While we were planning out trip around the world, Michael and I also checked the different seasons in each country we wanted to visit and the perfect travel periods. While checking the weather forecasts for each region, we stumbled upon Japan’s cherry blossom season. At first glance it usually starts around March and ends in April. The first flight- and price checks were also very reassuring. We found tickets from Taipei to Osaka for just 70 EUR per person, which was a really good deal! But we hesitated to buy as our plans were not carved in stone yet and we did not want to commit to fixed dates.
Every year weather services and the media have a cherry blossom time table with exact dates for the first blossom opening and the full bloom of the cherry blossoms per region. This was also our main orientation to get ourselves to Japan to see the Sakura. Sakura season is not to be taken lightly as the Japanese are obsessed with the cherry blossoms. The entire nation turns into a shade of pink. Months before they arrive, retailers switch into sakura mode: supermarkets and train stations filled with plastic cherry blossom flowers and cherry blossom-flavored innovations in convenience stores (e.g. cherry blossom Pepsi and KitKat) as well as when opening google maps it will pop up a small window showing you the best sakura spots in town.
While we were travelling in India, Nepal, Thailand and Taiwan, we observed the Japan Weather Association’s annual sakura forecast as well as japan-guide.com for the sakura opening to time our arrival in Japan well. Once the dates for first opening of the cherry blossoms have been set to end of March, we sat down to plan our trip. As it turned out we were not the only ones planning our trip for Sakura season in Japan this year. The prices for flights sky rocketed and accommodation in Kyoto was only available starting from 300 EUR per night for a 1-star hotel. Here we were… split in two: still wanting to go to Japan (Alice’s dream for as long as she can remember) and paying a huge amount of money which will rip a hole in our savings for the trip around the world. But hope dies last as we say in Germany and we kept looking for flights and accommodation and found a reasonable connection from Kaohsiung, Taiwan to Osaka as well as a Tatami room in Osaka. We decided that we will stay in Osaka for the whole time in Japan, because all the other accommodations were either not available or over budget.
On March 29th we flew from Taiwan to Osaka. Kansai International Airport is an airport located on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay. So while landing you had the feeling that you would land in the middle of the ocean. We managed to get through immigration and collect our baggage and then figured out how to get to the train station so we could get to Osaka, which is 38 km away from Kansai airport.
We arrived at our destined train station and were so exhausted from the flight that we decided not to walk the 1,8 km to our AirBnb but to take a taxi. As you probably know from movies the taxi doors are opened automatically by the taxi driver. Our driver was an old Japanese man who then also stepped out of the car to open the trunk to stow away our backpacks. Unfortunately he did not speak English so the international sign language of “please wait a minute while we figure out the address” worked just fine while Michael was looking in his phone for the address. Once found, the taxi driver drove us there and we finally arrived in our new home.
The “new home” was a 12m² traditional tatami room in an Airbnb which we shared with other travelers. The first question after introducing ourselves to our room neighbors was: What is the wifi password? 🙂 We never had a faster connection in our live – Perfect to back-up all our pictures and videos! Once the most important question was answered, we got our dinner and some snacks from the neighboring 7-11 supermarket and then fell asleep as we were exhausted from the day.
We decided, that Nara should be our first destination. In 710, Japan’s first capital was established at Heijo (now Nara) but was moved to Nagaoka in just 784. Despite being Japan’s capital for a fairly short time, Nara is home to some of the country’s greatest historic treasures and oldest and largest temples. It is also home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. They are cute and you can feed them, but if they are really hungry they show similar manners as seagulls.
On our train ride to Nara Michael gave up his seat to an elderly lady who didn’t have a seat. She was so thankful that she started speaking to us in Japanese and thanked us. With my broken crumbs of Japanese we managed to uphold a short conversation until her station arrived where she thanked us again and bowed a little to us to show her gratitude – a very Japanese thing to happen.
It wasn’t long before we saw our first deer, just in the entrance of the park foraging near some trees. They didn’t mind tourists trying to get a closer look, including ourselves. There was a small stall to purchase rice crackers to feed them and as soon as you had the crackers in your hand the deer would come quite close to you and nudge your clothes and arms to get some crackers. We decided not to purchase any crackers as we were happy enough to just watch and photograph these amazing creatures. If you wanted to pet them they expected their reward and when they realized, that we don’t have any crackers they soon lost interest in us and went to look for other people who would be more generous with their crackers if they had any.
After lots of photos, the first cultural stop was Todaiji Temple, one of Japan’s most significant temples. Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden, is the world’s largest wooden building – even though it is now just two thirds of its original size – and houses the largest bronze cast Buddha statue in the world (15 meters tall).
After spending some time at the temple we walked across the park to another temple overlooking the park and Nara town. You could see some opened cherry blossoms but not too many. Nevertheless this does not stop the Japanese to dress in their formal dresses (Kimono for women and Yukata for men) and walk around and enjoy the first warm weather in spring as well as the first cherry blossoms. You could always spot a blooming cheery tree, by people standing in front of it and taking pictures. We also spotted one or two wedding couples doing their wedding shots in Nara followed around by their photographer entourage.
We headed back to Nara train station to get back to Osaka and went straight to its heart the Shinsaibashi-Dotonbori. The famous Dotonbori neighborhood, now an eccentric mix of restaurants and hostess bars, was once the heart of the theater district of old Osaka. Kuida-ore, literally “to eat oneself bankrupt,” has become a saying synonymous with the many Osakan culinary delights one can find in Dotonbori, like takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes). We strolled around in the Dotonbori area and found a small temple which gave us shelter when it suddenly started to rain.