I've decided to change the format of my travel posts. Instead of a guide that picks apart my holiday, I've decided to present it in a journal format. I believe this will benefit me as it'll force me to take and show (hopefully) ever improving photos that would normally be out of place in a 'guide' and it'll benefit you too, as it should (also hopefully) be a little more visually interesting than before. I'll still highlight the areas that I think are good/bad, but it won't be as exhaustive as before.
I would like to thank Fabien for the recommendations and being a great travel partner
See Kyoto, Osaka, Nara.
Visit Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Fushimi Inarii Shrine, Osaka Castle, Nara Deer Park.
This trip was going to be a mix of street photography, sports and nature/landscape so it required a mix of focal lengths to get the shots that I wanted. In hindsight, I could have left the 24-70mm F2.8L at home as most of the shots in this post were taken with the legendary 50mm F1.2L.
Stayed at the Intercontinental Osaka. It’s a relatively new hotel, positioned very close to the JR station (which makes travel to and from Osaka extremely convenient) and on top of a shopping centre (so there's food options galore). Service is absolutely top notch and facilities are fantastic. I was extremely fortunate to be upgraded to the executive suite which was absolutely jaw dropping – it’s probably one of the best hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in. It has a wonderful modern design aesthetic; with clean lines and a tasteful use of wood.
Tip - Get club access to escape the hustle and bustle of the main breakfast crowd in the main restaurant (food quality is substantially better too)
I've always had an aversion to ordering room service (it's usually not great), but a midnight arrival at the hotel meant that all the local food options were shut. One reason why I love Japan is that they take so much pride in everything they do and the hotel's room service was no exception. The food was miles above my expectation and I was left thoroughly satisfied.
Breakfast over looking Osaka was a wonderful way to start each day.
There is nothing on this planet that comes close to exploring a Japanese city - the discovery of finding many unique delights dotted around even in the smallest of side streets is like no other. Osaka is no different and there's a wonderful collection of sights to be seen and uncovered. However, the most famous aspect of Osaka is its food (it is known "The Nation's Kitchen" after all) and trying out the city's many restaurants is one of the main draws. It's also a great hub to use to travel to neighbouring cities like Kyoto and Nara.
Tip - The ideal lens (at least the ones that I took with me) was the 50mm F1.2L and it's all you'll need for shots within Osaka. You may need a wider lens to grab a shot of the canal in all its detail, but it's not entirely necessary.
Located around Osaka are many little temples. It's wonderful to see the pride the Japanese have in their heritage and traditions; even office workers take time out of their day to pay their respects.
Osaka's famous Tako-Yaki is one of the top foods to try and stalls selling it are everywhere.
The main area to see in Osaka is the Dotonbori Area. There's an unbelievable amount shops and restaurants and adorning shops are the famous sign boards which add a wonderful flair. Also running through the area is a canal which helps break up the area a little and allows one to orientate themselves amongst the myriad of side streets that pepper the city.
The Glico Man below is a famous Osaka spot.
The shop signboards are also another Osaka highlight. They are huge, colourful and eye-catching and definitely give the area some character.
THE BEST MEAL - TSUKISHIMAYA 月島屋
This was an outstanding BBQ meal, I couldn't get enough of the succulent beef which was so juicy, tender and flavourful. I also loved the upper floors decor which was decked out in a traditional Japanese layout where you sit on the floor. This was a absolutely wonderful restaurant and I left the building thoroughly satisfied. I highly recommend that you try it out as well.
Tip - Get your hotel to book this restaurant for you. Also, as with most places in Japan, smoking is allowed indoors, so it's not suited for kids.
The locker keys were also delightfully cute.
THE BEST BAR - SUNTORY WHISKEY HOUSE サントリーウイスキーハウス
Located in the Grand Front shopping centre below the Intercontinental Osaka, Suntory Whisky House is as much a museum dedicated to telling the Suntory story as it is a bar. It unfortunately doesn't sell bottles of whisky but it does serve drinks (and food). I ordered their Japanese Whisky Tasting Board which showcased some of their signature whiskies; the Hakushu 18, Yamazaki 18 and the Hibiki 21. The Hibiki 21 is the most incredible whiskey I've ever tried - extremely smooth and silky. Even if you turn your nose up at blended whiskies, try this one. It'll blow your mind.
Osaka Castle's presence can be felt from far away, it's an absolutely huge complex and the grounds are vast. It was a quick visit for me as I didn't want to see anything else outside of the main building.
Tip: I also took the 100-400mm with me as I wanted to get some of close up shots that would be impossible with the 50mm
The Deer Park in Nara is one of the most famous attractions in Japan and having the deer wander around you is an extremely serene affair. You can also buy some deer biscuits for a cheap 150 Yen and as long as you're calm and composed, they will come up to you and eat out of your hand. They can be a little excited at times but never to the point of biting or being dangerous.
Tip: The ideal lens for me here again was the 50mm. With the deer coming up so close, there's no need for anything wider nor a zoom lens. I did pack the 17-40mm to get 1 or 2 wider shots but again, it's not entirely necessary. Also, bring good walking shoes.
FUSHIMI INARII SHRINE
I only spent a few hours walking around but I felt I could have spent an entire day here; it's absolutely mesmerising to see the numerous gates one after the after. If you like the outdoors and you like walking, then plan to stay here an entire day (The grounds are sprawling and there are so many little paths that meander off in to the distance). There's also many men and women dressed up, which adds a nice pleasant touch to the area.
Tip - My main go to lens was the 50mm prime, with a few shots with the 17-40mm. One word of caution, there's only 3 ways to get a shot without people.
1. Go very, very early. 2. Take multiple shots of the same thing and edit the people out in photoshop. Or there's what I did... 3. Just wait and bide your time till the perfect moment comes.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO FOREST
There's an other-worldly feeling when walking among the many Bamboo trees at the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and if you get past all the crowds, it's serene. I didn't have much chance to stay here longer (as I spent most of my day at the shrine) but if and when I return to Japan, I'll make a note to spend a good part of my day here.
Tip: Go Early and avoid the crowds. And pack a wide angle lens (for me the 17-40mm), the 50mm will be too tight here.
KYOTO - SAKURA & THE PHILOSOPHER'S PATH
The main aim of this trip was to see Sakura (Cherry Blossom) and the best place to see this is The Philosopher's Path in Kyoto. The Philosopher's Path is a walkway along a canal that's lined by cherry trees (and on the way there are many temples as well). Unfortunately, when I went, we arrived a little too early for the blossom, however, there was one tree that had bloomed and it was a wonderful sight.
It's a nice little, peaceful walk that deserves walking no matter the season but if you can go, go during the Cherry blossom for the added bonus.
The Golden Pavilion is the premier temple in Kyoto and frequently tops most of the must see lists in Kyoto. It's a gold plated temple situated upon a pond, and when the conditions are right, makes for quite a photo. Apart from the temple itself, the grounds are pretty small you'll be done quite quickly.
SUMO GRAND FINAL
I had never seen a Sumo match before this and although I had no idea what to expect, I certainly didn't think that it would be as kinetic as it turned out to be. Do not be deceived by the wrestlers size; these guys are as tall, fast and imposing as any steroid induced wrestler you'll see on American Wrestling shows. The matches (of which there are several) involved the two wrestlers charging at each other, trying to either push the other out of the ring or, push the other on to the floor; and the matches usually finish than 30 seconds. The event is a bit hard to follow (it's exclusively in Japanese), and it's easy to miss the actual final (all matches admittedly look the same) but a quick chat with our Japanese neighbours solved that.
There's also not much food in the building so eat beforehand. It's also smoke-free, so totally fine for kids.
Tip - The ring is small and the stands are vast, so you'll need a telephoto that goes to at least 200mm (everything here was shot at 400mm).
Advertising - the sumo way
THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT - FUGU (PUFFERFISH)
One of the most dangerous meals on the planet. If the Pufferfish is cut incorrectly, it's fatal.
It's a shame then that for my potential last meal, it was bland and horrible. Maybe I had hyped this up too much in my head, I don't know, but what I do know is that you shouldn't waste your money on this.