My dream of visiting Japan began when I saw the opening of the first Pokémon Center in Tokyo on TV in 1998.
I was eight years old and desperate to travel to Kanto, the first region visited in the Pokémon video games and namesake of the country’s actual Kanto region where the country’s capital Tokyo thrives.
This dream burned bright like a untameable Charizard, and my childhood fascination for Japan grew beyond Tokyo and Pokémon as I read about the land of the rising sun and it’s other worldly culture in other regions.
So when British Airways relaunched their direct route to Osaka in the Kansai region this year, I finally decided it was time to realise a dream.
It wasn’t Tokyo or the Kanto region as my eight year old self expected, but I was about to find out dreams can be better than you hoped.
With passage to the kitchen of Japan, Osaka, and Kyoto, which, to me now, is the very essence of the country, the Kansai region has so much to offer but which tourists might not afford enough time to, in favor of the futuristic Tokyo.
This is a ‘blow the cartridge and start again’ error.
Also, Kyoto is home to the Nintendo’s headquarters. So go figure.
Armed with an itinerary from G Adventures, to maximise my time and share my dream with new friends, I took on Kansai on a shoestring style, spending time in Osaka, Kyoto and traveling by bullet train south to Hiroshima.
I was lucky enough to arrive in Japan at the height of sakura season, a very special annual event in Japanese culture and an epic tourist attraction.
The cherry blossoms reach full bloom during a very short window around the end of March/beginning of April, although this changes per region, and bring visions of blossoms whipped up by your favorite anime characters as they head to war to the world.
With the blossoms setting the scene, and making my time in Japan so quintessentially special, I was empowered to seek out and experience everything that makes Japanese culture so unique and fascinating.
I’ll break down everything for you based on location:
Osaka: Street food, capsule hotels and gay nightlife
Osaka is known to the Japanese as tenka no daidokoro, the nation’s kitchen.
Famed for its thriving street food culture, Osakans are known for being the biggest foodies across the nation – and with that comes some of the best culinary traditions and inventions.
Kuromon Ichiba Market seems to be the epicenter of street food culture in the shopping district, Dotonbori. Navigate through the rising hot pot steam and bustling alleys to find fresh fish, including the infamous poisonous blowfish, and readily edible snacks like Takoyaki.
Takoyaki is probably the most common and popular Osakan street food, dumplings filled with ginger and octopus glazed with soy sauce and mayonnaise. It’s a treat.
One of the most special delicacies is Kushikatsu. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, being deep fried meat dipped in sauce, it elevates beyond its chain-style sister because it is homemade.
My favorite is Okonomiyaki. This dish changes in style from city to city (Hiroshima style has the edge for me) and just has everything you want. Carbs.
A shredded cabbage and batter pancake is topped with a choice of ingredients to ‘one’s liking’, which actually is what ‘okonomi’ means.
My okonomiyaki choices: Prawns, buckwheat noodles, spring onions, tempura bits, soy sauce, raw egg.
Capsule hotels are genius. I absolutely adore the capsule culture of Japan, where you can pay as little as 3000 yen for a night stay and have a little more privacy and comfort than the hostels you will find everywhere in south east Asia, but cheaper than a hotel.
Call them: Hapstels.
They’re also super fun. Climbing up into your own cubby hole complete with flat screen TV, air con and lock box, I’ve never felt so at home. I felt like I should move out of my London flat into a crawl space to get a little more cosy.
A first class cabin offers a little more space, if getting dressed without being able to stand isn’t for you, and if you don’t want the showers to be on another floor.
There is a gay scene in Osaka. There is. However, don’t expect packed super clubs. Instead, take the opportunity to realise and embrace the art of conversation.
These gay bars are a refuge for the small gay communities in Japan, and they are welcoming and excited to speak to new people when they come in to feel connected to their community outside of the country.
So get on the karaoke, chat to the locals and share stories. You will leave as a family.
Kyoto: Geishas, shrines and sakura
Time isn’t linear in Kyoto, turn a corner and find yourself at the turn of the eighteenth century. This is the Gion district, where temples and shrines stand tall and Geishas walk the streets.
The famous, yet highly inaccurate depiction of Geisha culture, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ was set in the Gion district. So, at least they got something right.
Seeing a Geisha is probably top of every tourist’ list, but you can force it. Like nature, you have to let these graceful moments come to you. And it doesn’t always go your way.
They are elusive, beautiful and human. Don’t treat them like objects, respect their path and never block or bother them when they’re with guests to get your photograph.
Aside from this unique aspect of Japanese culture, the Gion district is the place to go to see the most magical temples and shrines along cobbled streets and mysterious curtained tea rooms.
One of the most photographed and atmospheric places in Japan is Fushimi Inari-taisha, a shinto shrine on the outskirts of town known for its thousands of torii gates that line the path to the top of the sacred Mount Inari.
This is one of those typical ‘you haven’t been to Kyoto if you haven’t done this’ scenarios.
If you find yourself in Japan for sakura season, Kyoto is the place to make base. Join the Japanese tradition of Hanami, where loved ones gather under sakura trees to laugh, eat and drink with one another to celebrate this special time of year.
Hiroshima: A new story for a tragic past
Even if it’s not the easiest or the most fun, I believe it’s important anywhere in the world to visit the place that changed or scarred the face of a country’s history. To pay respect.
Today, the only sign of the devastating events of Hiroshima in 1945 lie almost-directly under where the atomic bomb detonated above the heads of unsuspecting and innocent Japanese citizens.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a dome building, was largely the only structure left standing in the center of town and marks the date for generations to come. Nearby, the museum in the memorial park pays tribute to the people who lost their lives. Essential but painful.
With 2.6 million citizens, Hiroshima has proved Japanese resilience and defiance.
While in Hiroshima, take a boat out to Miyajima island to see the wild dear.
Tokyo is great, I’ve heard, but coming from a big capital myself I have the suspicion that a capital city of Tokyo’s size of 9.2 million can somewhat distort the idea of culture and history.
I’m glad my first impression of Japan was the Kansai region and all of its unique offerings.
Don’t get me wrong, Tokyo is still on the list and only three hours by bullet train from Osaka, so if you have more time then I did you could do the whole country in one visit.
But, I advise not going full throttle and blurring your memories, there’s so much of Japan to take in that it can be difficult to remember where you were at any on time. Avoid doing that.
Explore outside the obvious, embrace the opportunity to be amazed by the unexpected.
Oh, and I fulfilled my eight year old self’s dream of visiting a Pokémon Center.
Which dreams of yours will you check off in the Kansai region?
And no, not finding Entei in Kyoto on Pokémon Go.
British Airways flies direct to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport from London Heathrow four times per week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Economy class flights start at £579 including taxes/fees/carrier charges. Premium economy and One World business class is also available. To book, click here.
G Adventures offers a range of tour styles and routes in Japan to suit all needs and preferences. Gay Star News joined the Japan on a shoestring – Kyoto to Osaka tour in April 2019.