When in Japan: Discovering Osaka

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This being my first trip to Osaka, I was not sure what to expect. I knew some things about Osaka (like the magnificent Osaka Castle, below), but I must confess that I know so much more about Tokyo. In fact, I know more about Kyoto, the next stop on this trip, than I do Osaka. So despite much pre-trip research, I felt like I was going an unknown city that’s just begging to be explored, and that was exciting. I liked the prospect of not knowing what to expect.

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Unsurprisingly, I found the city as something of a midpoint between Tokyo and Kyoto, not as serene as the latter or as hectic as the former. It also seemed grittier, more lived in, and I mean that in a very good way. 

I guess it’s easy to compare Osaka and Tokyo, two of Japan’s biggest cities, and at first I was slightly disappointed with Osaka simply because it was not Tokyo. Osaka is not as big or vibrant or bustling or space age as Tokyo, and whereas I found that somewhat disconcerting at first (as if assuming all Japanese cities are like Tokyo), I soon came to appreciate Osaka’s more sedate charms and its take-it-easy, relaxed pace.

_ASC5880I found the city to be full of surprises, like the amazing Yasaka-jinja lion shrine in Namba (above) …

_ASC5808…the giant whales in the Hep 5 shopping mall in Umeda (above) …

_ASC5986…the awesome Kuromon Market (above), a true feast for the senses, especially if you’re hungry …

_ASC6494… and the trippy modern architecture of the Osaka National Museum of Art (above).

The city is not as sprawling as Tokyo and the subways seemed less packed,  so getting around Osaka was fairly  easy … or as easy as something can be if you don’t speak or read the language. I also found the people in Osaka to be nicer, more ready with a smile and a polite bow, especially when visiting some of the streets and neighborhoods off the tourist paths, like the scenes below.

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Some fun facts about Osaka: it is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan, and with 19 million inhabitants, one of the largest in the world. “Osaka” literally means “large hill” or “large slope,” a name which dates back to 1496, but which seems strange since the city was mostly flat. Osaka contains numerous urban canals and waterways, and 872 bridges. It is a major economic hub and is home to the headquarters of Panasonic, Sharp and Sanyo.

Osaka takes great pride in  being known as “the nation’s kitchen” so I was anxious to dive into its many culinary delights, and I was happy to find that their reputation is very well-earned, with excellent restaurants of all cuisines easily found everywhere. The best news is that great meals can be had at very reasonable prices, so when dining in Osaka, splurge a little. And splurge I did, and you can see more of my many indulgences here.

Sure enough, the eating is excellent in Osaka, with an emphasis on beef from the nearby Kobe region (known as some of the finest in the world) and lots of seafood and crustacean-centric restaurants. As a fan of the really big things that the Japanese do so well, I never got tired of seeing  giant pufferfish, crabs, and octopus hanging above many of the restaurants, particularly in the touristy Dotonbori area (below).

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Giant octopi were seemingly everywhere, legs and tentacles flailing right above your head, like the impressive eight-legger seen in the city’s Shinsekai area (below).

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And that’s probably because Osaka is the birthplace of takoyaki, or fried octopus balls, an immensely popular Japanese street food.The name is derived from tako (octopus) and yaki (“to fry or grill”). Takoyaki stands of all sizes are everywhere in this city, usually with many people waiting in line, like the popular take-away place in Dotonbori (below).

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Having never been to Japan in the spring, there was some concern as to what the weather would be like, which in turn would affect how to pack. In the two weeks leading up to the trip I took diligent daily readings of Osaka weather on my Weather Channel app, and it appeared daily temps could range between 55F and 60F (12C-15C).

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In reality, most days started cool and warmed up fairly quickly. So think of dressing in layers, wearing light things like cardigans, sweaters, hoodies, and thick flannels that can be taken off during the day, when the temperatures actually ranged between 60F and 65F (15C-18C), and put back on in the evening, which could get cool. Ironically, that’s the same advice I give to friends visiting San Francisco.

So the beautiful springtime weather was perfect for exploring the city. Osaka is divided into downtown and uptown areas known as Minami (south) and Kita (north). Some of  the “must visit” areas in Minami include Dotonbori, home of the famous Glica running man sign (pic at top of this post), Namba, Shinsaibashi, the fashion and youth culture area of Amerikamura (or “Ame-mura”), and Nipponbashi, or Den Den Town, famous for its wide variety of consumer electronics and manga/anime stores (below).

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Kita, or Umeda, is a major retail and business hub and is home to the massive Osaka Station City, which houses the busy Osaka train station. Pictured below is the Toki no Hiroba (Time and Space) Plaza, which spans over the railway tracks. Osaka Station and Umeda Station, both part of the same complex, together make up the busiest station in Western Japan, serving 2,343,727 passengers daily, and the fourth-busiest railway station in the world.

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Kita also home to a large portion of the city’s skyscrapers and many of the city’s more upscale retail boutiques and restaurants. But if shopping, eating, and drinking are your thing, then there’s no better place in all of Kita than Grand Front Osaka, Japan’s biggest domestic shopping town (below).

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Speaking of shopping and spending money, the Japanese yen is still very weak, so the U.S. dollar goes a long way. Also, shopaholics will be happy to learn that many stores are tax free, and in many retail establishments if you show your passport you get an additional 10% off. So there are many incentives to spend, especially on clothing, and I took great advantage of that. That also extends to eating out, and as I mentioned earlier, great meals at excellent restaurants at affordable prices are as easy to find as gigantic octopi signs.

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I spent four full days in Osaka, which in some ways didn’t feel like enough, and in some ways seemed like just enough. There’s still a lot more of Osaka to explore and many places I did not visit, and that makes for a good enough excuse to make the inevitable second trip to Osaka sometime in the future.

Hope you enjoyed this quick tour of Osaka, and here’s a gallery that delves a little deeper.

Next stop, an orgy of cherry blossoms in Kyoto, so stay tuned!

Posted in Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Osaka, Photography, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

When In Japan: It’s Cherry Blossom Season!

IMG_5985While any excuse to visit Japan is good enough for me, having this year’s two-week adventure in Osaka and Kyoto coincide with the annual cherry blossom extravaganza gave this trip some extra luster. Traditionally, the cherry blossoms go into full bloom in late March/early April, but the timing can be tricky. Last year the blossoms came early, so by late March they were already gone.

_ASC7668Fortunately, all that pre-trip finger-crossing paid off, because we nailed the timing perfectly. The first leg of our tour was four days in Osaka for the last week of March, where the cherry blossoms were plentiful and colorful, especially along the riverside at Minami-Temma Park, but still a little young. By the time we got to Kyoto on April 1, though, the blossoms were full and fluffy and vibrantly colored … the peak of the season!

_ASC7092And they didn’t disappoint! Both white and pink versions of the cherry blossoms were equally impressive, probably reinforced by the sheer numbers of trees in both cities. They literally were everywhere, and everyday areas and ancient temples alike took on a fresh, springtime look.

_ASC6676Every scene looked like a painting or soft-focus photo.

_ASC6622It’s cherry trees as far as the eye can see along Osaka’s Kyū-Yodo River.

IMG_5967I’m not given to corny superlatives, but at times the cherry blooms were breathtaking!

_ASC7105Enhancing the air of specialness they create, the Japanese people really celebrate their cherry blossoms, as well they should. Their affinity for the cherry blossoms is almost spiritual, as if there’s a special connection between the people and the blossoms with their peaceful beauty. It’s as if they know that the blossoms will only be around for a short period of time, so they make the very best of that time.

_ASC7296So any place with cherry threes, and and especially any area under the branches, could quickly become a picnic area, with people throwing down blankets or tarps (usually blue), busting out the food and drink, and having a relaxing time with friends and family underneath the cherry blossoms.

_ASC7669It was really fun watching the locals letting their hair down, chilling out and enjoying themselves and the beauty of the trees. These scenes were usually pretty animated, with the sounds of music and laughter in the air, and little kids and dogs running about. It was cool to see how celebrating the cherry trees was a big part of the Japanese social fabric.

_ASC7098Kyoto’s Umekoji Park (home of the Kyoto Aquarium) was particularly active on a Saturday afternoon (above).

_ASC7665As was the beautiful Kyoto Botanical Gardens the next day (above). The Gardens were particularly dense with cherry trees, and worth a visit in any season. As with any picnic, food was a big part of the proceedings, and people ate everything from homemade and pre-prepared Japanese meals, yummy noodle dishes from local vendors, and even pizza!

IMG_5988Anywhere with both waterways and cherry trees made for especially popular meeting spots. The scene above was taken along a canal near Kyoto’s Nijo Castle, while the artists in the pic below were taken in Kyoto’s Gion district.

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But nothing matched the fun and vibrancy of Kyoto’s Kamagawa Park at the Kamagawa Delta on a beautifully warm Saturday afternoon. Watch as hundreds of petals flutter to the ground whenever the wind comes up.

 

_ASC8021Appropriate for the occasion, many women wore their traditional kimonos when out visiting the cherry blossoms, like this vibrantly-colored selfie gal at the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, another beautiful area thick with cherry trees.

_ASC7822Couples having their wedding photos taken with cherry blossoms as a backdrop is very popular in Japan and couples locked in loving embrace was a common sight. The couple above was doing just that at Kyoto’s Nijo Castle.

_ASC7824However, what may have looked like an intimate moment was often anything but.

It was always fun watching hundreds of petals break loose with the wind, creating a snowstorm of of sorts, like the scene above near Kamogawa Park. Like the previous video I posted, this video was taken on April 9, and from what I could judge from posters announcing cherry blossom festivities around the city, April 10 marked the official end of the celebrations. A hard, heavy, all-day rain had fallen two days before, and the next day you could see that many of the trees looked thinner after all that rain knocked loose many of the petals. So the end was near for the cherry blossoms, for this year at least.

_ASC7663And the end may be near for traveling to Japan, as other parts of the world are calling. So I’m glad I got a chance to see the Japanese cherry blossoms in all their wondrous glory, and to experience the social and cultural scene that centers around the spring time of year in Japan.

And if you didn’t see enough cherry blossoms in the pics above, here’s a gallery of even more! As usual, I took an obscene amount of photos during my two weeks in Japan, so look for more from my adventures in Osaka and Kyoto in the very near future.

Posted in Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Osaka, Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Photography, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dinnertime

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I just returned from two weeks in Japan, Osaka and Kyoto specifically … two glorious weeks where dinnertimes were a dizzying array of authentic Japanese food, everything from sushi to ramen to shabu-shabu to my absolute favorite: tonkatsu, a breaded pork concoction seen above that’s crisp and crunchy on the outside, but moist and tender on the inside!!! The meal also traditionally comes with cabbage (that has its own yummy dressing), rice, miso soup with the little clams in it, and a fine array of crunchy Japanese pickles. It’s amazing as it sounds, especially when you dip it in the thick brown sauce that always come with it.

But to me, visiting Japan is all about the ramen. I always joke that I love ramen so much I would eat it for breakfast if it were socially acceptable, and then suddenly there I was in a country where it is indeed socially acceptable to eat ramen for breakfast! I prefer to call it #ramenheaven.

The only way I can do justice to all the incredible Japanese foods I ate for dinnertime is to share some of it with you. So with no further adieu (mainly because my mouth is watering at the memories), here are some the amazing meals I indulged in during my most recent time in Japan.

IMG_5638Of course, sushi is always on the menu when traveling in Japan, like this sweet presentation in a Osaka sushi joint. I ate sushi four times, including my first night in Japan … seems only apt. Osaka seemed like a big seafood city with lots of seafood restaurants and fresh seafood in the markets. So the sushi was always fresh and creamy … sometimes it just melt in the mouth.

_ASC6030This booth in Osaka’s Kuramon Shopping Area were really interesting. You choose the cut of beef you want …

IMG_5380…in my case a nice slice of Kobe beef, complete with Kobe beef certificate …

IMG_5389The staff cooks your beef on a grill, with liberal dashes of black pepper …

IMG_5392… and then serve it up with onions, garlic chips, scallions, and a nice dipping sauce. Osaka is known as a beefeaters paradise, what with it close proximity to Kobe, so beef restaurants are everywhere, all at varying prices. This little stand in the market served it up perfectly, satisfying my cravings for beef.

_ASC5974Osaka’s Kuromon Market is a foodie paradise. Not only is a haven for fruits, vegetables, electronics and clothing, it also hosts from pretty good restaurants. Vendors will also prepare seafood like fish, scallops and prawns in the same quick grilled manner as the beef stand above. Part of the fun of visiting the market is picking and choosing individual vendors for a quick, cheap, delicious meal on the go.

IMG_6471Shabu-shabu like I’ve never had it before. And that’s because the pic above was my very first foray into this traditional Japanese hotpot meal, and it did not disappoint! Shabu-shabu is basically thinned sliced beef, tofu, and vegetables boiled in water or dashi and eaten with accompanying dipping sauces and steamed rice. The food is cooked piece by piece by the diner at the table. And if all that is not enough, when you’re done with all of the main ingredients, you pour the leftover broth into the steamed rice for a delicious, meal-capping soup!

Hearty and nutritious, I am now looking for good shabu-shabu restaurants here in San Francisco so I can relive the experience again and again, although it’s likely none will come close to matching my first time.

IMG_6467Unagi at a restaurant in Osaka’s Kuromon Market.

IMG_6003Some traditional pastries at a Kyoto teashop …

IMG_6008This is a rice ball stuffed with red bean wrapped in an olive leaf, perfect with a cup of strong green tea.

 

IMG_6026There was the occasional afternoon salad, this one courtesy of Club Bibliotic Hello!, a funky cafe in Kyoto.

IMG_6147And when one wants a change from Japanese food, Korean hit the spot, like this yummy meal at a Korean restaurant in Kyoto Station.

IMG_5283Got a hankerin’ for Italian? How about individually wrapped pizza slices? These weren’t bad, and at 250 yen they were a bargain. Actually, the Japanese like Italian food, and there are many Italian restaurants for those you may not care for Japanese food (are there really people like that?).

IMG_6155Mid-afternoon coffee and desserts from Second House in Kyoto as the rain came down. The Thelonious Monk dollar is actually the back side of the bill. Second

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Who has room for dessert?

IMG_6298Even the fake food looked (semi) good!

IMG_5817But let’s get to the main event: ramen! Because as the sign above the Kyoto ramen joint Ayam-Ya says in the pic above, “No Ramen, No Life.” Here’s a gallery of just some of the yummy ramen I ate during my two week stay in Japan.

IMG_5345As if there’s not enough going on in this pic of ramen awesomeness, notice the side of gyoza, one of my other favorite Japanese foods!

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IMG_6178The two bowls of ramen pictured above and below were found in the excellent Kyoto ramen joint Gogyo. The ramen here was extraordinary, rich and tasty. The pic above is their famous Burnt Miso Ramen. Don’t let the name full you; this is a tasty bowl of soup with a bold but smooth flavor. If you’re in Kyoto, and you love ramen, put Gogyo at the top of the list. And visitors to Tokyo need not worry; there’s a Gogyo there too!

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Whew! I’m exhausted! Hope you all enjoyed my little gallery of yummy Japanese food. Thank you for letting me indulge … albeit visually.

More pics and tidbits from my recent trip to Osaka and Kyoto to come!

Posted in Food, Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Photo Essay, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Christmas in San Francisco 2015

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Hello blogosphere! It’s been many a moon since my last blog post, as once again life and time intrude, as they often do. But it’s that holiday time of year again, and I would feel remiss if I didn’t post pics of my favorite time of year in my favorite city: that’s right, it’s Christmas in San Francisco, 2015 edition!

In fact, as I look back, the last time I did this was 2013, as I recall that time and life also took their toll on 2104, when I didn’t post anything holiday related. So it’s awesome to be able to present this year’s holiday gallery! It could that enthusiasm that accounts for my shocking lack of self editing when it came to putting this gallery together … I didn’t want to take anything out! Oh well. When it comes to Christmas, too much is never enough.

Typical of San Francisco, the pics here run the gambit, tripping merrily between the ridiculous and the sublime, the counter-culture to the traditional, from a naughty Santa nymph to the tree in Union Square, here’s San Francisco all decked out in its holiday finery, up to its usual frivolity.

Happy holidays to all of my blog friends all around the world! Enjoy and peace!

Posted in Christmas, Holidaze, Photo Gallery, Photography, San Francisco, Stephen Kelly Photography | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Intense

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It’s full-on autumn here in San Francisco, and typical of early October, our sunsets are like classical works of art. Each night it’s a different show as the low-setting sun turns the clouds and city all kinds of vibrant colors. The shot above was taken last Wednesday evening, while the shot below was taken the night after. It’s a nightly occurrence and, as you can see, quite intense.

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In the meantime, the sunrises have their own intensity thing going on:

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Things are even more intense over at Ailsa’s Travel Theme … check it out!

Posted in Ailsa’s Travel Theme, Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Photography, San Francisco, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel Theme | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Tokyo On The Go: Street Art

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Regular followers to my blog know that I love street art, and wherever I go I always have my eyes (and camera) peeled for interesting street, especially in the cities that I visit. And Tokyo, of course, is no exception.

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Pretty much anywhere you go in Tokyo you’ll see some seriously creative examples of street art, like the long mural on Takeshita Street in Harajuku, above, or the playful mid-size mural seen in Shinjuku, below.

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Now, one might expect a lot from such a cleverly creative city like Tokyo, but in contrast to the sprawling murals I see regularly here in San Francisco, the street art in Tokyo skews decidedly smaller, if not a bit more subversive. They are often darker in tone and theme, although you also see many examples of Tokyo cutesy.

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The Japanese are very much into stickers and you see them plastered on light poles, billboards, vending boxes and machines, sidewalks, seemingly any empty space.

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Stark in both design and imagery, usually colored in bold black, white or red, some are making a statement, some are selling things, some are notices for parties, while some may be the work of industrious art or design students, such as the sensitive, finely rendered piece found in Harajuku below.

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And, of course, many had something to say about society and social matters, like the two below.

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Still, interesting murals were easy to find, and even though they too were smaller in scale, they were no less impressive:

IMG_2661A dragon in Shinjuku.

IMG_3225A mysterious lady in Akihabara.

_ASC1092Whatever this is in Shinkuku.

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Interestingly enough, some of the more interesting examples of street art might not be considered “traditional” street art at all, and I found most of them in the old school area of Asakusa, home of some of Japan’s most sacred sites.

As you can see in the photo above, as well as the three to follow, in Asakusa the artwork is revealed after businesses have closed, as the protective front grates are often alive with colorful murals, presumably depicting life in Asakusa during the Meiji period.

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And while I said earlier that street art is on the smaller, more guerilla run and gun variety with the smaller stickers, I still found a few examples of large wall murals, like the impressive piece in Kichijoji seen below:

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And this dark, intricate Harajuku mural:

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If you’re looking for great street art in Tokyo, and you can only visit one section of the city to find it, then make a path directly for Harajuku. With it’s large, vibrant artistic community it’s no surprise that some of Tokyo’s more creative street art is found here. Still, you’ll have no trouble finding interesting, sometimes challenging work all around the city,  particularly in areas like Shinjuku, Shimokitazawa, and Shibuya.

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And, as is often the way in Tokyo, you’re sure to find the most interesting street art in the city’s many backstreets and alleys. Veering from the main streets can be rewarding, so don’t be afraid to go exploring.

In case you want to see more, here’s a gallery of street art I’ve found in my visits to Tokyo. The city’s street art may not be as prolific as places like San Francisco, Barcelona or Berlin, but what’s there is choice! Happy hunting!

Posted in Japan, Let's Go Japan!, Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Photography, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Street Art, Tokyo, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Grid

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I’m in Japan again for this week’s Photo Challenge, because when I think of grid I think of the amazing train station in Kyoto, Japan, which is one massive collection of architectural grids. As you can see from the pics, Kyoto Station is a daringly modern piece of architecture in the middle of one of Japan’s more traditional cities. It’s an exciting structure, and its irregular cubic facade of plate glass over a steel frame gives it an a spiraling, expansive feel. The prodigious use of glass in its facade fills the interior of the structure with natural light.

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As well as being one of the more beautiful cities in Japan, or on earth for that matter, Kyoto is also a major travel hub, and trains and buses of all manner from different parts of Japan will eventually stop at the station. Even the Shinkansen bullet train makes a stop at Kyoto Station as it travels between Tokyo and Osaka. The station also serves as a key stopping point for city taxis, and taxi after taxi rolls through the circular driveway at the cab stand out front. This is significant because taxis in Kyoto are cheap and plentiful and a great way to travel from place to place within the city.

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The station also houses restaurants, shopping areas, a major hotel and the ubiquitous hundred coffee shops (the Japanese LOVE coffee!). But just strolling through and around the station and marveling at it’s vast expanse and effusive light is a treat in itself.

If you’d like see more pics of Kyoto Station, and learn a little bit about its history and construction, visit my blog post from 2013 that came as part of my Cool Architecture series. As I stated about the Cocoon Tower in Tokyo a few weeks ago, if you’re into architecture, then the intriguing Kyoto Station is a must see.

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Check out this week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge to see some interesting takes on this week’s Grid Challenge.

Posted in Japan, Kyoto, Let's Go Japan!, Photo Essay, Photography, Stephen Kelly Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments