Western Japan - Kobe
Take a day off from visiting the castles, parks, historical temples and other tourist attractions and relax at coastal city of Kobe. Famous for its Kobe beef, one of the best places to look for the perfect restaurant is at Kobe Harborland. Easily accessible from the JR Kobe Station, the waterfront district offers a wide selection of shops, restaurants, cafes and amusement parks. It is also a good get-away in case a rain-drenched weather forecast threatens to spoil your day.
The most prominent shopping complex in the Kobe Harborland complex is Umie. It consists of three separate areas - Mosaic with its departmental stores and the South Mall and North Mall laden with eateries and cafes. Take a stroll down the romantic waterfront at sundown and you will be treated to a spectacular sunset!
Western Japan - Hiroshima & Miyajima
I decided to group these two places - Hiroshima and Miyajima, together as both can be visited in a day, with proper planning and time management. A five-day JR West rail pass is the recommendation as it includes the ferry tickets to Miyajima Island as well. Plus the price of the Shinkansen to and fro makes up for the whole five-day pass ticket. So in a way you are getting four extra free day passes for the price of one Hiroshima trip! The site of the actual ground zero is a far distance to walk, so my recommendation is to take a tram ride there and back. That will give you more time to go to and explore Miyajima Island.
Having witnessed the atrocities of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, I wanted to see first-hand the devastation of the bomb that ended the second world war. And what a sight to behold! The A-Bomb Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage site, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is what remains of the former Perfectural Industrial Promotion Hall. It was one of the few buildings left standing when it A-Bomb exploded several metres away.
Talk a stroll down the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Cenotaph. If you peek down the structure, you will be able to see the A-Bomb Dome in the distance.
As you walk down the canal, you will be able to see several tour boats canvassing their trips directly to Miyajima Island. My recommendation is to take the Shinkansen further west and board the ferry to the island.
Miyajima is a small island about an hour's train ride from Hiroshima. It is most famous for its giant Torii Gate. This scenery is ranked as one of the top three most beautiful sceneries in Japan.
When I was there, the tide was really low, and so I had the chance to walk down the beach and touch the Torii Gate - considered a good-luck gesture!
Itsukushima is the official name for Miyajima or "Shrine Island" and houses the Itsukushima Shrine shrine which also floats on top of the waters at high tide.
Take a leisurely walk from the ferry terminal to and from the shrine. The streets are lined with souvenir shops and outlets selling local delicacies. There are also wild deer (though tamer than those at Nara) roaming the streets eager to strike a pose with tourists. The architecture at Miyajima is breadth-taking and it is like taking a time machine back to the ancient times.
Western Japan - Himeji
No trip to the Western part of Japan is complete without a visit to the town of Himeji. It is easily accessible via the Sanyo Shikansen bullet train from either Osaka or Kyoto. Himeji is best known for its castle, and it is widely considered to be Japan's most beautiful surviving feudal castle. In fact the Himeji Castle is a national treasure as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Resembling a white heron in flight, Himeji Castle is located about a kilometre straight up Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station. I took a five minute bus ride from the station costing 100 yen but decided to walk back to the station and visit the many shopping arcades along the way.
A must-do is of course to climb up to the top of the castle. There are six storeys to navigate up to the top, with each level getting progressively narrower and more difficult to climb. The view from the top is definitely a sight to behold and you are rewarded with a glimpse of the maze-like defences leading up to the castle.
My recommendation is to get the ticket which includes entry to the Kokoen Japanese-styled Gardens and stroll along the tranquil grounds which consists of nine separate walled gardens of various styles of the Edo period.
Western Japan - Nara
A follow-on from my Osaka trip, once you set your base at Osaka or Shin Osaka (my recommendation) you can then make use a 5-day JR West pass to visit the surrounding regions.
Certainly one of the first places along the tourist route is Nara. Do allocate at least a day here as the place is really huge and be prepared to do a fair bit of walking. So Nara is famous for the deer park, where hundreds of tame deer roam the vast countryside.
Be sure to visit Todaiji (the Great Eastern Temple) located in the grounds of the deer park. It is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and is a landmark in Nara. The construction of the temple started in 752 as head temple of all the provincial Buddhist temples of Japan.
Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world's largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall's size. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.
If you are slim enough, you can try sneaking your way through one of the main temple columns.
The beautiful countryside is flanked by many historical temples and buildings, so do take your time and enjoy the sights and sounds in the park.
Western Japan - Osaka & Kyoto
Located in the Kansai region, Osaka, with over 19 million inhabitants, is the second largest city in Japan after Tokyo. As such my recommendation is NOT to find a place to stay in the city itself but to look for accommodation in Shin Osaka, just about a 15 minute ride on the bountiful trains to and from the city.
If you are planning for a vacation there, do prepare a few things before-hand:
1) a Japan SIM card for finding your way around using Google Maps and
2) a Japan Rail (JR) West five-day pass to cover your trips from Kyoto, nara, Kobe, Himeiji all the way to Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Both of these are available at the JTB Travel Saloon on the third level of Takashimaya Shopping Centre at the heart of Orchard Road.
The most visited place in Osaka must surely be Dotonburi (famous for the Glico Running Man display above), near the Namba station. Both sides of the Dotonburi canal are lined with abundant shopping centres and eating places. My recommendation is to go for the fresh seafoods grilled to perfection by the special charcoal grills.
The next must-visit place is of course the Osaka castle. Allocate enough time for your to climb up to the top through an array of secondary citidels, gates and turrets.
No trip to Western Japan is complete without a visit to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It is one of Kyoto's top tourist sites. It is also a place where couples renew their vows for each other.
The most Instagrammable site in all of Kyoto must be the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine. It is also one of the most important Shinto shrines in all of Kyoto.
It is M.K. Wong's dream to visit at least 50 countries before his feet can carry him no more. With over 35 countries under his belt, M.K. is planning for his next escapade.