06 December 2016

KYOTO: 3 Day Itinerary

Kyoto is a city with a huge amount of history and so many incredible sights, that sometimes it's hard to know where to start, especially if you've only got a limited amount of time. I visited Kyoto on a handful of occasions when I was staying in Osaka earlier this year, and then returned for a 4-night stay in October. I still haven't seen everything the city has to offer, but the below is what I would recommend as a 3 day itinerary to see the best of the city.

Day 1: AM

Spend the morning temple-hopping in Northern KyotoIf you see just one temple in Kyoto, make sure it's the Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. This Zen temple looks amazing all year around with its majestic golden glow and reflection in the water. It looks even more impressive when the autumn leaves turn red.


This is a 20 minute walk from Kinkaku-ji, and also a Zen temple. It's most famous for its rock garden. The garden is located in the head priest's former residence, and you can sit on the edge of the walkway that surrounds the building, and admire the rock garden for a few moments of contemplation. The rest of the garden is worth a walk around too, with lots of other little things to admire, including a lake, pine trees and statues.

Buddha statue in the garden of Ryoan-ji

This is a 10 minute walk from Ryoan-ji. Unlike the other two temples, this belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. You can walk around the grounds and see various gates, a five storey pagoda and the main hall. The temple contains a cherry tree grove, so is particularly popular during the cherry blossom season.

Path to the main hall at Ninna-ji

Day 1: PM

Spend the afternoon in the district of Arashiyama. You can read more about it in my blog post here. Top sights in the area include the bamboo grove, Okochi Sanso villa, a monkey park, and Tenryu-ji, a Zen temple with beautiful landscape garden. You probably won't be able to do it all in one afternoon, so if you have a longer stay in Kyoto, I recommend spending a whole day in Arashiyama.

The garden at Tenryu-ji

Day 2: AM

If you're on holiday in Japan, you can see a lot of temples, shrines and castles, so sometimes it's nice to go visit something a little bit different. The Kyoto Railway Museum opened earlier this year and I had a fantastic time visiting it. I didn't know much about trains prior to visiting, but the technology of trains in Japan is actually quite fascinating, particularly the shinkansen (bullet train). 

There are lots of different trains and carriages to look at, both inside and outside the museum, ranging from the shinkansen to old steam trains. There's even a train carriage you can sit inside to enjoy one of the popular train bento boxes for lunch. There's plenty of train memorabilia, plus explanations of technical aspects, and even a huge model railway.

Make sure you go to the Sky Terrace at the top of the museum, whic acts as a viewing area for trains going in and out of Kyoto station. When I went I spotted the elusive Doctor Yellow, the shinkansen test train that monitors the conditions of the tracks and overhead wires, contributing to the safety record of Japan's bullet trains.

Cute train sign

Whole trains can be found outside the museum

The awesome miniature railway 

If you prefer art over technology, then the Kyoto National Museum is a fantastic alternative for a museum trip. The impressive permanent collection focuses on traditional Japanese art, and the museum also houses different special exhibitions.

Kyoto main station itself is also worth checking out due to the architecture, designed by Hiroshi Hara, the same architect who designed the unique Umeda Sky building in Osaka. Take the escalators up to get a closer look at the steel matrix roof and access to an observation deck.

Roof of Kyoto Station


Kyoto's most famous shrine is located just a few stops away from Kyoto's main station. Dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, this shrine features thousands of vermillion torii gates. You can read about it in more detail in my blog post here.

Miniature votive torii


These two temples, Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji, are located within a few blocks of each other in the centre of Kyoto. Higashi Honganji is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto and amongst the largest in the world. Nishi Honganji's buildings contain many Buddhist images and statues.

Located a stone's throw away from these temples, Kyoto Tower is a must-visit if you enjoy getting the best view of a city. It's the tallest structure in Kyoto and has an observation deck at 100m from ground level.

Higashi Honganji temple grounds

Kyoto tower is visible from Higashi Honganji

Spend lunchtime exploring the various delicacies and oddities at this under cover market. Kyoto is famous for its pickles, and you can see all kinds of vegetables being pickled whole. You can buy various snacks to eat as you walk, from fried fish cakes to tako tamago (baby octopus filled with a quail's egg) for the more adventurous.

Pickled vegetables: daikon, cabbage etc

Fried snacks

Tako tamago


Spend your final afternoon in Kyoto wondering around the scenic Maruyama Park. Also visit Yasaka shrine which is located next door to the park. It's the location for Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's best known festivals, which takes place every July with a procession of huge floats carried by participants.

Maruyama Park

As the day draws to a close, head over to the neighbouring district of Gion, the famous geisha district, whose streets are lined with beautiful old-fashioned wooden houses. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to see a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) on their way to an appointment: the perfect ending for your time in Kyoto.

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22 November 2016

Exploring Hokkaido: Otaru

Otaru is a lovely coastal town in Hokkaido, and an easy day trip if you're located in or visiting the Niseko area. It's not huge so it's the perfect place to visit for a just a day or two. I've been a handful of times, and I keep going back. I suppose for me, there are a couple of things that I really like about Otaru. I love being by the sea, and being able to walk right up to the edge of the island and take in the view. There's something really calming and restorative about looking out at the water, even more so when you're spending a lot of time in the mountains here, where everything turns completely white for a good few months of the year. The second reason I keep going back to Otaru is because it's a really great place to go on a food crawl. There are lots of places to eat and drink, especially if you love fresh seafood. Below are a few of my favourite places to visit in Otaru.

Sankaku Market
This is a great place to start your trip to Otaru, because it's right next to the station. Exit Otaru station, turn left, head up some stairs and you'll soon see the entrance to the covered Sankaku Market. It's predominantly a fish market, but some shops sell other Otaru and Hokkaido delicacies as well. Even if you're not planning on buying anything, it's a great place to wander around and take pictures, as there are lots of odd-looking things on sale: everything from fish cheeks to live clams that occasionally squirt water at you! 

There are lots of dried seafood products for sale too, which are ideal for tourists due to the relatively long shelf-life. I've bought the dried salmon and dried scallops before, both of which are delicious as beer snacks, but you can also get more creative and use them in cooking. If you want to buy something fresh (for example a live crab) a lot of the traders have restaurants opposite their stalls where they can cook whatever you've bought for you.

I usually eat at one of the restaurants that serves seafood donburi. The best one is about halfway down the market, on the corner of where the public toilets are (doesn't sound like the best location for a restaurant, I know). This place is always really busy, but you can write your name on the list first and then wander around the market until they have a table ready for you. You can choose whichever seafood toppings you like for the donburi. Often they have a few daily specials as well. I recommend having a late breakfast / early lunch here and putting your name down by 11.30am. Often they stop taking reservations later during the service, or sell out of certain popular items (such as uni, sea urchin).

The Sea
If you keep walking downhill straight out of the station, you eventually come to the port, where you can look out over Ishikari Bay. There's nothing down here apart for a parking lot and a government building, but I always wonder why there isn't a hotel here as the view from a few floors up would surely be spectacular on a clear day.

I just like to spend a few moments here, take in the view, enjoy the fresh sea air and of course take a few photos!

The Canal
The canal is another really attractive part of Otaru. During the winter months the waterside is also illuminated, making it even more beautiful after dark. You can take a cruise down the canal on a boat. On the side of the canal, there are lots of old stone warehouses and Victorian lamps, giving you a sense of what the town looked like in past times.

Sakaimachi Street
This attractive shopping street is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs, or simply admire the local products. Otaru is well-known for glass-blowing, and many of the shops sell gorgeous little figurines. Music boxes are also produced in Otaru (one of many of the city's European influences) and you can marvel at these cute little boxes, each of which plays a different tune, which can be anything from classical music to the latest pop song.

Towards the end of the Sakaimachi street you can find two LeTAO shops, one opposite the other. LeTAO is a famous Hokkaido brand whose shops are a sweet-lovers' paradise, selling everything from cheesecakes to chocolate truffles. The shops are usually pretty generous with samples too! On my last visit I managed to try their Niagara Chocolate (grape flavour white chocolate), Royal Montagne (chocolate truffle) and Premier Maalu (crunchy wheat chocolate) all for free. After a few hours of wandering around Otaru, I like to sit in the LeTAO cafe on the top floor of the main shop, for coffee and cake. If you want to go all out, you can sample three of their famous cheesecakes in one plate. If you try just one cheesecake, make sure it's the Double Fromage: the base is a rich baked cheesecake, and the top layer is a smooth fresh cheesecake.

Otaru Brewery
This beer hall with on-site microbrewery is a great place to finish your day in Otaru. You can sample the authentic German-style beers (pilsner, white beer, dark beer) and enjoy a picturesque canal-side view. The quality of the beers here is really good, as they use organic ingredients imported from Germany alongside the high-quality Otaru water. Prost and Kampai!

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08 November 2016

PHOTO BLOG: Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

After recently posting my Okinawa Top 10, it's now time to take a more in-depth look at some of the highlights of my summer in Okinawa. Visiting Churaumi Aquarium in Ocean Expo Park (approx. 90km north of Naha) was undoubtedly one of my favourite experiences. It's one of the world's biggest aquariums, with a main tank so large that it can fit not just one but two huge whale sharks (plus manta rays and other fish). The aquarium is an incredible showcase for the marine life that lives in the coral reefs surrounding the islands, as well as species found in deeper waters. The waters surrounding Okinawa are said to be home to a diversity of species on par with that found in the Great Barrier Reef, and one visit to the aquarium certainly confirms this.

What really struck me when I visited the aquarium was the beauty of the variety of fish and other marine life... even the slightly more odd-looking fish are beautiful in their own way. The photos below give an insight into how diverse the marine life housed in the aquarium is. The photos are divided up by the three different themed areas found in the aquarium.

Journey to a Coral Reef
The aquarium's coral reef tank has no roof, allowing natural light to illuminate the coral and the fish inhibiting the reef. The corals inside have taken over 10 years to cultivate.

The coral reef itself is stunning, even without any fish

Fugu / Blowfish

Parrot fish


Butterfly fish



Garden eels


Journey to the Kuroshio
This section of the aquarium houses the main feature: a tank with 7,500 cubic metres of water, which is home to the 8.6m long whale sharks, manta rays and other fish. There is also a shark tank, with an accompanying exhibition which aims to contradict the commonly-held notion that all sharks are blood-thirsty, dangerous animals.

The huge main tank at the aquarium

Manta ray

Whale shark

The shark tank

Journey into the Deep Sea
This area contains marine life that has been collected from more than 200m below sea level. You can observe more than 70 rare species, including unusual species that glow in the dark.

Rare deep water fish, pristigenys meyeri

Squat lobster

Corals living in the deep sea

Coral that glows with reflected infra red light

Churaumi Aquarium is one of Okinawa's top attractions and a must-visit for anyone with an interest in marine life or wildlife/nature in general. Because it is so popular, I recommend arriving as soon as it opens in the morning to stand a chance of beating the crowds. You can spend the rest of the day exploring the other sights in Ocean Expo ParkAfter a visit to this aquarium, you'll surely want to experience snorkelling or scuba diving in Okinawa to visit the coral reefs and get even closer to this incredible marine life!