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November 6, 2017

It’s been a while since we stepped into a supersized coach bus that shuttled our lazy selves around — and we’re all the better for it. Plus, who wants to squeeze with throngs of people at overpopulated sightseeing spots? These days, free & easy’s the way to go, especially if you’re a millennial; seriously, how else would you be able to track off the well-trodden path, admire the sights along the way instead of nodding off on the aforementioned bus, or honestly, spend as much time as you’d like by a pretty flower bush just for the ‘gram?

As one ourselves, and therefore deserving of the (very entitled) right to be self-deprecating, we’d also add that travelling as a millennial has a lot to do with experiences — you know, the rather lofty ideal of gaining fresh perspectives as you get immersed in a culture, rather than spend five minutes at a lookout point.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine ; Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

While we were travelling in Japan, this meant taking actual bento cooking classes, a scenic railway where the journey’s worth more than the destination, or the more adventurous thrills of a day at the amusement park instead of a forgettable visit to a departmental store (though their basements are amazin’ stuff). We’ll even make the case for our social media narcissism here; see, we’re looking for an experience we can relive, something that’s worthy of sharing, even if it is a short-lived cycle on Instagram Stories.

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Sagano Romantic Train Ride ; Bento-Making Class

Yeah sure, that sometimes means eschewing some comfort in the search of authenticity, but we don’t mind. How’s that for adulting huh, participation awards all around! Then again, we’ll admit to a little cheating resourcefulness here, because we found a way to make our trip way easier to manage: Klook.

If you haven’t already heard, Klook is touted as Asia’s largest travel services platform, from which you can access popular attractions, experiences and services, right at your fingertips — that’s 30,000 attractions, tours, and activities, in over 120 destinations, by the way. It’s where we booked our all-important JR Pass, which we used while getting around on trains, as well as attractions such as the Universal Studios Japan 1-Day Pass (no queues!) or the countryside train journey we were talking about, the whole time we were based in Osaka.

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Higashiyama District, Kyoto

With Kyoto being just a 30-min train ride (on the express train) to Osaka, we also found ourselves shuttling back and forth the cities pretty frequently during our 4D3N trip; a convenient prospect since it means we don’t have to shift hotels at all. And since you’ll want to purchase an unlimited-use JR Pass for its convenience — we did, ours was a 4-Day JR-West Kansai Rail Pass ($73) — we’ll go on to recommend an itinerary that’ll maximise your JR pass, by visiting places that you can access via this extensive national train network (they’re really the best ones anyway).

So here goes, #wanderlust, Instagram-worthy sights and all that.


Before The Trip

To get things started, we had to deal with the daunting task of booking all our major attractions via the Klook platform — only to realise, hey, it wasn’t that difficult really. Search by city, and a whole menu of options come up, based on categories or ranked in order of popularity. All the major ones you want are right on top, so you’ll be able to add things to your cart in no time.

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Here’s what we booked:

You can even book a Wi-Fi router, while the Osaka Amazing Pass, which covers major sightseeing attractions in the city, is also a popular choice. Or, spring for one of the USJ Express Pass options if you’d like a more pleasant theme park experience minus the excessively-long queues (more on that later).

Here’s where it gets even better: with the mobile app, we were able to book all the things we needed in a few swift minutes — we were literally rushing for a meeting, but still managed to secure our orders. You know that satisfaction of having everything planned so you never have to scramble for tickets at the last-minute? It was real. Plus, everything was easily accessible via the ‘Bookings’ page on our mobile phone, which meant we never needed to print anything for tickets confirmation; we just had to present the QR code on our screen during collection.

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As for collection, after touching down at Kansai International Airport (KIX), we made a quick detour to the travel desks to pick up some of our travel documents, including that powerful JR Pass. Do note that with the pass, you don’t go through the automatic gates — instead, all you have to do is show the pass to the staff in the glass booth next to the gates when entering and exiting each station. With that, we whisked ourselves to the Osaka city centre, right to our hotel situated near the JR Osaka station.


DAY 1: OSAKA

Dōtonbori
JR Namba

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We’ll be honest — Dōtonbori Street is one of those places you’re bound to visit when in Osaka, which means it was filled with tourists and overpopulated eating spots. So why did we bother? For one, the sheer array of food was irresistible — there were restaurants specialising in crab or matsusaka beef (arguably, better-tasting than kobe beef), as well as street stalls cooking up fatty servings of wagyu beef, takoyaki or okonomiyaki, an Osaka specialty that’s served sizzling hot, always.

Most eateries open till late too, which adds to the nighttime vibrancy of the entire district when it comes alive with neon signs and 3D billboards after dark; we’ll forgive the swarms of people when there’s so much to feast our eyes (and obviously, stomachs) on.

But here’s the moment we really fell in love — with none other than our first bowl of ramen.

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Ichiran Ramen (1 Chome-4-19 Dōtonbori)

Ichiran Ramen is known far and wide, and certainly lives up to its fame with its freshly-cooked springy noodles, tender pork slices, a side of completely necessary ramen egg, and of course, that rich tonkatsu broth that’s topped off with their signature red spicy powder (from ¥790). The whole dining experience is also a curious one; you order via a vending machine and get a ticket, which you then exchange for a soul-warming bowl of goodness at one of the solo diner booths where you can slurp every last bit to your heart’s content without being judged. As with all good things though, you might have to queue if you’re headed to the outlet by Tonbori River,

You bet we didn’t stop at just one ramen bowl for the night, because, street stalls!

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Creo-Ru (1-6-4 Dōtonbori)

One thing that kept turning up every few metres were takoyaki stalls, selling these ball-shaped Japanese snacks that are typically filled with octopus slices, then topped with generous servings of mayonnaise and bonito flakes. Healthy! But you know, also very picture-worthy. Our basic set of six (¥450) at Creo-Ru was yummy, satisfying, and definitely made fresh, something we can personally verify after staring for ages at the mastery of the chefs. You can also opt for the other menu options, including takoyaki served with poached egg (¥550).

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Melonpan Ice Food Truck (1 Chome-4-19 Dōtonbori)

If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you can head to PABLO for their famed cheese tarts, or try this, uh, just the best melon pan ever. Look out for a green truck by the main street, and then Melonpan Ice, where you’ll be served what the Japanese call “melon bread” stuffed with ice cream (¥400) — the humble bread, which doesn’t actually contain melon by the way, has a crisp outer crust that’s exactly like a polo bun, and a fluffy interior that’s absolutely amazing to bite into when freshly-baked and warm, nicely complemented by the cold and creamy ice cream. Save your stomachs for this (we didn’t), because you won’t want to share this at all (note: our insatiable greed).

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Glico Man Sign

And when you’re done and trying to walk off the guilt from all the excess food you’ve just gorged on, be sure not to miss this part of Dōtonbori — right by the Tonbori River, you’ll find a series of giant billboards and flashing LED displays, akin to NYC’s Time Square, including the iconic Glico Man who has been running since 1935. Snap a picture at the Ebisubashi bridge, and stay long enough if you want to catch a glimpse of our Merlion as the running man makes his way around the world. Dōtonbori is also home to the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, if you’re up for a spot of shopping.


DAY 2: KYOTO + NARA

Kyoto (Higashiyama District ;  Kiyomizu-dera Temple ; Gion + Kamo River)
JR Kyoto

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Higashiyama District

Early morning call aside, our day trip to Kyoto was completely worth it, and even more worthwhile thanks to how we could reach the JR Kyoto station in just 30mins, which happens to be shorter than our daily work commute back home. While Osaka had the more familiar city-like vibe, Kyoto was quaint, picturesque, and more peaceful as we wandered through the historic district of Higashiyama, admiring the Edo-style wooden houses along the way.

The area gets particularly charming in the morning or during magic hour, when the hilly stone-paved streets get lit with a diffused glow, while it’s also near major temples and shrines, including the Kodaiji Temple and Yasaka Pagoda. You’ll want to free up some time to just enjoy getting lost here if you can.

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Starbucks Coffee Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya (Map)

But because we happen to be unfailingly basic, our first stop was a Starbucks outlet. It’s not just any outlet though; this one’s housed in an old two-storey Japanese townhouse, or a machiya, that was built over a 100 years ago, and sees plenty of traditional elements that you won’t find at other modern stores, including noren curtains at the entrance, wooden walls and window frames, and tatami mats you can lounge around on while sipping on that predictable frappucino of yours. Since it just opened in June this year, you can be assured that you’ll be the one telling your friends all about it — just be sure to actually enjoy the setting after you’re done with your crucial real-time reporting.

You can read about our full modern-meets-traditional experience here, but we’ll say, this definitely ranks high in the novelty factor and picture ops — though you might have to arrive early to secure a nice, cosy spot.

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

While in the area, you can then take a leisurely 15-min stroll over to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of Kyoto’s most celebrated sights and officially a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its beauty can be seen from the moment you enter its grand gate, even when we were just wandering around the main entrance area and temple grounds, which is where we spotted a sight typical to Japanese shrines, the ema, or small wooden plagues where Shinto or Buddhist worshippers write their prayers or wishes to be received by their kami (gods). Before entering the temple, visitors can also purify their hands and mouth at the temizuya, or water basin, situated right before the temple entrance.

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Most people visit Kiyomizu-dera for its stunning wooden stage though; this is connected to its main hall and extends above the natural foliage of the hill, of which the cherry and maple trees look particularly breathtaking during the Spring and Fall seasons. Do note that the main hall will be covered up from February 2017 to March 2020 as it’s undergoing renovation — you’ll still be able to enter, though the sight won’t be as nice as the ones you see on your regular Google Image search.

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% ARABICA Kyoto Higashiyama (87-5 Hoshino-cho, Higashiyama-ku)

As you’re turning out from the temple, be sure to pop by the % ARABICA flagship store that’s also in the vicinity. Kyoto might be known for its green tea offerings, but the coffee scene deserves praise as well, and this brand sits right up there among the best of them. The store itself looks clean and minimalist, fronted by a sleek Slayer machine that would excite serious coffee aficionados, while the coffee beans here are top-grade and sourced from Brazil, El Salvador, or even % Arabica’s own farm in Hawaii, and then roasted to order on the spot for a smooth, aromatic blend. The iced latte we tried (¥500) was nice and smooth, with a hint of nuttiness and familiar bite that was perfectly balanced by the milk.

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Shirakawa Canal ; Kamo River

Next, wander towards the Gion District for more gorgeous wooden houses, also a walking distance away, where you can then take a stroll along the winding Shirakawa Canal, which sees wispy willow trees sighing over what’s probably the world’s most scenic drain, and plenty of cosy ochaya, or tea houses, that overlook the canal. The Kamo River is also a lovely sight in the day, especially if you catch it on a sunny one like we did. In the evening, you might be able to spot geishas going about their duties of entertaining guests and performing traditional dance and music — after all, this is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district.

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Tenshu (244 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku) ; Nishiki Market

For food recommendations, we’ve got a couple. First, the highly-rated Tenshu, famous for its tempura donburi, of which we tried a mixed set of prawn and eel tempura (¥1,700). They obviously take pride in their food since the water from the tempura batter hails from Mount Atago, while they only deep-fry using sesame oil, fried right on the spot if you happen to be offered a counter seat. It’s a pretty sizeable dish though, and we particularly enjoyed the delicate texture of the eel with the light tempura breading, which was neither overly oily or cloying.

Nishiki Market, affectionately known as “Kyoto’s kitchen”, is also a good spot to visit if you, like us, love to be spoilt for choice. Here, you can find plenty of shops peddling live seafood or locally-produced seasonal foods, and also street vendors that offer grilled prawns on sticks, for instance, or sashimi skewers. What we particularly sought out was Sawawa’s matcha soft serve ice cream (¥480), a deliciously thick blend that had a nice matcha hit, so you know you’re tasting the real stuff and not just milk and sugar.

Nara
JR Nara

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Nara Park

Since this is all about making full use of your JR Pass, you might want to consider spending half a day at Nara, which is about 45 minutes away from Kyoto. The quiet district has one main area, Nara Park, a large central park that houses the famed Todaiji Temple, known to be the largest wooden structures in the world and a must-visit since it’s home to one of Japan’s largest bronze Buddha statues.

That’s not to say we weren’t distracted by something else — the deer! These freely-roaming creatures are considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, though the only thing that got broadcast to our heads was how adorable they are. We obviously spent more time than we should taking videos for the ‘gram.

The Nara deer are tame and used to human interaction, and have even learned how to bow to visitors before they’re fed (you can buy deer crackers for about ¥150), although a horde of them chasing after your stray plastic bag can be rather intimidating. Still, they’re mostly exceedingly polite for wild animals, and generally allow you to sit close beside them and gently stroke their fur. In a surreal moment, we also witnessed them magically trooping off home just before sunset.

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Nakatanidō

Before you head back, do stop by this peculiar mochi store, where you’ll definitely see a crowd gathering every half an hour or so — for good reason. Nakatanidō specialises in yomogi mochi, and it’s here that you’ll witness the dramatic act of mochi pounding, a tradition that involves a show of skilled workers slapping and swinging a heavy pestle to work a chunk of mochi, in between passionate yells of course. Yep, those hilarious videos you see on your Facebook feed happen in real life, and you can’t help but grin at this one. The shop here at Nara has won awards for its rapid pounding motion, which we appreciated after sinking our teeth into the soft, chewy rice cake that’s filled with sweet red bean (¥130).


DAY 3: OSAKA — Universal Studios Japan

JR Universal

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Hogwarts Castle & Hogsmeade

For any thrill-seeker, pop culture fan, and even if you’re not that into roller coasters, the family-friendly Universal Studios Japan has got to be one of the main highlights of Osaka, one where you have to devote an entire day to. There’s plenty to love here, though what sets it apart from our own USS, and other amusement parks around the world, is the fact that they’ve got the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the only one outside of the original in the United States. You probably grew up reading the books and know the exact house you’re sorted to — so ’nuff said and just accio yourself here already.

Our VIP Pass allowed us quick entry into the park, and we only needed to flash our entry ticket from our mobile phones to get in, which you’ll want to do as quickly as possible because the Japanese aren’t kidding around. Familiarise yourself with the map battle plan beforehand so you’ll know exactly where to run to when the doors are open. If you’re there in the morning, feel free to charge straight for the Harry Potter area without the need to collect a timed entry ticket (which limits the number of people at the zone) — chances are, you’re still early enough and should reach the magical cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade before any real crowd comes along. If not, head to the Studio Information sign at the centre of the park to check and collect yours.

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Honeydukes, Butterbeer

Once you’ve taken a stroll through the mysterious Forbidden Forest, you’re in! Prepare to be spellbound by the experience of walking through the true-to-life streets, occasionally popping by Honeydukes for a treat of Chocolate Frogs or Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (you get to try how Booger, Earwax and Dirt taste like, though pray that you won’t get Vomit, trust us), or Dervish and Banges for your wizarding equipment needs. You can definitely start to feel the magic in the air now. Then, cool down with a cup of Butterbeer (¥750), of which the frozen version is the specialty here, if you don’t mind starting off the day with a commemorative sugar high that’s still worth it.

And because you can’t wait to curse the crowds with your new wand, head to Ollivanders to pick out your favourite one let the wand choose you, which is the whole reason why you get to see the designs of most of the characters you can think of, from the trio of Harry Potter, Hermoine and Ron, to Voldemort, Sirius Black, Ginny Weasley, and even the formidable Elder Wand (unleash all its power… at a reasonable price of ¥3,500). The fun part about Ollivanders though is that there’s a little show they put up to show off the prowess of the wands — you don’t want to miss that!

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Interactive Wands ; Expecto Patronum Night Show

Recently, the park has also unveiled interactive wands, which you can purchase in order to cast special magic spells at certain areas, including locked doors, stone walls, shop windows, and this hidden back alley where water will cascade out from the cauldrons if you’re skilled enough. It’s a hit with the kids for sure, and will definitely endear to the forever kid in you too.

As for Hogwarts Castle, there are two main events you don’t want to miss. First, the official ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™ in 4K3D. We aren’t going to spoil you (much), but we assure you that it’s better than any moving-cart-along-a-rail kind of ride; the state-of-the-art technology gets incredibly real as it recounts Harry’s tumultuous journey, which you’ll get to be a part of, whether it’s the actual feeling of whizzing on a broomstick to catch a snitch, ducking under the Whomping Willow’s dangerous branches, or having unsavoury dark visitors appearing right in front of your face.

Then, at night, there’s the Expecto Patronum Night Show. You might want to hang around the park to secure a spot when the show occurs half an hour after sunset, at the spot in front of the castle. The most spectacular part of the segment has to be how the castle gets illuminated by beautiful projections that tell the story of a bunch of brave students facing the wrath of deadly dementors; it’s a pretty predictable storyline, but any fan would be caught up by the stunning theatrics that’ll have you feel like you have a part in the heroism as well.

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Oh and this view? Head over to the outdoor area of the Three Broomsticks restaurant for what we think is the most photogenic view of the Hogwarts Castle.

Minion Park

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Minion Park

Here’s another reason why the Japanese, and everyone else, are flocking to USJ in droves — the minions! Ever since these strange yellow creatures popped up in the world of Despicable Me, the world has been quite taken to their kind in sometimes inexplicable fashion, though the good thing is that you can go all out and shameless here, no one will judge you. Minions fever is in full swing at the world’s largest Minion Park, and everything from the building facades to fountains to game stalls have their cute grins plastered on.

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Minion Park

We happened to be at the park on a public holiday, and hence personally witnessed the craze ourselves; mobs of people were gathered for every, rather frequent, Minion appearance, while the queue for the ride, Minion Mayhem was snaking throughout the day — after all, you get to transform into an actual Minion and enter Gru’s laboratory, while a giant dome screen and projection system immerse you right into the world. If you’re a true fan, it’s easy to dress up and walk around in a yellow tee and overalls too.

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Minion Park — Minion Popcorn Bucket, Themed Food

Throughout the park, there are even exclusive Minion merchandise you can collect — this popcorn bucket, available in limited edition designs, was exceedingly popular with the crowd, though it’s arguably useful since you can constantly refill it with fresh popcorn. Its eyes and arms move! Other Minion-themed food tend to change with the season; we were privy to a Halloween-themed cookie sandwich (¥600) complete with sugar fangs.

Other USJ Highlights

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The Flying Dinosaur Ride

Elsewhere in the park, we thought we should highlight the most adventurous ride of all, The Flying Dinosaur. Here’s an instance where an Express Pass would come in really handy — ours lasted close to 180 minutes, or 3 hours, and that’s for the Single Rider line! After the whirlwind of a ride though, we understood why: the roller coaster suspends you face down with your body parallel to the ground and feet lifted behind you, so you literally get the feeling of riding on a Pteranodon during the first terrifying, sweeping drop. The intensity doesn’t stop from there as you’re treated to several corkscrews, more drops and a 360-deg turn, all in the name of fun.

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USJ Parade + Roving Characters

You might also want to check out the Universal Reborn Parade that makes its way around the park (check your map for detailed timings and the parade route), or if you’re in luck, catch a few of the characters that will make special appearances around the park.


DAY 4: KYOTO

Fushimi Inari Shrine
JR Inari

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

We’re back in Kyoto, and the first thing we did on our final early morning was to make our way to the world-famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, an important shrine dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. You’ll probably find the place familiar, especially the sight of the iconic vermillion torii gates, in endless rows that go on a couple of trails into the forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which can take a couple of hours if you’re keen on the full hike.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

If not, most visitors are content with visiting the main buildings, of which you can find fox statues around the grounds, as they’re thought to be Inari’s main messengers. You’ll want to head there before 8am to avoid the crowd and get your all-important unobstructed shot at the torii gates. If not, just enjoy your surroundings; we’d count the atmosphere at this shrine to be one of the most zen-like we’ve experienced in Kyoto.

Bento-Making Class

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Bento Making Class @ Cooking Sun

We booked a bento-making class ahead of our trip, and found ourselves at Cooking Sun, where even the non-skilled (us) can conjure up a meal that’s worthy of a close-up macro shot — and of eating, of course! The instructors here conveyed in perfect English, and made the course interactive and easy to follow even where there was a pretty extensive range of food we had to prepare.

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Bento Making Class @ Cooking Sun

All equipment and ingredients were provided, sometimes with the more complicated processes (Japanese rice) already prepared beforehand. In no way are you getting a lesser experience though, because just consider the items you’ll end up making: miso soup, a sushi roll, gomaae (spinach salad), tempura, teriyaki chicken, and… a glorious rolled egg, which is an accomplishment once you’ve mastered it. The whole activity took about 4 hours, including eating the meal you’ve prepared, and is definitely something you should try with your significant other or group of friends should you have the time!

Sagano Romantic Train 
JR Saga-Arashiyama

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While still in Kyoto, we’d also recommend the scenic 25-min train ride through the Kyoto countryside, via the Sagano Romantic Train. At just below $20, we feel that it’s an inexpensive way to venture to the wilder and just as serene side of the country and get stunning views of the Hozugawa Ravine while you’re at it. Different seasons yield different views as well — you’ll see everything from a wintry snow-covered landscape, dreamy cherry blossom trees in full bloom, a riot of red and orange maple trees, or, like us, wide expanses of green against the vivid blue of the water. Either way, it’s a memorable way to end the trip before you find yourself shuttling back to the airport and back home.


BONUS:

  • Save up to $100 off your year end holiday when you book your activities on Klook!
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