I booked my flight to Osaka because it was the cheapest flight from Shanghai, and I was on a tight budget. I arrived to Osaka with no absolutely prior knowledge or idea of what Osaka was. This turned out to be the highlight of my trip, and Japan quickly became my #1 favorite country in the world! The reason I combined Osaka and Kyoto is beacuse the cities are under one hour away by train, and most travellers do them together.
What to do in Osaka:
Taking the train from Kansai Airport to the city of Osaka was unbelievably cool, because everything was automated, the trains were super fast, and the city feels very modern. Once I arrived, I was surprised to see a vending machine selling cold drinks, hot drinks, soups, and other conveniences nearly every 100m! I probably walked past 15-25 vending machines within a 30-minute span! Walking into a restaurant to eat, I order from a vending machine outside the entrance, then come in, sit down, and my food is brought to me. Osaka is filled with tall buildings and interesting modern architecture, making me feel like I’m in the future. Osaka is a large city that’s not a huge tourist destination, but there are still some great spots to check out! Osaka Castle is a beautiful attraction, with a grand Japanese-style castle covered in white and gold, and the surrounding area is absolutely stunning and unique! At night, head to Dōtonbori to see the center of an ultra-modern city with large neon lights and lots of great shops and restaurants! There's also a nearby fish market, although not as big and lively as the one in Tokyo. Look up in the sky and try to spot the Tsūtenkaku tower or the iconic Umeda Sky Building. After you’re done with Osaka, move on to the nearby cities of Kyoto, Nara or Kobe.
What to do in Kyoto:
Kyoto is an awesome city, and there’s lots to see and do! Kyoto is also beautiful city, surrounded by mountains, impressive temples, shrines, and food to die for! Kinkaku-ji is my favorite attraction in Kyoto, a magnificent golden temple with a serene garden! Fushimi Inari-taisha is a one-in-a-kind, 10,000-Torii path hike up a mountain with as many as 32,000 sub shrines found within. It’s an experience worth the effort, just don't forget to bring plenty of water and comfortable shoes! Arashiyama is an awesome escape from the city, with a Bamboo Forest, a popular Monkey Park, and my favorite (but hidden and secluded) buddhist temple. In this temple, found up on the top of a mountain, I befriended a Buddhist Monk who taught me some some interesting views on life while serving me traditional matcha and a red bean sweet cake.
A short way from Kyoto (1 hour train) gets you to Nara, a really beautiful city with hundreds of deer walking freely along the roads, parks, and sidewalks! You can feed the deer with deer-crackers that they sell all over the city, as the animals are not afraid to come up close and personal! Walking along the parks, mountains, and little town was delightful, and we had some great food at some lady’s restaurant that was basically just her house. I wasn’t planning on coming to Nara, but a group invited me to go so I decided, why not, and we did a spontaneous trip here, with no regrets at all! Once we got back to Kyoto, we discovered the Gion District, which was the spot to go to at night with all the bars, restaurants, shops, and really prominent traditional Japanese culture with lots of Geishas walking around. There are over 1000 temples in Kyoto, and many many more sights, but it would take months to see them all. This is the historic capital of Japan, which holds thousands of years of history, all on display waiting for you to come and explore for yourself!
Where to stay in Osaka/Kyoto:
In Osaka, I stayed in J-Hoppers Osaka, which was a intimate hostel with a hilarious and awesome host named Dr.Yano. This hostel is located within walking distance to some sights, and is also close to a subway to connect you to the rest of the large city. Lots of great restaurants and Izakayas (Japanese traditional style bar) are nearby. Staying here was a blast, and I met some great people.
In Kyoto, I stayed in K’s House, which was a large hostel with a very social large common area, and a gorgeous rooftop, overlooking the city and mountains. This is a great hostel, perfect for making new friends and exploring the city. I also stayed in a capsule hotel called ‘Rumor Plaza’, located within the central Gion district. This interesting hotel has multiple hot-tubs, dry saunas, steam rooms, salt saunas, and pools. Although there’s no social atmosphere or many other tourists staying here, a night in a capsule is definitely a cool way to spend the night in Japan!