onto the tennis, football and basketball courts. It was nice to see young children actively playing outdoors rather than being held up indoors with their computer games.

Powerful sunset only a few minutes walk from the hostel

 

As the sun began to set we parted ways. I decided to walk around the area by the guest house and managed to catch the sun just setting over the river. It truly was a spectacular sight and a lovely way to end my first day in Osaka.

Day 2: Kyoto day trip

My friend had arrived late the previous night and we planned to go exploring the following morning. We were up early and on our way to the subway station. The total cost to Kyoto was about 600 yen each but with some transfers. Luckily all the staff plus a lot of the locals can speak English so you can always ask for directions.

Note: The ticket machines are quite tricky. You need to know the price of the journey before you can buy the correct ticket. That is something I wish they could include on a sign (unless I just missed it).

We made it to Kyoto with no problems. Once we had arrived at the station we quickly asked an attendant which bus would take us to Toji Temple. Minutes later we were in line waiting for the bus. It only cost 230 yen and took less than 10 minutes to arrive.

Toji Temple

 

Looking at the entrance, the temple didn’t seem to look like much but once you fully enter the grounds and walk a little you can appreciate it’s peaceful, tranquil atmosphere with beautifully designed temples and carefully planted trees and plants. We stopped numerous times to soak up the sun whilst looking at some truly wonderful architecture with so many huge trees towering above us offering just enough shade to make the walk around that little bit more pleasant.

Note: To visit the Pagoda you must pay 600 yen to enter.

After much walking and picture taking it was time for a refreshment. We found a locally owned coffee shop just in time before the heavens opened. From the window you could see both foreigners and locals frantically looking for shelter.

We decided what better way to spend the afternoon away from the rain, than to visit the Aquarium. So off we went as it wasn’t far away.

Aquarium

Note: Entrance Fee - 2000 yen per person (adult).

I was pleasantly surprised by the large variety of marine life, the high quality dolphin show (included with the entrance fee), the available information and even delicious, cheap snacks. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits from the youngest of children to the elderly.

Kyoto town

Although we didn’t spend much time exploring I can honestly say that it is a very clean and peaceful area. The locals are friendly and helpful. The buildings are very well-kept. The local shops have a very ancient feel to them with the old trinkets, traditional antiques and vintage items. We quickly learnt that the bus system was very organised making it easy for us to return to the subway/rail station.

Back in down town Osaka

Hungry and desperately trying to find a restaurant to eat dinner at was not as easy as we had anticipated. Yes there were many restaurants. Yes they had English speakers with English menus. Yes we were trying to find a place. The Japanese are much more patient than those of us from the Western world. Locals will happily wait in a line for more than an hour just to eat in their chosen restaurant. We made the sensible choice of buying some street food to hold us over till we found a suitable place. Finally, we found a place that looked very promising as it was full apart from two seats which quickly became our seats. We were about to experience Sushi & Grill Souya restaurant.

Sushi & Grill Souya

In short the food was amazing but tiny portions considering the price. The Jim Bean with Ginger Ale drink helped keep our spirits high during this quite poor experience. The service was shocking minus one member of staff who had his hands full the entire time. I would suggest avoiding this restaurant.

After leaving the restaurant hungry having withdrawals from the Jim Bean with Ginger Ale we went to the nearest 7/11 to buy dumplings, a wrap and alcohol. We took it back to the guest house expecting to eat, drink and pass out early. We were wrong!

Unexpected craziness!

Whilst consuming our 7/11 goods we got to talking to two guys who were pre-gaming for their night out on the town. Of course we were convinced to join them and hours later the four of us were stopping on the street to ask for advice on which club to go to. Also we offered to wear their promotion signs for them. These PR guys directly took us to a club. We were offered free drinks and shots, watched dancers perform, laughed and danced ourselves silly before looking for a more western style bar or club. We stumbled into a bar full of happy and intoxicated people dancing the night away. We tried some dangerous looking drinks including lots of flames, convinced our new male friend to let a local guy bondage wrap him in rope and enjoy our evening. Dragging ourselves home just before the sun was due to come up.

Day 3: Mino-o Waterfall & Osaka Castle

Another early start with little sleep the night before. Subway to Mino-o is about 400 yen per person with some transfers along the way. Waking up at 8am was not easy but we had a whole planned and a lack of sleep was not going to stand in our way. Moving a bit slow we were on our way, coffee in hand and breakfast on the go. It took approximately one hour to arrive at Mino-o station.

Mino-o Waterfall

Arriving in Mini-o I noticed how small and quaint the town was with predominantly elderly people residing there. After a few directions from a local we set off on our quest to the Waterfall which was a 45 minute walk. The walk itself was such a pleasant surprise. Over-hanging trees, flowers, a stream, bridges, temples, residential areas, young and happy children playing, pet dogs getting their daily exercise etc. It was a little crowded at the waterfall but people let you get your picture, even assisting in taking the picture for you.

Walking back down was much faster. We joked about retiring there as its the perfect little town and making that walk to the waterfall weekly would be great exercise. Back at the station we headed to Osaka Castle and Park.

Osaka Castle

On arrival you are treated to local performers, street food for miles and a pleasant stroll up to the castles main entrance.

First impression. Wow! The castle is well preserved in every way. The surroundings are clean and full of colourful trees and flowers. I couldn’t help but stare at the gold detailed design on the castles exterior. With the sun shining upon it, it looked so royal and out of this world.

Museum Entrance Fee: 600yen p/p

The Museum is worth a visit, full of intimidating looking suits of amor, clothing made of pure gold, a lot of information about the royal members and so much more. Take the stairs to the top of the castle and soak up the view.

As the sun began to set we headed out to try some local street food which consisted of BBQ skewers and ice cream for dessert. The sugar rush from the ice cream gave us just enough energy to get back to the hostel. About 40 minutes travel time to arrive back.

 

After a rest and a long shower we braved the restaurant scene once more and this time we were not disappointed. Amazing staff, the most delicious and generous portions of food, indulged in way too much plum wine and ended the evening with a nice chat with the waitress.

Perfect way to cap off the trip!

The chef doing this thing!

Maasai Mara: Maasai Village & Hot Air Balloon

Maasai Village & Hot Air Balloon

Left: The Maasai women performing a welcome song/dance for the visitors.

Right: The other two hot air balloons ahead of ours.
In this article I will complete my Maasai Mara experience by sharing the two additional activities I took part in whilst at Maasai Mara.
This is a follow up article: 
Maasai Mara National Reserve Safari

Additional Activities

Myself and my friend decided to add two activities to our Safari experience. Both came with additional costs but worth every penny.

Maasai Village - $30 including transportation

Hot Air Balloon - $450 including transportation, game drive and champagne breakfast

Maasai Village

John, the village leader

The Maasai are a tribe located throughout East Africa. They are some what traditional in terms of how they choose to live their lives from the clothes they wear to their selection method for marriage.

On arrival we were greeted by the Village leader who went by the name John (I am sure that was for our benefit). He shared some information about his community: the people, the homes, the land, the animals and much more.

The People

All the families live together as one large community but with separate homes for each family. They work together on the land by rearing animals, farming, making beaded jewellery and raising their children.

The Maasai men performing a tribal song/dance

The Homes

On entering a fenced area through a small gate you find a large number of mud shacks around the outskirts. All are a single story, very low in height and generally small in size. Inside, the homes are very basic and built for one person and a small child or baby. There is no electricity or even windows as to keep the rooms cool at all times, also making it very dark and difficult to navigate.

The first, most important home as you enter the village

The land & animals

Walking around I first noticed how dry the land was and how vast  also. There are donkeys everywhere you turn. John, the village leader told us that they use the donkeys not only for transportation but also as security to guard the land.

Unfortunately you can see how skinny the cows are and how dry the land is

Partner selection

A very interesting twist to the tour came when John, the leader told us about a traditional method for partner selection.  The men chant and dance for the women then one by one they come to the front of the group and jump as high as they can. The women watching then choose who they prefer based on how high they can jump.

Firstly, I was surprised at the method in general. I don’t see how a man who can jump very high would prove to be any better a husband than a man who can’t jump high. But who am I to judge.

Secondly, I was even more surprised that it’s the women who have the power to decide and not the men. This I can fully accept!

The experience was very informative and interesting and I would recommend it with a slight heads up.

The downside

Unfortunately, due to their lack of money they have no issue asking for it. When you are shown into a local home, the village leader asks for a sizeable donation for allowing you inside. Of course, he asks once you’re already inside the home so you feel cornered and give in. At the very end of the tour, you are taken to an open shop where all the women display their beaded jewellery. That wasn’t the issue. All the women stand around the circular shop surrounded by perforated fencing and watch you browse. I felt very uncomfortable and this made me not want to buy anything.

Hot Air Balloon

It had been my dream for a long time to fly over a spectacular place in a Hot Air Balloon. I am so happy that I chose to do it at Maasai Mara.

Early start just in time for the sun to rise

It is still pitch black outside when your wake up call startles you out of bed. Scrambling around to get dressed and look alive in time for a quick cup of much needed coffee. The drive to the Balloon wasn’t very long and we even spotted some wildlife along the way.

Arriving at the landing spot we patiently waited for the guides, drivers, security etc to set up. As the sun slowly began to rise we were given the all clear to climb into our balloon. Yes, climb! I never realised the enormity of a hot air balloon. The basket was lay on its side, therefore you must climb into it horizontally where you are left lying down holding on for dear life as the balloon engine roars to life followed by a sharp tilt. Moments later you are standing up right and the balloon is hovering slightly above the ground. Ready to go!

Flying high

Such a surreal feeling flying high whilst watching the sunrise. It’s so peaceful and still that you can hear yourself breathing. That silence is disturbed by the roaring of the Balloons fire breathing engine.

Watching the sunrise from our balloon

As we hover/fly over the Maasai Mara we see the other balloons in the distance at various stages of flight. Also we can see nature at its best. The vast land of grass, trees and exotic flowers, the various wildlife searching for its morning meal, the many streams creating a colourful images for the viewers above and the sun beaming down upon us as if it were just for us alone.

 

Champagne Breakfast

If the balloon ride wasn’t perfect enough, how about a few glasses of Champagne with your breakfast?

With the Hot Air Balloon package came a Champagne breakfast. You could eat and drink as much as you wanted. Of course soft drinks plus tea and coffee were included. The breakfast was delicious and super sized. We stayed there at least one hour to relax and soak up the rays whilst filling our bellies with goodness. Then it was time to head back to our accommodation. What we didn’t know was on the way back we got to experience yet another game drive for more than an hour. This was the day we saw various elephants and countless giraffe going about their day. Truly a spectacular sight!

If you decide to venture to the Maasai Mara, I advise you to consider taking part in the additional activities. Although they may seem expensive after already paying for the Safari itself, the icing on the cake is sweet.