Kampai! Tasting whisky and a guided tour of Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

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If you still think that traveling around the Japan will cost you an arm, a leg and a kidney, then you’re not looking hard enough. There are free tours available in the country, most of which will give you a taste of Japanese culture–which can be in a glass of whisky. Continue reading

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What to love about Osaka and Kyoto trains and stations

With Osaka as our base all throughout our trip to Japan last March, we spent an ample amount of time in trains and train stations, going to Kyoto, and around Kyoto and Nara. Aside from the Japanese railways’ efficiency, these are some of the things that made my train-loving heart geek out: some cool-looking trains, delicious station eats, and abundant opportunities to people watch.

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Osaka Loop Line. In Tokyo, there’s the Yamanote Line. Osaka also has its own loop line, which has stops in major stations Umeda/Osaka and Tennoji. The line also stops in Osakajokoen, which is the closest JR station to Osaka Castle; and Bentencho, which is two stops away from Osakako (Osaka Aquarium) on the Chuo line.

Hankyu Kyoto Line to Arashiyama. We decided to take the Hankyu Kyoto Line from Umeda (Hankyu) station in Osaka to Arashiyama just because it was the most direct route from where we were staying (in Kita-ku). And the minute I saw the train, I was happy with our decision. It was an old maroon four-car beauty. A Hankyu 6300 series, I found out later on, that has been around since the 1970s and was supposedly refurbished five years ago. Continue reading

Ninjas, anime, and film shoots at Toei Kyoto Studio Park

Ninjas on rooftops, samurais and sword fights, super robots. These were just some of the things my husband and I were looking forward to when we made the trip to Japan last March. Him especially. And we found them all at Toie Kyoto Studio Park.

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By the entrance and ticket booth of Kyoto Studio Park. Oh look, ninjas.

If Kyoto is referred to by guide books as the the Japan of your imagination (what with its dizzying number of historic temples and shrines, teahouses and tradition), then Toei Kyoto Studio Park is place you want to go to if your imagination is keen to include anime, manga, ninjas and samurais.

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In beautiful Kyoto: Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari

If you could live in any foreign city for a year, which one would it be? For me, it would have to be Kyoto.

The first time I got to set foot in this Japanese city, I was smitten. Centuries-old heritage sites, picturesque tree-lined paths, charming alleys lined by traditional wooden houses, idyllic-looking neighborhoods–every turn seemed to reveal something old and beautiful. The former imperial capital also sits close to nature, surrounded by many mountains, but like other Japanese cities, it maintains the usual modern trappings (all you need to do is arrive in Kyoto Station to see it). And while it can get crowded during spring and autumn, Kyoto still possesses a relaxed atmosphere, a calm murmur compared to a frenetic throb of a metropolis like Tokyo.

On our fourth day in Japan, in our trip last month, we took the train out of Osaka to spend the entire Saturday in Kyoto. The two places we didn’t get to see the first time we went there were the Fushimi Inari shrine and the Arashiyama area, both places that do nothing to diminish Kyoto’s reputation as one of the most culturally-rich cities in the country.

Dreamy Arashiyama

Dreamy bamboo grove in Arashiyama

Arashiyama area (or Sagano) is a charming district that lies at the base of Kyoto’s western mountains. The charm sets in the minute you get off the Hankyu Kyoto Line and go out of the Hankyu Arashiyama Station. It’s a small town train station and when you get out, the streets are pretty quiet and empty except for the throngs of tourists such as yourself spilling out of the station. There’s a tree-lined avenue to the side, which you take on foot or with a bike to lead you to a small bridge.  After you cross the bridge, you face a riverside park covered in pebbles. (So wear comfy walking shoes and not heels as I saw some tourists were wearing. Eeep!)

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The cherry blossoms are blooming

I just remembered that it was exactly a year ago today when my husband and I finally got to go to Japan. The trip was amazing and it sealed our fascination for everything Japanese. Japan was more beautiful than I imagined especially with those fluffy, pink clouds of cherry blossoms in parks, gardens, temples, street corners, riversides, and bridges.

A cherry blossom tree just outside a house along the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto

Many people stroll (and shoot) along the Philosopher's Path, a beautiful walkway lined with blooming cherry blossom trees during spring

Cherry blossom trees getting all lit up in the evening in a street in Gion

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park

Cherry trees line both sides of the Sumida River in Tokyo

Yoyogi Park in Tokyo

Japanese and foreign tourists descend upon Ueno Park in Tokyo from late March to early April

Appreciating the blossoms’ delicate beauty and short life span, the Japanese take the time to celebrate its arrival with viewing parties (hanami). The flower also figures in Japanese poetry and literature, seen as a metaphor for life–it’s beautiful, it’s fleeting, it has to be celebrated, and it ends. Sometimes all too soon.

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