JM, you're a treasure trove of information. Let me press you for more.
I'm arriving in Osaka on the afternoon of 31st. Staying overnight then on 1st I'm catching a train to Kyoto, staying until 3rd; then on to Nozawa Onsen (ski resort).
I've already contacted Coccinella, a bespoke tailor in Osaka, to see if I can get a fitting there on 31st or 1st. Hope they will be open - now I'm worried they may be just going on their break exactly at the moment I arrive...
Any good stores I should visit in Osaka and/or Kyoto? Any other brill and fab things I should do?
Cox, I can't really help with Osaka as I haven't been there for years. I had a quick look at Coccinella's website and, unfortunately, I can't see anywhere where they mention whether they are open or closed over the New Year (Oshogatsu) period, so hopefully you'll be lucky but I wouldn't be too optimistic as Oshogatsu is the most important family period in Japan (akin to Christmas here) and so a lot of places, especially small businesses, close for at least 01 January and often for 2-3 days.
With regard to Nozawa Onsen, are you going via Nagano City? If so, try to stop briefly at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, as it's definitely worth a look. The temple's about 1300 years old and Nagano City was originally a village that grew up around the temple. You can pay extra to wander around a pitch black passage under the temple whilst fumbling along the wall to try to feel a metal key that is, supposedly, the key to enlightenment. You can judge for yourself from the content of my posts as to whether I succeeded in finding the key or not!
Matsumoto Castle is not too far from Nagano City and it's also worth a look if you are able to stop there on the way to or from Osaka. It has a very nicely preserved, original castle that has a "tsukimi yagura", or moon-viewing turret, where the daimyo (feudal lord) and his retainers used to relax and write poetry while admiring the moon.
In Kyoto, you're really overwhelmed with options. As you've only got a couple of days, you will have to choose whether you want to concentrate on doing one part of the city well, or trying to see a few temples/shrines scattered around the city. The latter, of course, means that you'll spend more time in taxis or buses. Also, bear in mind that Kyoto will probably be chaotically crowded as this is peak holiday season in Japan so it will take longer to get to places as traffic will be bad.
There are a huge number of temples and shrines in Kyoto. A few notable places are:
- Kiyomizudera - a temple in the hills just above Kyoto, with an enormous wooden deck with views over the city and a stream flowing over the rockface under/next to the temple. The street leading up the temple is crowded with old houses and shops, some of which sell tourist tat, others of which sell really nice stuff. There's a small pagoda off to the right-hand side of the main deck of Kiyomizudera. If you walk over there, you can get really good views of both Kyoto and Kiyomizudera at the same time.
- Kinkakuji - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Covered in gold leaf and next to a small lake wherein you can see the reflection of the pavilion.
- Ginkakuji - Although called the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, it is not silver, but rather wood-coloured. Surrounded by a lovely garden.
- Ryoanji, a Zen Buddhist temple. I can't remember how conveniently located it is, particularly compared to the others mentioned above. Ryoanji is surrounded by quite a nice Japanese garden (where I once saw a little old lady picking up pine cones in the garden with a pair of wooden tongs, which shows you how seriously they take gardening in Japan!) and the building itself is built in a very traditional style. Part of it is surrounded by a wall of packed earth that has been (apparently) boiled in oil and then packed or tamped together, which gives it an interesting colour and variations. Ryoanji is popular because it houses a particularly fine example of a "karesansui" or dry water garden - a Zen garden style that uses stones to imitate the presence of water, without actually having any water. The garden, which is housed in a walled courtyard, contains 13 or 14 rocks which are arranged so that you can never see all the rocks at one time - one is always hidden. The rocks sit amongst gravel, which is raked into patterns by the monks every morning. There's a viewing deck to one side of the garden, where you can sit and ponder the mysteries of the life whilst looking at the stones - at least until you are interrupted by a tour group of geriatric Japanese, accompanied by a tour guide with a megaphone! Well worth a look, if you have the time.
- Katsura Rikyu, or Katsura Imperial Villa, is a collection of large, low-set buildings set amongst beautiful, extensive gardens. The buildings are quite spectacular examples of traditional Japanese architecture in terms of the roofs, eaves, verandahs, painted screens and so on. The gardens include ponds, sculptured trees and bushes and at least one teahouse.
- Kyoto Imperial Palace – the former home of the Imperial family before the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, the Imperial palace complex covers a large area in the heart of Kyoto. You cannot go inside the buildings (unlike at Katsura Rikyu) but there are guided tours in English that give you a good look around the complex and you can look into some of the buildings from the outside. You must pre-book through the Imperial Household Agency and arrive a bit early to present your passports. A police officer accompanies the tour to make sure that no-one gets up to any shenanigans.
Yet another nice thing to do in Kyoto is to have a walk along the tetsugaku-no-michi, or Philosopher's Path. It runs from Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji and Eikando, on the eastern side of Kyoto (the Higashiyama district). The path runs alongside a stream or canal, and often has plantings of cherry trees or other trees alongside the path. There are a few places to stop and eat along the way, too, as well as some nice older houses and various other temples along the path.