Our next stop, as it is for most people who are on their first visit to Japan, was Osaka and Kyoto. We chose to stay in Osaka since we heard restaurants and shops would be open later, and it was only about 30 minutes on the train to Kyoto. To be honest, we probably should have stayed in Kyoto since some of the attractions ended up being an hour or more from our AirBnB in Osaka. That said, we really did enjoy the city of Osaka -- still very urban, but slightly less overwhelming and in-your-face than Tokyo.
Where We Ate
World's Second Best Freshly-Baked Melonpan Ice Cream. Yes, apparently this is the real name of this ice-cream sandwich stand in Dotonbori, Osaka's most famous food strip that comes alive at night with hourdes of tourists and locals alike. Melonpan is a sweet bun that is eaten in Japan and Taiwan, and is basically the exact same as a Concha from Mexico. This stand serves melonpan in the form of an ice cream sandwich, with different flavors of ice cream to choose from. We got vanilla after standing in an absurdly long line, and it was indeed delicious.
Coco Ichibanya. This is a Japanese curry chain with outposts all over the country and even some in California. It's surprisingly good, although it seems rather unhealthy since it's basically only rice, chicken, and a thick, brown, spicy curry sauce. You can choose your spice level from 1-10; I had a 3, which was shockingly spicy. I'm not sure if anyone ever orders a 10. A solid choice if you've run out of energy for finding creative places to eat.
Kushikatsu Daruma. This was a great experience. There is one located in Dotonbori, Osaka, but we went to a location closer to our AirBnB. This seems to be a place where Japanese people come to eat and drink for several hours. All the food is skewered, breaded, and then deep fried, and it seems customary to order several skewers at a time as you drink and converse with your table-mates. They serve all manner of food in this way -- mushrooms, chicken balls, lotus root. We particularly enjoyed the deep fried rice balls, asparagus, and shrimp. There is a tub of worcestershire-like sauce on each table, into which you dip each skewer (although you must be careful not to double-dip, as this is one of the long list of rules posted around the restaurant). We started with a sampler platter and then ordered some of our favorites a la carte, which seems to be a good way to get a sampling of a variety of food. Highly recommended.
Okonomiyaki Kiji. Located in Osaka Station, this restaurant serves up delicious okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake-like dish that usually contains cabbage, eggs, flour, a meat such as pork or octopus, as well as various other ingredients. At Kiji, the okonomiyaki is cooked right in front of you on flat-top grills that extend almost up to the bar stools, and then eaten straight off the grill by the customer. We also had some delicious yakisoba. Although difficult to find, it was worth the effort -- just ask around the train station for 'Kiji' until you happen upon it.
Aida. This sit-down, set lunch restaurant is located in Nara, a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto and the famed location where wild deer run free, begging for 'deer cookies' from tourists to the temples in the area. We happened across it by chance, and it was one of the best meals we had in Japan and very different than our typical ramen joint. They served a set lunch with tempura, rice, miso soup, and vegetables, and closed fairly early, around 3pm. A great place to stop for lunch after touring Nara.
Ramen Yashichi. Another delicious ramen place in Osaka, and the restaurant where we ate our last meal before leaving Japan. Luckily, we had some experience with vending machine ordering by this point, because there was no English on the menu at all (but several pictures which aided us). After waiting on line, we ended up with two bowls of amazing ramen and a smaller side of pork over rice (also recommended). A perfect send-on before leaving the country.
What We Did
Osaka Spa World. This may have been my favorite experience in all of Japan. The Japanese love onsen, which is basically a hot spring where people go to bathe. You must be naked to enter the onsen, and are allowed to bring only a small towel to dry yourself off (basically the size of a washcloth). I regret that we didn't go to an onsen deep in the woods somewhere, but Osaka Spa World was certainly an experience. It's a giant, several-story tall building that contains two floors devoted to onsen: one is Asian themed, with Islamic and Persian-inspired areas, and one is European themed, with Greek statues adorning the baths. The onsen are segregated by sex, and the women's and men's areas switch monthly. When we went, the women were assigned to the Asian baths.
I had a lot of trepidation entering, and I was very self-conscious at first, but quickly got over it since I was surrounded by dozens of other naked women who didn't appear to care at all. The baths are extremely hot -- in one case up to 106F! Some are cooler and they post the temperatures next to each hot tub. In addition to multiple baths, the floor also had several saunas, a salt scrub area, and several shower rooms. The best part was several outdoor pools, where you could soak under the cool rainfall. It was by far the most relaxing experience I had in Japan, and one of the most culturally unique. Entrance was around $10USD for the entire day, and it's open 24 hours.
Fushimi Inari. This is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, and was our favorite site we visited. The famous red gates of the shrine are a popular photography subject for visitors, and the site is extremely packed, but crowds quickly thin as you climb Inari mountain. The gates run all the way up the mountain, which takes about an hour and a half to summit. Supposedly it's much better to visit at dawn or dusk, when it's less crowded, and if I were return I would probably come later in the day. Still, the views were great and there are a lot of interesting statues and small shrines just off the main path.
Arashiyama. Another very crowded site and inconvenient to get to. This is Kyoto's bamboo forest, slightly north of the city. Although the main section was difficult to enjoy because of the number of people, when we wandered slightly beyond the main path we were rewarded with some amazing views of the forest around Kyoto. Definitely worth exploring, but try to get away from the crowds.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in a great AirBnB close to Umeda station. Namba is another popular area for tourists to stay, but it is in the southern part of the city and thus would have been much more inconvenient to travel to Kyoto. We wanted to be close to transit links, and Umeda was a good choice for easy day trips out of Osaka.
Overall, Japan may not have been our favorite country on Earth (that distinction belongs to Mexico), but I can certainly see the appeal -- overall great food, extremely polite people, and generally nonthreatening and easy to travel around. Definitely worth returning for the ramen alone!