Sydney-based Instagrammer, design and travel creative @taramilktea – aka Tara Whiteman – recently visited the historical and cultural Kansai region in the heart of Japan. Here she showcases the beautiful and bright spots of Kyoto, Osaka and Koyasan.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kyoto
Our visit to Arashiyama quickly became one of my favourite days during our trip. The bamboo forest is stunning, and surprisingly quiet despite being a very popular tourist attraction. (Edit: I just saw a friend’s more recent snapchat at the Bamboo Forest, which was 10 times busier than when we visited! So, I guess if you want to avoid the crowds, February is the perfect time to do so! Haha!) Prior to our visit to the forest, we visited a kimono house to be dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos. This was a spontaneous experience, which our guide arranged a day earlier.
When I say traditional, I mean, traditional! I didn’t realise how long and intense the process is to put on a kimono. I was told that the Japanese believe it is more attractive for women to have a completely straight figure, so I was layered in many cloths and towels to help achieve this look. I loved the outcome, as I was able to choose my own fabrics, accessories and hair style, but it was also so tightly fitted, I felt sorry for Maikos and Geikos who have to dress like this on the regular. As the saying goes, beauty is pain!
Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto
I think I was most excited about this place from seeing other people’s photos. Haha! The infinite orange/red walkways mesmerised me both in photos and in real life. I wished it wasn’t so busy but our guide told us the day we visited was actually quite quiet. So prepare for crowds.
I could have walked up and down here for a while. If it weren't so busy I might have re-enacted the running scene in Memoirs of a Geisha. Hehe! The rain on this day meant we didn’t spend a very long time here. Still, I can happily check this one off my list.
Takoyaki and okonomiyaki were some of my favourite dishes from our entire trip. I’ve had takoyaki in Australia before and didn’t take a liking to it, but when I had it in Dotonbori in Osaka, this was simply a whole new ball game. It is to die for. Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack, made from wheat-flour-based batter, and is typically filled with diced octopus (or other things). The process itself is so fun to watch, as it is cooked in a special pan to create the ball shapes. I wish they made it this well at home – it’s just so fluffy and flavoursome!
And then there was okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake. It’s mainly batter and cabbage but then it’s topped with a variety of things, depending where you go, which creates a wonderfully tasty party in your mouth.
We ate both dishes a few times in Dotonbori, and found it to be amazing each time, but different at each sitting. Dotonbori is a main district for tourists in Osaka, overflowing with restaurants, snack foods, shops and modern Japanese culture. I wish we had spent more time there but there’s so much more to see and do here.
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Osaka Castle, Osaka
Osaka Castle was very close to our hotel, about a two-minute walk away, so we made a quick stop here before starting our day. It’s a beautiful castle. We didn’t manage to go inside, as we hadn’t planned to, but the exterior is beautiful. We were told the castle opened in 1597, which alone had me dumbfounded, as it's simply just so cool. I only wished that the sakura (cherry blossom) season had begun earlier, as there were some barren cherry blossom trees around the front, which I imagine would make the entire scene look spectacular.
We were in Koyasan for only one night but had the pleasure of staying in a Shukubo, where the monks live. Here, we ate all natural foods prepared by the monks themselves. I highly recommend this experience.
You can live and eat like monks during your stay, meditate with them in a class (depending on your level), and they are kind enough to allow visitors to participate in prayers. The beds, which are like giant sleeping bags, are surprisingly comfortable. My only issue was readjusting to the cold every time I left the room, as you are not allowed to wear shoes, only slippers, in the walkways. Unfortunately, socks are not that helpful in subzero temperatures.
Okunoin Cemetery & Temple, Koyasan
The walk to the Okunoin Temple at Koyasan is so beautiful in winter. The gravestones along the way are layered with perfectly untouched snow, and the path up to the temple becomes a magical scene as the sun peeks through the tall pines in the late morning.
The Okunoin Temple serves as a mausoleum of the leader of Shingon Buddhism, and is situated in the largest cemetery in Japan, with more than 200,000 tombstones. At -5C, we were freezing but man, it was worth it. This was such a peaceful day, as there was virtually no one around. It was so serene and quiet but so rich in Japanese history and culture, and I’m so grateful to have been able to visit this place.