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Traveling to Japan: How to Save Money and Still Enjoy Nara, Himeji, and Okayama

Tips for a trip to Nara, Okayama, and Himeji from a seasoned traveler.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ JOSHUA BERIDA
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Japan has long been a popular destination for Filipinos because of its beautfil temples, history, culture and food, among many other things. The country has also become less strict with its visa requirements to boost tourism. Tokyo is the common first choice when visiting Japan. However, the Kansai region and beyond have plenty to offer tourists who want to experience the best the country has to offer and save money, as well. The cities of Nara, Himeji and Okayama provide a bit of everything, from culture to history to food to interesting places to see.

If you’re planning to visit these cities, here are travel hacks and attractions to keep in mind.

Nara

Photo by WIKIPEDIA.
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Nara has the distinction of being the first permanent capital of the country. The city rose to prominence when the ruling government established it in year 710. When the monasteries’ influence grew, the government began to see it as a threat to its power. The government then decided to move the capital to Nagaoka then subsequently to Kyoto. Nara’s storied past left behind a treasure trove of historic sites and some of the country’s biggest and oldest temples.

Nara is accessible by train from Osaka; use your JR Pass, Kansai Thru Pass, or JR Kansai Wide Area Pass to reach the city. Most of the attractions except Horyu-ji are within walking distance from each other.

Todaiji Temple

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.

Todaiji is a famous destination not just in Nara, but in Japan. Both locals and tourists visit this ancient attraction to see the Daibutsu, which is also known as the Great Buddha. The Buddha is 16 meters tall and elicits a sense of calm, despite the crowds that come and go.

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Entrance Fee: P238

Gango-ji Temple

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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This temple doesn’t have the same name recall of Todaiji, but is just as culturally significant. It dates back to year 718 and has undergone multiple reconstructions over the centuries. The temple is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites included in the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” category.

Entrance Fee: P238

Nara Deer Park

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.

Nara has a cool and calm atmosphere because of its old world charm and green spaces. The Nara Deer Park is a place to reflect about the temples and shrines you visited. Deer roam around the park wherever and whenever they want and approach people because they know someone will feed them.

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Entrance Fee: Free

Kasuga-Taisha Shrine

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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This shrine inside a forest provides a refreshing break from the city. The pathways, deer, and lanterns give the area a mysterious atmosphere. The shrines and halls display the cultural significance of Kasuga-Taisha. Get away from the crowds by taking a leisurely stroll deeper into the forest.

Entrance Fee: You are free to roam on the grounds and walkways, but admission to the shrine is P238

Yoshiki-en Garden

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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Nara has a couple of noteworthy gardens, as well. One of them is the Yoshiki-en Garden; this green haven is the ideal place to relax, unwind, and empty your mind. Take a stroll and breathe in the fresh air or sip a cup of tea at the teahouse. The best time to visit is during autumn when the colors are in full bloom.

Entrance Fee: Free (for foreigners)

Kofuku-ji

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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This temple complex is hard to miss; you will most likely pass it on the way to Nara Park and you'll see the towering pagoda as you approach it. The treasure hall has a couple of Buddhist images, but you can just walk around the area. There are so many images of Buddha in Nara, so you can skip this one if you have already seen the one in Todaiji.

Entrance Fee: Walking around is free and the treasure hall has a P284 fee.

Naramachi

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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If you want to get a glimpse of the past, explore Naramachi after visiting the UNESCO-listed shrines and temples. This district has traditional-style workshops, houses, and cafes. The area feels nostalgic: Go in and out of the shops, maybe buy a souvenir or two, and just “experience” this quaint neighborhood in Nara.

Entrance Fee: Free

Horyu-Ji Temple

Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.
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Photo by JOSHUA BERIDA.

This UNESCO-listed complex has many Buddhist images and some of the oldest wooden structures in the country. Take a stroll to soak in the history and culture of ancient Japan. There aren’t a lot of tourists here because of its distance from most of the attractions in Nara.

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Entrance Fee: P710

Okayama

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Okayama used to be a bustling castle town centuries ago. It was a regional powerhouse and a thriving economic center during the Edo Period. Fast forward to today, it is a transportation hub and one of the biggest cities in the Chugoku Region. Okayama is a possible day trip from Osaka, if you have the JR Kansai WIDE Area Pass. The bullet train will take you to the city in an hour or so. Kurashiki is accessible by train from Okayama; the trip is approximately 15 minutes and fare is P152.

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The Okayama Castle and the Korakuen Garden are within walking distance from Okayama Station.

Okayama Castle

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

The original castle has a history that dates back to 1597. The one you see now is a reconstruction. Okayama Castle, also known as Crow Castle, has a simple, but beautiful black exterior. It offers exhibits that tell the castle’s history.

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Entrance Fee: P142 or P265 (with access to Korakuen Garden)

Korakuen Garden

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Korakuen is recognized as a fine example of a landscape garden in the country. Korakuen dates back to the 1680s; a local feudal lord had it built as a place for leisure and used it for receiving officials and VIPs. The garden is just a short walk from Okayama Castle.

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Entrance Fee: P190 or P265 (with access to the castle)

Kurashiki

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

This quaint town has a beautiful canal area that will remind visitors of the Edo Period. Kurashiki used to be a vital rice distribution hub centuries ago. Take a walk, grab a local snack, enter the shops, and dine at the cafes.

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Entrance Fee: Walking around the canal area is free

Himeji

Himeji’s main draw is White Heron Castle, also known as Himeji Castle. A powerful lord called Ikeda Terumasa established the Himeji Domain after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. He was responsible for expanding the Himeji Castle, which was built in 1333. In 1889, Himeji City was founded. Some 34 years later in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Japan and leveled Tokyo. The destruction was so massive that the Japanese government considered relocating its capital to Himeji.

Himeji Station is accessible by train from Osaka. The most convenient way to reach it is by bullet train. The castle and the garden are within walking distance.

Himeji Castle

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
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Himeji Castle is one of the best preserved and most beautiful castles in the country. It has an elegant white exterior and a simple yet stunning design. This UNESCO-listed attraction has survived catastrophes throughout its the centuries. The ideal time to visit is spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming.

Entrance Fee: P473 or P492 (with access to Kokoen Garden)

Kokoen Garden

Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
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After exploring the nearby castle, visit Kokoen to relax and relieve your stress. As you walk around, you’ll find a pine tree garden, flower garden, tea garden, a pond, and a bamboo garden.

Entrance Fee: P142 or P492 (with access to Himeji Castle)

Travel Hacks in Japan

Traveling around Japan is very convenient because of the tourist-friendly signs, commuter-friendly guide on Google Maps, and its approachable people. Navigating Japan’s highly extensive subway and metro systems is easy. Here are some more tips to make your trip more convenient and affordable.

Travel Smartly, Use the Right Pass

Japan offers different passes that allow foreign tourists to explore the country and reduce their expenses. For convenient and budget-friendly travel to Nara, Himeji, and Okayama, the JR Kansai Wide Area Pass is an ideal choice. This pass allows you to use bullet, limited express, and regular trains and bus lines for an unlimited number of times for five days. The pass costs P4,253 if bought outside Japan and P4,725 if bought inside the country.

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Combine your JR Kansai Wide Area Pass with prepaid cards such as Icoca, Suica, or Pasmo. The three make paying for transportation rides and some other items convenient. You can also purchase the regional travel passes such as the JR Kansai Wide Area Pass or Kansai Thru Pass. These reduce your expenses and allow you to explore the region freely. Attractions are usually near train stations, so there is a lot of merit in using these lines.

Instead of taking a cab, you can take a walk and enjoy local culture. Japan’s climate is pleasant, even in summer. Walking under the sun doesn’t feel as parching and hot as in tropical climates like in the Philippines.

Stay in Dorms or Hostels

Stay at hostels. They’re good value and offer clean toilets and baths and spacious common areas. If you use the JR Kansai Wide Area Pass, you don’t have to spend the night in any of the three cities mentioned. Osaka is a possible base for the destinations above. Japan’s railway network makes it convenient to explore, even for places as far as Okayama.

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There are dorm beds for approximately P1,000 to P2,000 a night, book early enough and you might get a discount. There are numerous three- to five-star hotels for those who have a bigger budget. When choosing accommodations, look near major stations such as Tennoji and Osaka Station. Both are major transportation hubs where you’ll find many JR trains that go to Nara, Okayama, and Himeji. This reduces your expenses because you don’t have to take the subway.

Know Where to Eat

Budget travelers have plenty of affordable options in Japan. Convenience stores such as Ministop, Lawson, 7-11, and local convenience stores are on every corner. These have snacks, drinks, and meals (approximately costing P237). If you’re willing to spend a bit more, Coco Ichibanya sells curry rice meals for around P472.

There are also fast food chains such as McDonald’s, KFC, MOS Burger, and others. If you do decide to use Osaka as a base, the city is a famous food destination where you’ll find delicious local dishes such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and yakisoba, just to name a few. Osaka’s street food scene is affordable and world-class. Dotonbori and Shinsekai are popular spots to sample Osaka’s gastronomies. Both have several restaurants and food stalls to choose from.

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Joshua Berida
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Joshua is a thrifty traveller.
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